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He Xiangu and A Hundred Birds in a Mountain


This story is an example of how people today are still reinterpreting and rewriting the stories of the Immortals, creating new tales from their original stories.




The Eight Immortals had spent days resting on Huang Shan mountain but when it was time to return home He Xiangu could not bear the thought of leaving. She was so struck by the mountain’s tranquil beauty that she decided to spend some time there alone.


She usually rose at dawn to pray and mediate and spent the rest of the day on the mountain’s slopes. One morning, as she carefully made her way along a narrow path she came across an old man whistling cheerfully as he carried a bamboo pole on his shoulder. The long pole was crowded with birds of all colors and shapes. Some sang, some hopped along the pole and others flew into the air only to return again to the pole. At first, He Xiangu was startled to meet someone on this usually deserted path, but then she was inquisitive.


“I have traveled every inch of China, but I have never seen birds as tame or beautiful as your birds,” she complemented him, at the same time expecting an explanation.


But the old man remained silent. He glanced at the straw basket under her arm which was overflowing with fragrant and unusual flowers and grasses. He felt like telling her that he had never seen such a basket of colorful flowers before but he held his tongue. For a long while He Xiangu and the old man stared at each other. He Xiangu grew uncomfortable with the silence. Although he had human eyes and a human body, he had an unusual presence and why did he keep glancing at her basket of flowers? How could he possibly know that she was an immortal and that her basket of flowers had no bottom and no edges, that it could contain all the flowers in the world and still have room for more.


She decided to test him and asked scornfully, “I suppose you have a hundred different species of bird on your pole and you know the name of each one, and I suppose there are a hundred different species of bird on this mountain and you know where to find them?”


The old man was completely unmoved by her question and simply replied, “I suppose your flower basket can produce more than a thousand varieties of flowers and grasses?”


.”Tell me the truth,” demanded He Xiangu. “You are not human. No human could ever guess the secret of my basket. Now tell me what you want and what you are doing here.”


The old man once more fell silent. He knew only too well the identity of the woman before him. He knew how she had achieved immortality and he knew that she was sometime too confident and to glib with this precious gift. Now was the time to teach her a lesson.


“I am afraid that your flower basket is not complete. It does not contain any flowers or grasses from this mountain,” he said with authority.


He Xiangu could feel anger rising deep within her. She had been immortal for more than a hundred years and no one had ever dared to challenge her authority.


“What do you mean?” she demanded. “I have scoured every field and mountain in every direction that the wind blows. I have picked flowers that no human has ever set eyes upon and you have the audacity to tell me that I haven’t found something growing on Huang Shan Mountain.”


“That’s exactly what I am telling you,” retorted the old man, as he picked up a bundle of grass from the soft earth nearby. He held the grass out to her. “You do not have this fragrant grass in your basket.”


He Xiangu reached out for the grass. She felt its texture, she examined its color, and she smelt the delicate aroma. But she was too proud to admit defeat.


“This is nothing but a bunch of wild weeds, the sort of weeds that can be found on any hill slope and in any field throughout China. Do you take me for a fool? I can distinguish weeds from aromatic grass. The plants in my basket will prove that to you.”


The old man stared at her but said nothing in reply.


“Stop showing off,” she demanded petulantly. “You have indicated that Huang Shan has one hundred different types of birds. Well, where are they?”


“That’s easy to answer,” replied the old man calmly. “Follow me up the mountain and I will show you.”


The old man climbed steadily up the steep mountain tracks and He Xiangu followed reluctantly in his footsteps. As they rounded a steep spur on the mountain they were greeted with a view of the full majesty of the Lotus Peak.


“Now is the time to test him,” thought He Xiangu. “I want to see a peacock,” she demanded haughtily.


“I will show you a peacock,” answered the old man and he pointed to the Lotus Peak.


He Xiangu followed his gaze and he had been right. The craggy rocks of the Lotus Peak were shaped like the fully open wings of a peacock trying to make an ascent. But He Xiangu was not completely satisfied and demanded to see a swan. The old man pointed at a pavilion carved from the pale grey rock of the mountain. And there, at the top of the pavilion was a rock with the perfect contours of a swan, its slender neck raised to the heaven. Underneath the swan’s feet, lay many small stones, each with the smooth oval-shaped for of an egg.


Having seen this, He Xiangu felt her confidence slipping away and could not summon up the courage to ask any more questions. She gazed around her in defeat and despair and suddenly it dawned on her that every rock and stone had the contours of a bird. The Nice Dragon Peak, was in the shape of an owl, the White Hill in the distance looked like a flock of magpies and event the stones by her feet looked like swallows. The old man knew that she had learnt her lesson and to save her any more embarrassment he drew her attention to the birds on his bamboo pole.


“Look at this bird. It is a rare Shan T’ung bird. Here is a silver pheasant and over here are two falling in love birds.”


He Xiangu watched two small birds with red beaks and multi-colored feathers coo gently over one another. The old man was willing to describe the ninety-six other birds on the bamboo pole, but He Xiangu’s face was as red as a crab in boiling water and he knew that he had proved his point.


He Xiangu bowed her head before the old man and asked respectfully, “Why is the grass on this mountain different from the grass already in my basket?”


The old man took her hand gently. “Look at me,” he said. “My face is unwrinkled and I have no beard but my hair is white. Think carefully, I think you know me.”


He Xiangu gave a gasp of recognition. It was the Yellow Emperor, skilled in alchemy and knowledgeable in immortality-giving drugs. When he rose to the heavens to be with the gods, many people wanted to follow him to achieve immortality. They grabbed hold of his beard but their weight ripped the hairs from his chin and they fell back to early his hairs were carried by the wind to Huang Shan Mountain and took root in the fertile soil. The aromatic grass was Dragon Beard Grass.


He Xiangu knelt down before the old man to beg for his forgiveness.


“I have been foolish and proud, my wise brother and I now kneel before you to beg your pardon,” she said humbly.


The Yellow Emperor bent down and took her hand.


“Get up my immortal sister,” he said kindly. “You must remember that every person, animal and plant is important no matter how small it is. Do not be critical of the world around you. Take your basket and throw your flowers to the wind and in return I will tell the birds on my bamboo pole to fly away and nest in every bush and tree on this mountain.”


He Xiangu did as she was commanded and that is why to this day Huang Shan Mountain is vibrant with birdsong and colorfully decked with flowers.


From: The Eight Immortals of Taoism: Legends and Fable of Popular Taoism Translated and Edited by Kwok Man Ho and Joanne O’Brien. New York, Penguin Group, 1991.