Monday, 22 July 2013

William Edgar Geil and Religion in China II

The latest part of our feature on William Edgar Geil (1865-1925) continues with his travels to China. 

William Edgar Geil, with permission of Doylestown Historical Society

The five sacred mountains of China (五嶽) were an enormously influential template that figured in Chinese politics, culture, and intellectual history - especially 'five-phase' thinking. They also have a great deal to do with Chinese religious thought, and that is what attracted Geil. Although he understood little of Chinese language and culture, he knew an important cosmological-religious template when he saw one. He was also a hardy traveller. Geil had journeyed the length of the Yangzi River (1902), followed the route of the Great Wall (1908), visited the 'eighteen capitals' of China (1910), and worked his way around a significant swath of the rest of the world before he focused upon his biggest - and final - project.

Shanghai today
But first, he took a break starting in 1912 - in the wake of the Titanic disaster, his wedding to a western Pennsylvania oil heiress, and before the outbreak of World War I. After a honeymoon, the building of a grand mansion in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and more lecturing (in which he made claims that the Great Wall can be seen from outer space and that he cured cannibalism…and discovered pigmies), Geil planned his great, final trip. In 1919 he travelled to, and ascended, the five sacred mountains of China.

Geil did not know China well, even for a traveller in the early-twentieth century. Despite that, he had a peculiarly gifted sense of how to design a project. No one before him or for ninety years after him thought to create a travelogue describing his ascent and descent of the sacred mountains. Geil is the forgotten explorer who had some of the best project ideas in the world, and almost a century before anyone else thought of them. Yet almost no one in the field of Chinese studies is aware of him today. That is one of the reasons he figures so prominently in these posts. He is a forgotten, but important, clue to understanding the Western engagement with China, and can teach us things from both his successes and failures that better-known travellers cannot.

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Mount Hua
To begin, William Edgar Geil could not have succeeded in travelling more than a few kilometers into the Chinese interior without the help of missionaries who had begun to set up their work in the wake of the Opium War(s). The most difficult mountain to reach in 1919 was Mt. Hua (華山/华山) in Shaanxi Province. Today, it is just an hour west of the terracotta soldiers, which is a magnet for almost every tourist who goes to China. Yet the western mountain still attracts relatively few visitors from beyond China. Its creamy beige rock face is the most dramatic of all of China’s sacred mountains, and Geil was struck by a peculiar concatenation of themes that he never really resolved. He was impressed powerfully by the Daoist sectarian lore on the mountain, and the tales of gods, demons, and spirits that contended in his mind for primacy-of-place in his narrative. He also never relinquished his certainty that his Christian faith was correct, despite all of the forces of Chinese cosmological and religious belief before him. In his writings, these themes come to a head in his western mountain narrative.

First, let’s consider his favourable treatment. Geil is at his ethnographic best two-thirds of the way through his book, as he considers mountain ascetics hiding from government and secularity in their rocky caves, reachable only by ropes, chains, and tiny indents in the steep rock face. Still, he cannot give way to completely positive engagement. 

Mount Hua
We can perceive Geil’s admiration-and-consternation mixed in this quotation from his book, The Sacred 5 of China: "These Mountain-men, or Shan-jen, often mentioned in the Annals, were not always genii, fairies, or even recluses. Shan-jen (Mountain-men) is a title frequently bestowed on thinkers, whether living in exclusion or not. The hermits lived, it is true, without luxury in holes of rocks, chambers naked, barren, haunted; each cave with level floor, free of sand or pebbles: sites helpful of indolence, but pleasing to the eyes and convenient of musing on the 5 elements, Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water. Some doubtlessly tried earnestly to gain access to the secrets of nature, but many could only report, day after day, a weary waste of hours…To their credit, let it be said, that some of the cloistered practiced their magic arts on themselves; often with the avowed purpose of 'ascending in full daylight.' They heard the 'original sound.' They aspired to hasten the coming of the 5-coloured Clouds, harbingers of heaven. The modern explorer of the literature of the Sacred Mountain is amazed that greater numbers were not swept by the resistless torrent of vanishing intellect into the abyss of insanity. The fashion of the idols they cast confirms the opinion that many were less than sane."

Mount Hua
There is much we can learn about Western colonial engagement in China (and beyond) by looking at Geil’s combined desire to understand…and to judge Daoism and, by extension, Chinese religiosity. Almost everything we can know about comparative religion, if we really consider the matter, lies on either end of the continua dealing with understanding and judgment. Understand/Judge. Think about it. All of our religious understanding depends on it. @sima1085

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