Gambol and Caper Are Strictly Prohibited

At least that’s what the sign said in the cable car area leading down from the Buddhist temple on Wolf Mountain not far from Nantong, which in turn is a few hours drive from Shanghai.

This is a pleasing example of Chinglish or Engrish, of which you may find many amusing samples compiled on the Internet. The sign also exhorted us not to randomly throw our garbage, which we carefully obeyed.

My wife and I visited her parents in Shanghai during Chinese New Year, which was early this year, in late January. This is the big holiday for China, and is a bigger deal than our New Year’s, a kind of melding of Christmas and New Year’s which goes on as an official public holiday for three days and actually extends traditionally for 15 days, until the Lantern Festival.

When you include the weekends, this is a time that allows families to get together, and indeed, Shanghai was noticeably quieter this time than in other visits, because so many people clog the trains, planes and buses to return to their home towns and villages.

(In addition, one of the features of the economic slowdown in China is that the multitudes of laboring peasants who flocked to the cities to participate in their recent rapid expansion, such as in Shanghai, are now returning to their homes because there is so much less work for them. This will come to be interesting politically, now that so many of the humble folk have been exposed to the city life and will have developed different expectations.)

LangshanMeanwhile, back at Wolf Mountain, my wife, her parents both mobile in their 80s, and I ascended to the top of what amounts to the highest hill in the local landscape to the famous Buddhist Temple of Langshan.

On this day, a Saturday, with some actual sunshine cutting through the haze and smog, people were out in force to make a pilgrimage to the top of the temple buildings to burn incense, often of amazing sizes and girths, and to struggle to touch the gilt hand of the large wooden Buddha at the top of some stairs.

In fact, so much incense was being burnt, that as we approached on the highway a mile or so away, you could see fire and smoke rising from the small pagoda-like corner burner atop the silhouetted temple. I thought the place was on fire and was somewhat alarmed, but our hosts and my wife had a giggle at my ignorance.

My wife’s mother bought a six-foot long bundle of incense, containing three sticks as thick as broom handles, all wrapped in gold and red paper. The routine here was that you bought your incense on the way up at the many concessions on the mountain that pay the temple hundreds of thousands of Chinese dollars every year for the privilege of their location.

Then you carry it further up through the throngs to the big oven where you hand it over, otherwise untouched, to a fellow who tosses it without ceremony through a huge round furnace door into the flames bright inside, presumably with one’s prayers. And that’s it. That’s an incredible economy. Buy something, burn it immediately, feel good about it, and be ready to pay again, or next time, for peace of mind.

YangtzeThis was an unusual temple compared to many others we’ve visited in China where people normally burn their own incense in large urns made available for the purpose.

We all were disappointed at the slovenly maintenance of the temple, given what must be the largesse of all the contributions and concessions available to it. Compared to others, particularly the Shaolin Temple which we visited a trip or two ago, this one was not well run at all, but apparently was so popular it didn’t need to be.

Some other impressions from our time in China:

— the amazing display of fireworks, 360 degrees, extending as far as the eye could see in the night sky of 20-million strong Shanghai, as the world turned into the New Year. There were fireworks exploding high in the sky, while on the streets everywhere huge bundles of firecrackers rattled like gunfire. This went on for hours and hours and continued every night for a week or so.

— the local women doing their dancing exercises as a choreographed group in the early morning in the courtyard of our apartment building, while the sound of Rhinestone Cowboy drifted up to our ninth floor room.

— the salty taste of tiny delicate mussels from the Yangtze River.

water village— small salted and dried flounder-like fish at a rough restaurant in a traditional village on canals, Zhu Jia Jiao , outside Shanghai.

— all the fish, which were  greeted with great appreciation at every restaurant table we attended (and we attended a lot of them), steamed whole with their heads left on, eyeballs protruding white as marble.

— how serious and intertwined food is with every social gathering for the Chinese. At a restaurant one doesn’t dive in and help oneself either to the dishes so temptingly on view. It’s more a matter of discreet and polite pecking at each dish on a lazy susan with one’s chopsticks, or better yet, have somebody serve you without the gaucherie of your own grasping.

— the deeply social meetings and giving of gifts in the days after New Year, complete on two occasions with young Chinese singing unselfconsciously and well for the rest of the guests.

Shanghai Sketch— watching Chinese TV (although my Chinese is minimal). There was a lot of singing and performances on the channels during the New Year period, even slick pop music events with would-be groovy guys and gals. But I never heard anything remotely resembling rock, with all its joyous rhythms, not even bad rock music. Chinese people really respond instead to the folk songs, often sentimental or patriotic, that they learned in their childhood.

There’s some culture shock for me, both going and returning from China. It always takes me a little time to get used to being back in Vancouver.


Notes on images from the top:

1) Looking up from the parking lot at the temple on the hill…

2) Along the Yangtze River near the base of the temple hill, with the typical smog or haze that lets you still see what a huge river this is.

3) At the old style water village of Zhu Jia Jiao.

4) A sketch of an interesting building in Shanghai. This was the first time I used CretaColor AquaStics. They make great portable watercolour tools, although they come in the form of highly pigmented water soluble wax crayons. I like them alot.

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8 Comments on “Gambol and Caper Are Strictly Prohibited”

  1. fencer Says:

    Hi Rick,

    Thanks for those two links… I like Iran Maiden in that record store photo on the “engrish” site.


  2. You must have had a wonderful holiday. I had a good chuckle at your description of perfect economy.

    That sketch is quite good too – it’s got a nice rhythm to it and harmonious colour. Did you get the AquaStics in Canada?

  3. fencer Says:

    Hi lookingforbeauty,

    Yes, religion in China is interesting, partially because of the culture and partially because the Communist authorities have a hand in it somewhere because the Party is so threatened by the semblance of any widespread organization other than itself.

    This is why our Chinese friends told us that Roman Catholics have such a hard time under the Communists, because the Pope refuses to recognize the Party’s authority to appoint bishops (as I understand the situation). And also the whole case of Falun Gong and the Party’s hysterical over-reaction to a cultish group of chi gong practitioners because they managed to build up an organization outside the Party.

    I got the AquaStics at Opus in Vancouver. I checked Loomis (now De Serres or something) and they don’t have them although one must be able to order them.

    The nice thing about AquaStics is the rich colour and how with a wet brush either on the crayon or on the oil pastel-like marks you’ve made on the paper, you’ve got instant watercolour!


  4. forestrat Says:

    Of course it was Mr. Burns that discovered the perfect business when he built a casino in Springfield. “I’ve discovered the perfect business: people swarm in, empty their pockets, and scuttle off.”

    Kinda the same thing as the incense.


  5. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,

    It was quite an odd scene with the incense, and handled quite differently than at any other temple we ever visited.

    Although the Chinese people are often brilliant of mind, there is also a surprisingly wide streak of superstition in many… and sometimes in the same brilliant people. There was a core of genuine Buddhist worshippers at this shrine, but mostly it seemed like a festival for covering your bets.


  6. forestrat Says:

    Kind of off the subject and kind of not – I recently read a book called “The Tao of Photography – seeing beyond seeing” by Philippe Gross and S.I. Shapiro

    If you haven’t read it yet, it might be something up your alley. The authors explore ways that great understanding versus little understanding can improve our photography and how artistic endeavors like photography can help us understand life more fully.


  7. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,

    Thanks for that reference… I don’t think I’ve seen that book. I will look for it. I see on Amazon that it’s gotten high ratings as well.


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