In the realm of myth, the story of King Mu of Chao and the enigmatic magician takes us beyond the limits of reality. During King Mu’s time, a foreign magician with amazing abilities visited his kingdom, leading the King on an enchanting adventure. As we delve into this fable, we will explore the limitless limits of the human imagination, the allure of the extraordinary, and the ultimate return to reality.
This is another Lieh Tzu fable from the book “Leaves From My Chinese Scrapbook” by Frederic Henry Balfour. I’ll include a link at the bottom of this article. Let’s get started!
The fable of “King Mu and the Magician”
During the time of Mu, King of Chao, an exceptional magician with remarkable talents arrived from a far Western nation. He could go through stone and metal, pass through fire and water, move mountains and rivers, move towns around, ride through space without falling, and come across solid things without getting stuck. He could modify the exterior shape of items as well as the stream of other people’s thoughts; thus, the alterations and transformations he could bring about were countless and limitless.
King Mu treated him with reverence befitting a god and served him as if he were a prince; he also prepared a pavilion for him to rest in, brought fish, meat, and poultry as gifts, and ordered certain music girls to perform for his pleasure.
The magician, on the other hand, considered the King’s palace to be a filthy and miserable cottage and refused to stay there. The royal meal, he said, was awful, and he refused to eat it. As for the court women who accompanied him, he criticized them as both unattractive and offensive, and he would have nothing to do with them!
The King then ordered the construction of a new mansion and sent workers to meticulously paint the walls red and white. By the time the tower was completed, with a height of 10,000 feet, all of his treasuries were empty. He gave it the name Tower of the Central Heavens. Then he selected the most attractive virgins from the States of Chêng and Wei, with bright eyes and alluring features.
He gave them lavish perfumes and fragrant ointments and instructed them to dress in delicate silks with trailing sashes, paint their eyebrows tastefully, accessorize their heads, powder their faces, darken their eyes, and adorn their arms with jeweled bracelets. Then he ordered that fragrant grass be put around the tower, that bands play joyful royal music, that the visitor get changes of magnificent clothing at predetermined intervals, and that delectable breakfast foods be served every morning. The magician first refused to take up residence there; nevertheless, he was finally forced to do so, although he only stayed for a few days.
During a meeting with the King one day, the magician asked His Majesty to go on a trip with him. The King then grasped the magician’s sleeve, and the two of them flew high into the air, all the way to the very peak of the skies, where they found themselves at the magician’s palace. Its ceiling was made of gold and silver beams that were covered in jade and pearl overlays. It was far, far above the area of clouds and rain, and nothing suggested that it would appear to be nothing more than a thick cloud itself when viewed from below.
The King believed it must be the Pure City, the Purple Hidden Palace, where the song of the spheres is heard—God’s residence—because all the phenomena that attracted the senses were quite different from those that were common among humans. He looked down and saw his own palace far below, its terraces and arches seeming like nothing more than a pile of clods and billets. He began to consider how he would stay there for a number of years and stop worrying about his country.
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The magician suggested they go even further, so they did. They flew higher and higher until they reached a place where they couldn’t see the sun or moon from above or the seas or rivers from below. The King’s eyes were dazzled by the reflection of light and shadow, making it impossible for him to see clearly, and his hearing was perplexed by odd noises, making it impossible for him to hear clearly. His entire body began to tremble with terror, his mind was confused, and he lost all remaining energy.
He begged the magician to let him go back, so the magician gave him a light push. He felt like he was falling over and over again, and then he woke up. He was seated in the same place as before, with his attendants surrounding him; his wine had not yet chilled, and his food was not yet ready. The King questioned what had happened. In response, his courtiers said, “Your Majesty has been sitting wrapped in silent contemplation.”
The King then went into a state of abstraction and self-oblivion that lasted for three months. After that time, he asked the magician again what had happened. “Your Majesty and I only traveled in the spirit; how could our bodies have moved?” said the magician. What’s the difference between the residences we recently visited and your Majesty’s own palace? —between the places we went and your Majesty’s own land?
During Your Majesty’s retirement, you have been continually concerned that these locations are currently nonexistent. Do you really believe you can comprehend all the depths of my enchantments in such a short period of time?
The king was really happy with this response. He lost interest in state issues, no longer enjoyed his harem, and let his imagination run wild. Then he ordered that the six splendid steeds, Beauty, Jasper, Bucephalus, Alabaster, Topaz, and Swift-flyer, be tied to his chariot, and he rode away with his charioteers and servants, the horses flying like the wind. They galloped fiercely for one thousand li before reaching the land of the Mighty Hunter.
The Hunter served the King the blood of a wild goose and made a bath of cow and mare milk for the royal feet. Once everyone was feeling better, they set out again and spent the night in a cave in the Kwên-lun Mountains, which are south of the Vermilion Waters.
The following day, they traveled up the mountain to the Palace of the Yellow Emperor, who bestowed hereditary titles upon the King. His Majesty was then hosted by the Royal Mother of the West, who laid up a dinner beside the Emerald Pool. Then the Queen began to sing to him, and the King joined her in singing.
The King’s song was sad, and as he saw the sun set below the horizon and journey a thousand li in a single night, he sighed deeply. “Alas!” he said, “my virtue is far from perfect because I am still susceptible to the influences of this sweet music. Future generations will undoubtedly criticize me for committing this error.”
What! Do you believe King Mu has supernatural abilities? He was just a regular man, capable of enjoying all the delights his body could provide, and after a hundred years, he passed away, leaving the rest of the world to believe he had disappeared bodily.
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The fable of King Mu’s encounter with the magician offers a fascinating reflection on the allure of the unusual and people’s propensity to seek out the unknown.
While the dreamlike trip was interesting, it also made King Mu think about his own world and how attached he was to the everyday.
This fable is supposed to act as a warning about the dangers of pursuing extraordinary experiences at the expense of one’s obligations and the society they are intended to live in. It emphasizes the need of strike a balance between the appeal of the extraordinary and the grounded realities of everyday existence.