Not that I was totally oblivious regarding my general liking for rich Chinese tradition before this morning, it was actually the self-revelation of my love affair with Chinese mythology that took me by surprise. Reading about deities and mythological immortals is interesting but the actual first hand experience of a mesmerizing cultural heritage is an altogether different ball game.
As we entered the majestic Nanjing city wall through the Zhonghua gate, there was an outpouring of folklore, myths and surrealistic art. The original 33 km wall was designed and constructed in 14th century by the first emperor of Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang. Like Al-Jahiz, the genius Mutazilite scholar of 9th century, Zhu Yuanzhang’s ugliness is memorable to an extent that the design of the wall outline is considered to be like the head of the emperor himself. While visiting the Ming tomb in the afternoon, our guide shared another long story regarding painting the picture of the emperor by three brothers: one made him ugly and the other made him handsome. Both eventually lost their lives with the sizzling punishment of medieval times, i.e., chopping of heads. But third – as he acted upon the advice of a mysterious wise man – gave the emperor’s face a balanced mix of beauty and ugliness; that too, by taking a bit of impression from two preceding kings of Yuan dynasty – the kings whom Zhu regarded as extremely venerable. That portrait eventually made the king happy and the wise mysterious intruder demanded his ultimate prize: the actual portrayal of the king. Both the portraits were present in the museum and the ugly one was, after all, not so ugly by our standards.
Whether gentle mythological phenomena like rain flower pebbles or horrendous acts like Nanjing massacre, Chinese people have preserved their heritage well. In my case, I gather a lot from Chinese folklore to share with those two passionate young listeners back home.
Moving on from different small museums on the wall, we heard the story of treasure bowl and the strange reason why the people of Nanjing love to eat duck. Right beside the small bridge over Qinhuai river there is Confucius temple which is famous for being the traditional examination site for candidates who wanted to apply for Chinese civil service. There were many small pavilions, each carrying a story of its own. Notable among the statues of outstanding students were Wu Cheng’en, the author of the famous Chinese mythological novel Xi You Ji (Journey to the West) and Wu Jingzi, the author of Ru Lin Wai Shi -a satire on Chinese scholars. Must prove be a good read in case I find an accessible translation here.