Friday, January 18, 2008

Taiji Celestial Village

by Maple Xu

Note: Maple is an avid traveler and photographer in China. I savor her travelogues, which are always unusual. Here I'm sharing with you the latest she sent me last week. Any translation error is mine. - Xujun

Yuyuan is a little known village in China's Zhejiang Province. For many hundreds of years, the villagers surnamed "Yu" worked and lived peacefully there. A first glance at the village would reveal no difference from any others around.

One day, by chance, someone flying by in an airplane looked down and saw it. He was so shocked that he broke out into a cold sweat. The eleven hills surrounding the village, together with the Taiji Yin-Yang Fish, constitute the 12 signs of celestial zodiac. Arranged in the classical Eight Diagrams, the village's 28 building blocks correspond to the 28 Celestial Mansions, with seven old wells forming the Big Dipper. The Yu clan's ancestral hall is located in the center of the constellation. A complete Taiji Celestial Diagram on earth!

The news spread, and brought in curious visitors. They found the oldest man in the village, who told a legend.

An ancestor of the Yu clan, Yu Lai, was friend and classmate of Liu Bowen (1311-1375), the great war-strategist from the Yuan Dynasty. Yu Lai had no interest in fame and wealth, and loathed officialdom. He lived all his life in the country, fishing, gardening, composing poems, and teaching children. Liu Bowen deeply respected the lighthearted classmate, and kept close contact with him even after Liu had became one of the highest officials in the emperor's court.

Every time Liu Bowen visited his home, which is not too far from Yuyuan, he always came to see Yu Lai first and stayed for a few days. Liu Bowen was a learned man, conversant from a young age in the art of war, works of Confucian and other ancient Chinese classics, astronomy and geography, Yin-Yang and divination. He was also fond of geological exploration, and had deep attainment in hydraulic engineering.

At the time, Yuyuan constantly suffered either drought or flood. Epidemics occurred frequently; people lived in dire poverty. Liu Bowen rearranged the Yu clan's generational names according to celestial constellations, and designed the Taiji celestial diagram for the village's reconstruction. Under his guidance, the villagers changed the straight stream into a curved one, and used the new stream as the Yin-Yang border in the Taiji diagram. The houses and wells were relocated accordingly. From then on, Yuyuan Village became free of disasters. Now the Yu clan's incense has passed to the 28th generation. Most of the over two thousand residents are surnamed Yu. The village is the largest Yu clan inhabitant in China.

The Yuyuan Village Taiji Diagram measures 320 meters in diameter, and has an area of 120 hectares, or 720 acres. The village preserves over 400 ancient buildings, with refined woodcarving, as well as stone- and brick-carving. In the eyes of the old residents, every tree in the village has a designated location that can't be moved. Any move would break the Feng-Shui, and the person who causes such a break would suffer retribution.

Shortly after the Liberation in 1949, someone attempted to fill a well so he could build a house over it. As soon as he finished filling the well, his house was on fire. Digging to reopen the well put out the fire. Any attempt to refill the well brought the fire back. Several attempts later, he gave up and did not dare to be impetuous any more.

That well is one of the seven stars in the Big Dipper. I found it following the village map faithfully, as if searching for treasure. So many years have gone by; matters are the same, people are different. In the well, clear water still bubbles.

An old lady was washing a bamboo board by the well. She told me an ancestral temple in the village has a beam that unfailingly makes the correct forecast for the weather.

I asked around along the way, and finally found the somewhat beaten old house. The keeper pointed to me the legendary beam, with nine perfectly preserved carps carved on it.

But when I first saw the carps, I counted and counted but could only find eight. "This is what you don't understand," the keeper twisted his lips complacently, "in the old times only the emperor was entitled to the number nine. If nine fish were obviously carved on the beam, wouldn't it risk the suspicion of competing with the emperor's 9-dragon pillar? That's why our smart ancestor honored the taboo and carved the 9th fish in the mouth of the eighth."

After seeing the light, I indeed found a lovely brisk little fish in a big fish's mouth.

It is said that the fish turn crimson for a sunny day, but khaki under an overcast sky. Rainy days, they are brown. That day when I visited, the weather was uncertain: after being cloudy for a while, it drizzled. Then it turned overcast again.

"Is that why the fish show alternating khaki and brown?"

The keeper responded to my question with an unfathomable smile.

(Photo copyrights 2007 Maple Xu)

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