A place where rocks are anything and grass has feelings
I knew we were close when I saw the "breasts".
That is, a pair of mountains that Tibetan nomads have anthropomorphized as resembling a woman's bosom near their isolated settlement on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, where I've run a volunteer initiative for nearly a decade.
It reminded me of the extreme pervasiveness of this tendency in China.
Indeed, nearly every land formation inside a ticketed attraction at least is likened to something with a cultural connotation.
Take the Rainbow Mountains in Gansu province's Zhangye, where the peaks take their colorful names from their ostensible resemblance to people, animals and objects.
Like countless places in the country, geology and anthropology blend to paint the Rainbow Mountains with a vibrant allure.
Landforms there take such names as Huge Scallop Rock Cumulous, Returning Sail in the Sunset, Monks Worshiping Buddha, Spirit Monkey Views the Sea and Tassels of the Yugu Maiden.
The lesser-known nearby Ice Valley, in turn, hosts such formations as Toad Looking at Red Clouds, the Yin-and-Yang Pillars, Camel Greeting Guests, Goshawk Head, Three Friends, Egyptian Pharaoh, Turtle Diving into the Sea, Peacock Stone and Colored-Glaze Palace.
A single 5-meter-high stone alone shares three names－the Torch of Qilian, Red Flag and Neighing Horse.
Indeed, many of China's most iconic landforms take such appellations. Many are featured in the works of ancient poets, who penned odes to them and the legends surrounding them.
Think Yunnan province's Tiger-Leaping Gorge, Beijing's Silver Fox Cave and the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region's Dragon Backbone Terraces.
Indeed, other countries and cultures also impose cultural symbolism on natural landscapes-Mauritius' Eye of the Sahara, New Zealand's Split Apple Rock, South Africa's Giants Castle and Norway's Pulpit Rock.
However, many seem more likely to name landforms after people－Egypt's Mount Katrina, Mount Washington in the United States and Australia's Ayers Rock, whose aboriginal name, Yankunytjatjara, refers to the ethnic group who has long dwelled there.
Or, they often use descriptions of the landform's characteristics, as with Yellowstone, the Great Barrier Reef and the Rocky Mountains.
And that's not to say China doesn't do this, too, as with the Yellow River, Yellow Mountain (Huangshan) and the Yangtze, whose Chinese name, Changjiang, translates as Long River.
The Loess Plateau's name leaves little guessing as to exactly what it is.
However, China seems to demonstrate a stronger tendency to imbue natural landscapes with supernatural, or at least mythological, identifications.
And this proclivity to anthropomorphize extends beyond landforms to life forms－even lawns.
For instance, signs that in the West would read something like "Please keep off the grass" read in Chinese, and are sometimes directly translated into English as, "The grass is smiling at you. Please detour"; "Do not disturb. Tiny grass is dreaming"; and "I like your smile but unlike you put your foot on my face."
Frankly, I'd never thought about what grass thought about my smile－or my footsteps. Because, well, I'd never thought about grass thinking at all－let alone feeling… let alone feeling particular feelings about me, in particular.
Humans have projected our collective psyches onto the shapes of clouds, constellations and landforms for as long as we know of.
These have served as cultural Rorschach tests for millennia before the test was invented. And it was developed as analysis of this exact human propensity, albeit on an individual, rather than civilizational, level.
And many earlier societies attributed consciousness－even souls－to not only plants and animals but also mountains and rivers.
As such, contemporary China is a place where natural landforms blend with landscapes of the mind, where imagination is projected onto the rock that projects toward the sky, and where stone and culture show their colors, in every sense.
Oh… and you may offend the seemingly friendly grass.
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