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.

Rethinking a classic story

“The Picture on the Kitchen Wall,” a story from the classic Sophia Fahs book From Long Ago and Many Lands, has some serious problems: it’s arguably not very Chinese, it contains a number of hidden biases, etc. This story is, in fact, a good example of why we should question everything that Sophia Fahs wrote — even though she remains the most brilliant Unitarian Universalist religious educator we’ve ever seen, she was not by any means perfect.

“The Picture on the Kitchen Wall” purports to tell the back story of the Kitchen God, the minor deity in Chinese popular religion whose image is mounted somewhere near the kitchen stove. Each year, according to most accounts, the Kitchen God leaves the kitchen and reports to a higher deity (sometimes identified in English-language accounts as the Jade Emperor) about the good and bad deeds of the family in whose house he lives. In Fahs’s retelling of the Kitchen God’s story, he was originally a historical figure, a person named Chang Kung.

In tracing Chang Kung, I find him mentioned in a book of maxims attributed to Emperor K’ang-hsi [Kangxi], who ruled China from 1661-1722, an early emperor of the Ch’ing [Qing] dynasty. These maxims appeared in English translation in 1817 as The Sacred Edict, Containing Sixteen Maxims of Emperor Kang-He, Amplified by his Son, the Emperor Yoong-Ching, trans. Rev. William Milne (London: Black, Kingsbury, Parbury, and Allen, 1817), pp. 51-52:

“Formerly, nine generations of Chang-kung-e inhabited the same house; and a Mr. Chin of Keang Chow had seventy persons who all ate together. Those who belong to one family, and are of one surname, should think of their ancestors; rather exceed, than be deficient in respect; rather surpass, than be wanting in kindness. When there is prosperity, rejoice mutually, by an interchange of social affections; when adversity, sympathize mutually, by affording reciprocal aids. In building a family temple to sacrifice to ancestors; in erecting a domestic academy for instructing youth; in purchasing a charity field for the supply of indigent brethren; and in correcting the family calendar, to interweave the names of the more distant relatives — let the same mutual aid be afforded.”

Chang Kung continued to be mentioned by later English-speaking writers as the nineteenth century progressed. A typical example, with an unpleasantly racist conclusion, may be found in Arthur H. Smith D.D., Village Life in China: A Study in Sociology (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., Publishers of Evangelical Literature, 1899), p. 27:

Continue reading “Rethinking a classic story”

Pangu and the beginning of the universe

Another story for liberal religious kids; this time, from Chinese mythology.

At the beginning, there was little difference between heaven and earth. All was chaos, and heaven and earth had no distinct forms, like the inside of a chicken’s egg. Within this chaos, the god Pangu was born inside the egg.

Pangu grew and grew inside the egg. After 18,000 years, the egg somehow opened up. Some say that Pangu stretched himself inside the egg, and shattered the egg’s shell into pieces.

Once the egg had shattered open, the lightest part of it, the part that was like the white of a chicken’s egg, rose upwards, and became the heavens. The heavier part of the egg, like the yolk of a chicken’s egg, sank downwards and became the earth. Pangu took a hammer and an adze, and cut the connections between earth and the heavens. Then to keep earth and the heavens from merging together once again, Pangu stood between them, serving as the pillar that kept them apart.

Pangu lived within earth and the heavens, standing between them. And one day he began to transform. He became more sacred than the earth, and he became more divine than the heavens. The heavens began to rise, going up one zhang, or about ten feet, each day. The earth began to grow thicker, thickening by one zhang each day. And as the heavens rose, so too Pangu grew; he grew one zhang taller each day. And this continued for 18,000 years: each day, the earth grew thicker, and the heavens rose higher, and Pangu grew taller. Continue reading “Pangu and the beginning of the universe”