I’m a big fan of cross-cultural mashups of folktales, myths, and legends, and of creative misreadings that twist familiar tales into strange shapes. The ancient story in Liezi of the craftsman Master Yan who built an automaton for King Mu of Zhou has the compelling ingredients—a skilled engineer, a sophisticated mechanical man who seduces palace maidens, a jealous monarch—that make it ripe for reinterpretation by present-day science fiction and fantasy writers interested in exploring robots, love, and AI.
The following piece takes a more folkloric approach, concocting a wonderfully off-the-wall story (masquerading as a folktale from Zhumadian, Henan) out of a blend of Liezi’s account and several other well-known elements. The story diverges from Liezi right from the start by reanalyzing “Master Yan” 偃师 as the ancient settlement of Yanshi, now a district of Luoyang. This story hit a sweet spot for me when I first read it on Christmas, 2017, and I’ve pulled the translation out every Easter and Christmas since then to tackle the bilingual puns. It’s coming up on Easter again and I’ve finally accepted the fact that I won’t ever crack them.
This translation is posted with permission from the author, a folklore scholar who posts on Douban under the name Misandao 蜜三刀.
A Story of the Birth of Christ
Liezi tells the story of the wooden puppet of Yanshi. It describes how King Mu of Zhou passed through Yanshi in Henan on an inspection tour and was introduced to a carpenter, Yuese [“Joseph”] by name, from the Western Regions. This carpenter made for the king a mechanical man that could talk, sing, dance, and make all manner of expressions. Delighted, the king brought his beloved concubine Sheng Ji to see the curio, but to everyone’s surprise, when the wooden puppet saw how beautiful she was, it made a pass at her. The king was incensed and ordered the carpenter killed. Yuese was forced to flee that night with his wife Ma Liya [“Maria”]. The torrential Yellow River lay to the north of Yanshi, so they had to flee south, traveling in such haste that they had made no arrangements for lodging along the way but could only find refuge for the night in the stable of a large inn.
Upon waking up the next morning, Yuese the carpenter saw the inn’s name on the sign hanging outside: Zhumadian, “Horse Garrison Inn.” He knew this was a sign from heaven, for his wife’s surname was Ma [“horse”]. And so he settled there under the assumed name “Lu Ban” and made a living building houses and tool handles. Lu Ban’s superb carpentry skills and attractive, sturdy handles made his work popular with the locals. The couple bought a house and property and lived a decent life with just one imperfection to speak of: hunted as they were by the king’s army, the carpenter’s wife had lost a child well into a pregnancy and was never able to conceive again.
Lu Ban’s wife wanted children, and Lu Ban hoped for issue to carry on his craft. Every night after work, the two of them would lie in bed and sigh in despair. One day, Lu Ban’s wife said to him, “With all your skill at woodworking, why not make us a child?” Inspired, Lu Ban went into a frenzy of work shut up inside his shop where no one could see what he was making.
On the sixth day, which happened to coincide with the winter solstice, Lu Ban proclaimed, “Woman, come quickly and take a look. We have a child!” His wife hurried over but saw nothing but her husband lying exhausted on the floor of a workshop covered in sawdust and paint (this is why all carpenters thereafter have rested one day of every seven). She was just about to help him to his feet when all of a sudden a plump, naked baby tumbled into her arms with a cry of “Mama!” She looked closer: Oh! What an adorable child. She was beside herself with joy.
When the people of Zhumadian heard that Lu Ban had a child at long last, they came to offer their congratulations, and the village head even brought gifts of eggs, millet, and solstice dumplings fresh from the pot so the carpenter’s wife could take her month’s rest. However, a few gossipy married ladies kept talking behind her back about how they’d never seen her pregnant, so how had she given birth to such a big baby all of a sudden?
Rumors and gossip spread, and it was even suggested that the carpenter’s wife had gotten involved with a monk at the temple. Naturally, Lu Ban couldn’t reveal that their son was the work of his hands in wood rather than his wife’s biological child, so he simply told people that on one occasion when he had been asked to craft a statue of Guanyin for the local temple, the very night the statue was finished the two of them had dreamed an identical dream of Lady Guanyin saying that she would send a child from heaven as their reward.
When the carpenter’s son grew up, he followed in his dad’s footsteps as a skilled woodworker, building homes and making furniture for people of all parts. The lack of clocks in ancient times was a major inconvenience, but the young carpenter rose early for work and returned home late, giving him time to observe the heavens and granting him the knowledge of the changing of days. And so at the gate of every town and village he erected a crossbar to mark the time by reckoning the sun’s shadow. He made them tall and sturdy enough to withstand the wind and rain, and over time these crosses became the emblem of Zhumadian’s carpenters.
Since the crosses were used as a standard basis (“jīzhǔn”) for inspecting and monitoring (“dūchá”) the passage of time, they were known by the abbreviated term “jī-dū crosses,” but as the years passed and the story was handed down, people ended up calling the carpenter who invented the crosses “Jīdū” [“Christ”] and his original name was all but forgotten.
From A Collection of Folk Stories, Songs, and Proverbs from Zhumadian, mimeographed edition
The spurious citation provided in the story is to a nonexistent edition of an actual collection, part of a series devoted to local folk tales and songs throughout China.
The story of Master Yan and King Mu of Zhou is found in the “Questions of Tang” 汤问 chapter of Liezi 列子, a 4th century Daoist text. The 1912 translation by Lionel Giles is a popular one, but Graham’s 1960 translation doesn’t appear to be online. Lu Ban 鲁班 was a craftsman in the Zhou dynasty who lived around five centuries after King Mu, and was the legendary inventor of several carpentry tools and a cloud ladder for siege warfare, among other devices. Notably, Liezi’s account of Master Yan concludes with a mention of Lu Ban, declaring that his cloud ladder and Mozi’s wooden kite both pale in comparison to the automaton.
The author informs me that after he wrote this story, he discovered that according to the scholar Feng Shi 冯时, there is indeed a connection between the oracle bone character for 督 dū “monitor” and the sun’s shadow.