Fiction: The History of Chan’s Journey to the Celestial Regions

Copyright Richard Foss 2003, all rights reserved.

The elderly man in threadbare scholar’s robes picked up his cup of tea and sniffed, enjoying the scent of jasmine. “Chan Ji-Lin has decided to go to the moon,” he announced to the man who sat patiently across from him.

“Humph. It is just what I would expect of him,” growled his even older companion. “The aristocrats these days are always coming up with new ideas, no time for the old rituals and observances. Comes from reading too much Taoist poetry, no doubt.”

“As always, your clarity of sight is worthy of an eagle. He has worn out another scroll of Li Po’s late works just this week, and has been reading Tao Yuan-Ming until a new copy arrives from the bookseller. There are many references to the beauty of the moon’s reflection in Pine Tree Lake in them, and perhaps that is where the idea has come into his head. ”

“Li Po,” the old man snorted. “I remember Li Po, drunk half the time and dallying with courtesans and artists when he was sober enough to walk. Dreadful example to youth. Terrible calligraphy, too!” He snorted again, as though the last offense was worst of all.

The old scholar raised his cup of tea to his mouth, as much to enjoy its fragrance again as to hide a smile. “I remember him too. Were my poetry esteemed enough that courtesans would pay to spend time with me, as they did with him, I should count myself a lucky man indeed. But alas, I am old now, and dream neither of courtesans nor of flying to the moon, only of a body that does not creak when I stand up. ”

“Had you spent less time in dissolute company and more practicing proper Confucian rituals to honor your ancestors, you would be both healthier and wealthier.” The old man bowed his bald head over his tea and muttered an invocation, then sipped. “The moon, you say? How will he get there? A chariot drawn by magic swans, perhaps?”

The scholar sipped his tea without benefit of a prayer and smiled gently. “Chan Ji-Lin would happily use the services of magic swans or dragons of the air, but he knows of no one who has actually seen either. He is planning on using the new weapon which the forces of the great General Wu launched against the Mongols. It is called a rocket.”

The old man snorted again. “New ideas everywhere, impiety everywhere.” He moved the bronze teapot closer to the charcoal brazier. “Taoists everywhere.” His friend the Taoist scholar smiled behind his own cup of tea.

—————

Fang Hong the master fireworks maker squinted at the complex diagram on the scroll, then shook his head in the negative. “The ones we make for the Emperor’s arsenal have a long stick on the back to help them fly straight, but no such thing as this. How did you get the idea?”

Chan Ji-Lin pointed manicured and lacquered fingernails east toward the sea. “The oceangoing junks that go to faraway lands, to Hainan and Nipango, have just this sort of rudder for steering them. They use hemp rope to guide it, but horsehair will be lighter and stronger, better for my purpose.”

Fang Hong shook his head again doubtfully. “What about this, this stacking of one firework on another firework?”

“I call it ‘the snake shedding its skin’. When the fuel of the first rocket is fully burned, the fuse spreads the fire to the next rocket, and the large firecrackers blow the previous stage away. The craft will get lighter each time, more steerable just as a small junk is more nimble in shallower waters. The moon will have pleasant meadows ringed by tall pine trees, and I will need to steer for one of those.” His eyes misted over. “I will land in the celestial paradise, slowing myself by way of kites I have tested in the winds of the Three Gorges. Last year a gust of wind hit my largest kite, and it picked me up from the ground. I had to let go of the string to keep from being pulled off the hill where I stood.”

The fireworks maker looked puzzled. “If the wind might pick you up and take you to the moon, why risk this curious and dangerous vehicle?”

“The wind might take me anywhere, but it is the moon I must visit.” He lifted his cup of tea, found it empty. Fang Hong shouted and an apprentice ran outside. The fireworks maker turned again to the young aristocrat.

“My apologies that your cup is dry. I will have more tea in a moment. I allow no fire here, for obvious reasons, so we draw water from a stone jug that is heated in the blacksmith’s forge all night.”

The young man returned and offered tea with great formality, but his eyes were on nothing but the drawing. After a moment he spoke. “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to put a small rocket here on the side, in case you needed to steer hard in one direction? You could put it on an iron swivel and operate it from inside.”

The master fireworks maker raised his hand to cuff the apprentice, but Chan Ji-Lin seized him by the shoulder. “Yes, a perfect idea! See that it is done, I will pay extra. Now what do you think of this control method?”

The young man bent over the drawing eagerly. “The ropes should be in bronze tubes, so that if dragons breathe fire in your path, the horsehair will not singe.”

“A sensible precaution, indeed. What is your name?”

The young man bowed low. “I am called Ho, of the humble family of Kang, and it would be my greatest pleasure to help you with your sky-faring vessel.”

———

The Mandarin who ruled the district tugged at his impressive goatee and squinted at the messenger, who kowtowed again. “This Chan Ji-Lin is of a good family?”

“Of the best, your excellency. Their fortune is old and honestly acquired, the peasants on their lands well treated, the servants in their employ respectful to their betters. Except for his fascination with the moon, Chan Ji-Lin himself is the model of respectability.”

“And the… thing he is building – will it work?”

“Excellency, it is hard to know. Since Kang Ho the firework maker’s apprentice became Kang Ho the rocket builder, many things have changed. Whatever happens, much has been learned already. The new rockets they have been testing fly straighter than the old ones in the Emperor’s arsenal, and they are far more reliable. Besides this, Chan Ji-Lin has set his servants to building kites in which a man may rise into the air and view the countryside around. Such things may help in the war against the Northern barbarians.”

The Mandarin thought about this for a moment, then dismissed the messenger. He clapped his hands twice, and a servant stepped into the elegantly furnished room. “Send in a scribe,” he ordered. “I have a message to go to the Emperor himself.”

——–

Kang Ho shook the tradesman roughly. “This lacquer is of the second quality, and we have ordered the first! The outside of the sky-faring vessel must be smooth and perfect in color so that the celestial inhabitants will admire the works of our own sphere!”

The lacquer-seller stood to his full height and looked down his nose at Kang Ho. “I will have you know that my lacquer is good enough for the shields of the Emperor’s army.”

Kang Ho sneered. “Good iron is not used to make nails, nor good men to make soldiers. Nor apparently is good lacquer used to make their shields!”

The lacquer-seller’s reply was interrupted by a servant’s voice. “Rocket Builder Kang, there is delegation here to see you.”

“A delegation? From where? Why?”

“The merchants of the city, the wealthiest ones. They are in formal robes, and they bring gifts.”

“Offer them the best hospitality we have, and I will be there in the merest moment.” He glared at the man he had been arguing with. “Perhaps there will be one among them who knows the difference between lacquer and mud.”

———

The chief of the delegation was Master Li, whose family was so old and renowned that it was said they had sold silks and sandalwood to the legendary Yao Emperor. It was therefore something of a surprise when that elegant worthy addressed Kang Ho in the style reserved for an equal. After many pleasantries and the ritual questions about the health of each other’s parents, they finally got down to business.

“We of the local merchants’ guild naturally seek to enhance the prosperity of our district, and we have been following your activities with great interest. Is it true that the vessel you are building for Chan Ji-Lin is superior to any which may be found in the Emperor’s arsenal?”

“The Emperor’s generals have used their rockets only to frighten the barbarians of the North, and to deliver fireworks to such a height that the Emperor may appreciate them. While this has been useful indeed, much more could be done with them. My patron the worthy Chan Ji-Lin is taking several brushes, three fine inkstones, and some parchment with him on his journey to the moon, so that on the way he may draw a most accurate map of the Imperial dominions. He should be able to see the cities of the barbarians, and where their armies are quartered. Such a map will be of great use to the Emperor’s officials, so that they may send trading expeditions where they will be most needed, and they may avoid the forces of the Mongols.”

Master Li pondered a moment. “A worthy project indeed,” he mused after a pause. “One detail intrudes, however. The map may be most fine and accurate, but at the time of its completion it will be on the moon with its maker, while the Emperor’s officials will all be here.”

“This question has been considered. The lunar vessel will have no less than eight carrier pigeons aboard, so that messages may be sent back and forth to the moon.”

Master Li nodded sagely. “You have indeed thought of every detail,” he said approvingly. “I will tell you that we of the local merchants foresee great things from your project, and we are most eager that you should continue your efforts after your wise and worthy patron departs for his voyage. The Emperor’s armies are sure to clamor for these improved fireworks…”

“Rockets,” interjected Kang Ho.

“Pardon, rockets,” Master Li agreed. “In any case, much wealth might flow from the Imperial capital to our humble district, to the betterment of all who live here. I have been told that the Emperor’s generals have ordered several hundred war rockets of the old type to repulse the Mongols. Wu the bronze founder has been estimating how many catties of silver the Emperor might pay were we to make that many of the type you are building now. He became so excited that he was quite delirious, and he had to lay down with a cool cloth on his forehead for some time. ”

Kang Ho frowned. “I have not considered the financial implications of this, I confess. I have put all my effort into designing the perfect vessel for my worthy patron, who travels for reasons that have nothing to do with money.”

Master Li smiled a fatherly smile. “It is well that you should concentrate on these things, for his safety is in your hands. If you will allow me to assist you in these matters, I can assure you of sufficient wealth that you will be able to build moon vessels for the rest of your life and never worry about money.”

Rocket Builder Kang smiled at the thought.

———-

The Chief Mandarin of the Empire read the letter again, then looked at the man who sat comfortably in his private chamber. “Might this be done?” he asked quietly.

The Chief General took a moment to answer, distracted as he had been by the scent of flowers from the immaculately maintained garden outside. “It may indeed be done. Whether the fellow who does it will come down alive is another matter.”

“Can you guarantee that the person who does it will not come down alive?”

The Chief General stared absently at the letter, which he had already read. “Rudders,” he muttered. “Little rockets to steer with. Kites to land with. Carrier pigeons, a nice thought there. ” He shook his head. “He seems to have thought of just about everything. No, it is an act of madness, of moon-madness, but it may work.”

“I thought so,” said the Chief Mandarin confidently. “In that case the Son Of Heaven must be told of this endeavor.”

“Why?” asked the Chief General.

The Chief Mandarin looked at him in astonishment. “Imagine the insult to the Emperor of the Moon if a visitor comes from Earth without a letter of greeting from the Emperor of China!”

“Ah,” nodded the Chief General. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

———-

Emperor Tang Ming-Huang sat in the gathering dusk with a flask of warm rice wine by his elbow. The cool breeze brought the sound of the distant singing girls and pi-pa players who performed at all times on the off chance that he might be listening. He heard the song without listening to it, drank the wine without tasting it, for his thoughts were on the sky. As he watched, a cloud scudded past the moon, partially obscuring it. A tear rolled slowly down the Emperor’s cheek. He had thought himself at the peak of humanity as the ruler of the greatest kingdom in the world. It was a frightening thought, that he now had all that could be worth having. It threatened a lifetime of boredom and ennui. Now a mere subject, a country gentleman who had to be at least half mad, had reminded him that there were new dreams to dream after all. Such a man would have to be rewarded properly.

He took up a blank scroll and began to write in strong, graceful characters, a wide smile on his face.

———–

Chan Ji-Lin turned the beautifully polished piece of bronze over in his hands, eyeing it with some bewilderment.

“I don’t remember specifying that the steering rocket nozzle should be modeled in the shape of a dragon’s head,” he ventured uncertainly.

“And I didn’t ask for them to be made that way, but the artisans at Master Li’s shop insisted on it,” explained Kang Ho. “The moon people must see that the workmanship of the bronze founders of our celestial plane is the equal of their own.”

“Appearances are important,” Chan Ji-Lin agreed. “But staying within our budget is even more important. I have pawned my family heirlooms, mortgaged my home, so that this vessel might be built. Now it is half complete, but three-quarters of my money is spent. At this rate, I will not be able to afford to finish it!”

Their conversation was interrupted by a blast of trumpets from the street outside, followed by an excited hubbub among the servants and apprentices in the front of the workshop. One young apprentice ran over to the two men and bowed low.

“Most excellent Patron Chan, worthy Rocket Builder Ho,” he stuttered with excitement. “There is an imperial messenger waiting outside for you!”

The two men rushed to the street, where eight trumpeters and a group of armed men on horseback surrounded a man in a palanquin who wore the red robes and black hat of a high mandarin. The official drew himself to his full height and addressed the two of them sternly as they kowtowed in the street before him.

“I bear tidings from the Emperor himself for Chan Ji-Lin!” the mandarin proclaimed in tones that rang across the gathering crowd.

“I am that unworthy person,” answered Chan, bowing again.

The mandarin pulled a scroll out of his sleeve, sealed with the yellow ribbon which was reserved for manuscripts written in the Emperor’s own hand.

“The Son of Heaven has appointed the honorable Chan Ji-Lin as his ambassador to the Emperor of the Moon, and gives him this scroll of greeting to present upon arrival at the court of that august ruler, his brother on the moon!” The trumpeters blew another salute that was almost drowned out by the buzz from the crowd. Chan Ji-Lin stood dumbfounded for a moment, then started forward to receive the letter.

“The Son of Heaven sends his ambassador silk of the finest quality for a garment as befits an ambassador, and sends gifts to be distributed at the lunar court! He also aids his ambassador on his journey with this grant of five catties of gold for the construction of his vessel!”

Kang Ho groaned slightly as a chest of gold was lugged forward by two strong men. Now that everyone knew that they had this money, they would never pay less than twice what anything was worth.

The small sound seemed to draw the attention of the mandarin. “Do I now address Kang Ho, known as Rocket Builder Kang?” he bellowed.

After Kang Ho bowed low, the mandarin pulled another letter out of his sleeve and held it forward. “The Son of Heaven confers on you the title of Imperial Rocket Builder, and directs that you act with all diligence to complete the celestial vessel!”

In a lifetime of bowing to the commands of authorities, Kang Ho had never bowed lower or more sincerely.

—–

The mayor of the district was fawningly humble as he addressed the new ambassador to the moon, who was being fitted with a robe of the finest red and purple silk.

“Would the most worthy ambassador assist this lowly servant of the Emperor by estimating how much gunpowder will be used as fuel for the celestial vessel?”

“As ambassador I am not much involved in such technical matters, but I believe it is around two hundred tons,” answered Chan Ji-Lin absently. “Or maybe Kang Ho said three hundred. I don’t remember.”

The mayor’s forehead suddenly developed a sheen of sweat. “If the most worthy ambassador would consent to move the celestial vessel to somewhere outside the city limits, I believe some excellent terms may be arranged. There is a fine piece of land just the other side of that range of hills, with excellent feng shui for beginning a journey…”

Chan Ji-Lin listened with half an ear and directed the man to speak with Kang Ho. As the mayor departed, the tailor who was fitting his new garments whispered, “He calls that a formal robe? Really, that style has been out of fashion since the second year of the Sui dynasty.”

—–

Kang Ho eyed the piece of black bamboo warily, but it was all the little Sichuanese hillman said it was. “You can get me a hundred pieces just like this, as tall as three men, the width of two thumbs, and straight as an arrow’s flight?”

“Straighter than an arrow’s flight, if it is me shooting the arrow,” the little man affirmed with a wide grin and the latest in a series of bows. “I do not know archery, but I do know bamboo, and I know a perfect grove in which I may cut five hundred such pieces.”

“In time I may need five hundred, but right now one hundred will do.” Kang Ho sighted down the length of the bamboo again. “The ambassador’s cabin will be made of this bamboo, so it must be light and strong. The very life of the Imperial Ambassador will depend on the quality of your work.”

The hillman bowed low. “Imperial Rocket Builder Kang, I will have them delivered within a week!” The small man ran back to the donkey cart he had arrived on and flipped the reins. The animal brayed in protest, then reluctantly trotted away.

Kang Ho watched him go for a moment, smiling. It had not been as bad as he had feared. The local tradesmen were so in awe of him that he was actually paying less for better merchandise than he ever had before. The shipment of lacquer he had just received was so clear he had been able to see every detail of the bottom of the barrel as soon as he removed the lid. He gazed into the distance, reflecting on his good fortune, then started slightly as someone cleared his throat nearby.

“Pardon, Architect Wu, I had not heard you come near,” exclaimed Kang Ho. “How is the work on the collapsible pagoda coming along?”

“Not truly a pagoda, Imperial Rocket Builder Kang, more properly a rather elaborate scaffold,” corrected the architect in a high, reedy voice. “I have figured out a design which will hold the grand rocket steady until the moment that it begins to lift into the sky, but will then fold away so it may be used again upon the next instance that a voyager requires it.”

The two men looked at the huge first stage of the rocket, which was receiving the attentions of a team of painters who decorated the sides with sinuous imperial dragons. “It will be most wonderful, most beautiful,” said Wu the Architect softly. “Though I understand that this part will be shed soon after the journey begins. Are you not worried that it will fall on someone’s cottage?”

“We will launch to the east, so that this part will fall in the ocean. The only life at risk will be that of the ambassador.” And mine, he added to himself silently, remembering what happened to Imperial servants who failed in their duties.

——

“Strange that this small height can make giddy one who is soon to ascend so much higher,” mused Chan Ji-Lin as he stood at the top of the gantry. The summer breeze freshened a bit, but the huge structure only creaked slightly.

“Last year I would have thought it a wonder to look down upon the birds in their flight,” replied Kang Ho. “Now I look at you, who shall fly so much higher than they, and I find it even more of a wonder.”

“The gods have given the birds their wings, but Kang Ho has given me this celestial vessel.”

“Kang Ho would be a journeyman fireworks maker in the shop of Fang Hong were it not for the genius of Chan Ji-Lin, and the gracious wisdom of the Emperor.” Both men kowtowed to the north and the faraway imperial capital, then resumed their conversation.

“Come then, do inspect your living quarters,” invited Kang Ho. “We have just a few things left to do and I wish your approval of the decorations.”

They walked into the cabin, and Chan Ji-Lin whistled in admiration. “Such elegant tapestries!”

Kang Ho smiled. “Touch one,” he suggested. Chan Ji-Lin pressed his knuckle against a detailed embroidery of the moon over Mount Tai and was surprised when it sank in several inches. “There are five layers of goose down, so that if there are storms in the celestial seas, you will be well protected,” explained Kang Ho. “The couch from which you will work the control levers has eight layers of padding and there are woven silk belts to keep you from losing your balance.”

Chan Ji-Lin bowed his head, tears in his eyes. “My friend, I could not have done this without you,” he managed to say after a moment.

“We were fated to meet,” answered Kang Ho. “In a week, the dream we both dream will come true. ”

—–

The hills around the launch site of the celestial vessel were black with people, and the noise of so many thousands of spectators was distracting even at the base of the gantry. Kang Ho and Chan Ji-Lin looked over the broad plain toward the distant dais where the local mandarins and the Imperial representative sat in state.

“I can not quite believe it is the day.” murmured Chan Ji-Lin softly. “My last hour before the greatest journey ever taken, to be gone for who knows how long.”

“This brings up one small matter,” interjected Kang Ho politely. “We have discussed much of the means of your departure, and nothing of the means of your return.”

Chan Ji-Lin waved his hand vaguely. “I have thought little of it myself. I assume the people of the moon will assist me in building another celestial vessel, for would not the Emperor of China assist an ambassador from afar in completing a journey home?”

“Assuredly,” agreed Kang Ho, though his brow remained creased as though from worry.

A blast of trumpets from afar interrupted both their thoughts. “The moment the astrologers deemed auspicious draws near,” exclaimed Chan Ji-Lin. He seized Kang Ho by both shoulders and embraced him. “My friend, my companion, you have made this all possible. Were it not for you, I should have ventured forth in a craft so primitive that the mandarins of the moon would have looked down their noses in condescension. You are the finest maker of celestial vessels in all worlds, I am sure of it!”

“My friend, my patron, my heart shall be with you,” declared Kang Ho. He bowed deeply, then started the long climb down the gantry to the ground. Once he got there it was a walk of some minutes to get to the very end of the fuse, and a moment or two more to find the tinderbox that he kept up his sleeve. He bowed toward the distant dais and the Imperial flag as the giant drums rolled, and there was a vast silence as he took flint and tinder and struck the spark. The fuse sputtered, faded, and then flared up in a shower of sparks and a smell of sulfurous smoke. Kang Ho took a few steps toward the dais and safety – and then turned and ran for all he was worth to the gantry. In a few moments of frenzied climbing he reached the top and threw himself on the floor next to the cage of carrier pigeons.

“You shall need the finest maker of celestial vessels in all the worlds to bring you back, and I am coming with you!” he announced to the shocked Chan Ji-Lin as the first rocket ignited and their whole world shook. There were a few moments of roaring, terrifying chaos as pressure like a giant hand crushed them deep into the silks and goosedown of their vessel, and then they passed out and knew no more.

—–

Chan Ji-Lin awakened to the feel of a light breeze on his cheek, the smell of pine trees, and the alarmed squawking of the three carrier pigeons which had survived the trip. “I am alive,” he wondered aloud. He heard a groan from somewhere nearby and saw a familiar figure stirring from beneath a pile of bamboo splinters and goosedown. “We are alive,” he corrected himself. “We made it to the moon!” he exulted. He tried to remember the beautiful, brief, but elegant poem that the Emperor had sent for him to read on arrival. “A man takes one small step, and all mankind takes a leap with him,” he pronounced ceremoniously. He was going to continue the poem, but a rustling noise behind him made him jump. He looked around and saw a scene that sprung straight from his most wild dreams of poetry. Two young women came into the meadow, wearing little but wreaths of flowers and expressions of curiosity. “Tao Yuan-Ming, Li Po, all you poets, you were right,” he breathed rapturously. “The maidens of the moon are everything you said!”

—–

The chief of the Beaver band of the People looked at the strange thing that had fallen by the edge of Lake Michigan and sighed. He had been assured by his scouts that it was not actually a bird, even though little pieces of feathers blew around it every time the spring breeze came up. It might have been a sending from the Gods, even though to his eyes it seemed to be made of some kind of splintered wood. It was a curious omen that it had landed right by the place where the young women of the tribe were finishing their womanhood rite, but the shaman said it was probably best that he knew no more of exactly what was happening there. He had enough problems as it was, what with Soaring Hawk’s pestering him with his mad scheme of wanting to visit the moon…

 * * *

Notes:

1. In this story I used the Wade-Giles method of transliterating Chinese names rather than the now-standard Pinyin. I don’t speak any dialect of Chinese, but loved Chinese poetry in translation when I first encountered it in high school, and the books I had then used Wade-Giles. As far as I can understand, given the tonality of the language and the incredible diversity in dialects, none of the transliterations actually work, so I use the one that seems to me the most musical.

2. After this story came out, someone called to my attention that the Sichuanese bamboo salesman should have used a pony cart instead of a donkey cart. He was right about this – while donkeys are stronger and better at pulling carts, they are native to the Middle East and apparently did not make it to China until the 1300’s.

3. When I sold this story to Stan Schmidt, at that time the Editor of Analog, he asked if the Chinese politeness and forms of address were correct. I explained to him that I would be happy to use the correct forms of address, as that would double the length of the story and I was being paid by the word. Stan decided that my abbreviated version was just fine.