Poem by Li Bai (“Drinking Alone Under the Moon”)

Chinese poet Li Bai from the Tang dynasty, in ...

Chinese poet Li Bai from the Tang dynasty, in a 13th century depiction by Liang Kai. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Li Bai (b.701 – d.762) is one of the most famous poets in Chinese history.  He was a contemporary of Du Fu (b.712–d.770) during the Tang Dynasty and the Golden Age of Chinese Poetry.  He wandered from place to place for most of his life, drinking and writing.  Leading the life of a wanderer, a recluse and as a free spirit, Li Bai, in many ways, embodies Taoist philosophies.  His poetry, seemingly simple and effortless, is vivid, spontaneous, full of imagination and exhibits a childlike playfulness. (Du Fu, more of a realist, is regarded as China’s greatest historical poet. In my mind the two can be compared in some ways to Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman in their different styles.)

Below is of one of Li Bai’s most famous poems (please excuse my translation).  This poem illustrates Li Bai’s ability to seize the moment and transcend the world with nature.  

With a pot of wine amidst the flowers,
I drink without human company.
I raise my cup to the bright moon.
The moon, I and my shadow make three.
The moon does not share in drink.
My shadow only trails and follows.
Fleeting companions, the moon and my shadow.
Still, let us rejoice before the end of Spring.
The moon sways with my singing.
My shadow lurches as I dance.
While sober, we cheerfully celebrate.
After getting drunk, we part ways.
Our union beyond this earthly realm,
May we meet again, I and these two,
beneath the Milky Way stars.

Although he was a technical master of many classical forms of Chinese verse, Li Bai took great liberties and broke tradition often with these forms, a further illustration of his free spirit. As he wandered from place to place, he would meet and drink with other poets.  It was common during that time for poets to gather and celebrate their company and poetry with drink.  The poems, as they were composed, were often sung (sometimes while tapping the side of a table or boat or tapping chopsticks along with the rhymes, which older generations of Chinese still practice.)  Many young children in China can recite his poems.

The Shangyangtai, the only surviving example o...

The Shangyangtai, the only surviving example of Li Bai’s calligraphy, now housed at the Palace Museum in Beijing, China http://www.flashpointmag.com/libai10.htm . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Li Bai’s legend grew during his lifetime and continued to grow after his death.  Du Fu, who met Li Bai, wrote Li Bai on several occasions, and it was clear that Du Fu regarded him with great admiration and respect.  (Li Bai appears to have written Du Fu once.)  And in a fitting end, legend has it that Li Bai died from drowning because, happily drunk, he tried to embrace the moon’s reflection in the water while sitting in a boat.  To this day, during the Mid-Autumn Festival when families have dinner, eat moon cakes, drink wine, and watch the moon, people think of and celebrate this poem by Li Bai and his life.

I came across this wonderful post about the artist, Ai WeiWei.



other than food and visiting the fam, the major purpose of our trip back to VA this past weekend was to check out ai weiwei’s exhibit at Hirshhorn Museum.

ai weiwei is a chinese artist, poet, architect, curator, publisher, urbanist, collector, blogger, and political activist.





these names are the names of children died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. ai weiwei investigated government corruption such as the sichuan schools corruption scandals. all these schools collapsed during the earthquake because these buildings were poorly constructed.


rusted steel rebar taken from the collapsed schools of sichuan



he co-designed the bird’s nest Beijing National Stadium


Grapes, constructed out of Qing dynasty wooden stools. the feet pointed outwards to protect a circle of power with build-in defenses.






on the background, ai weiwei destroys a 2000-year old jar. these colored vases is a garish repainting of ancient ceramic shapes in modern neon.



these are river…

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A True Story – How My Mother Became Interested in My Father

When my mother was in college in Taiwan, one day she looked at the chalkboard and asked her friend, “Who’s writing is that?”  You see, Chinese characters tell a lot about a person.  It’s a bit like drawing, and it can reveal many things about you – whether you’re playful, imaginative, disciplined, strong in different ways…  It turns out that the person who wrote the characters on the chalkboard was the T.A. in her class, my father.  And this is how my mother first became interested in my father – because of his handwriting.  

My mother and father came from very different worlds.  She was a social butterfly.  She had many suitors from China and Taiwan and from different places around the world.  They called her the “Black Rose” because she didn’t have the white, porcelain skin of classical beauty and because when a man tried to woo her, they would most likely be hurt.  She never lacked any confidence, and I think this is what made her truly beautiful.  She was a very kind, honest, generous, fun-loving spirit, but also immensely gracious.  When I was young, I was very shy around boys.  She told me, “Why should you be afraid or embarrassed?  When a boy looks at you, you should think or pretend they are nothing to you.”  But she advised that if I truly liked a boy, I should keep myself at a distance.  She said, “If you show your interest too soon, the boy will not like you so much.  But if you keep your distance, he will grow fonder.”  

At any rate, my mother, who had so many men courting her, eventually fell in love with my father.  Her mother objected because my father was poor.  He could hardly afford to eat and ate many bananas, which were cheap.  He had passed the rigorous exam to enter Taiwan University, but he could not afford the tuition.  Because he could not afford books, he studied what he could from books in the bookstores.  He tutored a young girl, took the exam again and passed, and her father eventually offered to pay for part of his tuition, and this is how my father came to be a student at Taiwan University.  

My father never told me these stories.  He is rather silent about his life, and much of what I learned about him came from my mother.  For seven years, my mother could not marry my father because her mother objected, but eventually she got the blessing of her father.  During this period, her mother passed away at the early age of 44 from stomach cancer.  After they married, my mother had a much harder time of things.  She didn’t even know how to boil water when they were married.  And the first dinner she made for his friends was a disaster.  She put a chicken in a pot and just let it cook and cook, and by the time his friends arrived, it had been in the pot so long that the chicken disintegrated so that they basically ate soup (with the bones).  

My mother was an amazing woman.  By the time I was a child, she was in America, sewing our clothes (she was also very talented in knitting), cooking delicious meals every day, taking care of the bills, taking care of the children, working here and there as a data processor or in the local library.  She wallpapered our entire dining room and one of our bathrooms beautifully.  I don’t know how she did this by herself or where she learned how to do it.  After coming to America, she had few possessions.  My first baby crib was apparently a cardboard box, and my parents truly struggled to make ends meet.  But my mother loved my father immensely.  The only person she loved more than my father was God. (She went to Catholic school in China.)  Her English was never as good as my father’s, not nearly, and she struggled with this all her life.  

They had few possessions, but there was one thing she kept in a bank vault.  These were the letters (aerograms) that my father wrote her every day after he came to the U.S. to study for his PhD.   It was not easy at that time for Chinese people to come to the U.S., and so my mother and father were separated for more than three years.  But every day, he wrote her a letter.  And my older sister who was only a baby at the time in Taiwan would jump with joy every time they got a letter from my father and say, “Papa’s letter!”  These letters were the most precious things to my mother, enough that she would keep them in a bank vault, and my sister and I now have them but, unfortunately, with our limited Chinese, we have a hard time reading and understanding them (especially because many of the characters are written in cursive letters).  

When I noticed later that my mother’s handwriting was quite similar to my father’s, my father did tell me something.  My mother practiced my father’s handwriting.

Long Shan Temple 龍山寺 (Taipei, Taiwan)


In February of 2011, I visited Long Shan Temple in Taipei. It was built in 1738 by settlers from Fujian, China and is Taipei’s oldest temple.  As with many other temples in Taiwan, you can come here to worship Buddhist and Taoist figures, as well as various folk gods.  There are more than 165 gods or figures enshrined inside.  (In Chinese culture in general, there is no conflict with worshipping multiple gods and revered figures at once.)  Although it is the oldest temple in Taipei, when I visited, the temple also combined a slightly modern aesthetic with lighted sculptures or lamps to greet both visitors and tourists.  It has survived earthquakes, bombings and many fires throughout its history, raising its stature as a a historical site and place of worship.

When you enter, you are immediately greeted with the smell of incense, curling everywhere around you.  Even though there are many people and tourists, a sense of serenity pervades.  Typically, you take several strands of incense and bow a few times with the incense sticks in both hands as you wish for the well-being of yourself and others.  You can do this as many times as you wish.  There are beautiful, large iron pots where you can place the incense sticks after your tribute or prayer.   The temple also has many Chinese poems, carved into wood.  People kneel and pray or read from various texts and scriptures.  A multitude of flowers and offerings to gods and ancestors sit atop tables and are placed in the courtyards, a feast for the eyes and the senses.  Lit candles add to the aura.  The sound of uniform chanting of Buddhist scriptures coming from the inner temple resonates throughout, imbuing a sense of calm and wonderment.

There are three gates or entrances and courtyards, the inner ones lying within the outer, all ornately decorated.  The outer courtyard is the largest and has a waterfall, trees, tables and the sculpted lamps when I was there.  The second courtyard is where most people pray, either standing up or kneeling, bow with incense, read texts and make offerings.  The inner courtyard is the smallest and houses the heart of the temple, with carved ceilings painted in gold and with the main fixture being a statue of Guan Yin Buddha or the Goddess of Mercy.  This is the inner sanctum where people kneel and chant Buddhist scriptures, often dressed in dark robes. 

I cannot fully describe the magic of this place, except in part with the pictures I took.  If you go to Taipei, please take the time to visit.  All are welcome, and admission is free.  (The incense is also free, but you can feel free to buy incense there or make a donation.)

Albert Einstein, the Taoist

Albert Einstein lived at a time when technology, especially with regards to warfare, made advances with increasingly far-reaching implications.  He said, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”  He was not the only scientist who grappled with the questions of space, time and the rapid growth of technology and how humans would cope with these advances.  John von Neumann, a brilliant mathematician and physicist, as well as a colleague of Einstein’s who contributed to the development of the atomic bomb, wrote a remarkable essay in which he tries to assess the course of humanity in the face of rapidly expanding technology. In this essay, written more than 50 years ago, von Neumann also foresees the impact of global warming on our political and social systems. (You can read his essay here.)  Von Neumann, however, does not delve into human nature as a potential answer as to how we can continue to exist with the expanding scope and threat of technology to our social and political systems.

Einstein, as a scientist and observer, tried to answer this question of how we can survive technology and preserve humanity by essentially regarding all things as being interrelated.  In short, he believed that as human beings, we and everything around us are integrated, governed by the same laws, while acknowledging that science may only be a measure in part of what we observe., i.e. what is measurable in scientific terms encompasses only part of the universe.  The nature of being human to him was best if we could come to recognize that integration of self with the universe is key to both individual happiness and greater peace in the world.  To him, science fell short in being able to explain certain truths, such as our wonderment of beauty and our mind’s ability to see beyond certain measurable realities.  Unlike Descartes, who famously said, “I think; therefore, I am,” Einstein did not endeavor to separate mind and body or existence into distinct parts in order to try to prove the existence of God.  To Einstein, to be natural, happy, and peaceful meant recognizing and surrendering ourselves to a greater whole, thereby de-emphasizing the ego and the importance of self, being able to achieve harmony with ourselves and with perceived external realities.  Creativity, imagination and a childlike state of curiosity to him are more important than knowledge and essential to our path to preserving happiness and humanity.

A human being is part of the whole called by us universe … We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.  – Albert Einstein

In Taoism and Buddhism alike (which share an intertwined history in China), as well as in many other religions and philosophies of the world, there is a strong recognition of the self being part of a greater whole.  One of the aims is to be free from the self and be less slave to our emotions.  In this sense, it is quite antithetical to the Western idea of self, passion or ego, where we assign great importance to achievement by the individual (and, on the other side of the coin, assign great blame to individuals for their failures).  In the Western tradition, we separate ourselves from others, from ourselves and from the world in many ways.  This can lead us to believe that we are “better” than others and give us a sense of pride and security when we are doing well or lead to a sense of separation and isolation when we are not doing well.  

The separation of self can lead us to feel less responsible for the things and people around us and to assign responsibility for both hardship and wellness in our lives to others or to a higher power than ourselves.  You may be surprised, however, to learn that Taoism, Buddhism and other similar philosophies do not foremost advocate that we should feel responsible for others.  Rather, the basic philosophy in Taosim and Buddhism is to attain freedom from worldly attachment and the self.  Recognizing and accepting that suffering and death is part of existence and all worldly things as fleeting allows one to find peace, harmony and compassion.  In Taoism, there is also an emphasis on not struggling with what is natural and, in a sense, reverting to the simplicity of being a child.  If we do what is natural, harmony and compassion will follow.  Taoism and Buddhism also do not advocate that we should not try our best.  The focus is on the act of doing and of being in the present moment.  This, in itself, should give us a sense of fulfillment, and the results, success or failure, are, in a sense, irrelevant and left to “fate.”  Put in another way, if we expect success (and, inevitably, we cannot always be successful), we will often be disappointed and unhappy.

I love many other quotes by Albert Einstein.  I have listed some here and think they express a coherent (and, in many ways, Toaist) view of Einstein’s belief in humanity:

It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.

He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice.

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the the universe.

Reality is merely an illusion, although a very persistent one.

The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.

Until this moment, I never understood how hard it was to lose something you never had.

I sometimes ask myself how it came about that I was the one to develop the theory of relativity. The reason, I think, is that a normal adult never stops to think about problems of space and time. These are things which he has thought about as a child.

I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.

Many times a day I realize how much my own life is built upon the labors of my fellowmen, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.

Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment. Full effort is full victory.

Tale of a Fisherman (“The Lottery Ticket”)

My father told me a story when I was little about an old man who had a hard life.


There was an old man who lived in a hut by the sea.  He was very poor.  One of his few possessions was a fishing rod, which he used to fish for food.

The old man walked to town every morning, hauling heavy baskets of grain over his shoulder to sell in the market.  The only luxury the old man could afford was to buy a lottery ticket every week.

One day, the old man checked the board in the public square.  He looked in disbelief because he realized that he had the winning numbers.

He got so excited that he dropped his grain and ran all the way home. He was jumping and kicking his legs together…  And then he took his fishing rod and threw it out to sea because he didn’t need it anymore.  

He kept his lottery ticket in the fishing rod.

My dad was slapping his knee in a fit of laughter.  

This story actually made me feel very sad and almost made me want to cry.  

I asked him, “Why is this funny?”  

My father said, “Because… because it’s irony!”  

Later, I realized why my dad thought this story was funny.  He had had a hard life, too.  He had seen war.  His younger brothers were tortured and put into re-education camps. His mother passed away soon after he left his hometown as a teenager to look for a safe place for them to stay.  His brothers were turned into peasants, smoked several packs of cigarettes a day, were skinny and looked old.  My father was much luckier and eventually came to America and became a history professor.

I think my father found humor in tragedy because he saw that life can be unpredictable.  No matter how much you may wish for something or strive for good things or how hard you may work, sometimes unexpected and even bad things happen.  He liked to say to me, “Don’t expect success.  When you do something, it should be without regard to success or failure.”  I suppose the story was also a lesson on being overcome by one’s emotions.

To be honest, to this day, I don’t find this story to be very funny, but I still love it.

Shòu 寿 (Longevity)

寿 [shòu], has been written in many different ways through thousands of years.  Below, you can see 5 bats surrounding the character for longevity, a powerful motif.   

Chinese bats coin

Old Chinese coin with 5 bats surrounding the character for longevity

The 5 bats represent the five  or the Five Blessings in the ancient Book of History which are:  longevity, wealth, health and peace, love of virtue (or doing good), and a natural death in old age.  

The character for longevity is highly valued and revered.  It represents efficient use of energy and conservation of energy, a key concept in Taoism.  This concept of 寿 or longevity is very important in Chinese culture.  It means, for example, that one does not fight unless necessary.  Or one does not force oneself to do things that are unnatural.  If we expend or use energy unnecessarily, our bodies age faster and our lives become short.  To be blessed with a long life therefore implies that one is able to accept what happens in life and find peace or “to go with the flow.”

Bats are representative of longevity in Chinese art and culture.  Like most animals, they are good at conserving energy and tend to live long lives for animals of their size. Bats also symbolize happiness and prosperity because the word 蝠 [fú] sounds identical to 福 [fú], which means fortune, prosperity, and happiness.

By the way, I found this interesting information about bats on Animal Planet recently, which I think is illustrative of the concept of longevity, as well as the practice of meditation:

Bats that live in cooler climates hibernate through the winter. Their heartbeat slows. Their rate of breathing lowers so much that it can seem as if they have stopped breathing. Their bodies cool to match the temperature of their shelter. They spend the winter in a deep sleep. Hibernation helps bats survive until the weather is milder and food is more plentiful.

Sometimes a bat must wake from hibernation to move from a disturbed roost or to drink water. Waking can cause a bat to use up the energy it had stored as fat for the winter. A bat that is awakened several times might not survive the winter.

So to have a long life, we can observe nature and learn how animals and plants survive.  In nature, animals and plants generally do not fight or use energy unless necessary.  When they use energy, they use it efficiently.  (This understanding also underlies almost all practice of martial arts.)  Mentally, it is also important not to fight with ourselves.  I heard this saying once:  Buddha said, “If you lay down your sword, you become a buddha.”