Teacher Li is a grumbling Taiwanese master of ancient Chinese arts who suffers constant nightmares about a military takeover of Taiwan by China. His family is in New York seeking U.S. citizenship when Teacher Li has an almost accidental sexual encounter with a student. His wife soon returns to Taipei, and she knows everything. Miserable, but finding no solace in the city, teaching, or even drinking, Teacher Li decides to retreat to the mountains like the Zen hermits of old to write a book about aesthetics. But the purity he seeks is elusive even in mountain exile—he finds for shelter a rotting house, and for company the contrary Dr. Gao and his dropout student lover. Their cynicism juxtaposes Teacher Li’s innocence as New York is attacked on September 11, Taiwan’s president is shot in an assassination attempt the opposition says was staged, and the poles of the world seem to shift.
With keen insight into human nature, and riffs on subjects as diverse as erotic paintings, Virginia Woolf’s punctuation, and the casual savagery of children, Dana Standridge delivers a powerful story from a complex time in history. Imbued with the tension of Taipei and the beauty of mountain seclusion, Lessons in Essence uncovers timeless human truths in the crises faced by an honest and vulnerable man.