There is a story told about the Chinese poet Han Fook, who, as a young man, had been inspired by a wondrous urge to learn all he could and become perfect in everything that was in any way related to the art of poetry. At that time he was still living in his hometown on the Yellow River and by his own wish had become engaged to a young woman from a good family, with the help of his parents who loved him dearly. The wedding date was soon to be set on a day that promised to be auspicious. Han Fook was then about twenty years old. He was a handsome and modest young man, pleasant in his manners and well rounded in his education. In spite of his youth, he had already made a name for himself with many an excellent poem, and he was known in the literary circles of this region. Without being exactly rich, he could nevertheless expect to have enough money to lead a comfortable life, and this money would be increased through the dowry of his bride. Moreover, since this bride was very beautiful and virtuous, nothing whatsoever seemed to be missing to complete the young man’s happiness. Nevertheless, he was not entirely content, for his heart’s desire was to become a perfect poet.
One evening while the festival of lanterns was being celebrated on a bank of the river, Han Fook happened to be wandering alone on the other side. He leaned against the trunk of a tree that protruded over the water and looked at the thousand lights swimming and shimmering in the reflection in the river. He saw men and women and young girls on boats and barges greeting one another. They were dressed in festive costumes and beamed like beautiful flowers. He heard the faint murmuring of the glittering water, the melodies of the singers, the hum of the zither, and the sweet tones of the flute players. And high above all of this, he saw the blue night hover like the arch of a temple. The young man’s heart pounded while he stood there as a lonely spectator, and he became enraptured by all this beauty. Yet as much as he longed to cross the river and become part of everything, to be near his bride and his friends and enjoy the festivities, he also desired just as passionately to absorb all of this as a keen observer and to capture it in a totally perfect poem: the blue of the night and the play of light on the water, as well as the enjoyment of the people and the yearning of the silent onlooker leaning against the trunk of the tree on the bank. He sensed that there would never be a festive occasion or any pleasure in the world that would make him feel entirely at ease and cheerful. Even in the midst of life he would remain solitary and, to a certain degree, a spectator and stranger. He felt, among other things, that his soul was formed in such a way that compelled him to feel both the beauty of earth and the strange longing of the outsider at the same time. He became sad about that, and as he pondered this matter, he came to the conclusion that true happiness and deep fulfillment could be his only if he were to succeed one time in capturing the world so perfectly in his poems that he would possess the world itself, purified and eternalized, in these images.
Han Fook hardly knew whether he was still awake or had fallen asleep when he heard a slight rustling and saw a stranger standing next to the trunk of the tree. The man was old and venerable and dressed in a violet robe. Han Fook stood up straight and greeted him with the respect due to wise and distinguished men. But the stranger only smiled and recited a few verses that expressed everything that the young man had just felt so perfectly and beautifully and in such exact accord with the rules of the great poets that the young man’s heart stood still in amazement.
“Who are you?” he exclaimed with a deep bow. “You who can peer into my soul and recite such poems that are more beautiful than any I have ever heard from my teachers?”
Once again the stranger smiled the smile of a man of great accomplishment and said, “If you want to become a poet, come to me. You’ll find my hut at the source of the Great River in the northwestern mountains. My name is Master of the Perfect Word.”
Upon saying this, the old man stepped into the narrow shadow of the tree and disappeared. Han Fook searched for him, and when he could find not a single trace of the man, he became completely convinced that everything had been a dream caused by his fatigue. He rushed over to the boats on the other side of the river and joined in the festival, but between conversations and the sound of flutes, he continued to hear the mysterious voice of the stranger. Han Fook’s soul seemed to have abandoned him and gone away with the old man, for he sat there with dreamy eyes, cut off from the cheerful people who teased him for being in love.
A few days later, Han Fook’s father prepared to summon his friends and relatives to set the date of the wedding. But the bridegroom opposed this and said, “Forgive me if I seem to neglect the duty that a son owes his father. But you know how great my desire is to distinguish myself in the art of poetry, and though some of my friends may praise my poems, I know quite well that I’m still a beginner and have a long way to go. Therefore I beg you to let me go off by myself for a while to devote myself to my studies. It seems to me that I’ll be kept from doing such things when I am obliged to take charge of a wife and home. Right now I’m still young and without obligations, and I’d like to live awhile just for my poetry, from which I hope to gain pleasure and fame.”
This speech astonished Han Fook’s father, and he replied, “You must indeed love poetry more than anything else if you want to postpone your wedding for it. Or has something come between you and your bride? If so, tell me, so that I can help to reconcile you or provide you with another bride.”
However, the son swore that he still loved his bride just as much as he had loved her before and would continue to love her in the future. They had not quarreled in the least. Then Han Fook told his father that a master had appeared to him through a dream on the day of the festival of lamps, and his greatest wish in the world was to become his student.
“Very well,” said his father. “I shall grant you one year. During this time you may follow your dream, which was perhaps sent to you by a god.”
“It might even take two years,” Han Fook replied hesitantly. “Who can know?”
Though saddened by all this, his father let him go. In the meantime the young man wrote a letter to his bride, said farewell, and departed.
After he had wandered for a very long time, he reached the source of the river and found a bamboo hut in an isolated spot. In front of the hut sat an old man on a woven mat. It was the same old man whom he had seen by the trunk of the tree on the riverbank. He was sitting and playing a lute, and when he saw the guest approach with reverence, he did not stand up; nor did he greet the young man. Rather, he only smiled and let his agile fingers run across the strings, so that a magical music floated like a silver cloud through the valley. The young man stood there bedazzled and forgot everything else in sweet astonishment until the Master of the Perfect Word set his small lute aside and entered the hut. Han Fook followed him in awe and stayed with him as his servant and student.
One month passed, and Han Fook came to despise all the songs that he had previously composed, and he erased them from his memory. And again, a few months later, he erased the songs that he had learned from his teachers at home. The Master rarely spoke to him. He taught Han Fook the art of lute playing in silence until the student was completely saturated by music, to the very core of his existence. One time, Han Fook composed a small poem describing the flight of two birds on a fall evening, and he was pleased with it. He did not dare to show it to the Master, but he did sing it one evening by the side of the hut. The Master clearly heard it, but he did not say a word about it. He merely played softly on his lute, and the air soon became cool, and dusk rapidly descended, A sharp wind arose, although it was the middle of summer, and two herons, tremendously intent on migrating, flew through the sky, which had just become gray. All this was so much more beautiful and perfect than the verses of the student that Han Fook became sad and silent and felt worthless. Each time Han Fook wrote a poem, the old man did the exact same thing. After a year had passed, Han Fook learned to play the lute almost perfectly, although he continued to regard the art of poetry as more difficult and sublime.
Two years later, the young man felt an intense longing to see his parents, his bride, and his native land, and he asked the Master for permission to travel home.
The Master smiled and nodded. “You are free,” he said, “and you can go wherever you want. You may come back, and you may stay away, just as you like.”
So the student set out on his journey and traveled without resting until one morning he stood and watched the sunrise on the bank of the familiar river and looked across the arched bridge at his native city. He snuck unnoticed into the garden of his father, who was still sleeping, and he heard his father’s breathing through the window of the bedroom. Then he stole into the orchard near the house of his bride. After he climbed to the top of a pear tree, he saw her standing in her room and combing her hair. When he compared all that he was now seeing with the picture that he had painted of it in his homesickness, he realized that he was very much destined to become a poet, and he saw that the dreams of a poet contain a beauty and charm that are sought in vain in the real things of the world. And he climbed down from the tree and fled from the garden across the bridge and out of his native city. When he returned to the high mountain valley, the old Master sat just as he had before, in front of the hut on his modest mat, and played the lute with his fingers. Instead of greeting Han Fook, the Master recited two verses about the blessings of art, and the student’s eyes filled with tears upon hearing such profundity and harmony.
Once more, Han Fook remained with the Master of the Perfect Word, who now gave him zither lessons since he had mastered the lute, and the months melted away like snow before the west wind. Two more times Han Fook was overcome by homesickness. One time he left the mountains secretly at night, but before he reached the last bend in the valley, the nocturnal wind blew across the zither hanging near the door of the hut, and the tones flew after him and called him back in such a way that he could not resist. The other time he dreamed that he was planting a young tree in his garden. His wife stood nearby, and his children were watering the tree with wine and milk. When he awoke, the moon was shining into his room, and he got up in an agitated state and looked at the Master slumbering next to him with his gray beard softly trembling. At first Han Fook was overcome by bitter hatred toward this man who, so it seemed, had destroyed his life and had robbed him of his future. He was about to pounce on the Master and murder him, but the wise old man opened his eyes and instantly smiled with a sad and fine gentleness that disarmed the student.
“Remember, Han Fook,” the old man said softly, “you are free to do whatever you please. You may return to your home and plant trees. You may hate and kill me. It doesn’t matter.”
“Oh, how could I hate you!” exclaimed the poet, tremendously moved. “It would be like hating heaven itself.”
And he remained and learned to play the zither, followed by the flute, and later he began to write poems under the Master’s guidance. Slowly he grasped that mysterious art and learned how to say seemingly plain and simple things in such a way that they stirred the soul of the listener like the wind on the surface of the water. He described the coming of the sun as it hesitates on the edge of the mountains, and the soundless darting of fish when they flee like shadows underwater, and the swaying of a young willow in the spring wind. And when people heard his words, it was not only the sun, the play of fish, or the whispering of the willow that they depicted. It seemed that heaven and earth chimed together for one moment in perfect harmony, and the listeners would think with pleasure or pain about something that they loved or hated — the boy about his games, the young man about his lover, and the old man about death.
Han Fook lost track of the years that he spent with the Master at the source of the Great River. It often seemed to him as though it had been only yesterday that he had entered the valley and been received by the old man playing the lute. It also seemed as if all the times and ages of humankind had faded and become unreal.
Then one morning he awoke alone in the hut, and no matter where he searched and called, he could not find the Master. Autumn seemed to have arrived overnight, and a rough wind shook the old hut. Great flocks of migratory birds flew over the ridge of the mountains even though it was not their time to do so.
Han Fook took the little lute with him and traveled to his native land. Wherever he met people, they addressed him with the proper greeting for old and distinguished men. When he came to his home city, he learned that his father, his bride, and his relatives had died, and other people were living in their houses. That evening the festival of lanterns was celebrated on the bank of the river, and the poet Han Fook stood across the water on the darker bank, leaning on the trunk of the old tree, and when he began to play the lute, the women sighed and looked into the night, delighted and anxious, and the young girls called out to the lute player, whom they could not find anywhere. None of them had ever heard such sounds from a lute before, they exclaimed loudly. Meanwhile, Han Fook smiled. He looked into the river where the reflections of the thousand lanterns were floating, and just as he could no longer distinguish between the reflections and the real lanterns, so he found in his soul no difference between this festival and the first one, when he had stood there as a young man and had first heard the words of the strange Master.