Chinese Ancient Tales (1)
                                                                                                       ASHMA (Ashma)

In the Stone Forest in Lunan county, Yunnan province there is a rock named "Ashma Rock". When you call to it, "Ashma , I am here," it will echo back, "бн I am here." Who is Ashma? Why a rock? Here is a story.

Ashma is the young heroine of a long narrative poem, which has been handed down orally for generations by the Sani people ( a branch of the Yi ethic minority) in Yunnan. The poem sings of the indomitable character with which she fought for freedom and happiness against oppression and forced marriage.

Born into a poor family living in High Ajdee, she grew up as fair as she was deft at work and clever in mind. In fact, she was so beautiful that young man all over the land wished to woo her.

One of her suitors was Ajii, wayward son of the wicked big landlord Rabubalor, who lived in Low Ajdee. The father asked Hajow, a local official, to exert his power to act as the go-between in asking for Ashma's hand for his son.

Ashma's parents did not want to see their dear daughter marry and leave them. Hajow wagged his tongue and convinced them that girls must marry at the right age. At the mention of Rabubalor's name, however, Ashma, who had just come in from shepherding, grew angry. She would have nothing to do with the landlord or his son, declaring that clear water would not mix with foul, lambs would not lie with jackals.

But with-nilly, Ashma was snatched away by Rabubalor's kinsmen who had come on horseback with Hajow, feasted in Ashma's house and pronounced the marriage sealed. Before begin taken away, Ashma asked her desolate parents to call Ahay back to come to her rescue.

Now Ahay was Ashma's elder brother who, a good hunter and shepherd, was well-built and had a heart of gold. At this time he was far away from home roaming with his herd in search of water and fresh grass. He had a bad dream and rushed home to see how things were. Upon learning of his sister's plight, he set out immediately on a fleet mare with bow and arrow to find the kidnappers.

Meanwhile, in Rabubalor's house, Ashma's will remained firm in spite of promises of wealth, threats and cruel whippings. She was locked up in a dark dungeon, but her hopes were aroused when she heard Ahay calling her.

Ajii barred the iron gate to keep Ahay out and challenged him to various difficult contests. So Ahay, after a ride of three days and nights, had to spend another three days and nights in difficult contests, all of which he won.

Still barred from entering, he shot three arrows at the house, one of which struck the shrine, another the wall and the third the door. These events augured ill for the family, for the arrows were magic and could only be plucked out by good people, but not wicked. Rabubalor tried all means but not even the help of strong men and five buffaloes was of any avail. So he had to promise to let brother and sister go if they would pluck out the arrows.

Out they came at a slight pull by Ashma's dainty hand.

The landlord did not give up so easily. He asked Ahay to stay for the night before setting out with his sister the next morning. During the night, three tigers were released by him and his kinsmen into the tower where Ahay was staying. The next morning, to their dismay, they found all three tigers killed and duly skinned. They had to let them go.

Their path led along a ravine and a high mountain lake. Rabubalor and his men breached the dam of the lake, releasing torrents of water into the ravinejust when Ashma and Ahay were passing through. Ahay tried hard to help his sister, but after a long and desperate struggle, Ashma was swept away by a powerful whirlpool.

When the waters receded, Ashma appeared, transformed into a rock that looked as graceful and dauntless as when she was alive. There the brave and beautiful girl still stands, ready to echo your call.

On the basis of this epic, the beautiful film Ashma was made in the mid-60' and is still screened occasionally. An important change was made in the screenplay: Ahay, instead of being a brother, is presented as Ashma's sweetheart, with a view to making the story more poignant and appealing.

                                                              CHANG'E FLIES TO THE MOON ( Chang'e Ben Yue )

Houyi (see further on the story Houyi she Ri ),seeking perpetual youth ,obtained the elixir of immortality from Queen Mother of the West who lived in the Kunlun Mountains. Returning to his palace,he confided the good news to his wife Chang'e, a lady graceful of carriage and unparalleled of beauty ,very much loved by her husband.

One day , when Houyi was out ,Chang'e secretly swallowed the potion in the hope that she would become immortal. The result was quite unexpected: she felt herself becoming light ,so light that she flew up in spite of herself , drifting and floating in the air ,until she reached the palace of the moon.

She is regarded by later generations as the goddess of the moon.

This beautiful story has always been liked by the Chinese and provides a favourite allusion for poets and writers.

Chairman Mao Zedong's poem in memory of his martyred wife Yang Kaihui has these well-known lines:

The lonely moon goddess spreads her ample sleeves. To dance for these loyal souls in infinite space.

Here, in the Chinese original , the name Chang'e is used instead of "moon goddess".

The figure of Chang'e, a beauty dressed in the elegant garments of a bygone age floating towards the moon, naturally supplies unending inspiration for painters and sculptors.

                                        THE EIGHT IMMORTALS CROSS THE SEA (Ba Xian Guo Hai)

Legends about the Eight Immortals started to circulate orally long ago among the people and were recorded in the works of writers of various dynasties-Tang, Song, Yuan and Ming. But it was only with Wu Yuantai of the Ming dynasty who wrote the Emergence of the Eight Immortals and Their Travels to the East that the Eight began to be clearly distinguished as the following.

1) Tieguai Li (also called Li Tieguai, meaning Li with the Iron Crutch) was a lay Taoist by the name of Li Xuan who received his Enlightenment from the Supreme Patriarch of Taoism himself. Once his soul left his body to travel abroad but had to enter the corpse of a starved beggar when he found his own body mistakenly burnt by his disciple. He then had an earthly form with unkempt hair, a dirty face, a bare abdomen and a crippled leg. He blew water on the beggar's bamboo cane, changing it into an iron cane or crutch. Hence his popular name. He is also generally shown carrying a gourd said to contain magic medicines.

2) Han Zhongli ( or Zhongli Han) was given the first divine revelations by Li Tieguai and then went into the mountains to seek the Light. After his return to the world, he killed a tiger with a flying scimitar and changed copper into gold to help the poor. In the end, he ascended to upper realms of immortality with his brother. He is usually shown with a feather fan in a comfortable reclining posture.

3) Zhang Guolao was a hermit in the Zhongtiao Mountains for a long time. He is said to have already been several hundred years old in the reign of Empress Wu Zetian (690-705A.D.). Summoned by the Empress, he feigned death by magic in order to avoid meeting her. Later people saw him in the mountains near Hengzhou. He used to travel on a white donkey which could cover thousands of leagues in a single day. When taking a rest, he would fold up the donkey as if it were made of paper and put it into his suitcase. Emperor Xuan Zong summoned him to the capital. He played tricks to amuse the Sovereign, who bestowed several honorary titles on him. He is usually depicted riding backward on his donkey, that is, facing the tail of the beast.

4) He Xiagngu was a Tang dynasty girl of Zengcheng, Guangdong province, living at a place called Yunmu Xi(Ravine of Mica). She became an immortal at the age of fourteen by taking mica powder. After that, she was so agile that her body could float from one peak to another collecting fruit for her mother. Another source says that she was a woman Taoist of Yongzhou during the song dynasty, famous for her fortune-telling.

5) Lan Caihe , according to some sources, was a hermaphrodite, usually dressed in blue tatters, with one foot bare and the other in a boot, wandering through the country, begging along the thoroughfares and singing drunkenly to the cadence of castanets. One day in an inn, music of flutes and month-organs was heard descending from the sky. Lan was suddenly wafted off into the air and vanished.

6) Lu Dongbin was a native of Shaanxi(some way, of Shanxi) province and lived during the Tang dynasty. After failing twice at the imperial examinations during the years 841-846A.D., he led a vagrant life for years. At the age of sixty-four, he met Han Zhongli, who taught him the secrets of alchemy. Then he became a hermit in the Zhongnan Mountain to seek the Way of Immortality. Later, he roamed the empire and was said to have killed vicious dragons at Jianghuai, played tricks with cranes at Yueyang, and performed various other magic arts to rid the world of evils. He was given an official title by a Yuan emperor and came to be generally known as Lu Zu(Patriach Lu). Taoists considered him to be one of the five supreme deities of the North.

7) Han Xiangzi is said to be a distant nephew of the great Tang writer-statesman Han Yu. Intelligent and understand in nature, he managed, once in an early winter, to make rose-peonies blossom in a few days in different colors, each blossom carrying a written poem, to the great astonishment of his uncle. He tried to proselyte HanYu to renounce the world for Taoism. When Yu fell into disfavor and was banished to Chaoyang in the far south, he met with snow on the way. Suddenly Xiangzi came from nowhere to bid him farewell. Before parting, Xiangzi told about future happening, all of which came true.

8) Cao Guojiu is said to have lived during the Song dynasty and his name was Cao You, Guojiu being a semi-official title for the brothers of the empress. He had a brother who, taking advantage of his imperial connexion, became a notorious evildoer. Ashamed of his brother and afraid of becoming implicated, he scattered his wealth among the poor and went into the immortalized by Han Zhongli and Lu Dongbin. Another source says that he left his mortal remains at a Taoist temple in Xuzhou.

The Eight were called the "roaming immortals" in Taoist legends. Their images appear in all sorts of arts and crafts, including furniture, porcelain, paintings and embroideries, often to convey the idea of a leisurely, carefree life.

The best known tale that involves all of them together is Ba Xian Guo Hai or The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea . It describes how, when crossing a sea in their wanderings, each of them used a different object( a walking cane, a fan, a scimitar,etc.) as a vessel. This has given rise to an everyday saying: when people try to accomplish the same task by different methods, they are said to be emulating the example of the Eight Immortals crossing the sea.

They should not be confused with the "Eight Immortals of the Winecup" ( Yin Zhong Ba Xian) . The latter are eight well-known poets of the Tang dynasty who used to drink together since they were just as fond of wine as they were devoted to poetry.

                                   LIANG SHANBO AND ZHU YINGTAI ( Liang Shanbo yu Zhu Yingtai )

In China one may chance to hear the music of a violin concerto under the same title. The instruments used are western but the style and the theme distinctively Chinese. This combination you will most probably find highly enjoyable.

The story, which hinges on the love-tragedy of a young couple, is also staged from time to time in various types of Chinese opera.

Yingtai was the daughter and only child of Squire Zhu. She wanted to go to school and get an education, which in old Chinese was almost the sole right of boys whose families could afford it. She prevailed upon her father who, in a moment of doting fondness, agreed that she might go to study under a well-known tutor ni the guise of a young man, accompanied by a maid, disguised as "his" page.

She stayed away from home for three years and studied at a private school run by a single tutor. While there she fell hopelessly in love with one of her few schoolmates, Liang Shanbo, who never for a moment suspected that she was a girl.

The day of parting came at the end of her three-year term. Yingtai, revealing her true identity to the master's wife (who had all along suspected as much), asked her to be the match-maker for her and Shanbo when the opportunity should present itself.

Shanbo accompanied her on the short journey out of the mountain in which the school was situated, in order ot bid her farewell on the main road. Along the way, Yingtai repeatedly hinted about her love for him by comparing their relationship to that between love-birds, flowers sharing the same stem, pairs of fish swimming in the stream... But the naive Shanbo laughed at her for using inadequate similes. In the end, Yingtai told him that she had a younger sister at home whom she would like to introduce to him, but he must make haste and come before a certain festival to press his suit.

Back at school, the master's wife told Shanbo the truth about Yingtai. Shanbo lost no time in going after her.

In the meantime, during Yingtai's absence, her father had betrothed her to a young man of a wealthy and influential family by the name of Ma, whom Yingtai had never met. She was stricken with grief by the news and told her father about the young man who had won her heart. All pleas and entreaties were of no avail; the father who had been indulgent about her seeking an education in disguise was now adamant. A breach of the engagement would be unthinkable, for it would mean a scandal, a loss of face - that the daughter of a respectable family should have chosen her own husband and that in spite of her father!

So when Shanbo arrived on the scene, all that Yingtai could get from her father was the permission to meet him for a few minutes. At their brief meeting, she told him what had happened and the young couple poured out of their grief and despair to each other in heart-rending songs and tears of disappointment.

Shanbo went away broken-hearted and soon died of melancholy at home.

The sad news reached Yingtai just before the appointed date of her wedding to young Ma. She agreed to go to the bridegroom's house only on condition that on the way she be allowed to stop at the tomb of Shanbo to mourn his death. The father had no alternative but to acquiesce.

At Shanbo's grave, Yingtai ordered the bridal procession to stop, got down from the palanquin and took off her red wedding gown. Under it was a second dress, all white, the color of mourning in old China. She lamented the death of Shanbo and their sad fate. In her anguish, she smashed herself headlong into the tomb-stone and was killed instantly. The tomb opened up and took Yingtai inside.

From time to time in after-years a pair of large butterflies could be seen over the grave flittering happily among the flowers. People say they are reincarnations of Shanbo and Yingtai.


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