Myths and legends had always been a part of early Chinese literature. With the integration of Buddhism and spirituality into the culture, more fables on fantasy, dream and reality, and even spirits and ghosts, were produced as evident in writings from the six dynasties that ensued. The two tales discussed in this paper were written during the Tang Dynasty and they belong to this category, more specifically, as narratives on dream and reality. How does this form of writing effectively present itself to capture the curiosity and attention of its readers?
Was it an appropriate style used during its own era and is it still an effective method of story-telling in today’s modern age? And finally, if Buddhism or religion did play a part in influencing or affecting the writing themes of that particular age, where and how does spirituality come into view in the stories discussed in this paper? There are three relevant elements to consider in the dream and reality tale: (1) a vision of grandeur, (2) the illusion of time, and (3) the time-measuring device.
This paper shall discuss these significant elements and how they were applied in these stories. Undeniably, the advent and eventual flourishing of arts and literature in the Chinese culture many ages ago has contributed to the over-all development and advancement of human civilization as we now know it. Main Body The Spendthrift and the Alchemist, written by Li Fuyan, is a story of a degenerate man, Du Zichun, who squanders his fortune repeatedly until he is overcome with misery and indignation because his shameful plight.
With nothing to eat, he laments his fate accordingly but is continually given increasingly large amounts of money by a mysterious man. However, with money in his hands, his lavish lifestyle makes him forget his good resolutions in exchange for pleasures which always render him penniless. After he is given a huge amount of money for the third time, he thought in gratitude: ‘I have led a dissolute life and run through all my property, and none of my relatives has ever helped me. Now here is this old man who has given me money three times – how can I repay him?
’ So he said to the old man, ‘With this sum I can settle my worldly affairs, make provision for my poor relatives and fulfill all my obligations. I am deeply grateful to you. After my affairs are settled, I shall do whatever you tell me’. ‘That is what I wish,’ was the old man’s reply. (138) This man turns out to be a priest who tries to perform a ritual to immortalize Du Zichun, and it was apparent that his repeated offers of money was to educate Du on how to master and overcome desire for worldly pleasures, all of which were in preparation for the ritual he was intending to perform.
The Governor of the Southern Tributary State, written by Li Gongzuo, is a tale about a man, Chunyu Fen, who believes that he has been given high statutory recognition in society, only to discover in the end that all the wealth and power he had unwittingly amassed was just a fantasy and a delusion, as illustrated in the tale’s concluding quatrain: His reputation reaches to the skies, His influence can make a kingdom fall, And yet this pomp and power, after all, Are but an ant-heap in the wise man’s eyes. (69)
It is clear that the central theme of these two stories focuses on the futility of man’s worldly accumulation of wealth, recognition and authority. The frustrations and disappointments of Chunyu in his old life fuelled his desire to be a powerful and renowned ruler in his new-found territory. Likewise, Du’s repeated shameful failures in his self-indulgent life propelled him to try and do better. A Vision of Grandeur In this, the main character dreams that he undergoes a long series of experiences in which he ultimately attains a great amount of success after a certain amount of time.
He may also undergo a succession of sufferings, or trials and tribulations until it eventually leads to his awakening. In the Governor of the Southern Tributary State, authority, influence and splendor are the essence of a dream by the central character, Chunyu, a frustrated military man and academic. One day, as he lay drunk, he was accompanied by two purple-clad messengers to the Kingdom of Ashendon where he married the king’s daughter and became governor of the Southern Tributary State.
As he arrived at the province, all the citizens welcomed him at the gate with much fanfare. The officials of the province, the monks and priests, elders, musicians, attendants and guards had all come out in welcome. The streets were thronged, while drums and bells could be heard for miles around. Chunyu saw a goodly array of turrets and pavilions as he entered the great city gate, above which was inscribed in letters of gold: ‘The Southern Tributary State’. In front there were red windows and a large gate with a fine view into the distance. (64)
He ruled well as a governor for twenty years and as a result, the people admired and honored him, erecting monuments and building temples in his name. Not only was he highly-successful in politics, at home he was happily-married and blessed with five sons and two daughters. Life was at its best until tragedy upon tragedy started to invade his life. First his army was defeated by a neighboring kingdom, followed by the untimely death of his wife, until finally he was falsely accused by an enemy in the palace, leading to the king’s hostility toward him.
His glory days were over for he had lost all the material wealth and power he thought he had in previous years. Destitute, he fell into a deep moral depression until one day he was sent back to the former life he knew. Again he was escorted by the same purple-clad messengers who first took him to Ashendon. In a dilapidated carriage, they arrived at his former home. Upon seeing his other self still sleeping in the eastern part of the hall, he was terrified and woke up from his dream.
He gave an account of his vivid dream to his two companions and they searched the hollow under the ash tree where he was taken. There they found a big hole large enough to hold a couch. Inside were gathered swarms of ants and heaps of earth forming towers and city walls. One ant hill had a small reddish tower where two huge ants lived. They were surrounded by scores of other big ants who prevented other ants from approaching. This was apparently the Ashendon that Chunyu narrated to his friends and the two huge ants were the king and queen.
There was another smaller ant hill to its south and it had smaller towers, this was the Southern Tributary State. Chunyu tried to protect this hollow under the ash tree but that night there was a vicious storm and when he came back to the place the following morning, all the ants were gone. In the Spendthrift and the Alchemist, after Du Zichun was repeatedly given large sums of money over a period of years, he was brought to a huge mansion and was given three marble pills and a goblet of wine and instructed to sit on a tiger skin by the west wall, facing east.
Before the priest disappeared, he was informed that all sorts of horrible illusions would come before him and that he should not utter a word no matter what he sees. And so it happened that his life was threatened by men and monsters, his body tortured, and his pleading wife murdered in front of him. He was killed and his soul was thrown in hell where the king of hell further tortured his soul. Then he was reborn as a woman, married and even bore a son.
During all these experiences he was successful in not uttering a single word, as he was instructed by the priest. But when his little son was killed in front of him, his love for the child made him forget his promise and he uttered an exclamation of horror. At this he suddenly awoke with the mansion starting to burn. When the fire was quelled, the enraged priest told him that had he passed the test, Du Zichun would have become an immortal like him. Mastering joy, anger, sorrow, fear, hate and desire, he failed to overcome love. The Illusion of Time
In this element, when the central character falls asleep, his dream seems to occupy a long period of time, but when he awakens, he finds that his sleep has lasted for only a short duration. In The Governor of the Southern Tributary State, Chunyu’s two friends laid him down in the eastern chamber because of his drunkenness, after which they fed the horses and washed their feet. When Chunyu suddenly awoke from his unusual dream, his friends had finished giving fodder to the horses and were still washing their feet but sunset had not yet arrived.
He saw his servants sweeping the courtyard. His two guests were still washing their feet by the couch, the slanting sun had not yet set behind the west wall and his unfinished wine was still by the east window – but he had lived through a whole generation in his dream! Deeply moved, he could not help sighing. And when he called his two friends and told them, they were equally amazed. They went out to look for the hollow under the ash tree, and Chunyu, pointing to it, said, ‘This is where I went in the dream. ’ (67) The same happens in The Spendthrift and the Alchemist.
When Du Zichun awakens, he finds that he has only been asleep from sunset till dawn, when in fact he has lived for decades in his dream. While the exclamation was still at Du’s lips, he found himself back on the seat in the hall, with the priest before him. It was dawn. Purple flames from the cauldron were shooting up through the roof to the sky, and fire was rising from all sides to burn the house to ashes. ‘Look at what you have done! You have spoilt my work, you silly fellow! ’ exclaimed the priest. Seizing him by the hair, he threw Du into a jar of water.
Then the fire was extinguished. (143) The illusion of time presents an additional appeal to the stories, initially because everyone has experienced and questioned this type of illusion since it normally occurs in dreaming and waking cycles, thus making it more readable and interesting. It may also bring into the fore another question: is time itself an illusion? Or, in the paranormal plane of thought which is in harmony with the theme of the two stories: would time, as we know it, elapse in the same rate or pace as that in a paranormal plane or level of existence?
Hence, contemplating on this concept: is there even a slim possibility that Chunyu Fen really did experience these events? Did he think himself to be a man living among the ants or an ant living among humans? Which is reality and which is a dream? These are but a few of the questions which may further fascinate and arouse the curiosity of the reader to analyze and seek for answers which elude man’s capacity to comprehend the unexplained and demand enlightenment in simple terms that he can understand. The Time-Measuring Device
The stories use material objects to measure the amount of time that actually passes in the dream. For example, the dream may take the space of time it requires to wash horses, cook a meal, or wake up from drunkenness. In the case of The Governor of the Southern Tributary State, the device used to measure the actual amount of time that passed from the moment Chunyu slept to his eventual awakening was the feeding of the horses and washing of the feet. It was also mentioned that the slanting sun had not yet set in the west and his unfinished wine was still by the east window when he awoke.
For The Spendthrift and the Alchemist, the device used was the nine-foot high cauldron in the central hall brewing with drugs before Du slept during sunset. When Du awoke in the dawn, purple flames were already shooting up from it through the roof to the sky. The time-measuring devices employed in these tales indispensably complement the illusion of time and provide a necessary medium by which to ascertain the actual duration of the sleeping and waking cycle. Conclusion
In The Spendthrift and the Alchemist, we are given a clear visualization of the fickleness and irresoluteness of man in confronting worldly pleasures and immorality. Illusions of joy and artificial bliss are presented as mere distractions or obstacles to a life of moral ideology and righteousness. The story of The Governor of the Southern Tributary State is an account of a mystical phenomenon but it was written primarily to rebuke the over-ambitious who aspire for materialism and power, even at the expense of morality, as stated by the author in the following:
In the eighth month of the eleventh year of the Zhen Yuan period (AD 795), while on a journey from Suzhou to Luoyang I had stopped at Huaipu and met Chunyu by chance. I questioned him and looked at the ant-hills, going into his story very thoroughly. Believing it to be quite genuine, I have written this tale for those who may be interested. Although it deals with supernatural and unorthodox things, it may have a moral for the ambitious. Let future readers not think this narrative a mere series of coincidences, and let them beware of taking pride in worldly fame and position!
(69) Contemplating both stories, we find the true substance and significance of detaching ourselves from worldly pleasures and desires, and heeding the call of spirituality. In one of the tales, Du Zichun would have achieved immortality had he been successful in mastering himself and overcoming worldly concerns, even love itself, clearly a pervasive doctrine preached in all religions worldwide where man would have everlasting life in paradise if he is willing to set everything else aside, prioritizing God above all, and following the holy teachings of his Church.
The dream and reality tales discussed in this paper were effectively presented using an appropriate style of narrative during its time because: (1) it captures the interest and attention of its readers, not only because it touches on the paranormal, mystical or superstitious nature of the Chinese civilization during that era, but also because (2) it delves on the primal nature or tendency of man in desiring excessive material gain and power, a fact that has, time and again, revealed itself in the annals of human history and is still unquestionably in high supply in this modern day and age.
Works Cited Li, Fuyan. “The Spendthrift and the Alchemist” (“Du Zichun”). Tang Dynasty Stories. Trans. Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang. Beijing: Chinese Literature P, 1986. 136-43. Li, Gongzuo. “Governor of the Southern Tributary State” (“Nanke taishou zhuan”). Tang Dynasty Stories. Trans. Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang. Beijing: Chinese Literature P, 1986. 56-69.
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