Peach Blossom Spring
Peach Blossom Shangri-la, also known as Peach Blossom Spring and the Peach Blossom Land, is a Chinese fable written in 421 CE by Tao Yuanming, one of the greatest poets of the six dynasties. He wrote it during a period of national disunity and political instability and tells how a poor fisherman chanced upon a hidden utopian village where people lived happily in peace and harmony, isolated from the outside world.
There are elements and influences from Chinese mythology and folklore and the political and social situation at the time of the author’s life and is essentially an allegorical work of fiction. Nevertheless, with millions of refugees in the modern world seeking a safe sanctuary to live in peace without fear, in the ways of their ancestors before them, this story is still very relevant today. Presented here is a translation by Rick Davis and David Steelman (1), followed by a few observations for discussion.
Peach Blossom Shangri-La: Tao Hua Yuan Ji By Tao Yuanming Translation
During the Taiyuan era of the Jin Dynasty there was a man of Wuling who made his living as a fisherman. Once while following a stream he forgot how far he had gone. He suddenly came to a grove of blossoming peach trees. It lined both banks for several hundred paces and included not a single other kind of tree. Petals of the dazzling and fragrant blossoms were falling everywhere in profusion. Thinking this place highly unusual, the fisherman advanced once again in wanting to see how far it went.
The peach trees stopped at the stream’s source, where the fisherman came to a mountain with a small opening through which it seemed he could see light. Leaving his boat, he entered the opening. At first it was so narrow that he could barely pass, but after advancing a short distance it suddenly opened up to reveal a broad, flat area with imposing houses, good fields, beautiful ponds, mulberry trees, bamboo, and the like. The fisherman saw paths extending among the fields in all directions, and could hear the sounds of chickens and dogs. Men and women working in the fields all wore clothing that looked like that of foreign lands. The elderly and children all seemed to be happy and enjoying themselves.
The people were amazed to see the fisherman, and they asked him from where he had come. He told them in detail, then the people invited him to their home, set out wine, butchered a chicken, and prepared a meal. Other villagers heard about the fisherman, and they all came to ask him questions. Then the villagers told him, “To avoid the chaos of war during the Qin Dynasty, our ancestors brought their families and villagers to this isolated place and never left it, so we’ve had no contact with the outside world.” They asked the fisherman what the present reign was. They were not even aware of the Han Dynasty, let alone the Wei and Jin. The fisherman told them everything he knew in great detail, and the villagers were amazed and heaved sighs. Then other villagers also invited the fisherman to their homes, where they gave him food and drink. After several days there, the fisherman bid farewell, at which time some villagers told him, “It’s not worth telling people on the outside about us.”
The fisherman exited through the opening, found his boat, and retraced his route while leaving markers to find this place again. Upon his arrival at the prefecture town he went to the prefect and told him what had happened. The prefect immediately sent a person to follow the fisherman and look for the trail markers, but they got lost and never found the way.
Liu Ziji of Nanyang was a person of noble character. When he heard this story he was happy and planned to visit the Shangri-la, but he died of illness before he could accomplish it. After that no one else ever looked for the place.
Peach Blossom: A Special Moment In Time
Peaches are highly regarded in Chinese mythology and tradition and are considered the fruit of immortals. Therefore, when the fisherman comes across a grove of blossoming peach trees, he is moving into a magical place, and their flowering indicates a special moment in time. Furthermore, the blossoming peach trees stop at the head of a natural water spring, further showing that something extraordinary is happening. For the Chinese, the wellsprings and sources of streams and rivers are places where water and life enter the world pure, uncontaminated, and transparent.
A Vulnerable Paradise
This utopian village exists in tandem with the outside world but is separated and hidden from it, only protected by a secret entrance through a cave. Here, people happily live together in the ways of their ancestors, in peaceful harmony independent of the outside world, sustained by their own efforts. This would seem an ideal way of life, a veritable paradise to many people. But is it all that it seems?
A Sceptical Viewpoint
While this happy utopian village society has not changed in centuries, the outside world has moved on. Unlike other examples of mythical other worlds or magical places, the time in the village runs at the same speed as the time in the outside world. We know this because when the fisherman leaves for home after several days, he is still in step with the inhabitants of the outside world.
In this Chinese example, although the two societies move in time, they have evolved in oppossing ways. Moreover, despite the conflict and chaos in the outside world, it is deemed to have progressed, yet remains dangerous. The village has remained stable, happy, peaceful, and safe. While some people see this positively because, living in this state of splendid isolation, its people have remained content and safe from interference from the rest of humanity.
Conversely, cynics see the village as static and sterile, where no progress has been made in centuries. A hideout for people who lack the courage to face the turmoil, fear, and pain of the outside world, lacking the will to adapt to change to survive. They argue that trouble and pain make the external world dynamic, forcing and accepting change, making individuals and society tough and adaptable.
The apparent absence of strife in the reclusive village, although bringing happiness and peace to its citizens, provides a static society vulnerable to change from natural events and interference from the outside. The villagers certainly know the dangers of the outside world and ask the fisherman not to reveal their presence. Their fear is underlined by the fisherman marking trees hoping to find his way back and by telling the Prefect of a town of his discovery.
Chop Wood, Carry Water: A Positive View
There is a well-known proverb or koan from Zen Buddhism which springs to mind,
“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
Although the quote may not have influenced Tao Yuanming, it does relevant with the villager’s way of life.
On the surface, a person appears no different after enlightenment as they were before. However, that is not necessarily so. Before enlightenment, a person focused on the outside world of “doing,” doing what ever must be done to survive. After enlightenment, the person’s inner consciousness has changed, and the focus becomes the world of “being” and being at peace while doing the necessary mundane tasks.
The hidden village in Tao Yuanming’s story is the inner world of being – the world of enlightenment, peace, and contentment – while the outer world – the world of their origin, the world of the fisherman, of emporers, wars, and strife that stem from the inner resistance and conflict we fight in when doing things we do like doing, despite knowing they have to be done. The villagers all appear happy and content externally to an outside observer, but it takes a great deal of inner strength and effort to accept the necessity of the everyday mundane tasks and sheer hard work necessary for survival.
The outstanding achievement of the villagers is their acceptance allows them to carry out the mundane and demanding tasks of life happily. Conversely, people in the outside world tend to protest and oppose the tedious and challenging aspects of life even though they are necessary for survival, only to create more conflict for themselves and their society.
The villagers may appear to look calm and living effortlessly, in a similar way a swan may appear to glide easily and serenely over the water. Yet, all the time below the waterline, out of sight, its legs constantly work hard to maintain the seemingly effortless movement across the water.
Curiously, the fisherman chooses to return home to his own world, hoping to reveal the rare and fragile paradise he has found rather than stay and enjoy it. He leaves a trail intending to return himself or others to follow, but the trail disappears strangely. Liu Ziji of Nanyang, a man of noble character who planned to visit the village, dies suddenly, so the hidden sanctuary remains undisturbed.
The disappearance of the trail and the nobleman’s death are fortunate for the villagers. However, the attempted betrayal of the hidden sanctuary’s whereabouts is a typical reaction by someone from the outside world, who finds somewhere special, where people have lived peacefully and happily for centuries, and feels the world must be told about it and see for themselves.
The Mystery Of Meaning
The meaning of the work has been and still is discussed and argued over by many experts and scholars since its creation. There are many different views, and I would contend the different viewpoints are a necessary part of its mystery which is why it continues to be studied and discussed, and reminds us how,
“all the best things escape too much definition.” (2)
© 14/09/2022 zteve t evans
References, Attributions, And Further Reading
Copyright September 14th, 2022 zteve t evans
- (1) The Peach Blossom Shangri-la – ebook – Tao Hua Yuan Ji, by Qian Tao – Translation by Rick Davis and David Steelman
- The Peach Blossom Spring – Wikipedia
- Peach Blossom Spring versus Utopia – Haga Toru – The International Research Center for Japanese Studies – 198404462.pdf (core.ac.uk)
- Utopian Landscapes: From Thomas More’s Utopia to Tao Yuanming’s Peach Blossom Spring – Fang Fan and Xue Qian – School of International Studies, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, China 99999-1478221984-1098039.pdf (zju.edu.cn)
- Essay on The Peach Blossom Spring by Tao Yuanming – An Illusory Utopia
- In Search of Peach Blossom Spring | the Anthill
- New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 20, 2 (December 2018): FROM HOME TO UTOPIA, AND BACK AGAIN: LOCATING AND RELOCATING THE PEACH BLOSSOM SPRING LUO HUI Victoria University of Wellington – nzjas_dec18_luohui.pdf (nzasia.org.nz)
- Artblog | Tao Hua Yuan Ji (theartblog.org)
- Tao Yuanming: Peach Blossom Water Source Story – LAC Poetry (learnancientchinesepoetry.org)
- (2) The Order Of Bards, Ovates & Druids, Bardic Grade Course