There are five great mountains beneath Heaven. To the east is T'ai-shan, Grand Mountain; to west is Hua-shan, Mountain of Flowers; to the south lies Heng-shan, the Mountain of Scales; to the north another Heng-shan, Eternal Mountain; and in the center stands Sun-shan, the Exalted Mountain. These are known as the Five Peaks, and the highest of them is Heng-shan, south of Tung-t'ing Lake, encircled by the river Hsiang on three sides. Upon Heng-shan itself there are seventy-two peaks that rise up and pierce the sky, some jagged and precipitous--blocking the paths of clouds--their fantastic shapes evoking wonder and awe, their auspicious shadows full of good fortune. (p. 3)
Summary: Hsing-chen is a young Buddhist monk of exceptional promise studying under the Great Master Liu-kuan, who teaches The Diamond Sutra on the Lotus Peak of Heng-shan. Everybody knows that he is so exceptional, he will certainly succeed Liu-kuan. One day Liu-kuan, whose health is failing, sends Hsing-chen as a messenger to the Underwater Palace of the Dragon King. At the Dragon King's palace, he is convinced to break his monastic vows and drink a cup of wine; he heads home, but decides to bathe in a stream to shake himself out of the intoxication before he gets back to the monastery. Then he sees eight fairy maidens, attendants of Lady Wei of the Southern Peak, a Taoist Immortal; it is spring and they are disporting in the streams and blocking his path over the bridge. (Symbolic, that.) They refuse to let him pass unless he shows them some supernatural powers such as great Buddhist monks are said to have, and he responds by flirtatiously taking a branch of eight peach blossoms and turning its blossoms into exquisite jewels. When he gets back to the monastery, he tries to deceive his teacher as to why he returned late. Liu-kan dresses him down over it, and sends him away from the monastery (because his actions show that this is what he wants); in particular, he calls up the constables of hell and hands him over to King Yama who rules over the dead. Yama is astounded to find Hsing-chen coming before him, since Yama had expected that he would achieve enlightenment; but karma is inexorable law, and so Hsing-chen must be reincarnated again to work out his failures in a new life.
He is born again as Shao-yu, his mother a poor peasant and his father a wandering hermit who soon leaves. But karma is inexorable law, and all of the excellence of Hsing-chen's former life shines through his fortune. He is brilliant, growing more so over time, and when he takes the civil service examination, he will outshine all his peers; this will set him on the path to become the prime minister of the empire, and its foremost general, and its foremost diplomat. He is handsome, and as he goes through life, he will meet eight women -- Ch'in Ts'ai-feng, Kuei Ch'an-yüeh, Ti Ching-hung, Cheng Ch'iung-pei (who will become adapted as Princess Ying-yang), Chia Ch'un-yün, Li Hsiao-ho (also known as Princess Lan-yang, the sister of the Emperor), Shen Niao-yen (an assassin of superhuman ability), and Po Ling-po (the youngest daughter of the Dragon King), each of them extraordinarily beautiful and brilliant, all of whom will become either his wives or his concubines. This doesn't quite capture it, though. This harem does not really arise from his own efforts (although his success and talent as well as his good looks are the reason for it); from Shao-yu's perspective it almost just seems to spring up, although we also get something of how things look from the perspective of the women and there is an impressive amount of scheming and maneuvering going on of which Shao-yu is largely not aware, and the arrangement is not pursued by Shao-yu but more or less invented by the women themselves, and mostly when Shao-yu is away on business. What is more, all the women become close friends, and, despite their extraordinary differences in status, treat each other with respect, always, which is the unimaginable icing on the already extraordinary cake.
It is, of course, not an accident that there are eight. Fairy maidens, too, are bound by karmic law.
This is a book of illusions. Nothing is ever exactly as it appears. Shao-yu at one point dresses as a woman to see a potential bride; he pays for this in more ways than one, as one of the women, playing a practical joke, manages to fool him into thinking first that she was a fairy and then that she was a 'hungry ghost'. One woman gets close to him by pretending to be a page-boy. Niao-yen, who is basically the Chinese equivalent of ninja, literally materializes in his tent out of the darkness. The Emperor, Empress Dowager, and several of the wives and concubines play an extremely elaborate practical joke in which they convince Shao-yu that one of them has died. Dreams are scattered throughout. And, of course, the tale itself is, as it says in the title, is itself a cloud-dream tale. It is all a dream. But as with Zhuangzi's butterfly, is it Hsing-chen dreaming that he is Shao-yu, or Shao-yu dreaming that he is Hsing-chen? As Liu-kuan notes, the question has no meaning.
Which ties in with the theme from The Diamond Sutra:
All things conditioned
are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, shadows--
like dewdrops, like a flash of lightning,
and thus shall we perceive them. (p. 214)
It is pointless to argue over which of the lives is 'real' and which is 'dream', because there is nothing but the unconditioned, found in enlightenment, and the dreams within dreams within dreams the cover it over. The Buddhist monk takes a vacation in the perfect Confucian life as the superior man, and comes to perceive what he should have perceived from the beginning, that it has no more substance than a dream; but this is not a criticism of Confucianism itself. The book does show a preference for Buddhism as the highest path; as Shao-yu puts it toward the end of his long and happy and beyond-prosperous life:
"There are three ways in the world--the way of Confucius, the way of the Buddha, and the way of the Taoists. Buddhism is the highest. Confucianism exalts achievements and concerns itself with the passing down of names to posterity. Taoism is mystical, but it is unreliable, and though it has benefited many, its truths cannot be wholly known...." (pp. 210-211)
But notice that this is just an ordering. That the Confucian life (and the Taoist life) is mired in illusion is true, but Buddhism is not an exception to this. As Hsing-chen learned the hard way, he was still mired in illusion as a Buddhist, and it took the punishment of being given everything he found attractive about the world for him to see that he was still bound by attraction to the world. Buddhism gets the higher place because it recognizes that the dream is a dream; but Hsing-chen still has to learn as his last lesson that Hsing-chen could as much be said to be a dream of Shao-yu as vice versa. And this perception is the beginning of what is finally required for the only happily-ever-after possible for this fairy tale: that Hsing-chen and the eight fairy maidens "became bodhisattvas and the nine entered, together, into Paradise."
Ling-po drew a small lute from her sleeve and began to play. The sound was clear and plaintive, like water flowing deep in a valley or wild geese crying far off in the sky. The guests shed tears without knowing why. Reedy grasses trembled and leaves fell from the trees.
The prince was mystified. "I did not believe earthly music could change the way of Heaven," he said. "But you have changed spring into autumn and made the leaves fall. Could an ordinary human being possibly learn to play like this?"
"It is only the remnants of old melodies," said Ling-po. "There is nothing marvelous about it that anyone could not also learn." (p. 190)
Recommendation: Highly Recommended.
Kim Man-jung, The Nine Cloud Dream, Heniz Insu Fenkl, tr., Penguin (New York: 2019).