My Journey in Mystic China: Old Pu's Travel Diary

My Journey in Mystic China: Old Pu's Travel Diary

John Blofeld
Translated by Daniel Reid. Forewords by Huang Li-Sung and Chungliang Al Huang. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2008. xxxv + 247 pages, hardcover, $24.95.

A good travel memoir gives the reader a vivid and entertaining sense of the places visited and the people seen. A great travel memoir does more. It evokes in the reader the spirit of the civilization it describes.

John Blofeld's posthumous book My Journey in Mystic China: Old Pu's Travel Diary falls into the second category. Readers may remember Blofeld (1913¬-87) as the author of many authoritative works on the East, including The Tantric Mysticism of Tibet, The Chinese Art of Tea, and a translation of the I Ching. This book is not Blofeld's first memoir—others include City of Lingering Splendour: A Frank Account of Old Peking's Exotic Pleasures and Wheel of Life: The Autobiography of a Western Buddhist—but it does have the distinction of being the only book he wrote in Chinese. Originally published in 1990, it is appearing in English for the first time in this edition.

Blofeld, a Cambridge-educated Englishman, grew up with a mysterious and unshakable fascination with China. In 1932, he dropped out of university and went to that remote country, remaining until 1948, when the imminent victory of the communists impelled him to leave. My Travels in Mystic China chronicles that period in his life. The title is somewhat misleading in that the book does not place any particular focus on the mystical aspects of the China Blofeld visits. Its original Chinese title, Old Pu's Travel Diary: The Memoirs of an Englishman in China, is more accurate. (Pu is Blofeld's Chinese surname.)

Nevertheless, this book is a fascinating description not only of Blofeld's life in China (including his experience with "black rice," i.e., opium; the alluring "flower girls" or courtesans; and even an abortive engagement with a Chinese woman) but of the elaborate and beautiful civilization whose demise he chronicles. If there is a central theme to this book, it is Blofeld's encounter with traditional China and his acute awareness of its passing. Blofeld's years there coincide with some of the worst in the nation's history—the civil war between the nationalists and the communists as well as the Japanese invasion, with its countless atrocities—so in the memoir he ceaselessly laments that many of its glories are soon to perish. At the end of the book he writes, "Prior to the Tang, Sung, and Ming dynasties, although China was influenced for more than a hundred years by various foreign cultures, in the end it always restored the glory of its own indigenous heritage. But within my own lifetime, these ancient winds stopped blowing and would never again fan my face, and it seemed certain that the former glory of Chinese civilization could never be revived."

Although this memoir places more emphasis on China's people and traditions than on its mystical dimensions, we are provided with glimpses of the latter as well. In his travels Blofeld is often hosted by Buddhist and Taoist hermitages, with their quaint and serene atmosphere. One section describes Blofeld's sighting of the mysterious "bodhisattva lights" one night during a visit to Mount Wutai, on the border of Mongolia. "These extraordinary globe-shaped entities approached from faraway and disappeared again into the distance, continuously radiating golden beams of light." Fifty years later, he adds, "I still find it very difficult to explain that phenomenon!" Another striking anecdote is a mystical experience while visiting with "Old Taoist Dzeng," a master in Peking (as Blofeld and his translator still spell the city's name). "All of a sudden, he, I, and everything in the space between us, while still retaining their external appearance, seemed to condense into an inseparable singularity, as though we had suddenly dissolved into one amorphous singularity....When Old Dzeng fixed his penetrating gaze on me, I definitely and very clearly perceived the inseparable and boundless nature of all phenomena."

For such memorable anecdotes as these and for Blofeld's insight into Chinese culture and customs, this book is definitely worth reading. But its greatest value lies in the fact that its pages evoke a sense of the wisdom and calm serenity that characterized Chinese civilization at its greatest.

Richard Smoley