Contributed by David Surtasky
Kantan (邯鄲) (summary)
A fourth category play by an unknown author
Once there was a village in China named Kantan. Neither poor nor prosperous, the village had an inn, and the inn had a Mistress. At one time the Mistress had been hostess to a master well practiced in the ancient divining art of Daoism. In gratitude for her hospitality the master presented her with a pillow, advising her to keep it well since it would bring fortune to the inn. Known as the “Pillow of Kantan” it was said that if one slept for just a few moments on it that the future and the past would unfold before one – and the sleeper would awaken having gained enlightenment.
At that same time there was a somewhat restless man named Rosei. Feeling quite lost in the waking world and tormented by deep dissatisfaction, Rosei decided to leave his home in the country of Shu Han and travel to seek out a well-regarded priest who lived on Mount Yōhi. Although not he was not devoted to the path of Buddhism, even Rosei understood that he needed to seek out a purpose. The journey was a long one from his home – the twilight of fields, the twilight of mountains, the twilight of villages became his only companions. The clouds over distant Shu Han passed far behind him till he came at last to the village of Kantan. Having arrived, and even though the sun had not yet fallen from the sky, he sought out the inn in order to rest.
The Mistress of the Inn greeted Rosei at the door and invited him in to stay for the night. She asked him where he was coming from and where he might be going. Rosei told her of his quest to visit the sage on Mount Yōhi in order to seek his guidance for direction and purpose. The Mistress replied that it was quite a long way yet to the mountain, but that she had in her possession a wondrous pillow that would grant the sleeper the ability to see their entire future in a moment. This intrigued Rosei. Here, said the Mistress, the pillow is on the bed – go and sleep on it and I will cook you some millet so that you can eat when you awake.
Rosei’s travels had been long and hard, so gratefully he lay down to nap on the Pillow of Kantan. He’d been lying there for just a moment when a man came and began to rap on the side of the bed. “Rosei, get up quickly, I have a message for you” declared the unknown man.
“Who are you?” replied Rosei. The man announced that he was an Envoy from the Emperor Chu and had come to inform Rosei of important news. The Emperor was resigning his throne, and had selected Rosei to reign in his stead. How could this be possible, wondered Rosei, certainly he wasn’t prepared for such a task? He protested to the Envoy, but the Envoy responded that it was best not to question the wisdom of the Emperor – that certainly there must have been auspicious signs that led to his selection. Quickly, the Envoy said, enter the palanquin and lets be off.
Rosei climbed into the jewel-studded palanquin, in amazement at its splendor. How could this be happening to him? Traveling aboard the palanquin Rosei saw splendid sights and finally arrived at the palace. The moon shone brightly above the imperial grounds, the halls of Unryū and Abō filled with gorgeous light. In the gardens of the palace the sands were made of silver and gold, and the four great gates were covered in precious gems. Even common people coming and going were dressed in the richest robes. It was so wonderful to Rosei that he felt as if he were dreaming; the sights were almost as tranquil as that of the fabled Western Paradise. High above the palace walls great flags flourished bravely in the wind, their many colors vibrant against the sky, their flapping sound spread out over the land and mingled with the voices of the people shouting praise to the new emperor. Rising in the east was a hill made of silver, thirty cubits high and topped by a golden sun wheel, rising in the west a hill made of gold, thirty cubits high and topped by a silver moon wheel. “In the Palace of Eternal Life, the turning of the seasons cease. At the Gate of Eternal Youth, time itself may yet stand still.”
Rosei reigned peacefully from the palace for many years. During the celebrations for the fiftieth anniversary of his august rule, one of his courtiers presented him with the nectar of the immortals brought before him in a magic cup. It was said that by drinking of this special wine and from this special cup that Rosei would live for a thousand years. Drink from the cup; drink deep of the chrysanthemum wine and the prosperity of the country will last for ten thousand years! Beside a small stream in the garden they all sat together and the cup was floated in the waters and those gathered raised it and drank from it with pleasure. It was as if the chrysanthemum wine was never ending, rising up from a spring, filling the cup over and over again. Filled with joy the courtiers danced, and Rosei was moved by the music and the spirit of the night and danced as well, the sleeves of his damask robe swirling in time.
The dance was like the one performed by the tennyō in the Palace of the Moon. Rosei danced as if his robe were made of feathers, and they all sang together long into the night. A mysterious thing began to occur as they sang – the sun rose, then the moon rose, then the sun again, the spring flowers bloomed and then the autumn leaves turned crimson and fell, summer’s warmth returned and was replaced winter snow. The cycle of the seasons passed round and round them as they sang.
“Excuse me, traveler,” said the Mistress of the Inn “the millet has cooked, and is ready for your meal. Wake up now and eat, please.” Rosei awoke from his dream. What he had thought were the voices of his many wives was nothing more than the wind in the pines, what he had thought was a glorious palace was only a small room at the inn at Kantan. In an instant Rosei’s discontent fell away from him. He considered the purpose of his journey: to visit the sage of Mount Yōhi, and now he realized that his journey was complete. The Pillow of Kantan was really the revelation that he’d been seeking all the time: that life is lived and then is over, and after all is little more than a dream.
Although in his dream he’d lived as the emperor for fifty prosperous years, in an instant he’d understood that life was only a dream – while millet cooks.