No one knew the Old Man’s name. During the reign of Emperor Wen [179-56 В. С.] of the Han dynasty, the Old Man made a round hut out of straw on the banks of the Yellow River.
Now, the emperor read the Lao-tzu and liked it very much. He ordered all of the princes and ministers to recite it. But there were many things which he could not understand, and there was no one who could explain them. When the ministers heard this, all advised him that the Old Man of the River could explain the meaning of the Lao-tzu.1 The emperor then dispatched messengers with his questions to the Old Man. But the Old Man replied, “The Way is to be revered; Virtue is precious.2 You cannot inquire about it from afar.”
So the emperor visited the hut and made his inquiries in person. The emperor said, “‘All of the land under heaven belongs to the sovereign. All of the people within our lands are the subjects of the sovereign.’3 Within these bounds, the sovereign is one of the Four Supremes.4 Although you have the Way, still you are my subject. Why will you not stoop to me? Do you regard yourself as the nobler of the two of us?”
The Old Man clapped his hands, sat down, jumped up, and then was seen to rise slowly in thin air, until he was a dozen yards above the ground. Looking up and down, he answered, “Up here I do not touch heaven; in the middle I am not concerned with mankind; I do not dwell on the earth below. How can I be a subject?”
The emperor then came down from his carriage and kowtowed. “With my lack of virtue I am unworthy of the position inherited from my forefathers. My abilities are meager, my responsibilities great, and I am greatly distressed at my lack of accomplishment. Though I rule over all, and in my heart honor the Way, I am ignorant, and there is so much which I do not understand! My only wish is that you might instruct me.”
The Old Man then gave a simple book in two fascicles to the emperor. “Study it thoroughly,” he enjoined. “All of the difficulties in the scriptures are explained. But the contents must be revealed to others only with discimination. It has been seventeen hundred years since I annotated this scripture, and I have only passed it into three hands. You are the fourth to receive it. Do not show it to anyone who is undeserving.”
When he finished speaking, the Old Man simply disappeared. In a moment all was dark and shrouded in mists and clouds; heaven and earth were obscured. The emperor treasured the volumes he had received very highly.
There are people who believe that because Emperor Wen was so enthralled by the words of Lao-tzu, and since no one could understand them completely, a god came down to earth solely in order to instruct him. Lest the emperor not believe with all his heart, he was shown these miraculous manifestations of divine power. As it is said: The sage does not have a constant heart, but takes the heart of a common man.5
(SHG, 3.1; TPKC, 10.1)
Tr. Douglas Wilkerson
Note: The thaumaturgic feats described here are typical of Taoist hagiography. The jealousy shown in guarding esoteric knowledge strongly hints at the motivation of the story: the old man of unknown origin was probably “invented” to mysticize both the Tao-te ching text and its commentary tradition.
1 A Lao-tzu text with commentary attributed to Ho-shan Kung, the Old Man of the River, was found in circulation for the first time during the Wei-Chin period. The attribution is generally believed to be spurious.
2 The Lao-tzu is known as the Classic of the Way and Power/Virtue, or Tao-te ching.
3 Shih-ching (Book of Songs), #205.
4 The Four Supremes of Taoism are the Way, Heaven, Earth, and the Sovereign.
5 Lao-tzu (Tao-te ching), chapter 49.
Chang Tao-ling was a native of the country of Ρ’ei [modern P’ei County, Kiangsu Province]. He was a student in the National Academy, thoroughly acquainted with the Five Classics. Late in his life he sighed, “This will do nothing to help me live longer.” So he took up the search for immortality.
He obtained a prescription for making the Yellow Emperor’s Nine Tripod Pills,1 and wanted to prepare some, but the ingredients required were extravagantly expensive. Now Tao-ling’s family was not well off; he thought of amassing the capital by cultivating the fields or raising cattle, but he was not familiar with these lines of work. Thus he never succeeded in making the pills.
Hearing that the people of Shu [modern Szechwan] were sincere and could be easily converted, and that there were many famous mountains there, he went with his disciples to live on Goose Call Mountian. There he wrote a Taoist book in twenty-four sections. He spent his time distilling his thoughts and refining his desires.
Suddenly there appeared to him men descending from heaven. Chariots came by the thousands, and horsemen by the tens of thousands. The innumerable golden chariots were canopied with feathers and drawn by dragons and tigers. Some of the men called themselves Recorders from under the Heavenly Pillar, others Youths of the Eastern Ocean. They gave Tao-ling instruction in the Orthodox, Luminous, and Awe-inspiring Doctrine. With it Tao-ling could heal sickness.
Consequently the people gathered around him, serving him as their teacher; diciples came to his door by the tens of thousands. Tao-ling then instituted a system of Head Disciples, and delegated responsibilities to them, as though they were ministers and officials. He also set up rules of provision in writing, whereby the followers in turn would be responsible for providing rice, silk, untensils, paper, pens, firewood, and other necessities. He ordered some to lead people in repairing the roads. Those who refused would become seriously ill, so all of the roads and bridges in the county were repaired in response to his orders. The people of this area cut down grass, cleaned up cesspools, and did all manner of things which Tao-ling wanted. The less intelligent ones did not realize that Tao-ling had come up with all of these ideas himself, but rather thought that these written orders had been sent down to them from heaven.
Tao-ling was not happy meting out punishments, but instead wanted to rule the people with honesty and humility. He made a written regulation that all those who were sick had to enumerate all the evil deeds they had committed in the past, which he would write down and throw into the water, commanding them to make a pact with the gods that they would not commit the transgressions again. Their lives were the security for this pledge, so the people took it to heart. Thus when people fell ill, they had to confess their past transgressions; in so doing they would be healed, but at the same time they would be put to shame when the evil deeds were revealed, so they dared not repeat the offense. Fearing heaven and earth, they reformed their ways. From this point on, those who had sinned repented and changed for the better.
Tao-ling became very wealthy, and he was soon able to purchase the necessary drugs to make his elixir. The elixir prepared, he swallowed only half the presciption, not wanting to ascend to heaven just yet. Even so, he was able to divide himself into many dozen bodies. There was a pond in front of Tao-ling’s residence upon which he often enjoyed himself, drifting about in a boat. Now many Taoist guests came to his residence, filling the courtyard and the passageways. Often there would be one Tao-ling seated in this room eating and drinking and talking with the guests, while the real Tao-ling would be out on the water.
In his work of healing he adhered to the methods bequeathed by the untitled sages and uncrowned rulers, merely making minor changes and shifting the order of ingredients, but on the whole he followed their prescriptions. In the regulation of his ch’i2 (pneuma), and in taking herbs and minerals, he followed the ways of immortals, making no alterations. He told everyone, “There are many amongst you who have not yet rid themselves of vulgar attitudes and put aside the things of this world. You mav receive my guidance and direction in the regulation of ch’i the performance of exercises, and the intercourse of male and female; or you may receive my prescription for taking herbs that will enable you to live for several hundred years. But the secret meaning of the Nine Tripods is granted only to Wang Ch’ang. And later there will be one arriving from the east, who will also attain to this. He will arrive exactly at midday on the seventh day of the first month.” Then he gave a complete description of the man’s appearance.
When the appointed time came, a Chao Sheng did arrive from the east. None of them had seen him before, yet his appearance was just as Tao-ling had described it. Tao-ling tested him seven times. When Sheng had passed all of the tests, he passed on to him the text on the making of the elixir.
The seven tests are as follows. First, when Sheng approached Tao-ling’s gate, he was not announced to the master, instead Tao-ling had people revile and curse him for more than forty days. He remained there exposed to the elements, and refused to leave. He was finally admitted.
For the second test, Sheng was sent out into the fields to guard the millet and attend the animals. Toward evening Tao-ling sent a woman of extraordinary beauty. She told him that she was on a long journey and needed a place to spend the night. She slept on a bed right next to Sheng. The next morning she said her foot hurt and did not leave. She stayed several days and flirted with Sheng, but Sheng retained his integrity to the end.
As the third test, Sheng spied thirty crocks of gold by the side of the road. He walked by without taking any.
For the fourth test, Tao-ling ordered Sheng to go into the mountains to collect firewood. Three tigers sprang up in front of him and began tearing his clothes with their teeth, though they did not harm his body. Sheng was not afraid and did not turn a hair. He said to the tigers, “I am a Taoist practioner. As a youth I did nothing wrong. I have come a thousand li to serve a divine teacher and seek the way to immortality. Why are you doing this to me? You must have been sent by mountain spirits to test me.” In a moment the tigers left him.
Fifth, Sheng bought more than ten bolts of silk in the market. As soon as he had finished paying for them, the merchant insisted that he had not recieved the money. Sheng then removed his own clothes in order to pay for the silk. He showed no sign at all of being penurious.
As the sixth test, Sheng was sent out to guard the grain fields. A man approached him and kowtowed, begging for food. His clothes were in tatters, his face filthy, his body covered with sores. The stench and filth were disgusting. Sheng’s countenance reflected the pain he felt on seeing this man. He took off his own clothes to put them on this man. He fed him with his own food, and then sent him on his way with his own rice.
Finally, Tao-ling took all of his disciples up onto a very steep precipice on Cloud Terrace Mountain [modern Kuan-yün County, Kiangsu Province]. Below the edge a peach tree grew out of the rock wall, sticking out like a man’s arm. It looked down over an unfathomable abyss. The peach tree was loaded down with fruit. Tao-ling said to his disciples, “If there is someone who can get these peaches, I will tell him the essentials of the Way.” At that time there were more than two hundred disciples lying on their stomachs and looking over the edge at the tree. With trembling knees, and perspiration flowing down their faces, none dared look down for very long. Not one of them failed to retreat some distance from the edge, confessing his inability to complete the task.
Only Sheng advanced and said, “With the protection of spirits, how can there be any danger? As long as our sagely teacher is here, he will not let us die in this gorge. If our teacher has instructed us to do this, it must be possible.”
He then threw himself off the cliff and down onto the tree, landing solidly on the trunk. He filled the breast of his robe with peaches, but the rock face was very precipitous, and there was no way he could clamber up it and get back to the top. So he proceeded to throw the peaches up one by one, two hundred and two peaches in all. Tao-ling collected them and divided them among his disciples, giving one to each. Tao-ling himself ate one and reserved one, waiting for Sheng. He then reached out his arm to Sheng. Everyone there saw his arm extend twenty or thirty feet to reach him, and suddenly Sheng was back up on top again. Tao-ling gave him the peach which he had reserved.
When Sheng had finished eating the peach, Tao-ling began prancing about at the edge of the cliff, laughing and saying, “Chao Sheng’s heart is truly sincere. He was able to throw himself onto the tree without losing his footing. Now I want to try and jump down there. I should be able to get some very large peaches.”
They all remonstrated with him, but Sheng and Wang Ch’ang remained silent. Tao-ling then threw himself out into the void, but instead of landing on the tree, he just disappeared. They looked all around for him--above them was the open sky, below them a bottomless abyss, with no paths of any sort. They were all overcome with surprise and grief, and cried sadly.
After some time Sheng and Ch’ang said to each other, “Our teacher is like a father to us. How can we stand here contentedly, when he has thrown himself into this bottomless crevass?” They both threw themselves over the edge, and landed right in front of Tao-ling. He was sitting under a canopy with his legs crossed. When he saw Sheng and Ch’ang he laughed, “I knew you would come.” He then proceeded to complete their instruction in the Way.
After three days they returned to their old abode to put things in order. The amazement and sadness of all the disciples continued unabated. Sometime later the three of them, Tao-ling, together with Sheng and Ch’ang, rose straight up into the sky in broad daylight. The disciples looked after them long and hard, until the three disappeared among the clouds.
When Tao-ling first came to the mountains of Shu he took only half a dose of his elixir. Consequently, though he did not rise up into heaven at that time, he had already become a terrestrial immortal. Because Tao-ling wanted to effect the transformation of Chao Sheng, he put Sheng seven times to the test, and thereby ascertained Sheng’s sincere aspirations.
(SHC, 4.3; TPKC, 8.3)
Tr. Douglas Wilkerson
Note: The first part of this story is based on the life of Chang Lu, Tao-ling’s grandson, given in San-kuo chih 8, pp. 263-64 and Hou Han shu 75, pp. 2435-36.
This story is rewritten in a vernacular version in “Chang Tao-ling ch’i-shih Chao Sheng” (KCHS, 13).
See Introduction, Sec. IV, for a brief discussion of the story’s structures.
1 The Yellow Emperor is a figure purported to be the successor to Shen-nung who ruled before the Hsia dynasty (ca. 2200-1554 B. C.). He is also purported to be the originator of the military arts and of tuned music. As inventor of medical arts and author of a secret scripture of pharmacology, he is a favorite figure in the Chinese alchemical tradition. The Nine Tripods were those of the Great Yu, a pre-Hsia ruler. They were said to be in the form of the nine regions of China, or to bear pictures of all the phenomena of nature. For the locus classicus of the recipe, and the explanation, see Pao-p’u-tzu, “Nei-p’ien,” 4, 5a-7a; also Nathan Sivin, Chinese Alchemy: Preliminary Studies (Cambridge, Nass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 68, 155-56.
2 Taoist breathing exercises which led to the possession of magical powers, or enhanced those which one already possessed.
Tso Tz’u,1 styled Yüan-fang, was a native of Lu-chiang [the central region of modern Anhwei Province]. He knew the Five Classics thoroughly and was well-versed in astrology. He perceived that the prosperity of the Han dynasty was about to decline and that rebellions would soon arise throughout the empire. Sighing, he said, “When such decline and lack of order occur, high officials are in danger of falling, and those with much wealth will be killed. Glory in such an age is not worth of coveting.”
So he studied the Taoist way, and acquainted himself well with the arts of alchemy. He was able to command spirits and demons, and could conjure up meals without lifting a finger. He secluded himself in deep meditation inside the Mountain of the Heavenly Pillar [in modern Anhwei Province], and obtained the Classic on the Nine Pills and Liquid Gold from a stone chamber. He was then able to change himself into myriad forms, too many to be enumerated here.
When Duke Ts’ao of Wei2 heard of this, he summoned him and locked him in a stone chamber. A guard was posted around it, and his supply of food was cut off for a full year. But when he was brought out, he looked the same as when he had gone in. Duke Ts’ao said to himself: everyone has to eat, yet Tso Tz’u could do this; he must be a sorceror. Therefore, Duke Ts’ao decided to kill him. Tso knew this, and asked to return home.
“Why do you suddenly make such a request?” asked the duke.
“I know you want to kill me,” he replied, “So I ask to leave.”
“I really had no such intention,” the duke said.
Now coming to respect Tz’u’s worthy aspirations, the duke dared not detain him further without cause. He prepared a feast as a farewell gesture.
“As I am going away now,” Tso said to the duke, “I beg to share a cup of wine with you.”
“Fine,” replied the duke.
At that time the weather was cold, but the wine had been warmed up and was still hot. Tso removed his Taoist hairpin to stir the wine. In a short time the hairpin had completely dissolved, as if it were an ink stick being ground for ink. Now, when the duke heard Tso entreat him to share a cup of wine, he thought Tso would have him drink first. But instead Tso had removed his hairpin to stir the cup. It now appeared that in fact he had used it to divide the wine in the goblet into two halves, which now were separated by about an inch. Tso drank half the cup, and then offered the other half to Duke Ts’ao. The duke was displeased, and, as he did not drink it straight away, Tso asked to finish it off himself. When he had finished drinking, he threw the cup up to the rafters. It hung there in mid-air, bobbing up and down like a bird in flight. It seemed on the verge of falling, yet did not. Everyone fixed their gaze on the cup. After some time it finally fell; by then Tso had disappeared.
Inquiring after him, they found that Tso had returned to his home. Now Duke Ts’ao wanted all the more to kill him, to test whether or not he could escape death. He sent out an order for Tso’s arrest. Tso hid himself among a flock of sheep, and those sent to capture him could not find him, so they counted the number of sheep, and, as they had suspected, there was one sheep too many. Thus they knew that Tso had turned himself into a sheep. Addressing him among the sheep, they assured him that their master only wanted to see him and that he need fear no harm. Suddenly a large sheep came forward and knelt down, saying, “Is it me that you are looking for?” The officials said to each other, “This kneeling sheep is surely Tso.” But as they tried to lay hold of it, the whole flock of sheep spoke up saying, “Is it me that you are looking for?” Again the constables had lost Tso, whereupon they gave up the search.
Later, someone who knew Tso’s whereabouts informed Duke Ts’ao. The duke again sent out some constables, and this time they captured him. It was not that Tso had been unable to conceal himself, but, in order to show his magical transformations, he let himself be captured and put into prison. As the jailer prepared to flog Tso, he found that there was one Tso inside the cell, and another outside. He could not tell which was the real one. When Duke Ts’ao heard this, his grew even more angry. He had Tso led out of the city for execution, but in a twinkling Tso was gone.
The soldiers shut fast the gates of the city and searched for him. Some who did not know Tso asked for a description of him. They were told that he was blind in one eye, and was wearing a coarse, dark turban and an unlined black robe. If anyone saw a man fitting this description, they were to arrest him. But then all the people in the city became blind in one eye, and were wearing dark, coarse turbans and black robes. In the end they could not be told apart.
Duke Ts’ao then ordered everyone to search for Tso and to kill him on sight. Eventually someone recognized him and cut off his head to offer it to the duke. The duke was greatly pleased, but when he went to see the head, it was but a bundle of straw. Going to examine the body, they found that it had disappeared. Sometime later a man came from Ching-chou [in modern Hupeh Province] and reported having seen Tso there.
The governor of Ching-chou, Liu Piao,3 also believed that Tso was deluding the people, and planned to capture and kill him. Knowing Liu’s intentions full well, Tso decided to visit him while he was deploying his troops, so that he could display his magical powers. He asked for an audience with Liu, saying that he had a small gift which he wanted to present to the troops. The magistrate said, “You, Taoist, are alone in a foreign place. My troops are many. What can you give to them?”
Tso repeated what he had said, so Liu had him show his gift. All he had was a gallon measure of wine and a packet of dried meat, but ten men together could not lift them. Tso went and got these himself, and with a knife he cut up the meat and tossed it on the ground. He asked one hundred people to take up the wine and the meat to give it to the soldiers, three cups of wine and a piece of meat each. They found that it tasted like ordinary meat. Every one of the more than ten thousand men ate and drank his fill, yet they still had not finished the packet; and the wine filled its container as before. Besides the troops, there were a thousand guests present who also got very drunk. Liu was greatly surprised, and gave up any thought of harming Tso.
After a few days Tso left Liu to go to Eastern Wu.4 In Tan-t’u [modern Tan-t’u Conty, Kiangsu] there was a certain Hsü To who possessed magical powers, whom Tso wanted to see. At his gate there were several guests with ox-drawn carts. They lied to Tso, telling him that Hsü was out. Quite aware that the guests were lying to him, Tso turned and went on his way. Immediately after that the guests saw that their oxen were walking on the branches of a poplar tree. When they climbed the tree, they could not see the oxen, but when they got back down, the oxen were back in the tree again. What is more, all the hubs of the cart wheels sprouted thorns, each about a foot long. They could not cut these off, nor could they move the carts.
The guests were terribly frightened and notified Master Hsü, saying, “Just now there was a one-eyed old man at the door. We saw that he had no important business and so lied to him saying that you were not in. Shortly after he left, this befell the carts and oxen. We don’t know what this is all about.”
“You fools!” cried Master Hsü. “That was Master Tso coming to visit me. How could you deceive him? Run after him quickly and you may catch him.”
All of the guests spread out to search for him. Upon reaching Tso they surrounded him and kowtowed, apologizing for their misdeed. Tso was easily appeased and sent them back. When they returned, the carts and oxen had returned to normal.
Tso went to see the Wu general Sun Ts’e,5 the Rebellion Queller, and realized that Sun also wanted to kill him. Once, Sun went on an outing, and asked Tso to accompany him. He had Tso walk ahead in front of his horse, planning to stab him from behind. Tso wore a pair of wooden clogs, held a bamboo stick for a walking staff, and seemed to toddle slowly. Sun gripped his whip and laid it to the horse. Spear in hand, he pursued Tso, but was unable to catch up with him. He finally realized that Tso had magical powers, and gave up his chase.
Some time later Tso told the immortal Lord Ko6 that he was about to go to Mount Huo [i.e., the Mountain of the Heavenly Pillar] to concoct pills of immortality. He subsequently ascended as an immortal.
(SHC, 5.5; TPKC, 11.5)
Tr. Douglas Wilkerson
Note: See Ts’ao Chih’s “Pien Tao lun” for an account of Ts’ao Ts’ao’s summons of the fang-shih to the court, and Ts’ao Chih’s personal experiences with them; discussed in the Introduction, Sec. II.
The narrative of Tso’s perigrinations seems to prefigure the “episodic narrative” of the picaresque-like novels of the Ming and Ch’ing dynasties.
1 For his official biography, see Hou Han shu 82B, pp. 2747-48.
2 Ts’ao Ts’ao (155-220), who was enfeoffed as the Duke of Wei in 213; for his biography, see San-kuo chih 1, pp. 1-55.
3 For his official biography, see San-kuo chih 6, pp. 210ff., and Hou Han shu 74B, pp. 2419ff.
4 Wu was one of the Three Kingdoms (220-280). It occupied the area south of the Yangtze River from the eastern border of modern Kweichow province to the coast. In this story Tso Tz’u shows his miraculous powers by traversing all three kingdoms (or what was shortly to become the three kingdoms): Wei in the Ts’ao Ts’ao episode, Shu in the Liu Piao episode, and now Wu.
5 Sun Ts’e was the elder brother of Sun Ch’üan, who later later became Emperor of Wu. For Ts’e’s biography, see San-kuo chih 46, pp. 1101ff.
6 Ko Hsüan (164-244), the granduncle of Ko Hung, author of the Pao-p’u-tzu. He was said to have studied alchemy with Tso Tz’u; cf. “Ko Yüan” [i.e., Ko Hsüan], in SHC, 7. 7b-llb.