Anguish of World War I seen in prints (Cincinnati Enquirer, July 27, 2014)
Charles James gowns part of “High Style” fashion exhibit at Fine Arts Museums in 2015 (SFGate, July 10, 2014)
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.
Lan Caihe loved to travel the length and breadth of China collecting flowers, plants and grasses. He knew the name of every plant whether they grew on the lowland marshes or on mountain peaks, so when he heard about rare black chrysanthemums and stone lilies growing on Hua Shan Mountain he had to see them with his own eyes.
Lan Caihe arrived at Hua Shan on a clear, sunny day. The slopes were blanketed with spring flowers and the air was filled with bees and butterflies, but no matter how hard he searched he couldn’t find a black chrysanthemum or a stone lily. Exhausted from his walk he leaned against a smooth, sun-warmed rock to take a well earned rest. As soon as he had settled himself he saw two rabbits, with red flowers in their mouths, scuttling towards a nearby cave. Unable to contain his curiosity he cautiously followed the rabbits inside the cave. Instead of entering a damp, mossy shelter he was greeted with the sight of a verdant garden teeming with flowers and to his delight he saw an abundance of black chrysanthemums and stone lilies in full flower.
Lan Caihe was not only amazed to find rare flowers but also to see the flowers of the four seasons growing at the same time and in the same place. He sat down against the cave wall intoxicated by the beauty and fragrance around him and there he stayed until daybreak. As the first rays of sunlight filtered through the cave entrance, Lan Caihe was awoken from his trance by a rustling sound coming from the darkest corner of the cave. He stood up, careful not to damage the flower bed, and slowly made his way to the back of the cave. Peering through the glow he made out the shape of a finely woven flower basket resting on a stone slab. The rustling noise was definitely coming from the basket, but before Lan Caihe close enough to see what was in the basket there was a bright flash of light and a wise old woman appeared out of the basket.
“Don’t be afraid, my friend. I can see that you take great pleasure from my flowers. I have cultivated these flowers all my life. If I could, I would change this world into a garden overflowing with flowers. My basket is a precious gift from the gods and on command it can produce enough flowers to fill a valley. I want you to borrow it and use it wisely.”
She laid the basket carefully at Lan Caihe’s feet and then disappeared as quickly as she had appeared.
Lan Caihe gingerly lifted the basket onto his arm and threaded his way through the flower beds and out into the cool morning air. By mid-morning he had arrived at the nearest village. The local traders were busy selling their wares on both sides of the main street and in the dark, narrow side lanes he caught glimpses of children playing, women hangi8ng out their washing and small groups of men drinking tea and talking intently.
He stopped for a moment to buy a mango from a street trader and his attention was drawn by the sound of a bitter quarrel and a woman crying. Thinking he might be of us, Lan Caihe turned into a nearby lane to see what was happening. Three men and one woman stood outside a small burnt-out flower shop. All of them seemed to be gesticulating and crying at once. As far as Lan Caihe could gather, Wei the flower seller had refused to let his daughter, Wei Mei-Chen, become the unwilling concubine of a wealthy landowner.
He had already given permission for his daughter to marry a poor but trustworthy student named Fan. The landowner, Sai Ch’ien Sui, had not taken kindly to Weirs decision and in the dead of night he had sent a gang of thugs to burn down Weirs flower shop. By the time Lan Caihe had arrived Fan lay unconscious on the floor and Sai Ch’ien Sui was threatening Weirs life if he could not have Weirs daughter as a concubine. Before Lan Caihe could do anything the wealthy landowner and the tearful woman had disappeared into the maze of lanes and alleyways in the village.
Lan Caihe approached the old man to comfort him but the old man was beyond comfort. “You don’t understand the situation, “ Wei stammered through his tears. “She is gone forever. The moment she enters Sai’s family she will never return.”
Lan Caihe listened respectfully then bent down and pulled a handful of seeds from the flower basket and threw them on the floor. Within seconds green shoots sprouted from the dry earth and a few seconds later they burst into vivid flowers. Lan Caihe plucked two of these flowers and held them under Fan’s nose. Soon the unconscious student began to stir and mumble. Then, before Weirs unbelieving eyes, Fan sneezed twice, woke up and rose to his feet feeling fit and healthy. This was enough to persuade Wei that Lan Caihe, above all others, might be able to rescue his daughter.
Wei led Lan Caihe to Sai Chine’s house, but left him at the gates for fear of being beaten or tortured. Lan Caihe confidently called to the guards who approached him, but, realizing that he was of little importance, promptly ignored him. But as luck would have it, an old steward was approaching the gates with a parcel for Sai Ch’ien Sui. Lan Caihe beckoned to him. “Good steward, could you please tell your master that Lan Caihe the flower seller is here to see him.”
“But how can you be a flower seller when there are no flowers in your basket?” asked the steward with suspicion.
Lan Caihe drew out two seeds; he put one in the steward’s right palm and the other in his left palm. He then picked up some soil and let it trickle on to the steward’s palms. Within ten seconds, a fragrant peony had flowered in the steward’s left pal, and an aromatic chrysanthemum had flowered in the steward’s right palm. While the steward stood dumbfounded by Lan Caihe’s magic, Sai Ch’ien Suits angry voice could be heard from within the house. He was in the middle of scolding Wei Mei-Chen for her disobedience, but he stopped in mid-sentence when the aroma of the magic flowers wafted in through the open window. He ran to the door where he saw the steward with two flowers growing in his palms. Sai Ch’ien Sui reached out to pick the flowers, but as he touched them they turned into mandarin ducks which immediately flew out of his grasp.
“Where did you learn this wonderful trick,” Sai Ch’ien Sui asked the steward in astonishment, leading him into the room.
“It is not my trick, master,” replied the steward. “The flower seller, who is waiting to see you at the gate, put two seeds in my hands and they miraculously turned into flowers.”
“Bring him to me immediately,” demanded Sai Ch’ien Sui. “I want him to dine on my finest meat and my most expensive wines.”
But before the steward had a chance to say anything Lan Caihe came swaggering into the room dressed in silk and satin robes. Sai Ch’ien Sui was duly impressed and sat this talented magician in a place of honor. The dinner table was soon laid, but before Lan Caihe put a morsel of food to his lips, his eager host offered him ten ounces of silver to perform his magic. Lan Caihe politely declined the payment. It was enough to accept his host’s hospitality and in return he would perform his magic. Lan Caihe placed his flower basket at Sai Ch’ien Sui's feet. Then he placed two seeds at the bottom of the basket, poured a bowl of wine on to the seeds, and, before his host could blink, the basket changed into a verdant garden teeming with flowers and birds.
Although Sai Ch’ien Sui was impressed by this magic he looked perplexed and worried. He turned to Lan Caihe and spoke hesitantly, “I realize that this is not human magic and your presence gives me a strange sensation. Are you one of the Eight Immortals?”
Lan Caihe nodded but remained silent. Sai Ch’ien Sui heaved a sign of satisfaction and continued more confidently. “I have one great wish and perhaps you can make this come true. I am desperate to win the love of a beautiful girl called Wei Mei-Chen, but each time I approach her she spurns me. Can you help me win her love?”
Lan Caihe gave a knowing smile before offering Sai Ch’ien Sui some reassuring advice.
“Why pick on one girl when there are so many attractive women in this world? You could have your choice of the world’s most beautiful women.”
Saying this, he plucked a peony, crumpled it in his hand and threw the crushed petals high in the air. As the petals came floating down, they changed into seven stunning young girls singing and dancing in perfect harmony.
Sai Ch’ien Sui had never seen such beauty before and his eyes followed every move of their graceful limbs. He was particularly taken by eh curvaceous body and dark eyes of a girl in a finely woven green silk dress. Lan Caihe saw a lascivious leer spread across Sai Ch’ien Sui’s face and so, with a clap of his hands, he made the girls disappear into thin air.
“Bring them back, bring them back,” begged Sai Ch’ien Sui, jumping to his feet. Lan Caihe refused to recall them but he did promise other remarkable tricks to satisfy the host.
The two men passed an enjoyable week together, eating and drinking to their hearts” content. Each evening after dinner, Lan Caihe would perform an original trick and on the seventh evening Sai Ch’ien Sui asked for a special request.
“My talented friend, could you please conjure up the girl in the green silk dress. I haven’t been able to take my thoughts off her for this past week.”
Lan Caihe could not refuse such a request from his generous host. He promised to make the girl spear but on one condition. She must be exchanged for Wei Mei-Chen.
“Of course you can have Wei Mei-Chen,” replied Sai Ch’ien Sui eagerly. “I thought you had your eye on her. Accept her as a gift; I’m bored of her reticence.”
Lan Caihe nodded his head in thanks and politely withdrew from the dinner table on the pretence of collecting an important parcel from the nearby village. He picked up his flower basket and quickly left, leaving his host smiling contentedly in anticipation of the delights to come. Lan Caihe arrived breathless and excited at Weirs house.
“Your worries are over,” he assured Wei, who had hardly slept since his daughter’s abduction.
“You are coming with me to collect your daughter,” continue Lan Caihe. “You and Fan must jump into my flower basket immediately. We don’t want to waste any time.”
“Now hold on, my good friend,” replied Wei. “Have you been drinking too much tonight? How can two fully grown men fit into a flower basket?”
“Stop wasting time,” cried Lan Caihe. “Do you want to see your daughter again or don’t you? If you want proof, I’ll jump into the flower basket myself but we’re only wasting time while we argue about this. Just trust me.”
Wei and Fan had no choice. They gingerly approached the flower basket, stepped into it and promptly disappeared from view.
After checking they were comfortable, Lan Caihe pulled the basket into the crook of his arm and returned hastily to Sai Ch’ien Sui’s house. Wei Mei-Chen was already waiting in the reception room. Her face was stained with tears and her clothes were disheveled and torn. Lan Caihe spoke gently to her. “Your father and husband-to-be are waiting here for you.”
So saying, he waved his hand at the flower basket and out jumped Wei and Fan. They held the frightened girl in their arms until her tears subsided.
“Go quickly,” ordered Lan Caihe. “If Sai Ch’ien Sui discovers the truth he will murder all of you. “
The reunited family fled the house without looking back. Sai Ch’ien Sui had heard the commotion in the reception room and soon emerged to discover Lan Caihe standing alone.
“Where’s the girl you promised me? I want to see her now. Make her appear.”
Lan Caihe fulfilled his promise and with another wave of his hand she appeared before them. Flowers were intertwined through her long black hair, her eyes were downcast and her perfect figure was silhouetted against the light of the doorway.
She took one small step towards Lan Caihe. “What can I do for you, sir?” she asked gently and quietly.
“You are to stay with Sai Ch’ien Sui and do whatever he asks,” replied Lan Caihe.
She nodded her head in acceptance. Meanwhile Sai Ch’ien Sui walked around and around the girl, his eyes wide with delight. He eventually took her by the hand and led her into his private sitting room. A minute later screams of anger reverberated throughout the house. Sai Ch’ien Sui’s voice rose hysterically.
“You devil, you liar, you have cheated me. You have deceived me with your vile magic.”
The anxious steward flung open the doors of the sitting room where he expected to see the young girl in the arms of his master, but instead he saw his master lying motionless on the tiled floor. Where the girl had once been, he clutched a torn and ragged bamboo pillow.
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.