Weng Chu, a respected astronomer, geographer, and polymath of the middle period of the Southern Song dynasty was investigating a series of unusual claims originating from the county of Tienzheng near the city of Yingtian. The stories had been of some concern to the regional government, which took the accounts as inauspicious omens.
First hearing the reports at the Imperial Conference on the Twenty-Eight Constellations and Astrological Divination, in the capital of Jiangning, Weng was intrigued. The Neo-Confucian scholar-official from Tienzheng, who delivered the presentation, had learned of the matter second and third hand through diviners, which the empirically minded and inductive Weng regarded as unreliable. One thing that stood out, though, was that the two accounts reportedly first came from poor peasants, who could neither read nor write. Weng, however, was not inclined to dismiss the anecdotes on the basis of class or illiteracy, for he was only a generation removed from a family line of landless tenant farmers, having risen thanks to his gifts of observation and recall, which allowed him to easily pass the difficult civil service examinations.
When the representative from Tienzheng announced that the local government sought an empirical investigator, Weng Chu volunteered for the commission. After three months of preparation and exchanges of letters with local and central authorities and administrators, he finally arrived in the provincial county, with a team of twenty personally selected assistant researchers and archivists.
That hot, humid summer, Weng was startled by the extreme poverty, by contemporary Southern Song standards, of the tenant farmers. They were overburdened with land taxes and paying more than half of their rice and wheat harvests to local landlords. Some of the farmers even dismantled their small mud-brick and thatch dwellings, trying to sell the wooden support beams to rural merchants. Weng and his assistants canvassed the county for two months by horse and carriage, making geographic observations and population charts and conducting interviews with almost four-hundred astrologists, shamans, and poor peasants, who were willing to tell their stories to the visitors from Jiangning. The local scholar-officials and the wealthy landed gentry, on the other hand, were reluctant to participate for fear of reputation damage and bad luck. The merchants were avoided because of their eagerness to fictionalize for the prize of bronze coins and banknotes.
Beginning with the astrologists and the shamans, Weng and the team collated their hand- and brush-written findings and assessments. The conclusions drawn were that the forty-nine accounts were faulty, diverging vastly in details, with an overgrowth of fantastical interpretations and leaps of imagination. By contrast, the three-hundred and twelve separate transcribed accounts after the testimonies of the poor peasants, while lacking in sophistication and diction, had a core strength. Regardless of the locations in Tienzheng and the more or less self-contained tenant communities, the poor peasants' narratives, once cleared of superstitious elements, were coherent and rich in mundane descriptions details, settings, and sequences.
As a scion of a poor peasant line, Weng could appreciate that the life situation of the struggling, hardy people, though uninformed of much in the Southern Song empire and the other domains of Zhongguo, made them better attuned to everyday realities and the cycles of the seasons, unlike the astrologists and the shamans who translated mundane life into metaphysical terms.
Weng finished directing the project in four months, delivering printed copies of three thick fascicles of formal expositions, figures, maps, analyses, and appendices, under his primary authorship, to the branches of the Imperial Research Institute in Tienzheng and Jiangning. But after the turning of a lunar year, there was a rotation in imperial administration, and a group of policymakers with strongly negative attitudes toward the poor peasant born ordered the scholar and his colleagues to burn all their documents, notes, and transcripts or accept torture and execution for emboldening and stirring unpopular moods among ignorant people. The delivered fascicles, whose accomplishment Weng had worked so hard on to supervise and organize, disappeared, and the capital officially forbade him from communicating with or visiting the residents of Tienzheng.
The experience was disheartening. Weng's achievements, prestige, and recognition were nothing before the current bureaucracy. In some consolation, nevertheless, there were repeated precedents of such misfortunes in past and recent history. Time would bring winds of change, Weng believed, and he devoted himself to his other commissions, studies, and reflections.
Half a century later, when he passed away at the age of ninety-one, his daughter and literary executor Chumeng found a compilation of her late father's final manuscript and a note for its posthumous publication. She was only three when he, then thirty-seven, had told her an amazing, vivid story about his visit to meet the poor farmers of Tienzheng, but she never forgot the episode. She opened the work, looked at the table of contents, and turned to the first writing in the third part titled “Entertaining Sketches and Tales from around the Country.”
Cicadas were singing in the summer days in Tienzheng county. Over several months in the ninth year of Emperor Zhao Kuo, there had been events that poor farmers in the region were regularly telling astrologists and shamans about. The accounts were so unique that the hearers could not make sense of them without invoking magic. On close, careful inspection, however, there was nothing inexplicable about the tenant farmers' sayings. Sifted of presupposed mysteries, like stones from grains before milling, what happened was obvious.
Tienzheng had been explored by Xing Ren, people from the living points of light. The explorers were never personally seen, only their “sky oysters,” as the poor-peasants called them, “smooth, shiny” vessels that gleamed like “mirrors” and whose mechanisms and power source were so advanced as to make the greatest engineers of the Southern Song resemble mere children. What was apparent from the accounts was that the vessels could harness the material energy force of Chi to propel and navigate their flight through the skies and over the lands of Tienzheng. No less than five unique vessels, each bearing distinctive and recognizable inscriptions shaped like “circles and lines,” were witnessed in the early dusk and the late night hours. The accounts were striking in their consistency across the different localities of the county, even in the remotest regions where the communities had little to no contact with other farming populations.
Presumably, the Xing Ren did not want to directly interact with our people of the jade globe, and, confining their expeditions to after sundown, had surely discerned we were diurnal creatures, industrious by day and resting by night. Those few inhabitants, actually several hundred in total, who worked at night or rose before dusk, enjoyed prolonged opportunities to witness the “sky oysters.” Their described movements were rather like those of imperial land and ocean surveyors.
The vessels,“shining like pearls at night,” would traverse regularly scheduled courses in specific vicinities, sometimes“floating like wagtails” above ground, with “white torch fire” and “moving bamboo sticks,” siphons of some kind, that emerged from the “underbelly of the oyster” and “swallowed up” sand, stones, and plants. As far as anyone knew, none of the farmers' crops were affected. Apparently, the Xing Ren had come to investigate those parts of our world that were untouched by human hands. No one ever saw or knew of any animals that were taken, so the explorers were arguably compassionate and ethical and did not want to inflict harm on animate beings.
Only two people, a peasant husband and wife, were known to have made contact with one of the “sky oysters.” The vessel was in a glade at night, when the young man and the young woman were out collecting baskets of crickets and frogs for food. Understandably, the strange sight “glowing like moonlight” initially terrified them, and they ran away. But from a distance, they saw it did not move for a long while. The man threw a stone at it, and nothing happened. And then the two cautiously approached what they found.
The vessel was “as big as a little temple,” and it was “making a sound like birdsong.” The pair, holding sticks, got nearer and saw the line-and-circle inscription on the exterior. They prodded the vessel, and again, nothing happened. The woman, who was much bolder than the man, put her hands on the “shell.” It was “solid like a lizhi seed” but parts of it had a membrane that “felt like not-wet river water,” indicating that the construction material was made of unknown physical substances and that the Chi field around it had become dysfunctional yet was still active. The “birdsong” continued all the while, repeating without change, and then the two ran off to tell their shaman. But when the three went to the glade at daybreak, the vessel was gone, leaving only a “deep, wide pit and walls of sand” where the “sky oyster” had fallen and lain during the night. The shaman could only imagine that a spirit was at play, and she advised the couple not to wander in the area again.
Over subsequent nights, the poor-peasants of Tienzheng sporadically but regularly saw other “sky oysters” in the deep black expanse. As no one ever beheld the Xing Ren face to face, the vessels might possibly have been unmanned, for a people that could harness the material energy force of Chi could, no doubt, use it to manipulate and control their vessels automatically or remotely, like ancient Yan Shi's famed mechanical man or as we do, much more simply, with our windmills and watermills.
The explorers limited their surveys to a third of a lunar year, for after that point, none of the poor-peasants reported any more sightings. As a result, fanciful stories and local legends began to grow through the influence of the astrologists and the shamans, whereupon the Neo-Confucians in Tienzheng sent one of their men to relay two prominent accounts, both based on hearsay, at the Imperial Conference on the Twenty-Eight Constellations and Astrological Divination held in the capital. At the time, tax burdens and official corruption were causing peasant discontent and a few disturbances in some parts of the county.
The regional government commissioned an eminent scholar from Jiangning to investigate the portentous stories. He and his assistants spent one-hundred and eighteen days in the locale, talking to witnesses and verifying findings, and then delivered three copies of three fascicles each of Explanation of the Strange Occurrences Reported in Tienzheng County to the official research institutes of the local and the central governments. Unfortunately, everything was lost after an appointed faction of administrators defensive of the aristocracy and hostile to the poor ordered the destruction of the investigation and all related materials.
After many years, with some slightly more tolerant officials and the approval of Buddhist and Taoist priests, the poor-peasants of Tienzheng built a small wayside statue shaped like an oyster, which they solemnly called Guanyin Weng Sheng, or Sage Weng Who Listens.
Holding the manuscript, Chumeng closed her eyes, softly weeping as childhood memories and scenes of her father passed into her beating heart.
An Extraordinary Thing:
“Yì shì” (異事, 1088) by Shěn Kuò (沈括, 1031–1095)
Translated by Alzo David-West and
checked by Wei Li and Qiumeng Qi
In Jiāyòu-era Yángzhōu City, there was an extremely large oyster many saw at night. Initially, the oyster was observed in the middle of a lake marsh in Tiāncháng City, later turning and entering Pìshè Lake, and later again in the middle of Xīnkāi Lake, for more than ten years, and residents and travelers frequently beheld it.
My friend, who had a book studio over a lake, one night suddenly noticed the oyster, very closely, at first slightly opening its shell, and then light from the middle of its mouth put forth, as if a horizontal single gold thread. In a moment, the shell was suddenly agape, its largeness as if half a xí mat, and in the middle, white light as if silver, with a pearl large as a fist, so bright it could not be properly gazed upon; and for more than 10 lǐ around, each and every forest tree had a shadow, like the dawning sun actually shining, with distant places yet seeing the sky scarlet as wildfire, and suddenly going far, the pearl traveled as if flying, floating and traversing into the middle of the surge, deeply, deeply like the setting sun.
Since antiquity, there has been the legendary pearl of the glowing moon, Yé Mìng Zhū, but the color of the aforesaid pearl was not of the same kind; gleaming, it had tips of flame, almost like sun rays. Cuī Bóyì, a man from Gāoyóu City, once made a glowing-pearl fù verse, and Bóyì may have often seen the pearl, but in recent years, it did not come back again, and no one knew the place it went to.
The timely pearl passed to and fro between the locality of Fánliáng Township, and travelers often journeyed there in wooden boats in order to wait for the pearl to appear, naming a provincial pavilion Wán Zhū, or Charming Pearl.
I decided to translate the eleventh-century short story “Yì shì” by Shěn Kuò (a.k.a. the Chinese da Vinci) after reading the twentieth-century translation “Strange Happenings” in Paul Dong's China's Major Mysteries (2000). My method involved finding a contemporary Chinese edition of the classical text, consulting Chinese-English dictionaries, defining each ideogram, inferring senses and tenses from context, using synonyms for variety and literary effect, and approximating to Shěn's long rhapsodic sentences. (Originally, the narrative has no punctuation.) I showed the combined literal, contextual, and artistic translation to two native speakers of Chinese, who helped me identify deeper meanings and nuances. I then adjusted the translation in four drafts and divided the text into paragraphs. Chinese editions vary. I have tried to avoid anachronism, such as the 1953 word “UFO,” unidentified flying object, found in the version published two decades ago. More faithful to its time, the present translation of “Yì shì” appears here as a premodern folktale instead of a modern work of science fiction.
Author Alzo David-West studied art, literature, and philosophy in the United States and Switzerland. He writes mundane fiction, speculative fiction, and poetry and has published academically in aesthetics, film studies, language, literature, philosophy, politics, and social psychology.
The main character in this story is loosely based on Shen Kuo, who lived in the 11th century, and on his short story translated as "Strange Happenings." See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dream_Pool_Essays