Connecting East and West Along the Silk Roads

by Carolyn Shea

In 353 A.D., China’s most celebrated calligrapher, a sage named Wang Xizhi, held a springtime party for more than three dozen of his literati friends. 

Sitting along the banks of a stream at the Orchid Pavilion, a scenic garden located in the city of Shaoxing, the partygoers spontaneously composed poetry while drinking wine from cups floating by on lotus leaves. During the revelry, called the Elegant Gathering, the calligrapher created his impromptu masterpiece, the Lan Ting Xu, or “Preface to the Orchid Pavilion,” that introduced the collection of 37 poems produced that day.

group gathers to write poetryInspired by this historic event, in March 2008, faculty member Hirsh Diamant, 19 Evergreen students and community members, and college president Les Purce and his wife, Jane Sherman, sat by the very same brook, and penned their own off-the-cuff poems, sans alcohol. President Purce wrote:

enso design

The joy of learning,
The joy of youth,
The joy of Spring,
The joy of possibilities.

The reenactment of the Elegant Gathering took place during the group’s three-week journey through China, a highlight of Diamant’s yearlong interdisciplinary program, Children and Education: a Silk Roads Perspective. "The program focused on how to approach education from nontraditional perspectives," he explains. "We looked at what other cultures can teach the U.S. about education and human development." In particular, the students looked at models that foster creativity, concentrating on the importance of art, stories and play in the education of children. They also bridged theory and practice by producing their own art, becoming involved in local events, like Olympia’s Procession of the Species, and volunteering in community service activities such as assisting teachers in area elementary schools.

"In a normal year, I don't experience things half as extraordinary as I did every day in China."
— Jakey Lind

As with the original Silk Roads, the ancient network of trade routes linking Europe and Asia, travel was a central component of the program. In Diamant’s contemporary adaptation, Silk Roads serves as a metaphor for modernday international studies emphasizing peaceful connections between different peoples of the world and openness to new ideas, culture and commerce, with the added dimensions of advanced technology and a globalized economy.

students at Yongfu Temple

Silk Roads students take a morning walk with their Buddhist teacher, the Abbot of Yongfu Temple, located in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.

Students unable to go abroad took excursions closer to home, but all contributed to a wiki called, “Letters from China and Other Travels,” in which they offered accounts of their explorations, with the intent of reaching a wider audience.

Before embarking on their trip, the class reflected on the teachings of Confucius, the great Chinese thinker and social philosopher, who expressed the importance of experiential learning in his famous aphorism: "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand."

By seeing and doing, senior Jakey Lind gained newfound direction from his overseas odyssey. "I had never done anything besides short jaunts into Canada," he said. "In a normal year, I don’t experience things half as extraordinary as I did every day in China." He is now enrolled in the Changing China program, which examines China’s rising role as a global power in the context of the predominant cultural traits it has inherited from the past.

"Coming back to Evergreen was a harsh turnaround," he says, "particularly because class started the day after we returned, at what felt like the middle of the night. My experiences in China began to pay dividends immediately though. I saw our Chinese cultural studies with increased clarity, and the frame of reference I now have when studying China is very helpful."

Lind soon got the chance to pass on his new knowledge. "In Hirsh’s class, we volunteered in local schools, and in my case, I was in a fourth-grade classroom at L.P. Brown Elementary," he said. "The teacher encouraged me to give a presentation to her class, which I envisioned being something in the range of five to ten minutes. To my surprise, the kids were super interested and my presentation, which only had 10 pictures, ended up lasting 45 minutes."

jakey lind in chinaWhen Lind graduates, the Whidbey Island native foresees a future shaped by his Silk Roads adventure. He is already formulating plans to return to the country and thinking about concentrating his graduate studies in Chinese history. "I’m planning to apply to at least one Chinese studies program," he said, "and if forced to make a decision right now, I believe I would choose China as my area of focus in a more general history or area studies program."

On the program's wiki, Lind noted, "I consider the time I spent in China to be among the coolest and most important experiences of my entire life. In my studies, I have focused primarily on history, particularly Eurasian history, so this trip was an incredible chance to encounter what I’ve spent so much time studying."

History truly came alive for Lind in China. At the program's streamside poetry session, which commemorated the Elegant Gathering held more than 16 centuries before in the Orchid Pavilion, he wrote:

Ancient Lan Ting,
Where great scholars once composed,
Retains its beauty and tranquility,
And serves the same purpose for us
Today, as for these poets of distant past.