A firewood collector watching two immortals

A firewood collector watching two immortals playing chess in Mt. Lanke in Zhejiang Province – a coloured ink painting by Ming Dynasty scholar, politician and artist Zhang Yining (张以宁 1301-1370)

The legend of Mt. Lanke

During the Jin Dynasty in the 4th century, a guy went to Mt. Lanke to collect firewood and saw two men playing chess Weiqi (Go) on a stone.

Like most chess lovers, he put down his tool and stood aside to watch the game.

But once the game was over and he went to pick up his hatchet, he found the wooden handle had already rotted away completely.

After he arrived home, there were even bigger shocks awaiting him: all the people of his generation had long passed away.

Apparently, he accidentally stepped into a world in a different time dimension. When the mysterious men finished one game in their domain, hundreds of years passed in the mortal world.

An ink painting about the legend Mt. Lanke on a folding fan

An ink painting about the legend of Mt. Lanke on a folding fan

Later, a Chinese poet composed a poem reflecting on the yin-yang battle on the weiqi board in Mt. Lanke:


The board is earth and the pieces are heavens,
White are yangs and black are yins.
When you get deep into yin-yang alteration,
You’ve learned the essence of Lanke’s lesson.

Book of Lanke Weiqi (烂柯经)

Although Weiqi appeared in China much earlier than the legend of Mt. Lanke, the mountain has been viewed as the top heritage site for the Chinese chess game, even a book about Weiqi was written in its name.

Book of Lanke Weiqi

It’s one of the most comprehensive books about this unique Chinese game, by Ming Prince Zhu Quan (朱权 1378-1448), the 14th son of the Founding Emperor of Ming, and the book was published during Emperor Wanli’s reign in the 16th century.

The entire book is divided into two parts in four columns. The first three are about Weiqi theory and the last is the practical analysis of the games.

Some Quotations from the Book of Lanke Weiqi:

Amateurs are obsessed with the situation at the border region; experienced draw attention to the corners; and masters will focus on the centre. (高者在腹,下者在边,中者在角)

When you target left, watch your right; when you hit back, watch you front. (击左则视右,攻后则瞻前)

It’s better to sacrifice some pieces to win the game than to lose the game for saving the pieces. (与其恋子以求生,不若弃之而取胜)

When you are weaker than your rival, endeavour to survive before doing anything else; when you are stronger than your rival, try to increase your advantage. (彼众我寡,先谋其生;我众彼寡,务张其势)

If your rival works on consolidating his force without facing a direct external threat, he is planning an attack; when your rival abandons a piece when he can save it, he is preparing for a big assault. (凡敌无事而自补者,有侵绝之意;弃小而不救者,有图大之心)

He who plays the game without a plan is a man having no brain; he who responds to the situation without thinking is a sure way to failure. (随手而下者,无谋之人;不思而应者,取败之道)

He who knows how to win will not seek a battle; he who knows how to battle will not easily enter a battlefield; he who knows how to fight on the battlefield will not fail; he who knows how to fail will not lose his calm. (善胜者不争,善争者不战;善战者不败,善败者不乱)

The landscape of Mt Lanke

Mt Lanke is located in Zhejiang Province on China’s eastern seaboard, belonging to the Danxia landform, with unique petrographic geomorphology featured with red-coloured sandstones.

A giant character "dragon" on the cliff face of Mt Lanke

A giant character “靇” (Chinese dragon) and a walking way on the cliff face of Mt Lanke

A bridge and walkway in Mt Lanke

A bridge and walkway in Mt Lanke, Zhejiang Province

The site on Mt. Lanke where two immortals played Weiqi 2,000 years ago, allegedly

Allegedly, it was where 1,700 years ago a Chinese firewood collector encountered immortals playing Weiqi and experienced the alteration of time.

Kunqu Mt. Lanke – a late Ming Dynasty Chinese opera

The opera is about the relationship between a Chinese man called Zhu Maichen and his ex-wife.

Zhu Maichen was a real historical figure, lived during Western Han Dynasty about 2,000 years ago.

As a poor scholar, he made a living by selling firewood that he collected in Mt. Lanke. After 20 years of marriage, his wife saw no future for the man and demanded a divorce.

The man begged his wife not to leave him, but the woman determined to remarry a millionaire.

Yet it didn’t take long for the woman to discover her new husband was not a rich man but a violent swindler, so she once again left her marriage.

Ten years later, in her humble accommodation shared with an old woman, the ex-wife had a dream in which Zhu Maichen was promoted to a high officialdom and she became an elite lady, enjoying a wealthy life and envied by all the women in the town.

When she woke up from her fabulous dream, all she saw was her lone shadow on the cracked wall wavering in the dim candlelight, and a bright moon outside.

However, her dream soon became true, but only part of it.

Zhu Maichen was promoted to high officialdom and toured his birth town on a horse. This time it was his former wife’s turn to beg him for a reunion.

The man let his assistant pour a bucket of water on the street and told his ex-wife that if she could recollect the water, he would remarry her.

The woman of vain, snobbish and opportunist was so ashamed and hung herself.

Since then Chinese idiom 覆水难收 (meaning you can’t collect water that has been poured on the ground) has been widely used to describe an unrepairable relationship or situation.

There is an entry about the tomb of Zhu Baichen’s ex-wife in the chronicle of Xiushui County (秀水县志) compiled during the Ming Dynasty:

Zhu Maichen’s wife remarried a minor government officer and killed herself when Zhu returned in glory. She was buried in Pavilion Bay and her grave is known as the Tomb of Sham (朱买臣妻改嫁杉青闸吏,买臣既贵还乡,妻羞死于亭湾,故名‘羞墓’)

This short video depicts how Zhu’s Ex begging him to take her home.

The ex-wife played by Tao Hongzhen (陶红珍)
Zhu Maichen played by Li Xiaoyong (李晓勇)

4 thought on “An Ancient Chinese Tale of Relativity in Time”
  1. Which world is more conducive to enlightenment, the heavenly world of the 2 chess players or our mortal plane?

    1. Actually, it is our mortal plane. It’s a rough world presented with all sorts of challenges nearly every minute, yet precisely because of this, it is perfect to serve as a sharpening stone for those who want to remove rust and reveal the true nature.

      1. Yet, the millions of worldly distractions ,hardship for earning money for survival, coupled with physical struggle and suffering makes it undesirable and heavenly realm more preferable

You are welcome to share your thoughts here