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The little Taoshi*
with the image of the yellow tributary
Lina Unali

This short narrative has been classified in the literary Prize called the Nouvelles and will be published in Italian in the forthcoming number of “Prospektiva”, n. 29

Italian Version



Before starting to teach for a semester at the University in Northern China to which she had been appointed, she wished once more to travel across the dear Country that had grown in her interest and affection with the passing of years. She counted the first day of the journey as the fortieth in the exploration of the territory. 


This time she left from Chong Qing, a river port that was said to have reached the huge number of thirty-two million inhabitants.  When she heard that figure, she could not believe it. Later on, she understood that there had been a great increase in population, caused by the transfer of the inhabitants from the vast valleys, through which the Yang Tse Chang flowed, on the occasion of the construction of the Big Dam. 


The navigation began on the morning after embarkation ; the previous night had passed quietly on board. When the ship departed, from the cabin window, the young teacher could first observe the stony river banks washed by muddy waters; then, she saw beautiful hills covered in lush vegetation – with branches as lively as gushes that joined together in the air – interrupted every now and then by caverns that were said to be several miles long, some of which well-known to scientists as habitations of prehistoric men. Getting off the ship for a few hours, she could visit ancient temples that were on the point of being submerged by the waters of the announced flood. The so-called river guides who travelled on board constantly and without reserve, informed the travellers about the future outcome of the catastrophe.


  Then, after three days and three nights, the ship finally reached the Big Dam: the huge concrete construction, perfectly shaped and tripartite, near which every ship stops and drops anchor before sailing over to the other side. 


But the traveller's sorrow for the predicted disappearance of that huge territory, the occurrence of which appeared imminent, a matter of months, was not so much produced by the thoughts that spontaneously formulated in her mind during the navigation from Chong Qing to the Big Dam, in that unforgettable voyage of about four hundred miles. She obtained, indeed, painful information, as that according to which all that tract of the river – considered as the cradle of the Chinese civilisation – would turn into a sort of lake, almost a mile wide, with no stream running through it, in which every manufactured article, column, painted wall, would rot away. She learned that all the lands that she now saw and with delight admired, together with the large rocky caves, the temples, the numberless stairs leading to them, the gardens, with lotus flowers floating on their fountains, sheds, entire villages, would be submerged. Yet, the greatest disappointment arose within her heart soon after – she was surprised herself at realising that – when, once overcome the Dam, other kind guides, the usual companions of foreign visitors, informed her that the spreading of waters would involve more than a hundred tributaries of the large river beyond the barrier formed by the Dam. How distressed she was, when she knew that the level of these rivers would raise and cover all the fertile valleys through which they now flow, and when the means of transportation on which she travelled proceed at low speed on a winding road beside a small tributary – made yellow by the clay deposited on its bed and gathered between stones and algae;





how upset she felt, when, along its course, she could closely observe more than she had done during the river journey, the peasants busily working in their plots of land, the thick tea plantations, with their healthy and shining leaves and the new-born tiny ones that are highly valued in quality production; when she saw the orange orchards, the gardens with hundreds of herbs used as oil extracts to cure diseases of known and unknown origin, and the vegetables – among which she preferred the kong xin cai, empty heart within – and the potatoes gathered after digging at the edge of the cultivated grounds. Then only, she fully realised the devastating impact of the anticipated flooding that would cover such an extension of land besides that which she had already seen during her recent river excursion. In her mind she thought: "It will be almost six hundred miles, if we take into account also the area of the Sechuan province that extends beyond Chong Qing". She had gone through it on the previous year, the bus on which she travelled had for miles and miles followed the course of the blue waters of the Min Jian river, made rough by frequent rapids.


Then vaguely, unconsciously, she wished for something serious to occur, such as to cause the immediate interruption of that unfortunate process of forced flooding. She wished that something could interrupt the construction of the Big Dam that, as she clearly envisaged, would seriously damage a huge number of Chinese, the weak and elderly above all, who would be unwilling to leave for ever the land assigned to them, the only source of their survival; in which their existence had, so to say, mirrored itself for years. The landscape, too, would be totally spoiled. The river would turn into a stagnant pool, a motionless basin, stirred only by the wind, by the falling rain, by navigation and by the decay of sunken matter


She wished for some unforeseen event to happen – she did not know exactly what – something that, before the year two thousand and six, could hinder the implementation of the entire project and allow the river to flow as it used to, in mythological and historical past, as it did at the time when The Story of the Three Kingdoms took place around the majestic Three Gorges, darkly blazing on the line of the horizon, very nicely represented in the movie entitled Hero. 


Such were the worries and the strange hope that dwelled in the mind of the protagonist of this story for many days, until she reached the renowned Taoist temple on Mountain Wudang, and until she practiced Taiji – her great Taiji Master was in those days staying in the temple – under the guidance of a Taoist monk: a Taoshi, dressed in a white shining silk robe, with a roundish, black hat, shaped like a short irregular cylinder, tighter at the base and adorned with a black ribbon, with white training shoes unfastened so as to form together with the socks, that were white as well, a kind of white boots. Such were her feelings up to the moment in which this little Taoshi, hieratically, as though to peacefully reconcile heaven and earth, taught how to perform the first part of the so-called Form of the Five Elements which starts with a delayed and slow rise of hands and arms till they reach the eyes' height and continues with a round parry ahead, as though designing the concave line of a wave; in which the fingers are at times tightly locked so as to form pointed little fists raised above the palms area and circularity is a structural constant of the whole movement in space. She got enchanted by this young monk who later in the evening, at dinner time, she met at the temple college wearing less formal garments, with longish hair on his shoulders, with an intent and slightly amused look in his eyes. Later on, he trained his students in blue silk overalls and arranged in regular rows, in perfect martial exercises.


After that cheering experience, the teacher left China for a month, ready to return to teach in the fall semester in that Northern city about which she only knew that there were several outstanding twentieth-century buildings in European style. Although she had not forgotten her preoccupation, she was no longer bearing in mind that deep resentment derived from the observation of the present and oncoming invasion of the waters. She had, instead, before her eyes and within her heart the image of the Taoshi who taught, even the great masters of the art, on one of the well-paved inner terraces of the Wudang Temple -- beside that of Health and Longevity permitting on its bronze inscription only minimal sensual desire -- the Form of the Five Elements, that are earth, water, air, wood and fire.






© Copyright by Lina Unali