The French scholar Rolf Stein stated that early Chinese believed that somewhere in the highest mountains there was a cave that was an exact representation of the world outside. In its center was a stalactite that gave off the milk of contentment. Any rock that suggests a mountain, cave or stalactite became symbolically important. This idea is reinforced by the Chinese notion that in addition to north and south, east and west, the most important orientation was ‘in’. it is because of this inward focus that Chinese culture looked for paradise inside of things, just as western culture looked upward and outside. in Chinese art, this orientation caused a search for ‘a world within a world’, for imagery in surprising and unpredictable places.
Let’s imagine that early Chinese lived in limestone caves. We know that karst limestone caves are common in China, and that among their characteristics are endlessly winding tunnels. They have underground streams and lakes, skylights, even fish. The geography of this world was so complex, that people would not be able to explore and map them in a dozen lifetimes. Paradoxically, when they emerged from these caves, they could readily see and walk around the small mountains that contained these ‘worlds within worlds’.