The Horner Exchange was designed to be an exchange of ideas between libraries and librarians who live in two different worlds but share a common purpose. In preparing for this trip, I had thought that the primary topic of exchange would be libraries: their structure, processes, patrons, and processes. My narrow idea of “exchange” has been broadened immensely by these last few days we have spent in the amazing city of Quanzhou. I have learned so much about parts of history I never knew, about religion, politics, philosophy – and food! But more importantly, we have gotten to know our hosts who have really opened my eyes to new perspectives. Before arriving, I had many questions about what I might learn and see here; well, the answer has been blowin’ in the wind.
Yesterday (Wednesday) was an especially eye-opening, memorable day. We started off with a trip to Mt Qingyuan, a lush green park not far from the center of town. The park is criss-crossed with forested walking trails, but the main attraction is a huge 1,000 year old statue of Lao-Tzu (老子). It is said that if you can rub his ears you can live to be 160 years old! Or if you’re less ambitious, you can rub his nose for 100 years. Climbing, of course, is not allowed anymore, but Quanzhou Library Director, Mr. Xu, told us that when he was a boy growing up in Quanzhou, he and his classmates would climb up each other’s shoulders to get to the top of the statue and rub his ears. This wasn’t the first tale of childhood antics we’ve heard from Mr. Xu – let’s hope that his daredevil days are behind him so he can enjoy all of the 160 years he has coming to him!
Since climbing is not allowed, Mr. Xu suggested that we take pictures that look like we’re rubbing Lao-Tzu’s ears — we all did it so I think we’re covered for a very long life!
Lao-Tzu and a student of his who you may have heard of, Confuscius
When you arrive in Quanzhou you cannot miss the giant statue of General Zheng Chenggong, the 17th century military figure who is revered in both Taiwan and Fujian as a great hero of China. He amassed an army on the mainland to expel Dutch colonists from Taiwan and in 1662 the Dutch army surrendered to General Zheng. Oh, and where did General Zheng live? Quanzhou, of course! Not only does this enormous statue have a great story to tell, but the view from the hill is as commanding as the general himself. There is a 365 degree view of the city and a distant glimpse of the harbor – and maybe on a clear day (if you squint), you can make out Taiwan!
In the afternoon we visited the Maritime Museum which not only housed boats and information about Quanzhou’s bustling port city past, but also a great deal of information about all the different religions represented in Quanzhou because of its cosmopolitan history. Quanzhou is known as the Museum of World Religions with good reason. The city has hosted and harbored people from all over the world with a great variety of faiths, including some now no longer practiced widely (or at all). For example, a religion called Manicheism originated in Persia and was thought to be extinct, but it was discovered that long after the religion disappeared in Persia, a community still existed in Quanzhou. As a lover of history, I am so intrigued by this; and as a lover of diversity and community, I love how Quanzhou’s story is a story of interaction and harmony between very different cultures.
on the left, a 14th century tombstone showing elements from Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Taoism. On the right, an icon from a Manichean temple.
The Confuscius (孔子) Temple complex consists of several buildings surrounding a peaceful courtyard. We were treated to a traditional Fujian tea ceremony with a lovely, subtle tea that grows only in Quanzhou. The temple itself was impressive, so highly decorated and ornate with a large, imposing statue of the master teacher himself in the center. His teachings inform every part of Chinese life. We were told that the stones in the courtyard – over 3,000 – represent the number of students he had in his lifetime who then went out and taught his ideas. And that was 2,500 years ago!
Perhaps the highlight of the visit to the temple was accidental – there happened to be a folk dance performance in the square in front of the temple right when we arrived. The dancers were dressed in traditional costumes and did some very energetic dances (in the tropical heat, I might add!). The dances included a traditional Fujian dance called the Chest Slapping Dance in which a group of shirtless men dance and kick energetically while, you guessed it, slapping their chests. We loved it! In fact, it’s hard to overstate just how delighted we were. The three of us were by far the most enthusiastic audience members in the small group that had gathered to watch!
They had also arranged for us to see a traditional Fujian-style puppet show with marionettes. The puppeteer was amazingly skilled getting tiny gestures out of the multistringed puppet. But I think my favorite part was watching the enraptured children gathered around the stage who couldn’t get enough of the puppet’s antics.
As wonderful as all of these cultural and historical stops have been, the most memorable part of the exchange for me has been the conversations we have had over these days. In particular, Mr. Chen and Mr. Xu have been incredibly generous not only with their time but with their thoughts. At lunch yesterday we had a long wide-ranging conversation with Mr. Chen after we’d finished eating. It was so fun just to chat in a relaxed atmosphere and get to know each other better without the hustle and bustle of touring and library visits.
We had dinner last night at the restaurant next door to the Quanzhou Library – Mr. Xu told us they think of the restaurant as the library’s cafeteria because it’s so close. But the food is way better than any cafeteria I’ve ever been to! But much more than the food, what made the evening special was the long conversation we had after the meal. We talked a lot about politics in China and the US. One would think this would be a dangerous subject to be avoided, but even though we had points of disagreement, it was so fascinating to hear a radically different perspective than what I’m used to. It’s forced me to confront my own biases and assumptions and think about things from an international perspective. And isn’t that what this exchange is really about?
But even as we have our differences, we also have plenty of common ground. Mr. Chen noted that Bob Dylan has just been awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature and then led us in a group sing-along of “Blowin’ In The Wind.”
I hope that’s something we’ll all remember for all our 160 years.
A sign at the Islamic Museum — and I think it makes a great motto for the Horner Exchange!