Submitted Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Translator’s note: This story is retold faithfully, leaving out no details from Pu Songling (蒲松齡)’s original. But unlike the myriad translators who have come before me, I have elected to forgo the inevitably ill-fated strategy of maintaining the original author’s ingenious structure and infallible flow in Chinese. For scholarly pursuit, such a translation is understandable – perhaps commendable – but it does not make for good reading. Stubbornly trying to render the linguistic conventions of 18th century Classical Chinese into modern day English is the main reason that more than 150 years of translations of Liaozhai Zhiyi read almost identical to one another: all very academic. My aim is, instead, to give you something worth flipping through while relaxing on the couch, sitting on the train, or (heaven forbid) wasting away in the office.
“The Daoists of Mt. Lao” (勞山道士) is one of the most enduring tales from the 18th century masterpiece Tales of the Strange from Liaozhai (聊齋誌異) for its moral of humility and patience. A well-off young man heads to the mountain to learn the mystic arts of the immortals, bust struggles when reality at first falls short of his expectations. This is the first of a two-part translation of the story. – W. Holzer
The Daoists of Mt. Lao; or Of Magic and Modesty
Young Mr. Wang came from a very old and very large family (he was in fact the seventh child) and was known for having something of an obsession with Daoism and its mystic arts. So when someone told him that atop Mt. Lao lived a community of men so versed in Daoist practice they had become immortal xianren, he set out immediately to learn their secrets, books in hand.
Wang had just reached one of Mt. Lao’s numerous peaks when he spotted an imposing and exceptionally quiet temple. Inside, he found a mat of straw sitting beneath a Daoist cleric.
Streams of dulled hair ended suddenly at a neckline, framing a look and composure that bespoke a calm clarity beyond any equal. Wang prostrated before this magnificent man and engaged him in what quickly became a dizzying blur of abstruse conversation too deep for him to grasp. The young man begged for help understanding the mysteries the cleric had spoken.
“I fear naught but that your soft and idle nature leaves you ill-suited to hard work,” the old man said bluntly.
“I can handle it,” Wang insisted.
The cleric had a considerable number of disciples, and as dusk gathered over the cragged cloister, every last one of them assembled in the hall. Wang busied himself bowing before each, touching his forehead to the hard, cold floor in respect. Soon they were gone, and only Wang remained.
At daybreak, the master handed Wang an ax and instructed him to follow the host of disciples to collect firewood. The unelated young man, disappointed at the worldly nature of the task, nevertheless did as he was bid.
Such was his work and such was his life for more than a month. Weeks of labor fostered rough callouses on otherwise smooth hands and feet – and the rumblings of homesickness in an overworked heart.
At dusk one day, Wang and the others returned to the usually empty temple to find the master drinking with two guests. The sun had wandered off behind some peak, but inside, no candles had yet been lit. In the encroaching darkness, the master put scissors to paper, cutting out a circle shape that to Wang resembled a mirror, which he then pasted onto the wall beside them.
Within moments, a light as bright as the full moon shone out from the spot on the wall, pouring its beams over every inch of the room. The disciples quickly gathered around their master, listening to his orders and rushing back and forth as they raced to carry them out.
One of the guests spoke. “It is a fine and entertaining night. We cannot but share this mirth!”
And with that he lifted the bottle of wine from the table and offered some to each disciple, again and again and again, until each of them was well and dizzy.
Wang was amazed. “There are seven or eight of us,” he thought to himself. “How could this one jug hold enough wine for everyone?” But enough there was, and even more.
In a stroke of investigative curiosity, the disciples went and found the largest vessels they could to fill – and empty – with drink. Each man raced at the fear that another one would steal from him the last drop, but strangely, no matter how many times they frantically upended the jug into their goblets, its contents never seemed to dissipate.
At length, one of the guests spoke again. “We are grateful for the moonlight, yet we drink here still in loneliness. Why don’t we call on Chang’e?”
The guest then flung a singular chopstick toward the wall-mounted moon. As it struck, it transformed into a beautiful – but tiny – woman, who leapt out of the bright circle and grew by the moment as she headed toward the floor. By the time she was standing on the ground, she had reached the full height of an adult woman.
Her delicate waist and fine neck were befitting of a moon goddess, and she put both to work as she performed the nichangyuyi dance with a remarkably gentle lightness of foot. She sang with a beautiful voice as crisp and long as a flute.
“Am I here returned to Earth aflutter, or still in the moon palace shuttered?”
With that she jumped lightly and spun through the air, landing on the tea table and, to the utter amazement of the onlookers, transformed back into a chopstick. The cleric and his two friends laughed in amusement.
“This evening has been truly wonderful, but I fear I am no match for all this wine,” one of the guests began. “Would you accompany me back to the moon palace?”
No sooner did he finish speaking than the three mysterious men stood up and, incredibly, disappeared into the wallmoon, wine in hand. The disciples crowded around the perfect sphere in awe. Within it, they could see the whiskers and eyebrows and every other detail of the three men who had been in their temple just moments before, but now sat and enjoyed more drink surrounded by the illuminated landscape of the moon, like minuscule shadows punctuating the surface of a bright mirror. Then the wallmoon’s light began to fade, giving way to a darkness that encompassed the entire temple.
Some of the disciples rushed in with candles to find only the old master sitting by himself at a table still covered with cups and half-eaten food. All that was left on the wall was a circle, still round as the moon but no brighter than an ordinary piece of paper.
“Have you all had enough to drink?” the master asked.
“Yes,” they said as one.
“Then get some rest,” he continued, “or you’ll fall behind in your wood cutting work tomorrow.” And they obeyed.
Wang, for one, was elated by the night’s unforgettable show. Even as he drifted into sleep that night, his longing to return home began to fade away.
(To be continued)
Wesley Holzer was born in California, United States. He is a translator living in Taiwan who likes to pass himself off as a journalist just to see if people are paying attention. He started studying Chinese in high school as a deal with the school principal to get out of taking a required math class and has never once regretted the decision. Wesley took up photography in 2008 as an expensive experiment to boost his impressively poor memory.