China’s Golden Calf


Deng Ming-Dao’s The Lunar Tao has a page for every day of the lunar calendar. Oftentimes, he retells interesting folktales or legends, along with his own philosophical explorations of those stories. Today’s page (lunar month 2, day 18) includes the story of a very special water buffalo:

West Lake (Xi Hu) in Hangzhou is one of the most beautiful places in China and perhaps in the world. The ample history and charms of the area have made it rich in folktales and legends.

During the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220), there was a golden water buffalo who lived at the bottom of the lake. Whenever the lake dried up, the water buffalo spewed water until the lake was full again.

The local officials wanted to present this marvelous animal to the emperor, and they ordered the people to drain the lake with foot-powered waterwheels. When the buffalo appeared, the officials dashed forward, vying with one another to capture it. But the water buffalo bellowed angrily and spewed water so quickly that the officials were drowned as the lake filled rapidly. Since then, West Lake has never run dry. (57)

In his extended meditation upon this story, Deng Ming-Dao reflects on the dual nature water buffaloes in China: “There are two classic scenes of the water buffalo on a farm. One is the buffalo pulling a plow. The other is the buffalo at rest, languishing contentedly, half-submerged in water and mud” (57). He then muses on the supplanting of the water buffalo by industrial technology, and some of the negative social effects of those technologies:

Yet in our “advancement” over the single plowman, we have paid a price. We, the operators of our machines, are now driven to keep up a tireless pace. We do not bother to extend the consideration we show for a water buffalo to ourselves. Nuclear fuel, the combustion engine, ubiquitous electricity, computers and mobile device drive us to work far longer hours than those lowly farmers.

Meanwhile, the water buffalo wallows in the mud. (57)

Deng Ming-Dao seemingly uses the words “we” and “ourselves” inclusively, to refer to humankind in general. However, I think it’s important to remember that Americans, while figuratively chained to their technologies, are quite content to have the actual suicide prevention nets and 12-day workweeks imposed upon others (the majority of whom are people with melanin in their skin). And speaking of nuclear power, don’t forget that CNBC anchor Larry Kudlow said about the Fukushima earthquake, “The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll, and we can be grateful for that.” Sure, he later apologized, but haven’t you ever heard of the Freudian slip?

I don’t expect the modern-day government officials and drainers of lakes to change their ways anytime soon, but maybe what happened once will happen again. On a lighter note, but related to the topic of technology, check out last Sunday’s comic at Pagan Newswire Collective – Minnesota.

And yes, I’m well aware that I’m posting this to the internet from a computer. There are reasons that I do so, and there are negative consequences that I will face as well.

Source: Deng Ming-Dao. The Lunar Tao: Meditations in Harmony with the Seasons. New York: HarperOne, 2013.

Image Credit: Jonathan Rawle. The statue is in Xi Hu (West Lake).

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