Read an Excerpt
Yu the Great: a Legend
Soon the angry gods turned the Yellow Valley
into a swamp, where water and reeds
swelled toward the fumy sky,
serpents and crocodiles devouring people.
Yu's father stole some Divine Loam.
With it he stemmed the flood,
but the Fire God wrapped him in flames
the water broke loose again.
Yu had to continue the struggle.
Hundreds of miles up, in the grasslands,
the river flowed clear and peaceful.
But entering the ocherous plain
it roared and rolled, poured silt
into the valley, and drowned our crops
and homes year after year.
Yu set out to survey the river.
He took a sled on mud, a boat on water,
a wagon on land, and trudged up
mountains with a spiked cane.
He divided the land into nine states,
linked them with solid roads,
dug waterways along the valley,
dammed the marshes that had overflowed.
Still the river could not be tamed.
It pranced around, shattering dikes.
For eight years Yu lived among
the laborers and never returned home
although three times he passed
his hovel and heard his children cry.
He realized the river was a divine animal
that would run tempestuous if bridled,
so he opened three mountains for
a new channel and widened waterways
to guide the water toward the ocean.
The river was calmed.
We had land to sow and populate
villagesemerged, then towns,
then cities, then a country.
Yu's deeds made him our king.
Thus began our first dynasty.
We were pulling a bundle packed
with green branches and earth,
twenty feet across
and a hundred feet long.
We were to lodge it in place
to plug the holes burrowed
by foxes and badgers.
Singing in one voice, we sank
the bundle along the dike.
Immediately two boats loaded
with rocks were scuttled
against the bundle.
As the second boat was going down
it dragged Ah Shan into the water,
his legs caught by the gunnel.
He yelled, "Oh Mama, help!
Get me out, brothers!"
but couldn't pull him out.
Not daring to give the river time,
seven hundred men rushed over
to drop sacks of earth and rocks.
Sowe buried him alive.
For days his voice
squeaked under our soles.
The dike was saved. Now
miles of stones cloak its surface,
but every April
Ah Shan's mother throws
dumplings into the river
and begs the fish not to eat her son.
Closing a Breach
Each spring our Emperor sent troops
to repair the breach at Gourd Bend.
Eight provinces had no harvest for years,
famine and plague thinning our
land, flooded or cracked by droughts.
Wolves fattened on corpses in the plain.
Again he arrived in October to offer
a sacrifice on the bank. He ordered
all the Royal Guards, even the generals,
to join the workto carry wood, straw,
earth and rocks. We all took part,
sweating as though soaked in rain.
Still the water went on surging,
no way for us to close the gap.
Our Emperor was about to drop
into the river bleating lambs,
a jade camel, two plump girls,
a bushel of gold coins,
a pair of bronze quadripots
so heartbroken he broke into song:
"Heavens, how can we piece together
the smashed Gourd?
So many provinces becoming ocean.
This water is drowning my people.
How can we drain it?
We have removed several hills,
where can we get more earth?
We have cut all the nearby woods,
how can we find more timber?
Winter's coming, everywhere
fish are swimming with ease,
but we men have to toil like
beasts of burden, without hope.
Mother River, have pity on us,
please return to your old course.
Now enjoy these small gifts.
We shall give you more."
Our tears falling into the torrents,
we too chanted the song.
The river seemed to relent
remaining calm for a month.
That was how we relocked the dam
and topped it with the Pity Pagoda.
The river gives no warning.
We were flailing sorghum that afternoon
when a man shouted from the road,
"The river's coming. Run for your lives!"
We scrambled up the hill while
the head of the water thundered past
tossing tables, bridges, roofs,
carriages, bodies, livestock.
A buffalo was mooing in the flood,
stuck to an elm with a plow,
then the animal disappeared in the waves
which were spinning pots, wheels,
pitchers, cauldrons, barrels, bins.
Around us people were howling,
their children had drowned
and their parents vanished.
Some prayed to heaven that the river
would spare their ancestors' graves;
some sat on the grass trembling,
assuring one another
they were lucky to be alive.
We thought the water would withdraw soon.
Week after week we waited
and paddled around to look for food.
Yesterday word came that the river
had shifted its course
and would keep our fields for good.
Under this lake (so sandy
that fish jump out to breathe)
once a town was thriving,
inhabited by several peoples-
Huns, Jurchens, Tobas, Hans, Mongols.
They basked in the frontier's freedom
and ignored the new dynasty.
The governor ordered its citizens
to surrender, but they refused.
They strangled the envoy,
roasted oxen and sheep,
drained wineskins, and poisoned
scimitars, arrows, spears.
One night the dam that stood above the town
Torrents swept their homes down the lowland.
Within half an hour
the town disappeared.
A few men clung to treetops
calling to the army boats
One by one
we put them to the ax.
In the morning sun, the bell lingers,
incense smoke surrounding
the statues and the bronze tablets
that record royal visits.
Monks are reciting sutras
beyond the mossy wall.
How many temples once
stood here before this one?
All were built for the same purpose
to appease the river
and lock in the head of floods.
Through two thousand years
hundreds of herds of goats walked
down that coiled path,
each carrying a pair of glazed tiles
for the temples' roofs,
golden or green, all kept
under the sandy soil now.
The goats were sacrificed to the gods,
then eaten by stonecutters,
carpenters, masons, sculptors.
When a temple was raised
the Emperor would come to inscribe
its name, plant an evergreen tree,
promote thousands of officials.
So the construction continues.
We are told the river can be sated
even though every few decades here
it swallows a temple.
What has become of the river
so determined to be our woe?
Last fall it flooded like an ocean
and took away our harvest,
but now in midsummer it yields
no water. For a whole month
its stream has been gone;
carts can cross the main channel,
in which sand has buried
fish, turtles, broken buckets.
Our fields are baked, barren and gray.
Water, water, where can we get water
for people, animals, seeds?
We're all starving, but have
no place to beg for food.
Our land is dying of thirst:
elms and willows stripped of bark,
grass gone, clouds dry like rock,
even mountains seem withered.
Some parents have eaten their children;
fresh graves are opened
for the flesh on the bones;
a dipper of cash cannot even
buy a dipper of grain;
peasants are rising up everywhere
still the river withholds
Oh if only
a July flood would come!
although most sheepskin boats
have become food.