Three Centuries After Milescu

The parallel journals of two travelers, separated by more than three centuries, who crossed Asia from the west to the east, following the same route to the capital of China, offers us a human measure of the passage of time. Double photographs of the same places, even the same angles. The two of them, obviously unequal in value, being in a sort of epigonic relationship, have common affinities and behaviours, as if there were a strong bond between them, which wouldn't be quite impossible, taking into consideration their lineage as being at least in part Macedonian. The Druzes were certain that there were similarities between people living in completely different places and ages, and also between metaphysical identities. They also believed that emphatic relationships and even a special kind of communication could be established between a human and a tree for example. Once I was trying to get to a monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary, in a very dry area in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, when I met Druzes coming from a village where Aramaic is still spoken, also glad of our meeting, so we decided to walk together on our long journey. Haven't you ever seen a tree, which drew you mysteriously close, so as to hug it? This question of his, that remained unanswered at that moment, stuck to my mind. Macedonians are far from these beliefs which betray the sensitivity of desert people. Belonging to a small people and rather pure in their history, most of them prefer to sustain, somewhere deep down inside their ancestral collective memory, the belief that in their veins flows at least a drop of Alexander the Great's blood; or even the blood of legendary heroes… Anyway, traveling means dreaming. So let's open this gate of dreams.10th of SeptemberPeking awaits us covered by purple clouds. It's raining heavily. This surprised me. I gave a jacket to someone in Urumqi, happy to ease my luggage in this way. Though, it's not at all cold and this rain in a strange manner is not wet. The Chinese are going undisturbed on their bicycles, protected by large capes unfolding over the handlebars and over the luggage rack. Extraordinary capes! I'm thinking of buying at least one myself. After four hours of flying being tired is unavoidable, and I fully enjoy the comfort of the "Friendship hotel." I take a little walk around in the evening, then I watch the English TV program, which I'm sure going to miss once I go back home. I see images of Bangladesh where there are terrible floods this time of year. Some areas in China are also affected. Red tiled roofs, filmed from the helicopter, seem to be floating on the yellowish waters. Hundreds of drowned animals. Hundred of thousands of people evacuated and of course human victims. Damages of one billion yuan for China. Afterwards there is a discussion of a much-debated issue, the necessity of an education reform. The most important aspects of this reform are concerned with the removal of egalitarianism, the faster promotion of good teachers, a greater independence of higher education institutions and even normal schools, encouraging local initiatives, more active participation of students in choosing and promoting teachers. The system of keeping university teachers in their posts until retiring age was very much criticized. They proposed organizing regular contests to occupy these posts. They discussed the issue of disproportional small wages of teachers, on television as well as in the written press, because many of them leave their teaching jobs for better paid sectors of activity. The teachers' houses, say the newspapers, are extremely poor. There are areas where a teacher or a professor owns only 3.5 square meters of living space. In the overcrowded neighbourhoods of Shanghai, a person has only 2m2! The housing problem has always been a really serious matter in China. At present, the state has initiated a campaign of massive house sales to the population, they grant advantageous credits for house construction and they also established a vast program for building houses. The architectural style of these new blocks of flats, which one can see everywhere, is very modern and elegant. You can notice an exquisite sense of proportion, of framing in the landscape, of organizing architectural space, of the play on size visible from great distances, of variation, of conserving the perspective. In this country troubled rather often by earthquakes, buildings have a special regime. They prefer very tall buildings, about 30 stories high. Small blocks aren't too appreciated. They take up too much space without offering better conditions than those existent in the taller buildings. You can see from place to place covered parking lots that hold hundreds and maybe thousands of bicycles.Extremely long negotiations were conducted between Milescu and the high Chinese officials, downright tiresome, regarding the protocol of the meeting. During all this period of time, Milescu wasn't allowed to leave the place, he was living in. After three months of discussions, which had almost extinguished the patience of both parts, the last details were eventually settled. Askaniama especially draws his attention "that bowing his uncovered head, would be an extreme sign of rudeness. God forbid that you should bow in front of the bagdikhan without wearing something on your head…" I try to imagine according to the sword-bearer's description the way in which he traveled across town on the 15th of June 1676, when Milescu was taken from his quarters to the khan. "Through town, all the way we rode horseback and in palanquins with iron lanterns covered with paper, on which the rank of everybody was written in Chinese letters." Getting "to the pillar where they stopped the horses and the palanquins, where the name of the khan was written," they dismounted and then "they passed through three gates and three walls," after that they were taken to the left through other gates.After more than three centuries, my footsteps, lost in the bustle of the colourful, curious crowd, make these ancient steps more lustrous and worn out at the same time, after the voyage of the Moldavian boyar three centuries ago, but what richness unfolded before his eyes back then!The travel journal, just like a magical wand, takes us over seas and over foreign countries but also back in time. We are in the Manchurian Imperial Court, in the Forbidden City, in the middle of June 1676, and unseen we assist at the reception of the messenger coming from faraway lands. Crossing another threshold of another gate, he enters a garden where he surprisingly sees "more than 50 very big elephants… On three elephants on the right there were golden palanquins in which there were sited four or six warriors… Around them there were many servants in bright red clothes, wearing tall, yellow feather hats on their heads. There were four large, round, golden triumphal chariots on both sides. Those chariots were carried by 60 men when the khan was inside them, but sometimes elephants are put to harness, elephants with big bridles…The chariots are sometimes pulled by six white horses…In the same garden, before seeing the elephants, he noticed 30 drums on both sides, resembling eardrums… And walking beside them he passed through the fourth gate on the left side, which were shut immediately after we had passed. Chinese Mandarins went to the right because the middle gates are always locked and they're opened only when the khan goes away…"Milescu is now in a marble paved garden, crossed by a river with "marble bridges and railings also carved in marble."He walks near a large pavilion with many guards, goes through another line of gates (Milescu goes through the left one again) and they reach a plaza "where the khan is sitting when he expects guests." The Cossacks had to stop at the fourth gate.Compared to other messengers, Milescu is granted a unexpected honour. Askaniama and alihamba (names designating ranks in the hierarchy of Chinese officials,) tell Milescu that "the bagdikhan himself, wants to invite him to his throne," at the back of the palace where he was living, and that no one before had the honour of being face to face with the khan, because he never allowed to be seen. Milescu is being taken by the Kolai, who had the rank of alihamba, near the throne where the khan was sitting. Around the throne and also all over the place there were about three hundred military captains, wearing peacock feathers and to the right of the khan the Kolai were awaiting. A Kolai and two Jesuits, who translate, mediate the discussion with the khan. The khan whispers to them and then the three of them go near the messenger telling him to kneel and then whisper to him the khan's words. The discussion consisted only of a few punctilious sentences that no one except the khan, the messenger and the three mediators, could hear. "The great master of the Chinese Empire, the Khan, wants to know if his majesty the emperor of all Russians, the Tsar, is healthy." The messenger answers with a long and flowery sentence: "Thank God, his majesty the Tsar and great Knez Alexei Mihailovici, the emperor of all Russia, big, small and white, was in a good state of health when I left his great kingdom," etc., etc.Milescu hasn't forgotten to note that "to the left side of the Khan there was a chandelier with a special bowl where different flavours were burnt during dinner, then they poured wine in golden glasses with a long silver spoon and when the first glass was full the servants gave it to the Khan, who ordered that this first glass to be given to the messenger, and he received it in its left hand and bowed to the ground and then he drank."We can assume that Milescu was a connoisseur of European wines, because he said that the wine offered to him by the Khan, "was similar in taste to the best wine on the Rhine." After they drank wine, the "Chinese Mandarins were brought tea in wooden cups." This apparently ended Milescu's meeting with the Khan (unfortunately, there is a missing fragment in the original text written by Milescu the Sword-bearer).Saturday, 10th of SeptemberThe Lamaistic Temple Yong He Gong in Peking is served and maintained by the yellow monks. There are five types of Lama-Buddhist monks, who distinguish from one another in exterior features such as clothing, rather than theological particularities. Besides yellow monks who are the most numerous, there are also black monks, red monks, white monks and another colour, which I haven't, been able to translate. The Lamaist temple couldn't be visited during the Cultural Revolution; thick, tall walls isolated this little island of ancient spirituality. Even temples seem to have responded to this new "open-doors" policy. The temple entrance is through a tall, crenellated, yellow-roofed Chinese gate, with painted tiles and various figurines. Between the reflected eave and the red pillars there is a wide belt beautifully painted, the dominant colours being blue and gold. The gate prepares you in a way, introduces you in the atmosphere of the place and in a certain time, but only after you have walked over its threshold and you face the first monuments, do you feel you have really entered into a different world.A special psychical state, a sort of disarming attitude which may lead even to a loss of identity is caused by the bright colours, dominated by gold, red, green and blue, and the richness of paintings, statues, the complicated drawings with floral and geometrical patterns in which the curved, twisted line is predominant, and even the architectural style. Any church from our part of the world and any Asian temple communicate a mystic message and the details, their specificity, have decorative and symbolic value, and also some connections in the psychology of those specific people. For Orientals there is a sort of magical attraction for bright colours and complicated design patterns, dominated by curved lines. We can't find anything of the clear geometry of the Greek or Roman classicism. It's only natural that this plastic art to distinguish the temple from the common, everyday world. The man who has entered in this place of prayer has to be told in one way or another that this is a world of metaphysical ideas. All this spectacle of shapes and colours, which is really remarkable and even tiring for us, is disarming but not deliberately with the purpose of attracting and spiritually possessing the believers. In my opinion I believe that the symbolism of a gesture of a statue is more important than the fact that the statue is polished in gold. Anyway, visiting a Lamaist temple causes, besides aesthetic rapture, a sort of spiritual transposition induced by the ineffability of the harmony of shapes and colours. The inclination towards colour is illustrated also by the fact that any surface is covered entirely with these colours, from the crenellated ceiling to the paintings on the walls, while the monochrome pillars seem to accentuate their height. With all the fascination of the exterior decorated with curved roofs, pillars, exterior galleries, superposed eaves, colourful cornices, the emotion is even greater when entering the inside of these temples. These interiors have a certain succession. After the first two gates you reach the Pavilion of the Imperial Tables that holds a massive stone block engraved with Tibetan, Manchurian and Chinese letters. Afterwards you go through several pavilions: Tian Wang Dian (or the Sky Kingdom), Yonghe Gong Da Dian (the room of the Palace, Peace and Harmony), the room of Eternal Blessing, the Pavilion of Scrolls of Laws, the Pavilion of Undisturbed Happiness. On the sides of these central constructions, on the sides of the garden, facing the interior, there are a number of rooms, which you can barely leave once you entered them. These are the eastern and western rooms, full of Buddhist statues, the room dedicated to studying Buddhist scriptures, the math room and the medicine room. Expect the gigantic statue of Buddha Maitreya; the temple also contains a series of priceless cultural relics, among which the Mountain of the 500 Disciples (monks) of Buddha, made out of gold, silver, bronze and hard wood (the so-called ironwood). The monks' statues are distributed on the paths, in the caves and temples of this miniature mountain, circling Buddha's statue.Finally, after the insistences of the distinguished professor M.M., who came with me on this trip, we were offered the opportunity to talk to a Lama monk. Otherwise during the visiting hours, these monks stay isolated, except for a few very old monks who watch over the temple and talk to no one. Our interlocutor is a young monk about 25 years old. His head was shaven, but he didn't wear a frock, his clothes were similar to the other Chinese: white shirt with short sleeves, dark-blue pants and sandals. He speaks English quite well. He tells us that this monastery belongs to the Buddhist Institute and it's the main place where they study the Buddhist scriptures, foreign languages, math, astronomy and medicine. They were studying a traditional kind of medicine, transmitted by these monks from generation to generation. No, they don't practice Qi Gong, he tells me, but something completely different, still time is too short for more detailed explanations. At present there are 100 Buddhist theology students in Peking. Monasticism presupposes besides belief in the Buddhist teachings, the change of the laic name with a Buddhist one. At the end of our talk we received a Tibetan blessing that he wrote in a beautiful calligraphy on the cover of the booklet we had bought at the entrance. 11th of SeptemberThe Temple of the Sky (Tian Tan)We're going to the south of Peking, crossing large boulevards where cars drive very fast. Big modern buildings and a lot of green spaces. A splendid Chinese gate, very colourful, up to which cars are allowed, announces the temple. The temple is situated in a vast park of 273 hectares untouched by modern construction fever. The temple was built about 600 years ago during the reign of Emperor Yong Le. The Manchurian dynasty Ming (the end of the 15th century-the middle of the 17th century) represented an age of great cultural development. As an example we have the Chinese encyclopaedia, the work of two thousand erudite consisting of 11.095 volumes.We walk under a "gate," more of a palace actually, a wooden construction with all the characteristics of traditional Chinese architecture, then we can see the Temple of the Sky in all its splendour, forcing us to stop at least for a moment to admire it. The next gesture is obviously taping these images on videocassette. The plans of this architectural ensemble reflect the philosophical conception of the age. The lining of the buildings along the north-south axis was a fundamental rule. Looking at the plan of the park we can see that its southern part is square, while the northern one has the shape of a quasi-circle, as a symbol of the relationship of earth and sky. The ancient Chinese believed the earth was square, as regarding the sky, just like all the other people they were deceived by the optical illusion of the sky. We found a lot of symbolic elements in the Temple's structure. We are lucky it's a sunny day. The circular construction of the temple is very impressive due to the harmony of its proportions, the beauty of the details and the magnificence of its shiny, dark-blue roof, on top of which stands a golden sphere. Gold was the imperial colour, a sign that the temple was dedicated to the Emperor. The temple stands above a large three-layered, stone terrace, also circular, being sustained by a white marble railing. Inside, four massive columns, the pillars of the dragon, each of them representing a certain season, support the heavy superior structures. Around them there are two circles, formed from 12 smaller columns. The interior ring symbolises the months of the year and the exterior one the twelve divisions of the day, according to the old Chinese system of dividing the day into 12 units of two hours each. The columns and all the wooden panels visible on the interior are painted until they reach the dizzy height of the ceiling. Looking from the outside the temple appears structured on three layers, separated one from the other with large eaves, and painted the same colour as the roof. On the inside the space is unique and your eye is caught by the verticality of the tall pillars and the cupola. In front of the Temple of the Sky, to the south, there is a large circular space whose two metres wall has an amazing acoustics, that is: everything whispered near this wall can be heard clearly along it, that's why it's called "the wall of the echo." Down to the south you can see the circular Altar of the Moon, a tall stone terrace surrounded by two walls: the interior wall is round and the exterior one is circular. A geometry of numbers is enciphered in the structure of these walls. The celestial number 9 is connected to the power of the Sun. The terrace has nine stone rings, each ring containing 9 steps or multiple of nine. Thus, the interior ring has 9 steps, the next one has 18 steps, the third 27 steps, the fourth 36 steps and so on until the ninth ring. Circular steps which lead to the platform of the moon altar repeat the same game, thus the base ring has 243 steps, that is 27 x 9. The altar was built in such a manner that it suggests the nearness of the sky, raising above the ground. In the centre of it there is a big stone, another acoustic "wonder" of these construction, resonating the sound of the voice making it more powerful. The voice of the one who speaks above it is heard louder than the voice of the rest. I'm thinking that this would be a good place to deliver speeches, but I can't give it a try because a group of respectable British tourists invades the moon altar and I'm sure they don't feel the same curiosity as I.Who were those acoustic specialists, who understood and placed here these really strange stones? Let's remember that this altar was built in 1530. Regardless of all the earthquakes and the centuries that passed, these stones are still in one piece, without a crack and in the same position as they were in 1530.In the pavilions nearby there are tables with gold inscriptions through which the Emperor gave thanks to the sky for the correct decisions taken as a result of his prayers, also for the good crops. Maybe he thanked god for the wonderful people he ruled over.1995

by Corneliu Zeană