Friday, February 5, 2010

Peacock Princess

The Peacock Princess

This story is from southern China, especially the Dai minority people. When China closed its doors, this story seemed unique to the Dai people and became very popular. What the Chinese did not, apparently, know was that versions of this story exist as far away as India. Xiao NIng told me this version.

The seven Peacock Princesses took off their beautiful Peacock cloaks to bath in the forest pool. They were splashing and playing and having great fun. A young Prince, hunting far from home, heard them and spied upon them. They were so beautiful! He quietly took one of the Peacock cloaks and hid it. As he moved back to his hiding place, his foot snapped a twig, and the princesses, startled, donned their cloaks and flew away—alll but the youngest. Although she looked and looked, she could not find her cloak and burst into tears.

The prince fell in love with her and was sorry he had distressed her. “I’m so sorry. I did not mean to upset you. Please, I love you. Won’t you come home with me and be my wife?” Well, the prince was good looking, and the young princess agreed. In fact she fell in love with him as she rode back behind him on his horse.

They were very much in love, this young couple, and lived happily in his father’s palace for a time. Time came, though, when the prince had to ride away, leading the army to defend the kingdome from the neighboring kingdom. Before long, word came that the prince had been killed in battle. The court wizard persuaded the grief stricken king that it was the fault of the Peacock Princess. “She is a witch!” he said, “and she must die!!” The king belived the wizard.

“If my prince is dead, I have no wish to live” the princess cried. “Just let me dance one more time for you in my peacock cloak.

The king agreed. The princess donned her cloak and danced. As she danced, the cloak turned into wings, and she flew away to her father the sun.

A few days later, the prince returned. The rumor of his death had been false. He set off to find his bride. After many many adventures, he came to the palace of the Sun. The Sun, however, would not let him see the princess or even to send word to her that he was there. Forlorn, he hung around outside the palace in the garden. One day, the Princess’s maid came into the garden. The prince gave the maid a bracelet the princess had given him, and bade her tell the princess he was there. The princess recognized the bracelet immediately, and so the lovers were united.

In the forest of Xishuanbana, there is a frescoe of this story, and the Dai people who manage the forest and who provide dances for the tourists, dance the Peacock dance. There are flocks of Peacocks in the forest who fly down from the trees in the morning to eat food scattered in the grass. I got my picture taken with one. In nearby Jinghong, peacocks adorn some of the brightly painted buildings.

Shiwa and Humei

There is a hill near Lingyin Temple, west of West Lake in Hang Zhou. This hill, called by the local people “the hill that flew from afar”, is riddled with caves and covered with flowers, trees, and shrubs. One of the caves has a hole in the ceiling, where one can see “a beam of light from heaven”. This is the story of the hill:

Shiwa and Huamei

Shiwa was a farmer, known for his strength and wisdom, and an excellent stone carver as well. After working in the fields during the day, he would join the other young men, carving niches in the barren hill to plant flowers, and carving Buddahs to decorate the hill. Beautiful Huamei was known for her beautiful embroidery and for her singing.When Huamei sang, Shiwa felt stronger and his work went more smoothly. It seemed natural that the two should fall in love. Before they would marry, though, Shiwa set himself to finish beautifying the hill, and Huamei declared she would embroider all the flowers of the four seasons.

At last they were finished, and their wedding day was set for the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. They walked in the moonlight together, and their happiness was so complete, that the heavenly fairy maidens watched from the sky, enjoying their happiness.
The Thunder God was not happy. He felt that such a beautiful woman should belong to him! Though Shiwa and Huamei clung together, the Thunder god separated them with lightning, striking the earth and splitting the ground between them. As the abyss between them grew, the Thunder God blew on the rock Huamei was standing on, and it rose into the air. Shiwa jumped and caught a tree branch. As the hill rose, he felt himself turning into a bird. Then the hill fell with such force that Shiwa was knocked unconscious.
When Shiwa came to, he recognized the hill he was on as the one he had carved so carefully. Desperately, he searched for Huamei. At last, he heard, from somewhere under the earth, the sound of a familiar song, the song Huamei sang to him so often. He dug and dug with his beak, until sparks flew, trying to reach her. She heard him digging and sang louder. At last, he dug a hole, just big enough to squeeze through into a cave, and there was Huamei! He flew joyfully around her and she, too, turned into a beautiful exotic bird.
Together they flew up to where the Thunder God was preparing for his wedding with Huamei. The two birds pecked out the Thunder God’s eyes, so that he could never again come to earth to separate lovers. All he can do now is flash lightening and roar thunder.

Hundred family coat; the story

Boachu and Golden Phoenix
Rescue the Sun—A Solstice Story
This image is from a Chinese story of how the sun was rescued. It seems that the sun went missing, and it was always dark. One man set out to find the sun, accompanied by a golden phoenix. His wife waited for him on top of a hill. When the phoenix returned without her husband, she knew he had perished. Not long afterward, the wife was delivered of a son. She named him Boachu. This son grew quickly and was soon a young man. One day Boachu asked his mother why she was so sad. She told him about his father, who had perished trying to rescue the son. Boachu, then went, accompanied by the golden phoenix.
They had many adventures on the way. In one village, the people wanted to help Boachu, but they were very poor. Each household donated a small piece of their own clothing, which they made into a coat, the Hundred Family Coat. Another village had only dirt to give Boachu, so he filled his pockets with dirt.
Boachu and the phoenix climbed many mountains, forded many rivers. Demons froze over one river, but the hundred family coat kept them warm. At one point, they came to a fork in the path. An old woman told them they should take the path to the right, and they would find a warm welcome, food and shelter.
Boachu started to follow the old woman, but the phoenix hit him with her wing to let him know that was the wrong way. Boachu ignored her, and followed the path to the village, where he did indeed find a warm welcome and lots of good food. But as he was about to take a bite, the phoenix dropped a shoe in his soup. Boachu saw that it was his father’s shoe, and he realized that these were demons and that they had killed his father.
Boachu and the phoenix escaped and continued on. At last they came to the sea. Then Boachu threw the dirt from his pocket into the water, and the dirt became islands so that they could cross the sea to where a Sea demon King had imprisoned the sun.
Boachu fought the Sea demon King until he defeated him, then began pushing the sun up to the surface. But Boachu had no more energy and died. The Phoenix finished pushing up the sun, until at last the sun was free and could shine on everyone again.

I learned this story in Hangzhou, where there is a tower built to honor Boachu. I especially love the concept of the Hundred Family Coat, and the Phoenix, which to me represents our inner voice, our spirit, which never dies. In China, the phoenix has a deep and complex meaning, which includes loyalty, integrity, and virtue. While the emperor is represented by a dragon, the Empress is represented by the phoenix.

White Lotus

Here is Professor Xu's verson of the Tang poem White lotus by Lu Guimeng:

White Lotus Blooms are often outweighed by red flowers
They'd rather be transplanted by lunar bowers.
Heartless they seem, but they have deep grief no one knows.
See them fall in moonlight when morning wind blows.

Here is the version Steve Watkins and I worked out:

The white lotus is often abused
By flowers of more seductive hues.
Rightous and cool, by Yao Pool*
Should be the home the lotus knows.
Heartless and cruel it may seem,
yet who can know how deep it grieves?
Moonlight fades, cold dawn breaks
Flower falls in morning breeze.

*Yao pool, Steve says, is the home of the "King mother Goddess".

Thursday, February 4, 2010

White Lotus

"The plain white lotus is often abused by flowers of more seductive hues" begins this poem from the Tang dynasty, written centuries ago in China by Lu Guimeng. Steve Watkins, who is versed in both modern and ancient Chinese scripts, helped me to more clearly understand the meaning of the poem, and together we worked on finding words in English that both expressed the meaning and flowed well.

This silk painting is inspired by the poem and by a tea house on the shore of a large lotus pond in Huzhou. The peonies I added to be the "flowers of more seductive hues".
The sense the poem expresses of plain honest virtue being overshadowed by flash, is as meaningful today as it was over a thousand years ago. Today I sense the "plain" Chinese traditional knowledge, especially of food, being ignored in favor of Western glamour such as the very "modern" McDonalds!