Last week I was in Shanghai walking along the Bund with my husband and two boys, Chase and Porter.
“It looks kind of Greek,” Porter said, nine years old and keenly interested in design and mythology.
“This area was built by the English, and Greek architecture is meant to symbolize stability and ancient power,” I said.
“And a lot of naked bottoms,” Porter added matter-of-factly. “That building over there looks more Roman, because of the lines.”
In Shanghai’s defense there are no naked bottoms on the Bund, unless you count the big bronze bull with the giant pair of, well, the giant pair. Lots of people get their picture taken with the bull, and my boys decided to get one from the back because they’re nine and eleven and anatomically correct bulls are totally hilarious, especially here where things are a little more buttoned up than they are at home.
Several years ago I read Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series aloud to my children, initiating a romance with mythology that continues to the present day. Porter would practice his reading by reading aloud from mythology books, and we would talk about the common threads among the world’s uber stories that weave and twirl around one another in a vast Pangeaic tapestry of power, creation and destruction. Unfortunately we never discussed Chinese myths which left us less prepared to understand the Chinese people at a time when many of the Chinese themselves are struggling to understand what they believe. About a month ago a man at my husband’s office pulled him aside and began asking him about our religion. Not wanting to be rude my husband hemmed and put him off because it’s illegal to teach such things to a Chinese national. Not to be deterred the man said, “Let me ask you this, when you were a child you believed in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and when you get older you don’t believe, but you still follow the tradition. Is that what your religion is for you?” “No,” my husband said, “we really believe what we say we believe.”
We love classical architecture for banks and universities, anyplace we need to feel stable and secure. The ancient Greeks, who bequeathed their beautiful mathematical symmetry, also brought us Zeus, Poseidon and Hades, which the Romans translated into Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto. But how did India come up with Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer, while the Norsemen told of Odin or Allfather, Thor the protector and Loki the vicious trickster. In China there are also three main gods to be found in shops or people’s homes: Fu, the god of good fortune associated with Jupiter, Lu, the god of influence and prosperity, and Shou, the god of longevity believed to control the length of a person’s life—always three, two gods of life and one of death.
C.S. Lewis, one of the great proponents of Christianity, spent many years as a confirmed atheist, until his study of mythology led him to believe Christianity had to be true. The night he finally put it all together, he said he sat in his room, the most dejected believer in all Christendom. For my part I would like to read all the world’s stories, laying them end to end along a timeline of world events to help me understand how we got where we are today.
On my desk I have a “Happy Family Ball,” a round green stone of five concentric balls carved one inside another to represent the interconnectedness of a family. It is an old design, available in styles of three or five, sold in any price range from expensive to cheap, and deeply rooted in Chinese tradition. We bought it because it reminded us of our family. But looking at it reminds me that the human family is far more interconnected than any of us realize, and I think that one day we’ll be held accountable for how we define the word “neighbor.” Underneath our funny clothes we all have naked bottoms, just ask Chase and Porter.