Visiting the Birthplace of Taoism: Mount Kunyu

I like to tell the students that if you make it like water, you can’t make it wrong.
— Jim Hubbell

We wake groggily after a Friday night spent celebrating the completion of our final group designs and pile onto a bus heading to Mount Kunyu, known as the birthplace of Taoism. The land here has powerful waters fabled to grant eternal life.  

We arrive  and have until 11:30 to explore. We aren’t told where the mystical waters are, so where do we go? Only one path heads up the mountain, and we set off together. A talkative stream runs alongside, and it seems that the busy water is not just our guide, but also a popular waterpark for thousands of crickets joining us on this journey. We trace the stream with our footsteps, and match our breath to the rhythm of the cricket choir. We quickly become grateful that the weather is being kind today.

The stream turns to a pool at the bottom of a waterfall and the path becomes a stairway.  We take it leisurely, making sure to stop and enjoy the views. We take a break at the pagoda temple at the top, making sure to squeeze in a good stretch and group photo.

Then we head down on a different path than the one we came up. Perhaps there were more paths all along? Soon we learn that this alternate route is shorter than we expect. We reach our meeting point at eleven and take a rest for the next half hour under a papaya tree in the middle of the parking lot.

Red ribbons flutter in the branches above us signaling that this tree has some kind of importance. On the tree trunk, we see a sign, mostly written in  Chinese, but there’s a short English version and a QR code: “This Papaya tree has survived 301 years. Many say ‘Given a papaya, I will return you with gems.’ ”


We sit and watch a camouflage-clad guard wade through men with their shirts rolled up to cool their bellies(a local phenomena). He walks around with a trash picker, scooping up plastic bottles strewn about. The age-old, mystical tree above us gifts us with its shade in the midst of a barren parking lot.

So it seems, once again, that a simple moment can capture the frequent contradictions we experience in China. Everything we do has been densely layered in oppositions: old and new, ancient and digital, natural and artificial, timeless wisdom and the comedic wackiness of a bare belly . Even the sedimentary layers of Mount Kunyu seem wedges of chaos and control.

Today, as so often happens, a new revelation has anchored us once again: the water that runs off Mount Kenyu will run straight through any contradictions, finding its way to our park and into the Pacific, as will we all.