Like several other distinguished Chinese novelists, Li Ju-chen (1763-1830) failed to pass the Chinese Civil Service examination. During most of his life he was supported by his understanding elder brother and could thus pursue a wide range of interests: astrology, calligraphy, chess, mathematics, painting, medicine, gardening and particularly phonetics. Li started writing Flowers in the Mirror when he was fifty years old “to amuse himself” and eventually spent more than a decade on it. Flowers in the Mirror is a very complex novel combining historical facts with metaphysical concepts. It takes place during the T’ang-Dynasty. Frustrated with the cruel reign of Empress Wu who had usurped the throne in 684 A.D., T’ang Ao decides to leave China and embark on a voyage with his brother-in-law Lin, a merchant, and an old sailor named Tuo. They visit several “strange lands”. Comparing their customs and institutions with those of China they do at times find much to improve in their own country. While on the surface-level the critique is directed against the situation in T’ang China, it is quite possible to understand it as directed against the China during Li Ju-chen’s lifetime. Even in contemporary China, historical topics are at times used in order to point to current problems.
They sailed for several days until they came to the Land of the Great. As this country lay next to the Land of Gentlemen, its customs, language and products were much the same. . . .
“I have always wanted to come here,” said T’ang, “ever since I heard that the people here ride around on clouds instead of walking. Heaven has granted my wish today.”
Having walked for a few hours they approached a mountain and for the first time saw people. They seemed two or three feet taller than men elsewhere and moved around on clouds about half a foot above the ground. Whenever they wanted to stop, the clouds would come to a halt.
Having climbed the mountain and passed two cliffs a labyrinth of small trails spread before them. . . .
“We have apparently lost our way,” said Tuo, “but over there is a temple with a thatched roof. Let’s go and ask the monk for directions!”
They walked up to the temple and were just going to knock when an old man in ordinary clothes arrived on his cloud carrying a vessel of wine in one hand and a piece of pork in the other. He opened the gate and was about to enter, when T’ang addressed him: “Excuse me, sir,” he said, could you give us the name of the temple and tell us whether a monk is residing here?” Apologizing, the old man hastened in to put down the wine and meat and upon his return bowed in formal greeting. “This temple is devoted to the Goddess of Mercy, and this insignificant person is the monk here,” the old man replied.
“If you are a monk, why is your head not shaved?” Lin asked in astonishment. “And since you appear to drink wine and eat meat, you are probably also keeping nuns?”(1)
“There is only one nun here, my wife,” the monk replied. “There are just the two of us living here, and we have been looking after this temple ever since we were young. ”
Originally, we had never heard of monks in this country. But when we discovered that ever since the Han Dynasty, people in the Celestial Empire (2) have shaved their heads and called themselves monks and nuns, we decided to follow their example. But we don’t shave our heads or fast, and I, as a monk, have a wife who is a nun. May I ask where you three gentlemen come from?”
Once Tuo had told him, the old man made a deep bow, excused himself for not having recognized them as citizens of the Celestial Empire, and invited them in to take some refreshment. T’ang however explained that they still had to cross the mountains and had no time to rest.
“What is the correct name for the offspring of monks and nuns?” Lin asked. “They could hardly be called the same as other children!”
Smiling, the old man replied: “I and my wife are looking after this temple. Since we like other good citizens don’t break the law, steal or engage in illicit sexual relations, why should our children bear a special name? If you can tell me how the children of caretakers of your Confucian halls are called, we are quite willing to use the same word for our children!”
“We observed that all your esteemed fellow-citizens have clouds under their feet,” T’ang said.” Is one born with them in this country?”
“They naturally grow from our feet. It is beyond our control,” said the old man. “The most honorable are the rainbow-colored clouds, followed by those that are yellow. The others are of equal value, except for the black clouds: they are the lowest.”
At Tuo’s request, the monk gave them directions, and having passed several hills they arrived at a large city. Everything appeared to be very much the same as in the Land of Gentlemen, only that here the people moved on clouds of various shapes and colors. When a beggar passed them on rainbow-colored clouds, T’ang turned around to Tuo and asked: “Uncle, if rainbow-colored clouds are honored and black clouds are looked down upon, how can this filthy beggar be riding on a rainbow-colored cloud?”
“That monk we met eats pork, drinks wine and took a wife,” Lin pointed out, “but he also had a rainbow-colored cloud. Certainly neither of them could be called men of distinguished virtue!”
“When I was here before”, Tuo explained, “The same thing intrigued me. I heard that although the colors of the clouds are ranked and some are better than others, this has nothing to do with a person’s wealth or position but is entirely dependent on his disposition and character. If a man is true and honest, rainbow-colored clouds will spread under his feet. If he is wicked and malicious, the clouds will be black. The color of the clouds spreading under his feet is determined by his heart. He cannot control it. Because of this, the rich and the influential often have black clouds, while those of the poor are rainbow-colored. Yet in general the morality is high, and in a hundred people you won’t discover more than one or two whose clouds are black. And since there is nothing petty-minded about them, this country is being called the Land of the Great by its neighbors. . . .”
At this moment, people started scurrying to the sides of the road to make way for an official. He was truly an imposing sight with his high-brimmed head of black silk, a wide collar and a purple canopy carried above him to screen him from the sun. Runners and attendants were following him. But at his feet, a red silk veil made it impossible to discern the color of his clouds.
“It is certainly much more convenient for officials here to move around on their clouds. They don’t have to use carriages [like our Chinese officials],” remarked T’ang. But why do they have veils around their feet?”
Tuo explained:” Quite often their clouds turn an ugly grayish-blackish color, and that is considered unlucky. People with clouds of this kind have secretly committed evil deeds. Yet while they are able to fool their countrymen, these clouds have no pity on them: They change into this awful color, and their owners no longer dare to face the world. This is why they have veils around their feet to screen them from the public. This is very much like a robber, who, planning to steal a bell, plugs his own ears. Unless they change their hearts, these unfortunates are incapable of changing the color of their clouds. If, however, their repentance is sincere and they attempt to do good, the color of their clouds will gradually change. But if someone has appeared with unsightly clouds for a very long time, the king will start an investigation and punish him accordingly. His fellow-citizens will avoid him, since he is obviously unwilling to repent and even seems to take pleasure in his evil doing.”
“Heaven is not fair,” was Lin’s reaction to this. “How can you say that?” T’ang asked. “Wouldn’t you call it unfair that only here in the Land of the Great these clouds are provided? If there was a signal like this everywhere in the world, and black clouds would spread from every scoundrel’s feet and shame him publicly, everyone who saw them could be on their guard. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
“Well, it is true that not every bad man in the world has black clouds under his feet. But there is black vapor over their heads that reaches Heaven, which is even worse,” Tuo replied. “If there is such vapor, why can’t I see it?” Lin asked.
“You may not see it,” Tuo replied “but Heaven does and distinguishes between good and evil. And all will be judged according to fixed principles, and the good will receive a good end and the evil will receive a bad end.”
“If this is true, I will no longer accuse Heaven of being unfair,” Lin conceded. They walked around a bit longer and then started back to their ship lest they be late.
Translated by Lydia Gerber
(1) In China, Buddhist monks and nuns were expected to shave their heads, abstain from meat and wine and to remain celibate.
(2) This is another name for China.
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