Journey’s in Asia One........

A friend recently  gave me a book titled “My Journey in Mystic China, Old Pu’s Travel Diary”, written by John Blofeld and translated by Daniel Reid (I’ll explain the “translated by” part in a moment).

This is the autobiography of a man who spent most of entire adult life living in China, and for political reasons, from 1949 until his death in 1986, Thailand, while studying  Buddhism, Chinese culture and Confucianism.

John Blofeld left England in 1932 on a ship bound for Shanghai. Due to illness he only got as far as Hong Kong. He was only nineteen and he had not yet even completed his second year at Cambridge. Out of money and needing a job he took a position as a teacher at a prominent bi-lingual school and lived in Hong Kong for several years.

Wanting to know everything he could about Chinese culture he traveled frequent  to various cities in Southern China. This afforded him the opportunity to meet many Chinese people and Blofeld found himself welcomed as a “guest from afar” by many of the people that he was so fortunate to encounter.

As a boy Blofeld had two profound experiences that would shape the man that he would become.

The first experience occurred during a group reading at the boarding school that he attended. The principle had selected a book about  an English couple who lived in China. According to Blofeld’s narrative, the author describes the British characters as “flawless people of impeccable character and proper behavior” but  describes the Chinese characters as “absolute villains without any virtues at all”.

Blofeld goes on to explain that at that young age he had “no way of knowing whether the average Chinese was good or bad” but that “Nevertheless, I clearly felt that I had some sort of predestined relationship with China, and therefore I could not help feeling  contempt for the author of that book for writing such an absurdly malevolent description of that foreign land”.

The second event that was to shape his life’s quest happened when he was also just a youngster. During a summer vacation he was taken by his favorite aunt  “for a visit to the seashore”. Passing a curio shop he spotted a small figurine of the Buddha.  He tells us that he ”had never seen an image of the Buddha before, nor had I ever heard anything said about the Buddha, and yet, for reasons that I could not explain, the very moment I saw that stature of the Buddha, I felt a love for it arise from the depth of my heart, and I knew with absolute certainty that I must take it back home with me”.

I do not mean to draw any comparison between Blofeld and myself. John Blofeld was drawn to Asia by a spiritual calling, I found myself in Asia for much more mundane reasons, the pursuit of monetary, not spiritual wealth!

At the age of 24 I accepted an assignment that took me to Seoul, Korea. My job was to inspect garments for quality and specification requirements prior to their shipment to the buyer in the United States. I started my own business and lived in Seoul for several years.

I had never traveled much before and I was ripe with the anticipation of what a new adventure might bring. I had no idea what to expect and as a matter of fact prior to my departure from America I had to consult a map to even find out where Korea was!

I arrived in Seoul on a typically gorgeous autumn day in early October. I had lived most of my life in Southern California where the changing of the seasons goes by mostly unnoticed. I found Autumn a wonderful experience in itself and I immediately felt so content and happy to be there.

I was met at the airport by one Mr. Youn, a very personable man a few years older than myself. “Younsan” and I quickly became good friends and he and I would go on to have great business success together.

But something else happened within me. After being there for a very short time I found myself immersed in a totally different culture. I’ll never forget saying to myself, “wow, these people have been here for 5000 years” and I soon wanted to know everything I could about the Korean people and their way of life.

It was 1971 and South Korea was just emerging from the devastation of the Korean War and there were still not a lot of foreigners living there yet. There were probably more Japanese than Americans. Some British and some Germans and a smattering of people of other nationalities.

But I wasn’t at all interested in the expatriate community, I wanted to know Koreans. I wanted to join their parties, eat their food, play their card games, drink their wine (and we did plenty of that!), meet the families of the people I met and spend my time immersed in Korean culture as much as I could.

 I wanted to experience everything that I could that would help me to understand my hosts. And because I considered myself a humble guest in their country, they opened most everything to me. I say “most” because it takes a scholar like Blofeld to become deeply acculturated. But to my delight I was soon being described by my new friends as “half-Korean”,  a distinction that I relish to this day each time I greet a Korean with a phrase of their own language and receive a warm reply. 

One of Blofeld’s sojourns from Hong Kong took him to the Southern city of Huijou. This was the mid 1930’s and while there was some western influence China still mostly retained “the plain and simple flavor of the old world”.

Upon arrival in Huijou and after leaving his luggage at an inn Blofeld, tired and hungry from his trip, went to a tea-house for some refreshment and relaxation. There he was soon approached by a gentleman who after an introduction and some discussion invited Blofeld to join him that evening to “drink wine on a flower boat”.

Blofeld, after some initial trepidation, joined his new found friend for an evening of eating, drinking and friendship on a lavishly decorated “flower boat” in the middle of a local lake.

After explaining to his hosts that in his country people seldom invited foreign visitors to a private party, it was explained to him that “You are what the Chinese refer to as a ‘guest from afar.’ The Chinese sage Confucius once said, ‘When there comes a guest from afar, is this not a pleasure!’ For the past two thousand years each and every word in the Analects of Confucius has been deeply imprinted in the minds of the Chinese people. Following the advice of Confucius has become a custom for us, and over the ages this custom has become instinct.”

It was then that Blofeld understood that from his very arrival in Hong Kong he had been warmly welcomed as a “guest from afar” but most importantly that “Later, when they realized how much I truly love Chinese civilization, they treated me with even greater kindness.”

This was my experience as a young man in South Korea. By the time I arrived there, while still grateful to America, the image of American’s had changed.

Korea had a history of foreign invasion by the Mongols, the Han Chinese and the Japanese. Wary of foreigners Korea was known through the ages as “The Hermit Kingdom”. By 1971 they had begun to experience some of the vagaries of business dealings with foreigners, many of whom looked down at Korean’s and regarded them as lesser beings. 

Because I treated my “hosts” as hosts, with dignity and respect and made it known by all that I considered myself a guest in their land, they opened their hearts and minds to me.

The lesson of all of this is obvious. By treating those that we encounter on our foreign travels we can unlock a world of untold cultural richness. This was Blofeld’s experience and mine to.

 I am forever thankful to the Korean people as they enriched my life in so many ways.

A Note: John Blofeld eventually made his way to “The Abode of the Son of Heaven”, Peking. He lived and worked in China until 1949 when due to the revolution he was forced to leave, living the rest of his life in Bangkok.

It had been a life’s ambition to write his autobiography in classical Chinese and he did. He completed “My Journey in Mystic China” just before his death in 1986.

He was ill with cancer for quite some time. During his illness he met his “last friend”, Daniel Reid. Daniel Reid has beautifully translated John Blofield’s magnificent work.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in classic pre-revolutionary Chinese culture.

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