Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Yes, it's an orange toad

Oh, go on then. I know you've been dying to meet him, and he's been gribbiting at me like mad to make him (even more) famous than he undoubtedly is (in celebrity amphibian circles). Actually, those of you in Leeds Museums nearly met him at that dinner in the Chinese restaurant before I left... and then one of you just had to go and order the frogs' legs, didn't you? You know who you are. It took ages to persuade him to come to China after that little incident.

Anyway, eventually we persuaded him. Packing him in Lucy's knitting bag did the trick (think kittens with string, but... well, boingier). He's the sort of toad that is easily distracted by taking an eminently sensible pleasure (have to be careful, he's probably reading this) in the simple things in life. It's rather Taoist, really. Which could explain why he was feeling so at home in one of these rock gardens that seem to be everywhere.

I'm amazed that there can be any water-worn limestone left in the wilds in China... there are poems from the Tang Dynasty (around the 8th century) describing how the writer got the lackeys to haul huge rocks into his study for contemplation. Today, parks new and old invariably have little corners (or huge rockeries) constructed from these fantastically-shaped boulders. Walls are built to mimic them, and a single stone is the centrepiece of the lobby of many a major business or hotel...

Why stones, you might ask? Well, I just don't really know. It's been a part of the culture for so long that it's probably something that people don't really think about any more - they're obviously beautiful objects, and that's all there is to it. There are hints about the mysterious attraction in some captions for stones on Xuanwu Lake; they point out that you can see fantastic figures and beasts in the shapes of them - peacocks, dragons, and so on (yes, I'm sure there are toads too, Toad, but they were probably hiding, like you like to do!). It's like our cloud games... "That cloud looks like Ireland," Kate Bush sang in our office today. It's wonderfully childlike in some ways, but in others it's what classical Chinese thought is all about - sitting somewhere beautiful and tranquil, and letting impressions and ideas and half-remembered lines of poetry pop up in your head, and mix together to create something new. It's not the "blue sky thinking" of the West, but something rooted more firmly in the history and the landscape.

Toad says there are only two things that could make this little rock garden better. Firstly, it should all be bright orange, because obviously being orange is such a very good thing to be. Secondly, it needs a lot more insects, slugs and spiders to go chasing after. I have to agree on the latter, but I'm sure it won't be long...

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