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A Minnesotan in China: Learning about the world; learning about ourselves

Brandon Ferdig, back row, right, practices his tai chi moves with his headmaster's class at Wu Dang Shan, China. Submitted Photo

Initially, I chose to come to Wu Dang Shan (rather than other sites in China) because I wanted to participate in the culture - by way of doing tai chi. But let's not neglect the fact that sight-seeing is part of the appeal here, too.

The scenery is also the history at Wu Dang Shan, stretching way back and housed in a series of Taoist temples, one of which is used by my school.

Taoism is quite similar to Buddhism, another version of the Eastern spiritual practices of meditation and harmony with all that exists. For more info, here's the wikipedia link: Just make sure to click it after you finish this article.

We, the students and teachers, made a couple trips out here to temple - it was up the curvy road only a few miles. One time, the staff really encouraged me to come (maybe because I'm a Westerner and there was quite a crowd at the temple.) It appeared to be some kind of press event as there were many folks with cameras.

Yes, from the city to the mountains, from last August to this July, the Chinese always liked showing me off as an ornament. What the heck; I did my best for 'em. And the event didn't disappoint.

The whole setting - the landscapes, and temples, and martial arts masters feels so fairytale. Of course, I was out of my element. But for the locals, these fairytales maintain their place as the arts and customs are still pronounced in everyday life.

The second part of the "show" was a ceremony for another student who was graduating to discipleship.

Along with the formal bows and gestures there were resonant "boonnggssss" from a stately, cool and solid bronze bell. Who knows how old that bell was; same with the origins of the ceremony. The press sort of turned it into a spectacle, but the actors didn't seem to notice. It was a solemn and proud event.

It revealed that though Communism stripped much of the country of its religious tradition, here on Wu Dang Shan, culture proved stronger than political ideology. Thankfully it's difficult to separate a people from 2,000 years of history.

Lastly, and aside from the usual interplay of reality and art here, there was, coincidentally, another wrinkle in this continuum that overlaps the two. A movie was being shot in one of the buildings!

Here's a quick note about Chinese movies. I swear half are about their old kingdoms and empires; the other half depicts their battles with Japan in the 1930s and '40s.

Man! Suddenly my analogies of performers and actors and fairy tales was kicked up a notch - or maybe shifted over a few ticks. I don't even know how to express the strange ball of yarn that was the real actors on this set versus the actors of the real during the ceremony; the cameramen depicting reality in the ceremony versus the cameramen re-creating the historic reality for the movie. Then there's the living history of these temple walls and present-day customs versus the raising of the past ways for present-day audiences to relive.

I guess I can say that this was all a bit surreal.

And may you live out your fantasies, Readers: as imaginative as a child, as present and grounded as a Taoist.


Brandon Ferdig grew up in Blackduck and spent 2010-2011 teaching and learning in China.