A Feast of Lanterns, by L. Cranmer-Byng, , at sacred-texts.com
"Once upon a time the Emperor Yuen Tsung, of the T‘ang dynasty, had imperial ink called Dragon Fragrance. One day he saw in the ink little Taoist priests like flies walking about. They called out to him—"O King! live for ever! Your servants are the spiritual essence of the ink, the ambassadors of the black pine. Whoever in this world has literary powers must have twelve of us dragon guests in his ink."
This is the story of the ink taken from an ancient collection called T‘an Ching. Even materials of a genius must be touched with magic and informed with life.
All Chinese reverence flowed into ancestor-worship on the one hand, or into art and poetry on the other. In their religious emotions the Chinese look backward as well as forward. For, as Dr. Hubbard has pointed out in his Fate of Empires, "The Chinaman, through the long Chain of those, his own proximate creators, who have gone before him, worships the ultimate Creator." And something of this ancestor-worship creeps also into his creative art.
"He is haunted," as I have written of Tu Fu, in a previous book, "by the vast shadow of a past without historians—a past that is legendary, unmapped, and unbounded… He is haunted by the traditional voices of the old masters of his
craft, and lastly, more than all by the dead women and men of his race, the ancestors that count in the making of his composite soul and have their silent say in every action, thought, and impulse of his life."
If you would dive into the well-springs of Chinese poetry you must go deep into its legends and folk-lore. Many of their greatest poems have broadened out from a tiny source. The following, which is after all but a wreath of mist, a puff of wind, and a sprinkle of rain, has nevertheless been a constant inspiration:
"In times of old Prince Wai, who had visited the mountains Kao T‘ang, fell into a tired sleep. In his dreams a lovely girl came gliding down and addressed him: "I am the lady of the Witches' Mountain, a wanderer of Kao T‘ang. Hearing that you, my lord, have visited this spot, I fain would spread for you the mat and pillow!"
The prince shared his couch with the fairy, who afterwards, as she bade farewell to her royal lover, faded singing:
Modern criticism has charged many of the great poets, especially of the T‘ang dynasty, with being
plagiarists. Perhaps we shall never know how much the poets of a less chronicled age were indebted to the legends and ballads of the nameless meister-singers of a still simpler past, who sang, not for fame, nor even the remembrance of bright hours, but only because their hearts were full of song. But we know that the poetry of the T‘ang dynasty contains countless allusions to ancient legend, and Li Po did not hesitate to take some old theme, worn by time and transmission to an echo that lingered in obscure valleys, and sing it clearly to his own gracious music; so that the old ballad became a modern lyric, or rather revived anew like "the Spring's eternal story, that was old and is young again." He takes, for example, the little four-line poem sung by the peasants of Korea in the rice-fields, and called "Leading with the Guitar." The story is very simple: In Korea, a ferryman once got up early and fastened his boat to a bamboo-pole on the bank. An old man with crazy brain, and hair floating in the wind, appeared. He carried a bowl in his hand, and, stepping into the stream, would pass over. His wife followed to draw him back. She could not reach him. He fell in and was drowned. His wife took a guitar and beat the strings, singing as she did so: "Aged man! there is nothing by which you can cross the stream." Her singing was very sad, and when it was done she also threw herself into
the river, and died. The ferryman went home and told his wife, Lin Yu. Lin Yu was much affected, and made a poem to accompany the guitar. This was the sixteen-character poem for four lines that they still sing in Korea to the present day.
Li Po took the dry bones of this bare little narrative, and tragedy looks out of the eyes and calls with the voice of the wife "Old man, there is no way to cross the river. If you venture you may take hold of a tiger, but the river is hard to trust to. The aged man fell in, he died in the river, and floated down the stream. Out upon the sea are great whales; their white teeth are like the snowy mountains. Aged sir! aged sir! will you hang there upon those mountains?" Suddenly the hard and brilliant notes of the song become silent. Grief for the husband is merged into pity for the wife, then the merest cadence follows, with its one eventful line: "That guitar has a sorrowful tone, and there is no returning."
History and legend are more often than not interwoven. An Emperor like Ming Huang of the T‘ang dynasty, whose splendour and sorrowful romance still glow in the poems of Tu Fu, Li Po, and Po Chü-i, is immortal. He has but to step over the borders of his empire into hero-land. He sails with his imperishable consort in the black-winged junk seamed with stars on a far quest to the Fortunate Isles. And lonely fishermen drifting
through the sea-mist have brushed with their keels the shores of P‘eng Lai, Island of the Blest, and heard the tones of a lute of jade and the voice of His celestial Majesty singing to the lady Yang Kwei-fei Li Po's Song of the Scented Balcony. The cup of poison given to Liu An by history became the elixir of immortality in legend, and straightway he soared to heaven in broad day, followed by a miscellany of dogs and poultry on whom the cup and its dregs had descended. It is even possible for a name to pass utterly from record of the historians and yet live through tradition. And the poets of China have conferred many a cup of immortality on some faint celestial shadow or fading hill-side ghost.