Saturday, October 24, 2015

Stone Bell Mountain

A short way downriver from Jiujiang, where the the Yangtze meets Boyang Lake, there is a famous sonorous landscape called Stone Bell Mountain (Shizhong Shan).  According to the Song dynasty poet Su Shih, 'Li Po of the T'ang was the first to travel to the site, and he found a pair of rocks protruding from the lake. "I struck them and listened," he wrote. "The one to the south sounded deep and turbid, the one to the north had a high, clear pitch. After they were struck, the sounds continued to reverberate as the vibrations slowly faded." He thought that he had thus solved the matter. But I still had my doubts about this theory.'  Su found himself in the area in July 1084 and went to investigate.  Testing Li Po's explanation he found that the rocks in the lake merely gave off a dull thud.  Later that evening, he and his son took a boat out under the cliff and heard the piercing cries of falcons, followed by the cry of an old man, or was it a crane?
'I had just begun to feel uneasy and wanted to return when loud sounds were emitted on the surface of the water, booming "tseng-hung " like continuous bells or drums. The boatman was frightened. We slowly approached to investigate and found that at the foot of the mountain were grottoes and fissures in the rock. I could not tell how deep they were, but it was the small waves which entered, surged around, and crashed against each other that were causing this sound.
'As the boat returned, it passed between two mountains and was about to enter the harbor. There was a huge rock standing in the middle of the current, which could accommodate a hundred people seated. It was hollow inside, and it also had many holes in it. It swallowed and spit out the wind and water, giving off ringing sounds—"k'uan-k'an t'ang-t'a "—as the water struck it. It seemed to reply to the booming sound we had previously heard, just like a musical performance.'
Su Shi felt he had solved the mystery of the Stone Bells, but his account stimulated further enquiries, as Richard Strassberg writes in Inscribed Landscapes, from which this translation is taken.  'Among those visiting the place during the Ming and Ch'ing periods were Ch'iu Chün (1420–1495) and Lo Hung-hsien (1504–1564), who argued that the name was based on the mountain's shape, and P'eng Yü-lin (1816–1890), who discovered an underwater grotto and asserted that the mountain was hollow like a bell.'  Are people still seeking to understand the mysteries of this landscape?  I can't find anything much about Stone Bell Mountain online beyond a few tourism sites - we need a sound artist like Wang Changcun, Yan Jun, or Chris Watson to go there and investigate in the spirit of Su Shi.

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