Chinese Ancient Tales (4)
 
 
                                                           THE WHITE SNAKE (Baishe Zhuan )

A Chinese mythical tale of wide appeal is that of the White Snake. The are four characters in it--Bai Suzhen, Xiaoqing, Xu Xian and Fahai.

Suzhen is a white snake thousands of years old and, having acquired transcendant powers through self-cultivation, changes herself into a beautiful woman. Xiaoqing, her maid, is a green snake who has likewise assumed the form of a girl. Bored by the lonesome life in the mountains, they go to visit the beautiful city of Hangzhou.

They are caught in the rain at the side of West Lake near a place called Broken Bridge. Here they are offered an umbrella by Xu Xian, a young shop keeper at the apothecary in town. Suzhen (also known as the White Lady) falls in love with him and asks him to call on her the next day to get back his umbrella.

At their next meeting, their mutual admiration quickly blossoms into marriage. They live happily together fora few months until Xu Xian meets Fahai, Abbot of Jinshan Monastery.

This crafty, meddlesome hypocrite, jealous of the happiness of the lay world, tells Xu Xian that he has fallen into the trap of a demon and that his life is in danger.

At length, instigated by the wicked monk, Xu Xian goes home and plies the White Lady with a medicated wine till drunkenness restored her to her original form. The sight sends Xu Xian into shock and a lasting stupor.

To save her husband, the White Lady goes up the Kunlun Mountain to steala divine cure-all herb at the risk of her life. With tender care and Xiaoqing's assistance, she nurses Xu Xian back to health. But the loving yet apprehensive Xu Xian is abducted by Fahai and detained in the monastery.

An open, fierce sturggle unfolds, culminating in the White Lady besieging Jinshan Monastery with a flood. She is defeated because she is far gone in pregnancy and has to run for her life with Xiaoqing. In the meantime, Xu Xian also escapes from the monastery.

Husband and wife meet once again at the Broke Bridge. The White Lady's love triumphs over her disappointment in the weak-willed behaviour of her husband and over the fiery temper of Xiaoqing, who wants to punish the ungrateful Xu Xian severely. The couple make up and live quietly in a nearby town until the birth of their baby.

The relentless Fahai tracks them down and, despite the infant's wails and the husband's entreaties, traps the White Lady and imprisons her under power of black magic in Leifeng Pagoda not far from West Lake.

Xiaoqing escapes but returns many years afterwards to burn down the pagoda and save her mistress.

The story of the White Snake, which reflects the young people's longing for free love under the yoke of feudalism, has been a popular theme for many genres of art and literature fiction, the stage and many handicrafts. One of the mural paintings at the new Beijing International Airport illustrates this well-known story in a distinctively original style.

The setting of this fascinating story never fails to interest visitors to Hangzhou, but the ruins of Leifeng Pagoda are nowhere to be found. The pagoda in actual life was not burned down as told in the story but crumbled of age and vanished. The local people, it is said, hating it as the prison of the gentle White Lady, made no effort to maintain it.

 
 
 
                                         THE GODDESS OF MERCY ( Guanyin or Guanshiyin)

This is one of the principal Bodhisattvas of the Mahayana (Great Vehicle) School of Buddhism, originally called Avalokitesavaa in Sanskrit.

It is believed that when Buddhism was introduced to China, it deity was probably blended with goddess of a certain Chinese faith or legend and assumed the form of a woman in people's mind as well as in statues and portraits. She came to be called "Guanshiyin" or "Guanyin". Later, as a free translation. She was known popularly among the foreign communities and Western visitors as the Goddess of Mercy.

Like the Bodhisattva Mahasthamapra, she is placed by the side of Amitabha Buddha on the dais of a Buddhist temple. The trio are called " The Three Saints from Western Paradise".

According to a Chinese sutra, she has great compassion for human suffering; men and women will be relieved of their distress provided only that they appeal to her name. She is said to have appeared in any one of 32 forms: with willow branches, with a halo, dressed in white, lying on a lotus, on the moonlit water, with a kindly expression, with palms pressed together, with a thousand hands and a thousand eyes, and so on.

As a religious statue, artisans in the old days preferred to mould her into a sedate, benevolent goddess with no anomalies.

She figures in many classical novel and drama as a divinity full of mercy and compassion, ready to render help to any one the least bit deserving. She is usually depicted as possessing a holy beauty, with a fair complexion and crimson lips, elegant eyebrows and graceful eyes, an attractive hairdo and flowing garments, holding a horsetail duster in her right hand and a vase of sweet magic dew in her left. With a flick of the willow twigs she sprinkles the dew over the human world, relieving all mortal beings of their sufferings.

Her power undoubtedly emanated from the imagination of a world constantly troubled by natural disasters and social injustices, in which the distressed sought divinity on whom to pin their hope.

As a work of art, she is portrayed as riding, sitting or standing on various animals: a tortoise, an elephant, a lion, a dragon or some other mythical beast. This stems from the various episodes in fiction and folklore, which have been wove about her personality.

 
 
 
                                                           A PIONEER IN MEDICINE ( Hua Tuo)

Hua Tuo was a famous doctor who lived 1,700 years ago during the Three Kingdom Period. He not only read widely but travelled extensively in his medical practice. His keen powers of observation, tireless penchant for research and ability to acculately sum up his experiences enabled him to perfect his healing art ceaselessly.

Like Bianque before him, he had a talent for making diagnosis by observing the patients' outward symptoms. Once he found a group of people drinking in a tavern and was struck by the complexion of one of them. He went over to ask the man how he felt. The reply was that he felt quite alright, just as usual. Hua warned him that he was seriously ill and that he must not drink any more. The man died soon afterwards.

A versatile practitioner, he was expert in acupuncture. The discovery of jiaji, an acupoint on the spine frequently used to day, is attributed to him. He wrote Hua Tuo's Book on Acupuncture, which remained one of the most authoritative works on the subject for many years after his death.

One of his great contributions was the development of an oral anaesthetic for use in surgical operations. The prescription consists chiefly of datura blossoms and certain other wild poisonous herbs, all of which grow abundantly in China's southern regions. His method later spread the Arab world.

A famous patient operated on by him was General Guan Yu. In a battle Guan Yu had been injured in the arm by a lethally poisonous arrow. Invited to give treatment, Hua Tuo cut open the lesion and scraped the poison off the bone. All the while, the general went on playing chess without a wince. His wound soon healed and the patient suffered no disability whatever.

With the use of his oral anaesthetic, he is said to have performed many successful major operations involving internal organs. He must have had a fine grasp of anatomy and physiology.

He was also an early exponent of physical exercise for its curative and preventive value. By observing and imitating the movements of certain animals (like the tiger, bear, monkey and deer) and birds, he designed a set of callisthenics which he called "The Game of Five Animals". With this, he cured certain chronic diseases, notably disorders of the digestive system, and the game became quite popular in certain regions of the country during his lifetime.

But this giant in Chinese medicine did not come to a happy end. Called in by Cao Cao, the Prime Minister, to treat his migraine, the doctor relieved him of his pain instantly with the application of a single acupuncture needle at the effective point. Cao Cao wanted him to remain at court as his personal physician. Unwilling to spend his time in the service of a handful of people, Hua Tuo declined on the excuse of an ailing mother who needed his constant attention. When Cao Cao found out this was an evasion, he had him arrested and finally put to death.

While in prison, the doctor asked his gaoler to help smuggle his medical works to the outside world for the benefit of the people. Unable to persuade the gaoler, who was afraid to take the risk, Hua Tuo comitted his works to the flames. This was a grest loss to the medical heritage of the country.

 
 
 
                                                       AN INGENIOUS CRAFTSMAN ( Lu Ban)

In the old days, Lu Ban was considered to be the founder and patron saint of the building trade.

He lived and worked in the 5th century B.C. during the last years of the Spring and Autumn Period and already in his own lifetime became far and wide known for his great ingenuity as an artisan. He is said to have seen the inventor of many carpenter's tools, including the saw, the planer, the ink marker, the drill, ect. Most of these are still being used today. The stone mill is also credited to him.

His name lived on and many interesting episodes about him have been passed on by word of mouth and enjoyed with great relish by the working people throughout the ages. Most of them are very instructive and though-provoking, though some may be out and out legends.

For instance, his leg was once cut by a kind of weed while working. He noticed that weed has sawteeth on the edges. This is how he though of making the first saw in China.

Once he carved a phoenix. The result was so lifelike that when it was finished it flew away. On another occasion, a wooden bird make by him stayed in the air for three days.

Then, there is the story about a stone block he chiselled for a kindly poor widow. He knew a bridge-builder nearby would need the block at the last moment to complete his bridge before the deadline and enough money would be paid to the widow for it to provide her daughter with a dowry.

Another legend about him goes like this: The prince of a certain state wanted to have some corner towers added to his palace and demanded that each tower should have nine beams, eighteen pillars and seventy-two ridges. Failure to satisfy his fancy led to the execution of several master-builders. Now the order to build the towers was given to a young artisan whose father had just lost his life in this way. The young man was driven to distraction by this impossible job and was about to commit suicide when he was stopped by Lu Ban who happened to be passing by. He told the young man never to despair but to keep on looking for a solution. At least he should wait three days to see if he, Lu Ban, could help him.

Lu Ban, who had no ready answer either, brooded over the problem for two days. On the third, he saw a small boy selling katydids in tiny cages. This gave him an idea! For the rest of the day and night he tried manipulating sorghum stalks until, by the next morning, he had produced a bird-cage of very complicated and magnificent structure. He had the model sent to the discouraged building artisan who examined it carefully. Sure enough, on counting the parts, he found--9 beams, 18 pillars and 72 ridges.

Lu Ban, the symbol of industriousness, thoughtfulness and ingenuity, always makes a good subject for painters, sculptors and other artists, carrying with it the eternal message that wisdom comes form labour to those who think hard enough.

 
 
 
                                                              Hua Mulan ( Mulan Cong Jun )

Among the works of sculpture, whether in jade, stone or ivory, you might see a youth of great beauty attired in the full regalia of an ancient general. This is most probably the intrepid Hua Mulan, a girl who joined the army as a man.

The earliest praised of Mulan are found in an anonymous epic of the Northern Dynasties (386-581 A.D.). Later folk story-tellers and playwrights gave her a surname (Hua) and wove various details about her adventures to bring them to life.

According to one version, Hua Hu who had served in the army with an outstanding record was now old and in poor health, although his name still remained on the list of the reserves. One day, he received an urgent mobilization order because of a highly critical situation at the northern border brought on by repeated foreign incursions. His second daughter Mulan who first took the message was set to thinking...How could Father go at his age? This was out of the question. The only other male in the family was her brother who was too young for military service. The call, however, had to be answered by someone. She made up her mind to enlist disguised as a young man, using her brother's name.

She prevailed upon her parents, who of course did not agree at first.

On her way to the front, she met with a few other draftees, all headed for the border garrison. But before being formally enlisted, they were drawn into the fight by battle cries. It turned out that the commander of the border troops was surrounded by the enemy. From the very beginning, Mulan distinguished herself in extricating the marshal from his impasse.

From then on, she rendered one meritorious service after another until, 12 years afterwards, she was promoted to be a general without anyone suspecting her of being a woman. In the meantime, the contending forces remained locked in a stalemate.

One night, as Mulan was personally making a round of inspection, she heard the fluttering of wild birds in the north. It occurred to her at once that they must have been startled by the approaching enemy. This she reported to the marshal.

Disposition of troops was quickly made and an ambush laid for the enemy forces which had come out on a surprise night attack. The invaders were taken by surprise in a decisive engagement and wiped out, with their leader captured by Mulan. The border war ended in victory, achieved in no small measure through the outstanding exploits of Mulan.

The Chinese forces returned in triumph. Imperial honours were shoed on Mulan. Instead of accepting the high official post offered her, she begged leave to go home to aid and comfort her parents in their old age.

Meanwhile, the marshal who entertained a grateful admiration and a growing fondness for his young general off offered his only daughter in marriage. Mulan had to find one excuse after another to put off the matter.

Unconvinced, the marshal paid a personal visit to Mulan at her cottage with an entourage of her former comrades-in-arms to press the match. When they discovered her to be a pretty woman, their surprise was as immense as their admiration.

Mulan, throughout the ages, has been held up by the Chinese people as a symbol of patriotism, a paragon of filial piety, and a woman of outstanding valor and heroism.

 
 

 
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