Sunday, October 13, 2013

Geese Pond Mountain

In one of my earliest posts here I mentioned the tradition in China of carving short poetic inscriptions into the rock at scenic places, quoting one composed by the T'ang dynasty poet and prose writer Y√ľan Chieh.  A thousand years later it seems to have been increasingly hard for the discerning literati to find a landscape that hadn't been turned into a text.  In 1743, Fang Pao wrote a brief account of a visit to Geese Pond Mountain (Yangdangshan), still then relatively inaccessible, emphasising his relief on finding that it retained some of its original beauty:

Among the mountains I have previously seen, such as Floating Mountain in T'ung-ch'eng, An-hui, Assistance Mountain in Nanking, and the Peak That Flew Here in Hang-chou, it is not that their cliffs and caves lack beauty, but that ignorant monks have carved many figures of Transcendents and Buddhas into them, while vulgar scholars have engraved their names and poems. Like sores, they are shocking when they come into sight. Only this mountain has completely preserved its ancient appearance up to the present. This is because it is a wall standing a thousand jen erect that cannot be climbed. And its location is isolated and distant. Those with wealth, position, or power have no reason to come here. Even if they do, they cannot linger long enough to hire workmen to erect scaffolds so as to show off by inscribing their names. So the mountain has never been humiliated by the scraping and gouging of ignorant monks and vulgar scholars.

This translation is by Richard E. Strassberg (in the publicly available Inscribed Landscapes), who notes in his introduction that Fang Pao endowed the mountain with a moral character, identifying qualities of 'antiquity, purity, dignity, and detachment in its natural formation.'  Earlier in this anthology there is another description of Geese Pond Mountain, written in the eleventh century by Shen K'uo, which gives a sense of it's elusive character: 'I observed all the peaks of Geese Pond Mountain. Each one rises sheer, is perilously steep and startling in appearance, soaring upward for a thousand feet. The magnificent cliffs and immense valleys resemble those of no other mountain, for they are all encompassed within yet another valley. When one looks at the mountain from the outside, nothing can be seen. But upon reaching this valley, there appears a forest of peaks encroaching upon the sky.' 

Qing dynasty hand scroll showing the Yandang mountain range

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