A Phoenix of Old
As is their strange custom, the inanimate objects around my house like to talk to me late at night. Just over a week ago, I had completed an essay and checked my online classes. I was tired and simply wanted some rest when I heard something talking in the China Room. It was more the speaker's Asian accent that drove me to that room since everything in that room is from Tibet or China.
When I entered the room, the Chinese lantern said, "Nǐ hǎo." While I am not at all fluent in Mandarin, I can say hello in Chinese. What startled me was that it assumed that I spoke Chinese. The lantern seemed to take offense at my being blind-sided by his comment. Then he said, "We are not alive like you understand being alive, but we are not just objects sitting around in your home; we observe and listen over the years since our creation."
I told the lantern that I was not dissing him, but I was just caught off guard. Then I sat down at the end of the bed to talk. The lantern began by introducing himself. "I was made by Meng who lived in Hunan Providence. Everything in this room knows that you spent a month teaching in China. How much do you know about China?"
I responded that I should know a lot more than most Americans know. Additionally, I teach history, philosophy, and world religions, which should explain both my interest in and knowledge of China.
The lantern was not satisfied with my comment and continued to probe. "What does Hunan mean in Chinese?" I paused due not to his question, but it reminded me of being in South Africa when my guide asked me about the derivation of the word, Soweto. When I told him that Soweto was a portmanteau or an acronym, which meant South Western Townships, the guide was surprised. Therefore, a told the lantern that Hunan was Chinese for south of the lake, which was Lake Dongting.
That seemed to settle down the lantern. Therefore, the lantern began his tale. "I was created by Meng, who was an artisan that cared for every detail of his work. Nothing left his shop that wasn't as perfect as Meng could make it. From early in the morning to late at night, he would labor over his work. Look at me—you can tell that I was made with an eye to detail. Note that each of my four side panels has a different design.
"When a candle or oil was placed inside me, the effect was breathtaking. You can only imagine it now, but I had thin red rice paper glued to my inside panels. At one time, I cast such a wondrously rich, warm light in a room. Meng had his shop in the town of Fenghuang. It was a beautiful town along the Tuojiang River."
I told the lantern that I had been there and that Fenghuang and towns like that can be found throughout all of China. By now, the lantern's response was less in my face. He said, "You probably know what Fenghuang means is Chinese."
I smiled and said that it means phoenix as in the resurrected bird. However, some Chinese called it the August rooster.
"Meng desired to bring light to the world or at least to Hunan. Light was needed. Surely, you know that Mao Zedong came from this province of Hunan. I do not know how people would follow him especially during the Cultural Revolution. However, Hunan was one of the slowest of all the provinces to attempt to stop and then reform the Chinese worldview even after Mao's death in 1976."
I assured the lantern that even in America we have some very inept politicians. What troubles me even more is that many Americans follow them. Therefore, what happened in Hunan happens in the States and throughout the world.
The lantern continued, "Agreed. We listen to the TV newscasts about the Donald, et al the Republicans. Have they forgotten that Lincoln who freed the slaves? The Republicans today are not followers of Lincoln. Years ago, the Klan went out and killed innocent blacks. Now, it is the police."
I responded that I know and wished Americans would get honest. If they are racists, say so. It is dishonest and racist merely to masquerade around as if they cared about equality while cutting down the number of polling places, hours, and requiring voters' ID.
"You're probably wondering how I came to the States. After Meng lovingly created me nearly two centuries ago, I sat upon the shelf of his shop for a long time. Most peasants could not afford me. Meng was an artist, not a producer for the masses. Occasionally, a Westerner or an affluent merchant would come and purchase items. One day, years after sitting on the shelf, Dr. Maclean, an American traveler, purchased me. He taught philosophy in America.
"Maclean also wanted a place to stay temporarily. He was doing some research project about ancient Chinese thought. Meng offered the professor to stay with his family, which Maclean did for over six months. During that time, Meng and Maclean became close friends. It was strange to listen to the two of them talking late into the night about philosophy and theology.
Meng's religion was the worship of his ancestors. He followed the teaching of Confucius and Lao-tzu. Maclean was Christian. Both men believed strongly in their own set of beliefs but also accepted what the other thought. Neither attempted to change the other, but rather they sat on rice mats late into the night trying better to understand the other's position or what Maclean called Weltanschauung, which means worldview. I recall several times that Maclean and Meng would be still talking when the rooster announced a new day had arrived.
"It was Maclean that purchased me as a gift for a colleague back at his college. When Maclean returned to the States, he gave his friend, me, as a gift. I sat in his friend's home for years. While Maclean and his friend liked each other, his friend was not impressed by what he referred to as a "creation of a heathen." So, I sat on a bookshelf for years until Maclean's friend died and the family divided up his things. One of his children got me. However, a couple years later, you found me at that son's garage sale."
I told the lantern that I had no idea of his history. It started off in a good way but then fell to pieces with bigotry.
"Whether it was racism and religious bigotry or just plain ignorance, it didn't matter. I created a firestorm of controversy rather than providing a warm and gentle light. While sitting in the home of Maclean's friend, I merely accumulated dust. I wonder what Maclean and Meng would have said about my plight. Those two men were able to accept differences in the other while maintaining their own beliefs. They shared their insights about life without belittling the other and thus were enriched by each other. It was a more pleasant place to live."
I was moved by the level of hurt the lantern had felt due to the manner that other humans have dealt with each other and with him. I told him that I knew that Mao came from Hunan also. If I were Chinese, I would have felt the same way as the lantern about belittling people. Mao did far more than belittle people. Just during the Cultural Revolution, more than 1.5 million were killed. Additionally, millions more Chinese were tortured or imprisoned. I told the lantern about my interview with Diana Hester who was Chinese. She was born in 1958, which was the same year as the beginning of Mao's Great Leap Forward. However, killings and imprisonment is not restricted to the crazies in China. The Islamists are doing the same thing to Muslims and non-Muslims today.
We sat for a moment without speaking. We both became quite depressed at the atrocities that people have done to each other. Then the Chinese lantern spoke again. "In the midst of despair, I remember the town of Fenghuang from whence Ming and I came. Fenghuang means phoenix. It is a mythical creature that is consumed by fire but reborn new from its ashes. That is my hope and dream."
I added that the University of Chicago's logo is also the phoenix. I too was reborn by the U of C both medically and educationally. However, it was already late, and I told the lantern that I would tell him both stories another time. I said to the lantern, "Míng tiān jiàn," which means goodbye or literally "See you tomorrow." The lantern's response was, "Xie xie; Yi huier jian," which means, "Thanks; see you later."
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