To Pinch a Peach

As a boy, I happened to go to the district seat for my exams at Spring Festival. There is an old custom: the day before the festival, all the various guilds of traders will make colourful pavilions and join a musical procession to the government offices, called the “Spring Parade”. I followed my friends to watch the fun.

     That day there was a wall of sightseers. In the hall four officials were seated, all in red robes, facing each other east and west. I was still young then, so I didn’t know what officials they were. All I could hear was a cacophony of voices and musical instruments.

     Suddenly there was a man, leading a long-haired child and carrying a load, who came forward and seemed to have something to say. His words were drowned under the tide of so many voices, so I didn’t hear what he said. However, I saw the men in the hall laughing.

     A man in black promptly appeared and in a loud voice demanded he give a performance. The man accepted the command and, as he rose, asked, “What sort of performance?”

     The officials in the hall conferred. The clerk passed on their wishes, asking him what he could do. The man replied, “I can conjure living things.”

     The clerk told the officials this. After a few moments he returned and ordered the man to produce a peach. The magician agreed, removed his shirt and placed it on his trunk, making a show of resentment. “These officials are totally clueless!” he said. “The ice hasn’t melted yet, so where am I supposed to find a peach? But if I don’t get one, I’m afraid their lordships will be angry. What now?”

     His son said, “You’ve agreed to it now, dad, so how can you get out of it?”

     The magician was sunk in gloom for quite a while, then said, “I’ve thought it all through. In early spring, with snow still on the ground, where in the world could I look? The only place that might have some is the garden of paradise, where the fruit is ripe all year round. We’ll have to pinch one from Heaven – that’s all we can do.”

     “Oh, really?” said the son. “Does Heaven have steps we can climb?”

     “I have a way,” said the magician. Then, opening the trunk, he took out a coil of rope several hundred feet long, held one end and cast it up into the air. The rope immediately dangled there in midair, as if it was hanging on something. Soon he had cast the rope higher and higher, up into the clouds.

     When the rope in his hand was all played out, he called to his boy, “Come here, son! I’m old and weak, and heavy too – I can’t make it. I need you to go.” So he handed the rope to his son, saying, “You can climb up holding this.”

     The boy took the rope reluctantly. He grumbled, “Old man, you’re a complete idiot too! You want me to use this flimsy rope to climb thousands of feet up into Heaven. If it snaps halfway there, there’ll be nothing left of me!”

     His father cajoled him, saying, “I’ve already opened my big mouth – it’s too late to take it back. Just do it this once, my boy. Don’t make a fuss – if you can bring one back, we’re bound to get a big reward, enough for me to find you a beautiful wife.”

     So the boy held on to the rope and climbed hands over feet, swaying like a spider on its thread, until gradually he disappeared into the clouds. After a long while, down fell a peach as big as a bowl. Delighted, the magician presented it to the court. The officials passed it round at some length, but couldn’t tell if it was genuine or not.

     Suddenly the rope dropped to the ground. Startled, the magician said, “Oh no! Someone up there’s cut my rope – how will my boy hold on?” After a moment, an object fell. He looked at it – it was his son’s head. He picked it up and sobbed, “He must have been caught by a guard stealing the peach. My boy’s finished!”

     A few moments later, a leg dropped; before long, various limbs had fallen and there were no more left to fall. Mournfully, the magician put them in the trunk one by one and closed it, saying, “I only had this one son and he followed me on all my wanderings. Now, because he did what he was told, he’s met this grisly end! I must take him away and bury him.” Then he ascended the hall, kneeled and said, “Because of that peach, my son’s been killed! If you pity a poor man and help with the funeral, I’ll repay you even after death.”

     Astounded, each of the seated officials gave him some silver. The magician took it and tied it at his waist then knocked on the trunk and said, “Baba, my boy, come out and show your thanks – what are you waiting for?” Suddenly a tousle-haired boy pushed open the lid with his head, climbed out and bowed to the north – it was the son.

     Because this magic was so amazing, I remember it to this day. Later I heard the White Lotus sect could perform this magic – I wonder if these two were heirs to the tradition?

This eye-witness account is an important historical record of the classic magic trick that hundreds of years later became known to Westerners as the Indian Rope Trick. The White Lotus Society, to which the magicians are speculated to have belonged, was a religious and political sect with a mix of Buddhist and Taoist beliefs that dated back hundreds of years to at least the Song dynasty and was involved in various uprisings during the following Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.