Jia Yongxiang sits on the balcony outside his cave home in the Wudang Mountains, Hubei province, on April 24. Xu Lin / China Daily
SHIYAN, Hubei - A bee suddenly flies into Jia Yong-xiang's ear as he is cooking in his shabby kitchen.
The 76-year-old, wearing a well-worn Taoist hat and dark blue robe, laughs happily and uses a toothpick to help dislodge the bee, calmly saying "please come out".
The playful bee soon exits his ear and crawls into his big white beard without stinging him at all.
"The bees are my Taoist friends as well as my neighbors," Jia says in Hubei dialect with a big smile. "There is a basic Taoist idea: harmony between humans and nature."
Jia has been living with tens of thousands of bees in a natural cavern for about 14 years in the Wudang Mountains, Central China's Hubei province. They are among the most sacred mountains of Taoism, and were made a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1994.
Following zigzagging flagstone steps more than 700 years old, one can find Crown Prince Cavern lurking half way up Zhanqi Peak.
Legend has it that Prince Zhenwu practiced in the cavern for decades before becoming immortal as the Great Emperor Zhenwu, one of the most influential gods in Taoism.
The cavern is about 15 square meters and floored with stone slabs, with a small exquisite stone palace around it built in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).
The statue of the young Crown Prince is worshipped in the middle of the cavern, with Jia's bed and other simple furniture on the other side.
Outside the cavern is a balcony with stone balustrades, a place where he cooks, reads and talks with guests.
Jia plays Taoist music and gently opens his one-meter tall wooden cupboard. What catches one's eyes is a big honeycomb covered with bees, occupying a quarter of the cupboard. In the other areas of the cupboard are his bowls, plates and chopsticks.
In the spring of 1996, a swarm of bees flew in and made their home in the cavern. He drilled four small holes for the bees to fly in and out, but they prefer the cracks in the door.
At first, the uninvited guests stung him when he opened the cupboard. After that, he played Taoist music whenever he was going to open the door, and gradually the bees became his friends and never stung him.
"They love the music. I think they come here to practise Taoism with me," he says.
Jia was a farmer in Xiangyang, Hubei province, and was diagnosed with hepatitis, gastritis, pneumonia and an inflamed gall bladder more than 20 years ago.
At first he grew vegetables at the foot of the mountains and for a while lived in a small garden building.
"It's strange that I gradually recovered without any treatment, and I have never gone back home," he says.
He moved to the cavern in the 1990s, where he could practice Taoism alone, doing meditation and chanting.
Although he asks his family not to come to see him, his younger daughter and daughter-in-law visit him once a year.
He says he enjoys the beautiful view of mountains and trees, which makes him feel one with all things on earth.
Enjoying his simple life in the remote place, he has never left the area around the cavern for years. He gets up at 5 am, then does his daily morning prayer and meditation. After breakfast, he cleans the cavern, including the long stone path.
There is no electricity or tap water. He goes to sleep early after a regular evening prayer, and uses a candle or a flashlight. On the cliff outside the cavern is a long groove, where the rainwater drains into the ancient well on the balcony.
"The Crown Prince Cavern is cool in summer and warm in winter, " he says.
Although the cavern is not open to tourists, he receives dozens of visitors every day to share his understanding of Taoism and to see the bees in the cupboard.
They are mainly Taoist believers from all over the world, and bring him gifts such as fruits.
When people who can't speak Chinese arrive, he just smiles and gently flicks dust off their clothes.
Local Taoists also call on him regularly to offer necessities. He never accepts money, and always gives visitors protective talismans and snacks. Sometimes he invites them to share a meal.
Listening to the radio and reading are his only ways to keep in touch with the outside world.
"I subscribe to newspapers and magazines and read them every day, as I'm concerned about national affairs," he says.
He often writes his feelings about Taoism, which are mainly about filial piety, morality and values.
"To practice Taoism is very simple, just be yourself, with a clean conscience and justice. It is useless for those who have done something illegal to beg for the gods' forgiveness," he says.
"One can practice Taoism as long as one has heart and fulfills his duty. For example, a cleaner who cleans restrooms devotedly or an official who serves the people wholeheartedly," he says.
(China Daily 05/19/2011 page2)