The meat-eating master desires to fly up,
[Yet] the yellow cloud is trampled into pieces; the purple cloud collapses.
[As] the dragon’s waist and crane’s back are not strong enough,
*From Zheng Wenbao’s 鄭文寶 (953-1013) Nan Tang jinshi 南唐近事，in Quan Song biji 全宋筆記 (Zhengzhou: Daxiang chubanshe, 2003), Series 1, vol. 2, 218-219.
 Red characters rhyme.  Coloured clouds are often considered as an auspicious omen.  One of the most famous Daoist deities. For a brief account of her, see “Nine Heavens” in Fabrizio Pregadio ed., The Encyclopedia of Taoism (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), 731-732.  Peng is a giant mythical bird that is famously described in the first chapter of the Zhuangzi. For a convenient reference, see: https://ctext.org/zhuangzi/enjoyment-in-untroubled-ease.
It’s not until I started to study sinology in the UK that I realised Daoists seem to be widely perceived as master philosophers or immortals who ride on clouds, live in the mountains, and survive on simple veggies or even dew, as often represented in paintings. I’m not trying to say this is an illusion, but there’s an important part missing in the picture. In Chinese literature (as well as in films and TV series), Daoists do not just utter profound words or guide people to immortality. For most laymen, it can be a tricky business to differentiate a real master from a swindler. Many medical and exorcising frauds have been associated with Daoism, and there are also halfwit men who just pretend to be Daoist practitioners. A typical example of the latter is the guy who famously tries to learn the trick of going through a wall from the Daoist master at Mount Lao and ends up with a big bump in his head. Therefore, Daoists are sometimes a subject of ridicule in literature, as in the poem translated above.
The poem is recorded in the Song text Nan Tang jinshi 南唐近事, a tenth-century collection of anecdotes from 937 to 975. Little is known about the poet Chen Hang 陳沆, who is simply described as a chushi 處士 (recluse, a talented and virtuous man who doesn’t take up any official position). According to the Nan Tang jinshi, he wrote this poem after hearing of an incident that happened in the Jiutian Shizhe Miao 九天使者廟 (Nine Heavens Envoy Temple).
It is said that a Daoist in that temple was a big eater. One day, two cranes happened to come down and take some rest in his temple because of the strong wind. The Daoist was excited to see them. He carried out a ceremony, checked out the auspicious clouds, and believed that Heaven was summoning him. He had his servants hold the cranes and tried to ride on them. The two poor creatures couldn’t bear his weight. Sadly, their bones were broken, and they both died that evening. The person who had been keeping them for a king found this out and reported it to the king. However, the king decided not to blame the Daoist.
The king seems to understand what a temptation two cranes in the courtyard must have been for a Daoist. Indeed, stories have been repeatedly told about people who ride on the crane and join the world of immortality thereafter. Obviously, these stories about ascending to the sky haven’t given enough down-to-earth instructions. The Daoist in the anecdote above would have otherwise restrained his appetite before he had to face frustration and disappointment with the cranes. Chen Hang clearly had good fun with this news and might appear a bit mean in his caricatural depiction, but this poem should serve as a good reminder for those who get excited about immortality too easily.
The Jiutian Shizhe Miao mentioned in the anecdote was constructed in 731 and destroyed in war towards the end of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). After that, the temple went through another few cycles of restoration and destruction and was eventually demolished during the Land Reform (1948-1950).
It is a pity that the temple no longer stands, but I believe there are still many other things to be explored around its original site. Mount Lu is an important mountain where many writers (Tao Yuanmin 陶淵明being perhaps the most famous one) once lived in reclusion or spent their summers. It is also a popular site for Buddhist and Daoist monasteries. At one point in medieval China, there were more than 400 monasteries in this area. Li Bai 李白 (701-762) and Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037-1101) wrote some verses about the scenery of Mount Lu that people learn by heart from childhood. “Not knowing the true face of Mount Lu” (bu shi Lushan zhen mianmu 不識廬山真面目), from Su Shi’s “Ti Xilin bi” 題西林壁 (Written on the Wall of the West Grove [Temple]), is often used as a metaphor for not seeing a complete picture of something. Although I’ve never been to Mount Lu, it is an endearing place to me as part of the 1986 TV series of the Journey to the West that I grew up with was shot there. I imagine staying in Mount Lu or an excursion there will be a very pleasant experience even if one doesn’t ride on a crane.
 This is one of the most popular stories from the Liaozhai zhiyi 聊齋誌異 and was adapted in a nice animation in 1981: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZcM-cot5Ugg.  This poem is often attributed to the Qing writer Chen Hang 陳沆 (1785-1826) in online sources, which is misleading.  Jiutian 九天 (Nine Heavens) refers to the subdivisions of space in the Daoist worldview. For a brief account of this concept, see “Nine Heavens” in Pregadio, The Encyclopedia of Taoism, 593-594.  See Zheng Wenbao, Nan Tang jinshi 南唐近事, 218.  See http://www.jjlib.cn:8072/ArticleShow3.aspx?SectionId=3739f76b-252b-4947-bde8-e8234e879c33&Aid=9971 and https://www.meipian.cn/1ussij77, although the former doesn’t mention the Daoist building on the site was destroyed in the middle of the twentieth century. The second post also includes two photos of the hall and the bell tower in the Republican period.
Picture credits: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
1. "Zhu he chuangqing tu" 竹鶴雙清圖 (Crane in a bamboo grove), anonymous, 14th–early 15th century
2. "Huanghe lou" 黃鶴樓 (Yellow Crane Tower) by Xia Yong 夏永 (fl. 14th century)
3. Detail of "Huanghe lou"
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