American scholar converses with Taoist experts to understand the sources of Chinese power
By Dominique Reichenbach
Translator and writer
TAIPEI (May 29, 2020) – Taiwan has long been a meeting place for the East and the West. “The time couldn’t be better than now for deeper understanding,” especially between China and the United States, said Professor Fu-Kuo Liu, the director of the Taiwan Center for Security Studies (TCSS) at the National Chengchi University (NCCU), when he arranged a special seminar on the “East Meets the West.”
The seminar, held at the prestigious China Taoism Institute of the Chih Nan Temple, focused on Taoist and Confucian culture and Buddhist philosophy. The premier temple is situated in the salutary Chih Nan Mountain near NCCU campus along the Jingmei riverbank.
Established in the eighth year of Emperor Guangxu’s rule during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) in China, the temple occupies a vast mountainside overlooking a beautiful landscape. Constructed in alignment with celestial bodies to reflect the connection of heaven and earth, the amalgamated Chih Nan Temple honors Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.
During one of his many visits, Dr. Patrick Mendis — an American scholar educated in Minnesota and currently a distinguished visiting professor of global affairs at NCCU — met with Kao Chao-Wen, chairman of the governing committee of the Chih Nan Temple. Upon their serendipitous encounter, Chairman Kao invited Professor Mendis to speak at the Chih Nan Temple, which eventually led Director Liu to organize this important seminar with his American colleague at TCSS.
“He has often hiked to the temple and enjoyed the beautiful sceneries,” Professor Liu said of Professor Mendis, an alumnus of the University of Minnesota and Harvard University. The American scholar is presently serving as a Taiwan Fellow of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of China.
“His field of research is international affairs; however, Patrick possesses a deep personal interest in Chinese religious philosophy, astronomy, the Book of Changes, and Bagua (the eight diagrams of Taoism),” explained Professor Liu. Mendis’s affinity for Chinese culture and history drew him to explore the Chih Nan Temple and its vicinity on his own accord many times to admire its architectural design and witness its philosophical and religious elements dating back to the Qing Dynasty.
The Harvard scholar illuminated the seminar audience with a novel interpretation of the application of Tianxia (“All under Heaven”) and its Taoist origin with Fuxi and Nuwa. His lecture was entitled, “Tianxia: The cosmology and architectural designs of the national capitals of Beijing and Washington.”
In his analysis of cross-cultural perceptions and images—generally known as “imagology,” a branch of comparative literature— Professor Mendis provided a unique but powerful perspective on the national identities of China and the United States and their relation to Taoism. The architectural designs of both countries’ national capitals are based on hidden meanings and celestial symbols.
The Taoist science of geomancy (Feng Shui) is present in the layout and architectural design of the US capital, demonstrated Professor Mendis. Washington DC is surrounded by the Pythagorean Y-shaped rivers, the Potomac and the Anacostia; the central location between the two rivers is called the “Washington Beltway.” The Beltway resembles the geographical pattern referred to by the Chinese as the “jade belt around the waist” or the entwined jade belt (玉帶環腰), explained Chairman Kao.
Professor Mendis illustrated that both Washington DC and Beijing have cosmic connections. The positioning of the White House, the US Capitol, and the Washington Monument resemble the encircling celestial bodies of the Virgo constellation. Similarly, Beijing’s Tiananmen Square complex with four palaces (i.e., the Sun, Moon, Earth, and Heaven) and their directional alignment with the North Star give them a heavenly nexus to the Pole Star (Polaris). Quoting from The Analects of Confucius, the professor added: “One who rules through the power of virtue is analogous to the Pole Star [the Polaris]: it simply remains in its place and receives the homage of the myriad lesser stars.”
Professor Mendis evidently believes that although humans often choose to live according to the advantages of Heaven and Earth; ultimately, virtue must prevail. After all, without frugality, the people cannot support themselves, families cannot thrive, and the country cannot endure. Frugality breeds honesty and virtue; the Tao is the principle of Heaven and Earth, and virtue is the manifestation of the Tao — “the Way.”
The Taoist scholars and Professor Mendis exchanged their views on religious culture and geomancy, among other issues. They agreed to continue their dialogue to achieve a deeper understanding of one another — making for a productive example of cross-cultural communication between the East and the West.
Answering to the professor’s questions, the Secretary of the Temple Research Center Zhang Baole, the Book of Changes (I Ching) interpreter Chen Mao-Song, Secretary Chi Chi-Hung of the Temple, and Researcher Wu Chung-Ming explained their perspectives on Taoist culture, cosmology, and Confucian ethics in relation to human affairs and national governance.
In his conclusion, Chairman Kao said that the geography of the Chih Nan Temple can be described as a heavenly place where immortals live with celestial connection, naming it more simply, a place of happiness. The architectural design of the temple and the ecological environment of the Chi Nan mountainside were settled according to the guiding concepts of Taoism. “Its beautiful scenery and tranquil vicinity bring blessings to those who visit this historic and leading temple in Taiwan,” said the chairman.
Dominique Reichenbach is an American Boren Scholar at the National Chengchi University, who translated the original press release from Chinese to English and updated the article.