The Man with the Curly Beard

Magic, alchemy, and hydraulic engineering in the Chengdu plain

I'm sitting at my desk on a Sunday morning, reading Lu Xun's "A Brief History of Chinese Fiction."

In the chapter on Tang Dynasty Prose Romances I come across a passage that begins: "Then there was Du Guangting's The Man with the Curly Beard which was extremely popular. Du was a Daoist priest in Chengdu who served under Wang Yan and left many works, mostly dealing with magic and alchemy."

Daoist priest. Chengdu. Magic and alchemy. I am intrigued.

A quick Google reveals a two sentence Wikipedia bio. The second sentence says that The Man with the Curly Beard, is sometimes considered "the earliest novel in the wuxia genre." Wuxia literally means martial arts; think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or the hugely popular novels of Louis Cha.

I am now more than intrigued. A Daoist priest in 9th century Chengdu may have written the first wuxia novel! A new character has entered my personal pantheon of Sichuan heroes. I Google the Chinese title for The Man with the Curly Beard, 虬髯客傳. A few clicks and I arrive at the Gutenberg ebook archive. One second later I have downloaded a copy of a 9th century Chinese novel to my Kindle.

Magic and alchemy, indeed.

But it gets better. Du Guangting (850-933) lived through the fall of the Tang Dynasty and the consequent creation of the Kingdom of Former Shu (also known as Great Shu), one of the many incidences of an independent state centered on Sichuan blossoming in a moment of general Chinese chaos. As a court Daoist, one of Du's duties was to shore up the legitimacy of the Former Shu.

Du proceeded to do so in "Records of Marvels," a collection of noteworthy and miraculous events associated with Sichuan that has been analyzed in great detail by the great French historian of Daoism, Franciscus Verellen. In this work, Du tells a story about the magical appearance of an army of "spirit soldiers" led by Li Bing, the hydraulic engineer who built the (still-operating!) Dujiangyan irrigation system in the third century B.C that helped turned Sichuan into the land of plenty.  

Verellen writes:

On the occasion of the flooding of the river Min in 910, three years into the reign of Wang Jian as emperor of Great Shu, Li Bing, the Warring States hydraulic engineer and chief deity of water management in the Chengdu plain, made an appearance that saved the kingdom from a natural disaster. In the summer of that year, reports the Record of Marvels, when the floodwaters threatened the Chengdu plain, the shouts of thousands of men were heard in the night on the great dam at Guankou, the site of Li Bing's original hydraulic works. Rows of countless torches, impervious to the rain and wind, lit up the scene. At dawn, the great dike was found displaced by several hundred yards, diverting the flood waters into the river Xinjin. The flags that had been placed inside the Li Bing temple were all drenched. As a result of the diversion, the Chengdu plain was spared.

Verellen appends an provocative footnote. In 1982, a Chinese journal published an article reporting that "archaeologists date a major change in the disposition of the main dam and the spillover dam to this period."

Magic, and alchemy, for sure!

I have visited the tenth century tomb of Wang Jian, preserved in remarkable glory in downtown Chengdu. I have also visited Li Bing's temple at Dujiangyan, where one can admire a statue of him dating back to the Han dynasty that was miraculously found in the Min River in 1974. I was, however, previously unaware that Li Bing and an army of spirit soldiers rescued the peasants of the Chengdu plain from disaster in the early 10th century. But now I have made the acquaintance of Du Guangting, Daoist priest, state propagandist, and popular martial arts fantasy novelist. More marvels, I am sure, await.