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The Yanyu Herb and the Greedy Dragon

Compiled by Lai Cenglin

In Qutang Gorge in Sichuan stood the towering Chijia Mountain, with a cliff fiery red as if hewn out by choppers and knives. It was also called Peach Mountain; this was because it had a peak the shape of a big peach sitting on a huge jade plate formed by clouds circling around it. A cave below the peach, deep and unfathomable, where stalactites hung down and quaint stones jutted from the ground, was called Seven Gates for the number of gates it had. It was a deserted place frequented by beasts of prey. One day a fisherman called Xia Zhongjiao, fleeing from famine and finding refuge here, chased away the animals and settled down at Seven Gates. Making a living by fishing, Xia planted herbs on Yanyu Shoal in the Kuimen River, herbs which brought the dying back to life. He often cured the fishermen living along the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River with the Yanyu herb.
One day a dragon which had been locked up by Yu the Great in Dragon-Confinement Cave under Yanyu Shoal when Yu harnesses the water thousands of years ago slipped out of a ring confining it to the cave. With a wish of its tail it wiped away all the Yanyu herbs. When Xia returned from fishing one day to pick some herbs, he found them all gone. He was wondering what had happened when suddenly a wind arose and waves began to roll. With a crash of thunder, a single-horned dragon emerged from under Yanyu Shoal. Realizing it was the dragon people had told him about, he demanded fearlessly: "Did you take my herbs, you impertinent dragon?"
"What if I did?" sneered the dragon. "I want to take you too. Yu the Great locked me up for thousands of years. I'm hungry. I'll make you my first meal."
The dragon raised its claw and made for  Xia Zhongjiao, who jumped into the rolling waves and fought the dragon with his fish trident for three days and nights. On the fourth day, the aging Xia Zhongjiao, his strength failing because of hunger and fatigue, was finally gobbled up by the dragon.
Xia's old wife, overcome with grief at the news of his death, exhorted her son to train himself in aquatic skills in order to avenge his father when he grew up.
Determined to avenge his father, Xia Xiaojiao trained hard while fishing to support his mother. After a few years, he became as tall and stout as his father, and was able to tread water fiercely, submerge for seven days and nights and fight with a fish trident. One day, coming home from fishing, he became anxious at not seeing his mother coming out to meet him. He went home only to see his mother at her last breath. He was just going to fetch a doctor when his mother tugged  at his sleeve and told him in a laboured voice: "I can only be saved by the Yanyu herb your father grew, my son."
New hatred added to his old grudge. Xiaojiao took leave of his mother. Fish trident in hand, he made for Yanyu Shoal, where he shouted at the top of his voice:"Listen to me, you greedy dragon. Give me the magic Yanyu herb or I'll cut you in pieces."
With a crash of thunder the dragon emerged from its cave and gloated: "Good, you'll be my next meal." He swooped down on Xia Xiaojiao who, with a movement quick as lightening, stuck his fish trident into the stomach of the greedy dragon, bringing out a spurt of black blood.
The dragon, fiercer because of the wound, fought the young man who was the braver for his hatred. After seven days and nights, the dragon, weakened by loss of blood, turned and fled into its cave. It slammed the door with a swish of its tail. No matter how Xiaojiao rammed the door, breaking his trident in his effort, he could not open it. At his wits' end, he had to go home. Finding his mother deteriorating, he thought hard about a way to open the stone door of the dragon's cave.
At midnight, Xiaojiao saw in his dreams an old man emerging from the peach peak of Chijia Mountain, riding a cluster of clouds and holding a golden book in his hand. "You are a brave young fisherman who has lived up to your mother's expectations, Xiaojiao. Take this book and read Yu the Great's tactics for subduing a dragon.
Xiaojiao accepted the book. "Who are you, granddad?" he asked.
"" I'm your neighbour, Sage Peach. The book only tells you a few treasures. It is your wit and courage and the skill in using these treasures that will help you." After saying this, the old man stepped on to the cluster of clouds and floated away.
Awakened by the cocks' crowing, Xiaojiao rubbed his eyes and, remembering his dream, saw in his hands a golden book. He lit a pine torch and read it, keeping in mind what was said in the book. Without waiting for daybreak to bid his mother goodbye, he jumped into the river and came to the dragon's cave under Yanyu Shoal, where he moved away a slab of stone and produced a stone cap, which he put on his head.
The cave door gave way at the first blow of his stone hat. He groped in the pitch-dark cave, unable to see a thing until he found a stone box. From it he produced a pair of stone boots. When he stepped into them, the boots carried him to the second door, inside which was a stone horse. At sight of Xiaojiao, the horse pricked up its ears and neighed. Xiaojiao pulled two swords out of its ears and their glittering cool light saw the characters "Yu the Great's Sword" on the hilts. Then the stone boots carried him to the third door, behind which the greedy dragon rested on a stone platform.
Opening its eyes and seeing Xiaojiao, the dragon leapt up, defending the platform from Xiaojiao. His swords were too short to reach the dragon on the platform, but Xiaojiao came up with an idea. He pretended to retreat. The dragon at once chased after him, not wanting to give up this delicious morsel. Xiaojiao halted abruptly, leapt onto the stone platform, raised his swords, slashed the platform open and discovered a ring. He tossed the ring over the dragon's head, confining it to the cave. Behind the platform he found the Yanyu herb. On his way out he took three stone padlocks from the stone horse's back and locked the three doors with them. The greedy dragon could not come out to harm people anymore.
Xiaojiao returned home with the Yanyu herb. As a day in the dragon's cave equals a year on land, when he arrived home, his mother had been dead for a long time. He buried his mother and planted the Yanyu herb and, like his father, treated the fishermen all his life.


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The story of the dog

A story of the Mosuo people, who have lived in the remote lower reaches of the Tibetan plateau for more than 1,500 years...)

A long, long time ago, people and animals lived forever.
But as eternity went on, there were more and more people and animals and less and less room for them to sleep and play, and less and less food for them to eat. So the animals and the people began to squabble and fight and eventually made so much noise that the Great Heaven could not stand it anymore.
The Great Heaven called all the animals together and told them that it had found a solution. From now on, aside from the goddesses and the gods, no one on the earth could live forever. Instead, every being was to have a mortal life, which meant that at the end of it, they would die. The Great Heaven, who did not want the responsibility of allocating life spans, had decided to call out a number of years and to leave it up to each animal to call back in response.
When the Great Heaven called one thousand years, the Wild Goose answered: 'Yes! Me!' And when the Great Heaven called one hundred years, the Wild Duck answered: 'Yes! Me!' And when the Great Heaven called out sixty years, the Dog said: 'Yes!' But the Human Being was so slow and clumsy that it was left with only thirteen years.
Sorely disappointed at the prospect of such a short life, the Human Being went to complain to the Great Heaven. But the Great Heaven was not interested in complaints and suggested that the Human Being try to sort out its problems with the other animals. So the Human Being went pleading to all the animals, begging them to take its thirteen years in exchange for their own life span. Not surprisingly, no one was interested - until the Human Being asked the Dog, who agreed just because dogs have always loved people. But now the Human Being was so grateful that it promised to take care of the Dog forever. And this is why, every New Year's Eve, dogs are given a full human meal, in remembrance of the Dog's sacrifice.

From 'Leaving Mother Lake', by Namu and Christine Mathieu

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Her husband's Mistress

Lin Ruqiu

Meiwen climbed haltingly to the seventh floor step by step with a bunch of vegetables in hand.
She had overworked herself in the past few days. Her husband's aunt's family had come to visit them from Singapore, so all day long she had busied herself cooking delicious food for them, boiling, frying, and stewing. As the common saying goes 'The host is at peace only when the guests are gone'. Meiwen had some time for herself only after their relatives left last night. This morning, she slept in before she started to tidy things up. After that she went to the market to buy her water spinach.
Eventually, Meiwen got to the topfloor and soon found herself inside her apartment. She had just changed to her slippers when a stranger shot out of her bedroom. Dressed in the latest fashion, the stranger had the classic beauty of an attractive woman: Peach-like cheeks and almond-shaped eyes. In shock, Meiwen was about to ask who she was and how she got into her home, when the stranger confronted her, seized her collar and roared, "So you are Yu Meiwen, aren't you? There you are! Your husband is a liar after all. He told me he is not married and wanted to marry me. I wanted to come and see his home several times, but he always had an excuse to keep me away. What an unfaithfull man! He is married, but he has been looking for mistressess and hides everything from his wife. Indeed, you can see a man's face, but never his heart. That bastard has cheated me!"After shooting off a series of accusations, she burst out crying.
It struck Meiwen like a heavy blow; she almost collapsed. What was going on? She had been married to Xiaohua for two years, and there was nothing out of the ordinary about their marriage. The only thing suspicious, if anything, was that Xiaohus had seldom returned home before midnight lately. He told her he had so much to do that he could not finish it during regular work hours. 'You can't see someone's heart after all', the popular saying goes. 'A useless man keeps only one wife; a capable man changes mistresses every night.' Has it really come true? Meiwen's jealousy started to burn inside her. Pushing away the stranger, she shouted: "Where are you from? I shall take him to ask when he comes home!"
"Why worry about where I come from?", said the woman, whiping her tears. "If he hadn't got me with child, I wouldn't have been able to steal his keys. And why would I have come here in such a hurry, anyway? I hear he has two more girlfriends. That's why I became more careful. If I hadn't seen your wedding picture, I wouldn't have known you were married." With this she burst into wails again.
"What? He has two more girlfriends?" To Meiwen, this was like adding oil to the fire. "This faithless man has gone too far! No wonder he didn't try to entertain his aunt when she was visiting us. Instead, he was indulging himself with those women! That is why..." Meiwen was so furious that she did not know how to vent her anger. She gnashed her teeth, cold sweat oozing from her palms.
The strange woman continued to sob by herself. "This cheater Xiaohua has ruined - ruined my life. That son of a bitch, what am I going to do now?"
Seeing her weeping in uninterrupted choking sobs, Meiwen felt somewhat sorry for her. She drew out a tissue and gave it to her. "Here, wipe your face first. I'll get you another hot towel."With this, she walked into her bathroom.
"Never mind, Meiwen. I really appreciate it. I'm leaving now. Just don't tell Xiaohua I have been here when you see him, please."
Meiwen heard every single word clearly from the bathroom. Unable to make up her mind, she was wondering whether she should ask her to stay or see her off.
- Bang. She heard the door slam.
The strange woman had gone. The angry Meiwen walked out of the bathroom. Greatly confused, she walked several circles in the living room until she clenched her teeth and uttered in hostility: "That faithless man. I will choke him to death when he comes back!"
At noon Xiaohua finallt returned home. He entered the apartment only to hear Meiwen shout: "You faithless man!" and charge at him grabbing for his neck.
Het tried to push her away as he shouted: "What are you doing, Meiwen?"
"What am I doing?" laughed Meiwen bitterly. "You keep several mistresses outside, and you think I don't know it!"
He denied it resolutely.
"You don't have to swear to heaven or God; you got her pregnant and she came just now. You still want to deny it?"
After all, women are no match for men. After a fierce fight, Xiaohua managed to conquer her. Meiwen wept and wailed in the sofa, and the infuriated Xiaohua started to smash cups on the floor. Their neighbours who heard their fight came to knock on the door to find out what was happening, but Xiaohua only told them from behind the door:"Nothing, I just broke two cups accidentally."
After their neighbours left, the couple started a cold war. The sulky Xiaohua buried himself in smoking until he suddenly thought of something. "Did that woman get into our apartment by herself? Or did you open the door for her?"
"If she hadn't stolen your keys from your pocket, how could she have got in here?" said the unfriendly Meiwen.
Hearing this, Xiaohua dashed into the bedroom without saying another word. He opened two drawers in one breath. "Where are the five thousand Singapore dollars and the gold necklace and bracelet my aunt gave us?"he shouted after a moment of frantic searching. "Where did you put them?"
"What?" Meiwen screamed as she felt fear on her head. She ran into the bedroom and started turning over the things in the left drawer and the right drawer. Then she pounded the dressing table with her fist and howled. "That goddamned thief! What a cunning and vicious woman she is."

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Nearly said

by Gao Weixi

Melancholy emerged in my mind as if it were a ghost. Day after day I tried to shake it off, but it clung to my heart; I tried to kick it out, yet it lingered in my soul. It seemed as if it would accompany me throughout my life. I was lost in astonishment - what had happened?
In the barracks, men always outnumbered women. Beautiful as a rose, you had a slender figure with a tender temperament, just like a phoenix standing in a flock of chickens -  a rare treasure. Many eyes stared at you with admiration. There was that short section director who would stand by you whenever we had to line up, whether it was morning drill, meal time or evening roll call. Everybody felt surprised but your generosity allowed you to ignore everything, treating him with courtesy.
Perhaps he had somebody bragging to you about him - a tall, big man often came to visit you openly. I did not take it to heart when I first saw you two sitting on a tricycle heading for town, but soon I sensed something wrong there. Some said he exploited the crisis of a relationship; other said you invited a wolf to your house.
By chance I once saw his coquettish look almost sparking a line of self-conceit in you. Then I thought, perhaps you really had made your choice.
You and I were only colleagues in language teaching, that's all. We might have more common conversation topics. We did often have little disputes over Confucius, the literary merits and blemishes of Pushkin and Chekhov, and the importance of Sherlock Holmes's detective stories in literary history. But those were just academic issues, weren't they?
At dusk in May, the pomegranate blossoms were bright as fire. I leaned against the tree trunk as you sat on the fork, opened your red lips, and in a low voice began to sing the Song of Mei Niang. When you finished singing, we were lost in silence. We each embraced the evening wind, and did not want to leave. Then what did I decipher from the dancing freckles of moonlight on your face which crept through the flowers when the moon appeared in the east? It was a poem written without words. It was a three-dimensional picture. It was holy teaching that exposed human secrets. My heart began to tremble.
Then it was another May, when the earth was covered with pomegranate blossoms again. Our old wounds had just healed, but we ran into eachother again. You whispered to me when nobody was around:"Everything's been pre-arranged. I never knew I should marry him." Didn't your words spoil the scenery? "What do you mean?", I asked. You looked down, lost in thought for a moment. Instead of answering me, you gave a sad smile and tripped away, leaving behind a lifetime mystery.
Always dim and vague, now visible, now invisible, you never faded in my mind during those long years. In May when petals fell in riotous profusion, I often walked back and forth under the tree, cherishing that little feeling you had left in me, picking up the fallen leaves and chewing on the days that had passed. Using that drifting train of thought, I tried but never succeeded to draw your clear figure: It was always like one drawn in water - once you wiped it, it was gone. Yet just like a spirit lingering around, momentarily you would appear in my
 mind again. As our ancestors said, hardly had I closed my eyes when I saw you again.
May God be our witness: We never said or did anything that lovers would have done. Perhaps because of this, it invites more guessing and provokes more thinking. And probably because of that, our relationship has reached such a lasting state that it takes shape after our thinking and creates kindred spirits. It was God's will that this piece of blank paper be created, ready for a most beautiful and ingenious human picture to be painted by a clever hand, brushes, paints and ink lying by, ready for use.
The last words I heard from you were forwarded to me by another person: "Tell him I wish him good luck." You asked someone to forward your message even though today's means of communication are so advanced that nobody really needs anyone's assistance. May I ask, you cunning woman, what are you really up to? What message do you invent to convey?
You wanted to say it, but you did not. You wanted to say it, but you never did! It seems you just wanted to create a broken relationship that is not totally broken. Several decades have flown by. Indeed, it is that 'last wish', like gossamer, now drifting away, now clinging around me, that has been resounding in my ears up till today.
I was told that you still live in my remote home city. Human feelings change, day in, day out. Time can turn out tragedies, but wonders more so. I sincerely hope that you live better than I do. I am sure you do!

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Franz Kafka:

The Great Wall of China

(a long short story)

Great Wall of China, near Beijing, (Copyright ©Foto: alywagenvoorde, 2006)

The Great Wall of China was finished at its northernmost location.  The construction work moved up from the south-east and south-west and joined at this point.  The system of building in sections was also followed on a small scale within the two great armies of workers, the eastern and western.  It was carried out in the following manner: groups of about twenty workers were formed, each of which had to take on a section of the wall, about five hundred metres.  A neighbouring group then built a wall of similar length to meet it.  But afterwards, when the sections were fully joined, construction was not continued on any further at the end of this thousand-metre section.  Instead the groups of workers were shipped off again to build the wall in completely different regions.  Naturally, with this method many large gaps arose, which were filled in only gradually and slowly, many of them not until after it had already been reported that the building of the wall was complete.  In fact, there are said to be gaps which have never been built in at all, although that’s merely an assertion which probably belongs among the many legends which have arisen about the structure and which, for individual people at least, are impossible to prove with their own eyes and according to their own standards, because the structure is so immense.
Now, at first one might think it would have been more advantageous in every way to build in continuous sections or at least continuously within two main sections.  For the wall was conceived as a protection against the people of the north, as was commonly announced and universally known.  But how can protection be provided by a wall which is not built continuously?  In fact, not only can such a wall not protect, but the structure itself is in constant danger.  Those parts of the wall left standing abandoned in particular regions could easily be destroyed again and again by the nomads, especially by those back then who, worried about the building of the wall, changed their place of residence with incredible speed, like grasshoppers, and thus perhaps had an even better overall view of how the construction was proceeding than we did, the people who built it.   
However, there was no other way to carry out the construction except the way it happened.  In order to understand this, one must consider the following: the wall was to be a protection for centuries; thus, the essential prerequisites for the work were the most careful construction, the use of the architectural wisdom of all known ages and peoples, and an enduring sense of personal responsibility in the builders.  Of course, for the more humble tasks one could use ignorant day labourers from the people—the men, women, and children who offered their services for good money.  But the supervision of even four day labourers required a knowledgeable man, an educated expert in construction, someone who was capable of feeling sympathy deep in his heart for what was at stake here.  And the higher the challenge, the greater the demands.  And such men were in fact available—if not the crowds of them which this construction could have used, at least in great numbers.
They did not set about this task recklessly.  Fifty years before the start of construction it was announced throughout the whole region of China which was to be enclosed within the wall that architecture and especially masonry were the most important areas of knowledge, and everything else was recognized only to the extent that it had some relationship to those.  I still remember very well how as small children who could hardly walk we stood in our teacher’s little garden and had to construct a sort of wall out of pebbles, and how the teacher gathered up his coat and ran against the wall, naturally making everything collapse, and then scolded us so much for the weakness of our construction that we ran off in all directions howling to our parents.  A tiny incident, but an indication of the spirit of the times.
I was lucky that at twenty years of age, when I passed the final examination of the lowest school, the construction of the wall was just starting.  I say lucky because many who earlier had attained the highest limit of education available to them for years had no idea what to do with their knowledge and wandered around uselessly, with the most splendid architectural plans in their heads, and a great many of them just went downhill from there.  But the ones who finally got to work as supervisors on the construction, even if they had the lowest rank, were really worthy of their position.  They were masons who had given much thought to the construction and never stopped thinking about it, men who, right from the first stone which they sunk into the ground, had a sense of themselves as part of the wall.  Such masons, of course, were driven not only by the desire to carry out the work as thoroughly as possible but also by impatience to see the structure standing there in its complete final perfection.  Day labourers do not experience this impatience.  They are driven only by their pay. The higher supervisors and, indeed, even the middle supervisors, see enough from their various perspectives on the growth of the wall to keep their spirits energized.  But the subordinate supervisors, men who were mentally far above their small, more trivial tasks, had to be catered to in other ways.  One could not, for example, let them lay one building block on top of another in an uninhabited region of the mountains, hundreds of miles from their homes, for months or even years at a time.   The hopelessness of such a hard task, which could not be completed even in a long human lifetime, would have caused them distress and, more than anything else, made them worthless for work.   For that reason they chose the system of building in sections.  Five hundred metres could be completed in something like five years, by which time naturally the supervisors were as a rule too exhausted and had lost all faith in themselves, in the building, and in the world. 
Thus, while they were still experiencing the elation of the celebrations for the joining up of a thousand metres of the wall, they were shipped far, far away.  On their journey they saw here and there finished sections of the wall rising up; they passed through the quarters of the higher administrators, who gave them gifts as badges of honour, and they heard the rejoicing of new armies of workers streaming past them out of the depths of the land, saw forests being laid low, wood designated as scaffolding for the wall, witnessed mountains being broken up into rocks for the wall, and heard in the holy places the hymns of the pious praying for the construction to be finished.  All this calmed their impatience.  The quiet life of home, where they spent some time, reinvigorated them.  The high regard which all those doing the building enjoyed, the devout humility with which people listened to their reports, the trust that simple quiet citizens had that the wall would be completed someday—all this tuned the strings of their souls.  Then, like eternally hopeful children, they took leave of their home.  The enthusiasm for labouring once again at the people’s work became irresistible.  They set out from their houses earlier than necessary, and half the village accompanied them for a long way.  On all the roads there were groups of people, pennants, banners—they had never seen how great and rich and beautiful and endearing their country was.  Every countryman was a brother for whom they were building a protective wall and who would thank him with everything he had and was for all his life.  Unity! Unity! Shoulder to shoulder, a coordinated movement of the people, their blood no longer confined in the limited circulation of the body but rolling sweetly and yet still returning through the infinite extent of China.
In view of all this, the system of piecemeal building becomes understandable.  But there were still other reasons, too.  And there is nothing strange in the fact that I have held off on this point for so long.  It is the central issue in the whole construction of the wall, no matter how unimportant it appears at first.  If I want to convey the ideas and experiences of that time and make them intelligible, I cannot probe deeply enough into this particular question.
First, one must realize that at that time certain achievements were brought to fruition which rank only slightly behind the Tower of Babel, although in the pleasure they gave to God, at least by human reckoning, they made an impression exactly the opposite of that structure.  I mention this because at the time construction was beginning a scholar wrote a book in which he drew this comparison very precisely.  In it he tried to show that the Tower of Babel had failed to attain its goal not for the reasons commonly asserted, or at least that the most important cause was not among these well-known ones.  He not only based his proofs on texts and reports, but also claimed to have carried out personal inspections of the location and thus to have found that the structure collapsed and had to collapse because of the weakness of its foundation.   And it is true that in this respect our age was far superior to that one long ago.  Almost every educated person in our age was a mason by profession and infallible when it came to the business of laying foundations. 
But it was not at all the scholar’s aim to prove this.  He claimed that the great wall alone would for the first time in the age of human beings create a secure foundation for a new Tower of Babel.  So first the wall and then the tower.  In those days the book was in everyone’s hands, but I confess that even today I do not understand exactly how he imagined this tower.  How could the wall, which never once took the form of a circle but only a sort of quarter or half circle, provide the foundation for a tower?  But it could be meant only in a spiritual sense.  But then why the wall, which was still something real, a product of the efforts and lives of hundreds of thousands of people?  And why were there plans in the book—admittedly hazy plans—sketching the tower, as well as detailed proposals about how the energies of the people could be channelled into powerfully new work. 
There was a great deal of mental confusion at the time—his book is only one example—perhaps simply because so many people were trying as hard as they could to join together for a single purpose.  Human nature, which is fundamentally careless and by nature like the whirling dust, endures no restraint.  If it restricts itself, it will soon begin to shake the restraints madly and tear up walls, chains, and even itself all over the place.
It is possible that even these considerations, which argued against building the wall in the first place, were not ignored by the leadership when they decided on piecemeal construction. We—and here I’m really speaking on behalf of many—actually first found out about it by spelling out the orders from the highest levels of management and learned for ourselves that without the leadership neither our school learning nor our human understanding would have been adequate for the small position we had within the enormous totality.
In the office of the leadership—where it was and who sat there no one I asked knows or knew—in this office I imagine that all human thoughts and wishes revolve in a circle, and all human aims and fulfilments in a circle going in the opposite direction.  And through the window the reflection of the divine worlds fell onto the hands of the leadership as they drew up the plans.  And for this reason the incorruptible observer will reject the notion that if the leadership had seriously wanted a continuous construction of the wall, they would not have been able to overcome the difficulties standing in the way.  So the only conclusion left is that the leadership deliberately chose piecemeal construction.    But building in sections was something merely makeshift and impractical.  So the conclusion remains that the leadership wanted something impractical.  An odd conclusion!  True enough, and yet from another perspective it had some inherent justification.
Nowadays one can perhaps speak about it without danger.  At that time for many people, even the best, there was a secret principle: Try with all your powers to understand the orders of the leadership, but only up to a certain limit—then stop thinking about them.  A very reasonable principle, which incidentally found an even wider interpretation in a later often repeated comparison: Stop further thinking about it, not because it could harm you—it is not at all certain that it will harm you.  In this matter one cannot speak in general about harming or not harming.  What will happen to you is like a river in spring.  It rises, grows stronger, eats away powerfully at the land along its shores, and still maintains its own course down into the sea and is more welcome as a fitter partner for the sea.  Reflect upon the orders of the leadership as far as that.  But then the river overflows its banks, loses its form and shape, slows down its forward movement, tries, contrary to its destiny, to form small seas inland, damages the fields, and yet cannot maintain its expansion long, but runs back within its banks, in fact, even dries up miserably in the hot time of year which follows.  Do not reflect on the orders of the leadership to that extent. 
Now, this comparison may perhaps have been extraordinarily apt during the construction of the wall, but it has at most only a limited relevance to my present report.  For my investigation is only historical. There is no lightning strike flashing any more from storm clouds which have long since vanished, and thus I may seek an explanation for the piecemeal construction which goes further than the one people were satisfied with back then.  The limits which my ability to think sets for me are certainly narrow enough, but the region one would have to pass through here is endless. Against whom was the great wall to provide protection?  Against the people of the north.  I come from south-east China.  No northern people can threaten us there.  We read about them in the books of the ancients.  The atrocities which their nature prompts them to commit make us heave a sigh on our peaceful porches.  In the faithfully accurate pictures of artists we see the faces of this damnation, with their mouths flung open, the sharp pointed teeth stuck in their jaws, their straining eyes, which seem to be squinting for someone to seize, whom their jaws will crush and rip to pieces.  When children are naughty, we hold up these pictures in front of them, and they immediately burst into tears and run into our arms.  But we know nothing else about these northern lands.  We have never seen them, and if we remain in our village, we never will see them, even if they charge straight at us and hunt us on their wild horses.  The land is so huge, it would not permit them to reach us, and they would lose themselves in empty air.
So if things are like this, why do we leave our homes, the river and bridges, our mothers and fathers, our crying wives, our children in need of education, and go to school in the distant city, with our thoughts on the wall to the north, even further away?  Why?  Ask the leadership.  They know us.  As they mull over their immense concerns, they know about us, understand our small worries, see us all sitting together in our humble huts, and approve or disapprove of the prayer which the father of the house says in the evening surrounded by his family.  And if I may be permitted such ideas about the leadership, then I must say that in my view the leadership existed even earlier.  It did not come together like some high mandarins hastily summoned to a meeting by a beautiful dream of the future, something hastily concluded, a meeting which saw to it that the general population was driven from their beds by a knocking on the door so that they could carry out the decision, even if it was only to set up an lantern in honour of a god who had shown favour to the masters the day before, so that he could thrash them in some dark corner the next day, when the lantern had only just died out.  On the contrary, I imagine the leadership has always existed, along with the decision to construct the wall as well.  Innocent northern people believed they were the cause; the admirable innocent emperor believed he had given orders for it.  We who were builders of the wall know otherwise and are silent. 
Even during the construction of the wall and afterwards, right up to the present day, I have devoted myself almost exclusively to the histories of different people.  There are certain questions for which one can, to some extent, get to the heart of the matter only in this way. Using this method I have found that we Chinese possess certain popular and state institutions which are uniquely clear and, then again, others which are uniquely obscure.  Tracking down the reasons for these, especially for the latter phenomena, always appealed to me, and still does, and the construction of the wall is fundamentally concerned with these issues.
Now, among our most obscure institutions one can certainly include the empire itself.  Of course, in Peking, right in the court, there is some clarity about it, although even this is more apparent than real.  And the teachers of constitutional law and history in the schools of higher learning give out that they are precisely informed about these things and that they are able to pass this knowledge on to their students.  The deeper one descends into the lower schools, understandably the more the doubts about the students’ own knowledge disappear, and a superficial education surges up as high as a mountain around a few precepts drilled into them for centuries, sayings which, in fact, have lost nothing of their eternal truth, but which remain also eternally unrecognised in the mist and fog.
But, in my view, it’s precisely the empire we should be asking the people about, because in them the empire has its final support.  It’s true that in this matter I can speak once again only about my own homeland.  Other than the agricultural deities and the service to them, which so beautifully and variously fills up the entire year, our thinking concerns itself only with the emperor.  But not with the present emperor.  We’d rather think about the present one if we knew who he was or anything definite about him.  We were naturally always trying—and it’s the single curiosity which satisfies us—to find out something or other about him, but, no matter how strange this sounds, it was hardly possible to learn anything, either from pilgrims, even though they wandered through much of our land, or from the close or remote villages, or from boatmen, although they have travelled not merely on our little waterways but also on the sacred rivers.  True, we heard a great deal, but could gather nothing from the many details.
Our land is so huge, that no fairy tale can adequately deal with its size.  Heaven hardly covers it all.  And Peking is only a point, the imperial palace only a tiny dot.  It’s true that, by contrast, throughout all the different levels of the world the emperor, as emperor, is great.  But the living emperor, a man like us, lies on a peaceful bed, just as we do.  It is, no doubt, of ample proportions, but it could be merely narrow and short.  Like us, he sometime stretches out his limbs and, if he is very tired, yawns with his delicately delineated mouth.  But how are we to know about that thousands of miles to the south, where we almost border on the Tibetan highlands?  Besides, any report which came, even if it reached us, would get there much too late and would be long out of date.  Around the emperor the glittering and yet mysterious court throngs—malice and enmity clothed as servants and friends, the counterbalance to the imperial power, with their poisoned arrows always trying to shoot the emperor down from his side of the balance scales.  The empire is immortal, but the individual emperor falls and collapses. Even entire dynasties finally sink down and breathe their one last death rattle.  The people will never know anything about these struggles and sufferings.  Like those who have come too late, like strangers to the city, they stand at the end of the thickly populated side alleyways, quietly living off the provisions they have brought with them, while far off in the market place right in the middle foreground the execution of their master is taking place.
There is a legend which expresses this relationship well.  The Emperor—so they say—has sent a message, directly from his death bed, to you alone, his pathetic subject, a tiny shadow which has taken refuge at the furthest distance from the imperial sun.  He ordered the herald to kneel down beside his bed and whispered the message into his ear.  He thought it was so important that he had the herald repeat it back to him.  He confirmed the accuracy of the verbal message by nodding his head.  And in front of the entire crowd of those who’ve come to witness his death—all the obstructing walls have been broken down and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs—in front of all of them he dispatched his herald.  The messenger started off at once, a powerful, tireless man.  Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd.  If he runs into resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun.  So he moves forward easily, unlike anyone else.  But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite.  If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvelous pounding of his fist on your door.  But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts.  He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. He will never he win his way through.  And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved.  He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved.  He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years.  And if he finally did burst through the outermost door—but that can never, never happen—the royal capital city, the centre of the world, is still there in front of him, piled high and full of sediment.  No one pushes his way through here, certainly not with a message from a dead man.  But you sit at your window and dream of that message when evening comes.
That’s exactly how our people look at the emperor, hopelessly and full of  hope.  They don’t know which emperor is on the throne, and there are even doubts about the name of the dynasty.  In the schools they learn a great deal about things like the succession, but the common uncertainty in this respect is so great that even the best pupils are drawn into it.  In our villages emperors long since dead are set on the throne, and one of them who still lives on only in songs had one of his announcements issued a little while ago, which the priest read out from the altar.  Battles from our most ancient history are now fought for the first time, and with a glowing face your neighbour charges into your house with the report.  The imperial wives, over indulged on silk cushions, alienated from noble customs by shrewd courtiers, swollen with thirst for power, driven by greed, excessive in their lust, are always committing their evil acts over again.  The further back they are in time, the more terrible all their colours glow, and with a loud cry of grief our village eventually gets to learn how an empress thousands of years ago drank her husband’s blood in lengthy gulps.
That, then, is how the people deal with the rulers from the past, but they mix up the present rulers with the dead ones.  If once, once in a person’s lifetime an imperial official travelling around the province comes into our village, sets out some demands or other in the name of the rulers, checks the tax lists, attends a school class, interrogates the priest about our comings and goings, and then, before climbing into his sedan chair, summarizes everything in a long sermon to the assembled local population, at that point a smile crosses every face, one man looks furtively at another and bends over his children, so as not to let the official see him.  How, people think, can he speak of a dead man as if he were alive.  This emperor already died a long time ago, the dynasty has been extinguished, the official is having fun with us. But we’ll act as if we didn’t notice, so that we don’t hurt his feelings.  However, in all seriousness we’ll obey only our present ruler, for anything else would be a sin.  And behind the official’s sedan chair as it hurries away there arises from the already decomposed urn someone or other arbitrarily endorsed as ruler of the village.
Similarly, with us people are, as a rule, little affected by political revolutions and contemporary wars.  Here I recall an incident from my youth.  In a neighbouring but still very far distant province a rebellion broke out.  I cannot remember the causes any more.  Besides, they are not important here.  In that province reasons for rebellion arise every new day—they are an excitable people.  Well, on one occasion a rebel pamphlet was brought to my father’s house by a beggar who had travelled through that province.  It happened to be a holiday. Our living room was full of guests.  The priest sat in their midst and studied the pamphlet.  Suddenly everyone started laughing, the sheet was torn to pieces in the general confusion, and the beggar was chased out of the room with blows, although he had already been richly rewarded.  Everyone scattered and ran out into the beautiful day.  Why?  The dialect of the neighbouring province is essentially different from ours, and these differences manifest themselves also in certain forms of the written language, which for us have an antiquated character.  Well, the priest had scarcely read two pages like that, and people had already decided.  Old matters heard long ago, and long since got over.  And although—as I recall from my memory—a horrifying way of life seemed to speak irrefutably through the beggar, people laughed and shook their head and were unwilling to hear any more.  That’s how ready people are among us to obliterate the present.
If one wanted to conclude from such phenomena that we basically have no emperor at all, one would not be far from the truth.  I need to say it again and again: There is perhaps no people more faithful to the emperor than we are in the south, but the emperor derives no benefits from our loyalty.  It’s true that on the way out of our village there stands on a little pillar the sacred dragon, which, for as long as men can remember, has paid tribute by blowing its fiery breath straight in the direction of Peking.  But for the people in the village Peking itself is much stranger than living in the next world. Could there really be a village where houses stand right beside each other covering the fields and reaching further than the view from our hills, with men standing shoulder to shoulder between these houses day and night?  Rather than imagining such a city, it’s easier for us to believe that Peking and its emperor are one, something like a cloud, peacefully moving along under the sun as the ages pass.
Now, the consequence of such opinions is a life which is to some extent free and uncontrolled.  Not in any way immoral—purity of morals like those in my homeland I have hardly ever come across in my travels.  But nonetheless a life that stands under no present laws and only pays attention to the wisdom and advice which reach across to us from ancient times.
I guard again generalizations and do not claim that things like this go on in all ten thousand villages of our province or, indeed, in all five hundred provinces of China.  But on the basis of the many writings which I have read concerning this subject, as well as on the basis of my many observations, especially since the construction of the wall with its human material provided an opportunity for a man of feeling to travel through the souls of almost all the provinces—on the basis of all this perhaps I may truly state that with respect to the emperor the prevailing idea again and again reveals a certain universal essential feature common to the conception in my homeland.  Now, I have no desire at all to let this conception stand as a virtue—quite the contrary.  It’s true that in the main things the blame rests with the government, which in the oldest empire on earth right up to the present day has not been able or has, among other things, neglected to cultivate the institution of empire sufficiently clearly so that it is immediately and ceaselessly effective right up to the most remote frontiers of the empire.  On the other hand, however, there is in this also a weakness in the people’s power of imagining or believing, which has not succeeded in pulling the empire out of its deep contemplative state in Peking and making it something fully vital and present in the hearts of subjects, who nonetheless want nothing better than to feel its touch once and then die from the experience.
So this conception is really not a virtue.  It’s all the more striking that this very weakness appears to be one of the most important ways of unifying our people.  Indeed, if one may go so far as to use the expression, it is the very ground itself on which we live.  To provide a detailed account of why we have a flaw here would amount not just to rattling our consciences but, what is much more serious, to making our feet tremble. And therefore I do not wish to go any further in the investigation of these questions at the present time.

Franz Kafka, "Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer", 1931

This translation by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC

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Controlling a flood by blocking a river

Duke Li of Zhou was a despotic ruler. The people of the country hated him and cursed him. Shao Hu, a senior minister, said to him, 'The people can no longer tolerate your harsh rule.'
Duke Li was angry. he found a wizard from the State of Wei, and ordered the man to keep a close watch on those who would say bad things about him; whoever the wizard said had slandered him would be put to death. This silenced all the people of the country, who would only look at one another without saying a word when they met on the road.
Duke Li was satisfied. He said to Shao Hu, 'I can stop all slander. No one is talking now.'
'You have blocked the people's way of expressing themselves,'Shao Hu replied. 'But blocking the people's mouths is more dangerous than blocking a river full of water. If such a river is blocked, its banks will certainly collapse somewhere, and that will cause great damage. Blocking the people's mouths will produce a similar result. Therefore, one who manages a river should give an outlet to the water in it, and one who rules the people should give them opportunities to speak their minds.'

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The old dame by the Fenshui river

An old dame living by the Fenshui River caught a red carp, the colour of which was quite distinctive from that of other carp. Taking it home, she pitied it in her wonderment, and digging a miniature pond, she drew some water and kept it there. A month later misty clouds were seen swirling up, and the carp flopped about. Shortly it mounted high in the air, and the water in the pond dried up. When night came it returned again. People who had seen it were shocked and considered it a monster. The old dame, afraid that it should make trouble, regretted having brought it home and went to the pond and prayed, 'I showed you mercy and let you live on here, but you brought me disaster. Why?'
As soon as she had finished speaking, the carp sprang out of the water and in the wake of a wind-borne cloud dived into the Fenshui River. From the sky dropped a pearl the size of a slingshot, dazzlingly brilliant. Nobody except the old dame dared pick it up.
Five years later her eldest son contracted epilepsy, so badly that no doctor could cure him. She was worried sick. Suddenly she rememebred the pearl and sent for a competent physician. Lo and behold, the pearl changed into a pill!
'The red carp left it for me to save my son with in order to repay my kindness, 'she said.
With that she gave the pill to her son, who took it and soon recovered.

Translated by Song Shouquan

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Using goats to transport bricks

(The Great Wall)

In 1607, the 35th year of Wanli Emperor's reign, a battalion of imperial troops stationed in the Mount Damaoshan area wasdered to upgrade the surface of the Wall between watchtowers No. 89 and No. 90 at Chengziyu by the addition of bricks. Such a task was nothing new for the soldiers, who had taken part in Wall building in many other places elsewhere within the Jizhen Military Region. However, transportation of building materials at Chengziyu was more of a problem. The Wall was located high up on a precipitous mountain, which was overgrown with shribs and brambles. Moreover, the troops were pressed by a short deadline.
Fearing punishment if they failed to meet the deadline, the commanders of the Damaoshan Garrison and the battalion jointly put up a public notice, offering a reward of 300 taels of silver to any person helping them resolve the problem. Days passed, but no ideas were forthcoming.
Then one day a sheperd showed up, saying he would accept the challenge. The young man came from Ruzhou, a mountainous area neighboring Chengziyu, and he happened to see the notice while attending a local temple fair dedicated to a goddesss said to be able to grant childless couples the birth of a baby.
Seeing the notice on the wall, so goes the tale, the young man asked the soldier guarding it whether the army officers really meant what they said. The reply was: 'There's no jesting in the performance of any military duty!'
The shepherd lost no time to meet the commanders, and signed a pledge to transport building materials up the mountain, under which he would be executed if he failed to accomplish the task. It turned out that he had a herd of 150 goats dubbed 'horse goats' which were as sure-footed as goats and as swift as horses.

The animals were indeed helpful, each of them carrying two bricks at a time to the worksite at the top of the mountain. They were driven up with bricks on their backs three times in the morning, and would rest in the afternoon. However, before long the shepherd became distressed and met the commander pf the Chengziyu Garrison. 'Something strange is happening, 'he reported. 'It seems my goats are slowly disappearing, one goes missing every other day.'
The general flew into a rage, suspecting a thief was among his men. 'Where's the son-of-a-bitch who's stealing these animals?' he yelled to his assembled troops. 'Step forward if you're the man!' Nobody answered his call. The men, bewildered, just looked at one another.
The shepherd was to find out that the predator was a python whose body was as thick as a water bucket. Living in a hollow just below the worksite it would emerge every other day to attack its easy prey: a goat handicapped by the weight of two Great Wall bricks.
The next day, however, the python became the prey as the garrison commander dispatched a squad of his best soldiers to hunt down and kill the python. It is said that during the hunt a huge thunderstorm broke out and the puthon was miraculously struck dead by a bolt of lioghtning. Afterwards, construction resumed.
The wall in between the two watchtowers, 60 zhang and six chi long, was completed on schedule. Some 80 percent of the Wall has been preserved to this day.

Zhang Heshan, translated by Li Zhurun


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Controlling a flood by blocking a river

The Great Wall of China

Her husband's mistress

Nearly said

The old dame by the Fenshui River

The story of the dog

Using goats to transport bricks

The Yanyu Hern and the Greedy Dragon


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