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A Poet's Progress, Randy Roark

A Poet’s Progress: Why Butterflies Are Always Seen in Pairs; a Painting Lesson; the Mosou’s Walking Marriage, a Visit to Xian’s Poetry Park, and a Village Dance


sectitle-exseries37-01 Yangtze  Dancer #3 Yangtze Dancer

Xian: Day Five: We Come Upon a Pair of Butterflies and Xi Explains Why Butterflies Are Always Seen in Pairs

Zhu Yingtai was a beautiful and intelligent young woman, the ninth child but only daughter of a wealthy family in Shangyu. At the time girls were not allowed to attend school, but she convinced her parents to let her travel to Hangzhou, where no one would know her, and attend school disguised as a boy.

On her journey to Hangzhou, Zhu met Liang, a traveling scholar from Kuaiji who was also on his way to the same school. It was mid-day, so they stopped at a crossroads and shared lunches. Over lunch they shared feelings that they had not even told their closest friends and family. Crossroads are auspicious locations for meeting as they are thought to be where the spirit world and our world are closest, and they gathered soil from the place of their meeting and placed it in one of the amulets they wore around their throats. Then they took an oath of fraternity and held a palm over each other’s head, which ensured that even the will of the gods could not break their bonds.

For the next three years, as the two friends studied together, Zhu’s love for Liang deepened. But since Liang believed Zhu to be a boy, he only noticed that he felt good in Zhu’s company, and that he was always happy to see him first thing in the morning, and was sad when they went to their separate rooms at night.

One day the headmistress received a messenger from Shanghu. Zhu’s father was far away on business and her very ill mother was requesting the school release her daughter, who was attending school disguised as a boy.

The headmistress called Zhu into her office and told her that the penalty for deception was that she must leave school before sunrise and never return. She was also warned never to speak to anyone about the reason for her banishment upon pain of being exposed as a liar and a compromised woman. Zhu would never be able to overcome the scandal. If she were still unmarried, she would find it difficult to find a spouse. If she was married, her deception would be grounds for abandonment. If she had married someone with whom she had shared a roof for over a year, she would bring shame to them both.

After the shock of being exposed and expelled, Zhu began to plot how this might play to her advantage. On their last nightly walk together, Zhu began to cry, and told Liang about her mother’s illness and the need for her to return to Shanghu, and that she could never return to school. Liang insisted on knowing the reason why, but she knew that if she told him she would have violated her vow not to speak of the reasons for her discharge to anyone. But she begged Liang to find the headmistress and have her explain the reason. But the headmistress guessed Zhu’s plan and refused to say a word.

When Liang returned without an answer, Zhu despaired that he would guess in time. When they said goodnight for the final time, they both wept.

Zhu was packed and out of her room before dawn. Waiting for her at the town gate was Liang, who insisted on accompanying her at least for an hour or two.

As they walked, Zhu kept dropping hints that she was a girl. At one point she even told their story as if they were a pair of mandarin ducks, which in China is the equivalent of referring to them as married (as mandarin ducks mate for life), but Liang didn’t catch on.

When they reached the crossroads where they first met, they sat under the same tree and ate a final meal together. Zhu begged Liang to stay for the night; he couldn’t possibly walk back through the forest in the dark. But Liang insisted. He would be unable to endure their parting a second longer. As they hugged goodbye, he wept, “Oh, if only you had a twin sister. I would marry her in an instant!” “Oh!” Zhu shouted. “I do! She looks exactly like me. Except she’s a woman.” And Zhu laughed and clapped her hands in joy. They chose Spring Planting Day for the wedding date as is customary. The stars are always auspicious on that day, so it was the most popular day to get married. It is also a family holiday, so school would be out of session. On Spring Planting Day, local farmers postpone planting for two days if there is a wedding in town, giving the new couple two full days of the earth’s fertility. So, in less than three month’s time they would meet a third time at these crossroads. Zhu’s sister would be at the head of a wedding train, and there would be an empty elephant beside her to bring him to her father’s house, where he would negotiate for her hand in marriage.

At dusk on the agreed-upon day, Zhu greeted Liang at the crossroads dressed as a woman, but not at the head of a wedding train. When Zhu had told him almost the entire story, she stopped until he promised upon the pain of a slow and painful death that no matter what she said next, he would never leave her. He pledged in an instant, but instantly regretted it as he realized that in their months apart, Zhu’s parents had arranged for her to marry a man above their family’s station, and there was no way for Zhu to escape her fate.

Liang didn’t stop walking until he came to a remote town where he’d heard they were in need of a magistrate. He was more educated than anyone in the town and his demands were little—room and board, no salary—so he was hired immediately. But his health deteriorated rapidly and he soon died, but not before leaving specific instructions for what was to happen after his death, to be paid for with Zhu’s unpaid dowry.

On the day of Zhu’s marriage she traveled—as is traditional—to the home of her husband-to-be at the head of a wedding train. But when they reached the crossroads, Zhu could go no farther and jumped off and knelt in the shade of the tree where they’d last hugged. When she finally raised her head, she saw through her tears that there was a grave in front of her and on that grave was the amulet he had worn around his neck. It was hanging on a bamboo tube labeled “The Death Poem of Liang of Kuaiji.” She took the parchment out of the tube and read it aloud:

Better to embrace death
than to have known love
& be forced to live without it.

Zhu tore off her wedding dress and begged for the grave to open. She told the Great Mother that she had no intention of ever rising from the grave and begged her to open and accept her body, as a mother opens her arms to receive a newborn and carry her until she is ready to stand on her own.

And the earth opened and Zhu held Liang’s body one last time. She had often dreamed of the day she would hug him again. The last time had been their first time as man and woman. How disappointed he was when he arrived to find her alone, though he told her he was only overcome to see her again. And how she had drawn the story out. Why did he not hate her? And what would he think of her now, arriving at the head of a wedding train at their crossroads, but on her way to another man’s house?

And her heart broke at the immensity of the pain her deception and betrayal had caused an innocent and loving man. Up until now she had been thinking only of her own suffering but now her tears flowed for Liang, and they fell from her chin onto his eyelids, and his eyelids quivered and then slowly opened, his pale blue eyes looking up and blinking at the sudden light. And when their eyes connected and they realized they had been given a second chance, their hearts fluttered and they were transformed by the Great Mother into butterflies, and they rose together from the grave. Even today, when two lovers die thinking only of the other, they are transformed into butterflies so they will never be without their partner.


37-02 Chandelier, Xien Opera HouseSideways Chandelier, Xian Opera

The days are so dark that when the sun comes out the dogs bark at it.
                                         —Paul Theroux, “Sailing Through China.”

What the Oracle Said

In the City of Ghosts souls
cross into the Underworld.

We who have been
left behind burn ghost money

and share tea before crossing
the Nothing-To-Be-Done Bridge.

On concrete piers, the oracles
cast knucklebones
on granite scrubbed with chalk,

To hold the waters back
you need a pier. Piers are made of
stones. Stones are slippery when wet.

What does that mean, I ask as we leave the stalls. “Sexually,” Xi says, “Women are taught that their job is to entertain the man.” “That sounds simple enough. What’s that like for the woman, though? Do you enjoy it?” Xi gives me a look that says that what I’ve asked is impolite and none of my business. I shoot her back a look that says—I hope—that what she is refusing to talk about is the one thing worth talking about.

Xi turns away, thinking she’s won the argument. I let her go, just as confident that I’m right.

She has porcelain lips.
Her mind is a revolving blade.
The other half of her is water.

37-03 Xian Opera (unretouched photo)Xian Opera House

Day Six: Xi’s Studio, Xian

Painting Lesson

Look into the sun by accident—
surprised, you close your eyes.
Beauty is as close as this.

Xi crosses her arms and looks at my painting, as if she’s protecting herself.

When you approach the canvas, you lurch in all directions, you land by chance, off-balance, and make the best of it.

A painting should never be left to the eye or the hand. Your heart is halfway between your hand and your eye for a reason. Your heart is the deepest part of you for a reason. Your eyes and your hands are your extremities. With your eyes you see into the world. And with your hand you can give an idea a voice that will reach out to touch hundreds or thousands of other people, or even one. What would your hand paint without direction? An eye follows whatever excites it. It has no patience, it has no judgment.

You can tell a lot about a painter by how long it takes them to finish a painting. It looks like you are rushing because you want some discomfort to be over.

You must be as alert as possible when you are painting. Find a way to stand that does not drain your energy. Imagine you are hanging from a string from the top of your head. Feel your spine sag and straighten. Relax. And then she whispered the word “relax” and put her fingertips softly on the small of my back and pressed. This was the first time we had touched and from that moment until she took her hand off my back I was distracted and remember very little.

Now open your eyes. Take a breath, pause, sharpen your senses. What do you smell, what do you hear, what do you see? What do you feel? Now take a deep breath. Pause. Listen with your eyes, smell with them, remember.

Now close your eyes. Try to see into the darkness, how deep is it? Try to find your place in this silence, your balance. Raise your hand to your chest as a gesture of humility. Open your eyes.

Now try to see the painting on the canvas. Do not think, see. Once you can see what you are about to paint, then you know where to begin, what brush you need. How can you choose your brush or prepare your paints until you know what you are about to paint? Do you need a thick brush or a thin one? Choose or adapt or make the right brush. You should know every hair of it. If there is a flaw, this is the time to correct it, not after you have begun to paint.

When your brush is ready, you are ready to choose your color. Mix your colors with water until they are the right flavor, the right scent. Then you rest your brush on the top of the paint until it absorbs the right amount of color for what you are about to paint. Look at the canvas until you can see what you are about to paint. There will come a moment when you know exactly what you are about to paint, where your stroke will start and where it will stop, what kind of gesture you will make. Now you are ready to approach the canvas! What you are about to paint is already on your brush and you have only to unroll it.

Painting slows the world down and you can see what even a photographer cannot see—that what you are painting ceases to exist as you paint it. You are finished when your painting is the only record of what you saw. And then you realize that is also true of the painter, that the painting will be your epitaph.

The reason most people fail at being an artist is the amount of hours an artist must spend making art before they make anything worth looking at. How does an artist maintain their dedication through all those years of falling short? The more time you spend with your art, the less time there is for a personal life. When you are young, that does not matter, but how much can a human sacrifice for art? The answer to that question is what people look for in your art. The hope is that what you saw when you were here and what you made from what you saw will have sustenance for others.

We waste a lot of thought thinking about what to paint, as if the answer to that question could make our decisions for us. But I will save you a lot of time. When something moves you, it can move others. That is the only thing that can be said with certainty. And that even death does not end your chances. Most of the important artists became important only after they were dead.

But even when you choose art, you fail. There will be only so many days and so many paintings. When you improve, it only makes the rest of your work look shallow, which it is. So how do you decide? For me, every time I pick up a brush I say a prayer to remind myself that I was given this gift with responsibilities. If you want to know how I learned to paint, it began when I learned to begin every painting with a prayer.

37-04 Qi Signs a paintingXi Signs a Painting


Boy Trainee: How will I know she is the right one for me?
Girl Trainer: She will try to kill you
“Avatar,” James Cameron

“Have you seen the film Avatar?” We’ve turned the corner and are officially out of sight of the hotel. “In it she teaches her lover that what he needs to become all that he can be will try to kill him first. If you do not choose to become all you can be despite the danger, your life will be safe but a failure.”

“But that’s a movie.”

“It is an idea in a movie.”

“I don’t get it.”

“The film says that life is not perfect, but you have no choice. To choose to be alive is dangerous. You might not succeed. But not to follow your life as it reveals itself to you—even when it is tragic, especially when it is tragic, would be twice more tragic. To not follow it does not make it any less tragic. We will lose either way. But instead of fearing death, one should be ready to face it in every moment. That is the only way you can be sure you will face death at your most ready.”

“It’s morbid to suggest we should live our lives overwhelmed by an awareness of death. I say the opposite. I want to live while I’m alive, not spend my life dying.”

“What you are calling morbid is reality. Ignoring it will not make it go away. Ignoring it will mean it will surprise you when it arrives, and that is not a moment you want to be surprised. But you are right in one way. Life is not something you can manage. Manage or imagine? Manage? Imagine? Imagine.”


“Life is not something you imagine. You must learn what it is through experience. Everything you do is like putting seeds in the ground. It is only after many months that you learn the results of what you have done. And sometimes—but not always!—to make life more interesting the wrong decision becomes the right decision with the passage of time. And sometimes I imagine the right decision can become the wrong decision and then become the right decision again. This is what Buddhists mean when they say your future is a seed you plant in the present, which will become your past. It is said that everyone—emperor and peasant—suffers the same: we can only learn the results of our efforts when it is too late to change them. But I have known some for whom the final twist came on their deathbed, so we can look forward to a moment like that as well. Is this lack of certainty morbid, or something we can hope for? And how can we choose, when no choice is final? And if time cannot decide with any certainty what is right and wrong, how can we hold ourselves to blame when what looks like the right decision later changes into the wrong one?”

“But none of that matters if you believe that everything is fated.”

“What do you mean?”

“What does it matter, right or wrong, if—as you believe—everything’s fated? That’s all I’m saying.”

“I believe that everything happens for a reason, but that is not the same thing as being fated. I do not claim to know the reason anything happens to me. I acknowledge anything I believe can change in an instant into its opposite. Still, I believe that everything including our walk tonight—your words, my words—are happening for a reason. So I am taking the time to find out what that reason might be, if there is a reason. You have caught my eye. I am studying you for a painting. Surely you must feel something. You are half of it. If you cannot feel this, how can you blame that on God? How can you blame anyone but yourself?”

I laugh out loud. “Well, you’re right about that.”

37-05 country storeroomCountry Storeroom, Donghan Farmers’ Village

Day Seven: Xian

Xi Explains the Balance of the Sexes in China

When a man is young he has a lot of very bad ideas—ideas that will not bring fruit. He needs a woman who is patient, who knows he is a good man and that he will choose what is right eventually on his own. But until then the most important quality in a man is that his ears are open, because when we are first starting out I will know more than him about what matters in the long run and I will need to train him in the right ways, sometimes like a puppy—am I right?—by getting him to listen to me. It helps if he is young and unformed but I am past the age of being able to attract such a boy. As a woman unmarried and twenty-six, I attract married men and men who have for many years failed to find a mate. And as an unmarried professional woman, I am being used as a warning to daughters who want to pursue a career.

There is both a man and a woman in a good marriage. If men and women are separated, neither of them bear fruit. In my family there is my mother and my mother’s mother and me on one side and my father on the other. But in China, the men are supposed to make the big decisions. When my father got a new job, we had to move, and my mother and I made all the decisions about what house to buy, we made all the decisions about how to decorate the house. One day when it was over my father said, “But I am the man of the house. I am supposed to make the big decisions.” “And you do,” my mother told him. “You make all of the big decisions. Like what we should do about global warming and our position on Israel.”

37-06 Walking to the villageWalking to Donghan Farmers’ Village

Conversation Outside the Temple

“Did you see the bride, how pretty she was, how happy?”

“Yeah.” Xi laughs. “For now.”

“But that doesn’t make the happiness untrue because it doesn’t last or that it changes. In that moment she was happy and in many other moments she was not happy. That means that difficulties change over time as well. So why are they any more real? They’re both equally true and untrue. Sometimes it’s one, sometimes it’s the other. I prefer to think that I can choose. I don’t want to miss a moment of happiness.”

“Happiness for me is a song, even a sad song, because both happy songs and sad songs end. That everything ends is a hopeful thing. But it is also true that when a song is over, it changes nothing. It was a moment, and it made you feel good, but then it is over and you are a little worse, because for a moment you felt hope.”

The Full Moon in Xian

A bright eye
swimming in the well
observing the stars.

I am undone, and it is done. What is that from, “Lear”?

Good medicine always tastes bitter.—Xi

Give up, give in, give way
go with it go in the direction
of, go where it is going, it
doesn’t matter what you want.

37-07 My host, ZhuZhu, My Hostess in Donghan Farmers’ Village

Day Eight: Xian

China’s Minorities: The Mosou’s “Walking Marriage”

Continuing our conversation about the relationship between men and women, Xi tells me about the Mosou, one of the few matrilineal and matriarchal societies left in the world. Less than 900 of the tribe remain and they are a protected culture in China. That means that China will do everything it can to preserve the tribe and its people without interference of any kind.

There is no concept of marriage with the Mosou. There is no concept of “husband” or “wife.” Babies are created in this tribe by a practice they call tisese, which means “walking back and forth.” When a man expresses interest in a woman, she can give him permission to visit her. The woman leaves her door open and the man arrives after dark, and he leaves before sunrise to return to his mother’s household. Men and women can be involved with as many partners as they wish, but some do become couples, although they will never live together, share property, or involve the man in the raising of the children. The father of the child has no involvement or responsibilities whatsoever for his children, although he is responsible for helping raise all of his sisters’ children. But the father of the child is generally known and at the child’s birth the father, his mother and sisters come to celebrate, bringing gifts. In fact, if a woman does not know the father of her child, it is considered shameful. Each New Year’s Day, a child visits his birth father to pay respects to him. The father also participates in the coming-of-age ceremonies for his children.

The result of this system is that the children are raised by their mothers and her extended family, which includes several generations. Everyone in the family lives in a common area, and there are no private bedrooms or living areas. But the children, like every child, long to live in the cities, not in the huts of their parents. It is doubtful the culture will last another generation. Xi ends with a sigh. “I am surprised someone alive can still meet a girl my age who lives half naked in mud and branches.”

37-09 Xi leading the danceXi Leads the Dance

After dinner we gather on a basketball in the center of the common area. Since a Chinese athlete was drafted several years ago by and American professional basketball team, a couple of basketball courts have been built in every town and neighborhood in China. Daily physical exercise is believed to keep you healthy, your joints supple and fluid, your mind sharp.

And on these courts at sunset—even when there are no tourists—the neighborhood gathers to dance together to a boombox. The dances are not partner dances, but line or circle dancing. When it’s a circle dance, you face the back of the person in front of you, and the circle moves counter-clockwise. The line dancing is done in parallel lines, all facing the same direction, like a squadron doing drills. Only the women dance. The few men who are in town—most of the men live in barracks on farms or near the mines—sit in the grass with the babies, laughing at the tourists.

The women are determined to show they’re not backwater know-nothings. They arrive in knee-high black leather boots, short tight European skirts, colorful lace bras visible under white blouses, the kind of black patterned stockings I’ve only seen in Paris and London and New York.

Tonight more than thirty villagers are already dancing by the time I arrive with the first of the Americans. I do okay with the western dances they have learned for us, but all of their native dances are more complicated than I can master. Even if I get it for a little while, at some point I completely lose my way and have to stop and start over.

Returning to the sidelines, I stand next to Janice and say—in an attempt to put what I was feeling into words—I was married to a dancer once and I can tell a trained dancer. See if you can tell the one who’s trained. Yeah, right, exactly. Xi isn’t doing the steps, she’s acting and the steps are the tools she’s using to express the dance. Compare her to anyone else. Their hands are flat, limp, they don’t make sense. Both of her hands are independently alive from the wrists all the way to her fingertips. The others are doing the outward form of the dance, she’s dancing from the inside out. Dancers are people who can express who they are through their bodies, and they can do it in front of others. I need to express who I am through my writing and I prefer not to be seen. That’s why Xi is dancing and I’m talking.

What you feel when you watch her dance is that her entire body is dancing. She’s a sail filled with the song. She’s a visual expression of the music. For a dancer, absence has become automatic. When a dancer stands onstage, in that moment before the lights come on, the instruction is to become an absence. You’ve learned the dance, now perform the dance, have the dance dance you. A really great dancer is empty like a drumhead vibrating after it’s struck. They’re not thinking. That’s what it is to dance.

Xi has two signature moves—there’s the spiral one where she twists in upon herself and then makes a grand gesture moving out, like a coiling and uncoiling snake. And the other one is where she uses centrifugal force to make it look like she’s shaking water or sparks from her fingertips. Well, there’s the second part of that one too—the one where it’s as if she’s swimming in the sky.

A lot of people think that dance is in big gestures, in the hips or the movement of the head, that the face should be expressionless. But for me it’s more in the fingertips and the feet, the arch of the spine, and most definitely in the face, and especially the eyes.

And there’s another girl who’s not a trained dancer but she’s certainly a dancer—her, Erica, right. She went right to the front of the line where all the best dancers were and she picked up the basic steps almost immediately and now she’s improvising and adding little western movements and teaching them to the locals, communicating to them through dance. And she’s good enough that she’s having fun.

See how there seems to be more light on Xi than anyone else in the group, which is impossible but you can see it, can’t you? That light has to come from inside, right, because where else could it come from?

There’s a great joy for a woman to be picked up and held like that—by dance, by music. That’s where the light comes from, from her joy, to be able to share a dance with strangers in the last place you’d expect—in a tiny rural village in the outskirts of north-western China.

Two local women take me by the hand and lead me back onto the court. It’s a Chinese song in some polyrhythmic cycle that’s in sevenths if I’m counting correctly, and on the fifth and first you pirouette, and I was getting dizzier with each spin, so I apologized and left the court.

The Americans who weren’t dancing were drifting off and the evening was coming to an end. Even the more experienced dancers were tiring. The moon was setting.

The community leader stops the music and puts in another CD and hits play:

You put your right hand in,
You put your right hand out,
You put your right hand in,
And you shake it all about,

You do the hokey pokey
and you turn yourself around
That what it’s all about.

I’d actually danced the Hokey Pokey several time before (admittedly in England, where it belongs) so I joined them, and that was followed by the Macarena, which I’d never done before and it more of a challenge. And that was followed by another Chinese dance and two village women grabbed me, one on each elbow, and showed me the steps. I could do them for a couple of rounds but then I’d lose it and it was hard for me to get it back, despite the two Chinese women, one on each side, sighing and starting over: showing me again and again less and less patiently what I’m supposed to do, and me getting worse instead of better with each repetition, stumbling and laughing and apologizing and starting over.

On the way back to our different houses I rush to catch up with Xi. “Where were you trained in dance?” “I wasn’t.” “That’s impossible. You can’t fool me. I was … I’m divorced and the woman I’m divorced from was a dancer. I’ve seen some of the best dancers in the world. I’ve seen Judith Jamison dance “Cry” at least twice with Alvin Ailey. I can tell when someone’s been trained in dance.” “No, I am telling the truth. I have never trained in dance. But I have always enjoyed dancing.”

The next morning on the bus I tell Janice that I was wrong, that Xi is not a trained dancer. No, Janice says, but you are right—there is something special about her, and her dancing, it’s not just because you have a crush on her. Is that what it looks like? I ask, astonished. Oh yes, she says. And she likes you too.

37 10 Yangtze, Dancer #1Yangtze Dancer #1

Written by Randy Roark

Newtopia staff writer RANDY ROARK worked with Allen Ginsberg for the last 17 years of his life, first as an apprentice, then as his teaching assistant, and finally transcribing and editing 28,000 pages of Ginsberg’s poetry lectures, currently available on-line through the Ginsberg trust. Following Ginsberg’s death, he worked with artist Stan Brakhage, producing art events featuring his films until his death. Since 1998 he has worked with Sounds True as a producer, where he has edited artists such as Alex Grey, writers including William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, and a wide variety of spiritual teachers, including Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, and Lakota Elder Joseph Marshall.


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