Thursday, June 25, 2009
Ancient Chinese Secret
I have a kind of love hate relationship with the Chinese. I love their culture; particularly the ancient one but I really don't like their habit of poisoning baby formula and putting lead in children's toys, or, their oppressive politics. Still, when weighed side by side, I might have to set my feelings about the lead aside so that I may continue to enjoy the many unusual Chinese antiques and artifacts that I have picked up over the years without guilt.
My husband and I are at the beach this week and we drove by a shop called ‘Buddha's and Beads.' This was only a few minutes after I had just told him that I really wasn't into spending any money on this trip and that I was happy just to ride around and look. When I saw the shop with its prayer flags flying and its stone statues beckoning, I did a double take and almost got whiplash. I made him let me out of the car immediately. I grabbed fifty bucks and marched across the street and into paradise.
It was filled with every kind of material thing that I love. I wondered if was a heaven of sorts, maybe not ‘the heaven' but a lesser, more fun one. An older woman with dreadlocks said "hey" around a mouthful of French fries. It was hard to see her as the shop was brimming from top to bottom with treasures. Not a single surface was left un-ornamented. I took a deep breath and started scanning for what I was going to buy. If wasn't a question of if, but a question of how much I could get for my fifty dollars.
Nothing was priced which was maddening and I kept having to interrupt the woman who was lost in a kind of French fry reverie with her daughter and was not all that interested in my sudden, manic need to purchase something.
"What are these, I asked pointing to a row of little wooden statures?"
"Kitchen gods" she said in a laid back but matter of fact way.
"Kitchen gods, that's neat but I mean but what do they do?"
I was thinking about my collection of Buddha statues at home. I've been collecting them for a few years. I'm not a pack rat, I only have about twelve or so but each one is different. I'd never heard of a kitchen god before.
She said "well, I think they went in the kitchen and you put some kind of prayer in the back."
I looked and sure enough there was a little piece of paper shoved into the back of the carving and also a little wax seal to show that it was an old carving, not a new reproduction.
"We have repro stuff on the other side of the store if you want that kind of thing" she said lazily. I didn't, I wanted the real thing. I wanted a kitchen god that had been prayed to, at least once.
I picked them up and studied them all and finally found the one I wanted, a little figure, seated, the wood was worn in many places and the paint was peeling, giving it a charming, care worn effect.
There were also thousands of strands of beads, my other weakness. I combed through the mounds of agate and moonstone, amethyst and obsidian and took out two pretty strings.
I walked to the counter and said, "Look, I've got fifty bucks, what you can do on these three items?"
She said my fifty bucks would do just fine. I took my treasures and went back to the car where my husband was munching on caramel popcorn and sitting there in neutral. That's the mode he goes into when he knows he may have to wait for me for a very long time and there is absolutely nothing he can do about it.
I started to think a bit about kitchen gods on the way home from the store. "You know, I said to Rob, I'll bet that the reason that all these statues are making their way to America has something to do with the fact that I eighty percent of China is now Christian, at least that's what I read, and I'll bet they think it's all voodoo stuff now."
He agreed that this was a plausible theory. I said "I'll bet that young Chinese people think of kitchen gods the way I think about the crocheted doilies and toilet paper holders that used to adorn my grandmothers house. They probably look at kitchen gods with great disdain and say things like, "there's grand mom, praying to those damn kitchen gods again."
I also had to wonder what kind of prayer a person would ask such a deity. "Please, don't let me burn the rice again tonight?" In that case, I definitely need a few kitchen gods, one for each appliance and maybe even one for the small toaster oven as well. Rob said that the kitchen god was probably there to bless all the food and ensure that it is free from any traces of MSG.
A few years ago I started collecting vintage Buddha statues from a young man who does the same antique show every year. He said they were Tibetan Buddha's. He knew surprisingly little about them. At first I took him to be Tibetan but then I realized that he was most likely Chinese. What I was sure of was the fact that he couldn't have cared less about what the particular statues meant. He would say something like, "This one's a sitting Buddha."
I would politely say, "Thanks for pointing that out."
Then he would say, "This one here has a bowl in his hand."
I would say, "Is it a begging bowl or a medicine bowl?" There are different meanings depending on the item held.
He would say, "This is a holding bowl Buddha." Then I would smile and buy it and the one next to it.
I have to wonder why I am more interested in Chinese culture than the Chinese. I suppose I ought to be erecting a shrine to NASCAR or McDonalds or a statue of a very white looking Jesus with blue eyes. Yes I probably should but it's not going to happen.
I also have a collection of Asian pottery as well. One large wine jug sits in our living room, it's from the nineteenth century and while it's spectacular to me, I think to the Chinese, it's just junk, slightly older junk but still junk all the same. I remember asking the dealer to tell me all about it as I shelled out two hundred and fifty dollars. He said, "It's a wine jug."
"Oh, I said, anything else?"
"It used to hold wine." He said.
I also have a pair of benches that were obviously used and then tossed out and then exported and sold to gullible people like me who have them standing in a corner as a work of art. "Don't sit on that bench" I say when I see someone getting near it, "It won't actually hold any weight and it's been repaired and the legs are uneven, and it's got a hole in the middle, but what a beautiful mystical thing it is, don't you think?"
I'm also captivated by eastern religion. I started studying Buddhism when I was in my teens and even though I am not a fully fledged Buddhist, it's the religion that I feel most comfortable with. You have to love someone who could utter a quote like this "If you don't think a small person can make a difference, than you have never slept with a mosquito." (The Dali Lama)
So, my battle rages on. I love the Chinese and then I hate them again. I wonder for example; why they won't leave Tibet alone, let it be its own nation with its own culture, and autonomy? I was also upset when I heard that the Chinese were buying American trash and turning it into brand new trash and selling it back to us again. I also despise the amount of useless crap that comes out of China. Lint brushes, plastic toothpick holders, sunglasses made from melted bottle caps, imitation sleeping cats made with real cat hair, sponges that disintegrate when allowed to touch the water, toothpaste made with a deadly adhesive. I could go on and on.
I think what I am trying to say here is that I like China the way it once was. Asian art and culture as it stood for thousands of years. Oh, but of course there was the whole oppression of women thing, I shouldn't really forget that and the whole tyranny and forced labor and all of that. I suppose that wasn't so good, but forget about that for a moment. I want to show you my authentic temple bell; it's made of real bronze and was once used to call the monks to meditation. If you ring it and listen very closely, you can almost hear the Chinese laughing.