Translation / December 2013 (Issue 22)

Painted Dreams

by He Qifang, translated by Canaan Morse


This series of translations takes its name from "Painted Dreams" (画梦录), the title piece of a collection of poetic prose originally published in 1937 by the author and poet of the May Fourth Movement, He Qifang (1912 – 1977). The excerpts below retell three old folktales, the first from the Jin dynasty, the second from the Tang, the last from the Qing. Each account is based on a story that has significantly influenced Chinese mythical consciousness.

Ding Lingwei, the protagonist of the first story in "Painted Dreams," is a figure out of Daoist history-legend. He was supposedly a prefect of Liaodong City during the Jin Dynasty who was arrested for using government grain to feed the starving. According to legend, right before his execution, Ding was surrounded by cranes, which carried him away into the mountains. Poets and officials from the Tang dynasty on have referred to him as a symbol of Daoist asceticism and compassionate government. His is also the first story in the famous Epilogue to the Search for the Supernatural (搜神後), which is attributed, probably erroneously, to Tao Yuanming.

Chun Yufen, featured in the second story of "Painted Dreams," is the main character of The Tale of the Nanke Magistrate, a Tang dynasty legend that now represents an ancient theme in classical Chinese literature, the dreamed life. The idiom 南柯一夢, literally "a dream of Nanke," means "it was all a dream," in the Alice-in-Wonderland sense.

Finally, the White Lotus Master comes from Pu Songling's Strange Tales of Liaozhai (聊齋志異), a collection of ghost stories that has been a favourite with Chinese readers for over three hundred years. The White Lotus Buddhists were an offshoot from the Pure Land sect that borrowed heavily from local folklore and were known to practise magic and occasionally spark uprisings. This short anecdote, which focuses on the Master's disciple, can almost be read as a Chinese counterpart to Goethe's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."


Ding Lingwei

Ding Lingwei forgot his weariness. The wind that rushed beneath his wings was truly pleasant to feel as he followed his gaze and banked in the air toward Liaodong City. There was the city wall, earth-coloured, surrounding a tumbled spread of rooftops and trees like a sack. When at Hollow Mountain he had first been caught unawares by thoughts of home, had then risen into the air and transformed into a crane, felt bright sunlight caress his feathers and the blue air soft beneath him, it was almost the same sort of happiness he felt now. Only now, he was desperate to find a place to rest.

He alit gracefully atop the imperial pillar that stood before the city gates.

A broad highway that ran straight up to the main gate from far off lay empty and undisturbed in the morning hours; only the eaves of houses cast a softly corrugated shadow onto its surface. The shadow of the pillar also lay over the street, then broke at the curb and climbed up a wall onto roof tiles, with the silhouette of a great long-necked bird seated like a weathercock on top. These buildings and houses, all strange new developments outside of his memory, stirred his sense of time's distance. Unable to call out the residents within, Ding Lingwei beat the air a few times with his wings.

There was only the low earthen city wall that, though it had probably seen many iterations of decay and repair, remained in shape and location exactly as he remembered it. Looking beyond, one could see to the northern outskirts of the city, where poplar leaves waved like flakes of metal, and caressed the many grass-green burial mounds farther out. Ding Lingwei stretched his neck and looked that way, feeling acutely lonely, unable to express to friends long gone the strength of his concern for them. Born of the earth, returned to the earth, congratulate them on their long sleep. Ding Lingwei's mind moved behind half-closed eyes—could it be there lingered a trace of regret for long years spent hidden in the mountains, learning the divine Way? The next thing to come clearly to his mind was:

So why have I returned? He opened his eyes to look for a reason. The small city certainly was desolate. Those who have travelled great distances through time, like the farmer who has ploughed innumerable barren winter fields, find it hard even in a green-scarred springtime to stir up any faith in the earth's prosperity.

But I want to get a look at these descendants of man. How will the sight of your unfamiliar faces move me? From them, I will be able to tell whether you are happy or miserable, whether you have advanced or fallen behind. Come out, all of you, come out… As thought gradually found its way into sound, Ding Lingwei startled himself with his own crane's language—the tight but rasping croak that spouted out through his long neck—and so fell silent.

Yet he still managed to call a group of welcomers from out of the houses and narrow alleyways:

"Huh. That's the first crane to come back with the spring."

"And a real red-topped crane, too."

"Strange that a crane would rest on top of the pillar."

…And not fly away at the sound of people. Amid the sounds of voices, laughter and clapping hands, Ding Lingwei felt overcome with sadness. He stared through his crane's eyes down at the half-circle of people below him, standing motionless, until they began to wonder if he were not an unlucky omen and their curiosity changed to anger. They waved their hands at him and called out threateningly; finally, one young man suggested going for a bow to shoot him down with.

Finely crafted out of boxwood was the bow. As the young man lifted it to shoulder-height and bent it back, the head of the feathered arrow on the string glinted in the sun; the flash startled Ding Lingwei out of his stupor, and with a whooshing flap of wings, he took off into the air.

The piercing cries of the people below followed him skyward as he flew frantically away—climbed, then traced a circle around the city. Just before he pierced the domed wall of heaven and disappeared, he again let out several hoarse but ringing notes, which translated into human language go approximately like this:

There came a bird, a bird! And it
was Ding Lingwei,
left home a thousand years ago
and just returned today.
The wall had kept its ancient poise,
the men were not that way.
Why not chase immortality?
The tombs stretch far away.


Chun Yufen

Chun Yufen stands hunched over beneath the locust tree. Finally, between the roots that run in waves like mountain ranges, he finds a mouse-hole, so small a pinch of mud could seal it; turning to his guests, who stand beside him, he says, "This is the road we took in my dream."


Chun Yufen awakes with a start on a wooden bedroll in the eastern guest house, as the colours of sunset are brightening the window. He rubs his eyes, discerns the young servant sweeping the porch with his bamboo broom and the cloudy glasses on the table that had held the liquor. His guests are still washing their feet.

"Whoa—hey. I just lived an entire life in a single moment."

"What, a dream?"

"A long, long dream."

He describes it, all the way from the first visitation by two court officials in purple robes who took him to the land of Huai'an, where he married the king's daughter and was assigned to command the border garrison in Nanke province, to his defeat there at the hands of the armies of Tanluo and the abandonment of the border after the king's death; how back at the court he was undermined by vicious gossip, until finally the same two functionaries were called to take him home again. He relives the story in his mind as he recounts it to his guests, who reply, "This all really happened?"

"I even remember the road we drove in on."


Chun Yufen squats beneath the locust tree, between the roots that run out in waves like mountain ranges. With the little finger of his right hand, he probes the ant-hole: it is winding, tight and impassable. Bending farther down, he puts his lips close to it and blows; the sound dies without echo in the darkness. Somewhere inside is a walled city with palatial halls, set amid a land of rivers, mountains and forests, he had no doubt of it. He recalls that, in the east of that country, was Tortoise Mountain, where he had once very happily gone hunting. Perhaps this waking now is the real dream. He stands up.

The tree is tall, its winglike leaves nested across the entire canopy of branches, like another sky. Clouds in the distance flame with the evening sun. An ant was crawling through Chun Yufen's imagination, slim-waisted and with fine feet, so weak as to be endangered by a breath, a pathetic thing to be seen running down the creviced bark of a tree. Yet compared to this ant, Chun Yufen felt even more insignificant; he forgot the difference between large and small, between time brief and extended—the affairs of this afternoon after he was drunk did not at all seem like the events of a moment……


The feast is on and Chun Yufen is reeling drunk. Since that day when he'd had too much and offended the general, lost his position and then his money, this is by no means the first time he's been this way. Yet the failing body can no longer support the warrior's spirit, and he is scooped off his chair by two of the guests and laid on a mat in the eastern guest room. "Sleep for a bit. We'll go feed our horses and wash our feet, then when you're a little better we'll leave."


Chun Yufen, pacing beneath the locust tree—the sun has already disappeared in dusk—says to his guests:

"While I was living in that dream country, I became attached to it. The spread of rumour made me genuinely unhappy; and when the King first urged me to go home, I couldn't remember that I had ever had one outside of Huai'an. It wasn't until he told me I was originally from the world of men, and I groped around among shadowy memories that I finally understood."

"You were definitely lured in by a fox or a wood-spirit. Call a servant to come with an axe and cut the tree down," the guests reply.


White Lotus Master

White Lotus Master has gone out this evening, too. The red candle on the table has already burned down an inch or two, or three. Tied to the tin candleholder is a frail golden flower, unopened yet brightening the room. What sort of road is White Lotus Master taking. His disciple sits at the edge of the bed, keeping the command the Master gave him before leaving, "Watch the candle, don't let the wind blow it out."

The flower on the candlestick opens, unfurling golden petals; these fall away one by one, revealing a tall, straight tower of black rock, where some spirit is imprisoned—suddenly and without cause it topples, stretches out into a long highway, long enough to make one anxious just looking at it… Don't doze off now, my child! The disciple shakes himself out of his daze, stands and cuts away half an inch of spent wick with scissors.

There once had been a day when White Lotus Master went out and left in the room a wooden basin covered by another, commanding the boy, "Guard it, and by no means look inside."

The Master's reputation as a wizard was universally recognised, and a great many came to learn from him. Yet the long intervals endured seemingly without profit, and the inability to follow irrational orders drove the vast majority away, until only one was left. This one was young, eager to study and understood the value of patience, though he was tested many times before he gained his master's love and true instruction. That day, he sat on the edge of the bed, thinking.

By no means look inside. The prohibition tickled his curiosity, and when the itch grew too strong to bear, he finally stood and took the cover away: a basin of clear water, with a small boat made of dry grass floating on its surface—a meticulously wrought little craft fully fitted with mast and sail. It was so marvellously complete it begged to be played with. Poke it and make it move. Too much! She's tipped, water's rushing in… By the time he had feverishly righted the little ship and replaced the wooden cover, his Master was already standing beside him, black with fury. "Why didn't you obey my orders?!"

"I didn't touch it."

"You didn't touch it?! Two minutes ago, I was out on the ocean and my boat overturned, I nearly drowned!"


The red candle has already burned away two inches or three, or four. On the tin candlestick a yellow-winged bird now stands, his beak raised in the air as if waiting for a breeze to come and fill his wings. How far has White Lotus Master already gone? Probably arrived at the end of his long road, come through deep forests to the streets of a strange city. What sort of people will he meet on those nightless streets, what kinds of costumes, what smiles?

Half a basin of water was his ocean. Were its waters calm or stormy? All alone in a boat the size of a leaf. The disciple thinks: if there really is such a magic. If only there is such a magic.

The bird on the tin candlestick on the table opens his wings and lifts off, and with him rises a whole flock of others; all change into golden rings, which perne in a gyre, then link into a ladder-staircase leading step by step all the way to the ceiling… You're dozing again, my boy, why not just lie back here and rest awhile? As if from far away, the disciple catches sight of his master's back, slightly bowed over, as he continues down the road. On he goes without pause, growing ever more exhausted…

When he awakes with a jolt in darkness, he understands his error. Hurriedly he fumbles on the table for a match, strikes it alive and relights the candle. Yet his bent-backed master is already striding with furious countenance back into the room:

"I told you not to fall asleep, and you slept anyway!"

"I didn't, I swear."

"You swear! Even as I walked for miles in pitch dark because of you!"

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