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. Knowing everything, his wife returns to Taipei. Miserable, but finding no solace in the city, Teacher Li retreats 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 a rotting house for shelter, 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, and the poles of the world seem to shift.
With keen insight into human nature, 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.