Poets and painters say that landscape controls the mood of a people, and there were times in China when I almost agreed. Northern China, for instance, had its ancient grandeur. Clouds of dust blew in off the prairies, painting Ming turrets and Stalinist highrises a single grim mustard color. Locust trees like wads of thorn studded the gullies, and narrow roads snaked through the bluffs, with bicycles and donkey carts plodding below a sky that was dark and folded like stone. Landscape that stark had suggested an epic, the world of Guan Yu or Tiananmen, where final conflicts were fought. A year later, however, I was a thousand miles south, and Canton could have been another world. Here endless sunshine met endless rain above gray dirt from the mouth of the Pearl River, and everything seemed to flourish. There was a rainbow of flowers, and even a dozen kinds of butterflies.
I tried to count them. A white kind, like our cabbage butterfly, flew so low that it seemed to be strolling along the sidewalk. A middle-sized orange thing had the pointed edges which you expect from a leaf. One swallowtail was big and black and yellow like its American cousin, but another had panes of iridescent green. The tint was bright and perfect, the intense color of a nightlight which stands in the hall and reminds small children of the land before birth.
Land has a mystical importance in China, and this dirt, thick and black and loose, was as kind as California. Delicate Norfolk pines without a thorn or a spike grew three stories high by the overpasses. Cocoa plants stacked themselves like jointed toys in the yard, and people cut down banana trees because the fruit would ripen and then just hang on the bough, looking untidy.
It was not always like this. Time is long, and the butterfly cannot imagine that the oak was once a nut; but there was a time when this delta hardly flourished, and the people were hungry. In fact, before mere history began, they were starving, and the tears of dying babies moved even Heaven, the way a flood may jostle the biggest lump of granite.
So the gods took measures. They sent down five magical beasts, who are commonly painted as goats and described as 'rams'. Indeed, they seem to have become divinities themselves, and are known as the Five Rams. Sometimes these rams carry five angels, the usual young ladies with beads in their hair and flowing skirts; sometimes the rams manage to steer themselves. Everyone agrees, however, that each celestial mouth carried a single head of grain.
What kind of grain? There are at least two different opinions. You see, the Chinese word 'rice' has the same meaning as the old English term, 'corn'. That is, 'rice' means 'grain', grain of any type; so some people say the Five Rams brought rice, while other folk insist that the rams brought a variety of grains, including wheat, rice, beans, and 'two kinds of millet', one of which may have been sorghum. Either way, the Five Rams guaranteed that their gift had the power to feed the human race, and banish hunger forever. No one, they said, need ever be hungry again.
This resolution inspired most of my students. In the early nineteen-nineties I was teaching English in a military school in Canton, and I kept looking for topics which could get my students to enjoy writing. I had seen statues of the rams in the park and in front of the department store, so I asked each member of my composition class to tell me the story. They did so with enthusiasm, relating the story to their ancient history and their sense of national destiny. Indeed, only one student had a misgiving of any kind. She wrote 'that the goats were very kind, but has it come true yet? Perhaps it will later.'
We can hope. In the classroom, however, I read over the the compositions as they came to the front, and I worried over more basic questions. Each student had told the same story, but the details were different in each one. For instance, what about those celestials? Were they goats, or were they rams? Did they carry angels, or did they come alone? And exactly which seeds did they bring?
It all goes back to Confucius. You see, Confucious lived in the fifth century BC, at a time when the state was deteriorating but hardly dead. Eager to hold society together, he emphasized family and prosperity, so he wrote that "Gods and ghosts are real, and should be respected with the appropriate rites; however, the wise man avoids speculation," particularily about divinities. Keeping this world alive, Confucious said, was more important than any kind of theology .
Confucious was not the first nor the last scholar to resist a flood. In fact, anarchy and famine did come, for a time, and when China reassembled itself, three hundred years later, the new leaders of the Han Dynasty needed a legal and moral code to keep their people out of trouble. Therefore they ordered their scholars to study and teach the works of Confucious, making his philosophy into the state religion. Consequently, every line in his brief book, 'The Analects', would creat or abort entire philosophies and lines of thought. This meant that no decent Chinese scholar would do what Homer had done for Greece, and write a standard version of the ancient myths. After thousands of years, the gods of the Chinese pantheon, from the woman who created mankind to the Five Rams, were still known only from folktales, told from parents to children and changing a little in every ear. Goats or rams? Alone, or with angels? It depends on who is doing the telling.
That should have been the end of the story, and yet for me, somehow, it was not. You see, that year I met another English teacher, an American named Scott Tang. Scott's parents had come from Canton, back in the thirties, a generation before the Communists had taken over China. We got to talking, and I asked him about the different details of the story. "Oh, you don't know the half of it, Dan!" he told me. He explained that he had heard an older version of this same story. It seems that "At the end, you see, the farmers wad the rice into these little balls in order to save it for later. The thing is, that shows no faith, so the rice jumps off the table and escapes, saying that every year they'll have to work hard before they can eat..."
Oh, of course, I had to realize; how true and universal. The story of the Five Rams was explaining, in its own way, what the Book of Genesis did for the West. In the Chinese story, lack of faith condemns mankind to suffer in the fields. In the Bible, because Adam eats the forbidden apple, he is expelled from the land of plenty and told that that he will have to water the crop 'with the sweat of his brow.' Before the Industrial Revolution most of mankind lived within six weeks of starvation, and this was the central fact of all human life. Unfortunately, the benefits of technology have yet to reach a large part of mankind. In the north I had traveled through villages where people lived in raw earth holes and dreamed of eating meat every day. They were still living in the world from which the rice had escaped.
Scott had transformed "The Five Rams" for me. Originally I was puzzled by the contradictory details; now I was astonished by the way the story had been cut, removing the original moral, as if Adam and Eve had eaten the apple and then went on living in the Garden of Eden anyway. How did this happen? On the one hand, I knew that many Chinese are afraid of having foreigners judge their culture. Out of national pride, many Chinese will hide the most basic facts about their world from any outsider who cannot prove that he alreadly knows them. In other words, my students might have been whitewashing the story for me.
On the other hand, the Chinese Communist Party has always had a very dim view of traditional culture. During the sixties millions of teenage 'Red Guards' had poured through China. In a fever to erase the 'currupt and fuedal' past, they had torn down temples, burned books, and beaten scholars to death in the largest plazas they could find; and what literature they had left emphasized 'class struggle', with heroic rebels and brutal aristocrats. Since then the regime had mellowed, but hardly become sentimental; instead, the present government emphasizes practical matters, as well as the ideal future which science should bring. Therefore, it was possible that the story had been edited, and that my students had actually never heard the older, complete version. China is a poor place to begin the study of China.
It is, however, the best place to conclude it; and over the next few months I talked to many Chinese about this. Most were surprised to learn that the story of The Five Rams had many versions, let alone that the moral had been forgotten. Upon discovery, a few claimed that all myths should change as society changes, and the point seemed hard to argue; after all, the American media has long done the same thing.
Any person who opens the Brothers Grimm will read about 'thieving' Jews, and Gypsies who 'steal babies', as well as the horrible executions which are meted out to 'witches'. Now you can see these same stories adapted to the screen, where the villains are helpfully deracine and merely skedaddle at the end. Cultures do change, and sometimes the changes are positive.
At the same time, it might be honest to say the 'Disney Versions' have not simply overwhelmed our culture, popular as they are, but also diversified it. After all, the older views are still in print, and sometimes published; so I can go to the library and find each Western myth interpreted a hundred different ways, from Fundamentalist to 'Marxist Feminist Deconstructionist'. This permits me to make my own choices, while Chinese have their choices made for them.
Indeed, images of the Five Rams stand above a dozen intersections, and at the center of Canton's biggest park; but I could have stayed in the Middle Kingdom for ten years before I learned why the myth had been created, and what it was meant to explain.
Copyright 1997 Dan Willmore
Return to willmore.net