Have you ever begged in a developing country?
Hubei Province: Wu Dang mountain, the ancestral home of Taoism. Lush green forest protects this land from the prying eyes of politics, armies, and tourists. The odd temple rooftop reveals itself through the forest canopy, balanced and in harmony, testament to a grand Ming Dynasty architectural project in veneration of the God Zhen Wu. Then disappears again in a shroud of mist.
A restaurant balcony on Crow Ridge, halfway up the mountain. Granite steps and sculpted balustrades lead off into the forest to Southern Grotto temple where Prince Zhen Wu, having renounced his earthly kingdom and dedicated his life to ascetic self-cultivation, finally ascended to heaven. Later on, the fifth century and beyond saw hundreds of officials similarly resigning their posts and heading for Wu Dang, disillusioned by the intractable social and political upheavals of their day.
The wooden stools are hard, the table a little low, the one lightbulb painfully bright, the evening breeze on the verge of cold. We pull our collars a little further up and our hats a little further down. But the company is warm, and the food begins to arrive: Fried aubergine and garlic; boiled bitter melon; scrambled eggs and tomatoes; cabbage and pork; a vat of rice; and finally, the Tsingtao beers. Life is good.
After dinner a careless revelation obliges me to take out my harmonica. Cold, poor, and far from home, I hit the blues. “Ran out of money …” Others chip in: “Wife ran out too.” “I said I ran out of money …” The group warms to this impromptu if rudimentary exposition of Taoism.
After the song, friends give a round of applause.
Behind me, I hear clapping from the neighbouring table of four Chinese tourists. Nice.
I have an idea.
I take off my woolly hat, walk over, and hold it out looking expectant.
Waddyaknow, the gentleman nearest to me reaches into his pocket, takes out a ten kuai note and proudly puts it in my hat.
Astounded but nonchalant, I pass the hat to the lady next to him, and she too puts in a tenner.
Well, now I’ on a roll. I pass the hat to the lady next to him, and she too puts in a tenner. The gentleman next to her likewise.
Forty kuai! - Three performances a day and I can pay my way for travelling indefinitely!
I should keep the money. But I’m squirming inside. Before I quit my job back home I was probably earning more than the four of them put together. I try to return their donation.
They refuse. I insist. So do they.
The cycle is repeated.
In the end I offer to buy the beers if they join us.
Harmony is restored.
We have a laugh. They for their reasons, us for ours. Yin and yang. And the beer is flowing and the music is flowing and the people are flowing through the night on Wu Dang mountain.