There is a story told about the Chinese poet Han Fook, who, as a young man, had been inspired by a wondrous urge to learn all he could and become perfect in everything that was in any way related to the art of poetry. At that time he was still living in his hometown on the Yellow River and by his own wish had become engaged to a young woman from a good family, with the help of his parents who loved him dearly. The wedding date was soon to be set on a day that promised to be auspicious. Han Fook was then about twenty years old. He was a handsome and modest young man, pleasant in his manners and well rounded in his education. In spite of his youth, he had already made a name for himself with many an excellent poem, and he was known in the literary circles of this region. Without being exactly rich, he could nevertheless expect to have enough money to lead a comfortable life, and this money would be increased through the dowry of his bride. Moreover, since this bride was very beautiful and virtuous, nothing whatsoever seemed to be missing to complete the young man’s happiness. Nevertheless, he was not entirely content, for his heart’s desire was to become a perfect poet.
One evening while the festival of lanterns was being celebrated on a bank of the river, Han Fook happened to be wandering alone on the other side. He leaned against the trunk of a tree that protruded over the water and looked at the thousand lights swimming and shimmering in the reflection in the river. He saw men and women and young girls on boats and barges greeting one another. They were dressed in festive costumes and beamed like beautiful flowers. He heard the faint murmuring of the glittering water, the melodies of the singers, the hum of the zither, and the sweet tones of the flute players. And high above all this, he saw the blue night hover like the arch of a temple. The young man’s heart pounded while he stood there as a lonely spectator, and he became enraptured by all this beauty. Yet as much as he longed to cross the river and become part of everything, to be near his bride and his friends and enjoy the festivities, he also desired just as passionately to absorb all of this as a keen observer and to capture it in a totally perfect poem: the blue of the night and the play of light on the water, as well as the enjoyment of the people and the yearning of the silent onlooker leaning against the trunk of the tree on the bank. He sensed that there would never be a festive occasion or any pleasure in the world that would make him feel entirely at ease and cheerful. Even in the midst of life he would remain solitary and, to a certain degree, a spectator and stranger. He felt, among other things, that his soul was formed in such a way that compelled him to feel both the beauty of the earth and the strange longing of the outsider at the same time. He became sad about that, and as he pondered this matter, he came to the conclusion that true happiness and deep fulfillment could be his only if he were to succeed one time in capturing the world so perfectly in his poems that he would possess the world itself, purified and eternalized, in these images.
Han Fook hardly knew whether he was still awake or had fallen asleep when he heard a slight rustling and saw a stranger standing next to the trunk of the tree. The man was old and venerable and dressed in a violet robe. Han Fook stood up straight and greeted him with the respect due to wise and distinguished men. But the stranger only smiled and recited a few verses that expressed everything that the young man had just felt so perfectly and beautifully and in such exact accord with the rules of the great poets that the young man’s heart stood still in amazement.
“Who are you?” he exclaimed with a deep bow. “You who can peer into my soul and recite such poems that are more beautiful than any I have ever heard from my teachers?”
Once again the stranger smiled the smile of a man of great accomplishment and said, “If you want to become a poet, come to me. You’ll find my hut at the source of the Great River in the northwestern mountains. My name is Master of the Perfect Word.”
Upon saying this, the old man stepped into the narrow shadow of the tree and disappeared. Han Fook searched for him, and when he could find not a single trace of the man, he became completely convinced that everything had been a dream caused by his fatigue. He rushed over to the boats on the other side of the river and joined in the festival, but between conversations and the sound of flutes, he continued to hear the mysterious voice of the stranger. Han Fook’s soul seemed to have abandoned him and gone away with the old man, for he sat there with dreamy eyes, cut off from the cheerful people who teased him for being in love.
A few days later, Han Fook’s father prepared to summon his friends and relatives to set the date of the wedding. But the bridegroom opposed this and said, “Forgive me if I seem to neglect the duty that a son owes his father. But you know how great my desire is to distinguish myself in the art of poetry, and though some of my friends may praise my poems, I know quite well that I’m still a beginner and have a long way to go. Therefore I beg you to let me go off by myself for a while to devote myself to my studies. It seems to me that I’ll be kept from doing such things when I am obliged to take charge of a wife and home. Right now I’m still young and without obligations, and I’d like to live a while just for my poetry, from which I hope to gain pleasure and fame.”
This speech astonished Han Fook’s father, and he replied, “You must indeed love poetry more than anything else if you want to postpone your wedding for it. Or has something come between you and your bride? If so, tell me, so that I can help to reconcile you or provide you with another bride.”
However, the son swore that he still loved his bride just as much as he had loved her before and would continue to love her in the future. They had not quarreled in the least. Then Han Fook told his father that a master had appeared to him through a dream on the day of the festival of lamps, and his greatest wish in the world was to become his student.
“Very well,” said his father. “I shall grant you one year. During this time you may follow your dream, which was perhaps sent to you by a god.”
“It might even take two years,” Han Fook replied hesitantly. “Who can know?”