“The Creation Story”: An Excerpt from the Third Novel in Fan Wen’s Yunnan-Tibet Trilogy, “Canticle to the Land”China Ethnic, My Translations into English Add comments
The Story of Creation
Long, long ago
Sky and earth not yet distinct
Water and soil not yet formed
Darkness shrouding all.
No sun, ho! No moon,
Neither flower nor beast, ho!
And no love.
No Tashi Gyatso, Tibetan minstrel,
For his wings of passion had yet to unfurl.
— Tashi Gyatso’s “Creation Ballad”
The audience erupted in laughter in Chieftain Khampu Dzongsar’s spacious salon.“You sang that wrong,” uttered someone to Tashi Gyatso, the troubadour. “Those last two lines were added on by you!”
“Twang” sounded the string, dexterously plucked by the fellow in the middle of the salon who was fondling his zither and performing the Creation Ballad, like a savvy horseman lightly reining in an errant steed. He affected a mischievous smile that evoked knowing chuckles.
Only one who enjoyed the chieftain’s good graces dared behave so nonchalantly at a gathering of nobility.
A God from the East did come
Concocting from fire, the sun.
A Goddess from the West did come
Concocting from water, the moon.
The sun sundered the heavens from the earth
And the moon sundered the land from the sea.
The firmament like a dome
The land like an eight-petaled lotus bloom
And the oceans as broad and deep as
The sun chased the moon
And the moon pined for the sun
Their love eternal, their destiny never to meet.
“Whoa!” roared the audience in laughter, seated round the hearth in Chieftain Khampu Dzongsar’s salon. “Wrong, wrong! This son-of-a-bitch drongpa is messing with the lyrics.”
Sitting at the head of the fire, the chieftain scooped a tad of snuff onto the fingernail of his thumb, placed it under his nostril, inhaled and followed up with a colossal sneeze.
“You bastard, you can’t even sing three lines of verse without mentioning the birds and the bees. You don’t even neglect the deities. If the lamas could hear you, they’d regret taking their vows.”
The balladeer Tashi Gyatso ceased strumming his six-stringed zither, and batted those emotive eyes of his. “Your Esteemed Lordship, where would earthly love originate if there were no romance in heaven?”
He was a lean and handsome youth with large eyes, high-nosed and thin-lipped, and a longish, horse-like face. But paired with his charming features and fine, deep-brown skin, you couldn’t help but imagine him as a fine steed from the grasslands. Add to that a pair of fluid eyes that could almost speak; when he looked at his enemy, even his enemy was moved, and when he cast his glance upon a lover, she melted.
According to the traditions of Tibetan face reading, this sort of person will undergo countless misfortunes, particularly in affairs of the heart. Such silently passionate, moist eyes appear to radiate amorous ripples, but Tibetans consider them “tearful eyes” that foreshadow lifelong poverty and ill-fated love.
The affinity between the all-powerful chieftain and his wandering bard had its origins in a fateful encounter half a year earlier. That day the great Chieftain Khampu Dzongsar came upon a tavern in Adunzi, the seat of the county government, along the lower reaches of Yunnan’s Lancang River Canyon.
Upon hearing the melodious strains of a six-stringed dramnyen, the chieftain, who had adored singing and dancing since youth—but had never heard a Tibetan zither played so fluidly and naturally—strode inside the tavern. He ordered a bowl of liquor and sat listening quietly. His bowel emptied, he approached the performer.
“Pack up your zither and come with me. I’ll ensure you get a month’s food and drink.”
The minstrel, his eyes too lazy to look up, continued plucking the strings of his zither. “My songs ensure my food and drink,” he said indifferently.
Tsering, the chieftain’s steward standing behind his master, struck the minstrel with his horsewhip.
“Black-boned beggar, lift your dog’s head up and look at whom you’re addressing! On your knees!”
The minstrel raised his head in a leisurely fashion, and saw before him a chieftain in noble attire, sturdy as a yak, fierce as a lion. The minstrel looked out the door where he could see an armed retinue, long guns down their backs, horse reins in hand.
“I am a poet who wanders the land, a disciple anointed by the Sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang,” said Tashi Gyatso. “Romance is the poetry of my life, and young ladies’ eyes illuminate the road under my feet.
“I sing my songs for snow-covered mountains, holy lakes, herders, inn travelers who can afford just one bowl of wine, and for beautiful women.
“I do not perform for noble lords. A poor man has his dignity, a beggar his freedom, and a wandering poet his friends and lovers all across the land.”
So spoke the arrogant bard, and Tsering lifted his whip again.
Chieftain Khampu Dzongsar gestured to Tsering to desist. “Bring me your zither, drongpa, and I shall sing you a song.”
The minstrel hesitated, but then he handed over his instrument. Perhaps the chieftain was in a good mood that day, or the sound of the wandering minstrel’s singing called to mind happy youthful memories. He strummed the zither, and broke out in an ancient love song:
When I speak with the mountains to the East
Those in the West harbor suspicions.
When I speak with the mountains to the South
Those in the North harbor suspicions.
Surrounded by wary mountains
How am I to scale your heart?
“How about that?” asked the chieftain, handing the instrument back.
The minstrel hadn’t imagined a chieftain could sing this sort of love song, or that he could play the zither so well. Tashi Gyatso packed up his instrument, his begging bowl and knapsack.
“There are too many women at his Lordship’s side,” he snickered, his mouth still vexatious.
“A bit more numerous than the songs in your repertoire,” said the boastful chieftain.
But the minstrel was even less modest. “You’d best understand, behind each of my songs lies a young lady’s heart.”
“Well then, let’s wait and see which young lady will be seduced by your songs,” replied the chieftain offhandedly.
The wandering minstrel stood up as if he had been challenged. “You will never comprehend the love that I communicate through my songs,” he quipped.
And so Tashi Gyatso came to reside in Chieftain Khampu Dzongsar’s grand manor.
The roaming bard had crisscrossed the north and the south, been to the holy city of Lhasa and Shigatse in the hinterlands. He had courted herdswomen with his songs on the plains of northern Tibet in the summer, and tumbled in the bushes with girls collecting firewood in the warm canyons of eastern Tibet during the winter. In the spring and fall, if he wasn’t buried in cozy blankets with a young lass lost in a beautiful romantic dream, then he was struggling on a pilgrim’s route, singing as he crept forward.
He brought the myths of the Realm of the Deities to life through his ballads, and vividly recreated the thundering battles that took place between chieftains across the vast land. A lone bird’s flight could inspire his song, and a withered flower on a mountaintop could blossom once again, nourished by his incantation. As for the affections and grudges engendered by earthly romance, these he sang so plaintively that tears came to one’s eyes.
He was always astute and mischievous, always passionate and quick thinking. He possessed a tender soul and a romantic heart.Yet when it came to the women who had once willingly placed their bodies beneath his, it was only when he saw the stars in the skies that he could recall them one by one.
Content with his footloose, wanderlust-driven lifestyle, wealth and fame held no place in his eyes. Not yet twenty, he lacked nothing and cared for nothing save the romance he sowed in his path.
By his very nature, he was a singing bard gallivanting in a pristine, romantic era, and he was endowed with a subtle balance of toughness and sensitivity.
How he lived was of little import; how he loved was key. He believed that as long as he was free to traverse the land, love was like the trees growing in the mountain, like the love songs floating in the wind on the grasslands. A wandering poet who sang of the Realm of the Deities and the myriad phenomena of earthly existence, who praised life and love, he would always happen upon true love serendipitously. The amorous eyes of young ladies would lead him in love’s direction.
Equally naturally, it never occurred to him that there in Chieftain Khampu Dzongsar’s somber grand manor he would meet a lover worth a lifetime of waiting.
And that person was none other than Yangchenma, Chieftain Khampu Dzongsar’s young sister-in-law. Every time she listened to Tashi Gyatso sing, she stuck close to her elder sister, Dolma La, like a docile lamb at her mother’s side.But her eyes appeared lost deep in a profound dream, fluttering about that rakish minstrel’s countenance.
She was different from those who listened carefully to Tashi Gyatso’s lyrics and zither, at times breaking out in a hearty laugh, at times sighing knowingly. It was as if she unwittingly allowed the minstrel’s voice to caress her lonely 17-year-old heart like the very first wisp of spring wind after a frigid winter. She was often found listening to him with scarlet cheeks and ears, her heart in chaos.
One day, in the midst of the rascal’s increasingly revealing lyrics, her eyes ceased following his nimble fingers as they plucked the zither strings, nor were they watching his air-borne dance steps. Instead, her eyes floated deep inside an erotic dream—toward his groin.
Ever since she had heard Tashi Gyatso’s first incantation, Yangchenma no longer slept well at night.
The 17-year-old maiden didn’t realize it then, but throughout her life inexpedient romance was her fate. This sort of love is blissful, but always untimely here on earth; this is a love made for heaven.
But how could the savvy lover Tashi Gyatso be unaware of this special listener’s desire, and how could he let Yangchenma’s beauty slip through his hands?
As he navigated the snow-covered Tibetan plateau over the years, wherever the sound of his zither was heard, there too were the scintillating glances of young women. The very instant a young lady cast her eyes upon him, he could decide whether that night he would sneak into her tent.
But Yangchenenma was hardly ordinary. Her fluid glances were ripples on a sacred lake, distant and mysterious, profound and nebulous. The second he set eyes on her, Tashi Gyatso’s heart was amazed: the Snow Mountain Goddess really did exist. She was graceful, charming, pure and translucent; a Snow Lotus bursting to blossom; a many-hued water droplet shimmering on a frozen summit; sweet, crystalline dew poised on a flower’s stamen.
And what was even more amazing to this lustful wanderer was that pair of misty eyes. Her trance was not just her own. She seemed to be teasing him into following her blindly into a sugary dream of love.
When Tashi Gyatso performed, he needn’t glance at her to know which part of the melody would bewitch the maiden’s heart, and which lyrics would penetrate her delicately woven romantic fantasies. On stages across the land, he had quickly learned to read the hearts of countless others. He knew which lyrics stirred up the marsh of desire, and what sort of tune would drag a pair of young romantic hearts closer. Thanks to his propitious attentions, this flower bud was destined to blossom brilliantly.
But as knowledgeable as Tashi Gyatso was in the arts of seduction, even the strings of his zither were in anarchy and his heart was jumping like a tree-climbing monkey.
When Chieftain Khampu Dzongsar promised him food and lodging, the minstrel thought to himself: For whom do you take me, Tashi Gyatso? The vast land is my home, and everywhere under the sky fine wine and beautiful women await. Who cares about a chieftain’s grand manor? If I stay for even half a month, it is just to give you face.
But a month went by and there was no end in sight to the Realm of the Deities of which he sang. Three months passed, and the Snowlands were still covered in darkness. Half a year passed, and the Ancestors of the Tibetans had not yet been created.
He created the Sky and the Earth with his canticles, and inserted stories of romance between the deities as it pleased him. When he sang of the Grand Battle of the Deity and the Demoness, they fell in love and married. In the end, even Guru Rinpoche was unable to conquer the Demoness with his indomitable magic. Instead, he had to call on love to set her on the Path to Righteousness.
When the spectacle began, the audience in the chieftain’s residence protested, exclaiming that this drongpa sang differently than his predecessors. But they couldn’t deny that he was a moving balladeer, plucking the strings of their hearts like those on his zither. He spun his yarn until Chieftain Khampu Dzongsar, seated next to the hearth, became drowsy. When he took a bit of snuff and sneezed, the evening’s performance had come to an end.
That evening Tashi Gyatso had treated the chieftain’s whole family to a rendition of the Story of Creation. But you could say that, in his heart, he was singing for just for one person.So he sang and sang and made the Sun and the Moon fall in love, but he knew—everyone knows—that the Sun would never catch the Moon.
His sensitive heart was suddenly permeated by a persistent melancholy. But back then he didn’t know that this melancholy would accompany him all his days. The commotion raised by the chieftain’s relatives and the chieftain’s own sneeze saved his performance. Otherwise, he really didn’t know how to find the words that should follow.
The performance over, everyone returned to their individual quarters. Tashi Gyatso and the servants lived in a row of small rooms next to the horse stables. The chieftain resided on the second floor of the main building, the same structure that housed the grand salon in which the minstrel had just performed, while Yangchenma and a few female relatives occupied the third story.
Tashi Gyatso stood to the side, bowing with hands at his sides, allowing the hosts to exit first. He understood that when he sang folk songs, he was the hero of the salon revered by his audience. But now he was just a dog kept by the chieftain’s family, and perhaps not even as highly valued.
He watched Yangchenma, her head held high, as she passed in the company of Dekyi, her servant. I’ll count to three, he thought, and she’s certain to turn and look back.
As he reached two, Yangchenma suddenly turned her head to Dekyi behind her. “My hand warmer?” But her eyes, still dreamy, darted toward Tashi Gyatso like a sheep-whip, causing his heart to flutter.
Dekyi held up the incense burner. “Right here in my hand, my Lady,” she said fawningly.
Tashi Gyatso had indeed seen Yangchenma look back, but before he could his express his gratitude, the noble maiden turned again and addressed him. “Say, you still haven’t sung the part where the Sun falls in love with the Moon.”
Tashi Gyatso was caught off guard. “From the day the Sky God ignites the light of the Sun…”, he replied hastily.
“And which day is that?” asked Yangchenma in all seriousness, piercing him with a pair of delicate blades.
“It was. . .a long, long time ago. . .” Tashi Gyatso sensed he had been wounded.
“Come come, time for bed,” said the chieftain’s wife Dolma La as she gave Yangchenma a push. “Don’t ask him anything else.There’s an untamed stallion inside this fellow’s heart that sings wherever he roams. Tashi Gyatso, no more jumping about between Heaven and Hell tomorrow. You should sing about where we Tibetans came from.”
“To the contrary, you’d best sing about more recent events, ” opined the chieftain. “What about in the land of the Han, where the Japanese and the Chinese are at war? Rumor has it that foreign lamas will come again soon to preach their religion. Can you sing about those things?”
His words came from the guest room where his second and third wives were also standing. Dolma La, his principal wife, was regularly left to go alone to her third-floor bedroom.
“Yes, your Lordship. Fine, my Lady.” Tashi Gyatso looked back at Chieftain Khampu Dzongsar, and pivoted for another glance at Yangchenma’s shadow, but she and her servant had already begun their ascent to the third floor.
When he returned to his small room next to the stables, a few horse grooms were hoping Tashi Gyatso would chant a few lines of verse, and a pitcher of highland barley liquor had been placed in the middle of the room. They hadn’t had the privilege of watching him perform in the grand salon, but Tashi Gyatso was no longer in a singing mood. He excused himself saying he wasn’t feeling well, put the pitcher of liquor outside the door, and saw them out unceremoniously.
As he lay next to the hearth on his khadan, a hand-knotted rug woven with sheep’s wool, he recalled how Yangchenma’s feelings for him had become increasingly blatant of late.
One sunny afternoon a few days ago Yangchenma had returned from a horse ride, only to find him crouched at the doorstep stitching up his boots with cow-tendon thread.
So you even know how to do that, she marveled.
If a fellow can’t sew up a hole in his boots, he said cheerfully, he’ll never be a real vagabond.
She just stood there. It seemed she wanted to chat but lacked the courage to set foot in his room.
Such a shabby pair of boots, she said, just throw them out and be done with it.
But Tashi Gyatso teased Yangchenma with verse-like language. My boots are my lover, he replied. During the day, they accompany me as I trek to the end of the world, and at night they pillow my head for a peaceful night’s sleep.
He noticed the maiden’s neck turning crimson. She turned her face to one side. “Brother Tashi, have you been to the Holy City of Lhasa?”
“I lived there three years,” he said proudly.
“Three years?”She was so astonished her lips took on the shape of a flower on the verge of blossoming, and her eyes brimmed with reveries.
“The next time you go, could you take me with you?” Asked in such a manner, Tashi Gyatso’s heart pounded. If a different young lady had spoken like that, he’d have grabbed his zither, thrown his rucksack over his shoulder and absconded with her.
One year on a pasture in northern Tibet, the wife of a minor headman fell in love with the sound of his song. Like a mare in heat, she constantly sent him signals of love. One evening she kept pouring liquor for him and her man. Only belatedly did Tashi Gyatso realize that his bowl was filled with water, while the headman’s was real liquor.
Late that night when the drunken headman was lost in deep sleep, his wife felt her way inside Tashi Gyatso’s sheepskin blanket.
They had been sleeping in a big tent, and almost every night he could hear the headman’s wife moaning on the other side of the tent. But now those moans were actually emanating from the body under his, and he wondered if he wasn’t just drunk. She was at least ten years older than he, but in the darkness she taught him all sorts of erotic maneuvers, utterly depleting the superbly gifted young bard.
The very next day she eloped with him, saying he was a robust stallion with whom she was willing to voyage throughout the great snowlands. But after they had covered a distance of just three caravan stops, she began to regret her action, for a woman’s happiness is not merely to lay beneath a virile man’s body. It also lies in possessing big herds of cattle and sheep.
Then go and sleep with your cattle and sheep, said Tashi Gyatso, and may they bring you happiness.
The woman sobbed in earnest, and asked: And where is your happiness?
There with the Goddess of Love, he replied. Wherever I go, she goes. The Goddess of Love leads my unfettered feet.
Tashi Gyatso believed that romance was administered by the Goddess of Love, and no human being could resist her blessing. Love’s arrival is as airy as a snowflake alighting on one’s body. With so many snowflakes floating down from the sky, why does one float uniquely toward you? There are so many fine maidens in the world, but why does it so happen that this particular one ends up in the same tent as you?
Although the Tibetan lamas do not speak of the Goddess of Love, the minstrel Tashi Gyatso praised her openly as if her charms were boundless and all conquering.
This evening too, he believed that it must be the Goddess of Love who made him leave his room in the middle of the night and come to stand under Yangchenma’s window. When he discovered that the light in her room was still shining, this appeared a good omen: the maiden awaited his arrival.
Her window faced the back courtyard, home to a massive walnut tree with a trunk so wide that a circle of four people couldn’t get their arms around it. With its deep roots and thick foliage, it provided an annual harvest of several hundred catties of walnuts to the chieftain’s family.
Tashi Gyatso leapt up onto the tree in a matter of seconds. The tree was ten feet or away from her window, and some of its leaves brushed against Yangchenma’s window. But a layer of Tibetan paper covered the window, so he couldn’t see in. He discovered that there was a gap at the top of the window, but even when he climbed higher, he still couldn’t see inside.
His sharp romantic intuition made him cocksure that the person inside was pining for him. But how should he convey that he was now waiting outside?
He took out his six-stringed zither, the one the Goddess of Love had doubtless fated him to bring. And who would listen to him play in the midnight silence there in the chieftain’s grand manor?
The Goddess of Love.
He plucked the uppermost string ever so lightly. Borne by the wind, the note wafted in the night air like a sprite, swaying to and fro as it drifted towards Yangchenma’s window.
Tashi Gyatso listened vigilantly for a moment, but there was no reaction from inside. Equally gently, he plucked the second string. I’ll play each of the six strings, he thought to himself, and if the maiden still doesn’t open the window, I’ll take leave of this ungrateful manor tomorrow.
Typically, it was only those young ladies who truly dared to love and hate who would choose a bout of romance—passionate and exhilarating, or bittersweet and tenacious—with a world-wanderer like Tashi Gyatso.Perhaps Yangchenma was born to play the part of the female protagonist in such a love story. Back when she accompanied her newly married elder sister into the household of Chieftain Khampu Dzongsar, Yangchenma was a petite girl of seven. Like a wild azalea in the mountains, her tiny and delicate yet immature leaves could hardly compare with the jade-like floral beauty of her sister, just then at its peak.
But ten years passed and the wild azalea flowered brilliantly, rendering the surrounding canyon scarlet. Yet people said she was untamed, more like a prairie girl than a young maiden of noble birth. As soon as she could walk she was riding a horse. In the summer when she frolicked in the grazing pastures in the highlands, the flowers bent their waists in admiration of her beauty. And birds dared not tweet in her presence, because her singing voice was so pleasing to the ear.
But the common people rarely heard this proud princess’s song. At fifteen, she came upon one of the chieftain’s headman whipping an elder woman.
She’s so old, why are you whipping her, she queried.
If I don’t whip someone, my bones will age more quickly, he replied.
Yangchenma grabbed the whip and turned it on the headman in a flash. If I don’t whip you, she snapped, I’m afraid my bones won’t grow straight and strong.
It is said that it had occurred to Chieftain Khampu Dzongsar to take this enchanting sister-in-law as his fourth wife, but there were more important matters at hand than merely acquiring a concubine. After that autumn’s barley harvest, relatives of Chieftain Yegong from the upstream portion of the Lancang River would dispatch an entourage to formally take possession of a bride, and Yangchenma would become Chieftain Yegong’s third wife.
The families of the two chieftains in Lancang River Canyon had fought wars before, if not over grazing lands then over business. But now everything would be fine, with the two families becoming relatives through marriage. Chieftain Yegong promised that to show his gratitude for marrying a maiden from Chieftain Khampu Dzongsar’s family, he would not only pay the traditional bride price—gold, silver and jewelry, silks and brocades, fabrics and tea leaves—he would also make a gift of three grazing pastures.
This gift covered an area even a fast-running steed would need a full day to traverse, and was located at the mouth of a key caravan route into and out of Tibet. Chieftain Yegong was not at all stingy in this matter.
But Tashi Gyatso paid this matrimonial affair little heed. If nobles married for mutual benefit, what did this have to do with his flaming passion?
He was an obstinate suitor, but equally liable to heartbreak. If Yangchenma hadn’t opened her window, their lives would not have been so ill-starred, and their love for one another would not have been consumed in an eternal state of unrequited expectation.
But Yangchenma was not fated to be the third wife of a chieftain.
The window opened quietly. The faint sound of the zither was undetected by Dekyi, the servant in the same room as Yangchenma, and even the alert Tibetan mastiff in the courtyard didn’t notice it. But Yangchenma heard it.
Yangchenma was struck dumb by what she saw. There was Tashi Gyatso astride a branch, his beloved six-stringed zither close to his bosom, pristine moon dangling like a halo over the youthful balladeer.
Tashi Gyatso lifted his zither as if to strum a tune just for her.
Yangchenma pressed her finger against her lips, gestured to something inside the room, and shook her head.
Tashi Gyatso signaled her to come closer.
Yangchenma shook her head again, smiled, and said in a hushed tone: “You’re mad!”
Tashi Gyatso smiled back. “Indeed, I am mad!” but he too spoke very softly. “I’m coming across.”
“Dekyi’s in my room!”
Tashi Gyatso understood. She wouldn’t mind him climbing inside if it weren’t for Deji. But if a mistress chose to do something, how dare her maidservant stop her?
Just as he was wondering what to do, Yangchenma placed her hand on the windowsill.
“Tomorrow I’ll listen to you sing about the primeval origins of the Tibetan people. Sing it well!”
How could she close the window like that, and not wait for me, Tashi Gyatso, to answer her? The romantic minstrel felt a flash of anger. A Lancang River surged in his mind, and it made him want to fly across and smash through the window.
The light inside was quickly extinguished and no longer burned for him.
But in his heart, one thousand yak butter lamps seemed to have been lit. [end excerpt]
See also: An interview with the French translator of the first novel in the trilogy, Harmonious Land; contact for global publishing rights to Canticle to the Land; an interview with author Fan Wen; and an update on the Fan Wen’s next novel about the train line that linked Kunming with France’s Indochina at the turn of the 20th century.