First reviews!

This morning, the website A Valley and Beyond posted a review of the opening performance of Journey from the East last Saturday afternoon:

Out of everything I have experienced and covered in 44 years, Journey from the East is one of the most unique, different, and for lack of a better term: WOW / UNBELIEVABLE experiences ever! This is must experience for everyone!

A little later, as we poured another cup of coffee & cracked open the Morning Call, Kathy Lauer-Williams’ review caught our eye…

Touchstone Theatre has created a fascinating, thoughtful and creative piece of theater in “Journey to the East,” a free, large-scale, outdoor performance that continues through this weekend at the Chinese Harmony Pavilion on South Bethlehem’s Greenway. It’s the conclusion of a two-year project exploring the impact of the Chinese community in Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley. The show combines elements of the American Wild West with Chinese mythology an adventure that certainly is unlike anything else you have ever seen in the Lehigh Valley, taking the audience on unexpected journeys featuring fantastical dragons, demi-gods and ghosts who intermingle with a disgraced gun-slinger, a feisty saloon owner and a Bible-spouting preacher, in amusing and enlightening ways.

Now that makes for a lovely morning! Thanks, friends!

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Break a leg, everybody!

break_a_legTouchstone’s Journey from the East is opening this afternoon, beginning at 3 pm at the Chinese Harmony Pavilion on the Greenway in Bethlehem’s Southside.

The show will be repeated tomorrow, April 19, and Saturday and Sunday next weekend, April 25 & 26.

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Victor H. Mair will lecture at Touchstone after “Journey” opening

Victor_MairVictor H. Mair, the eminent scholar in Chinese Literature, will deliver a lecture at Touchstone Theatre after the opening performance of Journey from the East, 6 pm, April 18. His topic will be Chinese Literature and The Journey to the West. He is coming at the invitation of his colleague and our mentor Norman Girardot, emeritus professor of Asian Studies at Lehigh University, which just happens to be in the neighborhood!

Dr. Mair has edited the standard Columbia History of Chinese Literature and the Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, and has been a major advocate of the use of pinyin, the alphabetic script for writing Mandarin Chinese. He has taught at Harvard (where he earned his Ph.D) and is presently on the faculty at University of Pennsylvania.

He has translated the Dao De Jing, the Zhuangzi, and The Art of War; he has worked in interdisciplinary research in archaeology; and is a contributor to the language blog Language Log.

We’re really looking forward to Dr. Mair’s visit!

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Great article in the “Call”


Pigsy, Anna, Horsey, the President, the Chinese diplomat, the Secret Service Guy, the Old-Timer, and Maggie, in front of the Harmony Pavilion. (Chris Knight, Special to the Morning Call)

Last week, the Morning Call visited the Greenway during rehearsal to talk with us about the play, and Kathy Lauer wrote it up in a wonderful piece called “Touchstone completes its ‘Journey’ with audacious street theater joining the American Wild West and Chinese mythology”.

Nice pic, too!

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The Wild West, Part I

377px-Grabill_-_The_Cow_Boy-editWe call ’em cowboys now, but back in the days of the “real” Wild West, things were somewhat different from what many of us learned from American TV and the movies. The same is most likely true for folks growing up in China with the story of the Journey to the West — a topic I’ll take up in a separate blogPost.

A little background first. The word “cowboy” shows up in English about 1725, and people understood it to mean just what it says: a young boy who tended cows. But by the middle of the 19th century, it had come to signify pretty much what it does to us these days: a grownup who herds cattle while on horseback. Other terms we’ve probably heard are cowhand, cowpuncher, cowpoke (see “Cowpokes for Christmas“), and my favorite, buckaroo. This last term is interesting, because it’s an Anglicized form of the Spanish word vaquero, cow-tender.

552px-Dragon_de_cueraThis brings us to the Spanish half of the equation that solves to “cowboy.” The tradition goes all the way back to Islamic rule in the Iberian peninsula. For seven centuries before 1492 — when the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella presided over the expulsion of the Moors (while they were also financing some crazy Italian who thought he could get to China by taking a Journey to the West) — much of what today are Spain and Portugal had been ruled by Muslims, who inherited equestrian traditions and methods from their Arabian forebears, and some of these practices went all the way back before the Roman Empire, to ancient Persia. When Ferdinand and Isabela’s gamble paid off, and Spanish conquistadores claimed much of the “New World” in the immediate aftermath of Columbus’ “discovery” of it, they these traditions and methods of handling horses came with them — it turns out that horses had been extinct in the West since the previous Ice Age, until the Spanish re-introduced them.

396px-Frederic_Remington_-_Arizona_cow-boyThe image of the drawling American cowboy with his faithful bronco and trusty six-gun actually has its origins in northern Mexico and the American Southwest; it’s interesting that many vaqueros were Native Americans, who took care of the herds of the Spanish missions there. After the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis & Clark’s expedition, an increasing number of English-speaking traders and settlers moving West began to intermingle with people of Spanish culture that had been established there hundreds of years before, especially in Texas, New Mexico, and California, and together they set in motion the transformation into what we now think of as the Old West.

But this is just what historians tell us is the “reality” of the situation. Coming soon: the Myth of the Wild West.


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Americans Journey to the West

Title page of early print edition of Journey to the WestA thousand years after Tang monk Xuanzang’s original trek from China to India, his quest in search of Buddhist scriptures was immortalized in Wu Cheng’en’s classic novel, Journey to the West, published in 1592. That same year, halfway around the world in London, actor Robert Greene published a repentant sinner’s memoir called A Groats-worth of Witte, bought with a million of repentance. Greene's Groats-worth of Wit, 1592In the book, he complains about an “upstart crow, beautified with our feathers… [who] is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country” — thus providing what scholars believe is the first reference in print to the greatest poet in the English language, William Shakespeare.

Map of Jamestown, showing the fort,1608Fifteen years later, in 1607, three merchant ships of the Virginia Company of London sailed into Chesapeake Bay, and landed a few miles up the southern shore, where they put up a fort, on May 14, thereby founding the first successful English colony in America, Jamestown. Others, of course, had arrived in the “New World” before them. There were the Native Tsenacommacah, who skirmished with the English settlers when they landed; to the south and west, millions of square miles of what we now call North and South America were claimed by Spain. And within a few years, the Dutch and the French were building trading communities along the coast to the north and inland as far West as the Great Lakes. After a hundred years, however, it was the English-speakers who had battled and bought their way to controlling the eastern shore of North America from Massachusetts to Georgia, and within five generations they had pushed their domination of the land all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Map of America at the time of Lewis & Clark's ExpeditionObviously this mass colonization was the aggregate of many smaller journeys, explorations, and foundings. But if we want to find a Western parallel to the pilgrimage of Xuanzang and his companions (human or semi-divine), my vote would go to the journey undertaken by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1804, to explore the vast unknown territory stretching from the Mississippi River — the American frontier at the time — to the Pacific Ocean, over 2000 miles to the West. The Expedition of the Corps of Discovery (as it was called) wasn’t commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to fetch sacred scriptures in order to save the new republic, but rather to find “the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.” The business of America has always been business, it would seem.

What the Corps discovered was that there is no such thing as “practicable water communication” between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans — a dream of western explorers since at least Christopher Columbus: Driving the last spike in the US Transcontinental RR, May 10, 1869direct transcontinental commerce in America would have to wait another 65 years, for the completion of the new Transcontinental Railroad. In another coincidence (or synchronicity), we learn that the steam locomotive that would, in 1870, begin crossing America (primarily for the purposes of commerce), was patented just three months before Lewis and Clark embarked from St. Louis (on May 14, the 197th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown), paddling and poling their canoes and barges up the Missouri River into the unknown.

Lewis & Clark guided by SacagaweaIt’s fun trying to imagine the classic novel that might be written 800 years from now about that remarkable voyage — what demi-gods, demons, or dragons might be pressed into service to protect the poor humans on the mission? and what American equivalent of Guanyin, goddess of compassion, would watch over them? Perhaps she might take the form of a very pregnant 15-year-old Shoshone Indian woman named Sacagawea, whom Lewis and Clark hire as a guide and interpreter when they reach their first winter quarters in what is now North Dakota — but who knows what it will be called then…?

— BBly

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from Jp: Young Guns!

I grew up with a father whose main entertainment pleasures were war films and Westerns. Really, anything with a gun-toting hero would do — it didn’t matter if it was Audie Murphy or Rooster Cogburn. Growing up in the coal region of Pennsylvania gave my friends and me a seemingly limitless number of mountain battlefields where we could bring the gun battles we saw on screen to life.

Then finally a Western came out geared specifically for us: Young Guns. Billy the Kid was the Man! (Well, he was the Kid.) We all wanted to be the Kid when we were playing, but we loved the movie so much it didn’t take much for us to be convinced to embody one of the other characters. Then Young Guns II came out with a soundtrack by Jon Bon Jovi! — trust me, it seemed really cool at the time. I still love that album….)

As I got older, I grew apart from childhood gun battles and fell in love with comic books. Guns weren’t enough; I needed control over the space-time continuum.

But then, another Western came along that I felt was made for me, Tombstone. This time it was different. I wasn’t motivated to go out and play guns, I was motivated to be as cool as Doc Holliday or as cold-blooded as Johnny Ringo.

These things are deep. They are ingrained to some degree in how boys become men, and they reflect what we as a society hold up in the masculine. I’m not saying that America creating a country full of lone guns is a good thing (or a bad thing), but yeah, we’re all cowboys.

— Jp Jordan

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from Mary : My “Norwegian Woods” story…

Growing up in Southeast Asia, you wouldn’t think that American Cowboys & Indians would be, as my kids would say, “a thing,” but it was. My dad grew up in 1930s and 40s America, in the West. Out where real cowboys lived. Out where members of the local Utes tribe came into town on weekends. He grew up watching double-feature movies and loved the Westerns. He still does.

My family moved back to the United States in 1970 — I would be coming here for the first time. We took a month to make the trip, stopping at places throughout Europe that my mother had always wanted to visit. That included Oslo, Norway. I was young enough I don’t remember a lot of things from Oslo except that I’d never seen such clear blue skies in my life. And that the motel where we stayed outside of Oslo had a pond out back. There was a raft made from logs tied together and long pole for pushing yourself around that pond. One day my dad suggested all four of us kids head out to play.

Suddenly, we were all rafting along the Missouri River — heading west. “The West” was the far side of the pond — complete with stand after stand of birch trees.  Once we arrived there we kids split up — half of us to be cowboys, the other half to be Indians.

I’ve often wondered what other motel guests thought when they heard whoops and “hee-aws” coming from out back. As for me?  I was the beautiful Indian Maid gleefully throwing stick arrows at her brother, the rascally Cowboy Dave.

— Mary Wright

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Cowpokes for Christmas

Recently I spent the night at my daughter’s house in Nyack, NY, for a belated holiday get-together we hadn’t been able to get together until well into the New Year. Nelly usually goes down for the count right after wrangling my two grandsons, Eli (9) and Noah (5) into bed, so she had thoughtfully prepared a special activity to keep me occupied so she could collapse: a plastic tub full of old photos. Some years before I’d passed on to her the mantle of family archivist (she has a bigger attic), and this tub was part of the collection. Wise Nelly: I was pawing through it for hours.

I was also thinking about the American Myth part of our play, Journey from the East, and hoping I’d find some vaguely remembered pix of me playing cowboy when I was a kid. Man, did I hit the mother lode! For Christmas the year I was Noah’s age and my sister Lynn was 3, we BOTH got Wild West outfits — she got to be sharpshooter Annie Oakley, while I was given an entire Hopalong Cassidy rig (which included not only the chaps, the shirt, the double six-guns, & the hat, but also, oddly, hair training lotion). Here we are:

In front of a Christmas tree, a 3-year-old girl in an Annie Oakley outfit opposite her 5-year-old brother got up as Hopalong Cassidy

Annie Oakley meets Hopalong Cassidy

Note the difference in our expressions; if this were a real shootout in Tombstone, I know who’d be bitin’ the dust the next second, and it ain’t the one on the tricycle!

The West has had a powerful hold on the imagination of grownups as well as children in this culture, and not just in the twentieth century, and not just in the U.S., either. So the next few blogPosts will explore this idea from a number of different angles.

To begin with, it occurred to me that there just might be others in our extended gang of Touchstone Pilgrims who might have similar stories — and maybe even photos — that they’d be willing to share, so I put out a general call for stories of their experience of the Old West myth, and any treasures they may have hiding in a plastic tub or shoebox somewhere… Let’s see what turns up!

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Horsey and Sandy Join the Pilgrimage

To complete the roll call of Pilgrims in the classic Chinese Journey to the West, we need to introduce Sandy and Horsey, as they are called in English versions of legend. Today’s post will start with Horsey, (Yulong in Chinese, meaning “rain dragon”), then finish up with Sandy, (Sha Wujing in Chinese, meaning “Sand Awakened to Purity.”

Yulong, the White Dragon Horse (aka Horsey)

Yulong, son of Dragon King Ao Run, is the least well-known of the Pilgrims in Journey to the West, since for the most part he serves merely as transportation, the White Horse that Tang Monk Xuanzang rides for most of the way. Horsey, as we call him in English, is actually only the third son of Ao Run, who rules the Western Sea, as one of the Four Dragon Kings who govern the four oceans thought to bound ancient China in the cardinal directions to the North, South, East, and West.

Dragons play a major part in Chinese myth and legend: they dwell in royal courts made of crystal beneath the waves, where they command armies whose brigades and divisions are made up of the many different creatures who live in the sea. They are also in charge of the weather, and create great storms and whirlwinds, sometimes appearing to mortal humans as waterspouts and maelstroms.

Photo of a Dragon King in his temple.

Dragon King in his temple

In ancient times many villages had temples dedicated to their local Dragon King, where they made sacrifices in order to persuade their powerful deity to send good weather for their crops — not too much rain so as to flood, but not so little as to create a drought.

Interestingly, dragons of Western myth tend to resemble lizards, while those of the East are more often winged serpents, when inhabiting their “natural” form. But Chinese dragons can change their shape at will — into, say, a Lordly White Horse, as with our Pilgrims, but they can also take human form, in which they often appear with a dragon head wearing a crown.

Being the third son of a king isn’t necessarily a great thing for a dragon to be, living on hand-me-downs of hand-me-downs, and with no hope of inheriting very much in the future, which may explain why Sandy “acts out” so badly when Monkey and the Tang Monk first encounter him. But once again, Guanyin has been there before them, and when he finds out who they are, Horsey becomes the most steadfast of the Pilgrims on the Journey to the West.

Sha Monk, Monk Sand, or Sandy

Of all the pilgrims, Friar Sand most resembles his Master Xuanzang in, well, monkishness. Like Pigsy — but NOT like Monkey, who was a party-crasher in heaven — Sandy was a high-ranking officer in the Celestial Army, a Curtain-Lifting General, whose position of honor was to attend the chariot of the Jade Emperor in the Hall of Miraculous Mist. (Wouldn’t you love to live in a place with a name like that?) But one day, in a fit of rage (his defenders say it was an accident), he smashed a crystal goblet belonging to the Queen Mother of the West (also known as the Perfected Marvel of the Western Florescence and the Ultimate Worthy of the Grotto Yin), and this called down upon him 800 blows with a rod by her infuriated son the Jade Emperor, who then exiled him to the mortal realm. There the disgraced former general was incarnated as a hideous man-eating sand demon. And every day, seven swords flew down from heaven to stab him in the chest, which is why he took up living in the middle of the Flowing-Sand River in order to protect himself.

Drawing of Friar Sand with his crescent-moon staff and necklace of skulls

Image of Sha Wujing

His appearance is truly hideous: a huge red beard, a bald pate, and a necklace of skulls. The skulls came from nine monks who had previously tried to make the Journey to the West to fetch scriptures: even though they begged Sandy for mercy, he devoured them anyway, sucked the marrow out of their bones, and threw the leftovers into the river. All the bones sank, but the skulls floated, so Sandy played with them and finally fashioned jewelry out of them.

When Guanyin was sent by the Buddha to find bodyguards for the Tang Monk on his Journey to the West, she enlisted the monster, gave him the name Sha Wujing, and, as she had done with Monkey and Pigsy, gave him a promise of redemption at the end of the Journey.

Sandy carries a Staff called Yueyachan, which has a crescent moon blade at one end and a spade on the other. He knows 18 transformations (to Pigsy’s 36 & Monkey’s 72), and fights best in water, even though Pigsy can outlast him in a test of endurance, and Monkey can defeat him on land or in the air. Also unlike them, Sandy doesn’t have superpowers or superfaults either. He is polite, obedient, and rather intellectual like his Master — perhaps Guanyin felt the group needed one more-or-less normal person!

The Flowing-Sand River in which Sandy lives before joining the Journey is also the boundary of the known world in the story. When Sandy joins the Pilgrims, the Journeyers cross the frontier into the wilderness — where, as we know, pretty much anything can happen…


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