Peach Blossom Spring

“Peach Blossom Spring,” or “Peach Blossom Fountain,” is a well-known Chinese story by T’ao Yuan-ming, whose literary name was T’ao the Hermit (or recluse). I put part of this story on an earlier blog post here, and am finally posting the whole story, in this translation Herbert Giles, Gems of Chinese Literature, pp. 107-108:

Somewhere around the year 390, when the north of China had been conquered by the Mongol invaders from central Asia, and refugees from the invasion filled the south, there lived a fisherman in the village of Wu-ling. These were the years when the emperors of the Ch’in dynasty sat on the throne of China. The Ch’in emperors were powerful, and while some people said they did what had to be done in the face of barbarian invasions, there were others who said that government officials were too often vain and greedy, and did not have the interests of the ordinary people at heart.

To get back to the fisherman of Wu-ling:

One day, this fisherman was out on the river, and he decided to follow the river upstream. When he came to a place where the river branched, he took the right or left branch without paying attention to where he was going.

Suddenly he rounded a bend in the river and came upon a grove of peach-trees in full bloom. These peach trees grew close along the banks of the river for as far as he could see, until the next bend in the river, with not a tree of any other kind in sight. The fisherman was filled with surprise at beauty of the scene and the delightful perfume of the flowers. He continued upstream, wondering how far along the river these trees grew.

At last he came to the end of the peach trees. By now, this branch of the river was scarcely bigger than a stream, and here also the river ended, at the foot of a hill. But in the side of this hill there was a cave. A faint light was coming from the cave, so the fisherman tied up his boat to a tree, and crept in through the narrow entrance of the cave.

 

So he made fast his boat, and crept in through a narrow entrance, which shortly ushered him into a new world of level country, of fine houses, of rich fields, of fine pools, and of luxuriance of mulberry and bamboo. Highways of traffic ran north and south; sounds of crowing cocks and barking dogs were heard around; the dress of the people who passed along or were at work in the fields was of a strange cut; while young and old alike appeared to be contented and happy.

One of the inhabitants, catching sight of the fisherman, was greatly astonished; but, after learning whence he came, insisted on carrying him home, and killed a chicken and placed some wine before him. Before long, all the people of the place had turned out to see the visitor, and they informed him that their ancestors had sought refuge here, with their wives and families, from the troublous times of the House of Ch’in, adding that they had thus become finally cut off from the rest of the human race. They then enquired about the politics of the day, ignorant of the establishment of the Han dynasty, and of course of the later dynasties which had succeeded it. And when the fishermen told them the story, they grieved over the vicissitudes of human affairs.

Each in turn invited the fisherman to his home and entertained him hospitably, until at length the latter prepared to take his leave. “It will not be worth while to talk about what you have seen to the outside world,” said the people of the place to the fisherman, as he bade them farewell and returned to his boat, making mental notes of his route as he proceeded on his homeward voyage.

When he reached home, he at once went and reported what he had seen to the Governor of the district, and the Governor sent off men with him to seek, by the aid of the fisherman’s notes, to discover this unknown region. But he was never able to find it again. Subsequently, another desperate attempt was made by a famous adventurer to pierce the mystery; but he also failed, and died soon afterwards of chagrin, from which time forth no further attempts were made.

Giles claims the story is really about how childhood innocence can never be recovered, and I suppose that’s a valid interpretation, but I don’t find it a compelling interpretation. The story could also be read as being related to Hesiod’s Age of Gold (Works and Days, ll. 109–201), that time when humankind was in an ideal state; or a story related to the ancient Hebrew story of a Garden of Eden; but both Hesiod and the ancient Hebrew story make it clear that the early age of innocence ended at some point, while in the country of the Peach Blossom Spring that age continues. I prefer to interpret this story as a utopian vision, and thus as a critical commentary on contemporary political realities. Or the story could mean all of these things, or none of them, and really we will never know for the way to the land beyond the Peach Blossom Spring has been lost.

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