Chinese Stories in English
Qi Tongren (The Bucket Rider)
Zu Yong, a man from Luoyang [in today's Henan Province], attained the rank of Jinshi in the imperial bureaucracy during the twelfth year of the Kaiyuan reign period [725 AD]. His poem "Viewing the Snowbanks on Far South Mountain" reads:
"The beauteous snow on Far South ledge
"Collects in piles that float to clouds' edge.
"The snow has ceased, the forest shows bright,
"The city grows cold in evening's dim light."
Tradition tells us that this was a yingzhi poem [i.e., it was written at the Emperor's behest]. By convention it would have had twelve lines of five characters each, with six rhymes, but Zu Zong rolled up his scroll after writing only four lines. When asked why he didn't finish the composition, he replied, "Ran out of ideas."
Far South Mountain is to the south of Chang'an [the ancient Chinese capital now called Xi'an]. The world's largest Daoist temple, Louguan Tai [or Platform for Viewing the Tower] is there. It's the place where the Enlightened Yin Xi contemplated the heavens while waiting for the sage Laozi.
There are hundreds of Daoist priests in Louguan Tai, all with fat heads and big ears. Most of them practice "Walk on Clouds Magic." According to legend, this style of magic was created by Lie Yukou during the Spring and Autumn Period. It emphasizes using Chi to control the spirit. When developed to the ninth weight, one can rise and fall with the wind and ascend to heaven during the day.
There are five entrances to the inner temple. The innermost shrine is devoted to the Supreme Dark Sprite and Doumu Goddess. On entering the Doumu Shrine there is a small garden and sanctuary.
The sanctuary is built up against a mountain. The mountain is several thousand feet high, reaching straight up into the sky. Looking up from the bottom, one cannot see the top.
Every month on the night of the full moon, the Daoist priests bathe to cleanse their bodies, then file into the sanctuary in a procession led by the Abbot and the Master of Discipline. The interior, devoted to the Three Pure Ones, is narrow and dark, but two votive candles burn before the altar. Around behind the altar is a secret door which, when opened, reveals a cave.
The priests step into the cave so silently that even their breathing cannot be heard. They proceed through the darkness for about the time it would take to drink a small cup of tea, until suddenly they see thousands of gullies and peaks before their eyes, awash in the light of the moon.
The place where the priests are standing is a flat ledge. Looking up, the cliff stands thousands of feet tall and the bright moon hangs high above it. Looking down, the mist swirls around so deep that the bottom cannot be seen.
A small alter sits in the middle of the ledge. The words "Altar of Ascending to Immortality" are engraved on it.
The priests go up to sit on the altar and meditate in groups of five. By the time they get onto the altar, their robes have begun floating upwards as though some great power in Heaven were sucking them upwards. Some of the priests are able to rise up six inches or more, but most just hear the rustling of their clothing with no movement of their bodies.
Suddenly one of them, certainly someone who has attained the ninth weight of "Walk on Clouds Magic", starts to rise slowly. Everyone exclaims in unison as their eyes follow this person ascending or being lifted upwards. Under the envious gaze of his fellows, that priest ascends straight towards the sky, getting smaller and smaller until, "poof", he's gone without a trace.
They all chatter in amazement as they head out, led by the Abbott and the Master of Discipline, back the way they came. They'll wait until the next night of the full moon, when they'll try again.
One day two mendicant priests came to the temple asking for temporary lodging.
They were dressed identically in olive drab robes with rounded necks, hats shaped like the crescent moon, leggings made of white cloth and hemp shoes with many flaps. They were quite clean and tidy.
They said they were fellow apprentices of the same master. The larger one, called Zhu Baopu or the Master Who Embraces Simplicity, was lean and lanky and seemed to be quick-witted. The smaller one, called Liang Shouzhuo or the Beam Upholding Crudity, was snub-nosed, thick-lipped and looked very kind.
After the Temple Greeter had reported to the Master of Discipline, he arranged a place for them in to stay in the guesthouse. He told them that they were free to go wherever they wished in the Temple, except only that the sanctuary behind the Shrine to Doumu was an area kept closed by the Abbott.
The pair indicated their agreement.
Weekdays were spent carrying water, sweeping the floors, tending the crops and chopping firewood. They were very diligent. Whenever they had some free time, they spent it studying the scriptures.
When asked where they came from, they said the Palace of Longevity near Tomb of the Sun Mountain, in Young Sun County in the Prefecture of Ponds. That's the place where Dou Ziming achieved the Dao and attained immortality.
They also said that they had grown up together. The older one, Zhu Baopu, admired the superlative scenery of South Mountain and wanted to come and enjoy it. The younger one, Liang Shouzhuo, had tagged along with him.
Before they knew it, it was the night of the full moon again. The priests stood respectfully on the ledge and watched as five of their number sat meditating in the moonlight on the Altar of Ascending to Immortality. They practiced their magic silently, hoping to achieve the Dao and attain immortality.
Silence was everywhere, except for the occasional "plop" of fruit dropping from trees on the mountain and smashing to the ground.
Suddenly a shout rang out: "Where do you two come from?"
Two shadowy human figures jumped out from the crowd. They scrambled to the cave entrance in a few leaps and bounds.
Ye Jingneng, the Abbot of Louguan Tai, was on the Alter of Ascending to Immortality at the time. He had already risen to a height of over ten feet when the sudden shout disturbed his inner calm. He fell straight to the ground with a howl.
Before anyone could see how he did it, the Abbot had moved like a ghost to the cave entrance. He sat there with his eyes closed, meditating, blocking the two men's way out.
Then the group of priests also came back and crowded around, surrounding the two men.
It turned out to be the two mendicants who had come asking for lodging. There they stood, surrounded by the crowd, their faces as white as writing paper.
Zhu Baopu's legs went soft and he dropped to his knees with a thud. The younger one, Liang Shouzhuo, was still standing there woodenly, wondering what they'd done wrong.
Ye Jingneng remained sitting there meditating with his eyes closed. Then the corners of his mouth pulled up slightly. "Throw them off the cliff," he said.
Eight of the priests stepped forward. Four of them grabbed Zhu Baopu by the arms and legs and picked him up. The other four, mechanically following suit, lifted up Liang Shouzhuo. They went to the cliff, shouted "One, two, three", and threw the two men over the edge.
They dropped leisurely through the mist for an indeterminable period, thinking how amazing it was that they weren't tumbling like meatballs. They were surprised to see a faint glow of light reflecting off water coming up from below them. They looked more carefully and saw that there was indeed a deep pool lying peacefully at the bottom of the pit.
They didn't hear a loud splash when their bodies fell into the pool, but they did feel like their guts had been all shaken up. They each heard an "om" in their heads before passing out.
Liang Shouzhuo was stouter than his brother and he came to a bit faster. He swam for his life to the shore and sat there panting for a long time. When he didn't see his brother floating on the surface, though, he dove back in and groped here and there around the bottom. Eventually he felt him and used all his strength to tow him ashore. He was worn out and ached all over.
When the two woke up the next day, they looked around and shouted, "It's awful!"
It seems the bottom of the pit was completely barren, without even a blade of grass growing. Except for the deep pool, there was nothing but rock as red as fire.
Looking up, they could see nothing above them but a ghastly stone wall. They couldn't even think about climbing out. A mountain goat or an ape couldn't do it, let alone a human.
They thought there could be some fish in the pool. Contrary to their expectations, though, when they dove in to take a look, not only didn't they see any fish, there wasn't a single water plant, either. On the other hand, they did find several ghastly white human skeletons.
By the third day they were dizzy from hunger and their eyes were clouding over. They could only drink water to fill their stomachs. This was somewhat effective at first, but later on, their stomachs could no longer be fooled, and drinking water made them feel even more uncomfortable.
Zhu Baopu thought things over on his own. The two of them would both certainly die if they continued to go hungry. Since there was nothing to eat and they couldn't climb out, there was now only one thing left to do. And that was, one of the two would have to be sacrificed to provide food for the other. This would gain some time to possibly find a way to save one life.
At this time he couldn't think of anything but how to fill his stomach. He didn't care one iota that Liang Shouzhuo was his brother in the priesthood, or that they had grown up together, or that the man had saved his life.
He kept the idea of cannibalism a secret and didn't tell his brother. He sneaked around and found a fist-sized rock and hid it under his clothes. Then late at night, he quietly came up beside Liang Shouzhuo, recited the "Incantation to the Dead" under his breath, raised the rock and violently smashed it down.
Zhu Baopu washed Liang Shouzhuo's body, skinned it, and put it in a dark, dry place in the rocks. It was enough to last more than a month before it would be completely eaten.
He was a little nauseous the first time he ate some, but after a while he felt it was no different than eating pork, beef or lamb.
From time to time gray vultures would come down to fight with Zhu Baopu over the food, so he had to spend his days beside the body guarding it. He even hugged it while he slept. He was afraid that, if he was careless for even a moment, the vultures would tear off a piece.
It wasn't long, however, before he was facing starvation once again. Then someone else fell down from the heavens.
Zhu Baopu was overjoyed at the change in his routine. All he could think of was that another piece of meat had fallen to him. He picked up a rock as soon as possible and waited at the edge of the pool. He waited until the fellow climbed onto the shore, and then he smashed the rock down on his head. Just like Liang Shouzhuo before him, the guy had become a piece of dried meat before he knew what was happening.
Zhu Baopu planned things very carefully. He only ate a tiny bit each day. He amassed a lot of broken rocks to serve as secret weapons in his fight against those vultures. Every once on a while, he was able to kill one or two of them.
And so he alternated, sometimes eating human flesh and sometimes eating bird meat. He hung on like this for more than six months.
Most days passed without incident. He fanaticized at times about the day he would escape from this pit, about how he would find Ye Jingneng and exact his revenge. He also thought about how he would sit on the Altar of Ascending to Immortality and learn to fly in broad daylight. He knew this was just a dream for the gullible, but he couldn't stop thinking about it.
And then the night of the full moon came around again. In the middle of the night, while he was sound asleep hugging a dead body, Zhu Baopu heard a sudden "plop". Something else had fallen from the heavens.
Filled with joy, Zhu Baopu picked up a rock and waited at the edge of the pond. He waited a long time until a monstrous figure that only partially resembled a human came floating up to the surface. He swam over and saw in the moonlight that it was someone without hands or feet or ears or nose, just a body that was completely bare. If Zhu Baopu hadn't been used to eating human flesh, he wouldn't have been able to look at such a monster. It would have scared him to death.
Zhu Baopu didn't care about any of that. He raised his stone to smash it down on the guy.
But then he heard the monster yell, "Not so fast!"
Zhu Baopu put down the rock to listen to what the monster had to say.
It said: "I am Ye Jingneng. I'll teach you 'Walk on Clouds magic.'"
Seen in the daylight, Ye Jingneng's appearance was even weirder.
In addition to missing his hands, feet, ears and nose, he didn't have the least bit of hair on his body. Instead he was covered with multiple scars. His lips were gone, exposing his teeth. His eyelids were missing, too, so when he slept, he had to do so with both eyes open.
When Zhu Baopu asked him how he'd ended up in such a state, Ye Jingneng only said that he'd been "victimized by his inferiors."
Zhu Baopu didn't quite believe that, but didn't ask any more about it.
Nonetheless, Ye Jingneng put his heart into teaching Zhu Baopu "Walk on Clouds Magic." Zhu Baopu thought the Abbot planned to make use of the younger man's power to escape from the pit, but he never suspected that there might be other motives.
When he attained the second weight, Zhu Baopu was able to catch vultures with his bare hands.
Ye Jingneng would lay on a rock and feign death to entice a vulture to come down from the sky and take a peck. Zhu Baopu would rush over in the blink of an eye using his mystical powers, grasp the vulture firmly and twist its neck.
Thus they didn't need to eat human flesh any more. People sometimes fell from above, and if they died, that was that. If by some stroke of luck they were able to climb ashore, Zhu Baopu would not deign to save them but would let them fend for themselves. Most of them starved to death, and when they died they were eaten by the vultures. These vultures were very fierce. They were able to break open the bones to get at the marrow inside, so these people were gone without even their skeletons left behind to show that they had ever existed.
"Walk on Clouds Magic" is absolutely amazing. Ye Jingneng was able to fly up and down on the wind, even with his arms and legs missing. The only problem was that the pit was hemmed in on all sides. Even if an occasional draft got in, it was extremely feint. After lifting him a few feet, there was no more available power in it. Assuming he'd still had his limbs, he could have reached the top even without the wind by using tiny cracks in the rock to climb up the wall like a gecko.
When Zhu Baopu attained the fifth weight, he was able to walk on water at will; when he got to the seventh weight, he could soar above the walls of the pit, as nimble as a bird in flight. It would have been quick and easy for him to escape from the pit at that time, but he said only that he wouldn't have confidence in his ability to carry Ye Jingneng with him until he attained the ninth weight. He urged Ye Jingneng to transmit the necessary skills and methods to him, and wouldn't talk about leaving until that was done.
Occasionally he would sneak quietly up the cliff to the top. He'd catch one of the priests from Louguan Tai and bring him back down, so he could watch him starve to death and be eaten by vultures. That was how he passed the time.
Who would've guessed that getting from the seventh to the ninth weight would be more difficult than ascending to Heaven.
Zhu Baopu himself couldn't clearly remember how many priests he'd captured from Louguan Tai and brought down into the pit. He still hadn't dipped into the ninth weight of "Walk on Clouds Magic", though.
He thought to himself that Ye Jingneng must be harboring a sinister motive. He must be worried that Zhu Baopu would fly out of the pit alone after he attained the ninth weight, so he was not devoting his full abilities to passing on the necessary knowledge. He therefore changed his tactics in order to curry Ye Jingneng's favor.
Taoist priests are not dim-witted by nature. Every night he made good use of his magical abilities to go to the little town below the mountain. There he stole fish, chicken and duck meat to bring back. Ye Jingneng bit off huge chunks to munch on.
Even with just the minor skills that he had now, he was already in the top rank of magicians when he went out into the world. Surprisingly, using his skills to perform such low-grade acts of thievery every night did not make him feel ashamed.
Six months went by in this manner. He still wasn't progressing much, but he increasingly came to honor Ye Jingneng as his teacher.
He didn't just honor his master with the ritual of three bows and nine kowtows. Every once in a while, he would fly off to the city of Chang'an to steal fine wines and gourmet foods for him. If Ye Jingneng hadn't already lost his manhood, his student likely would even have kidnapped several of the palace concubines to bring back for his teacher's enjoyment.
Ye Jingneng was quite mellow about it. When there was wine he would drink it, and when there was meat he would eat it, and occasionally he would pass along a few pearls of wisdom to his student. Zhu Baopu didn't dare rush him.
They remained in the pit for innumerable months or years. Then one day, Zhu Baopu suddenly felt a breath of the True Chi penetrating the gateway to his innermost being. He knew this meant he had attained the ninth weight of "Walk on Clouds Magic". In his joy, he turned his head toward the heavens and laughed long and loud.
Ye Jingneng, lying beside him, looked at him askance and just laughed coldly.
Zhu Baopu leaned over and asked him, "What are you laughing at, meatball?"
Now that he had succeeded in his study of magic, he naturally didn't need to be respectful toward Ye Jingneng any longer.
"Your study of 'Walk on Clouds Magic' has been completed successfully," Ye Jingneng said, "so naturally I'm rejoicing."
"You think I'll take you on up?" Zhu Baopu replied.
"If you don't," Ye Jingneng said coolly, "I'm afraid it will be hard for you to keep from feeling regret."
Zhu Baopu continued, "That day I fell into this pit, it was a gift for which I truly thank you. Now you've taught me 'Walk on Clouds Magic', a means to rescue myself. But that can't be considered an act of kindness on your part, because you just did it to save yourself. If I don't rescue you, it won't be any skin off my nose."
Ye Jingneng just sneered. "You're right," he said, "I should have starved to death after I fell into this pit, but you've enabled me to stay alive for this long. In truth it's you who has been kind to me."
Zhu Baopu "tee hee'd". He put his hands behind his back and strolled around in the pit. He came upon a vulture and caught it to bring it back for Ye Jingneng to eat.
After a few days like this, it was again the night of the full moon. Zhu Baopu kicked Ye Jingneng's body and said, "Do what I do, meatball! You're an old man and it's time for you to go."
When he finished talking, he turned his back on Ye Jingneng and jumped lightly into the air. He flew onto the cliff wall like a big bird. Another leap and, "whoosh", he'd flown up several more feet.
Ye Jingneng turned his face upwards and watched him disappear into the darkness of the night. A vicious smile rippled across his face.
As usual, no one was on the ledge.
Zhu Baopu climbed slowly up onto the Altar of Ascending to Immortality. Mixed feelings swirled in his heart.
Under the moonlight, he had an indistinct vision of Liang Shouzhuo and several other people. They were standing below the altar with their arms crossed, looking at him coldly. But when he fixed his eyes in their direction, there was no one there.
He shivered and forced himself to calm down. He sat cross-legged on the altar, his eyes on his nose and his nose on his heart, and waited quietly for Heaven to send the suction to draw him up.
After roughly the time it would take to drink a cup of tea, he did indeed begin to feel a faint sucking.
Zhu Baopu allowed the True Chi to circulate through his body and gradually he entered a state of mental clarity and non-self. At this point his body began to rise slowly, following the suction higher and higher. The higher he got, the greater the suction became.
His heart filled with infinite joy.
He didn't know how long he'd been rising when he opened his eyes and looked down. The Altar of Ascending to Immortality had already become extremely small. The suction was so great that he could hear his clothing flapping in the breeze, and the hairs on his body were standing up straight.
He smelled the stench of raw meat.
His heart was ice cold. When he looked up, all he could see was a big hole. It was pitch black, and he was flying straight toward it.
The hole kept getting bigger and bigger, and suddenly Zhu Baopu could see it clearly. This was not just any hole. It was the huge mouth of a python.
Every month on the night of the full moon, this python would be on the cliff top sucking things up from below. Originally its sucking power had reached from the cliff top to the ledge, but by now it had become very weak. But the Daoist priests who were practicing "Walk on Clouds Magic" would make use of its power to levitate. The python was happy for the meat and over time became accustomed to the taste of human flesh. The priests thought they were attaining the Dao and achieving immortality, and rushed toward it like ducks heading for water. The ones like Zhu Baopu were even less afraid of risking their lives. They'd sneak into Louguan Tai like chickens and dogs fanaticizing about soaring up to Heaven.
By the time Zhu Baopu figured all this out, it was already too late – his body was in the air, and no matter how skilled he'd become at "Walk on Clouds Magic", there was no place to grab on for leverage and nothing else he could do.
He heard a ripping sound, "ssst", just as his body was entering the python's mouth. He only then realized that Ye Jingneng had also been eaten by the python, but by some trick had been able to escape from the snake's belly. Just his hands, feet, ears and nose had been digested, and that's how he'd become so weird.
Half an hour later, the Daoist priests of Louguan Tai filed out onto the ledge.
Something strange was happening this time. There was no attractive force coming down from Heaven. The priests took turns sitting on the Altar of Achieving Immortality in groups of five, and sat there half the night without sensing any movement at all.
Little did they know that, on that night, the python on the clifftop had already eaten Zhu Baopu, so its belly was swollen and it didn't want to eat anyone else.
21st Century Chinese Literature Compendium; 2002 Internet Compositions, p. 195
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