A certain master-juggler, Li-Ho, once told Dimitri, his apprentice, a story about the legendary Yiliao. It was said that he was the first to achieve the near impossible feat of juggling nine balls at once. In a battle between the states of Chu and Song, the two armies confronted each other. When Yiliao appeared at the head of the Chu troops, juggling all nine balls with consummate ease and composure, the Song warriors and their officers lost heart and were so bewildered by Yiliao’s demonstration that they fled the battlefield, giving victory to the Chu.
“This,” Li-Ho said, “is a supreme example of the perfect performance to which all performers aspire.”
When, on another occasion Dimitri asked Li-Ho why he always insisted that his juggling balls were coloured in a very specific way, his instructor explained as follows:
“Long, long ago, a great emperor, the Son of Heaven and the father of my people once took seven seeds from seven different flowers and cast them into the deepest and shadiest of the tranquil pools that here and there adorned the Gardens of White Silk surrounding the Palace of Jade and Heavenly Splendour. Each of the seeds drifted slowly down to the depths of the cool waters and lay undisturbed for many years in the mud at the bottom of the pool.
At the same time his queen, Lady of the Hall of Starry Light and mother of my people cast seven seeds of her own into the Dell of Celestial Memories through which she had often made her way to Floriate Gate and beyond to the Flowery Meadows of the West.
One day however, long after the emperor and his queen had returned to the high country, having completed their earthly tasks, the son of their son ascended the throne and decided to rejuvenate the royal gardens by allowing sunlight to penetrate its more shaded parts. For the first time therefore, the pool in which his grandfather had cast seed was illuminated each morning by the living light of the rising Star of Rosy East. And for the first time too a steeply slanting ray reached the dell and warmed the fruitful earth wherein his counterpart and queen had cast her seeds.
In due course the seeds germinated and one morning at the beginning of spring the Superintendent of the Imperial Gardens was astonished to find seven variously coloured iridescent blossoms floating on the surface of the pool. On closer inspection he was amazed to discover that they were each made of a different metal.
The very next day the Keeper of the Dell of Celestial Memories discovered in a dry clearing, sheltered from the cool, moist winds that sometimes blew through the dell in autumn, a majestic tree bearing seven jewels which shone with blended fire and light, radiating sparkling splendour of hues corresponding to the waters’ metallic blossoms.
The Son of the Sun consulted the August Minister of the Ancient Archives and was informed that this miracle had happened but once before many thousands of years ago. He explained to the young emperor that it foretold of an age in which the empire would flourish and abundance and prosperity would be the lot of all the nations. The granaries shall never be empty, he said, the treasure house shall be filled to its roof, and the kings of the wide world shall travel to the Palace of Jade and Heavenly Splendour to pay homage to the Emperor of Majesty beneath the Celestial Canopy of Mutual Sincerity. The Earth, the minister asserted, shall know peace and the empire shall be as a lamp of justice and mercy and compassion.
The Seven Starry Mansions of the Eastern Quarter, he said, shall send forth star messengers of light. Down through the generations, father will pass the sacred duty to his son, as Peony of Spring Phoenix passes Cup of Heavenly Beauty to Summer Lotus. And like the peach of immortality which ripens amid the warming rays of the waxing sun, the star messengers of light shall bask in the benevolence of the imperial court, telling their tales of the lover and the beloved, singing the songs of their ancestors, of kinship, of friendship and fortune, and of concord between the nations of the world. And their music shall be like the harmonies of the divine lute which restrains all lower passion as its melodies drift through the pine trees like the sighs of a scented breeze in May.
A Pagoda of Peace shall be erected at each of the four directions: to the east and to the west, to the north and to the south, each of them a shrine to Goddess of Rainbow Bridge, across which returning pilgrims cross Starry River to the safety of their home. And at the fifth direction, the centre of the world, behind the Vermillion Façade in the Sanctuary of Silence, Great One Without Name shall surround Dragon of Wisdom with the protections of His Sanction.
The outer court of the Palace of Jade and Heavenly Splendour shall be a place of spectacle and wonder: jugglers, acrobats, dancers, martial artists, fire-eaters, pole balancers, productions of theatre, opera, pantomime, as well as kite-flying and other joyous festivities shall bring each of The Hundred Entertainments to the people once again. Such displays will mesmerise their audiences as the souls of a happy people are transfixed amid the happy illusions of a happy life.
And at the great festivals of the New Year and of the Harvest, or at the celebration of a wedding, the Lion Dance, combining as it does many of the ancient skills, shall chase away the evil spirits that at such times emerge from the shadows of the thick forest to threaten the good luck, longevity, happiness, and prosperity of the many kinds of men.
And so it came to pass said Li-Ho. All unfolded just as Official of the Imperial Annals prophesied, until, alas, the circle of the ages turned. Emperor still followed emperor, but now each was blessed with a little less wisdom than that which blessed his father. And while star messenger still followed star messenger, each of them too was endowed with less vision than was his predecessor. And so, slowly at first, the light of the empire began to weaken and step by step its power waned. Step by step it fell into the prisons of superstition, pride and avarice. Step by tragic step the high born forgot the wonders of the olden days and the people descended into the sorrows of viciousness, ingratitude and sin.
The outer court became the home of charlatans and tricksters. Fraudulent sleight of hand and vulgar buffoonery took pride of place, pushing out from the limelight the virtuosos of virtue, the honest performers and the workers of wonder who until then had striven so hard to lighten the load of everyman.
Eventually the protections of the light were withdrawn and by and by the Palace of Jade and Heavenly Splendour was overrun by iron-clad barbarians from beyond the margins of the empire. The Royal Gardens of White Silk, the Pagodas and the Pools of Peace, the Dell of Celestial Memories, and the beauties of the Flowery Meadow were all destroyed amid the disorder and rebelliousness of the lowly ones, who spread from the north like a deluge of devastation.
Dragon of Wisdom sealed Door of Transcendence between the outer and the inner, and none there were who could open it. Though many tried they could not break either of the Seals of Enchantment, for none there were who knew the script Yinzi, or the script Yangzi. And so it came to pass that men on Earth no longer knew heaven, and nor did they know hell; but were by their ignorance consigned to Shadow of Painted Stick, known in other lands as gnomon.
And there in the ever restless shadow of material existence neither did they know Divine Dance of Morning Breath, nor Starry Patterns Woven in Night Sky. Goddess of Mist and Rain concealed the way to Tài Shān which became more and more difficult for men to find; but the way to Abode of Terror was open and easy, for two Lamas were appointed to be its guides and protectors: Grinning Lama of Scull Cup and Lama of Skeleton Staff.
It is in remembrance of those long lost times that I juggle the Seven Coloured Balls. And few there are who can do so, for to reconcile the yin and yang of each and all of them is to know the point of balance and equipoise that is Tao, the Principle and the Way, that which makes things as they are, but is not a thing itself. For when yin and yang are properly matched Tranquility of Tao prevails.
Remember Dimitri, success for the juggler, as it is for each performer in their own way, is the culmination of holy endeavour across many lives. It is my destiny to prevail. It had also been so for my father and his father before him. My grandfather was Master of Rising and Falling Objects; and on my father was conferred the title Divine Song of Cup and Two Sticks.
I should add that the instruments of his art have been misleadingly referred to in the West as diabolo, for few outsiders understand Exchange of Greetings Between Host and Guest, and know even less of Force of Central Motion. They know not Air Song of Conserved Momentum, nor Spontaneity of Husband and Wife; and so they talk of Devil of Two Sticks, showing their ignorance of the true balance that is Tao.
But all of these misunderstandings matter very little, Dimitri. Time for me is short, and one day soon, when all has been said and all has been done, it shall come to pass that the golden age will once again return to the country of my birth. And when it does I too shall return and together with my kin I shall rejoice.
Soon enough I shall walk again in the Gardens of Paradise. Soon enough my soul shall ascend like Shun of the Feathery Cloak. And just as White Crane soars up from the tomb to the Western Heaven, soon enough I shall fly to the Orchard of Tangerines to sup the Wine of Life from the Spring of Immortality. I shall see again the Twelve Peaks that rise above the mists of autumn. I shall once more embrace Grandchild of Heaven, and as one again we shall behold from the banks of the Hsiang River the fairy radiances shimmering and trailing light as they rise like holy sparks from a holy fire, or like the summer fireflies that drift and dance their way to God.”