ONE-Eyed Wong has traveled to the ends of the earth, and he tells me that in the lands of the barbarians the great Chang Heng is quite unknown. I find this incredible, but it will do no harm to set down the facts for the convenience of barbarians. Civilized people may proceed to the next chapter.    1
  Chang Heng was born in the Year of the Horse 2,776 and beheaded in the Year of the Tiger 2,837 (A.D. 78-139), and he passed the years between by becoming a poet, a painter, a philosopher, an astronomer, a mathematician, a chemist, an inventor, an engineer, and several dozen other things besides. Chang Heng invented the seismograph. He computed the value of pi. He perfected the science of latitude and longitude, and revolutionized navigation and cartography. He built a kite that could carry a man, and then built a two-seater so that the emperor could fly with him. He even built a flying machine called the Bamboo Dragonfly that was self-propelled, the propelling agent being another of Chang Heng's inventions, the Fire Drug. *    2
  He served the emperors of the Han Dynasty as Jack-of-everything for many years, but then he wearied of public life and retired to the country, where he began to display a talent for eccentricity that was worthy of his genius. The business about clouds, for example.    3
  The poet Yang Wan-li paid Chang Hong a visit and was delighted to report that "Master Chang" as he was known locally had become interested in the emotions and mental processes of clouds, and had built a cloud-watching platform on a cliff above his house. He was aided in his research by the village idiot, a lad called Number Ten Ox. Chang Heng was convinced that Number Ten Ox had been an exceptionally keen-nosed dog in a previous incarnation, and on days of good omen the genius and the idiot would climb the path to Cloud Nest and sit cross-legged upon the platform. Sooner or later Ox's nostrils would twitch, and he would point to a perfectly clear patch of sky and say:    4
  "Clouds."    5
  Ox was never wrong. Clouds would immediately drift into view, and Chang Heng would say:    6
  "Where have they come from, Number Ten Ox?"    7
  This caused a furious twitching of nostrils.    8
  "Camphor pearls...cinnabar...tortoise shells...elephant tusks...hides...rhinoceros horn..."    9
  "Aha! Clouds visiting us from the province of Kiangnan!" the great Chang Heng would exclaim. "The area south of the Yangtse, of course."    10
  Then they would rise and clasp their hands together and bow, and courteously invite their visitors to stop and rest on Cloud Nest. Number Ten Ox would explain what the clouds were thinking and feeling - he was never wrong - and Chang Heng would jot down the salient points in his notebook, and then he would try to release his soul and send it soaring to the sky, and imagine what he would think and feel if he were reborn as a cloud. When the sun began to set the genius and the idiot would say farewell to their guests and pick some wildflowers and open a jar of wine, and this is the song they sang as they danced back down the path.    11
  "Master Chang of Orchid Stream    12
  ate orchids every day and drank water from the stream.    13
  But his lotus-leaf robe was getting dusty,    14
  so he moved to the west, west of Dragon Mountain."    15
  Then they would do the dragon dance, strewing wine and wildflowers hither and yon. This was Ox's great moment. He was totally uninhibited and Chang Heng swore that you could actually see flames spurt from the boy's nostrils as he bounded over boulders, and that his dragon screech could curl hair a mile away.    16
  "One clear morning he put on straw sandals    17
   and climbed to the mountain top;    18
   there he saw a shred of cloud emerging from a rock.    19
   Quickly he grabbed the cloud like a ball of cotton    20
   and stuffed it in his shirt so it couldn't get away.    21
   But a moment later the cloud escaped,    22
   expanded, and filled the clear sky.    23
   Then the Cloud God began to tease Master Chang,    24
   spreading it out like a huge curtain,    25
   drawing it together like a robe.    26
   He took Master Chang by the hand and led him to the Cloud Nest    27
   where there was no sky above, and no earth below.    28
   Suddenly the Thunder Goddess cried out!    29
   Astonished, Master Chang saw that the Cloud Nest had disappeared.    30
   So he went home and built a nest of his own,    31
   and every night the clouds came there to rest."    32
  Chang Heng was also interested in rocks.    33
  The great artist Mi Fei reported that Chang Heng was walking in the hills one day and came face to face with an exceptionally craggy and powerful boulder. Back came Chang Heng, racing like a greyhound. He hastily changed into full ceremonial robes, scooped up incense and offerings, raced back, prostrated himself before the boulder, banged his head against the ground three times, and bellowed: "Ten thousand delights to see you again, Great Grandfather!"    34
  A genius who talked to clouds and kowtowed before boulders and danced with village idiots was bound to become a folk hero, but Chang Heng went one step farther when he founded his academy.    35
  This was an age in which education was reserved for the privileged and was viewed as a path toward wealth and power (nothing much has changed, come to think of it) yet the Academy of Chang Heng took in poor but intelligent peasant boys at no charge, and educated them in skills which had practical applications. They were taught law, medicine, accounting, engineering, farm management, animal husbandry and so forth, and when they graduated they were given simple scholars' robes and a few instruments and were sent out to aid the peasants of China in any way they could, asking in return nothing but a meal and a bed. To the illiterate peasantry these wandering scholars came straight from Heaven, and Chang Heng the folk hero became Chang Heng the folk deity.    36
  When a folk deity dies it is the duty of the peasants to invent a story about him that will keep his memory alive for a thousand years. In the case of Chang Heng they came up with a masterpiece.    37
  One day the great Chang Heng was flying over China on his magical kite (so the story goes) when he saw a group of weeping peasants in a valley below. He landed and asked what was the matter.    38
  "0 great and mighty Master Chang," they wailed, "the terrible White Serpent who lives in the Mysterious Mountain Cavern of Winds has carried off sixty-six beautiful virgins! We can do nothing about it, because the White Serpent is the most powerful creature on earth!"    39
  "We will see about that," said Chang Heng.    40
  The great man mounted his magical kite and flew to the top of the mountain and sailed into the Mysterious Mountain Cavern of Winds, roaring a bloodcurdling battle cry. It was a terrible fight and several times Chang Heng was nearly bested, but at last he taunted the beast by saying that it was too clumsy to perform the simplest tasks, like putting its tail in its mouth. The White Serpent promptly did so, and in a flash Chang Heng whipped off his belt, tied the terrible jaws together, and rolled the reptile down the mountain like a hoop. The White Serpent gouged a path across China that later filled with water and became the Sungari River, hit a bump, sailed clear across Korea, and landed with a monstrous splash in the Yellow Sea.    41
  No one can possibly doubt the truth of the tale. The Sungari still flows, and the mound of mud beneath which the White Serpent lies is the island of Cheju, which you can see with your own eyes sitting off the coast of Korea to this very day.    42
  Chang Heng freed the sixty-six cheering virgins and sent them back to their families laden with treasure from the White Serpent's hoard, but he did not return with them because he had found something interesting. At the rear of the cavern was a staircase that led down to Hell. Chang Heng descended the 116,787 1/2 steps (the earth is a square 233,575 steps in diameter) to the principal city of Feng-tu, and in the Court of the First Yama King he discovered Nieh-ching-t'ai, the Mirror of Past Existences before which the dead must stand, and which reveals the details of their previous incarnations and allows the Yama Kings to judge whether they have deserved Heaven, Hell, or another spin around the Great Wheel of Transmigrations.    43
  Chang Heng studied this mirror with great interest. Then he climbed back up the steps to the Mysterious Mountain Cavern of Winds, mounted his magical kite, and flew back to his academy.    44
  High on a hill behind the Academy of Chang Heng was a willow grove, in the center of which was a perfectly round pool of clear spring water. The great man set to work, and in no time he had transformed the pool into a Mirror of Past Existences of his own! He was delighted to discover that his assistant headmaster had once been a mentally deficient hyena, and even more delighted to discover that he himself had once been the most popular singsong girl in Hantan. But genius is never satisfied, and Chang Heng decided to improve the Pool of Past Existences.    45
  Now the stories vary. Some say that Chang Heng improved his pool until it could show future as well as past existences, and informed a group of visiting peasants that the academy's cook would be reborn as a three-toed sloth, while an exceptionally irksome mosquito was destined to become "the loathsome Dog-Meat General of Wusan!" Other stories deny this, but all agree on one thing: the great Chang Heng fiddled with his pool until it could also be used as a mirror, and that mirror reflected nothing less than Heaven itself.    46
  Chang Heng gazed into the mirror. He recoiled in horror, "Something has gone wrong in Heaven!" yelled Chang Heng. What did he mean? No one knew, but apparently what had gone wrong in Heaven could be set right on earth, because the great Chang Heng packed some food and wine and mounted his magical kite, and flew off into the sunset with a very determined expression on his face.    47
  Now the mystery begins.    48
  A month later he was seen in a tavern near the Castle of the Labyrinth. The table was covered with incomprehensible mathematical formulae and geometric designs, and he was asked what he was doing.    49
  "I am searching," said Chang Heng, "for a little crystal ball."    50
  Two months later he was seen in north China, near the terrible Desert of Salt. He was studying a collection of mazes that he had constructed from loose Salt, and he was asked what he was doing.    51
  "I am trying to find a small bronze bell," he said.    52
  Three more months passed. Then the great man was seen sitting upon a tombstone in an abandoned cemetery near the Great Wall. "What is alive is actually dead, and yet it isn't," he was muttering. "What appears to be a dwelling is actually not, and yet it is." He was asked what on earth he was doing.    53
  "I am looking for a tiny silver flute," he said.    54
  The next time he was seen he was in a foul mood.    55
  "This is ridiculous," he snarled. "How can I possibly find a single raindrop hidden in a thunderstorm? A single petal hidden in a field of flowers? A single grain of sand concealed among a billion on a beach?"    56
  He addressed this to a Buddhist monk whom he encountered upon a mountain path, and he shook his fist and yelled to the startled bonze: "But I will never give up! Never! In your prayers kindly inform the Emperor of Heaven that Chang Heng is on the trail, and that Chang Heng will not give up!"    57
  The great man walked on. Then he stopped, turned, and said quietly:    58
  "I swear by all that is holy that the sky will fill with falling stars when we see the beautiful Bridge of Birds."    59
  That baffling comment is the next to last that Chang Heng is known to have made. Three weeks later the Duke of Ch'in came roaring from the Castle of the Labyrinth with his entire army. The Han Dynasty prepared to fight for its life, but the duke was not after an empire. He was after a man, and he found him. Apparently Chang Heng had come nearly full circle on his mysterious quest, because the duke's soldiers caught up with him as he was drinking from a well not twenty miles from his academy. The duke was so eager to see that the executioner made no mistake that he squatted in his gray gauze-covered litter practically on top of the chopping block, and to this day the peasants of China swear that when the executioner raised his axe the great Chang Heng turned scornful eyes to the Duke of Ch'in and uttered these memorable last words:    60
  "I hope I splatter blood all over you, you son of a sow!"    61
  The axe fell. The severed head of Chang Heng was carried back to his academy and pitched into the Pool of Past Existences. The academy was burned to the ground; the teachers and students were massacred. Then the Duke of Ch'in went snarling back to the Castle of the Labyrinth and that, it would appear, was that.    62
  But not to the peasants. Chang Heng my have lost his head, but he was still a folk deity. As the years passed the succeeding Dukes of Ch'in lost interest in the Academy of Chang Heng and it was rebuilt. Once more the graduates were sent out to aid the peasants of China, and the peasants responded in the only way they could.    63
  "Chang Heng is not dead!" they said. "His spirit still lives in his marvelous pool, and one day he will complete his mysterious quest. Chang Heng will find the crystal ball and the bronze bell and the silver flute. He will find the raindrop in the thunderstorm and the petal in the field of flowers and the grain of sand concealed among a billion on a beach."    64
  Nothing on earth is quite so stubborn as a Chinese peasant. For five hundred years they told the story of Chang Heng to their wide-eyed children, and for five hundred years they slammed their fists on tables and yelled: "And the sky will fill with falling stars when we see the beautiful Bridge of Birds!"    65
  The beauty of the story was that it was unfinished. The idea was to keep the memory of a folk deity alive, and how could you forget Chang Heng so long as his mysterious quest was incomplete? It would certainly remain incomplete throughout eternity. Four days before he died Chang Heng sat at a table in an inn, and in the first light of dawn he wrote a little song. It is the last thing that he is known to have written. Remember that he tried to find a single raindrop hidden in a thunderstorm, and that he failed. If Chang Heng could not find a raindrop, who could?    66
  "The river is clear and calm;

a fast rain falls in the gorge.

  At midnight the cold splashing sound begins,    68
  like thousands of pearls spilling onto a glass plate,    69
  each drop penetrating the bone.

"In my dream I scratch my head and get up to listen.

  I listen and listen, until the dawn.    71
  All my life I have heard rain,    72
  and I am an old man;    73
  but now for the first time I understand    74
  the sound of spring rain    75
  on the river at night."    76
  * Black powder. One cannot help wondering what the history of the world might have been like had Chinese civilization continued to build upon the foundations laid by Chang Heng, but China experienced Dark Ages that made those of the West seem enlightened. When the famous Jesuit missionary and amateur astronomer Matteo Ricci entered China in the late sixteenth century he was astounded to discover astronomical instruments far in advance of anything known in Europe which had been invented by Chang Heng fifteen hundred years before. He was even more astounded to discover that not one person in China knew how to use them, or even what they had been used for. The list of Chang Heng's accomplishments, incidentally, is absolutely true. In fact it is incomplete, because a full list of his inventions and discoveries would fill ten pages.


A Bridge of Birds - The Original Draft, copyright 1999, Barry Hughart