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Eastern mystic

Updated: 2012-06-05 09:51
By Yang Guang ( China Daily)

Eastern mystic

American author Bill Porter, an authority on Chinese religious culture, visits Huangshan Mountain, Anhui province. Photos provided to China Daily

Eastern mystic

Bill Porter's major works reveal his decades-long connection with China and Chinese culture.

Writer Bill Porter may be American but he is best known as an authority on Chinese religious culture. Yang Guang finds out what intrigues Porter so much that he keeps coming back.

American writer and translator Bill Porter says he could have been Chinese in his last life.

"Perhaps I was an ancient Chinese," the 69-year-old quips, because when he first learned Chinese in the late 1960s, he found vernacular Chinese quite difficult, while classical Chinese was easier.

He is recognized as an authority on Chinese religious culture not only among Westerners, but among Chinese as well.

Porter has published three cultural travelogues about China. He has also translated a dozen Chinese classics on Buddhism, Taoism and poetry as well, under the pseudonym Red Pine.

His most recent offering, Yellow River Odyssey, recounts his three-month expedition in 1991, from the mouth of the river, which is known as the "cradle of Chinese civilization", in Dongying, Shandong province, to its source in Qinghai province. The book will be available in English in the latter half of this year.

"Two decades later, I still recall in my dreams how I listened to the roaring of the river and how I could hardly breathe at the river source," he says.

Porter's connection with China started when he was enrolled in the PhD program in anthropology at Columbia University.

He half-heartedly chose Chinese as his major to get a language fellowship.

He had always tried to understand life but he says it wasn't until he read Alan Watts' The Way of Zen that he finally made sense of it.

"When I encountered Buddhism, I didn't have any problem understanding exactly what it was talking about," he says. Porter then started meditating on weekends with a Chinese Buddhist monk.

His pursuit of Buddhism took him to Taiwan in 1972, where he stayed for a year at the Fo Guang Shan Monastery with master Hsing Yun.

Then he landed at the Chinese Culture University as a student in philosophy, and met his Chinese wife there.

He rented a stone farm shed on top of Yangming Mountain and started translating poems by hermit poet Cold Mountain (AD 691-793).

It was then that he adopted "Red Pine" as his Chinese name, only to discover later it was also the name of a famous ancient Taoist.

To support his family after he married, Porter worked for six years at a radio station in Taipei as a news editor.

He began to wonder if Buddhist hermits still survived in the Chinese mainland in 1989, but didn't have the money to embark on the exploration.

By chance, he had an interview with Winston Wong, son of Wong Yung-ching, one of the richest men in Taiwan. Wong was fascinated by his idea and financed his trip.

Porter traveled to Zhongnan Mountain in Shaanxi province and discovered that the hermit tradition was still very much alive, as dozens of monks and nuns continued to lead solitary lives in quiet contemplation, deep in the mountains.

He recorded his visits and interviews in Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits. The book is considered a window on - and has helped revive interest in - the phenomenon of Chinese hermits.

Tang Xiaoming, Porter's Chinese publisher, says the book has sold more than 100,000 copies since 2005.

Former literary editor Zhang Jianfeng decided to search for hermits in Zhongnan Mountain himself, after reading Porter's book in 2008. The 35-year-old has visited more than 600 hermits to date and became chief editor of a magazine dedicated to promoting traditional Chinese culture.

Porter returned to the United States in 1993, settling in Port Townsend, a coastal town of about 8,000 residents.

Since 2001, he has organized biannual trips to China for American tourists, who find out about him through word of mouth.

He is planning a trip in October to search for the residences and tombs of 20 Chinese poets.

Contact the writer at

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