Presented here is a retelling of Chinese folktale called Lu-san, Daughter of Heaven from a compilation by Norman Hinsdale Pitman called, A Chinese Wonder Book and Illustrated by Li Ch-T’ang. The goddess known as Kwan-yin is also known as Guanyin and several other names that vary with country and region and its use here follows that of Pitman.
Lu-san, Daughter of Heaven
Out of dirt spring flowers; out of mud comes goodness and along the Great River in rickety, beaten-up boats lived the boat-people. The land all around was owned by landlords who charged high rents for homes. Not everyone could afford such rents and such people constructed rickety boats that they moored to the river bank. The boats served as a home and a means to earn a meagre living catching fish which they ate or if there was surplus, sold in the city nearby. It was a hard and miserable existence living from day to day with no hope of betterment. Although everyone tried hard to maintain their dignity and faith sometimes one or two failed and acted in unworthy ways.
It is in this setting we find a young girl named Lu-san who lived with her parents and four brothers in a boat moored on the Great River. As usual, she had gone to bed hungry with no supper because there was no food to be had. Although she was famished, it was not food that she hungered most for, it was love. At night she cuddled up close to her brothers but they pushed her away so even in sleep she was denied the affection she desperately sought. In her short life all she had known was scorn and hard words from her family and she longed so much for warmth and affection. She could hear the water gently lapping against the boat and usually it sent her to sleep, but not this night.
Her father was a fisherman and all his life had lived on a knife edge barely surviving the grinding poverty while struggling to provide for his family. He had become cold, devoid of emotion and wicked; hardened by the perpetual struggle to survive. He lost his faith, lost his dignity and lost his love for his wife and children and treated them cruelly. He blamed them for his lot in life but little Lu-san he treated worse of all. He had threatened to drown all of his children in the past to be free of the responsibility of bringing them up and it was only his fear of the mandarin who administered the area that prevented him. His wife and his four sons had caught his affliction and they also treated poor Lu-san badly seeking to deflect his wrath from them to her.
It has to be said that her mother was almost as bad as her father. She too was cold, impatient and cruel to the children always joining in when her husband berated them. For some unknown reason both mother and father resented and even hated Lu-san more than her siblings and she always bore the brunt of their wrath. Her parents had no love in them at all and Lu-san yearned to be taken into the arms of someone warm, kind and caring and cuddled like she had seen other parents do with their children. It never happened. Instead of warmth and love she received nothing but hard words and beatings from her own parents who, sinking to undreamed of depths of depravity, had made plans to be rid of their little girl.
Fear in the Night
On this night as she lay in bed below deck after another miserable and lonely day to her horror she heard her parents talking above her on deck.“It will be alright. We have a new mandarin and he will be too busy administering for the emperor and will never find out,” said her father.
“The girl is always in the way – always in the wrong place and our boat is too small and she is growing and eats as much as the boys. We will be better off without her,” replied her mother.
“That is true,” replied her father, “the sooner it is done the better!”
“Yes, but wait until the moon has gone down then do it,” said her mother.
“As soon as the moon has gone down we will do it! Let us sleep until then …” replied her father.
Lu-san’s heart began to beat fast and fear washed over her as she realised they were talking about her. She had no doubt what her parents meant to do and prayed to her goddess for guidance. As soon as she heard them snoring on deck above her she quickly and quietly dressed herself and carefully and silently climbed up the ladder to the deck above. She had but one thought in her mind and that was to escape. She did not take any extra clothes or food because there was none. All she wanted to do was escape as quickly as possible without disturbing her sleeping parents.
Escape in the Dark
The only single thing she took with her along with the rags that clung to her body was a small soapstone statuette of the goddess Kwan-yin. She had found it one morning as she walked on the dried mud along the river shore. It had caught her eye as it stuck out of the dirt like a flower. Throughout her few years of life this had been her sole treasure, the only plaything she had ever possessed that was hers alone. She knew if her mother or father ever found it they would beat her for not handing it to them and take it away and sell it. Therefore, she kept it hidden close to her heart and she cherished this small image of Kwan-yin more than gold or jewels. She had listened to stories from an old priest and learnt that Kwan-yin was the Goddess of Mercy and cared for women and children who could pray to her in troubled times. Lu-san had prayed to her often.
Like a small ghost she flitted silently across the deck and stepped on to the bank. The moon had gone down, the air was cold and she could hear the frogs croaking. Without looking back she ran silently along the shore. Each time she heard someone she hid in the shadows until they had gone and then ran on keeping her nerve. The only time she was afraid was when a large dog ran snarling at her but stopped short to look at her and sniff before running off in the opposite direction.
She had not had time to make a plan but she thought it likely that if her parents found her gone they would be only too glad and not come after her. It was not her parents she feared but some of the boat people who if they caught her might sell her to the city folk as a servant. She had heard tell of some of the dreadful things that happened to those children who they caught and sold. That was why she feared the boat people and ran as fast as her legs would carry her past the line of tied up boats along the river shore.
She wanted to flee the cold, dark river and find her way to the sunshine lands which she loved. Carefully and quietly she ran as fast as she could past the last of the boats until she was a long way beyond them and completely alone in the dark. At last her legs gave way and she fell in a heap on the dirt and hard baked mud breathless and lay on her back looking up at the stars that sprawled and glittered across the dark sky.
Looking up at the vastness of the sky and the multitude of glittering stars she was struck by how small and insignificant she was and a great feeling of loneliness washed over her. Now she had no siblings, no parents and no friends in the world. Indeed she had never had a friend or a playmate and now she lay alone in the darkness under the stars overwhelmed by the magnitude of the universe. She knew the city was not far away with all its great buildings, multitudes of people and the roaring of voices. She felt inside her ragged clothing and pulled out the little statuette of Kwan-yin and clutching it to her small, lonely heart, whispered a childish prayer and cried herself to sleep.
Awaking with a start she found a strange person standing over her looking down at her. She saw it was a beautiful woman dressed in the most gorgeous clothes she had ever seen in her life. Such clothes could only have been worn by a princess or someone very special. The woman stood tall and erect in the dirt and hard-baked mud of the river shore like a beautiful flower in the dark. As Lu-san gazed at the lovely face and looked into those deep, dark, eyes she was suddenly conscious of her own rags and impoverishment. Embarrassed at her own condition she shrank away fearing that this perfect being would touch her and soil their own perfection.
Strangely, she was overcome by the impulse to throw herself into the arms of this most perfect of women and beg her for mercy. It was only the fear that she might vanish before her eyes that stopped her. Therefore, slowly she held out the little statuette of Kwan-yin to the woman and said, “You must be the most beautiful princess in the world! This must belong to you. Please take it I found it in the dirt and mud. It is all I have ever had, but please take it!”
The princess bent down and gently took the statuette and looked at it with great interest then smiled and said, “And do you know who it is that you are giving this statuette to?”
“I do not know,” replied Lu-san, “I found it in the dirt and mud by the river. All I know is that it is all I have ever had in the world and that you are so beautiful that it must surely belong to you. Please take it.”
To little Lu-san’s surprise and delight a wonderfully strange thing happened which she had never experienced before. The graceful, elegant lady bent her body towards her holding out her arms in invitation to the ragged and bedraggled little girl. Lu-san hesitated for a second and then with a cry of sheer joy threw herself into the arms of the lady who took her up and whirled her around holding her close to her. At last little Lu-san had found the love that she had yearned for so long and she clung to the lady who kept her in a tight embrace.
“My child, do you know who this statuette represents that you have kept so carefully, so lovingly and have given to me so unselfishly without a second thought?” asked the lady quietly.
“Yes, I do,” she replied, “It is the loving goddess Kwan-yin who loves and looks after children and women.”
“And this goddess looked after you and kept you safe did she?” asked the lady flushing slightly at the innocence of the child.
“Indeed she did, for without her I would not be here with you now.” replied little Lu-san earnestly, “Indeed, without her I would not have escaped my father and mother tonight and would certainly have been killed. It was the good lady that listened to my prayer and told me what to do.”
“So now that you have escaped, where will you go and what will you do in the world all alone? Where will you live – how will you survive? Do you not fear to walk in the dark alone?” asked the lady.
“No, no, I have no fear for the blessed goddess is with me and will protect me. She has heard my prayers and shown me how to escape and she will show me how to live in the great big world. She will keep me safe,” replied Lu-san as she cuddled the lady.
The lady responded warmly to Lu-san who believed she must be in heaven. She did not see the lady look upward to a certain star and catch its light in her eye. She did not see a glistening tear roll from the lady’s eye and down her cheek. She did not feel it fall gently upon her forehead because she was sound asleep in the arms of her guardian and knew nothing of the gentle rain that fell from the stars that night.
The Next Morning
In the morning a ray of sunlight found its way through the warped and cracked planks to slip below the deck of her father’s rickety boat to where Lu-san was still sleeping. As it touched her face she awoke to find herself all alone in her bed. Despite her terror the night before she now experienced no fear at all to be so close to where her parents were.
She did not know that as she lay asleep her parents had crept down the ladder from the deck and up to the bed of their sleeping daughter. She did not know they had crept silently to her side intending to grasp and throttle. She did not know of the strange and shocking thing had happened as she slept. As her father had reached for her throat and her mother to pin her arms a disembodied voice cried out,
“On your knees! Do not dare threaten harm to one who has caused the tears of the great goddess Kwan-yin to flow! Know that when Kwan-yin weeps the gods themselves weep with her! If you ever try and hurt this child again you will burn forever! Know this – out of dirt spring flowers – out of mud comes goodness!”
With that her mother and father fell on their knees before their sleeping daughter and as they did so they felt a thousand red hot needles pricking into every part of their bodies. The terrible sensation lasted but a few seconds and then their heads were forced down until their foreheads touched the wooden floor before their sleeping daughter and the terrible voice spoke again,
“Now swear obseiance to Lu-san and leave her to rest. Go and await for this Daughter of Heaven to awake and then you will serve her faithfully!”
Her terrified parents crawled painfully across the wooden planks of the floor and up the ladder to wait on deck for their daughter to awake. They gathered their sons together and huddled in a corner seeking shelter from the cold drizzle which now fell from the sky upon them.
Below deck Lu-san gently awoke and lay listening and heard low voices talking on deck just above her head. Unusually their voices did not sound harsh and cruel, instead they spoke in hushed tones as if not wishing to disturb the peace of their sleeping daughter.
“What happened?” asked her father trembling, “Did you hear that terrible voice? Did you feel the burning needles?”
“I did feel those burning needles and heard that terrible voice,” replied his wife, “It could only have been the gods warning us!”
“Yes, it must have been the gods,” replied her husband, “but it is strange now that I think about it how we came to hate our daughter, for I now see how wrong and wicked we are.”
“Indeed, I do not know what happened to us. We must have been blind that we could not see her goodness, our hearts numb that we could not feel her love. We must be evil indeed and the gods will rightly punish us for our wickedness!” replied his wife.
As she listened to her parents she experienced great love welling up in her heart for them and rose from bed . She decided that she would tell them she loved them despite their evil treatment of her and no matter what they did to her. Looking around for her ragged clothes she was surprised she could not find them but instead found carefully placed on one side of the bed the most beautiful clothes she had ever seen. They were made of the finest silk and gaily decorated with birds and flowers and as there was nothing else for her to wear she slipped these on discovering they fitted perfectly.
As she dressed she glanced at her fingers and saw they were now long and elegant and her hands that had been rough and worn with work were now smooth and soft. Looking around she found a pair of red silk slippers on the bed and put them on. As she did so she was astounded to see that her feet that had been blistered, cracked and calloused were now healed. She had always walked barefoot having never had shoes and sliding on the slippers she stepped daintily across the rough wooden planks that made the floor.
To her surprise wherever she placed her feet the planks transformed into smooth rich red polished flooring. As she looked around at the rude wooden room below deck wherever her glance fell the rough walls appeared gaily decorated. As she climbed up the old wooden ladder it transformed into a magnificent wooden stair and as she stepped on deck the drizzle stopped and the sun came out. As she crossed the deck the rough boards transformed beneath her feet to beautiful polished wood and wherever she glanced around the rickety old boat transformed into magnificent ship with a full crew of sailors.
Looking around for her parents she found them huddled with her brothers in a corner. They were trembling with fear at her approach and looked terrified. Her mother tried to speak but her mouth would not open. Her father stared in awe at her and mumbled, “A goddess has come down from Heaven, have mercy on us!” Her brothers hid their eyes in their hands as if dazzled and sheltered behind their parents.
Lu-san paused before them her transformation complete and said, “Mother, father, my brothers, do you not recognise me? Father, mother, I am Lu-san your daughter. My brothers I am your sister. Do you not know me?”
Her father looked at her in fear and wonder and his cruel face took on a strange light, while his body trembled and shook. To her surprise he knelt before her and bent his head so low he touched the deck with his forehead before her feet. Her mother and her brothers did exactly the same and then gazed in awe at her waiting for her to speak.
“Tell me father, tell me that you love me, Tell me that you will not kill your only daughter,” said Lu-san.
“You must surely be a daughter of the gods,” murmured her father in a daze, “ but I … “ and could not continue.
“Have no fear! Tell me father,” she said gently.
“Yes, I do love you. Can you ever forgive me?” he replied.
Lu-san stepped forward and placed her left hand on her kneeling father’s forehead and placed her right hand over the heads of her mother and brothers and said,
“Just as Kwan-yin, Goddess of Mercy, has smiled upon me and given me her blessing, I bestow upon you my father, my mother and my brothers my love and the love of heaven. When the time comes that only love shall rule your hearts this ship will be yours and all that it carries and I will leave. Out of dirt springs flowers; out of mud comes goodness!”
As Lu-san had been transformed so too were her parents and her brothers. From the poor wretched family that had struggled to make a living along the Great River they began to enjoy peace and happiness. For her parents, especially her father it was not an easy transformation for the misery of the years had ingrained deep in him. Every now and then he flew into a rage before quickly calming himself down to feel ashamed. Her mother too, still hurled the occasionally spiteful word or retort before suddenly thinking better and holding her tongue. Nevertheless, although it was a slow and painful lesson they did learn that love was the way and thanked the mud and dirt of river life for the lesson they received from their daughter.
The family sailed the great ship up and down the Great River its company of sailors obeying Lu-san’s every command. Wherever she told them to cast the nets they caught masses of the largest and best fish and sold them in the markets of the towns and cities along the Great River. Soon Lu-san and her family were deemed to be among the wealthiest that lived and worked along the river.
A Flight of Doves
One fine day Lu-san led her family to a temple to celebrate the birthday of Kwan-yin. As they returned and boarded the ship her father pointed to a spot in the sky just above the horizon, “What is that!” he exclaimed, “What manner of birds are they that are flying this way? What is it they carry?”
As the birds drew near they saw it was a flight of pure white doves carrying a strange object below them. Her mother and father gazed in wonder and her brothers became excited and began to jump up and down. Lu-san just smiled serenely and remained calm and quiet as if she had been expecting the arrival of these birds.
“Look!” cried her father, “It is a flight of doves, but what is it they carry?”
As the flight of doves drew closer they saw that from their necks trailed golden ribbons. These were attached to a most wonderful chair that was as pure white as the doves and inlaid with gold and precious gems and floated below the birds as they flew. The flight of doves flew to the ship carrying the chair below them and on reaching the ship paused their flight. Hovering over the deck they gently let the chair descend before Lu-san. She turned to her parents and brothers and kissing them goodbye seated herself in the wonderful chair. As the doves rose in the air and carried the chair and Lu-san towards the heavens a voice was heard from the skies saying,
“So it is that Kwan-yin, Mother of Mercies rewards Lu-san. Daughter of the Earth she will be no longer. Now she will take her place as a star in the Western Skies as a Daughter of Heaven. Lu-san, know this, those tears you brought from the eyes of Kwan-yin fell upon the dirt and dried mud and from the dirt sprang flowers and from the mud came goodness.”
© 18/092019 zteve t evans
References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright September 18th, 2019 zteve t evans