“All work and no play,” is truly no fun. Fortunately for me, a twelve-person University of Tennessee at Knoxville delegation visited Sichuan University in March to develop student/faculty exchange programs. The SU Foreign Affairs Office kindly invited me to tag along on several of their planned trips and attend a farewell banquet. It was enjoyable meeting fellow Tennesseans so far from home. However, I wore my UTC Mocs cap on our outings!
I had been looking forward to visiting the Giant Panda Research Center on the outskirts of Chengdu. The city sometimes bills itself as “The Panda’s Hometown.” These delightful animals are fun to watch as they continuously munch on bamboo, swiftly climb trees or frolic among themselves. The Chinese named two of the largest—and, supposedly, the best-looking male pandas, Tom Cruise and George Clooney!
On Saturday we traveled by bus to Leshan, a small river town about 30 miles from Chengdu. The Giant Buddha, some 233 feet tall, was carved by devout Buddhist monks over a ninety-year period, beginning in 713 A.D. Since it was built into a mountainside on a riverbank, we took a boat to view this very impressive sculpture. More intrepid (and younger) visitors climbed down and up steep steps carved into the mountain, but we had a better view of the gigantic and impressive Buddha from where two rivers merged. It was indeed, as my UTC students would say, “Awesome.”
One Sunday a Chinese political science colleague invited me to join him and his girlfriend to visit the Wenshu Zen Buddhist Monastery in downtown Chengdu. The monastery was first built (605-617) during the Sui Dynasty, but later destroyed by fire during warfare. In 1697, Zen master Cidu Haiye rebuilt the monastery. The monastery comprises six major halls, with wooden buildings and many copper, stone and wood statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (guardians). The lush grounds are full of paths, flowers and ponds. People burn incense, pray and touch certain statues for good fortune. In one large hall we encountered many lay worshipers and monks chanting sutras. About one hundred monks reside in the monastery as they seek enlightenment. The monastery, to expand knowledge of their faith, now conducts Zen camps in the summers.
On another weekend I visited the museum dedicated to the great Chinese poet Du Fu. During the Tan Dynasty (618-907), Du Fu wrote his beautiful poems. He moved his family to Chengdu during a rebellion, and while in Chengdu wrote 240 poems. The museum is actually like a park, with many lovely buildings, ponds, pavilions and gardens. Some people brought picnic lunches to enjoy the serene surroundings. One hall included calligraphy praising Du Fu by subsequent major poets of China. A huge colorful fresco in the Great Hall of Elegance honored Du Fu’s life, while statues of 12 famous poets of China faced the fresco. The entire museum honored Du Fu’s contributions to Chinese culture. Sadly, my own education lacked much knowledge of Chinese poetry, so I bought and am currently enjoying an English translation of Du Fu’s poetry. Chinese culture, developed over 5,000 years, has much to offer the West.