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Myths and Legends of China

Page: 176

The Dream of the South Branch

The dawn of Chinese romantic literature must be ascribed to the period between the eighth and tenth centuries of our era, when the cultivation of the liberal Page 409arts received encouragement at the hands of sovereigns who had reunited the Empire under the sway of a single ruler, and whose conquests and distant embassies attracted representatives from every Asiatic nation to their splendid Court. It was during this period that the vast bulk of Indian literature was successfully attacked by a host of Buddhist translators, and that the alchemists and mechanicians of Central Asia, Persia, and the Byzantine Empire introduced their varied acquirements to the knowledge of the Chinese. With the flow of new learning which thus gained admittance to qualify the frigid and monotonous cultivation of the ancient classics and their commentators, there came also an impetus to indulgence in the licence of imagination in which it is impossible to mistake the influence of Western minds. While the Sanskrit fables, on the one hand, passed into a Chinese dress, and contributed to the colouring of the popular mythology, the legends which circulated from mouth to mouth in the lively Arabian bazaars found, in like manner, an echo in the heart of China. Side by side with the mechanical efforts of rhythmical composition which constitute the national ideal of poetry there began, during the middle period of the T’ang dynasty (A.D. 618–907), to grow up a class of romantic tales in which the kinship of ideas with those that distinguish the products of Arabian genius is too marked to be ignored. The invisible world appears suddenly to open before the Chinese eye; the relations of the sexes overstep for a moment the chilling limit imposed by the traditions of Confucian decorum; a certain degree of freedom and geniality is, in a word, for the first time and only for a brief interval infused into the intellectual expression of a nation hitherto closely cramped in the bonds of a narrow pedantry. It Page 410was at this period that the drama began to flourish, and the germs of the modern novelist’s art made their first appearance. Among the works of imagination dating from the period in question which have come down to the present day there is perhaps none which better illustrates the effect of an exotic fancy upon the sober and methodical authorship of the Chinese, or which has left a more enduring mark upon the language, than the little tale which is given in translation in the following pages.

The Nan k’o mêng, or Dream of the South Branch (as the title, literally translated, should read), is the work of a writer named Li Kung-tso, who, from an incidental mention of his own experiences in Kiangsi which appears in another of his tales, is ascertained to have lived at the beginning of the ninth century of our era. The nan k’o, or South Branch, is the portion of a huai tree (Sophora Japdonica, a tree well known in China, and somewhat resembling the American locust-tree) in which the adventures narrated in the story are supposed to have occurred; and from this narrative of a dream, recalling more than one of the incidents recounted in the Arabian Nights, the Chinese have borrowed a metaphor to enrich the vocabulary of their literature. The equivalent of our own phrase “the baseless fabric of a vision” is in Chinese nan k’o chih mêng—a dream of the south branch.

Ch’un-yü Fên enters the Locust-tree

Ch’un-yü Fên, a native of Tung-p’ing, was by nature a gallant who had little regard for the proprieties of life, and whose principal enjoyment was found in indulgence in wine-bibbing in the society of boon-companions. At one time he held a commission in the army, but this he lost through his dissipated conduct, and from that time he Page 411more than ever gave himself up to the pleasures of the wine-cup.


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