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Terry Crossman: The wisdom of Daoism in a Beijing hutong

2022-12-22 Editor : Zhao Li ECNS App Download

By Zhao Li

(ECNS) -- Terry Crossman, a 67-year-old American living in Beijing for 27 years, spoke of how he has witnessed the city draws inspiration from traditional Chinese Daoism during a recent interview with ECNS.

Terry, whose Chinese name is Gao Tianrui, has gone viral online after joining "Xicheng Damas," a group of volunteers made up of middle-aged and retired women. People call him "Lao Gao,” or Grandpa Gao.

Wearing a red armband, Gao usually offers help to those in need with his fluent Chinese in front of the Lotus Market near Houhai.

But apart from being a Xicheng Dama, Gao is also a fan of traditional Chinese Daoism.

At Gao's home in a hutong near Shichahai Park, the most eye-catching thing is a piece of calligraphy reading Dao Fa Zi Ran (Divine Law Follows Nature), and a pile of books by Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi, master philosophers of Chinese Daoism.

Gao said that his love for China can be explained by “Go With the Unfolding" or "Shun Qi Zi Ran.”

1960s: Encountering Daoism in books

Gao's understanding of "Shun Qi Zi Ran" was developed when he was a child.

"When I was 12 or 13 years old, in a bookstore I picked up an English copy of the Dao De Jing (Laws Divine and Human), which was attributed to Lao Zi, the founder of Daoism," said Gao.

"That was the first time I encountered Chinese culture, and it was like I had dug out a treasure while almost everyone was questioning their lives at that time," he added.

"Man imitates Earth, Earth imitates Heaven, Heaven follows the divine law, and the divine law follows nature." For Gao, this is one of the most unforgettable sentences, recorded in Chapter 25 of the Dao De Jing.

Although the young Gao could not fully understand why "divine law follows nature,” Chinese wisdom crossed the Pacific Ocean and planted a seed of longing in his young heart.

Gao continued to read other traditional Chinese classics, such as Zhuang Zi (a masterpiece of Daoism), Huai Nan Zi (a collection of various philosophical treatises), The Analects (a moral code by Confucius), and Mencius.

Decades on, there is still a Zhuang Zi lying on his bookshelf, and the pages have turned yellow because of frequent reading.

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s, Gao traveled to many places for work, including San Francisco, Philadelphia, the UK, France, Switzerland, Denmark, Singapore, Vietnam, and China.

After traveling around the world, he finally settled in a Beijing hutong.

2010s: Witnessing "Divine Law" in a hutong

The reason Gao settled in a Beijing hutong after retiring is rooted in the Daoist book he read when he was a child.

"It was the knowledge pertaining to 'Divine Law Follows Nature' embedded in hutong life that initially attracted me here," he said.

Gao lives near Shichahai park, famous for its picturesque scenery of willow trees and a clear lake.

Living in a bustling city, Gao can still enjoy a lifestyle that is respectful of nature.

Gao likes to spend his spare time greening his small courtyard along with his Chinese neighbors, where there are strawberries, rose flowers, and ivy.

As the weather grows cold, the plants in the yard gradually wither, and some have already rested in the dirt, waiting for next spring.

Raising flowers and plants, and witnessing their endless life cycles, are the most basic explanations of how Chinese people follow nature, Gao says.

In addition to his Chinese neighbors' natural lifestyles, their warm hearts are also a treasure in the hustle and bustle of life.

"I can smell what my neighbors are cooking almost every day,” Gao said, adding that he likes to live in a bungalow. This is called "down to earth" or “Jie Di Qi,” he said. 

This summer, Gao suddenly fell ill and accidentally collapsed in his bathroom, but there was no one home. "I shouted for help, and fortunately my Chinese neighbors heard me and immediately called an ambulance," Gao said.

"But if I had lived in a high-rise building, no one would hear me," said Gao, who was very grateful for his warm-hearted Chinese neighbors.

Because of that love, Gao is very familiar with almost every change taking place over the years in the hutong.

"Compared to when I had just moved here, now my life is much more convenient. The takeaway is very fast and they can deliver whatever I want to eat," he said.

"And there are many new free fitness facilities in the community, which are very important for older people like me," he added.

Time flies. Gao has witnessed many changes in his yard, the Chinese people's wisdom of living a natural life, the warm hearts of Beijingers, and the rapid development of the city.

Now: Understanding the wisdom of social development

"I always feel that I have strong connections with China. Maybe in my previous life, I was a monk in a temple in China," Gao said.

Gao's friend, a Taoist at Baiyun Temple, gifted him a piece of calligraphy reading "Dao Fa Zi Ran" during a visit. Gao loves the calligraphy work so much that he put it in the most visible place in his home.

He believes that “divine law follows nature" not only reminds people to maintain inner peace but also demonstrates the wisdom of China's social development.

Talking about the biggest changes in Beijing in recent years, the most impressive ones to Gao are the fewer hazy days, a greener environment, and clearer air. Now the beautiful Shichahai park has become his favorite place.

In his perspective, respect for nature has gradually penetrated the hearts of every Chinese person, and they are protecting the ecological environment “like their own eyes.”

Harmonious coexistence between humans and nature is the "divine law" in China's social development, and this is exactly what Gao has witnessed and how he now understands “Man imitates Earth, Earth imitates Heaven, Heaven follows the divine law, and the divine law follows nature."

Going forward, Gao hopes to stay in Beijing and witness more great changes.


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