Beyond the Great Mountains / A Visual Poem about China
Little, Brown & Co., 2006.
Never judge a book by its cover?well, there is an exception to every rule. Beyond the Great Mountains is not only a beautiful book to look at and hold, but every detail of its cover: the texture of the paper, so suited to the mountain peak emerging from the clouds; the shiny, brush-stroked blue of the title; the Chinese character for China, which will recur as the final element of the poem; the author's name in the Westernised form of a Chinese chop or signature stamp; not to mention the unexpected way the book opens upwards rather than outwardsall these combine to fill the reader with the expectancy that this is going to be something special. We are not disappointed.
The impact of the paper-collage illustrations is immediatethe colours; the many different kinds of paper; the seeds for the 'trees of hanging grain' and specks of gold for 'summer's fire'; Young's techniques of cutting, tearing and foldingall these make for a visually stunning book: but it is much more than that. This is indeed a visual poem.
At first, to me, brought up in the Western tradition of letters being put together to make words and then words evoking images, the double-spread collages appeared to be an interpretation of the English words which run along the bottom of each page. This is emphasised by the format of the book, which allows the poem to be read as a whole, with only the background colour from each line's page as an indication of the visual element attached to it. However, it soon became clear that each collage is, in fact, a pictorial interpretation of the image enclosed within the Chinese character placed above its direct English translation. Through his decoding of these ancient Chinese characters, Young reveals how they themselves can convey meaning beyond their literal interpretation; and where a character is made up of more than one symbol to convey one word, he breaks the character down to its components alongside. This is beautifully compact, for example, in the characters for West, which incorporates symbols of a bird and a roost, and salt, which is the same with the addition of four grains: and so the poem gives us the line 'To the West, where birds roost, a rock of wonder, salt was found'. The collages interperet the Chinese characters, but are also determined by themhence the shape of the 'sprawling vines' or the position of the jade buried in the earth.
At the end, Young provides a table showing the modern character equivalent of those he has used in the poem, which are about 2,500 years old. He states that his purpose in writing the book is partly to share his fascination with 'the hidden wisdom of symbols'he certainly achieves his aim; and because we are dealing with imagery more than words, this pictorial delight can be enjoyed by people of all ages, from the youngest child to the oldest adult.