Hard is the Way of the World II by Li Bai
The way is broad like the blue sky,
But no way out before my eye.
I am ashamed to follow those who have no guts,
Gambling on fighting cocks and dogs for pears and nuts.
Feng would go homeward way, having no fish to eat;
Zhou did not think to bow to noblemen was meet.
General Han was mocked in the market-place;
The brilliant scholar Jia was banished in disgrace.
Have you not heard of King of Yan in days gone by,
Who venerated talents and built Terrace high
On which he offered gold to gifted men
And stooped low and swept the floor to welcome them?
Grateful, Ju Xin and Yue Yi came then
And served him heart and soul, both full of stratagem.
The King’s bones were now buried,
who would sweep the floor of the Gold Terrace any more?
Hard is the way.
Go back without delay!
If you are unfamiliar with classical Chinese poetry, these wonderful verses from Li Bai, written during the Tang dynasty are a real treat. I’m sure that much of the beauty, shape and meaning is lost to an American reading his works in English, but his work is so powerful that its essence shines through both the veil of language and the ignorance of Chinese history.
Were Li Bai to have lived in our era, I fear that he might have had to point to the fact that not only is there no one willing to sweep the floor of the Gold Terrace anymore, but the Terrace itself has fallen into disrepair. Architecture has long given evidence of the central values and finest aspirations of a civilization, and the majestic buildings in the Tang capital of Changan (today’s Xian) were no exception.
What about our era? One international competition points to a shared concern to reach into the heavens, architecturally-speaking. The United Arab Emirates most recently made a name for itself after completing the 2,716.5 foot tall skyscraper named Burj Khalifa, but several other countries are planning or have started buildings with the intention of topping the most recent record.
Whether the current race to the top is motivated by simple, competitive concerns or driven by a deeper subconscious compulsion to reconnect heaven and earth is hard to tell, but in either case it is clear to me that humility and sanctity are no longer core principles of building design. This architectural trend is, I believe, symbolic of a larger shift in human consciousness, one that does not bode well for our future happiness and fulfillment as a species.
The Gold Terrace could just as easily represent a space in consciousness as it does a physical place, a creative field in which and through which the highest and finest essences of living could be cultivated. If we get to the point where the only place that such concerns can be found is in the history books, we must – individually and collectively – “go back without delay!” This does not mean that we try to recreate what was, pouring the proverbial new wine into old bottles; rather, it implies that we reconnect with the spirit of the former times when the relationship between cause and effect, spirit and form, heaven and earth, etc. were arguably better understood.
“Do you wish to be great? Then begin by being. Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.” – Saint Augustine