This week starts off Tales of China. There is a rich heritage of stories from the Five Glorious Millenia of Chinese history, some encapsulated in the Thirty-Six Strategems, some parables from the religions dharmic and daoic, and some simply enduring through the countless retellings.
And nobody in this country knows them. Say “Guan Yu,” they say “Guan who?” The Boston opera is putting on Madame White Snake this weekend, but these stories are not to be crystallized in art like a singer’s breath on a cold Suzhou morning. They’re meant to be told, for their players to enter and exit anew in each mind and each fervent telling, like the stories of Achilles and Hector, Ruth and Naomi, Sam and Frodo, MacBeth and Valjean and Don Quixote.
And, speaking of these classical, tragic heroes, your first Tale of China is almost Greek in its composition. It’s the tale of man against the Gods, and when the Gods trembled and knew fear. From a slim little volume called The Eight Immortals of Taoism, this is the story of Pai Shih.
PART 1: THE OLD MAN’S PROPHECY
One autumn, Lu Tung Pin caught a glimpse of an unknown woman meditating outside one of the grottoes on T’ai Shan. He hid in the nearby bushes transfixed by this stranger whose beauty was like a peony in full bloom. After a week, he plucked up enough courage to talk to her. She was Pai Mou Tan, a young girl who had come to T’ai Shan in search of inner peace, but she too was distracted from her studies by Lu Tung Pin’s charm and intelligence. Each time she sat down to contemplate the Taoist teachings her mind was distracted by thoughts of Lu Tung Pin and each time Lu Tung Pin sat down to discuss Taoism with the Eight Immortals he sat in a dream-like state, images of Pai Mou Tan flashing before his eyes.
Before long, Lu Tung Pin had broken the strict code of immortal behaviour; Pai Mou Tan was carrying his child. As a punishment, the Taoist qualifications he had earned through five hundred years of dedicated study were taken from him. He had to prove his worth once again to the other Immortals.
Meanwhile Pai Mou Tan had become the laughing stock of the local people and was forced to abandon her studies. She moved far away to Tsou Lai Shan and set up home in a disbanded temple on the outskirts of town. Not long after her arrival she gave birth to a boy who she named Pai Shih Lang.
Mother and child lived a quiet, secluded life, although they could not escape the jeers and taunts of the townspeople who had discovered their secret. By the age of nine Pai Shih Lang was a clever and quick-witted boy and each day he travelled alone to his school six miles away, crossing a wide stream on his outward and return journeys.
One morning, as he leaned down to take off his sandals before crossing the stream, he heard a man’s voice quietly say, ‘Don’t take off your shoes, Pai Shih Lang. Climb on my back instead.’
Turning around, he saw an old bearded man sitting on the bank. He wore a black ragged cotton jacket and black cotton trousers rolled above the knee. His feet were resting in the stream’s cool gurgling flow. Pai Shih Lang did as he was told. The same thing happened on his way home from school and continued to happen every day.
Several months later, in the twelfth month of the year, Pai Shih Lang’s mother called her son into the kitchen and advised him.
‘I have been thinking about your journey to and from school each day. Try not to get your feet too wet when you are crossing the stream, and, if they do get wet, dry them properly.’
‘But I don’t need to walk across the stream,’ answered Pai Shih Lang mildly.
His surprised mother demanded an explanation and Pai Shih Lang dutifully recounted the whole story. After hearing what her son had to say, she told him to ask the old man the reason for his kindness.
The following day, as Pai Shih Lang was being carried across the stream he confronted the old man. ‘You wait here for me every day, regardless of the weather. Why do you come and why do you carry me across the stream?’
The old man said nothing until he had reached the far side of the stream. He put Pai Shih Lang gently on the grass, looking him straight in the eyes and gave him this strange reply.
‘I carry you because you have an important life ahead of you. One day you will be an emperor.’
Pai Mou Tan was delighted when her son told her about the old man’s prediction, for she knew in her heart that her child was different from the thousands of other children in China.
Not long after, on the twenty-third day of the twelfth month, it was time to celebrate the kitchen god’s ascent to heaven to visit the Jade Emperor. Pai Mou Tan spent all day cooking, cleaning and making ritual preparations, but it wasn’t easy work without help from relatives or neighbors. Nobody ever visited them because they considered Pai Shih Lang an unnatural child. The townspeople would rather see them starve than lend them a bowl of rice. That evening Pai Mou Tan’s problems increased when Pai Shih Lang came running home in tears.
‘I am never going back to school again,’ he cried as he fell into his mother’s arms. ‘All day long the boys mock me because I have no father.’
‘Take no notice my son. Let them taunt you. They are only jealous,’ she said, gently stroking Pai Shih Lang’s tear-stained face.
She gave him a bowl of dumplings to cheer him up. Her face was calm but her heart was furious. She had always worshipped the gods, yet her life was misery and unable to control herself anymore she grabbed a broom, ran into the kitchen and beat the statue of the kitchen god, crying tearfully.
‘You wait and see, kitchen god. When my son becomes emperor, I will take revenge. I will kill everyone who has ever mocked me and their blood will run like a river.’
In her temper she broke the kitchen god’s nose and knocked out his front tooth and so the kitchen god rose to heaven in a battered and bloody state. As he bowed low before the Jade Emperor, the blood from his nose dripped on to the Emperor’s golden shoes.
‘What’s happened to you,’ asked the Emperor, slowly edging back from the kitchen god.
‘Pai Shih Lang’s mother beat me viciously. If her son becomes an emperor she will kill hundreds of people,’ gasped the kitchen god, through swollen and battered lips.
‘Oh, so that’s her plan,’ replied the Emperor. ‘I know some humans are difficult but that’s no reason for murdering them. She must be taught a lesson.’
The Jade Emperor spoke to the four generals who stood beside his throne. ‘On the festival of the earth god’s birthday, you must catch Pai Shih Lang and rip out the dragon sinews which give him immortal power. Every dragon sinew in his body must be torn away.’
Unaware of his fate, Pai Shih Lang continued to travel alone to school each day. But shortly before the earth god’s birthday, the old man at the stream drew the small boy close to him.
‘This is the last day I will carry you across the river. Your mother has been careless with the gods and your life is in trouble.’
The old man then told Pai Shih Lang everything about the kitchen god, the Jade Emperor and the punishment which lay in store for him.
‘But you must save me! Please, I beg you to help me in any way you can,’ cried Pai Shih Lang in terror.
‘I can do nothing to prevent this punishment,’ replied the old man. ‘The Jade Emperor has given a command and it must be obeyed, but I can offer you some advice. When the guards start to rip out your dragon sinews, it will be excruciatingly painful because they are ripping out your immortality. But however painful it is, you must never scream or open your mouth. You must grit your teeth and endure this torture. They will take the strength from your body but they will be unable to take your power of speech.’
As soon as the old man had finished speaking he disappeared into thin air, leaving Pai Shih Lang stunned and frightened. He realised the danger that lay in store and raced back home to tell his mother. She cuddled the little boy who was numb with terror, saying reassuringly, ‘When the day arrives I will hide you in a safe place, so secret that not even the Jade Emperor can find you.’
And so they carefully counted the days to the earth god’s festival, but unfortunately they counted a thirty day month instead of a twenty-nine day month. And so, mistakenly, Pai Shih Lang was sent to school on the second day of the second month, the day of his punishment.
As he crossed the fields, he noticed a black cloud moving slowly across the sky towards him. Suddenly a flash of lightning struck a tree three feet away from Pai Shih Lang and he realised with terror that his time had come. He spotted a nearby grave and ran for cover beneath the altar. He crept under the darkest corner of the altar and sat there shivering. But he could not fool the guards. The altar was smashed into fragments with a flash of lighting and the fiery-eyed guards descended from the heavens with a roll of thunder. They lifted Pai Shih Lang high into the air and with their bare hands they viciously ripped out his sinews one by one. Tears streamed down Pai Shih Lang’s face but he did not utter a single sound. When every dragon sinew had been torn away they threw Pai Shih Lang to the ground and disappeared into the heavens as quickly as they had come.
For a long time Pai Shih Lang lay on the ground, unable to move. Finally he gathered enough strength to pull himself to his feet and staggered home. But the Jade Emperor had not completely destroyed his power, he still had the immortal power in his dragon teeth and jade mouth.
PART 2: PAI SHIH LANG ENSNARES THE GODS
After being punished, Pai Shih Lang never left his home. He grew to hate the gods with a deep vengence, for if the kitchen god had not gossiped to the Jade Emperor he would still have complete power. Pai Shih Lang’s only worldly possession was a gourd, a present from his mother, so he decided to use this to exact revenge. He went into the kitchen and bellowed to the kitchen god, ‘Get into this bottle, you slanderer and liar!’
The kitchen god was helpless against the power of Pai Shih Lang’s dragon voice and with a gust of wind he entered the gourd. Everything that Pai Shih Lang said was recognised as truth by the gods and they had to obey.
From that day onwards, Pai Shih Lang travelled the world ensnaring every god who crossed his path. He discovered gods on rocky mountain sides, in wooded valleys, deep in rivers and on wide open plains. No god on the earth could refuse his command. After years of wandering, he arraived at T’ai Shan town in Shantung province. The town lay at the foot of the mountain where he had been conceived.
The wily goddess, Pi Hsia Yan Chun, was staying in the oldest temple in the town and had calculated the arrival of Pai Shih Lang. She sent four strong fire dragons to surround Pai Shih Lang before he entered the town. The dragons flew across the town and landed in a field where Pai Shih Lang was resting. They formed a circle of unbearable white heat around the field, completely immobilising Pai Shih Lang. But Pai Shih Lang was too hungry and exhausted to put a fight and the only thought on his mind was food. In the corner of the field a woman was sowing seeds in the freshly tilled soil. At her feet lay a basket covered with a cotton cloth.
‘Old woman, can you help me?’ he cried. ‘I have not eaten for three days. I will do anything for you if you give me a morsel of food.’
The old woman looked up from her work and slowly approached the hungry stranger. ‘I would help you if I could,’ she said, ‘but I only have one pancake and a bowl of rice soup for my son who has been working in the fields since dawn.’
Pai Shih Lang persisted with his request. ‘If you do not feed me, I will die. Just look at me. I am so thin the skin is hanging from my bones. You cannot leave me to die.’
The old woman shrugged her shoulders and replied, ‘Why should I feed an absolute stranger. You are not my cousin, you are not my friend, you are not my son. What right have you to make these demands?’
She paused for a moment and then continued, ‘If you kneel down and bow before me three times, calling me mother each time, I will give you food and water.’
In desperation Pai Shih Lang obeyed her and in return the satisfied woman gave him the pancake and bowl of rice. Pai Shih Lang fell upon the food devouring it with an unquenchable appetite. Only when he had finished eating the food did he look up to discover that the old woman and the fire dragons had disappeared.
Pai Shih Lang continued on his travels without a second thought to the events of the day. He worked his way through the temples in T’ai Shan town, snapping up gods and immortals at every opportunity and then he started his ascent of T’ai Shan mountain. The gods quivered in the grottoes and the immortals shook in the caves but there was no escape, with just one word from Pai Shih Lang they were trapped forever in the gourd. After a successful afternoon’s hunting Pai Shih Lang reached the summit of T’ai Shan where he was greeted by the sight of a breathtaking gold and jade palace. Above the doorway hung a sign ‘Pi Hsia Temple’. He fearlessly entered the temple courtyard where the goddess Pi Hsia Yan Chun sat in glory on a lotus flower throne.
He reached for the gourd hanging from his waist but before he touched it she demanded, ‘What do you think you are doing, Pai Shih Lang? Have you gone mad? Do you not recognise me as the old woman who fed and watered you less than four hours ago in the field. You called me mother three times and although you can imprison the other gods you cannot ensnare your mother.’
Pai Shih Lang was left speechless. How could he even think of threatening the woman he had called mother. In shame he knelt before her to apologise but as he knelt on the marble floor his gourd hit the ground and smashed into a hundred pieces.
Out came thousands of gods, tumbling on top of one another in a frenzy. Dazed and excited they dashed about the palace ecstatically. They climbed out of the windows, rushed through the doors, jumped into rivers, ran into caves and hid in grottoes. The mountain was alive with gods dashing backwards and forwards.
Pai Shih Lang lay in despair on the marble floor but the gods didn’t look back. The most important thing for them was to hide before he pulled himself together and thought of a new trick. Hundreds of gods and immortals had headed towards the nearest cottage and the nearest grotto. They pushed and pulled each other as they tried to jam into every available space. Pi Hsia Yan Chun watched them with satisfaction, but when she tried to count the number of gods who had squeezed into these two places she became totally confused. Instead she made an estimate, she named the cottage ‘The Ten Thousand Immortals Cottage’ and she named the grotto ‘The Thousand Buddha Grotto’. To this day people come to visit the gods and immortals here. Only the kitchen god ran back to find a warm, safe hiding place on the kitchen stove. He was in a good position there to watch everything that went on in the house. Even now people are afraid that he might gossip to the Jade Emperor if they are unkind, angry or deceitful. To prevent him spreading rumours they pin two poems to the kitchen wall. One says ‘When you go up to heaven, speak only good words’ and the other says ‘When you come down from Heaven, bring only good fortune.’
PART 3: PAI SHIH LANG IS FORGIVEN
When Pai Shih Lang had finally recovered from the shock of the broken gourd and the rampaging gods, Pi Hsia Yan Chun summoned him to her side.
‘My boy, you have brought thousands of gods and immortals to me and it is the Jade Emperor’s wish that I govern them kindly. The time is now right for you to see your father, Lu Tung Pin, again. He is ready to forgive you and welcome you into his arms. You will find him meditating in a cave at the foot of this mountain.’ Pai Shih Lang rushed off eagerly to see the father he had never known. He approached a deep river at the foot of the mountain and at its shallowest point he heard a rustling noise in the reeds on the opposite side. Looking up he saw his father standing there with outstretched arms. Before Pai Shih Lang could open his mouth, his father spoke.
‘My son, I am waiting here for you. Do not be afraid. If you take my hand you will be safe.’
Pai Shih Lang stretched out his hands towards his father and the moment that their fingers touched Pai Shih Lang disappeared. Pai Shih Lang had returned to his father’s body. But Pai Shih Lang was not forgotten. To this day, the village where he lived is called Pai Temple village and the place he called home is now famous as Pai Shih Lang temple.
CHOKE ON THAT, FREUD.