Taiwanese art historian: 'Severing all ties’ in a pandemic

Cloistered in Chishang township in Taiwan’s Huadong Valley for the past four months, Chiang Hsun has no choice but to face himself in all its foibles. At peace with himself, he is at peace with the world. He revels in beautiful sights, as if he’s the only one let in on nature’s little secret. Just as he readies to leave, tourists trickle back into Chishang, bringing a bit of a bustle with them. May their hearts be still, says Chiang, to see the beauty that lies before them.
The silver grey skies of Chishang.
The silver grey skies of Chishang.

(Photos: Facebook/蔣勳)

I didn’t expect the Covid-19 pandemic to spread to northern Taiwan. I decided to stay put in the eastern region of Huadong Valley (East Rift Valley) for the time being. Four months have passed since I made that decision in mid-May. Apart from drawing, reading and taking walks in the fields, I managed to shut myself in and cut myself off from the world.

In my mind, “severing all ties and associations” (息交绝游) mentioned in Gui Qu Lai (归去来, an essay about returning home) refers to the literati’s yearning for a secluded life. Following the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, I guess “severing all ties” is a more concrete form of “social distancing”? A quick count on my fingers shows that I have met less than ten people over the past four months!    

Secret views

I have had more time to look at the mountains and the changing seasons. I watched the seasons change from Lixia (立夏, the beginning of summer) to Xiaoman (小满, the time when summer crops bear fruit) and then to Mangzhong (芒种, mid-summer when harvest-time is near). I watched the harvesting and weeding of paddy fields, as well as the transplanting of rice seedlings. I witnessed the first stage of rice cultivation and then the second. I saw the sun rise again after each sunset and also the moon and its changing phases. It turns out that “severing all ties and associations” means a return to being by myself.   

Rice seedlings have just been transplanted onto a field in Chishang. (Facebook/蔣勳)
Recently transplanted rice seedlings on a paddy field in Chishang.

To be alone is to be with oneself and have a view of the heavens, the earth and all sentient beings. 

On my second last day in Longzaiwei (龙仔尾), I went for my after-dinner stroll as usual, taking my usual route. I said goodbye to every tree, the burbling of the waterways, the clouds among the mountains, and every seedling in the fields…  

Let your heart be still

Since Liqiu (立秋, the beginning of autumn) has arrived, the skies have become more silver grey. This is autumn light, a solemn and silent light that seems to have something on its mind.   

I am thankful to have had such magnificent views all to myself for the past four months. In my one- to two-hour walks, I have never bumped into another person. 

Tourists are slowly streaming in and I am leaving. It turns out that everyone has an affinity with this beautiful land of mountains and rivers.

A scenic view of the Central Mountain Plains (中央山脉) from Chishang. (Facebook/蔣勳)
A scenic view of the Central Mountain Plains (中央山脉) from Chishang. 

In recent years, Chishang township is quickly becoming a tourist destination. Six-seater high-speed electric cars have made their way into the town, speeding past the fields and sometimes accidentally crashing into them.  

It is difficult to control the crowd when it comes to tourism. Chishang is a small town — its carefree idyllic setting, slow pace of life and serenity can be easily destroyed by the hustle and bustle of foreign commercial activities. Aggressive ways of soliciting business have disturbed the originally humble and modest small town. But Chishang’s native residents still lead a quiet life. They are unaffected by the influx of commercial activities and treat each person who comes to Chishang with kindness.       

Chishang’s beauty would not be visible if the heart is not still. Whether one walks or cycles, many beautiful moments would be missed if one goes too fast. 

The mountains, rivers, and the lands bless everyone who comes before them. As long as you're not in a rush, you will form an affinity with them and receive blessings from the heavens and the earth. 

Chishang, may you be well!

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