THE MAGIC TURTLE OF CHINA
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
The magic turtle of China is a peculiar sacred animal. The dragon, the phoenix, and the unicorn are sacred as well, but only the turtle can be seen by everyone to this very day.
Turtles naturally have a relatively long life. People in prehistoric China, for instance, spoke of a thousand-year-old giant turtle. Parents told their children, and they told their children and so on down the line. When people learned to write, they wrote about the virtually immortal turtle.
Children become aware of some of the turtle's virtues from direct observation. The turtle is amphibious—it can survive in or out of water. It has a hard, protective shell or house into which it can withdraw its vulnerable head. It has a wise, careful way of walking. It is very stable - it will not flip over easily. And of course some children like turtle soup.
China would not exist today without the turtle's mythical stability. You see, the giant troublemaker Gong Gong butted his head into mountains and knocked them down. The falling mountains ripped big holes in the heavens, causing the sky to tilt; water poured through the holes, flooding the Earth. As if that were not bad enough, fires ravaged the dry areas. Most people drowned, or eventually starved to death because the crops were destroyed.
Nu Wa (Earth Mother), the goddess who created human beings from mud, came to the rescue. She melted colored rocks obtained from the river and used the metal derived from the molten mass as glue to patch up the holes in the sky, stopping the leaks. And she found a huge turtle, cut off its legs and used them to hold up the sky, making it level again, thus preventing water from flooding the southern countryside. But some folks say the sky had collapsed into such a final shape that Nu Wa only had to cut off one foot of a giant turtle, using it to prop up the northern part of the sky slightly higher than the rest in order to keep the water flowing south at just the right rate suitable for agriculture. They claim that a giant turtle is wandering around in the northern sky, looking for its missing appendage.
According to another popular myth, several islands were placed on the backs of turtles eons ago. Wise beings, called the Immortals or White Souls, lived on the islands even before they were placed on the turtles. The White Souls were immortal because they had eaten a special herb growing on the islands, the Herb of Immortality. They were white or 'transparent' because they had cast off their skins like snakes. Moreover, all the animals on the islands were pure white.
The mythical islands are known as the Blessed Isles or the Isles of the Immortals. The Immortals lived a life of luxury in houses of gold and jade. Island fruits—pearls and precious gems—were delicious to the eye if not to the mouth. The plant actually eaten by the Immortals, The Herb of Immortality, gave them the power of levitation, enabling them to visit all of the Blessed Isles.
The Blessed Isles were floating peacefully in the ocean in the good old days. In fact, everything was quite lovely; that is, until a giant took two huge steps out into the ocean began fishing with his net and snagged the islands. As the giant pulled his island catch back to the mainland, the Supreme Sovereign (High God) spotted him and put a stop to the displacement of the islands, placing each island on the backs of underwater turtles, therefore the Blessed Isles were stabilized.
However, the giant came back later, sat down on one of the islands, and started to fish with a line. He caught six turtles and took them home for dinner, hence the Blessed Isles that the six turtles had secured to the ocean floor eventually drifted far up north, where, according to an ancient report, they became stuck in the ice.
Yet another report states the drifting islands constituted Japan. Less reliable is a postmodern report claiming that the Blessed Isles drifted far out into the Pacific Ocean, where they became the Hawaiian Islands. I searched for the Herb of Immortality on Oahu a few years ago, but to no avail. Perhaps the Herb is cultivated somewhere on the Big Island (Hawaii). A local myth has it that some sort of magical herb is secretly grown in an area called Puna on the Big Island. The sticky herb is called Puna Butter, or "the butter of the gods." Mythologists may want to venture over to Big Island one day, where they might discover, bake and eat some of the herb, and as a result see the Immortals as well as the sacred animals for themselves.
The stability of turtles is obvious, but if we look at the turtle's shell we can divine a lot more than we might think. Indeed, almost everything we need to know is embedded on the turtle's shell, as if the turtle were an oracle.
Long ago, after a certain turtle was killed and eaten, wise men asked the tortoise shell questions, such as, "What is going to happen in the future? What can wqe do about it?" The turtle admonished them to ask more specific questions. But how can a dead turtle answer questions in the first place?
Wise men drilled little holes in the hard shell of the turtle's back, inserted a hot instrument into the holes, causing the shell to crack. They gazed at the cracks, divined their meaning, and scratched the answers on the shell for future reference. Thus did the turtle reveal its secrets and teach people how to think about the unknown.
Of course the birds taught the scribes how to draw the word pictures the wise men inscribed on the tortoise shells to interpret the cracks. The birds, we are informed, left footprints in the mud by the river. A wise man read the footprints and then realized that foot-printing would be the most convenient method for the production of word pictures.
If the origin of the Chinese language seems odd, consider the fact that, one day, a special turtle emerged from the river. It had a message on its back, written by a black fish. The message taught people how to think and to write about things that are always changing: that system was eventually recorded in the Book of Changes.
We can learn about China's early geography from the sacred turtle's back. That calls for the telling of yet another old turtle tale: Few Westerners notice it, but there is a map of the Nine Regions of China on the shell of a particular kind of tortoise. We are told that the same turtle—the very one that holds up the sky—helped rebuild the Earth after it was badly damaged.
Another disastrous flood, one lasting twenty-two years, had occurred. It did so much damage to the houses and fields that many people began to live like animals again. A wise king named Yao asked a man named Gun to stop the flood. Gun started building dams, but the dams did not work -after eight years, conditions were worse than ever. So Yao put a wise man by the name of Shun in charge of the kingdom. Shun had Gun beheaded for doing a lousy job, replacing him with a wise fellow named Yu.
Yu succeeded in controlling the flood. Not only did he build better dams, he built canals to drain water out of the flooded areas. The people and crops were saved, and Yu became king. Since then Chinese people often mentioned the three wise kings, China's Three Sage Kings: Yao, Shun, and Yu. The storytellers rarely mentioned that the Three Sage Kings and the dishonored Gun were relatives. Confucius, a conservative teacher who wanted to return his troubled people to the stable traditions, spoke well of the Three Sage Kings. Of course Confucius would deem it highly improper to chop off the head of a relative, even if he were as incompetent as Gun, not to mention anyone else for that matter, for according to tradition if not fact, a dead man must go to Heaven whole—eunuchs carried their severed members with them in little caskets so they would show up in Heaven with everything needed to carry on.
There is another version of the myth, one more favorable to Gun. He is also killed in this version, but he is a successful man rather than a colossal failure. We learn that Gun was once a white horse in Heaven. When he saw how everyone on Earth was suffering because of the flood, he was saddened and decided to help them. He stole some of the Supreme Sovereign’s Magic Growing Soil—when Growing Soil is laid down on our planet, it grows more dirt. Gun spread some Growing Soil around, using it to make mountains as well as dams to control the flood. People loved and glorified him for his good deeds: they sang his name and danced. But the Supreme Sovereign was angry because his Growing Soil had been stolen, so he made the Fire God kill Gun, beside a mountain near the North Pole.
Strange as this might seem, Gun's dead body did not rot for three years because the spirit of his unborn son was inside the corpse, keeping it fresh. The Supreme Sovereign wondered why the body was not decaying. He had one of his gods cut it open with a magic sword. A dragon flew out of the body and circled up to Heaven—the dragon was Gun's son, Yu.
When Yu arrived in Heaven, he asked the Supreme Sovereign for some Growing Soil so he could continue with his father's work and save humankind from the flood. The Supreme Sovereign capitulated, agreeing that it was high time to save humankind, and Yu got the Growing Soil. After he arrived on Earth with the dirty substance, he worked so hard to save everyone that one side of his body shriveled up.
Mind you that Yu did not work alone: he had two assistants. One assistant was a dragon, who dragged his tail around, cutting out the riverbeds and valleys so the floodwaters could drain away and help grow things. The other assistant was, of course, the turtle! He carried the Growing Soil on his back so Yu could use it to make mountains. Yu knew how to lay everything out because the plan for his whole project was spelled out on the turtle's back - the map indicated the right places for mountains, dams and rivers.
Some people believe there is no truth to the fantastic story about Gun, his son Yu, and Yu's turtle. But we tend to believe it. Not only is it written on the old turtle's back, it is written in the stars as well. Surely when everyone learns how to read the turtle's back and the stars, they will know the truth about everything they need to know. Astrologers start with the Black Turtle or Heavenly Turtle, the heavenly marker for the winter quadrant. The appellation for Corona Australis is the mythical person Gun. The tail of Scorpius is the tail of the Responsive Dragon. As it is in Heaven, so it is on Earth. Thus do the stars tell the myth of the Great Flood, which is really the story of how humankind, when confronted with a great natural disaster through no fault of its own, is organized by its leaders, who plan and make preparations for their people to cooperate to meet the challenge in a reasonable manner with whatever technology is available or can be created for the purpose. The Magic Turtle of China reminds us of how the plan may be drawn and implemented, and serves us as a symbol of the stability of a cooperative people’s state. Sometimes the best laid plans are insufficient; therefore some magic growing soil should always be kept handy. May our confederated states be blessed despite their differences.