Richard Seltzer's home page  Publishing home

Chiang Ti Tales by Richard Seltzer

The Void

(written Dec. 1963)


Long, long ago, before man made books to talk across centuries, a young man, Chiang Ti, left his village in the valley and went up  to the mountains.  With all the comings and goings in the village  in the valley, no one had time to think beyond the next harvest.   But Chiang needed to know why the sun rose, and why the grass  grew, and why men lived and grew and died.  So he went up, close  to the sky and the stars and the sun, up to the mountains.

            After a few weeks in the mountains, Chiang Ti went running  back to the village in the valley and gathered his parents and  his neighbors, all the important people of the village and all  the ordinary people too, like the young girl Lotus and her sister  Little Blossom.    He told them all, "Every child has this answer in his  drawings.  The sky is above; the earth is below; and man dwells  in the empty space between.  Life is just the journey of the soul  from heaven to earth through this emptiness.

            "A child knows of heaven for he has recently come from there.   A  dead man becomes a part of the earth.  Therefore, let the  knowledge of a man determine his tasks.  Have babies for your  priests and old weaklings for kings.  The babies will teach you  the language of the gods.  And the old will teach you the value  of life and the futility of greed and will pursue a policy of  peace."

            Many of the village folk were impressed with Chiang's words  and were willing to do as he said.  But the oldest man present  asked, "If what you say is true, then you, Chiang, must be not  yet halfway in your journey through the emptiness that separates  heaven from earth.  How then could you, far from both heaven and  earth, have discovered the key to the universe?"

            Chiang Ti paused a moment, then turned and slowly climbed back  up to the mountains, to think once again about the problems of  the universe.

            Metamorphosis (written April 1965)

            Months later, Chiang Ti returned again to the village, with a  smile of certainty on his face, his round bright head held high.   Lotus saw him first and called together all the village folk. 

            He told them, "What is done is done.  Man has no control over  his past.  He changes and learns.  He is not the same person  today he was yesterday, and tomorrow, too, he will be different.   Life is a process of becoming.  You cannot relive the past and  alter it.  But you can control what you are becoming.  Judge men  not on their past, but on their future.

            "The keen observer can see what a man is becoming.  A man can  begin to look like a frog or act like a pig.  Bit by bit he can  become more and more like an animal or vegetable until when he  dies, his reincarnation, his change of bodies makes but a small  difference.

            "From the beginnings of life, some animals have become better,  others have stayed the same, and others have fallen.  Be ruled  and guided by those who are rising; and under their good  influence all might rise together.  Be not corrupted by  tomorrow's zoo.  A monkey who acts like a human is better than a  man who acts like an ape.  Judge all by what they are becoming  and be ruled by the best."

            "Who then will be judge?" asked someone in the crowd.

            "Me," said the Mayor.

            "Me," said the Schoolmaster.

            "Me!  Me!  Me!" arose from all sides.

            As the villagers bickered, waving their arms and tongues,  Little Blossom tossed breadcrumbs to pigeons that swarmed about,  flapping their wings and pecking greedily.  Chiang Ti watched the  villagers an the birds for a while, then turned and slowly walked  back toward the mountains.

            Neverending Now (written April 1965)

            The following spring, Chiang Ti returned again to the village  with a new answer.  "A human life has no beginning and no end,"  he said.  "The time of the sun and the stars is not the time of  man.  His mind is free, has a time of its own.

            "An hour's sleep is but a moment.  And the second before a  race begins can seem to last for hours.  Imagine a condemned man  on the scaffold with the rope around his neck.  To him, how long  does that moment last?  What thoughts run through his mind?  One  minute to live, half a minute, a quarter, an eighth... And what  minute, half minute, quarter, eighth... did you begin to be?  The  promise of eternal life was in the endless moment of conception.   It's fulfillment is in the endless moment of death.

            "What need is there for laws, judges, prisons?  The final  judgment, hell, and paradise are within you.  Just remind people  of the horrors or pleasures that could await them in that last  endless moment, and there will be no more crime.  All will live  in peace and love."

            But the doctor said, "Many people die in their sleep, unaware  that death is approaching.  Does your theory apply in that case?   Or do those people simply die -- with no heaven and no hell?"

            Chiang Ti suffered a century of frustration.  A moment later,  he turned and walked back to the mountains to look within himself  for other answers.

            Peace (written August 1965)

            Chiang Ti watched in horror as each spring a large band of strong young men crossed the mountains to the neighboring valley and as each fall a few came limping back. He had heard the gossip and speeches of how the war began and why it continued. But he knew that the whys of s war are like the whys of a thunderstorm or an earthquake: they help to predict, but do nothing to prevent or to stop. Long did he meditate in his mountain hermitage on the problem of making a lasting peace. The in his moment of greatest despair, when he feared there was no answer, that very fear gave him the answer.

            That night he descended to the village in the valley; secretly, for this was not an answer for the ears of the many. He went first to the home of Chow Wong the politician, for he was a man of action.

            "Rejoice, Chow Wong, the answer has come. War will soon leave our village and the village in the neighboring valley. Fear in part drove us to war. Fear will also save us. For fear is the one great unifying force. If a common enemy were to challenge both villages, our petty differences would soon be forgotten for fear that we'd lose the more pressing struggle. And likewise, fear could unite three, four, a dozen, any number of villages if it were great enough and pressing enough. Of course, with a real enemy, nothing is gained: more blood is shed; and as soon as the great struggle is over, the petty differences are remembered, and the old war flares up again. But if the enemy should be an imaginary one from beyond the stars or beyond the Great Sea, surely then the fear could last, with all men cooperating to prepare for the imminent invasion.

            "Others have tried this before, shouting with foaming mouths that the end of the world is at hand; so that all men should act like brothers. Such men failed because they had no authority beyond their own frenzy, no credentials other than their own claims of divine inspiration.  We shall succeed because we shall speak through the mouths of those they already trust. We shall win to our side the handful of daring mean who have crossed the Great Sea or the handful of learned men who know the ways of the stars; and with all the weight of their indisputable authority, we shall spread the alarm through all the land. Lend me your hand, and together we shall chase war beyond the farthest sea."

            Chow Wong replied, "I fear that fear that you would use so lightly. If all went well, if most, nearly all believed the story and the panic took constructive form, all might pull together to work for their common safety. Villages might cooperate, at first. But bit by bit, the pace would naturally quicken; for the danger must seem to grow or people will get used to it and no longer fear it.  AT first all would need to be prodded to be convinced that the danger was getting greater. Then events would start to flow of their own accord.

            "The hundreds of separate village governments would be too inefficient to direct this life-or-death struggle with the unknown.  A single government would take the place of the many, and a single man would soon take charge of that. Meanwhile, a few would not believe and would loudly voice their views on street corners. In such an emergency, no mercy would be shown. Dissenters contribute nothing to the cause and hamper the efficiency of others: hence destroy them.  The greater the fear, the greater the unity necessary to combat the enemy. Hence, bit by bit, the useless fringes are eliminated: the old, the sick, the weak.  Everyone is expected to produce to the maximum. The lazy are destroyed. And as the enemy is expected at any moment, the pace becomes greater; more and more won't be able to keep up, will be destroyed. Fewer and fewer will remain to work harder and harder until the ultimate unity: one man alone, facing the universe.

            "And if you should see the rock of humanity careening down the mountainside and place yourself in its path to stop it, you, too, would be destroyed. No one would believe you when you told them it was all a hoax. You'd be destroyed with the rest of those too weak or too lazy to continue.

            "No, Chiang Ti, fear is not the answer for peace."

            Chiang Ti took his leave and returned to his hermitage in the mountains. And in his fear of war and its consequences, in his fear that there is no formula for eternal peace, Chiang Ti felt very much alone: one man facing the universe.

            Creation/Destruction (written April 1966)

            Night followed day, time and again.  Rocks tossed high in the  sky fell low in the valley.  Chiang Ti watched and pondered long,  then rose and returned to the village in the valley, followed by  Lotus, Little Blossom and dozens of children who loved to hear  his stories.

            "Whatever rises must fall," he told the village folk.   "Whatever lives must die.  Every creation contains the seeds of  its destruction.  But don't despair that so it is and must be.   Rather, accept and rejoice in the rhythm of the world.

            "See a child at play with his blocks, carefully, cheerfully  building.  See the delight of creation.  Then see the same child,  with a sweep of his hand, topple the tower, laugh, and build  again.

            "To create, one must destroy; and to destroy, one must create.   The whole pattern has its pleasure -- both rise and fall.  Accept  it cheerfully, like a child, and continually rejoice."

            But a carpenter, accustomed only to building, spoke up,  "Chiang Ti, your very idea is a creation.  So if every creation  contains the seeds of its destruction, then your idea too must be  destroyed."

            Chiang Ti smiled, turned, and took the path back to the  mountains.  Slowly he climbed, pausing now and then to toss  pebbles.

            Lotus (written June 1967)

            So once again Chiang Ti returned to the mountains.  But this time  Lotus followed him.  While he sat staring at the horizon, she  went up to him and asked, "What are you doing, Chiang?"

            "Building my world," he replied.

            "What are you building it with?"

            "The mountains and the sky.  But I'm not yet sure whether the  mountains are hanging suspended from the sky or if instead the  sky is but a roof supported by the mountain peaks."

            "What will you do when you know?"

            "Then I'll build the foothills and the forests and the village  in the valley."

            "But the village is already there.  I just came from the  village.  Houses still line the streets.  The fountain still  flows by the marketplace.  Children still play.  I'm sure the  village is there."

            "Yes, but I hope to firmly establish the village in knowledge.   To see, to feel, to touch, to sense is not to know.  Knowledge is  like a house.  Before you can build the rooms that people live  in, first you must clear the ground and build the foundation."

            Lotus smiled, for now Chiang seemed to be speaking a language  she understood.  "Wang Li-wu is building a new house on the far  side of the winding river," she said.  "He and my father go there  every night to clear the ground and talk about how beautiful the  new house will be.  And Sung Fu-lan has said, too, he will help  when construction begins.  It's a lovely spot -- just at the base  of the far mountain.  Is this where you plan to build your new  house?  This too is a lovely spot; and if I were going to build  here, I too would not return to the valley for many days, but  would sleep here in the cave, as you do, and spend my days  deciding where and how to build my house.  When you are ready, I  will come to help you; and father and Wang Li-wu will come also."

            "Thank you, Lotus; but you do not understand.  I am not  building a house.  I am building a world, and the house is just a  symbol."

            "My father, too, speaks of symbols.  Each evening when he goes  to help Wang, he says he is going to the new world.  And  sometimes when our house needs a new door or the roof leaks, he  says it's time to repair our world.  And sometimes when I or my  brother has scraped a knee, he says, too, our world has hurt  itself; and he washes the wound gently.  And he says that someday  soon I will have to build a world of my own together with my  future husband, and he hopes the world will be at peace and be a  good world to live in.  Who then is the girl you are about to  marry?"

            "You do not understand.  I am not about to marry any girl.  I  came here to the mountains to think in solitude; so I might build  my world.  The village in the valley is too distracting.  There  one never sees the sun climb over the mountains or the stars  spread from horizon to horizon.  In the evening here, a  nightingale sings of the beauty of the mountains."

            "Yes, Chiang, father says everything has its season, that one  shouldn't sow grain in mid-winter.  And he says that one day I  will feel a restlessness in me, and the world of my father will  no longer be my world, and I will have no world, but will want a  world of my own; and I will wander with the wind looking for my  world, and all thoughts will be brilliant, and all men handsome;  and the sunrise will be my sunrise; and the nightingales will  sing for me only; and even the grass will tell of the pains and  joys of growing."

            "Yes, Lotus.  But still you do not understand."

            "Let us sit by the old acacia, Chiang.  There you can explain  to me why the mountains must hang from the sky or the sky be  supported by mountains.  I love to hear you talk about the  mountains and the sky and why things are the way they are.  You  think so deeply for one still young.  I could never begin to know  why things are the way they are.  But please explain.  It's so  fun to hear you talk and to try to understand.  And there by the  old acacia, we can listen to the grass growing, and at evening  hear the nightingale, and in the morning watch the sunrise  together."

            Blossom (written June 1967)

            So Lotus came often to the mountains with Chiang.  And Chiang  often returned to the valley with her.  Just being with her was a  joy, and telling his thoughts to her alone brought greater  satisfaction than telling the entire village.  Often he treasured  her responses, for she had a way of completing his thoughts and  making them more tangible and immediate. 

            For her alone, he chose his words very carefully, "All things  spontaneously being themselves:  the sunrise, the nightingale,  the gnarled acacia; each thing so separately itself, unfolding  with its own particular subtlety, coyly curved upon its stalk a  lotus blossoming..."

            "There are many flowers in the garden in front of our house,"  Lotus replied.  "Each morning mother carefully waters them.  At  evening their fragrance fills the house."

            "... It is in its separateness that each thing reveals its own  particular beauty," Chiang continued.  "All things differing from  each other, it is in their very difference, in being themselves  completely, always unfolding, changing, but each in its own  particular way that all things participate in the beauty of the  sunrise, of the nightingale's song.  The lotus rejoices in being  a lotus, the way it bends with the wind and rises to meet the  sun, and rejoices too in the way the wind rushes to bend it and  the way the sun watches and waits, patiently..."

            "Lotus, sunflower, morning-glory, snapdragon...  Each morning  mother waters the garden," explained Lotus.  "Little Blossom  follows her with a pitcher and at each plant as they pour, mother  states its name, and Little Blossom repeats its name and  sometimes I hear her telling each flower its name, teaching them  as mother teachers her:  lotus, sunflower, morning-glory,  snapdragon..."     So they came to live in happiness together in the valley.  Chiang  no longer needed the mountains.  He saw the world through the  eyes of Lotus; and Lotus, without seeming to try, found the world  everywhere.

            The World (written June 1969)

            Then one day, Lotus left without a word.  This time it was she who had gone to the mountains.

            Chiang found her by the old acacia.  "Your father said you  were restless, that you wandered alone in the mountains, and I  knew it would be here by the old cave and acacia I would find  you.  But why wander alone?" asked Chiang.  "You know, I too  could come here to listen to the nightingale, and we could  together watch the grass grow, and talk of building..."

            Lotus interrupted, her eyes scanning the horizon, "Our valley  is very small.  Are there many houses in the next valley?  Is  there a carpenter, a butcher, a schoolteacher?  Are there many  young girls like me, young dreamers like you?  What do people  talk about?  What do they do?  Surely there must be more to do  than walk about the barren rocks day after day; more to look  forward to than a house like everybody else's house, with perhaps  a few more flowers, and a houseful of children to grow up and  someday walk these same, barren rocks.  Surely, it must all lead  somewhere.  There must be change and growth, even if it's the  gnarled twisted growth of an acacia.    "Here we sit, stuck in this godforsaken valley, this maze of  old dried roots, while out there, somewhere, things are  happening, leaves are sprouting.  And even if I couldn't be a  part of it, at least I'd like to see it happening, to know it and  to feel it about me.  The great world is blossoming.  Somewhere  it must be spring.  Surely, Chiang, the world is big enough to  always have a spring and a better spring than the scrawny  wildflowers that fade on this hillside.  Surely, somewhere nature  must be bursting with life so that the ground trembles as the  grass grows and the birds sing.  Chiang, how big is the world?"

            "I too once found our valley small and wandered over the  mountains," admitted Chiang.  "But the next valley is like this  one and the one beyond is but the same."

            "That's a story you must tell me someday," said Lotus.  "I  like so much to hear your stories."

            "But I already told you."

            "Odd.  Well, someday you must tell me again.  But for now, I'd  like to be alone."  privacy statement