Tuesday, 6 March 2012
The Bell-Tower of P'an-ku
The Bell-Tower of P'an-ku
By John Brangwyn
Illustrations by B. Y. Morrison
IT was in the Tien-shan Mountains, called "Celestial," that I sought out a Chinese temple, one of the oldest, built half-way up a peak that reared its snowcapped head twenty thousand feet above sea-level. I had come there in search of an old painting on woven silk of which I had heard when I was in Lan-chau-fu. The difficulties of the journey, of which I had also heard, had not kept me from climbing, with my Chinese secretary and servants, along a deserted road where for want of inns or taverns we had for several days been forced to camp. We met no travelers; for only now and then do a few of the art-loving Chinese make the journey up this twisting, rocky road for sight of the painting, the extreme age of which is even yet undetermined.
I am not a scholar; it was not on any scientific research that I came here. I had lived ten years in China, and had come to feel myself less strange than some Europeans who had lived there longer, perhaps because I went upon pilgrimages like this into the less well-known provinces.
At one point along the mountain road on which I had been lured by the recounted beauty of this old painting we could catch a glimpse of the Chinese Wall, built here in the third century before Christ to keep out the Tartars. But how modern it seemed in comparison with these hoary-headed mountains that looked to me like the ruins of some gigantic prehistoric temple! Upon these ruins the verdure was like moss; and we, moving in and out through the forest, clinging to its side, were but so many insects, moving, however, with a human purpose.
When we reached the gray old temple I did not wait for the sun to set before sleeping. So it was that at dawn, before my companions had awakened, I entered the inclosure and found the caretaker, a Chinese priest, old and wrinkled. I spoke to him in mandarin and told him that now, in this quiet hour before I had eaten, I wanted to see the painting.
He understood, and took me into a room through the eastern window of which came the soft glow of a rising sun. But before he unrolled the painting he brought to me in a white jade cup tea such as I had never tasted. The perfume rising from the cup seemed to have in it the same exquisite subtlety as did the gentle light from the east. I asked its name, for in China teas are known by their names as roses elsewhere. It was the "Tea from the Tower of P'an-ku."
I sat and watched the bent old man take from its resting-place the roll of silk. He laid it before me and left me, for I had brought to him a letter which promised that I would hold this old painting as sacred as he did. I unrolled it.
The colors were still clear and deep. Not far from a mountain-top was a city. Upon the many-hued roofs and upon the snow-covered peak there was no shadow and no mist. The air seemed vibrant. The radiant sunlight streaming down from above was full of color until lost in the abyss of the gorge that lay below.
In the streets and the squares of the city were moving a people who seemed happy and bird-like. Their flowing garments might have been wings. And they, like their houses, were bathing themselves in radiance, recalling to me that mystical phrase of the Taoist poet Chuang-tse, "drowning oneself, in light."
Above the city was a tower, but not of any period of Chinese architecture that I could recognize. It had a look of age despite its brilliant colors. Under the hood-shaped roof there hung a bell so faintly drawn, so evanescent, that it seemed some ethereal symbol.
Part of the joy that I felt in looking at this painted city hanging there in mid-air I ascribed to the beauty of the hour in which I was seeing it and to the contents of the little jade cup. But that joy gave way, as the painting unrolled itself before me, to sadness and then to horror. The Tiger of the Earth had leaped upon the Dragon of the Air and torn it with claws, so that the very essence of joy flowed out and left me in a fright which, as I look back upon it now, could not have been due entirely to what I saw in the painting. Some hidden bond between me and that pictured combat had pulled at me, drawing me into its shadows out of myself.
When I finally lifted my eyes, the sun was overcast, and the old attendant stood watching me. He seemed excited, curious, and touched with awe. He did not speak, but put into my hand another cup of tea. Whatever magic it might hold, I did not hesitate to drink it. With it came strength to question him.
Many who had seen that painting, he said, had gone away without question. By that he knew that they had not really seen. He appeared to marvel that I, who was not Chinese, had had no veil before my eyes, but had been given the vision, for so he claimed it was. And then without a word he brought me another silken roll of age-old writing and again left me.
I could not read the ancient Chinese characters painted so beautifully by some old temple priest. But there went with it a translation into the modern written language. I read the story more than once. And although the day was a day of fasting in the presence of beauty, I did not sleep that night until I had written down, as well as I could remember, what I had read.
At that time when the memory of P'an-ku, the first man, was still green, there was in the kingdom of Hai-fu a great city perched aloft upon a mountainside whose peaks reached into celestial heights. The people of this kingdom were very brave and very strong and very happy. The king was of the Sun. He had brought to the city where he lived wise men and rich merchants. He had no need of going to war, for his neighbors all knew him as just. They would not have dared to invade his kingdom or cheat his merchants who went out among them. The only conflicts were among the wise men as to what was the chief virtue of mankind, and among the artists as to which was most beautiful, the blossom of the apricot, the petals of the peony, or the sturdy growth of the pine-tree. These conflicts only served to make the people happier, since every wise man had to utter words of wisdom to prove his point, and every artist to paint beautifully the thing of his choice.
Many were the treasures of the kingdom, but the most prized was a bronze bell that had been cast by him who was called the "greatest of the Kau-shih." This bell hung higher than all the rest of the city in the tower which had stood there, so it was believed, from the time of P'an-ku. The sun lighted it up from the moment it rose above the plain in the east until it sank in the west. It rang out the hours and the quarters. And whenever it was heard, joy seemed to descend upon the people of the kingdom, and they lifted their heads to listen, and their eyes would be upon the far blue spaces where dwells the Dragon of the Air, he who makes blessed the lives of all the people of earth.
But one day the king in a moment of weariness, desired that there should be a contest among the bell-makers, that he might discover one whose bell should be even more musical than this one of the Kau-shih. Word went forth. It brought to the heart of Yen-huan, the youngest bell-maker in the kingdom, great hope. He had lived in the forests and he had lived upon the plains. He had listened to the rushing waters as they leaped down the sides of the mountain. In his sleep at night he had heard the booming of the waves upon distant shores. And out of all these sounds he had conceived the note of a bell which, he believed, was the most beautiful that had ever been heard.
When the day came for the contest, he saw his bell hung, and waited with rapture to be called the greatest bell-maker of the kingdom. But it was not to be. His ears alone, it seemed, caught the beauty of the tones that rang forth. All the others and the king, too, found them too gentle or too loud, too high or too low. For they were not like the tones to which the people of the kingdom had grown used.
Then Yen-huan went forth alone from the city, leaving his bell to the mercy of the people, who gave it no thought whatever. As he went down the side of the mountain, a cold wind went with him and drove him along into the kingdom of a neighbor. Through this, too, he passed, and after him flew bats and evil birds, for he had breathed curses as he passed out into an unknown world. The curses were against the king and the kingdom and the unhearing people.
Years after, when the king had grown old, he wished to have a still greater bell to hang in the tower of P'an-ku. He sent out his messengers into all the neighboring kingdoms to proclaim that to him who should make the great bell would be given the hand of his daughter and a palace upon the mountain-side.
All the bell-makers of the world came to Hai-fu. For four days the birds flew to cover and the winds kept quiet and the waterfalls hushed their music while the bell-makers rang their bells and those who were to judge sat silent, fanning themselves and listening.
On the fifth day there was consternation, for no one dared to say which bell was most beautiful. The wise men came to the king to warn him that to give honor to the bell-maker who came from the kingdom on the east would be to offend the ruler of the country on the west; and to choose the bell from among those who came from the north kingdom would be to make an enemy of the king whose land lay on the south. But, worst of all, to choose the bell of the Kau-shih would be to anger all the neighboring kingdoms. By his desire for a new thing, the wise men pointed out, the king had made it impossible to keep on peaceful terms with his neighbors. There was gloom in the council-room and in the hearts of the wise.
Suddenly a shout went up from the street outside. A peasant had come into the city with news of a great procession on its way up the mountain-side. The king, gladdened, went to greet the new-comer, who was preceded by a guard of soldiers dressed more gorgeously than any who had ever come into the city. They accompanied a chariot bearing the bell. Its shape could be discerned under the cloth of moon-colored velvet. White elephants dragging the chariot were harnessed with silver. Upon a camel, the trappings of which had in them all the colors of the night, rode the bell-maker himself. His face was hidden in the hood of a white cloak of a kind that no one in the city had ever seen before.
When the camel had knelt and he had alighted, the stranger bowed low to the king, who gave the command that the bell should be hung at once. At sunset all the people of the city thronged into the narrow streets that led toward the tower of P'an-ku. There was no merriment. Although the sun had not yet set, the dusk was creeping stealthily up from the valley, carried along by a chill wind. The crowd shivered and waited impatiently.
As the first note of the bell rang out, it seemed to lift the hearts of all who listened in an appeal that they could not understand. The second note was higher and clearer, and the soundless appeal in the hearts of the crowd rose with it, bursting into tears that could never be shed. And then—they thanked their gods for it—the third note released them a little from the spell, but they knew they were still enthralled, and every man among them prayed for the fourth note to ring out. Yet when it came, they wished, in despair, to throw themselves upon the earth. But they no longer had the strength to move. This was the striking of the first quarter of the hour.
The crowd looked each man at the other, wondering if he, too, had felt the torment of those sounds. Yet not one had the courage to ask. And although they wished to go, they stood waiting.
The first note of the second quarter was that one which they had just heard. It prostrated their souls and bowed their heads. But it was not so fearful as the one which followed; for that was like a question which no man can answer. The third note struck; it made them ashamed; they did not know why. The fourth made them want to hide their shame.
In the silence that followed the king dared not look at his daughter, although he could hear her crying as she sat there on her little throne beside him. She had nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of; so she cried for no reason at all except for the weight that the bell had dropped upon her spirit. In a moment she would have been happy again had not the first note of the third quarter struck.
There was something very sweet in its sadness, like the grief that follows a forbidden joy. The throng of people listening took breath in self-pity. How much more they were losing by their virtues than they had ever lost by the fair vice of their youth!
The second note of the third quarter was a chain upon their limbs; and the desire of the flesh which the bell had just wakened became lust of the spirit. They looked, each one and all of them, toward the king's daughter. But she fled in fear that she could not understand.
The third note struck. No one in the crowd heard it, so deep had each one entered into himself on the trail of the Tiger that was stirring. The fourth note was a blessing upon all that was evil.
In the silence that fell before the last quarter struck they stood bound. No one of them cared any longer what his neighbor might think or say. Was not each man alone in his struggle? So it came that none of them heard the four strokes of the last quarter except the king's daughter, who had run far up the mountain-side beyond the tower of P'an-ku.
But the stroke of the hour! That was heard all over the kingdom. The women stayed their work in the fields. The shepherds saw the sun set in anger. The old men prayed in their hearts for the generations that were to come. The children cried bitterly and could not be comforted. The crowds in the city listened to the strokes in terror that the end had come. Life had been cut in two by the bell that a. stranger had brought.
When the last echo had died away, night had fallen. The king once more called his wise men to make a decision. But no one wanted to be the first to speak. At last there arose one who was famous for his upright life, the only man there who was not afraid.
"Let us hang up once more in the tower of P'an-ku the bell of the Kau-shih," he said, "and send our apologies to all the kingdoms. Let the bell we have just heard be delivered to its maker before midnight. And let him be set upon his homeward journey."
But the other wise men were afraid of giving offense. The clamor of their voices, as they went again and again over the dangers from the north and the south, the east and the west, soon drowned the memory of those moments when they had suffered and sinned in thought. And so, just before midnight, the king went out below the tower of P'an-ku, and in the light of the lanterns he told the people that he was giving his daughter's hand and the honor of being bell-maker of the kingdom to the unknown, the one who had come that day.
As the king went forward toward the bell-maker, the first stroke of midnight rang out upon the dark spaces above the tower of P'an-ku. He felt overcome with sadness. He could not move. But with each stroke the bell-maker came a stride nearer to the king. As the last of the fearful notes dropped heavily upon the night, he threw back the white hood of his cloak and lifted his face.
It was old and wrinkled. He let the lanterns light it up. But there was no outcry of recognition. The crowd did not know him. They did not acclaim Yen-huan. When the king asked his name, he said:
"Call me 'the Bell-maker of Hai-fu.' That will be name enough for one who has the honor of having his bell in the tower of P'an-ku and the hand of your daughter in marriage."
The king shuddered. He did not wish to give his daughter to one so old and wrinkled. Yet it had to be done, and he sent his messengers for her. She was not to be found.
Until now time had passed very lightly over this kingdom, but from the moment when Yen-huan hung his bell in the tower over the city, everything seemed to change. Whenever the quarters struck, the people of the kingdom would pause to listen. And they felt each time, as they had at first, weakness and desire and shame. A great lassitude crept into the very heart of the king himself. He no longer rejoiced in the strength and the bravery and the happiness of his people. It was as though the bell, each time it rang out, sucked up into its bronze cavern a little more of the virtue of the kingdom.
A spell had been cast upon them. They forgot what they had formerly honored. They no longer taught their children to reverence the past, to work hard, to observe thrift, and to be just to their neighbors. When a cause was to be decided, the king gave his verdict to that man he liked rather than to the man who was right. In the old days the people had lifted their faces whenever the bell in the tower of P'an-ku called to them that time was passing; they had paused in the joy of the moment, and their eyes had followed the path of the Dragon of the Air. But now when the note of the bell rang out, they bowed their heads and hurried each upon his own path in the fear that death would come upon them before they could gain all the pleasure that life might hold.
As I had unrolled the painting that morning in the temple I had seen this second picture of the city. It was full of shadows, and the people were creeping about, scurrying like tiny beasts across streets that were no longer radiant, but had become crevasses of danger. Mist now hung about the snow-capped peak of the mountain. From the tower of P'an-ku shadows descended upon the roofs of the city. They were drenched, as with the tears of the gods.
The story in the script that I was reading ran on. It told of the gradual weakening of the whole people, as though the sounds of the bell were poison, but poison that they cherished. Yen-huan was given more honor than the king, who had become indifferent to all things except soft and seductive beauty, and had quite forgotten Yang-gui-fe, his daughter, who, unknown to him, had taken refuge in a convent, where she spent her days in tears, holding her little hands over her ears, that even the echo of the bell might not reach her.
The border-countries, no longer afraid of offending a sense of justice and hearing how wickedness had taken the city by its throat, began to trespass upon the outermost parts of the kingdom. Then the wise men came to the king and begged him to call the people to defend their land against their neighbors. But the king only laughed.
What I had seen in the third part of the painting was now described: the mountain-side riven by lightning; the tower of P'an-ku black as night; thunderous clouds over the forests; and below, in the depths of the gorge, the green eyes of the Tiger, and its grinning fangs; while away into the blue spaces swept the Dragon of Air, tormented as by gnats with the wicked desires and petty hopes of the people. There was only one ray of light, and that flashed above the convent hidden deep in the forest.
On that day, read the script, a great battle was waged. But the battle-ground was within each man and not upon the borders of the country. There the trespassers had pitched their tents, waiting for the storm to pass that they might march upon the city and fling out their flag from the tower of P'an-ku. The storm hung above the many-colored roofs of the City of the Sun, and the thunders shook the foundations of rock. The people were afraid, for in the midst of it all, the bell in the tower rang out the quarters of what they believed would be their last hour.
But, creeping along the rain-soaked path of the forest, came Yang-gui-fe, the daughter of the king. In her hand she carried a knife wrapped in silk. No one saw her when she entered the city, for all were hiding. Groans and curses came out of every house, and from the king's palace, lamentation; for the king was dying.
The princess made her way through the narrow streets, up and up to the tower of P'an-ku. While the thunders rolled over the top of the mountain and crashed along the rock-bound abysses, she climbed the slender ladder to the hood-like roof wherein hung the bell of Yen-huan. As she reached the top the last quarter was striking. The sound deafened her and terrified her. Looking down, she saw the crouching Tiger of the Gorge. It seemed waiting to spring at her. In terror she lifted her head; her eyes rested upon the Dragon of the Air, who had turned his mighty gaze upon her as he fled on the path of the winds.
Then she took her knife and she cut the rope that held the bell. Before it could strike the first note of the hour it had dropped with a tremendous noise into the well at the bottom of the tower. The waters hissed and steamed as though the bell had been fire.
The people, hearing the noise, believed that the end of the world had come. They rushed out of their houses and fell upon their knees. Had they looked down at that moment upon the earth, the battle would have been lost, for the Tiger could then have sprung upon them. But Yang-gui-fe cried out; they raised their heads and looked, as in the days of old, toward the tower of P'an-ku and toward the starry spaces beyond. They saw at the same moment the princess and the Dragon of the Air, who felt their eager eyes upon him. He turned once more to do battle, and the Tiger of the Gorge crept down and down into the caverns of the earth.
The storm ceased. The little princess came down the slender ladder and went to pray by the side of her father. The people of the kingdom all looked at one another as though they had wakened from a strange sleep. The rains had washed clean the colored tiles of the roof. The noonday sun was filling all the crevices with radiance. The empty belfry of the tower told the story. With a great shout, they turned upon the palace of Yen-huan to destroy him.
He heard them coming. In fear he hurried to the inmost room, which was at the very bottom of his palace. Here, behind a dusty mound, he hid himself. But one after another the palace doors were torn open, until finally the people reached him. Then, as they would have torn him limb from limb, the man who had brought death upon the kingdom and upon the king, the man who had wakened them to evil and to shame, they fell one after the other upon the mound behind which he was hiding.
Strange sounds issued forth. To one it seemed that he was hearing all the birds of the forest, and hate died out of him; to another it sounded like a waterfall in the home of his childhood, and tears of pity sprang to his eyes; to the third it was the sweet sighing of spring in the branches, and his heart beat fast.
Yen-huan himself heard the booming of the waves of an unseen ocean. He threw himself down and tore away from the mound its dust-covered wrappings; it was a bell, the bell he had made of his hopes, the bell whose notes might have given courage to a whole world had it been hung in the tower of P'an-ku. And he, too, wept, and his wrinkled face smoothed out until those who had come to seize him recognized the friend of their youth, the one whose voice, as it had cried out in his work, they had not heeded. They took the bell and carried it into the midst of the crowd that was still surging about the palace. And then, with a mighty rush, they carried it up to that place above the city where had rung the knell of their virtue. They fastened it high in the tower of P'an-ku.
So sweet was its sound that the people could not breathe, knowing that this mountain was but a strand of mist in the reality of space, the radiance of which even now was driving back the shadows of the gorge and sweeping out the hearts of the people.
Yen-huan stood beneath the tower, his face full of the light of youth. Once more he heard the singing of birds and the plashing of cascades and the winds of summer and the mighty echoes of the ocean. The princess, coming up the path to the tower of P'an-ku, slipped her hand into his as a sign that she would keep the promise her father had made. As they stood there they saw, winding away from the city, a strange cortege; it was returning to the place where Yen-huan had passed the days of his manhood, making the bell of his revenge. The white elephants were harnessed with silver. The camel had trappings of the color of the night. But he strode along unmounted, passing with the sunset over the borders of the country into the hidden kingdom of hate.
When I rose from my reading, the sunset light filled this room of the temple. Once more I unrolled the painting. This time, as I looked at it, the radiant city at the beginning and the shining city at the end were like two mountain peaks bathed in color, while the storm and the shadowed conflict were like a mighty gorge of evil.
"Through which we must all pass," said the wrinkled old man, who had come once more to my side.Again he offered me tea in the little jade cup, and I went out of the temple strengthened. I had looked deep within the soul of an artist many centuries dead. But so great had he been that he gave me his colors to carry with me. Or perhaps I should say that his colors had torn from my eyes a veil, and left me free to look now upon this mountain where stood the temple, as I had been looking upon that one he had painted.
The day before, as we had climbed up its side, I had been oppressed by its bleakness, by the solid gray of its rocks. Now as I looked, everywhere I saw colors as mystical as those of the Chinese painter whose name no one knows.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.