This story took place in an ancient dynasty of China, thus I added some annotations of specific concepts constructed by China’s cultural background at the end of the article to make it easier to understand. Partly, the mystery of Taoism, an oriental religion, is what I try to convey here as well as its combination with picturesque scenery which I have experienced personally on domestic trips. Nevertheless, it is the characters living in this scroll and their interaction that revive this eternal stage. This extract has about 3,300 words and thanks for your kindly reading!
Shooting a Star
Literal translation of part of my Chinese novel Zhuixing
Edited by Qiu Lin
During that summer, nine Confucians (1), including Chongyi and Jade Chen, were permitted to participate in the Capital Examination (2). Along with many others, they traveled by boat from their hometown, Qingyang, to Nanking, the capital. It was the first time these young men had traveled far from home and many became seasick within a few days of their departure. Chongyi was one of them. For most of the passage, he just laid in his berth in the humid cabin and dozed off in the midst of chaotic illusions while dozens of passengers simultaneously arrived and disembarked. Only after the ferry had entered sluggish waters were the symptoms relieved, which permitted Chongyi an opportunity to breathe fresh air on the deck.
The passengers came from all social classes: salesmen, craftsmen, monks and Taoists. During the journey, Chongyi listened to wrangling about anecdotes, legends and stories of illustrious historical figures. He also heard a few obscene tales. For instance, one man spoke of a minority chief that had married a woman of Han nationality who gave birth to seven boys. Another mentioned an official who had secretly met with a well-known prostitute; he had paid her very well for a single song accompanied by lute. These were only two of the stories Chongyi listened to and as he listened he would roll over onto his back as if he had fallen into a deep sleep. He considered that his conventional teacher from Qingyang might also take this same boat and hear the same stories, which would cause the teacher to feel even more awkward than Chongyi, and that possibility reassured him.
Halfway into the journey, the seasickness gradually ceased torturing Chongyi. He then became annoyed by the noisy cabin, so he escaped from its confines and went onto the deck. It was drizzling outside, which explained why most of the passengers remained inside. He stood alone watching raindrops strike the wooden deck forming sparse, dull spots.
He felt the breeze above the vast Yangtze River, which flicked wisps of his long hair from his shoulders. The humidity that had lingered for several days dissipated. He peered upwards. There were pines and cypress trees clustered along the rough crag towering aloft to one side where white-headed leaf monkeys likely ascended. The cliffs on both sides of the river cut wide sharp, wide strips into the indigo sky. Chongyi discerned flocks of birds soaring above. Then he gazed ahead as this nondescript boat proceeded down the Yangtze River between narrow protrusions of mountains while the flow of water increased beneath the calm surface. The river rippled with scattered raindrops. His robe was soon soaked by a sudden burst of rainfall and the gathering clouds portended an imminent monsoon. Birds vanished from the sky without a trace. After a while, Chongyi returned to the cabin.
Although Chongyi had already been away from home for several months, his doubts about that Swordsman’s identity still haunted his brain like a homeless ghost. He guessed the blaze in the mountain had relations with the knight notwithstanding the deficiency of any proof. Chongyi had discussed Him with his friends; while no one acknowledged that they had seen such a person that fit the description provided by Chongyi. Swords were rarely seen these days despite the former prohibition applying to citizens having been rescinded. Still, it was uncommon for any outlander (such as this Swordsman) to venture into a rural village.
In late autumn, the residents of Nanking had witnessed a hastily-assembled imperial hunt due to the rising tension on the northern border. Emperor of Later Zhou, an ambitious lion who cast covetous eyes upon his neighbor to the south, mustered his troops near the Southern Tang territory. Even Chongyi and his friends who had only recently arrived in Nanking sensed the chilly atmosphere. Fewer customers were gathering in the tea houses, but those who did chatted and drank as usual. There was concern among one group about the border town where they lived, some of these young men had been anxiously awaiting the examination for three months.
Winter was approaching, but it remained warm in Nanking compared with Qingyang, and there was far more activity in the streets. Examinees from across the country were packed into Nanking; most of whom maintained their daily tea house regimen in order to engage in debates about classical texts and doctrine. Some of the more eloquent figures stood out from the others; presumably these individuals were strong candidates for imperial positions.
After participating in several of these debates, Chongyi began to regard himself as unworthy in relation to some of the speakers and he declined further involvement, yet it appeared that many of these fellows engaged in continuous debates as if addicted.
At the winter solstice, Jade Chen invited Chongyi to Heaven Temple, which was situated on Ye Mountain, where a Taoist ceremony was to be held. The date assigned in relation to the founding of the temple was controversial since in Southern Tang the imperial ritual had formerly been held regularly for many centuries. However, the royal family had discarded the ancient practice of Buddhism and instead enthroned Taoism as the state religion. Now they worshiped new gods; thus, incense was brought back into use in the temple. The Taoists planned to hold four religious ceremonies each year, and peace and harmony were to be the themes for the first winter event.
They gathered together cloaked in overcoats near their sleeping quarters soon before the gray light illuminated the domed rim of the heavens. Snowflakes parachuted from the dull brown sky as if retreating from some other silent battlefield. A hollow sound from the wind blew across the void merging with their calm breath.
Two of these sober spirits carried no torch; they strolled in the murky dawn, and their faint exhalations dissolved in the black mist. Chongyi reached out his right hand. He could feel the minute sense of pressure as the snowflake fell melting into a warm drop of water.
The Temple was five miles away. As they were both poor Confucians, they could only afford to travel by foot. But the dawn drove away their fatigue while they trekked through the freezing winter air and they soon reached their destination. They stood on the first step of the stone stairway hewn long ago by unknown craftsmen and gazed at the break of sunrise signaling a new day. The snowfall had ceased and the sky was luminous, half-transpaurent, as if a torchlight was burning behind a flimsy, flesh-colored parchment. The sunlight felt cold and they quivered slightly.
A serpentine stone lane stretched uphill among trees; its course was masked by bushes as it extended deep into the forest. A thin curtain of snow covered the lane. Chongyi and Chen climbed step by step along the slippery incline. Villagers carrying gunnysacks of grain walked past them at a brisk pace. These men and their donkeys that carried their stock and supplies were far more familiar with this path than the Confucians. As Chongyi and his friend passed a thatched pavilion, they observed a rhesus monkey gnawing a peanut there. Next to it stood a mini-pyramid of peanut shells. Chen had intended to tease the monkey, but it at once became vigilant; the rhesus sat upright in a moment and raised its paws to its chest. Its wide-open eyes, sharp teeth and shrill sound of intimidation sent a clear message that it was becoming annoyed, so Chen retreated rather than calling the monkey’s bluff.
When they climbed atop the final step, the final impediment to their view dissolved. Adjoining the hillside, a spacious meadow could be seen where the Taoist temple was situated. Before the gate there was a sooty incense burner, soaked interminably in smoke. Many of the inhabitants of Nanking crowded into this temple and lit candlesticks to pray for auspicious events in their lives. On the right side of this temple there was a golden inscription engraved into the steep rock face.
Chongyi and Chen evaded the throng by entering the hall through a side gate. The ceremonial square had been denuded of any furniture other than a wooden table upon which were laid out grain offerings and several Taoists were arranging them. A pattern of Tai Chi(3) painted on the center of the square.
Some visitors had already arrived while Chongyi and Chen stood alongside the vermilion wall. They were adjacent to a hall where royalty would enter. Chen held his sleeves together and leaned towards to Chongyi’s ears. ’I’ve never seen such a celebration. This is far more splendid than our home town,’ he said.
‘My father witnessed The Greatest Ceremony (4) many years ago. Until today, there hadn’t been another. Do you know why they decided to hold a ceremony this winter?’
’The Emperor wanted to cast away the threat of war,’ Chen replied.
‘It is not logical,’ Chongyi remarked. ‘A ceremony isn’t going to help him defeat the enemy.’
‘Praying for gods is the only thing that our Emperor can do. The rest is in the hands of the gods.’
‘Chen, what if you fail in the exam?’ Chongyi asked.
‘I think I will go back and be a farmer.’
‘Won’t you try again?’
‘I have money problems. Plus, my family needs my support, as well.’
’If you fail this time, I would advise you to move with your family to a southern city. It’s safer.’ Chongyi added.
’Do you think war is inevitable?’ Chen asked thoughtfully.
‘What would you do if you also fail?’ Chen asked.
‘I want to travel around the country and record the experiences that occur during my life.’
‘You plan to become a minstrel?’ Chen laughed before Chongyi had an opportunity to respond.
There was no sunlight now and the sky turned a dense shade of gray, which was a bad omen. A wind penetrated the open square raising the tails of of the Taoists’ robes like a great yawn from an invisible monster nearby. More people swarmed to this location seeking a panorama of the entire ceremony. When the Empress and her maids appeared in the hall, the visitors burst into a buzz of whispering. Distance blurred their faces, but they retained their distinctive temperaments. The Empress wore a white fur overcoat: She was young, but devoid of any facial expression. She appeared masked beneath a stiff and an inanimate countenance. Behind her were four maids with double-bun hairstyles and bowed heads.
The leader of the Taoists began to recite a mantra. Another Taoist held a lacquerware vessel that contained alcohol. He dipped his finger into it and scattered drops towards heaven, earth and the sculpture of Laojun (5). One hundred and twenty-four stars were painted on the ground and linked together by lines. The third Taoist walked upon them following the sequence of the Big Dipper. The five types of grain placed on the table represented sacrifices for the gods in heaven; a ritual or an elaborate form of prayer. The audience in this public theater watched the procedure attentively fascinated by these obscure words and mincing mystics. ‘Which god could hear that?’ Chongyi asked himself. They were just comforting themselves. He looked around impatiently intending to escape from this unconcealed lie.
His eyes suddenly fastened upon something; a monkey sitting upon a stone pillar quite similar to the one they had encountered in the pavilion. It gazed at the square motionlessly, in a solemn attitude, like a devout theist. Chongyi chuckled. But when he noticed an individual among the crowd, his sense of amusement disappeared.
Half a year had passed since Chongyi had last seen him. Unlike the others, he wore no hat and dressed in the same indigo robe that he had worn on that day. He carried a bronze sword in crossed arms, standing silently in a shady corner. No one had noticed him except for Chongyi, but his prying eyes didn’t alarm that man; instead, the stranger continued to glare at the monkey mercilessly, and his radiant gaze caused a shiver to run through Chongyi. Suddenly, this swordsman glanced over his shoulder and stared at Chongyi. He put his forefinger to his mouth to warn him to keep silent. He was thin, with sunken cheeks, thus his cheekbones protruded. He looked like a young man, but his eyes were dragged down by anchors of weariness, which left no spark of life.
The monkey seemed to notice the subtle change. Hardly had it turned its head when the swordsman strode one step forward and drew his sword from the bronze sheath. The sword made no sound in its heavy fetter and split through the air in silence, like a bolt of lightning, only leaving a vibration in the air. Then the monkey froze. Before the sword had been replace in the sheath, Chongyi glimpsed the green rust covering the blade like clumps of reef.
The Swordsman fastened his weapon in the belt and stepped forwards. The monkey was still standing there but it was merely a dead thing now. He took it down by pinching the black hair on the back of its neck as if he were lifting a wild cat. Then he left this murder spot without making a sound; nor did he glance at Chongyi.
Chongyi followed the Swordsman without notifying Chen, as if chasing after a wraith in a gray dream.
The stranger vanished on a path in the woods, which circled the mountain. The distance between them did not seem to diminish. Chongyi walked on the road in solitude and developed a suspicion that he might be tricked by this illusion. It was hardly an unusual bewilderment, especially in this gloomy weather, since all around him was submerged in the mist. Raindrops again began to fall and another heavy rain fell from the sky. Nothing could have been more untimely under the circumstances. Chongyi looked up and thought about returning, but his feet were controlled by another will and he continued to walk almost unconsciously.
The winter rain was chilly and his overcoat was heavy with raindrops, but the leaves above his head blocked most of the precipitation. After passing a corner formed in the rock, he noticed a stone pavilion with upturned roof soaring like birds’ wings. Inside this structure stood the Swordsman who still did not face his pursuer. Chongyi stepped inside awaiting a response. All of a sudden, he glimpsed another bloody object, which startled him dramatically. That monkey was lying there, and had been cut apart from its chest to belly. Its viscera was torn out; beneath it, a pool of blood was spreading slowly.
The Swordsman turned towards Chongyi. His hair was wet and it stuck to his face and shoulders. ‘Now you see what has happened to this monkey, so please do not follow me from now on.’ Chongyi was filled with both regret and fear, they restricted his movement and his feet were unresponsive. He did not dare to examine that body.
The Swordsman swept dust away from a stone seat and invited Chongyi to sit with him. Such courtesy was beyond Chongyi’s expectation; if it were a threat, it had been disguised by a master of the cunning.
Chongyi sat facing him clenching his fists on his knees.
‘Pardon me for not having prepared tea or wine. I can only present this mountain rain to you as a welcome gift.’ The Swordsman waved his loose sleeve towards the scenery outside. Following his gaze, Chongyi noticed another summit lost in the mist. Rain evoked the sleeping mountain, and the breath from this ground vaporized into ethereal white fog, drifting among tree crowns. That pavilion stood above the clouds, far away from chaos. An abrupt sensation of dizziness struck Chongyi driving him backwards; he closed his eyes, waiting for it to disperse.
‘It seems I was predestined to see you again. Would you like to inform me of your name?’
‘Chongyi. What should I call you?’
‘I’m one of the nameless.’
Chongyi didn’t inquire further. It was not a necessity to learn his name in a situation such as this one.
‘Why did you kill this monkey?’
‘You’re an atheist, aren’t you?’
‘Yes…but that doesn’t matter.’
‘It will help me to decide whether or not you will believe the story I tell you although I only speak the truth.’ The Swordsman placed his weapon onto the round table. The rain would not stop for a long while, so he had sufficient time to tell the following tale:
‘When you gaze up at the Milky Way (6), you don’t think that someone lives there; but look down, and I will see you. I came from there and I am one of those stars. When night comes, we go back to our recesses, keeping still the whole night. In the daytime, we learn martial arts and astronomy. Those who pass their training courses can become martial guards. Everybody desires that position because only guards have the chance to go on patrol at night, instead of being restricted by those recesses.
All went well, until a thief, a monkey, stole the treasure of Laojun in the Moon Palace. The animal was smart, but a bit mischievous, and that’s why Laojun loved it. Once the treasure was discovered to be lost, all apprentices were called together to participate in the ambush in the palace. Our bait was stored in a clay pot suspended from the upturned eave of Bone Tower by a piece of string clearly revealing the intended trap. Even so, the monkey arrived.
‘My mentor, as a prestigious leader, chased after it by himself, but fell down from the Tower nearly eighty feet. Fortunately, some of the people below had opened the safety net in time to catch him before he crashed onto the cold ground. He was not concussed severely, but his memory was lost. The thief escaped from our ambush and disappeared from the Palace. This trouble-maker materialized into the mortal world. No clue of its whereabouts remains apart from my mentor’s memory.
However, no one knows how to repair a piece of damaged memory. It’s a lost craft and only sky repairers are capable of doing this. Nevertheless, the last sky repairer left the Moon Palace two thousand years ago, and the last words of the witness suggest it had been directed to the east of the human world. As the only disciple of my mentor, I was appointed the task to search for both the monkey and the sky repairer in this secularized world. Everybody knew it was an impossible mission. If I couldn’t find either of them, I would be trapped in your world forever.’
Chongyi didn’t say anything for quite a while. ’Is this monkey the one you are looking for?’ He finally asked.
‘No, it’s not.’
‘Well…I know I should trust you, but my mind refuses to do that.’
‘I don’t care whether you believe me or not.’
Something occurred to Chongyi. ‘When did you leave the Palace?’
‘Ha, I know what you are thinking about. The exact day when the blaze happened to your hometown.’
‘You caused that fire?’
Chongyi gazed fixedly into his eyes. They were gray and cold, like a dead fish, looking at this world from another river bank. Inside them, he saw a flag of fire, waving and burning vigorously. He saw a young man leaping and rotating to fly over the memorial archway in which was engraved the name of that remote tomb. Then he fell down from the night dome; he looked back, and the Moon Palace became smaller and smaller as gravity accelerated his falling. Frames grew across his body as the air rubbed against him. The Swordsman was pale, like all shooting stars.
- Confucian: Students adhering to Confucism
- the Capital Examination: Exam held in the capital to select potential officials
- Taichi: A taoist hypothetical pattern describing the original universe
- The Greatest Ceremony: The largest-scaled Taoist ceremony
- Laojun: The pioneer of Taoist, deified by his followers
- The Milky Way: The name of a galaxy