I was planning to post this tomorrow, but it's likely I'll be out the whole day, so...here is the last instalment.

Ming Li regretted being unable to describe that journey for the rest of his life.Most of the time the wind forced him to keep his eyes closed,  as for the rest, the ground went so fast under him it made him dizzy.As an old man, when they asked him to talk about that flight, he used to say: “ A bird cannot tell a fish what it’s like to fly, and even less can a fish  which has flown and come back to water”.

That same evening, with the first stars, they arrived at Meihuang cave-palace. At least. the Dragon said that was the gate, Ming li saw just a caved in grotto: grass, climbing weeds and young bushes started to carpet the mound of earth and rocks.

“It would be better if you announce yourself”, said the Dragon King, back in human shape, “ I doubt the gate would open for me”, and he stepped back.


Read more behind the cut )

“ As you know, honourable lords”, he said (and his voice was behaving now), “ I did not know which of the guards would tell the truth. The only question I could ask would have to involve both of them. So I asked: ‘ If you were the other guardian, which door would you show me to save me?’

As soon as I had the answer, I went through the other door”.


While the Dragon King nodded, satisfied, the hall buzzed like an angry beehive, then one of the guests asked:

“ Why through the other one, human?”

“ I asked one guardian” answered Ming Li, “what he would have done if he was the other, remember?

The one who tells the truth would answer like the liar, showing me the wrong door, the liar would lie anyway, and show me the wrong door as well, so I had to take the door that wasn’t shown to me”.

In a moment the young scholar went from lucky criminal to known genius. While he was trying to  politely disengage himself from all the guests wanting to congratulate him, the Dragon King of Dongting Lake drew him aside:

“ You want to go back to Meihuang’s court as soon as possible, I suppose” he said. “ Do not look so surprised, who else could have sent you? I do not spend my whole time changing people into something else! I shall come with you, my cousin is a bad loser, in a few days’ time he will be in a better temper”.

Ming Li just wished for a hot meal and some sleep, but he suspected that  contradicting the King of the Lake too much would not have been a wise move, so, he bowed to the guests and, with a drawn smile, followed the Dragon King out of the hall , wishing that it was really the last time he did.

Once in the outer court Ming Li turned towards the stables, but his guide stopped him.

“I was thinking of a faster way” he said, “ one of my grooms will follow us with the mare, she will be brought back, do not worry. Let us go out”.

As they crossed the gate Ming Li saw the palace wasn’t anymore in the meadows, as he remembered, but on a rock shelf facing a ravine, on three sides it was sourrounded by thick forest. While the young man looked around, the Dragon King of Dongting Lake  moved  away a bit, then stopped and closed his eyes, centering himself.

After a moment, in the stead of the imposing King was a colossal silver dragon, with an iridescent blue crest, like a peacock’s feathers in colour.

The huge reptile’s head turned towards the young man who was now staring at him agape, totally oblivious of the decorum suitable of a scholar.

“ Are you coming, then, or must I go alone?”

Following the king’s suggestions, Ming Li climbed on his back, settling himself between two of the crest’s scales, all the while praying earnestly to all the Gods and Bodhisattvas he knew, then he said he was ready.

“ It would be better” suggested the dragon with an amused note in his voice” if you tie yourself to me with your belt. I am fast, and do not feel your weight, I could lose you and arrive  before realising it; it would be a pity to miss a hero’s welcome, don’t you think?”.

With these words the Dragon King of Dongting Lake walked to the ravine’s rim… and jumped.

To be continued

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 1 

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 2

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 3

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 4

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 5

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 6

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 7

Ming Li and the Charmed Phoenix part 8

Ming Li and the Charmed Phoenix part 9

They went in.

The young man breathed a bit more freely when he saw the interior: no cells, no executioner, no torture irons: a simple, eight-sided room, empty but for the gigantic statues of two guardian spirits wearing armor, like those common in temples, each of them seemed to guard one of two little doors, in adjoining walls.   

What was the King planning?

“ We are here”, and, hearing their master’s voice, the statues turned and  saluted. The guardians were alive!

“For your crime you deserve death” went on the King, “ but you have been clever, and really are a remarkable scholar. Killing you would be a waste. I shall give you a chance.

When I leave, the door we came in through will disappear.

The guardians you see are two of my most faithful soldiers, they will not keep you from going through one of the other doors, but  mind you, one of them is the road to safety, the other one leads to death…

To decide which one to take, you can ask one question to one of the guards, only one! Of them, one always tells the truth, the other always lies…

There is a way, you have my word on that, if you find it you will be allowed to leave, taking the magic pollen with you, here it is.” And, taking the little purse out of his sleeve, he gave it to Ming Li.

“ You have no set time for choosing” the Dragon went on, “but while you are here you will have neither food nor drink. Good luck ‘Wang De’ “.

As soon as the Dragon went, Ming Li collapsed to the ground, his legs didn’t support him anymore, he was shaking and the words of the Dragon King echoed in his mind:” one of them is the road to safety, the other one leads to death… one always tells the truth, the other always lies…” but there was a way, the Dragon had given his word, but which way?

“ Calm down, now!” said the young man to himself, “ you are alive and have a chance, but if you behave so you will waste it!”

He forced himself to sit straight and breathe deeply; after some time he stopped shaking and was able to think rationally.

He had time, the best thing was to ponder carefully over all the elements of the riddle he was in.

Two doors: one of them would save his life.

Two guards: one was truthful, the other a liar, he did not know which one was which and he had just one question to discover it.

What question would save him?

Hours went, and he didn’t have any ideas, he was beginning to feel hungry, but the thirst was worse. He hadn’t taken a single step towards the answer, and yet there must be one…one question, two guards, two doors…one question…

 Yes! This was the answer!

He stood and, unsteady on stiffened legs, he approached one of the two guards and asked his question; given the answer he went through the correct door and was in the garden, took one step…and found himself facing the Dragon Kings’ thrones, the hall was full of dignitaries and guests.

After a moment’s surprise, the young man squared his shoulders and spoke to the Dragon King of Dongting Lake in a voice less firm than he would have liked, because of his exaustion and  strain: “ You had given your word I would be free, Sire”.

“And you are,” was the answer, “ you have just won me a bet against my royal cousin. Even more, while you were taking your test, I told the same riddle to these honoured guests, not one of them has been able to solve it , they say there is no answer. Would you tell them, before going?”

He clapped his hands, and a bowl of freshly brewed tea flew through the hall, coming to hover in front of Ming Li, he took it, grateful, and sipped: the room was silent.

To be continued

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 1 

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 2

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 3

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 4

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 5

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 6

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 7

Ming Li and the Charmed Phoenix part 8

I owe you all an apology for stopping to post 'Ming Li and the Charmed Phoenix' half-way though. Real life got in between and things became rather complicated, I'm very sorry to have left you hanging.

Now things are, thankfully, quieter and, if you are still interested in following the tale of a young scholar in a magical China of long ago, here it is for you.

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 1 

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 2

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 3

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 4

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 5

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 6

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 7

And now, part 8


At the stroke of midnight the door opened, and an invisible hand took his writing, Ming Li stood and followed the floating paper to the throne room.The King of the Yellow Mountains did not even look at him, but took the essay and, with his cousin, was soon absorbed in reading.

Ming Li remained there, kneeling in the middle of the room, silent, waiting for the verdict.

Finally, after an endless time, the Dragon King of the Lake Dongting raised his eyes from the paper.

Interesting piece” he said,” I have not seen anything like this for ages, not only have you written your essay in poetry , but have also used ‘Big Seal’ calligraphy to do it. If you do not want him cousin, I have a place for him”.

If you insist” was the answer, “ we could settle the question with a friendly challenge…It has been ages since the last time even for that”.

His voice was absolutely calm, but Ming Li could almost see a scaled tail swishing nervously.

I need a secretary-librarian” the King of the Yellow Mountains resumed to speak “the last one was not very able. The last time I lost my temper with him his job became vacant…

You will have much to do, boy, you will start early tomorrow”.

In the following days Ming Li barely had the time to eat (little) and sleep (less). If one of the kings was not asking for him, ‘Wang De’ was in the library, cataloguing and arranging the thousands of books gathered there.

He found the original manuscript of ‘The Book of the Way and its Virtue’, written by Laozi before vanishing, astride his ox, in the mountains beyond the border and many books everybody believed lost forever in the fires ordered by the First Emperor.

He could have been the happiest man in the whole of the Empire, if not for what he knew he had to do, sooner or later.

As the days went by, the Dragons’ interest for the newest talent at court ebbed, and Ming Li had opportunities to study the palace’s layout.

The chambers of the Dragon King of Dongting Lake were a few courts away from the library.

Problem was he always had the pollen bag on his person, unless he was sleeping. Entering in the dragon’s bedroom while he was asleep and stealing it without awakening him was impossible for any human being, not even a warrior monk could be soundless enough. 

No man… but a bird…!

Friend had been accepted at court too, sometimes he roamed alone and nobody minded where he was or what he did.

One night, while everybody slept after a late-ended banquet, Ming Li took Friend and went into the garden, told him what he needed and set him in flight.

The raven disappeared in the dark.

After what seemed ages (according to Ming Li), the bird came back and dropped the small brocaded purse into his hand, the young man put it up his sleeve and hurried towards the outer court and the stables.

He saddled Mist without seeing anyone and went towards the gate…only to find his way blocked by the Dragon King of the Lake Dongting himself.

It was the end.

Ming Li was escorted to the throne room. There, while the Dragon King of the Yellow Mountains bellowed, hissed and threathened endless tortures, his cousin stared at the young scholar, silently, with cold reptile eyes.

When he, at last, asked permission to speak, Ming Li was too terrified even to move.

Cousin, since I am the victim of this crime I ask to be the one who decides on the punishment”.

 “ Agreed”, growled the other one, reluctantly.

Come”, said the Dragon King of Dongting Lake, and Ming Li, mesmerized, followed him out of the room.

The walk through the gardens felt endless, the young man noticed his sourroundings as he had never seen them before: an old magpie nest on the branch  of a cryptomeria tree, dew drops on bronze chrysanthemums, the first red leaves on a maple sapling leaning towards the water near a small bridge… yet, in a few moments they arrived at a small pavillion, standing alone in a bamboo grove.

When he saw were they where, Ming Li felt terror almost turning him to stone. That pavillion was always locked and none of the men who served the Dragons approached it, ever.

Even animals avoided the bamboo grove.

After about half an hour the path vanished into a vast meadow. The young man looked around, when he looked ahead again, he saw a marvellous palace: blue tiles were glittering in the sun, at the four corners of the roof and on its ridge there were dragon statues in enamels and precious stones so life-like they seemed almost breathing. The roof beams where cedar, splendidly carved and painted and the pillars of the colonnade were sculpted in the likeness of dragons wound around tree trunks and so big that only two grown men could have embraced one in their arms.

No one was in sight.

Ming Li dismounted and approached the outer gate leading Mist, a few steps from it he stopped and bowed deeply: “ Great Lord”, he said “ my name is Wang De, I am a scholar from a far away province and I have come here to offer my services”.
One of the side gates opened noiselessly and Ming Li (or Wang De, as he had introduced himself), entered the palace of the Dragon King of the Yellow Mountains.

As soon as he was in the outer court, an invisible hand took Mist’s reins and lead her away.
The horse didn’t react, instead Ming Li heard a loud cawing and wing-beating.
Friend, flying to and fro almost as though he was trying not to get caught, came to perch on his shoulder.
“ Then they can see these spirit-servants” thought he, who had started wondering about how he could try and steal something without even knowing if it was watched.

They were going towards the main pavillion. Ming Li had lost count of the courts and the gardens they had passed through when, at last, the door of the throne room opened and he found himself in the presence of two of the most powerful Dragon Kings.
At the other end of the room was a dais, on it two thrones, side by side, one slightly larger than the other, and sitting on the thrones…

Ming Li knelt, he didn’t know what he had been expecting but the kings sat on the thrones in human shape: taller than average and imposing, with strong bones, amber skin and ‘sword eyebrows’ just like heroes from long ago, they could have been mistaken for sovereigns of the Black Haired People if not for their eyes: dragon eyes, very round and with vertical pupils.
They wore dragon-head headdresses, made in metals and precious stones of the same hues as their clothes: gold, rubies and eyes-of-tiger for one, silver, sapphires and pearls for the other.

The King wearing gold,red and brown and sitting on the bigger throne (‘the master of the house’ thought Ming Li) spoke first:
“ So you are a scholar? …Wang De…I do not know this name.
You were not on the graduate list, this year, neither on the one of three years ago; why should I employ you?”.
“ You are right, Your Majesty”, answered the young scholar, “ but I should have been on that list: one of the examiners lost a case against my paternal grand-father years ago.
I thought he had reconciled himself with it, but after all those years he still bears a grudge against my family and has succeeded in arranging my failure.
I am not asking you to act on my word alone, I am ready to prove my worth in whatever way may please you”.

“ This is a good idea, cousin” put in the Dragon King of Dongting Lake. “ let us find a good test for him, at the worst it will be an interesting pastime!”
"So be it!” agreed the other king; “ Let’s see, you could write an essay on…hmmm…no, nothing Confucian, it would be too easy…”

“ What do you think, cousin”, suggested the King of the Lake, “ of having him write about us? An essay on the different Dragon lineages…?”.

“ Great topic! Well, human, you have till midnight for your work: an essay on the different dragon clans; and believe me” he added with a dangerous light in his eyes, “ it will be better for you to do a good job of it. Go now!”

A door opened and Ming Li was escorted by the usual invisible servants into a small study.
On the writing table some new brushes appeared, rolls of the finest silk, inksticks and inkstone, and a small water basin.
The young man sat straight and centered himself, preparing to begin.

To be continued

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

After a bountiful breakfast which, regardless of his worries, Ming Li fully enjoyed (he had slept too often on an empty stomach in the past to let good food go wasted), he was taken to the princess' presence.

 “ I hope you are fully rested, I suppose there are many questions you wish answered, I will answer to the best of my knowledge”.

“I thank you, princess. First of all,  Is it known how this curse may be broken?”

“In the same way it was cast upon us; sprinkling  on us, gathered in the great hall, the pollen of the blue peony that blossoms every two hundred years on the shore of Dongting Lake”.

 “But, if it needs two hundred years to bloom... Is this the proper time?”

“ Do not worry, the Dragon King has the pollen harvested, he always carries some on his person, in a little silver brocade purse”.

“ Where is the Dragon now? In the lake?”

“ No, until the full moon of Mid-Autumn  he will be a guest of his third cousin, the King of the Yellow Mountains.
You will have to go alone, Ming Li, he would immediately recognize anyone of us, but I will do my outmost to help you, my people and my riches are yours to command”.

“Is there anyone at your court who knows the way to the Yellow Mountains, Your Highness?” .

“ Yes, the commander of my guard knows it well, and in the library you will find some maps, he will show you”.

“ I thank you, and assure you that, if there is a way to succeed, with the gods’ help I will find it.”

“ I never doubted it: my people will take care of you and your every need.
I will see you again before your departure Ming Li…and upon your return”.

 The following days where spent making preparations until Ming Li felt ready. By then he knew the story of the Dragon King of Dongting Lake since the day he had hatched, during the reign of good Emperor Yao, and the road for the Yellow Mountains as if he himself had built it.

 That evening Meihuang went to him: “ My thoughts will accompany you”, she said, “ and even though you must travel alone you will have all the help I can give.

Tonight you will fall asleep here, but tomorrow you will wake up at the borders of my domain. You will have a fast horse and a sword as sharp as the North Wind during the Great Cold,in your purse you will always find the money you might need, and in the bag food and the appropriate clothes. This is what I can do.

Fare you well, Ming Li”.

With these words the phoenix princess went out of the room, immediately Ming Li started yawning and felt his eyes closing, as soon as his head touched the headrest he fell asleep.

Part 1

Part 2

Notes: Ming Li means 'Bright Gift' (
Ming , meaning 'brightness', 'splendor' is the family name, it always comes first in Chinese names).

Meihuang means 'Beautiful (female) Phoenix' probably the specifics of the curse where inspired by the princess' name.

Emperor Yao is one of the mythical wise emperors he is said to have reigned from 2358 to 2258 BC (dates may vary, chronology of the oldest dinasties and the times before them isn't precise).

A long time ago, in China, there lived a young man called  Ming Li.
He came from a small farming village at the borders of the empire: his parents and the other villagers had soon realized he was both intelligent and hard-working and the whole village had paid for his studies, so that he could pass the imperial examination in the capital and become a civil servant, maybe even a minister, in time.

Year in, year out, Ming Li had studied hard, sacrificing everything so that his village’s dream might become true, he studied the works of the Master, Confucius, and practiced writing  the difficult ‘eight-section essays’ so much that, often, he fell asleep still holding the writing brush.

But today, at long last, it was done. He had passed the highest exam, a young man of just twenty, with long-unseen grades; soon he would go back in triumph to his village, in the Gansu province, but tonight he was making merry with other successful candidates in a tea-house in the pleasure district.


He went out last, and set off, through the alleys,  towards the inn where he was staying; he was rather uncertain on his feet, truth be told, not being used to drinking sorghum-wine, and, at the beginning,he didn’t notice  the odd silence that shrouded the city.

An inhabited place is never silent:sounds of footsteps,doors creacking, voices, dogs barking, babies crying, fires crackling, it is a constant buzz we almost don’t hear, but that evening, when Ming Li went out from “The Immortals’ Grove” the capital was absolutely silent…

When he noticed it, he was  too happy to worry, and when he heard footsteps he thought: “See? Everything is as it should be”.

 It wasn’t, and he realized it when a big hempen sack was thrown on his head, blinding and restraining him.

Now he was being carried away quickly, through the sack he could feel some strong, long hands holding him fast.

“I heard”, he thought, “ that rich families who have no scholars of their own sometimes kidnap successful candidates and have them marry their daughters. Well, if the family is rich enough and the girl is pretty I won’t be hard to persuade”. And so he calmed, rather curious to know who was waiting for him.

 A jolt awakend him from a day dream in which the most beautiful of the Emperor’s daughters was asking him to marry her; he was set back on his feet and the sack was taken off. He heard a crystal-clear voice calling his name in the distance. When his eyes adapted to the half-light, Ming Li realized he was in a cave. The moss-covered walls  gave off a wan, green light and  shadowy figures prodded him on, inhuman figures!

To be continued...



March 2013

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