A Feast of Lanterns, by L. Cranmer-Byng, , at sacred-texts.com
In the time of the T‘ang dynasty there lived a retired scholar whose name was Hsuan-wei. He never married, but dwelt alone, yet his companions were books and flowers, his little friends. If he had any enemies, they were frost and wind and blight and mildew. Three seasons brought him joy and one sorrow. Love to him meant the gentle opening of rose-petals, and death their fall. The neighbours never troubled about him, for how could there be scandal between a man and flowers? No woman ever plundered his garden and desecrated his Temple of Abiding Peace. In fine, he was the happiest man that ever lived.
Then something came to pass. It was "blue night," and the garden never looked whiter underneath the moon. And every tree melted into the spirit of a tree peering between its luminous leaves. The Wu t‘ung whispered to the maple, and the maple passed the story round to the mountain pine of the phoenix that augustly condescended to rest in its branches some long-forgotten spring. Only the old willow stood apart and said nothing, for the willow is a wizard,
and the older he gets the more crabbed and silent he becomes.
The owner of the garden stood spell-bound in the moonlight. Suddenly a blue shadow flitted shyly from among the flowers and a lady in a long robe of palest blue came towards him and bowed "I live not far from here," said she, "and in passing to visit my August Aunt I felt a longing to rest in your beautiful garden."
The wondering philosopher stammered his consent, and instantly a band of pretty girls appeared, some carrying flowers and some willow boughs. According to etiquette an introduction became necessary.
Then a girl in green announced herself: "I am called Aspen," and, pointing to a girl in white, "her name is Plum," to one in purple, "she is called Peach," and so she went on till the last, a little maid in crimson who was called Pomegranate. The Lady Wind, who, she explained, was their maternal Aunt eighteen times removed, had promised them a visit which for some reason she had delayed. As to-night's moon was unusually bright, they had decided to visit her instead. Just at that instant the Lady Wind was announced, and, with a great fluttering of many-coloured silks, the girls trooped out to greet her and one and all implored her to stay with them in the garden. Meanwhile, Mr. Hsuan-wei had discreetly retired into the shadow. But
when the August Aunt asked who the owner was he stepped boldly into the moonlight and saw a lady of surpassing grace with a certain gauzy floating appearance like gossamer. But her words chilled him, for they were like the cold breath stirring the leaves of a black forest, and so he shivered. However, with the true politeness of a Chinese host, he invited her into his contemptible Pavilion of Abiding Peace, where he was astonished to find a magnificent banquet already prepared.
So they feasted and sang, and I am sorry to say that many cups went round, and the Lady Wind became both critical and extravagant. She condemned two unfortunate singers to pay forfeit by drinking a full goblet a-piece, but her hands shook so as she held the goblets out that they slipped from her grasp and fell with a crash to the floor. And much wine was spilled over poor little Pomegranate, who had appeared for the first time in her new embroidered crimson robe. Pomegranate, being a girl of spirit, was naturally annoyed, and, telling her sisters they could court their Aunt themselves, she blushed herself off.
The Lady Wind, in a great rage, cried out that she had been insulted, and, though they all tried to calm her, she gathered her robe about her and out of the door she flew off hissing to the east. Then all the girls came before their flower philosopher
and bowed and swayed sorrowfully and said farewell, and, floating through the portals, vanished into the white parterres around; and when Mr. Hsuan-wei looked, lo, the Temple of Abiding Peace was empty as all temples of its kind should be. And he sat down to wonder if it was a dream. For every trace of the feast was gone and yet a faint subtle fragrance lingered as though some gracious and flowerlike presence had been once a guest.
Next night, when strolling in his garden, he was suddenly encircled by his little friends. They were all busy discussing the conduct of Pomegranate and urging her to apologise to the August Aunt eighteen times removed. It was evident that they went in fear of her since last night's unfortunate revel. But little red Pomegranate would have no truck with Aunt Wind, who had spoilt her nice new robe. "Here is one who will protect us from any harm," she cried, pointing to the surrounded form of Mr. Hsuan-wei. So they told him how each year they were injured by spiteful gales and how Aunt Wind had to some extent protected them.
Mr. Hsuan-wei was sorely puzzled "How can this contemptible one afford protection?" he asked. Pomegranate explained. It was such a very little thing required of him—just to prepare a crimson flag embroidered with sun, moon, and stars in gold and hoist it east of the garden at
dawn on the first morning of each new year, then all hurricanes would pass them by. Accordingly, he promised, and the next day saw him stitching golden stars on a crimson background. And he rose early, an hour before the dawn on the appointed day and set his flag duly towards the east in the breath of a light east wind. Suddenly a great storm gathered and broke. The world rocked. The air was dark with flying stones and whirling dust. The giants of the forest cracked, others were overwhelmed. But in Mr. Hsuan's garden there was a deep calm. Not a flower stirred. Then in a flash he understood. His little friends whom he had saved from destruction were the souls of his little flowers. That night, when the moon was midway, they came to him with garlands of peach and plum blossom whose taste conferred the beauty of everlasting youth. Mr. Hsuan-wei partook of the petals and straightway the lingering drift of old sorrows from the days of his ignorance melted like snow from his heart. And with it went all the pathetic rubbish that even a flower philosopher allows to accumulate. He became young and divinely empty, yet in his soul pulsed the élan vital of Mr. Henri Bergson. "Soon afterwards," says the ancient chronicle, "he attained to a knowledge of the True Way, and shared the immortality of the Genii." 1
This story is typical of many. In the west it would be passed by as a pretty if rather naïve and simple fairy-tale. Yet behind all Chinese poetry and folk-lore, underlying all art, is the ancient philosophy of the True Way. And this is the Way of Happiness according to Liu An: "Most men are vexed and miserable because they do not use their hearts in the enjoyment of outward things, but use outward things as a means of delighting their hearts." To enjoy is to have the affinity to understand, the persistence to enter, and finally the power to reproduce. All that we love we reproduce, and so it is with flowers, the best beloved of Mr. Hsuan-wei. It is that delicate sense of touch between life and life, between soul and soul, that alone enables the artist to give—not the imitation of a living flower, but the flower itself, reborn within him, and therefore his own child. And what was this immortality the Genii bequeathed to Hsuan-wei except the sense of eternal youth that comes when kinship and affinity with the little bright children of nature is established? And so the philosopher has joined the immortals, and lives in the sister realms of poetry and fairy lore, and every garden-lover sees him walking by moonlight surrounded by his fairy flowers. Outside, Aunt Wind, that shrill hater of all things beautiful, betrayer of woodland secrets, beats vainly at the magic barrier, a little crimson flag.
18:1 The full story will be found in F. H. Balfour's Leaves from my Chinese Scrap-book.