For months now, I have been absent, but also present, like a doughnut hole or death or Barthesian meaning. My apologies. Please know that I have never stopped thinking about you.
The quip, the insult, May you live in interesting times: it is apocryphal as best I can tell, but also true. The times here are interesting now in many of the worst ways, and you have seen the events on your television screens, except when your screens were sent to black, intentionally or otherwise. The earthquake in Sichuan, foremost. And the mess in Tibet, and the mess of how it was reported in certain quarters of the West, and the mess of how the powers here responded to that reporting from their burrows in Zhongnanhai. Also, the mess of the torch, of course, and of how it was sometimes reported, and, yet again, the disproportionate response.
It has all made me by turns very angry and very sad, and sometimes both at once. To speak only of the latter two events: Chinese friends whom I know to be bright and engaged and positive people showed up to work wearing T-shirts that read “Monks, Shut Up.” And again by turns: days when I feel that I understand precisely what is going on, and days when I understand nothing at all.
My family and I, we are in our last days here—a further complication. Everything we do, it is the last time we will do it. And this itself demands thought that I would just as soon spare for other things. An indulgence, then: let me, for this moment, retreat.
The Jinling Buddhism Publishing House in the city of Nanjing is not open to the public as such, and it takes a large number of phone calls to a large number of people, each one higher placed than the previous, to get me and my camera and notepad through the door. But once I am there: wonderful. The young woman’s hands are beautiful and clean and there are no scars on her fingers, though she works with knives all day.
The publishing house was founded in 1866 by Yang Renshan, a Buddhist layman, as a place to carve, and then print, woodblock sutras. Both he and his father were Qing military officers from Anhui who came here to fight the Taipings, and when the rebels were put down Yang Renshan sheathed his sword and stayed.
He directed Jinling’s operations for 40 years, and printed over a million volumes and more than 100,000 reproductions of holy images. To accompany the presses, he established study groups and institutes, brought in famous scholars to lecture, collected some 130,000 ancient wooden plates and 18 of China’s most revered sculptures. He believed that Buddhism could help save his country.
Yang Renshan is long dead, as was the publishing house for a time. The main building was torched by the Japanese on the second day of the Massacre in 1937, was rebuilt by the puppet government six years later. And the stupa out back that housed Yang’s ashes was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution; Red Guards lodged themselves there, and burned 30,000 carved plates to stay warm before Zhou Enlai kicked them out.
Now Jinling is alive again. The grounds are lovely: carefully trimmed hedges and trees, spirit stones in their places of honor, flowering lavender bushes, acacias. There is a museum of sorts that documents Yang’s life: battles, ambassadorships, his overt and covert support of those who wished to reform the Qing government, and the means by which he saved what he could when the reform failed and the reformers were executed and the government came for him, too.
There is also a display room holding the oldest and most intricate images, and beside it is a sort of warehouse or library: row after row of shelves holding the carved texts. The shelves are painted with red lacquer and numbered with white chalk, and the room smells of cold and mildew and ink. This is the biggest such collection in the world—125,000 plates—and there is one other smell, that of fruit, as the plates are all carved out of pear wood.
In addition to the old block presses, Jinling now has modern equipment, but most of the books are still hand-printed, hand-sewn. The ink is made in a vault down below, and though I beg for the complete recipe they will only tell me the main ingredients: chimney ash, soy sauce, wheat flower. The printers apply the ink with palm-leaf whisks, and the women’s aprons are clean, but their hands are of course stained black.
In another room, the carving continues. There are no longer many people who can do this work—perhaps a few dozen in the world. It takes two weeks to carve each plate, 400 characters per side, and now we are back to the young woman and her knives. She is the seventh generation of her family to enter the trade, and learned from the master, her father.
The two of them work at separate wooden desks, one behind the other, as if in grammar school. The desks are lacquered red and very old. The daughter is wearing a long-sleeved tennis sweater, is quiet and focused. On her desk is a picture of a fat baby, perhaps her son. There’s a desk lamp, a pot of glue, a spare knife, and a plastic container holding extra blades. She looks up only once as I take pictures of her hands. She smiles and returns to her labors.
She has glued a page of text to a blank plate and peeled the paper away so as to carve in negative: from her perspective the text is upside down and backwards. The top edge of the plate rests on a piece of wood wrapped in clean beige cloth. The handle of her knife has a lengthwise gap to accommodate the blade, fixed in place by a copper ring at the hilt, and she holds the knife daggerlike deep in her right hand, with her left thumb flat against the ring to steady the blade. She also has a brush with short stiff bristles. Once or twice a minute, she whisks away the shavings.
The master’s desk is messier than the daughter’s, and fuller: many knives and half a dozen awls, the brush, the lamp, the glue, a small wooden mallet, a printed copy of the text he is carving, scraps of rice paper, and piles of shavings he has not bothered to brush away. The top edge of his plate rests on a block of wood wrapped in a dirty hand towel. He, too, holds the knife in his fist like a dagger, his left thumb likewise steadying the blade, but his left forefinger and middle finger are crossed, perhaps for stability, or out of habit, or to wish himself luck. He stops carving only once while I am there: his cell phone buzzes, and he takes it out of his pocket, answers the message he has received.
I tour the binding room next: An older woman folding the sheets by hand, then fanning out a few at a time, readjusting them with her fingertips until they are perfectly aligned. Awl-cut holes, strips of paper slipped through and tied to hold the pages in place, heavy blue cardboard covers, and a machine that trims, punches new holes. Then the hand-binding: thread strung up and back, up and back, the book now complete and the next taken up and it is time but I do not want to go, want only to return to the carving room, to sit and watch the young woman’s hands, thin and strong and clean and beautiful and simple, unscarred, but it is time, time again, time for the waiting world.