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On land and water, symbols of longevity

The Chinese feel that the crane symbolizes longevity, and they believe that it can live to be 600 years old. A pair of cranes disport themselves around one of my little garden pools. To me, they are easily construed as symbols of "longevity," because they stand upon the eternal substance of the land. They seem to observe and enjoy the slow trickle-trickle of a minute waterfall, as drop by drop it finds its way across a flat-topped rock, eventually to fill up the pool.

The cranes flank the scene, and help to make it one of the loveliest in the garden. About their feet, unsummoned and like weeds, pop up great spiky wildflowers, of tall conical shape, bright blue in the springtime and browning in the fall.

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To me, the cranes are auspicious symbols in part because they are positioned in the garden in a spot where I myself most like to be. They contemplate the measured tread of the infinitely beautiful and healing waters; and the very spot they occupy is radiant with unbeckoned bounty from nature's infinite resources.

My cranes are "garden variety," inexpensively acquired long ago from a neighboring vendor specializing in garden ornaments. They are cast in metal and painted in white. But there is something about the slender elongation of their shape which is to me both elegant and provocative.

Cranes seem to me of very special beauty. Their high- arched backs, long slender necks, and quizzical small heads rise upwards from tall slender stove-pipes of thin legs.Their beaks, stubby and short, like exclamation points, give extra verve and drama to their statement.

Not only do cranes unite a balance of the horizontal with the vertical. The thinness of their legs contrasts with the squat stubbiness of their bodies; and the attenuation of their necks balances the shortness of their heads. And all of these dichotomies seem to represent the ancient dramatic unity of the opposites. The crane is a figure in which high and broad, long and short, thin and fat, appear and reappear, and in a unity which is forever both esthetically and philosophically viable.

One of the most celebrated birds in Chinese legends, the crane enjoys an eminent present as well as an illustrious past. It has an extremely high visibility, both in Chinese arts and Chinese crafts, and is everywhere noticeable both at home and abroad. It appears in Chinese jade, Chinese painting, Chinese porcelain. It occupies an important spot in a courtyard of the former Imperial Palace in Peking, which dates back to the emperor Yung Lo ( 1403-1424) of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). And it is sold across the counter as a paper cut-out at the railroad station in Shanghai.

In China, the crane is the friend of all the people, not merely the intellectually or artistically elite. It is attractive to all, and it is accessible to all. It is an old, forever new companion to the most populous nation on earth.


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