my travels around the world

游山玩水

I want to start writing down some of my thoughts about traveling. People keep asking me “why?” So far my best answer has been “why not?” or “because I can…” but I want to see if by the end of this here trip thing-y if I can find a different answer. I wrote something a few years ago in response to a note I got from a student. If I can find it in digital form, I may post it. Some of this also relates to the idea of Traveler v. Tourist that is one of the hallmarks of the international travel that our school does. I hope to dig into these ideas as I write.

In this post, I want to address the title at the top of this blog ” 游山玩水 “. It is a Chinese chengyu that deals with travel. I want to give some background and some of my thoughts on this phrase.

First a bit of a Chinese language and culture lesson. Chengyu are somewhat similar to English idioms or folk loric sayings that your grandmother says. Some examples in English might be “a stitch in time saves nine,” “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” or “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” But in Chinese most of these are four characters long and have some type of a story that they are referring to. Mastering chengyu is one of the major challenges of a Chinese language learning. I still get giddy when I hear someone use one and I actually can understand them. Or, even better, the very (very, very) rare moment when someone makes a comment and I can reply with a chengyu.

For me and, as anyone who has been in my class knows, etymology is key to understanding new vocabulary.
(This is a bit out of order but it should make sense later…)

you2 ~ to rove about, to travel, to wander
wan2 ~ to play, to amuse oneself
游玩 youwan is a phrase that means to go sightseeing or to amuse yourself in fun locations
shan1 ~ mountain
shui3 ~ water
山水 shanshui means scenery, the vistas of hills and rivers

One somewhat standard formation of chengyu is to create paralleled structures by dividing two two character words and distributing them. (I think that sentence is about as confusing as possible so in a more visual form: taking AA and BB and creating a phrase –> ABAB.) So if we dissect this chengyu its base words it could mean: “travel to mountains, play in streams.” But it would generally mean something more in the general idea of “traveling to enjoy taking in the view” or ” traveling around to see the sights.”

This particular chengyu comes from a Song dynasty text Jingde Chaundeng, which is a compilation of biographies of Chan (Zen) Buddhist monks written by a prominent monk Shi Daoyuan.

‘ 问:’如何是学人自己?’ 师曰:’游山玩水去。’

“Question: ‘How should a person study himself?’ The Master replied: ‘Go travel to mountains and play in the water.'”

(To my friends who can read that in the original, sorry about the translation; it has never been my strongest linguistic skill.)

When I selected 游山玩水 as a title for this blog, I knew the meaning, but was unaware of the historical context of the first references to the phrase. When I decided to write this post, I had no intentions of turning it into a mini-research project. But as I wrote about chengyu, I got to wondering if there was a story that 游山玩水 was derived from. With the miracle of google, I was able to learn quickly about the back story to the four characters on the banner of my blog. It seems that my choice was a happy piece of coincidence.

One of the main reasons that I travel, that I want to see new places and have new experiences, is to learn more about who I am. My thesis discussed the role of the outsider, the traveler, as a witness to culture. But I also believe that acting the role of the traveler one is also able to take the lens of cultural observer and turn that back upon oneself. While self-reflection is an important part life no matter where you are, you must decontextualize yourself to have the space and freedom to see who you actually are. Travel is one way to take you out of the mundane, banality of a daily routine and allow for freedom of self discovery. So the advice in the words of the unnamed master that to know oneself one should travel and see the world ring particularly true for me.

While I may not quite be ready to drop 游山玩水 into every day conversation in Chinese, I feel that I have a certain affinity for the phrase and the Buddhist Master who once used it as counsel for his student.

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