Postcard proseIssue 21 | October 2014

Cheng Man Ch’ing

by Douglas Penick

Cheng Man-Ch’ing was physician to the last war-lord ruler of China and calligraphy teacher to his wife. Cheng was, in the traditional Chinese way, a philosopher, martial arts master, poet calligrapher and physician. He was born in a period that began with the fall of the Ching Dynasty and was followed by battles between contesting war-lords, the Japanese invasion, the Communist takeover.

Living through China’s precipitous decline, Cheng could be said to have been overcome by nostalgia for the wisdom of the ancient sages, which is to say, nostalgia for the sanity, humaneness and simplicity of a daily life that had become a swamp of corruption garishness and brutality. In his search, he was successful not just in finding what his ancestors had understood but in embodying in himself their teachings. His life took him all over the world. He taught in places he would never had imagined and had students whose beliefs and ways of life he could have scarcely imagined.

Once when he was living in New York, he was asked why he had ended up having western rather than Chinese students. He nodded gravely. “Confucius also went to teach the barbarians.”

In New York, he had this dream. He dreamed that he was standing on a promontory overlooking a broad valley which rose in the distance to a green mountain. The landscape was serene yet vibrant, and although he had never seen this place before, he felt he had at last returned to his true home.

Beside the path, he noticed something tied to a forsythia bush, just beginning to bud. It was a poem written in black ink on a length of cotton. He untied it and looked. He felt a certain excitement that perhaps this had been written by a previous traveler similarly moved. He read the poem, but when he woke, he could only remember the first line:

“Though you think you have been here before…”

Cheng Man Ch’ing told his students: “If you are being pushed to the edge of a high precipice and you think you have an enemy, you have made your last mistake.”

About the author

Douglas Penick was a research associate at the Museum of Modern Art, NY, wrote the Canadian NFB’s series The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Leonard Cohen, narrator) and libretti for two operas: King Gesar and Ashoka’s Dream (Santa Fe Opera) with Peter Lieberson. Short pieces have been published in, among others, Agni, Bombay Gin, Cahiers de L’Herne, Hyperallergic, and Parabola. Read A Journey of the North Star and Dreamers and Their Shadows. (Photo credit: Martin Fritter)

Read our current issue:


Two poems by Anne Babson
Vignette, Townhouse, 9 a.m. by Troy Cunio
Night Becomes Day Over the West by Megan Foley
Yukon River Aurora by D. B. Goman
Two Poems by David Havird
Cretan Love Letter by Emily Linstrom
Holland by Rick Mullin
Fear in Kenya by Kristina Pfleegor
The Lounge Lizard by Ed Shacklee
Two Poems by Sarah J. Sloat
Night Flight by Vicki Stannard
Koinonia Farms by Alina Stefanescu
Thessaloniki, Four a.m. by Anastasia Vassos
Imaginary Oceans by Jason Warren
Two Poems by F. J. Williams

Postcard prose

It’s Salty by Kelly Hill

Travel notes

Anchorage in the Great Land by Karen Benning
The Value of Small Money by Megan Hallinan
Screensaver by Sandra Larson
Thirty Cents by Tommy McAree
Gokarna by Kate McCahill
Going Places by Rachel Miller-Howard
Susanville CA: Notes From The Road by Susan Volchok