A Kuan Yin Christmas Story

Actually, this has nothing to do with Christmas, but it does involve Kuan Yin. If there are any morals to the story, I leave that up to you to discern. I offer the tale merely as entertainment, a small diversion from the usual storytelling heard and read at this time of year.

Fish Basket Kuan Yin, Ming Dynasty

As you may know, Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, the One Who Hears the Cries of the World, has many manifestations, and in art is depicted in a number of different poses, sometimes seated on a lotus blossom or in the “royal ease” posture; she might be standing, dressed in white, perhaps holding a willow branch or a child, or with a thousand arms. This is a tale of the origin of the Fish Basket Kuan Yin.*

In China, on the Yangtze River at Hunan, there is a waterfall called the Dragon Gate. Its waters cascade down from a great mountain for more than one hundred feet. Each year in the third month of the spring, a certain species of carp, known as Yulong, swim up from the sea and gather in the basin to climb the waterfall. It is said that any carp able to leap the falls will be transformed into a dragon. The large scales of Chinese dragons indicate they originate from carp.

However, the river’s current is strong, and as one sage wrote, “not a single carp out of a hundred, a thousand or even ten thousand can climb the falls, not even after ten or twenty years. Some are swept away by the rushing water, some fall prey to eagles and hawks, while others are netted, scooped up, or even shot with arrows by fishermen who line either bank of the wide falls.”

This myth was so well-known that throughout China the phrase “a student facing his examinations is like a carp attempting to leap the Dragon Gate,” was a common expression to indicate the difficulty of passing imperial examinations.

There was a man named Zhou, a youthful scholar who arrived at the capital one spring to take his examinations. While there, he stayed in a monastery. He was sincere student who maintained a pious devotion to the Three Treasures of the Buddha, Dharma, and Community of Believers. He was also skilled at calligraphy, a talent that attracted the attention of Prime Minister Ching, who befriended him. The Prime Minister asked Zhou to tutor his daughter, a beautiful girl named Golden Peony. After a short time, Zhou and Golden Peony fell in love, and were engaged to be married.

Now, there was a golden Yulong carp in the pond on the Prime Minister’s estate, and this carp took the form of Golden Peony and seduced Zhou, and together they left the capital for a nearby city. Needless to say, the real Golden Peony was heartbroken over the disappearance of her fiancée, and soon she became gravely ill over it. The Prime Minister was concerned, not only for his daughter, but also for Zhou, as his sudden and mysterious departure seemed so out of character.

Judge Dee

Prime Minister Ching contacted the famous Judge Dee, a detective and magistrate whose adventures have been recorded in contemporary times through the novels of Robert van Gulik and in the recent film, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. The judge launched an investigation and soon uncovered the hidden truth of the affair. Accompanied by a squad of soldiers, he traveled to this other city to capture the false Golden Peony and return Zhou. However, the woman who was really a carp managed to escape. Although he sent out men to scour the entire South country, Judge Dee could find no trace of the golden carp in any form.

By now, Kuan Yin had heard the sorrowful cries of the real Golden Peony. Even though Zhou had returned, Golden Peony was still in agony. She could not get over her belief that Zhou had been unfaithful and had betrayed her. Not even the fact that the honorable Judge Dee vouched for Zhou and explained that the young man had been tricked helped to ease her pain. Judge Dee, a most wise man, counseled the girl and suggested that she recite Kuan Yin’s name to arouse the power of compassion within her heart and forgive Zhou.

Kuan Yin, wishing to relieve Golden Peony’s sufferings, used her mystic power of insight to discover the carp’s hiding place: beneath a lotus leaf in the South Sea. Kuan-yin went to this place, captured the carp, and placed it in a fish basket.

White-robed Kuan Yin, Ming Dynasty

Mr. Yang was 0ne of the Prime Minister’s neighbors, a humble man of modest means whose most valuable possession was a painting of White-robed Kuan Yin. One night he had a dream in which Kuan Yin told him the next day he would meet a woman carrying a fish basket. The next morning he did indeed meet such a woman, and he took her to Judge Dee and they turned the trickster golden carp over to him. The woman received a sum of money as a reward that she then gave to Mr. Yang on the condition that he should commission a painting of Kuan Yin carrying a fish basket. This is the origin of the Fish Basket Kuan Yin.

The carp confessed, and Golden Peony forgave Zhou, and they renewed their plans for marriage. However, there was still the matter of the carp’s punishment to consider. The carp had repented of its errors and begged for mercy, and while the fish seemed sincere, Judge Dee was nonetheless tempted to take the carp to the fish market to become someone’s meal. Kuan Yin suggested they test the carp’s sincerity by releasing it into the waters at the foot of the Dragon Gate waterfall. If, without resorting to magic, the carp could leap the falls and become a dragon then its sincerity would be proved. If not, then the carp would surely drown or be netted by fishermen.

Kuan Yin and Judge Dee traveled to the Dragon Gate, where they released the golden carp and immediately it climbed the falls and when it reached the top, became a dragon known as Chan-long, or “Remorseful Dragon.”

It is said that after hearing this story, the poet Bei Du composed the following poem:

Those who contemplate on this subtle
compassionate lady dressed in white
appearing everywhere
in infinite universes,
return to the original enlightenment,
attaining nothing,
empty and free.


* A slightly different version of this story appears in Kuan-yin: the Chinese transformation of Avalokitesvara by Chun-fang Yu, Columbia University Press, 2001.