Selected Modern Chinese Essays: The Dragon

◎ Ba Jin

I often have dreams, especially on a moonless and starless dark night. Once I dreamed of a dragon.

I traveled across a remote mountain and a large swamp, armed with only a stick, with which I cleared away brambles and thorns and fought jackals and wolves. It also helped me in climbing the high mountain and crossing the marshland. And the straw sandals I wore enabled me to wade through the mud without getting my feet stuck in it.

On a vast expanse of marsh, I came across a monster. He had two horns on his head, a moustache on his upper lip and two wide open round eyes glowing like two lanterns. Being sunk deep in the mire, he had only his head exposed above the surface, a head at least thrice the size of that of a human.

As I walked near to the marsh to view the monster with curiosity, he suddenly uttered in the human language to prevent me from proceeding,

“What’s your name?Where are you going?Why did you come here?”

“I’m a nameless person, ”I replied proudly, thinking it unnecessary to treat a monster with courtesy. “I’m seeking for one thing. All I do is to break through brambles and briers in search of my way.”

“No, you shouldn’t because a fiery mountain ahead is spurting flames far and wide and killing lots of people.”

“I don’t care. I’m ready to go through the fire for my objective.”

“No, you shouldn’t. There’s an ocean ahead of you. You can’t cross the vast expanse of its foamy waters without a ship.”

“I’m not afraid. I can go through the waters in my straw sandals. To achieve my aim, I’m willing to run the risk of getting drowned.”

“No, you can’t go forward because you’ll run into man-eating wild beasts.”

“I’ll use my stick to strike at them. To achieve my aim, I’m ready to engage in a desperate struggle with them.”

The monster’s lantern-like eyes gave out a fiery light. Two long tentacles suddenly stretched out of his nostrils. With his mouth wide open, he showed a complete set of steely gleaming teeth. Then a sudden howl he gave sent the green leaves falling off the nearby tress and the muddy water bubbling and foaming.

“You mulish guy, what the hell are you seeking?”the monster demanded in a stern voice.

“I’m seeking life.”

“Life?Haven’t you already got your life?”

“I want a life that is full and substantial.”

“I don’t understand what you mean, ”he shook his head.

“I’m living a worthless life. I engage in empty talk all day long, not knowing what to do to help the wretched of the earth. I don’t give food to those who are going hungry. I don’t give clothing to those who are suffering from cold. I don’t dry tears on the faces of those who are weeping. I eat, I talk, I sleep. I’m idling away my time listlessly. Do you think that, being a man like this, I still have life?To me, one is as good as dead if his life isn’t full and substantial.”

The monster, after a moment of pondering, continued shaking his head, “I’m afraid you’ll never get what you’re chasing after. Most probably what you’re seeking for doesn’t exist in this world at all.”

Noticing a trace of sympathy in his ugly face, I replied,

“It does exist. I’ve read about it in books.”

“You idiot!Fancy you believing books!”

“Yes, I believe them. They tell the truth in clear terms.”

The monster sighed shaking his head, “You mule, I advise you to turn back immediately. You don’t know what is waiting in ambush for you ahead.”

“Yes, I know, but I still want to go ahead.”

“You should think it over.”

“Why are you going to all lengths to stop me from going ahead?We’re not acquainted with each other. I don’t even know your name. Now, what name, please!”

“I haven’t been called by my name for a long time. I’ve almost forgotten my own name. Now, let me tell you, I’m a dragon. I sure am.”

I stared at his bizarre face in astonishment.

“As a dragon, how come you’re stuck in the mire?”I asked with puzzlement. “As far as I know, being king of the water, a dragon should live in the sea. And why don’t you go up to the heavens by taking advantage of a thunder-storm?”A loud crash of thunder had just prompted the last question. The dragon’s chest, belly and tail were covered in dark brown mud. The muddy water was bubbling like it was boiling and emitting an awful smell all the time.

The dragon was silent and seemed to be trying desperately to extricate himself, but to no avail because the heavy mud had his whole body glued, buried under and weighed down. He opened his mouth to utter a woeful howl, two big teardrops rolling down his cheeks.

He was crying!As I fearfully looked at his head, I found it didn’t at all look like that of a dragon as I had seen in pictures, and therefore suspected him to be a fake.

“Like you, I’ve come here to seek a full and substantial life, ”he restrained his tears and began to tell his own story. That was totally beyond my expectation. What a big surprise!

“Like you, I hate to idle away my time listlessly. I hate to pursue my personal happiness at the expense of other aquatic animals. That’s why I’ve abandoned my Dragon King’s Palace and quit the seas so as to pursue what you call a full and substantial life. I hate to live solely for my own benefit. I’ve made up my mind to do something for the benefit of my own kind. Up in the skies, I don’t like to keep company with the drifting colourful clouds all day long. Nor do I like to rule over other aquatic animals. Now that I’ve fallen on earth, I want to travel across remote mountains and swamps in search of what I’ve seen in my dreams, that is, a full and bright life. But I’ve ended up being bogged down in a quagmire and unable to extricate myself.”He kept his mouth shut, several blood-red teardrops starting from his lantern-like eyes.

“You see, I’m stuck in the mud and immovable. I can no longer endure it. I would rather die!”Turning round his head, he saw nothing but a vast expanse of mud. Then, as he cried piteously, blood-like tears again coursed down his face. He said, “But I mustn’t die. No, I shouldn’t. I’ve been lying here for tens of thousands of years.”

My heart ached with sympathy and throbbed with fright. Tens of thousands of years!What a long time!How did he manage to drag out the miserable existence?A shiver came upon me. Nevertheless, I put to him one more question. “How did you get stuck in the mire?”

“Don’t ask me. You’ll soon understand, young mule.”He suddenly looked at me with pity as if he had predicted that a misfortune was befalling me.

I gave no reply. He continued, “I wanted to break up the old order established by God. I wanted to change the arrangement made by God. I tried to strive for things denied me by God. I wanted to create a new condition. That’s why I was punished by God. To seek a full and substantial life, I flew over fiery mountains, fought wild beasts, abandoned the honorary title of King of the Water and experienced untold hardships. But I’m still under God’s thumb. I’ve been banished to this swamp to be exposed to the sun, rain, wind and thunder. My head and face are weatherbeaten and I look like a freak. But I still have the same heart as before. It’s not a bit changed.”

“Then why do you stop me from going ahead to seek life?”

“Young mule, I don’t want to see you get into trouble too. You’re a mortal. You can’t live to ten thousand. You’ll die, you’ll die very soon. You’ll gain nothing and even lose all that you have now.”

“I’m not afraid of death. Without a full and substantial life, I would rather die. I don’t want to follow your example by enduring the torment in the mire for tens of thousands of years. I wonder what it is that has made you so reluctant to part with the kind of life you’re living.”

“Young man, you don’t understand. I don’t want to die. I want to live long. I’m looking forward to a day when I can extricate myself from the mire and fly to the skies by taking advantage of a thunder-storm. Then I can continue to seek a full and substantial life. As long as my heart beats, there is my aspiration. I’ll keep seeking until I’ve fulfilled my expectations.”

As he was talking, tears had stopped flowing and pain on his face had given place to courage and excitement. He asked me with self-assurance, “Do you still want to go ahead?”

“Yes, I do, ”I answered resolutely and yet enthusiastically. “Fiery mountains, rolling seas and wild beasts may be awaiting me out there, but I don’t care.”

The dragon burst out laughing. But hardly had his peal of laughter died away when a thunderbolt from the clear sky plunged all around me into darkness. And I even could not see the fingers when I stretched out my hand. Just then I heard a terrific noise shooting up into the sky from the ground and, meanwhile, the splashing of muddy water. I felt the earth under my feet quaking and my head swimming.

The day was dawning. My eyes were extremely bright. The swamp was nowhere to be found. Lying in front of me was a vast expanse of grassland with its fresh green studded with reddish white flowers. Looking up at the sky, I caught a glimpse of the blackish dragon silhouetted dimly against the azure sky, his scales and shell being as jet-black as ever.