Welcome to my family stories. They were misplaced during a website migration years ago, and now I've found them. There are 22 in all and I will do my best to post one each week. If you've ever read the Author's Notes at the back of my novels, you will know that family memoirs and stories about my ancestors often make their way into the books - so if any incidents in these stories feel familiar, it's probably because they've been used in a novel. But which one? In DRAGON SPRINGS ROAD, there is a doorway to the land of immortals, inspired by this ancestral story. Enjoy.
W hen the West brought its knowledge to the doorsteps of a reluctant China, earlier generations of our family found that they could never quite come to terms with modern science. This was due to the abundance of anecdotes we possessed that bore witness to the existence of a more mystical reality.
We know for example, that during the reign of the Emperor Qian Long of the Qing dynasty more than two hundred and fifty years ago, my six-times-great-grandfather Zhang Shiho saw a dragon and spoke with immortals. My father told me that there is actually an account of these two incidents in a book by a writer of the time named Yuan Mei, so we know that the events were considered factual enough to have been documented by Zhang Shiho’s contemporaries.
Actually there were three incidents where Zhang Shiho encountered the supernatural, but Yuan Mei never knew of the third, it remained within the family. Ordinary people are unlikely to encounter omens of fortune such as dragons and indeed our ancestor Zhang Shiho was not ordinary for those times.
For one thing, in a Confucian society where charity outside the home was virtually unknown, he offered compassion and aid to the less fortunate.
At New Years and other festive times, he would rove through the poor neighborhoods of Still Waters, pausing to listen outside the door or window of each home. If he could hear laughter and the clattering of dishes, he would walk on. But if he heard crying and laments, he would reach into the pocket of his padded coat for a string of cash (for in those days coins were pierced with a square hole in the middle, and often carried strung through a loop of twine), toss it through the door, and hurry away.
Next, he was a man of considerable intellect. He had passed the Imperial examinations with a scholar rank of juren, only one rank below the highest rank of jinshi, and was awarded a position of some importance at the provincial level of government. But if you were to ask him his true vocation, he would have replied that he was a gentleman scholar, meaning one who could afford to study for the sake of learning and not in order to earn a living by it.
Lastly, he was well-traveled for those times, for he loved to travel. Now this was rare in an era when travel was inconvenient, often dangerous, and to be avoided except when utterly necessary. Zhang Shiho’s family could not understand his need to periodically abandon the refinements of his home any more than he could explain to them his wanderlust.
During the pleasantly temperate days of early autumn one year, Zhang Shiho went for a trek through the mountains. His donkey followed a narrow dirt track that wound along the side of the mountain, and our ancestor gazed over a wonderful view of the steep inclines of the valley, the entire vista covered in glorious autumn foliage. The air was warm and still, which was why the rustling movement caught his eye.
Zhang Shiho halted his donkey and squinted at the rocky clefts of the gorge below, and this time saw was a tower of spiraling leaves, rising as though caught in a whirlwind. The leaves moved in a rustling coil across the valley floor, rising, falling, and twisting along the walls of the gorge. Zhang Shiho knew at once that he was looking at a dragon wind, a cyclone no higher than a tall hemlock, a dragon twirling at its center. Furthermore, from the joyous gamboling motion of the leaves, he fancied that it was a very young dragon. Then the leaves blew apart abruptly and all was still again in the valley.
Thus it could be said that Zhang Shiho saw a dragon, for although he did not see the dragon itself, he definitely witnessed evidence of its presence. This then, was his first brush with the immortal.
That incident should have told him that he had been tapped on the shoulder by the gods. It was an omen that presaged Zhang Shiho's next encounter with the supernatural several years later, when he traveled to Emei Mountain, one of China's four sacred Buddhist mountains. A young manservant accompanied him. They were on their way back home, riding on a trail pleasantly shaded by pine trees, whose sharp scent cut through the musty air of the hot summer day. They had traveled this same way some weeks back, so the road was familiar to them, an area of rocky cliffs where huge pines grew from gnarled roots anchored into impossibly small crevices.
As he came around the corner of a switchback, Zhang Shiho saw a small clearing beside the mouth of a cave that he was sure he hadn’t seen on the outbound trip; this he found quite strange. Stranger yet, in the clearing were two elderly gentlemen seated on carved stone stools at a stone table, playing chess under a large pine tree.
The two ancients were dressed in a robes of a style from more than five hundred years ago and Zhang Shiho knew at once that the gentlemen were immortals, for this spot was many hours ride from the nearest village and there was no sight of horses or any means of transport; the gentlemen must have arrived magically. He told his manservant to remain on the trail with the animals, and strode into the clearing.
Zhang Shiho knew he could not interrupt, but had to be acknowledged first before he could speak, so he stood silent and respectful, watching the game. It took perhaps an hour before the immortals finished their match, closing with an elaborate exchange of compliments. Then at last, when they turned around, they addressed him by name.
“I was a general loyal to Cao Cao during the time of the Three Kingdoms dynasty,” said one of the ancients. “I gave up warfare to follow the path of learning and have become an immortal. My friend here was a minister who gave up all his wealth and did the same.”
“We know all about you, Zhang Shiho,” the second immortal said. “You are a compassionate and honest man, and most of all, a true scholar. We invite you to join us and follow the path to knowledge and immortality.”
Our ancestor was overjoyed, for what scholar has not dreamed of having all eternity in which to gain in knowledge? He dropped to his knees, and pressed his forehead into the scented pine needles covering the ground.
“Oh yes, thank you so much. I will go home to tell my family and tidy up my business affairs. I shall return as quickly as possible!”
The moment he finished speaking those words, the two old gentlemen vanished in a clap of thunder, along with the cave, the furniture, and chessboard. With dismay, Zhang Shiho heard the first immortal’s voice echoing in the rocks.
“Aiya, what a disappointment you are! You are still too attached to this world. Go home then, go home!”
When questioned later, the young manservant said he saw and heard nothing, only that his master had walked to the side of the road and stood for a few minutes facing the rock wall of a cliff, and had spent the rest of the journey in quiet and sad contemplation. So this is how we know that more than two hundred years ago near Emei Mountain, one of our ancestors met with immortals, and was offered the chance to become one.
This next and final story about Zhang Shiho takes place many years later when he was a very old man. This is the third tale about him, known only to our family.
On one of the many festive days preceding the New Year, Zhang Shiho was making his way as usual through the poor neighbourhoods to distribute strings of cash. He walked slowly, for he was now elderly and frail.
Since he was quite familiar with the streets of the town, he was perplexed to come upon the entrance to a small alley that he had never noticed before. The alley was empty and quiet, and instead of being filled with ramshackle houses and stores, was lined with the whitewashed walls of grand houses. Extremely curious, Zhang Shiho entered the alley. As he neared the entrance to the first house, he heard a rhythmic slapping noise. The gate was wide open, so he glanced through its arched entrance. The courtyard inside was paved with slabs of smooth blue slate, and exquisite small trees in glazed pottery urns lined the walls. But he could not see what made that sound.
He took a few steps closer to the threshold, and craned his neck around the doorway. The noise came from a ball, bouncing up and down on the paved courtyard. But no one was playing with the ball; it was just bouncing all by itself. Zhang Shiho knew at once that he was being given another chance to join the world of immortals, and this time he did not hesitate. He stepped across the threshold and into the courtyard. He was never seen again. Nor did the alley with whitewashed walls ever appear again.
By this we know that Zhang Shiho became an immortal, for twice before already, had he not been shown glimpses of that other world? And so whenever our family prays for the blessings of our ancestors, we feel especially blessed because we know that Six-Times-Great-grandfather Zhang Shiho is able to intercede for us directly with the gods.
At this point in the telling of the story, some bright young child inevitably makes a protest.
"But if he was all alone when this happened, who saw him vanish?"
The child would usually receive a cuff on the ear for being so impertinent as to doubt the story.
A bout this story
My six-times-great grandfather Zhang Shih Ho (1698 - 1773), was born in the middle part of the Qing Dynasty. He lived to seventy-five, a great age in those days. He outlived three Qing Dynasty emperors: Kangxi, Yong Zheng, and Qian Long, as well as Louis XIV of France. Isaac Newton, the Bernoullis, Leonard Euler, and Benjamin Franklin were discovering new ways of explaining the forces of nature and mathematics, while James Cook, sailing the HMS Endeavour, was exploring the Southern Hemisphere. Blissfully dismissive of Western science, my ancestor toured China on horseback, open to the possibility of dragons and immortals.
If you read Chinese folk tales, there are countless stories of ordinary mortals who meet immortals. Sometimes the Chinese term for immortals gets translated as “fairies”, which brings to the Western mind images of Tinker Belle and other cutesy magical creatures. Chinese fairies are human-sized and sometimes possessed of magical powers; they are, in effect, minor deities. They can be immortal by birth, or they can be humans who were gifted with immortality by a deity. Many-times-great-grandfather wasted his first opportunity to join the gods and it was decades before he finally walked out of this world and into that other. The moral of the story: seize the day.
Did he see a dragon or just a freak whirlwind that stirred up a column of autumn leaves? Did he really see immortals playing chess or did he dream it one warm afternoon, half-asleep on his horse, his manservant leading him along the mountain road? And as some incredulous child pointed out, if he was all alone when he vanished through the doorway to the land of immortals, how could there have been any witnesses to tell the story? Did our family just want to add to his legend?
What fascinates me is how this ancestor’s adventures have been passed down in our family in a manner that defies you to dismiss it as myth. Certainly I know what I prefer to believe. Thus the doorway to the land of immortals still exists in Dragon Springs Road.
If you like this blog, please do me the honor of sharing on your social media. Leaving a comment is great, too! -- Janie
15 Ways to Help an Author You Like - a blog