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“In Heaven, there is paradise,
On Earth, there is Suzhou and Hangzhou!'
If you love poetry, these words would evoke memories of orioles singing in the willow trees along the shore of West Lake in Hangzhou, or the splattering of summer rain on lotus leaves in an ancient garden pond in Suzhou. Better still, you may recall the chanting of a poem by an old monk in the bamboo grove near the sixteen-hundred-year-old Lingyin Temple where he had recited his morning incantations of the Diamond Sutra. This bamboo grove is so full of moisture that if you wait you could see the young bamboo sprout out of a ground richly clad in mulch. It gives you an eerie feeling of seeing, in your dream, a white eel poking its head out of a swamp. These words would also flash in your mind, a vision of blue and purple mountains in the distance, constantly assuming new forms because of an ever-changing haze. You may be reminded, too, of the faint smell of jasmine blossoms gently flowing in the warm June air, a sensual fragrance, a whiff of heaven. What's more, this divine fragrance could almost make you taste again the huge “honey-juice” peaches you ate at the Dragon Well Village long ago.
If you do not read Chinese poetry but would like to know something about the feelings and sensitivities of Chinese poets and painters, the best thing is to read some legendary stories about Suzhou and Hangzhou. These two cities are landmarks of Chinese art and literature, and anthologies of legendary stones. Of the two cities, I prefer Hangzhou because there is more to see and hear. Destroyed and rebuilt many times, Hangzhou is more than two thousand years old, but it is still a city with a personality of its own. I had a feeling that its folk tales make this so. These legendary tales have the power to make us languorous and wistful, and their timeless-ness reveals to us the ephemeral nature of life. They can also make us grin like children discovering a secret for the first time.
Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang Province, about 200 kilometers south of Shanghai. It was sacked by Kublai Khan at the end of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and was visited by Marco Polo in the late 13th century, when he called it ”... the finest and most splendid city in the world.” One side of the city is a freshwater lake, the other is a huge river flowing toward the ocean. The city is rich in all kinds of goods. Marco Polo recorded that the daily consumption of chili peppers in Hangzhou was forty-three cartloads, each one consisting of 225 lbs. Today the city is more prosperous than at any time before in Chinese history.
All around West Lake are stately palaces and mansions of fine workmanship. You can feast your eyes on Hangzhou's temples, palaces, mansions and gardens with their towering trees reaching down to the water line while taking a boat ride. At present, there is more restoration going on in Hangzhou than a few years ago. For example, while I was sailing along West Lake last summer I saw the winter study of Emperor Qian Long of the Qing Dynasty being painted.
As for the people of Hangzhou, Marco Polo observed that they were men of peace and had a strong distaste for strife or disagreement. They pursued their trades and professions with diligence and honesty, and cared for each other so devotedly that the whole city seemed to be one big family. They were no less kind to foreigners who came to Hangzhou for trade or for pleasure. I find his observation as true now as it was six hundred years ago.
This book is not a story-by-story translation of The Folk Tales of West Lake published by the Zhejiang People's Publishing House in 1978 but an adaptation of selected stories.
A long time ago a dragon, white as snow and known as Jade Dragon, lived in a cave on the east bank of the Milky Way called the Celestial River. In the forest on the opposite side of the river lived Golden Phoenix.
Every morning they greeted each other before going their separate ways. One flew in the sky while the other swam in the Celestial River. They met unexpectedly on a fairy island one day and there Golden Phoenix found a shining pebble.
“Look, how beautiful this pebble is,” she said to Jade Dragon.
“Let's carve it into a pearl,” Jade Dragon said.
Jade Dragon then used his claw and Golden Phoenix her beak to grind the pebble. She flew to the magic mountains to gather dewdrops and he carried water from the Celestial River to polish the ball. They ground it every day and after many years of hard labor, the ball became a dazzling pearl. By now they had grown attached to each other and both loved the pearl dearly. They decided to live on the island forever, guarding the pearl.
It was a magic pearl. Wherever it shone things became better: trees grew greener, flowers bloomed longer and the land yielded bumper harvests.
One day the Mother Queen of the West saw its brilliant rays of light in the sky and was so overwhelmed by its beauty that she wanted to have it for herself. So she decided to send one of her most trustworthy guards to steal the dazzling object when Golden Phoenix and Jade Dragon were fast asleep. When the guard came back with the pearl, she hid it in a secret room, so secret, in fact, that one had to pass nine locked doors to reach it. There she enjoyed the pearl all by herself.
In the morning when Jade Dragon and Golden Phoenix discovered that the pearl was gone, they were upset and searched everywhere. Jade Dragon looked into every crevice at the bottom of the Celestial River while Golden Phoenix combed every inch of land on the fairy mountains, but in vain. However, they did not give up hope that some day they would recover their treasured pearl.
Then came the birthday of the Mother Queen of the West. The gods and goddesses from all, over the universe came to the palace to celebrate. “May your fortune be as rich as the East Sea and your life as everlasting as the South Mountain,” they chorused. She was so pleased that she prepared a grand feast, serving her guests nectar and celestial peaches, the fruit of immortality. But soon she was carried away by the wine and blurted out, “My immortal friends, I want to show you a truly precious pearl which cannot be found either in Heaven or on Earth.” She then took out nine keys from her pocket and unlocked the nine doors one after another, until she reached the secret room. She put the pearl on a golden tray and carried it carefully to the table in the center of the banquet hall. The whole hall was instantly lit by the pearl. The guests were struck by its radiance and lavished great praise on it.
Meanwhile, Golden Phoenix saw the bright light in the sky and shouted, “Look, Jade Dragon, isn't that the light from our pearl?” Jade Dragon looked up from the Celestial River and said, “Of course it is! Let's go and get it back.”
They flew toward the light which led to the palace of the Mother Queen of the West. There they found the pearl surrounded by admirers. “This is our pearl,” Jade Dragon and Golden Phoenix shouted when they made their way through the crowd.
“How dare you say this is yours!” the enraged Mother Queen of the West shouted back. “I'm the mother of the Heavenly Emperor and all treasures belong to me.”
Golden Phoenix and Jade Dragon were infuriated by her remarks. Jade Dragon protested, “Heaven did not give birth to this pearl, nor did the Earth nurture it. It is the result of our love and many years' hard work!”
The Mother Queen of the West clutched the tray tightly while ordering her palace guards to eject Jade Dragon and Golden Phoenix. But they fought their way back, determined to retrieve the pearl. All three struggled over the golden tray, pushing and pulling with all their might until the pearl fell off, dropping to earth. When it touched the ground the pearl immediately turned into a clear lake, in the western part of Hangzhou. Unable to part from it, Jade Dragon and Golden Phoenix changed themselves into two mountains that, to this day, stand by West Lake.
Many, many years ago, there was a little village at the foot of Precious Stone Mountain on the bank of West Lake. In this village lived Liu Chun, a farmer, and his wife, Hui Niang, a weaver. Relatives and friends in the village praised them as an exemplary young couple for they were happy and hard-working.
One morning when the sun shone in the rosy glow of dawn, Liu Chun went out to the field with his hoe, and Hui Niang sat down at her loom. Suddenly a violent gust of wind blew over from the lake. The sky was covered with black clouds and in a few seconds, it began to rain. The raindrops were so big that they made the lake look like a giant cauldron of boiling water. The sun disappeared, and when the storm was over, it never showed its face again. The world grew dark and cold. Plants and vegetables withered. In the darkness, ghosts, devils and other grotesque creatures rampaged about causing suffering to the people.
Where had the sun gone? The only person who seemed to know was a 180-year-old man living in the nearby mountains. Liu Chun went to see the old man.
“Deep at the bottom of the East Sea lives a King of Evil who commands thousands of ghosts, demons, and other evil creatures. These creatures can do their evil deeds only in the dark, so they all hate the sun. I think the sun must have been stolen by the King of Evil,” the old man said.