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In The Realm
Of The Gods
Excerpt: "Guan Yin"
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(An Excerpt from In The Realm Of The Gods)

His Royal Highness--the Illustrious Theocrat, Emperor of the Great Tang Dynasty, receiver of tribute from the far reaches of Inner Asia, commander of armies far to the South, even to Vietnam, known to posterity as The Cultured Ancestor--was exceedingly fond of clams. On his throne in the Capital City of Chang'an he ordered clams for three of his five meals, each and every day. During the ninth course, between the second soup and the fourth seafood, the Imperial Chef of the Imperial Clam prepared an elegant, fresh, succulent platter.

Now, as you know, the captial of the Tang Dynasty was Chang'an, a great city in the west of China, a city that turned its face to the empires of Inner Asia, so it was no easy matter to bring clams to the Emperor, the Illustrious Theocrat. It was only through the bitter labors of thousands that he ate such a delicacy. Every day in the dim light before dawn, clams would be gathered by the ocean fishermen of Zhejiang and then packed by porters in cold seaweed, wet sand and ice, then rapidly loaded on relay mounts that sped the Imperial highway.

Photo by Xiang Xiaoyang

The Royal Couriers on their powerful mounts rushed headlong toward the capital. They scattered all travelers before them, their banners announcing the Imperial mission. Changing mounts in the walled towns, they rattled up the streets and back out the city gates, racing north-northwest through three provinces, all the way out to the dry landscape of the Chang'an. In three days the clams had to arrive fresh and still living, because the Emperor's whim is the world's command and the Emperor does not eat spoiled food.

But though the Emperor gathered the riches of Asia and had a stronghold that surpassed the treasuries of Rome and Baghdad, yet he never paid a bill. The fishermen, the dock-workers, the stable grooms and the riders and even the cooks gave their labors just because the Imperial Command so decreed.

One day on a fine summer evening, the Imperial Shipment of Fresh Clams failed to arrive. The Illustrious Theocrat would be in want of his daily course of clams. The Royal Attendant of the Supply Docks notified the Master of Fish and Ocean Creatures, who then reported hastily to the Governors of Kitchens, who subsequently relayed it in writing to the Chief Chef of the Imperial Supper, who took this aforesaid document directly to the Master Cook--who saw it and immediately collapsed. The kitchen staff gathered together in mute shock, none daring to take a full breath.

Finally, timorously, the Royal Chef of the Imperial Clam made a suggestion. "Actually," he said in a tiny voice, "we do have one clam that remains from our previous shipment. It is still very alive and smells as fresh as if it just came from the ocean, and it is very grand in size."

By now, the Imperial Repast had proceeded apace, and the fourth seafood, after the second grain, before the tenth course following the palate cleansing soup had been served, and the Royal Clam Server was waiting. So, hurrying to the hot stove, the staff steamed up the giant clam in fine herbs and wine, surrounded it in spring onions and brought it out to the Imperial table. The Emperor seemed exceptionally pleased. The clam was enormous--twenty times the usual shell,--surely an Imperial clam meant for an Imperial Palate. The Royal Personage could only imagine the fine flavors the meat would yield--he sat eagerly with a happy expression on his Royal Visage, licking the Imperial Saliva that the delightful aroma produced. As the Clam Shell Opener stepped up to pry the shell apart, however, he found the shell sealed like iron; all the prying, poking, straining and yanking had no effect. The clam was as tight as a rock crevice on the slope of Mount Tai.

The Emperor frowned.

But all of a sudden, as if by signal, the clam began to open. With a steady fluid motion, as if on divine hinges, the top shell reared open to expose the shiny silver and chalky white shell walls. The Emperor peered down inside. He gasped at what he saw. There, standing inside, was a finely detailed miniature, astonishingly sweet statue of the Goddess of Mercy, the Bodhisattva Guan Yin, exquisitely carved. But the Emperor was most surprised by her lovely expression. It was mild and soft, as if she forgave all the sins in the world.

Photo by Wang Rending

The Emperor was greatly abashed by such a sight, for he knew immediately--in his heart of hearts--that the Buddhist Goddess--who hears even the smallest call for mercy from even the tiniest voice in the empire--had taken pity on the boat men, the fisher folk, the portage men and relay riders, even the royal cooks--all who served without fail and without complaint his royal taste and royal whim.

So the Emperor decreed throughout the Empire that all would know the mercy of Guan Yin and all would know her divine authority. He commanded that carved statues of Guan Yin--carved just like the fine miniature he had found in the shell--be placed in Buddhist temples throughout the Empire: throughout both the North and the South. And, in honor of the fisher folk of Zhejiang, he called her "The Goddess Guan Yin of the Southern Sea," so that, like all great goddesses of the sea, she would watch over mankind in times of fear and danger.

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And he decreed as well, to the Royal Kitchen, who informed the royal Attendant of Fish and Ocean Creatures, who relayed it dutifully to the Imperial Relay Stations, who thence reported it on to the Imperial Boatmen, and, finally, to the Emperor's own Clam Gatherers, that the Emperor, the Illustrious Theocrat, would only require clams once a week.