Chinese Folktales

21. King Mu of Chou

IN the days of King Mu of Chou a magician came from the far west who knew to pass through fire and water, penetrate metal hard Stone, move mountains and rivers, shift cities and castles, step into the void without falling and encounter solid obstacles without being held up by them. He knew an inexhaustible number of transformations. He could change not only the shape of things but also men’s thoughts. The king revered him like god and served him as a servant does his master. He gave up his own apartments to accommodate the magician, he had sacrificial animals brought to him, and he chose girl singers far his delight. But the magician found the apartments in the king’s castle too poor to live in, the food from the king’s kitchen too evil-smelling to feast on and the girls of the royal harem too ugly to touch. King Mu therefore had a new palace built for the magician. The work of masons and carpenters, of painters and decorators left nothing to be desired in its skill. The treasury was empty when the tower reached its full height. It was a thousand ells high and stood higher than the summit of the mountain outside the capital. The king chose most beautiful and delicate virgins, supplied them with perfumes, had their eyebrows drawn in beautiful lines and adorned them with hair ornaments and ear pendants. He clothed them in fine cloth and wrapped them in soft silks, he had their faces painted white and their eyebrows black, he put bangles of precious stones on their arms and made them blend fragrant. He filled the palace with them and they sang the songs of the ancient kings to please the magician. Every month the most precious clothes were brought to him and each morning the most delicious meals. The magician was well pleased, and as he could do no better for himself he took what was offered.

Some time later he invited the king to accompany him on a journey. The king held to the magician’s sleeve. Thus they soared up right into the sky. When they stopped they were at the magician’s castle which was built of gold and silver and adorned with pearls and precious stones. It towered above clouds and rain; no man knew upon what it rested. To the eye it seemed like clouds piled upon one another. Whatever the senses perceived was altogether different from things in the human world. The king felt as though he had been transported to the purple depths of the city of the ether, amidst the harmony of the spheres of heaven, where the great god dwelt. The king glanced down and saw his own castles and pleasure palaces like mounds of earth and piles of straw. For a few decades the king dwelt there and no longer thought of his empire.

Then the magician again invited the king to travel with him. At the place they came to they saw neither sun nor moon above them, nor rivers nor sea below them. The king’s eyes were too blinded with light for him to recognize the shapes about him; his ears were too deafened to perceive the sounds which fell upon them. His whole body seemed to dissolve in confusion, his thoughts were disturbed and he was about to lose consciousness. He asked the magician to allow him to return. The magician put a spell on him and the king thought he was falling into emptiness.

When he came to he was sitting in the same place as before. The attendant servants were the same as before. The king glanced up and his beaker was not yet empty nor his food cold.

The king asked what had happened. The servants replied: ‘The king sat in silence for a short while.’ This so upset the king that it was three months before he recovered. He then questioned the magician. The magician said to him: ‘l travelled with you in spirit, oh king— What need is there for the body to move? The places we dwelt in were no less real than your castle and your gardens. You are used only to permanent states, that is why you find suddenly dissolving apparitions so strange.’ The king was happy enough. He no longer cared about affairs of state, he took no pleasure in his servants or women but decided to go on a long journey. He commanded the eight famous horses to be harnessed and with a few faithful followers travelled a thousand miles. He came to the country of the great hunters. These brought the king the blood of the snow-goose to drink and washed his feet in the milk of horses and cattle. When they had drunk they continued their journey and spent the night on the slope of the K’unlun Mountain to the south of the Red Water. The following day they climbed to the summit of the K’unlun Mountain and looked towards the castle of the lord of the Yellow Earth. Then they travelled on to the mother who is queen in the west. Before getting there they had to cross the Weak Water, which is a river whose waves are not buoyant enough to bear rafts or ships. Whatever crosses this water sinks to the bottom. But as the king reached the bank fishes and turtles, crabs and newts came swimming up and formed a bridge so that the king’s carriage could drive across.

It is said that the mother who is queen in the west has tangled hair, a bird’s beak and tiger’s fangs and that she is skilled at flute playing. However, that is not her true shape but only an attendant spirit which looks after the Western sky. The mother queen welcomed king Mu at her castle by the jasper spring. She gave him rock marrow to drink and the fruits of the jasper tree to eat. Then she sang a song to him and taught him a spell which ensures long life. The mother who is queen in the west gathers around her the immortals whom she feasts with the peaches of long life: they arrive in carriages with purple canopies, drawn by flying dragons. Ordinary mortals sink in the weak water as they try to cross it. But she was favourably disposed towards king Mu.

When he left her he passed the place where the sun dwells after driving three thousand miles a day. Then he returned to his empire. When he was a hundred years old the mother Who is queen in the west arrived at his palace and carried him up with her among the clouds. Since that day he has not been seen again.

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