Chinese Folktales

30. The Spirits of the Yellow River

THE gods of the Yellow River are called Tai Wang (Great Kings). For many hundred years the guardians of the river have been continually reporting the appearance of all kinds of monsters in the river’s Waters, sometimes in the form of cattle or horses, and whenever such a being appeared a great flood would follow. For that reason, temples were built along the river. The highest-ranking of the river spirits are venerated as kings, the lower-ranking ones as generals, and hardly a day passes without some sacrifice or spectacle being in their honour. Whenever a dyke bursts and the breach is successfully sealed again the emperor sends his officials with offerings and ten sticks of rich Tibetan incense. This incense is burnt in a very large sacrificial cauldron in the temple courtyard and the guardians of the river and their subordinates all go into the temple to thank the gods for their help. These river gods, it is said, are the loyal and true servants of earlier rulers who lost their lives in their efforts to dam the river. After their death their spirits became river kings while their bodily shape is that of lizards, snake and frogs.

The most powerful among these river kings is the golden dragon king. He frequently appears in the shape of a small golden snake with square head, low forehead and red patches over his eyes. He can make himself large or small at will and can cause the water to rise or fall. He Will appear suddenly and disappear again just as suddenly. His home is in the estuary of the Yellow River and the Imperial

Canal. But in addition to him there are dozens of river kings and generals, each of whom has his definite place. All the boatmen on the Yellow River carry long lists detailing the lives and deeds of each of these river spirits. One of these river kings is called the Dammer. Two hundred years ago the Yellow River had torn a breach in the dyke and each time, just as the breach was very nearly filled again, the water burst through once more. The river guardian went up to the temple to pray. There, at night, he had a dream. He heard a voice saying to him: ‘The Dammer must come—only then will you succeed. He is a boy from among the people and he is thirteen this year.’

When the guardian awoke he was astonished at his dream.

One day he walked cut again to supervise the work at the dykes. He returned in the evening.

Suddenly he heard a woman call: ‘Dammer, come here!’

He immediately made enquiries and discovered that this was the name of a poor boy whom his mother had called home to dinner. He bought the boy from his parents for thirty plummet-weights of silver, and the following day Dammer was taken out to the river. He was thrown into the water and thousands of workmen immediately had to cover him with earth. In no time the breach in the dyke was sealed and the vortex calmed. Then suddenly from the middle of the river an enormous hand emerged, good many yards long. The many workmen cried out with horror. But the river guardian and his officials fell down on their knees and prayed. Thereupon the boy was appointed a river god.

About a hundred years ago the Yellow River again burst through the dykes. As a punishment the river guardian was made to lose one button of rank and was sentenced to repair the dyke. But it seemed impossible to close the breach. The man was loyal and honest and supervised the work day and night. But each time, just as the last opening was being filled in, the dyke would collapse again and the water would burst through. The official watched it motionless, as if in a trance. His servants had to take him by the arm and lead him home. Later that evening, when the river workmen had dispersed, the guardian secretly stole out of his house and flung himself into the river. His servants hastened after him but were too late. The next day the breach was sealed. The deed was reported at Court and the official was appointed a general of the Yellow River.

The river spirits are fond of watching plays. Facing each temple there is a stage. In the hall of the temple stands the spirit tablet of the river king and on the altar in front of it is a small gilded lacquer bowl filled with clean sand. Whenever a small serpent is observed in that howl the river king is present. The priests then strike the bell and beat the kettle-drum and read aloud from holy books. Instantly the official is notified and he at once summons a troop of actors. Before beginning their play, the actors ascend to the temple, bend one knee and request the king to indicate a play. The god then chooses a play by pointing at it with his head or by writing symbols into the sand with his tail. The actors at once start to perform the play chosen.

The river god cares nothing about human happiness or sorrow. He comes suddenly and leaves suddenly, just as he pleases.

Once there was a peasant who went to market with his wheelbarrow. Suddenly the river king appeared on the peasant’s straw hat without his noticing it. The people he encountered on the road called out to him and bowed before the god. Thereupon the straw hat was taken to the temple and a play was enacted.

There are a great many settlements between the outer and the inner dykes of the Yellow River. It often happens that the yellow water comes up to the edge of the inner dykes. Vertical as a wall, it advances slowly. Whenever the people see it they hasten to burn incense, bow to the water and pray, and promise a play to the river god. Then the water recedes again and the people say: ‘The river god has again asked for a play.’

In that region there is a village where a rich man once lived. He built a stone wall all around the village, twenty feet high, in order keep the water away. He did not believe in river spirits but confidently put his trust in the solid wall.

Suddenly one evening the yellow water rose and came right up to the village. The rich man cannons to be fired at it. This so enraged the water that it surrounded the walls and rose until it reached the openings

Of the crenellations. The Water roared and hissed and was about to spill over the walls. The whole village was terrified. They dragged the rich man to the wall and made him kneel down and ask forgiveness. The villagers promised a play, but this did not help; they promised to build a temple to the river god in the centre of the village and to perform plays there regularly. Only then did the water abate and gradually recede again. ‘The crops outside the village had not suffered any damage but on the contrary, fertilized by the yellow mud, they yielded a double harvest. Once scholar walked across a field with a friend on his way to a relative. They happened to come past a river god’s temple where a new play was just being staged. The friend suggested that they should go in and watch it. They stepped into the temple forecourt and saw two green snakes coiled round the two front columns, their heads pushed forward as though watching the spectacle. Inside the temple hall stood the altar with its bowl of sand. In it was a small snake with a golden body, a green head and red patches on its forehead. Its neck was thrust upwards and its glittering eyes were fixed steadily on the stage. The friend bowed and the scholar did likewise. Softly he asked his friend: ‘What are the names of the three river gods?’

‘The one in the temple,’ the other replied, ‘is the golden dragon king. The two on the columns are two generals. They dare not sit in the temple at the same time as the King.’

The scholar was greatly astonished and thought to himself: ‘A small serpent like that! How can it possess divine strength? It would have to give me proof of its power before I revered it.’

He had scarcely conceived these secret thoughts when suddenly the small snake in the bowl raised its head above the altar. In front of the altar were two huge candles. They weighed over ten pounds each and were as thick as young trees. Their flame was as bright as that of a torch. The snake now put its head right into the candle flame which was a good inch wide and bright red. Suddenly it turned blue and divided into two tongues. That candle was so huge and its flame so hot that copper and iron would have melted in it—but it did no harm to the snake. It then crept into the incense burner. This was an iron cauldron, so large that one could just about embrace it with both arms. Its openwork lid was adorned with a dragon ornament. The snake moved in and out through the holes of this lid and eventually threaded itself through all of them so that it gave the appearance of an embroidery in gold thread. In the end the snake had threaded itself through all the openings of the lid, large and small. To do that it must have increased its length to several dozen feet. Then it pushed out its head at the top and continued to watch the spectacle.

The scholar was afraid, bowed twice and prayed: ‘Great king, you have gone to this trouble for my sake. I revere you from the bottom of my heart.’

No sooner had he uttered these words than the small snake was back in its bowl and as small as before. In the temple at Tsining the river god’s birthday Was being celebrated. As a birthday present a play was being

performed. The spectators stood in a solid crowd like a wall. Just then a simple peasant from the countryside came past and said in a loud voice: ‘But that’s only very small worm. What foolishness to revere him as a king! ‘

But before he had finished speaking the snake shot out of the temple. It became bigger and bigger and wound itself three times round the stage. It grew as thick as a large bucket and its head was like that of a dragon. Its eyes glittered like golden lamps and its tongue spewed cut red flames. It stretched and contracted, making the Stage seem as if it Was about to collapse. The actors interrupted their music and fell down on their knees in prayer. The whole crowd was seized with terror and bowed deep to the ground. Then a few old men came and threw the peasant to the ground and whipped him and kicked him until he was half dead. At last he threw himself down before the snake and prayed to it. There Was a noise as when a firework is let off. It went on for some time and then the snake was gone.

East of Shantung lies the city of Tengchow. It has a viewing tower with a great temple. Below it lies the water city with its water gate in the north through which the high tide enters the city. By this gate a troop of coast-guards is stationed.

Once there was an officer who had been posted there as captain. He used to serve with the army and had not been long at his new post. He was giving a dinner party for a few friends. Outside the pavilion was a large stone the shape of a table. Suddenly there appeared on it a small

wriggling snake; it Was spotted green and had red patches on its square head. The soldiers wanted to kill the beast and the captain strode out to see What Was happening. Then he laughed: ‘Do not harm him! That is the river of Tsining. When I was stationed there he would visit me occasionally and I always performed sacrifices and plays in his honour. Now he has come here specially to wish me luck and visit his old friend.’

There was a band in the camp and its men used to sing and dance every bit as well as a real troupe of actors. The captain hurriedly made them enact a spectacle while he prepared another festive meal with wine and choice dishes and invited the river god to make himself at home. Night Was falling and the river god still did not seem anxious to leave.

The captain thereupon stepped up to him, bowed and said: ‘We are a long way here from the Yellow River and these people have never yet heard your name. I am greatly honoured by your visit. But these women and fools who are crowding round, gaping, are afraid to hear about you. Well, you have visited your old friend and can now return again. ‘

With these words he commanded a litter to be brought; the kettledrums were beaten and incense was burned, and finally nine guns were fired as a festive send-off. The little snake eventually stepped into the litter and the captain followed. Thus they came to the harbour and While the farewells were being said the snake was already streaking through the water. It had become much larger than before and, nodding its head to the captain, it disappeared.

Then there were doubts and questions: ‘Surely the river god lives a thousand miles away—how did he get here? ‘

Bat the captain replied: ‘He is so powerful that he can get anywhere, and besides there is a waterway leading from his home to the sea. To come that waterway and swim across the sea is a matter of a moment to him.’

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