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Du Fu’s life does not sound like the model of happy success, but history judged him very differently. Although his work was initially dismissed and garnered little attention even in the era immediately after his death, in remained in circulation and then suddenly began to grow in popularity. Each generation regarded it more highly than the previous and it became worked into the aesthetic and philosophical framework of Chinese society. Today Du Fu’s works of poetry (from across all classical Chinese genres) are among the most famous works of Chinese literature. His poetry has had a unique seminal influence on almost all subsequent poetry and he has been canonized as one of the greatest Chinese writers.
In late sun, the river and hills are beautiful,
The spring breeze bears the fragrance of flowers and grass.
The mud has thawed, and swallows fly around,
On the warm sand, mandarin ducks are sleeping.
(translated by Mark Alexander)
The largest body of fresh water in China is Lake Poyang in Jianxi Province. The size of the lake fluctuates tremendously between the wet season when the lake’s surface area is 4400 square kilometers and the dry season when it shrinks down to 1000 square kilometers. So every year Lake Poyang shrinks from being the size of Utah’s Great Salk Lake into being the size of Lake Champlain. Lake Poyang is the southern wintering ground of a huge number of migratory birds. It is also the site of what was reputedly the world’s largest naval battle. The north side of the lake is treacherous to navigate and it is said that more than 100 ships have vanished there in the past hundred years. There is a temple on the northern shore of the lake named Laoye Miao (temple of the Old Fellow) and locals call the waters near the temple the “death area” and the “demon horns” because so many ships are lost in that area.
Lake Poyang did not always exist. In 400 AD it was an inhabited plain along the Gan River, however when the Yangtze River switched courses the entire plain flooded. Located halfway along the Yangtze, the lake has great strategic importance.
In the middle of the fourteenth century, the Yuan dynasty had lost control of China. Various groups of rebels fought each other to seize the throne of heaven. By summer of 1363 AD there were two main contenders for control of China, Zhu Yuanzhang, the charismatic but ugly leader of the red turbans, and Chen Youliang, the king of Duhan which controlled the most powerful fleet on the Yantze. The former had a smaller force of maneuverable ships while the latter had greater numbers of men (Chen’s navy was believed to have had more than 600,000 men) and a large number of huge tower boats—literal floating fortresses. The total number of combatants on the lake is reckoned to have numbered over 850,000 men.
Unfortunately for Chen Youliang, the battle started as the lake began to dry out. To prevent the dauntless troops of Zhu Yuanzhang from scaling the tower boats with hooks and ladders, Chen ordered his boats to hold close formation, but this turned out to be ruinous since Zhu launched fire boats into the consolidated line. Hundreds of thousands of sailors died in the horrible fiery battle, and Zhu Yuangzhang went on to found the Ming dynasty, one of China’s greatest dynasties.
Over the centuries, the lake itself kept claiming ships at an astonishing rate. Some of the stories are quite colorful. In 1945 a Japanese ship loaded with plundered treasure sank almost instantly, drowning all 200 sailors and a large treasure. A team of Japanese divers attempted to salvage the wreck but all the divers drowned except for the expedition leader who went permanently insane. After the war, several members of an American team also drowned. On just one day, August 3rd, 1985, thirteen ships foundered or sank.
Some people have tried to ascertain what makes the lake so treacherous. Some experts believe that a huge sunken sandbank tends to cause whirlpools and unexpected currents. Local legend is more inventive. According to myth, an immense capricious turtle lives beneath the lake. Although the turtle often sinks ships, he can also be benevolent. The story of how the Laoye Miao temple came to be built is that the turtle intervened in the great naval battle of 1368 by directly rescuing Zhu Yuangzhang. When Zhu took the title of Hongwu emperor he returned and built the temple to the ancient turtle.Although boats are still vanishing today, it is a less bigger problem than the vanishing of the lake itself. The migratory birds are relentlessly poached and the river fish are going extinct from overfishing and industrial waste. A more direct threat comes from the great three gorges dam upstream on the Yangtze. Because of the immense dam the lake appears to be drying out, and in January of 2012 it only had a surface area of 200 square kilometers. If the situation continues, the enigmatic and treacherous lake may go back to being a dry plain like it was in 400 AD.
In Greek mythology, Apollo was the god of healing (as well as the god of light, poetry, music, and sundry other good things). Yet Apollo was surpassed as a healer by his son the demigod Asclepius. Asclepius should be one of the most exalted figures in classical mythology, yet his story is ambiguous and troubling (which is perhaps a more fitting tribute to the complexity and heartache of the healers’ arts). The mother of Asclepius was a mortal woman, Coronis, who cheated on Apollo with a mortal lover. When a crow reported to Apollo that Coronis was unfaithful, the sun god disbelieved the fowl and he turned all crows from white to black and gave them discordant voices. Yet the story rankled the god’s heart. When he investigated the rumor and found it to be true, Apollo killed Coronis with one of his terrible arrows. As she writhed in death agony, he slit her open to rescue the son she bore (hence Asclepius’ name means “to cut open”). Apollo then granted crows cleverness beyond other birds to make up for his anger.
Like many other demigods, Asclepius was raised and tutored by the centaur Chiron, a matchless teacher. Soon the pupil surpassed the student and it was rumored that snakes licked Asclepius’ ears and taught him secret knowledge (to the Greeks snakes were sacred beings of wisdom, healing, and resurrection). Asclepius bore a rod wreathed with a snake, which became associated with healing. To this day a species of pan-Mediterranean serpent, the Aesculapian Snake (Zamenis longissimus) are named for the demigod.
Being the greatest healer in the world brought wealth and fame to Asclepius, who had many successful children, each of whom was named after some aspect of the medical craft (Hygiene, Panacea, Recuperation, etc…), but his success became his undoing. When he left Chiron, the centaur had given him two vials of blood—one from the left side and one from the right side of a gorgon. The blood from the left side was a fatal poison which caused ultimate agony (as Chiron himself experienced firsthand at his anguished destruction). The blood from the gorgon’s left side was a miraculous elixir which could bring the dead back to life. Asclepius began to accept gold to revive the dead and he drew the baleful attention of Hades. Afraid that the decisions of the gods would cease to hold terror for mortal kind, Hades begged his brother to make a final end of Asclepius. Zeus was in full agreement and he burned Asclepius to a cinder by casting a lightning bolt at him.
Apollo was furious at the death of his son (and the extinction of the apex of medical art). Not daring to strike Zeus, Apollo killed the Cyclops who has fashioned the lightning bolt, an act which led Zeus to banish Apollo to the mortal realm for a year (during which time the god designed the walls of Troy). When his term was served, Apollo joyously rejoined the other Olympians. Different traditions interpret the story’s end differently. In happier versions, Zeus and Hades bring Asclepius’ spirit to Olympus to act as god of healing forever. In other versions Apollo and Zeus hang the image of Asclepius in the heavens as the constellation Opiuchus, “the Snake Bearer” both to remind humankind of the physician’s greatness and to warn them to eschew seeking immortality.
In Chinese mythology, Gong Gong was a tempestuous and unhappy water spirit of great strength. He is usually portrayed as a raging black dragon or as a seething water monster. In an earlier post concerning the Black Mansion—the Chinese underworld—I described how rigorously regimented the Chinese spirit world is (on earth, in heaven, and in hell). Gong Gong was a spirit who was not happy with the rigid hierarchical order of things. Despite his raw power, his job in the courts of heaven was to run trivial errands and fill out tedious paperwork. Growing sick of what he perceived as menial chores, Gong Gong rebelled against the Jade Emperor. In order to usurp control of heaven, he unleashed terrible floods and allied with a wicked nine-headed demon named Xiang Yao.
Together Gong Gong and Xiang Yao brought about great destruction in the world. The tumult they unleashed killed countless people. But, despite the suffering they caused, the two could not defeat the powers of heaven. They were opposed by Zhu Rong, the god of fire and ruler of the south who fought with a great sword from the back of his tiger. Unable to withstand Zhu Rong’s ferocity, the monsters were about to be defeated outright. Infuriated and unwilling to accept such shame, Gong Gong hurled himself into Mount Buzhou, a mythical mountain which was one of the principal supports of heaven. Part of the mountain collapsed and a terrible hole appeared in the sky. The suffering caused by Gong Gong’s earlier actions was nothing compared to the catastrophe caused by this collapse. Flood and fire swept earth. Terrible creatures from beyond came through the rip in existence and ravaged the planet. Famine and horror stalked the world and it seemed as though all living things were doomed.
With the other gods helpless, the creator goddess Nüwa again stepped forward. She cut the legs off a great turtle and propped the sky back on its axis. Then she gathered precious stones from a river and cast the breath of her magic into them. With these multicolored stones she repaired the vault of heaven. In some versions of the story she slew the black dragon Gong Gong whereas in other versions he sneaked away and still remains at large somewhere in the world. Whatever the case, Nüwa’s repairs were not perfect. The sun and moon now flow across the heavens from east to west and the stars were thrown from their position to drift with the seasons. Even the North star was jarred from true north.
Strangely enough my favorite Chinese novel (maybe my favorite novel from anywhere) originates from this tumultuous myth. The Story of the Stone was written by Cao Xueqin in the eighteenth century as the Qing dynasty first began to relentlessly unwind. It is the story of a great princely house slowly losing its vigor and declining from within. In a bigger sense it is the story of mortal kind and the ineluctable flux of our little lives. There are thirty major characters and over four hundred minor characters in a drama that spans the epic breadth of Chinese history and culture (and takes up thousands of pages). The portrayal of all levels of Chinese society is magnificent…but just beyond the petty intrigues, squabbles, affairs, and misunderstandings that make up the complex plot of The Story of the Stone are hints at an enigmatic divine order underpinning the cosmos. From time to time, a strange beggar covered with sores and limping on an iron crutch shows up with magic medicines. The female lead is hauntingly familiar with an otherworldy beauty to her mien. And the protagonist of the story, Jia Baoyu, is a fey aristocratic adolescent who was born with a magic piece of jade in his mouth. Although it doesn’t come up often in the novel and it is not obvious to the characters, the hero is the stone. He was one of the gemstones given magical life by Nüwa in order to repair the breach in heaven–but he was not used because of a flaw. Frustrated by life at the edge of heaven, he incarnates as a mortal and the book is the story of his human life…indeed of all human life. I won’t say more about The Story of the Stone other than to apologize for not explaining how impossibly brilliant and ineffable the work is. I must also offer an attendant caveat: this is the consummate literary masterpiece of China and, as such, it is overwhelmingly and heartbreakingly sad.