Friday, April 29, 2011

Chapter 1: The Girl in White (1)

In Northern Hunan province, between the towns Yuanling and Taoyuan, there is a piece of paradise on earth. If you take a boat up the Yuan River, from Dongting Lake past the towns of Changde and Taoyuan, past the bend in the river known as the Zhang Family Crook all the way to Shuixi, then leave your boat and climb up the bank, you’ll arrive at a large Daoist temple standing out from a background of mountains clad in peach trees. This is the Temple of the Unseen City, founded by the monk Hou Shixiu.

One spring day, when peach blooms blanketed the land between the river and temple with hues as exquisite as rich brocade, a young woman dressed in white appeared from the depths of the grove. Holding a branch of peach blossoms in her left hand, and the hem of her light silk gown in her right, she carefully circled around places where the trees were dense, slowly making her way to the bank.

Her face was naturally pretty, but when paired with the elegant simplicity of her gown, it acquired an otherworldly quality. With the added effect of the light filtering through the blossoms, which marked her face with soft glowing pearls, she was transformed into a beauty to surpass all others, an innocent nymph freshly emerged from the water.

She strode to the bank and fixed her gaze upon the rapidly flowing water, a delicate smile of satisfaction upon her lips. She abruptly plucked a few blossoms from the branch in her hand and threw them into the heart of the river where they rose and fell with the rapids as they were swiftly carried away. Exhaling softly, her smile faded and a hint of wistful sorrow arose in its place.

At the same moment, a small fishing boat appeared upstream and sped towards her on the rapid current like an arrow in flight. In no time a figure was visible standing at the prow, a monk with a kindly face, about 60 years old, dressed in grey robes. Upon seeing the monk, the delicate smile immediately returned to the girl’s face and she cried out, “Master!” She threw the peach branch to the center of the river, and with a light thrust of her dainty feet her delicately wrought frame sailed across the rapids, white silk trailing in the wind. Both feet lightly touched upon the peach branch where it floated on the water’s surface, and spreading her arms, she leapt again, flying directly to the side of the monk on the boat.

The old monk let out a hearty laugh and said, “How is it that at 17 years of age a young woman can remain so mischievous?”

As he spoke his right hand grabbed hold of the boat’s anchor and he mightily hurled it to the riverbank. Then the monk himself took flight as if loosed from a crossbow. The voluminous sleeves of his robe spread wide and he sailed 25 feet across the river’s surface. Turning his head back from his new position on the bank he watched the girl in white as she also leapt for shore. She appeared to reach the limit of her powers midway and dropped as if about to plunge into the river. The old monk observed her closely as she thrust both arms upwards and again rose to a height of eight or nine feet. Her gown billowed outward in a circle the size of a wagon wheel as she came down beside him, a charming smile on her lips.

“Master, wouldn’t you say my Swallow Piercing the Clouds gongfu has gotten much better?” she asked.

The old monk nodded, smiling, “You’ve improved, but your internal cultivation is still lacking. Should you need to escape an encirclement your attention must remain on your foes. Thus, your leap must be completely second nature, and powerful enough to carry you to safety. And you certainly won’t be able to flap your arms around like that while holding a sword.”

Upon hearing criticism in place of the praise she had expected, the girl in white scrunched her face into a silent sullen pout.

The old monk tensed his brow, allowing his annoyance to show upon his otherwise kindly visage. It would not do to go on indulging her as he had in the past. It was better to take this opportunity, he thought, to scold her, thereby checking her impetuous nature. From now on he would have to be more strict when training her. He gazed at her standing amongst the blossoms fingering the end of her plait, her displeasure showing as a reddening beneath the powder on her cheeks. In her posture and expression, she was the very picture of impulsive innocence, and so reminiscent of her long dead mother that 30 years dissolved before the monk’s eyes like a dream upon waking. Heartache long buried welled up within him. How could he scold her? Before he could restrain himself he called to her in a low voice, “Xialin, come here.”

His voice brought her out of her self-reproach, and turning her head she was surprised to see him trembling ever so slightly, light glinting from his teary eyes. Crying out she rushed to him and knelt, clutching herself to his knees. She begged, “Dear Master, don’t be angry. I’ll never do anything again to disappoint you, I swear.”

The old monk lifted her to her feet. Smiling, he spoke, “Yi Yang Zi is the name of the abbot of the Temple of the Unseen City. He is also one of the three leaders of the Kunlun Mountain sect. Their Spectral Light sword method is unmatched. For the sake of your continued training I have asked that the abbot agree to an exchange. He will teach you the Spectral Light method, and I will teach his disciple my 18 Arahats palm method. My hope is that you will learn it well, and then, for the sake of your parents, you can…” He stopped, his brow knitted in sorrow. His consciousness was submerged beneath images of the past and in this stricken state, he spoke no more.

Seeing her master’s mournful expression, Xialin became greatly concerned. Grabbing his hand, she pleaded, “Master, don’t be upset, I told you I won’t ever do anything again to anger you.”

Before she finished speaking it occurred to her that the monk was on the verge of saying something important, something she needed to know.

“Master, just now you mentioned my parents. It’s been weighing on me for many years that I know so little about them, but you have never been willing to tell me anything. It’s a pity that I don’t even know what they looked like. Please, tell me more, or I’ll die from the pain of it.”

By the time she finished speaking, tears were rolling one after the other down her powdered cheeks.


  1. Great start to this. I love the translation; the sentences flow smoothly, making the reading fast.