Chang Seng-yu was to be the artist; that was why the crowds were so immense. The courts of the Temple of Peace and Joy had been full since dawn; although the sun would undoubtedly be well in heaven before the great Chang would mount the scaffolding and begin to work.
All Nankin had been agog since the word had gone forth that the Emperor desired a dragon painted on both of the two vast wall-surfaces of the Temple; and when it was reported further that Chang Seng-yu was to be the artist, then, indeed, the rejoicing was great. For the grand strokes of his brush were known; and his colors were delicate like the mists of evening on the Yangtse, or clear and lovely like the colors of flowers. Whenever he painted in public, the crowds would gather to watch; and from time to time to applaud the master-strokes, the flashes of daring imagination, the moments when the sparks of creation most visibly flew. And they knew, did those crowds of the Chinese Renaissance -- some fourteen centuries ago.
They loved Chang Seng-yu for another reason, too, besides his genius and mastery of the brush. Many held that he could rein the flying Dragon, visit the extremities of the earth, and bestride the hoary crane to soar above the nine degrees of heaven. Such things were done, in those days. There was a certain power about Chang Seng-yu that suggested infinite possibilities. One could never tell what might happen with any picture he might be painting.
A hush in the temple court; the artist has arrived, and with him a little band of disciples, bearing the brushes and pots of color. A quiet, gentle old man, who bows profoundly to the people as he comes in; and greets them with courteous formalities, not unaffectionately, while passing to the door of the Temple. With courteous formalities those spoken to respond, proud of the signal honor done them; for this is a popular hero, be it understood. The tailor and the cobbler have arranged in advance a holiday, and have come now with their families to spend the day in the Temple of Peace and Joy, watching the Master paint -- the butcher's apprentice, sent on an errand, cannot resist the temptation; the porter, calculating possibilities to a nicety, deems that he may go in, watch so much wall-space covered with sudden life, and then, by hurrying, still arrive in time with his load. For with all these people, painting is poetry made visible, the mysteries of Tao indicated, the topmost wonder and delight of life. And this being by Chang Seng-yu will be no ordinary painting.
Day by day the crowds gathered in the court and followed Chang Seng-yu, when he arrived, into the vast Temple. Day by day the intent silence was broken ever and anon into murmurs, and the murmurs into rippling exclamation. A sweep of the brush, and lo, the jaws of a dragon; and from that the wonderful form grew, perfect at each touch, scale by scale through all the windings of the vast body to the very end of the tail. All in shining yellow that might have been distilled out of the sunset, it gleamed across the great wall: a thing of exquisite curves, noble lines, flowing, grand and harmonious, wherein all parts seemed expressive of the highest perceptions and aspirations of man. To behold it was like hearing the sudden crash of a glorious and awe-inspiring music: the soul of every upright man would at once both bow down and be exalted. The crowd, watching, expected at any moment to see motion quiver through its length; to see it writhe, shake out mighty pinions, break forth from the wall and through the roof, and cleave a way into the blue ether. A little fear mingled with their intense delight: the Master, surely, was dealing in magic.
"Sir," said Lu Chao, "for what reason have you omitted to paint in the honorable eye?"
"Could this sacred Dragon see," answered Chang Seng-yu, "nothing would content his lordship but to seek his home in the playground of the lightnings."
"How is it possible?" said Lu Chao. "The Dragon is beautiful, but it is only a semblance wrought in pigment. How could such a semblance soar into the heavens? The Master is pleased to indulge in humor at the expense of this miserable one."
"Not so, Lu Chao," said the Master. "You have little understanding, as yet, of the mysteries of art."
But Lu Chao doubted, and it was a sorrow to him that Chang Seng-yu should leave his creation incomplete.
The Yellow Dragon was finished, its glorious form covering the upper part of the south wall. The people could hardly forbear to worship; they saw in it Divine Power, the essence of Light-Bringing, the perfect symbol of inspiration, of holy and quickening thought from heaven. "If the Master had not left his creation eyeless," they said, "his lordship would never be content to dwell on earth. Heaven is the right abiding-place for such a one." But Lu Chao went on doubting.
He did not refer to the matter again; but when it came to his turn to hand the brush, newly dipped in the color pot, to Chang Seng-yu, the latter as he looked down would shake his head, and a shadow would pass over his face. "Although of a good disposition, Lu Chao will never be a painter," thought he, sighing.
The scaffolding was removed to the opposite wall, and there, facing the other, a Purple Dragon began to grow. Occasionally the Son of Heaven himself, the Emperor Wu-ti, would visit the temple to inspect the growing work. Then the artist would descend to make obeisance, but Wu-ti, holy man, would have none from the creator of those dragons. "Make your obeisance with me to these two lordly Messengers of Heaven," said he. "But for what reason has the honorable Master left the eyes to be painted last?"
"Sire," said Chang Seng-yu, "the divine eyes of their lordships will not be painted. There is danger that they would be ill contented with the earth, if they could see to soar into their native empyrean. No man could paint into their eyes such compassion that they would desire to remain here."
"It is well," said the emperor. "Their soaring aspiration is evident. Let them remain to be the guardians of the Peace and Joy of my People."
Lu Chao heard, but even the Son of Heaven's belief failed to convince him. "It may be as the Master says," thought he, "but such matters are beyond my understanding. How could a semblance wrought of pigment feel aspiration or a desire for the ethereal spaces? It appears to me that the venerable Chang is indulging in humor when he speaks of painting compassion into their eyes."
The work was drawing to a close, and more and more Lu Chao doubted. It is true that he made progress in painting; and the skill shown in his work was applauded by many. For the day of the Consecration of the Dragons had been appointed in advance, and there was time to spare; and on certain days now the Temple would be closed, and the Master and his disciples would work in the studio. Then Chang Seng-yu, going from one to another, and commenting on the work of each, would shake his head a little sadly over Lu Chao's pictures. "You have skill and perseverance," he would say, "but faith is lacking."
Lu Chao pondered on this, but not with desire to acquire the faith. "Many say that I am making progress," thought he, "and it appears so to me also. The Master, truly, is harsh in his judgments. If I could show him that he is mistaken . . ." He considered the matter, and thought out his plans.
The Day of Consecration came; the great work was completed. Priests and augurs, wise men and doctors, gathered from all Liang, and from the kingdoms beyond the Yangtse and the Western Mountains. All day long there were sacrifices in the Temple of Peace and Joy, and processions passed through, doing joyful obeisance to the Dragons. At last night came, and the great hall and courts were silent.
The time had come for Lu Chao; now he would prove that the Master had been mistaken: that painted semblances could not shake themselves free from the walls whereon they were painted, and that he himself was making progress unhindered by lack of faith. "It may be that there is Magic," said he, "although I have never seen it. But reason forbids me to believe this."
He took a lantern, a small brush, and some paint as would be needed, and went down through the dark streets towards the Temple. There would be no trouble about obtaining entrance, he knew: should anyone question him, Chang Seng-yu had forgotten something, and had sent him for it. But it was unlikely that he would meet anyone, and he hoped to pass in unseen. "No one will know that I did it," thought he. "It will be understood that the spirits painted in the eyes, displeased that the Master left the work unfinished."
He met no one, succeeded in climbing the gate, found a ladder in the court -- he placed it against the south wall by the head of the Yellow Dragon, climbed, and prepared to begin. It had been a dark night, but calm, as he came through the city; now, with the first touch of his brush, a peal of thunder, a lightning flash. In his sudden perturbation the brush dropped, and he must go down after it. Were the genii offended? He hesitated, and had some thought of going home. "But no," said he, "this is fear -- this is arrant superstition"-- and mounted the ladder again. The lantern, hung from a rung close to the dragon's head, just threw light on that: a little disk of warm brightness fading into the gloom. It was enough for Lu Chao's purpose. A few brush strokes; that would be all.
The first, and he was aware of fear. The second, and the wall seemed to him to be taken with unsteadiness. The third, and the sweat broke from his forehead and back, and his hand was trembling violently. He gathered his mind, reasoning with himself; steadied his hand, and put in the last stroke. The Yellow Dragon's eye was painted.
Lu Chao clung to the ladder. By the small light of the lantern he saw the wonderful head turn until it was looking out into the Temple, full face instead of profile. It was the left eye that he had painted; now the two were there, glancing out hither and yonder, proudly, uneasily; flashing fiery rays through the empty darkness. The ladder was shaking, swaying. Suddenly the two amazing eyes were turned full on him, on Lu Chao. A shadow of disgust flitted over them; then they were filled with immeasurable sadness, sorrow deeper than might be borne. The neck drew back; by a supernatural light from the Dragon's eyes, Lu Chao saw it, drawn back and clear out of the wall. A crash, and he saw the immense pinions shaken forth. A horrible swaying of the world, a rending noise, a tearing and a crashing; a blinding flame. . . . All Nankin was awake, and out in the streets. What the people saw was a Golden Wonder soaring up into the sky; a cometlike glory ascending, till it was lost in the darkness of Heaven.
In the morning the emperor visited the ruins of the Temple of Peace and Joy, and with him went Chang Seng-yu the Master. The north wall alone was standing, The roof had gone up in a single blaze where the fiery wings cleaved it. On the south wall, only the lower part remained; the rest had fallen. Under the debris they found the ladder, charred and broken, and the crushed body of Lu Chao.
"Ah," said Chang Seng-yu sadly, "he would never have made an artist."
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1979. Copyright © 1979 by Theosophical University Press)