LAST             INDEX                        



CHAPTER FIVE: Stories About Some of the Other Signs


The fifth day of the New Year celebrations is celebrated in China as the birthday of the Ox; the farmer’s patient draught animal since ancient times. Farmers’ wealth is measured in terms of how many oxen or cows they have and so they care for their beasts well. The spring festival of the Ox marks the start of the agricultural year, when many oracles are consulted about the prospects of a good harvest.

The seventh day of the seventh month is dedicated to a cowherd who, in ancient times, fell in love with the goddess Weaving Maid. With the aid of the Immortal Ox of Heaven, he succeeded in winning her heart but their love offended Xi Wang Mu, the Queen of Heaven. The Ox showed the cowherd the secret of immortality but still Xi Wang Mu would not be swayed and drew the Milky Way with her hairpin to separate them. However the King of Heaven, the Jade Emperor, took pity and allowed them to meet one day a year, on the seventh day of the seventh moon of the year.

The Ox was originally a star deity that lived only in heaven. Considering how hard humans had to work in tilling the earth, the Jade Emperor one day sent the Ox star down to teach them how, if they worked diligently, they would be able to eat happily every third day. But the Ox mixed up the message, promising them they would feed three times a day if they only followed the instructions. As punishment, his return was barred and he was obliged to help fulfil his rash promise by helping humans plough their fields. This legend is commemorated by the star many oxen still have on their brows.


In the Warring States period (c.500-220 BC) the Prime Minister of the Qi state, Meng Changjun sent a servant to collect the rent from his tenant farmers. The servant, Feng Xuan, found the farmers suffering from poor crops and so boldly told them they were excused their rent. When his master heard of this he was furious, but Feng Xuan said: ‘The wily hare has three burrows to escape the fox. Likewise, you may have lost the rent but you have gained the love of your tenants and, who knows, one day that may be worth more to you than gold.’

The wisdom of these words was proved a year or so later when Meng Changjun was dismissed from office and sent home, where his grateful peasants greeted him with joy. So he thanked his servant for his far-sightedness. Feng Xuan, however, said: ‘The wily hare has three burrows but you now have only one. If you want my advice, what you should now do is visit the state of Wei (which was at war with Qi) and tell them a little of what you did as Prime Minister of Qi. But when they offer you a position, as they surely will, you must refuse. This will get the attention of the King of Qi, and then we’ll see what happens.’

Meng Changjun followed this advice and, true enough, when the King of Qi heard that his enemies were trying to tempt Meng into their service, he immediately restored him as Prime Minister. He also offered many other rich gifts but, on his servant’s advice, Meng Changjun refused them all, asking only that he be allowed to build a new temple near his home, both for the spiritual welfare of his tenants and as a refuge should war come that way. This request was granted and when the work was done Feng Xuan said to his master: ‘Now you have your three burrows: the love of your king, the love of your people and a place to shelter should all else fail. You can rest easy.'’ And so it proved, for Meng remained Prime Minister to the end of his long and happy life.


Of all the jewels that get washed down to their underwater palaces, dragons value pearls beyond all else and for this reason they are a great peril to pearl-divers, whom they see as thieves. In China it is believed that pearls are droplets that fall like rain from the moon into the sea, where they are often swallowed by oysters. So it follows that the pearl which dragons long for most of all is the moon itself. Many have been known to go mad with infatuation and try to steal it from the sky. So far all have failed, but people worry that one day some dragon may succeed.

This love has been fixed in the stars with the constellation of the dragon forever chasing the moon across the sky. It is also celebrated in the timing of the Chinese New Year, when the moon rises just beyond reach of the starry dragon, a sign of hope that the mistress of tides and fruitfulness will always escape such rash and consuming lust.

Some dragons are also said to have tried to swallow the sun, but the Chinese say it is always doomed to be burned to a cinder. With the moon there is some doubt, but not with the sun. For this reason many Chinese magistrates have the figure of a dragon trying to swallow the sun embroidered on their silken robes and wall hangings. It is to declare to the world that it is as impossible for them to be bribed as it is for a dragon to swallow the sun. Whether this is actually true is of course as subject to human vagary as in any other part of the world.

Besides common pearls and the moon, there are other pearls associated with dragons. One legend says that long, long ago there lived a Jade Dragon in a cave on the east bank of the Celestial River (the Milky Way). In the jungle on the far bank lived a Golden Phoenix and the two were great friends. One day on an island in the river they found a shining pebble and were so enchanted by its beauty that they decided to fashion it into a pearl such as the world had never seen before. So for many months and even years they stayed on the island carefully grinding and polishing the gem and bathing it in the waters of the Celestial River till finally it was a perfect shining sphere, by which time they had grown so close to each other that they remained on the island guarding their treasure.

This pearl was no common gem and the light it gave off was no common light. In the glow of its radiance spring, summer and autumn ruled together all year round on the island. The trees grew tall, the plants lush and the flowers and fruits grew in such abundance that finally the enchanted island caught the attention of the Queen Mother of the West, Xi Mu. When she learned the cause of the magic her heart filled with longing for the pearl so one night she sent a servant to steal it while the Jade Dragon and Golden Phoenix were sleeping. Then she hid it away in her innermost treasury behind nine locked doors.

The dragon and phoenix were distraught when they woke to find their treasure gone. Day and night they searched the island, then the river and then the mountains and forests nearby, all to no avail. Then one day they happened to be passing the Queen Mother’s palace at Kunlun and saw it filled with a silvery radiance they recognized. The Queen Mother was holding a great feast to celebrate her birthday and on impulse, unable to keep the secret any longer, she had brought out the stolen pearl for her guests to admire. They were all gazing in wonder and admiration when suddenly in burst the Jade Dragon and Golden Phoenix and accused the Queen Mother of having stolen their treasure.

She was furious and ordered her guards to throw them out. In the struggle that followed, the pearl was tossed through a window and began to fall towards the distant earth. The dragon and phoenix chased it through the air but could not catch up till it landed and became a clear green lake. Unable to part with their treasure, the two creatures settled down beside the lake and to this day Jade Dragon Mountain and Golden Phoenix Mountain still guard the lake in the far west of China.


Chinese legend has many tales of snakes acquiring supernatural powers and adopting human form. One famous story describes a demon white serpent that appears as a beautiful maiden to lure young men to her dinner table as the main dish. But in complete contrast is this tale of Lady White Snake, or Suzhen. In its earliest form it dates back to the Tang dynasty in the seventh century AD, but it gradually evolved over the next thousand years or so into a favourite theme in opera and art.

Suzhen began life as a white serpent but after long years of meditation and study she acquired magical powers, transformed herself into a beautiful young woman and went to live at Xi Hu (West Lake) by the city of Hangzhou on the shores of the South China Sea. There a young pharmacist named Xu Xian fell in love with her, and she with him because in a previous incarnation he had saved her life. So they married and set up a herbalist shop which was soon famous and thriving because Suzhen used her magical powers to enhance the potions, and they only charged as much as their customers could afford.

They were blissfully happy till Suzhen came to the notice of Fa Hai, a monk from Jinshan (gold mountain) Monastery in Zhenjiang, by the Yangtze River. He could tell what Suzhen was and plotted to steal her powers. So one day he told Xu Xian that his wife was really a demon snake spirit and this could be proved by making her drink some wine, because alcohol forces spirits to reveal their true form.

The Dragon Boat Festival was approaching, so Xu Xian resolved to try the test then, hoping of course to prove the monk wrong. To heighten the situation, Suzhen chose this moment to announce that she was pregnant, so the festival should have been a double celebration, were Xu Xian not so worried. That night when they were alone in their chamber he produced some wine and two cups.

‘Come, my love’ he said, ‘let’s share a toast the future! Here’s to a fruitful summer in the fields and the health of our unborn child.’

Suzhen resisted at first, knowing the dangers of wine, but finally she gave in to his insistence, confident that she was strong enough to withstand just a few drops. But pregnancy had weakened her and with the very first sips she transformed in front of Xu Xian’s very eyes into an enormous white serpent. He keeled over in a dead faint.

Suzhen was horrified when she recovered and saw what had happened. All her attempts to wake her beloved husband failed and for days he just lay as if dead, barely breathing. Finally she realised that only one thing could save him – a tincture from a sacred herb that only grew on fabled Mount Kunlun in far-off Tibet. Her journey there is a tale in itself, but suffice it to say here that after an epic journey she found the herb and brought it back to revive Xu Xian.

Xu Xian soon recovered but was still shocked by what he had seen, believing that he had indeed married a demon, as the monk Fa Hai had warned. So as soon as the chance came, he fled from home as if a thousand tigers were on his tail. With him out of the way, Fa Hai seized Suzhen and locked her in a pagoda till she was ready to reveal her secrets.

Xu Xian meanwhile had come to a monastery on his travels where the saintly abbot heard his tale. To his surprise the abbot was not at all shocked. ‘My son’ said the lama finally, ‘just because she is a snake spirit does not mean she is evil. Many of them are kind and wise and loving. If you had no cause to doubt her love before, why should you question it now? Did she not almost die going to Kunlun for the herb that revived you? Come, let’s see how she is faring without you, and whether there is any evil in her.’

The lama produced a magic mirror in which they saw Suzhen chained in the pagoda being cursed and threatened by Fa Hai. All at once Xu Xian sees how he was tricked into delivering his lover into the wicked monk’s hands. He leaps up to rush to her rescue but the saintly lama restrains him: ‘Just a moment my son, I think I have something that will serve you better than haste.’

He teaches Xu Xian a mantra that will enable him to fly across country like the wind, though it will feel as if he is merely strolling through a park. Also it will carry him straight to where he wants to go. So Xu Xian leaves the monastery reciting his mantra and the land rushes past like a dream below his strolling feet. Soon the pagoda looms up and as Xu Xian calls out Suzhen’s name it explodes, killing Fa Hai and freeing Lady White Snake.

Some versions of the story say that they then lived happily ever after, but others tell that after her child was born, Suzhen left it with Xu Xian and returned to the spirit world where she belonged.


Near the northern border lived a man whose horse ran off one day into the country of the nomads. His neighbours all said how sorry they were, but the man only shrugged philosophically and said, ‘Maybe it will turn out a blessing.’

Everyone marvelled at his optimism, but then a few months later the horse did return, bringing as a companion the finest mare anyone had ever seen. Now they marvelled at the man’s good luck, but he only said thoughtfully, ‘Perhaps no good will come of it.’

Soon afterwards, his son fell off the mare and broke his leg. The neighbours again commiserated, but the man just said, ‘Who knows, perhaps some good will come of this.’

Not long after, barbarians poured over the border and every able-bodied man was sent off to war. Nine out of ten from that district died before peace was restored. Those of his neighbours who had survived watched the man and his son going contentedly about their lives and this time said nothing at all.


Long ago when the world was young, there lived a great hunter in the far west of China. All day he would hunt in the mountains and forests, and in the evenings he would tend a mulberry tree in his garden that was the most precious thing to him in the whole world. Then one day the tree began to sicken and die and the hunter was in despair. He tried everything to revive it but nothing worked. Then he looked at the sun beating down out of the sky (for there was a drought on at the time) and shook his fist to heaven, crying:

‘It’s all your fault, cursed sun! You and your sister moon have shrivelled up my beautiful mulberry with all your light. ‘ Furiously he fetched his bow and shot an arrow straight up into the face of the sun. What’s more, things being different in those days, the arrow reached its mark and stung sun in one eye. He immediately gathered all the clouds about him and went into hiding, so that darkness fell across the land. Later when the moon came to see what had happened, the hunter did the same with her, so from that moment the only light in the world came from the shimmering stars.

Well, the hunter was very pleased at first, but it did no good for his mulberry tree and soon every other plant was also dying for lack of light. The hunter regretted his rash anger as famine and starvation gripped the land. Finally all the creatures gathered to decide what to do and after much discussion it was decided to send the most responsible of them to plead with the sun to return. The Ox was chosen, so he climbed the tallest mountain nearby and begged the sun to return, saying that it was safe now because no hunter would dare shoot it again. The sun heard the Ox’s lowing but couldn’t be bothered to wake up and listen because he’d had enough of the troublesome world below.

The creatures held another meeting and decided that maybe Ox hadn’t been the right choice of messenger. Perhaps they should have chosen someone bolder, like the Tiger; and maybe they should have started with the moon. So Tiger climbed to the mountaintop and invited the moon to return, turning on all his charm and majesty with a roar that shook the heavens. The moon was terrified and only wrapped the clouds closer about her.

Then the creatures were plunged in despair and didn’t know what to do till the Rooster stepped forward and said: ‘Why not let me to talk to the sun? After all, he’s my cousin and we’ve always been the best of friends’.

They had nothing to lose so the creatures agreed that Rooster should be their spokesman. He flew up to the peak and called out in his clear, piping voice: ‘Hey cousin! What are you still doing abed at this time when all the world is dying for lack of your company? Don’t you miss seeing the mountains and green valleys and wide rolling plains? Don’t you miss our company? Come cousin, let’s be seeing the laughter of your face again. Come out, it’s safe again now and the hunter won’t shoot you!’

Finally the sun woke in his snug bed of clouds and heard the Rooster’s cry. His eye had healed and suddenly he missed the world below and seeing all its activity. Altogether it felt like the best of mornings, so he yawned and stretched and peered out over his blankets of cloud. Golden sunshine spread like a balm over the world and all the creatures cheered the Rooster till they were hoarse. This woke the moon who cautiously peeped out to see what was going on.

‘Come, my love’ said the sun, reaching across the sky to take her hand, ‘let’s ride this day together and see all that we have been missing. And to you faithful cousin, in thanks for reminding us of what we’ve been missing, here’s a token of friendship forever between us.’ And he dropped a ruby comb towards the earth.

Unfortunately the Rooster was so eager to catch it that the comb landed upside down on his head, where it has remained ever since. And ever since he has been entrusted the task of making sure the sun rises on time every day.


Long ago after the Great Flood, goes the legend, the gods and Immortals who lived in the Heavenly Isles of the East took pity on the plight of starving humans. Seeing how they had to scavenge and hunt desperately for food, often themselves becoming the food of tigers and other wild beasts, the Jade Emperor called a great meeting to decide how to improve people’s lot. Finally the Five Grains God stood up and said ‘Why not teach them how to cultivate the rice that grows here in such abundance? Then they will not need to go hunting and expose themselves to all the perils of the jungle.’

This idea set all the other Immortals thinking and soon it was agreed to send humans other blessings as well – Ox and Horse to pull their ploughs and carts, Goat to give milk and wool, Rooster to wake everyone in the mornings, Dog to guard their barns, and Pig to give meat for the feast in return for its life of idleness and ease.

Soon these creatures were all gathered by the shore to cross the great sea to China but then a problem arose. Which of them was to carry the rice? Thinking of the long and dangerous swim ahead, each of the animals made some excuse or other, except for Dog. Dog had been most moved by the suffering of humans so he volunteered to bear the precious cargo of grain. First he dived into a sticky pool, then rolled about in a granary till he was covered in rice.

Then the creatures dived into the choppy waves and began their swim to the mainland, but Dog lagged far behind the rest. Weighed down by rice, he struggled with the waves till he thought he would surely drown. But finally he crawled onto the shore of China more dead than alive, with just a few precious grains of rice still clinging to the tail he had mostly kept above the waves. These were enough, though, to plant the first small plot of rice humans had known, and from that came all the rest so that soon it was the staple food of all the Chinese. So Dog became humans’ closest friend in the animal kingdom and to this day many Chinese often reward their dog with a bowl of the best rice at dinner. Cattle and horses meanwhile have to make do with rice straw, while goats, roosters and pigs get the husks.

LAST             INDEX