The Moss Garden Journal
Of Chan Wing Tsit
By Richard Bell
Copyright 2013 by Richard Bell
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About 1750 a Chan Buddhist priest named Chan Wing Tsit was shipwrecked on the Pacific’s eastern shore just south of the Columbia River. It is assumed this narrative was written sometime about 1770-80. Its early provenance is uncertain, but in 1879 it was hidden away so securely that for almost a hundred years it lay forgotten.
On April 22, 1974, during historic renovations, the five cedar-boxes containing the manuscript were found in a bricked-over niche in the basement of the small home and clinic once owned by Dr. Avery Jessels, a physician practicing near The Dalles in the Oregon Territories. Each box contained a card inscribed “Rowan Three Rocks, 13 July, 1869” and the physician’s carefully, rounded signature. The Three Rocks family was of the dominant “Chinook” community of the Lower Columbia. (“Tsinuk” is a historic and perhaps more phonetic rendering of Chinook). Despite extensive efforts, no living family has been verified, but they were of the “Lower Columbia River Salish” language/cultural group who’s villages extended west from (modern) Vancouver, Washington, to the river’s mouth and northward up the Pacific coast to Long Beach, Washington.
Rendered in tiny Chinese characters on fragile birch-bark sheets, the manuscript was stored in matching bentwood cedar boxes, exquisitely carved with Coastal Salish, Raven Clan symbols. Included with the manuscript were a ribbon-decorated cotton shirt, a well-used hunting knife and a medicine bag of talismans that included shards of Chinese porcelain typical of the early 1700's. Apparently after generations of safekeeping within Rowan Three Rocks’ family, the manuscript had been placed, inexplicably, in the hands of Dr. Jessels.
Through the early 1800’s, disease decimated the Pacific Northwest’s original communities, destroying traditional cultures. Euro-American settlers seized land and drove entire communities into homelessness. By 1850, starvation and sickness were endemic. Anti-Indian lynching, extortion and gratuitous violence were common and the widespread wanton destruction of native property likely provoked the extreme measures taken to hide the work.
Of historic interest within the narrative is the mention of an infant named Comcomly, the grandson of the Comcomly, (the Chinook Chief) of this account. Once grown, the child (as the Chinook Chief roughly 45years later) met with Lewis and Clark at the westernmost point of their 1803 expedition. The battle described between indigenous communities has been extensively documented, as has a tsunami (now placed in 1700), noted in a passing reference as striking some generations earlier than the events as told.
The contemporary language of this rendering echoes the reminiscence’s descriptive style. This narrative reminiscence was almost inevitably produced at a time when there was no one else, at the time or within the foreseeable future, able to read it. Its writing and preservation were acts of faith. Interestingly, though the narrative simply ends shortly after a historic event prior to 1860, some of the wood for the boxes is dated at least two decades later. The manuscript slipped from view and languished unrecognized until its eventual rediscovery in a University of Oregon basement in 2008. Translation consumed nearly three years, a task complicated by the substrate’s extreme frailty, the need for computer enhancement of the faded writing and the writer’s idiosyncratic conventions.
There has been conjecture that prior to recovery, a few of the unnumbered pieces of substrate may have been handled and then either replaced incorrectly or lost. The work is published now essentially as found, despite possible temporal idiosyncrasies. Indigenous place and cultural names have been employed where identifiable; other names are presented in commonly accepted forms. Dated by the author’s reference to his Chan Buddhist teacher, the Chan Wing Tsit’s story begins in the first half of the eighteenth century, some time before 1750, in Guangzhou (Canton), Guangdong province, China.
Richard Bell. 19, March 2013.