Wednesday, April 24, 2024

The legend of Ink Pond

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From the Selected Collection of Folk Tales
Illustrated by Vu Dinh Tuan

In the days of the Tran Dynasty, there was a Confucian scholar in Quang Liet commune (now in Thanh Tri district, Hanoi) named Chu An. Thanks to his outstanding reputation, many students from afar came to study with him.

Hearing of his fame, the king invited Chu An to the capital to take charge of the Imperial Academy and educate the crown prince. Chu An left his family to assume his new position, only to return home just over a year later, leaning on his cane. 

He told everyone: “I cannot bear the seven power-usurping courtiers who deceive the king and harm the country!”

After that, people saw Chu An return to teaching. He attracted even more students. So many new students arrived that three or four more houses had to be built on a hillside in Van village to accommodate the newcomers. Among Chu An’s students were two sons of the Water King, who had sent them upon hearing of this wise master.

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Every day, the two brothers came to the water’s surface, cast off their serpent forms to look human, and came onto land, behaving no differently than normal people.

One day, while Chu An was grading assignments, the class elder came to report that earlier that morning, while it was still dark, he had been on his way to the district market. Upon reaching Bua Bridge, he had seen two individuals walking on water toward the shore. 

“It was the two Gan brothers, Master! I was initially frightened but decided to follow them, and indeed, they came here. What should we do now, Master?”

The old master nodded and replied: “Let them be, my child! Human or not, if they want to learn the ways of the great, that is even better, isn’t it?”

That year, the Thanh Dam region experienced a severe drought. From the end of the previous year until February of the new year, not a single drop of rain fell. The fields cracked and crops of rice and corn gradually withered. Seeing the people in such distress, the old master felt greatly worried.

One afternoon, after class, the old master asked the two Gan brothers to stay behind and said: “I hope you could show some compassion toward the people.”

The two brothers pretended not to understand and said nothing. Seeing that they were still hiding their true selves, the old man said: “You don’t need to hide. I already know. At this point, only you can save the people. Please, create rain for them.”

The brothers exchanged glances. After some time, they told the old man: “Yes, but the rivers and lakes are all sealed by heaven’s rules now. From where can we get the water?”

The old man earnestly replied: “Please think about where you could possibly source water. If we cannot save many, let’s at least try to save a few!”

The two brothers hesitated for a while, then pointed to an ink slab on a nearby desk. They told the master:

“Master, the heavenly rules are very strict, but we must respect your word. We shall do as you say and make rain from the ink of your ink slab to temporarily relieve the drought in this area.”

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The old master joyfully ran to his desk, lifted the large ink slab filled with ink and his usual brush, and handed them to the brothers. They took these items and all three proceeded toward the riverbank. Upon arriving, the brothers rolled up their sleeves. One held the ink slab, while the other took the brush, dipped it into the ink, and repeatedly flicked it toward the sky. Eventually, they threw both the ink slab and brush into the water, bowed to the old master, and disappeared.

That night, the sky indeed became dark with clouds, and a heavy rain poured down. The old master was both overjoyed and frightened, pacing back and forth sleeplessly all night long. When morning came, everyone was astonished to find that the water had only risen in the fields around the Thanh Dam region. Moreover, the water in every location was as black as ink. That night’s rainstorm saved countless rice paddies and cornfields, along with various other crops. 

Meanwhile, in the heavenly palace, the angels were puzzled by the unexpected rainfall. The Jade Emperor, angered, sent an angel to capture and punish the perpetrators. The two Gan brothers could not escape the stringent heavenly net, and both fell under the wrath of the Thunder God, meeting their end.

The bodies of the brothers transformed back to their original forms. The two serpents washed up under Bua Bridge, with their heads in one place and their tails in another. Upon hearing the news, the old master was filled with sorrow. He wept and instructed all his students to hold a funeral for the two serpents. On that day, the riverbank was lined with people in plain white mourning clothes. The bodies of the two creatures were respectfully buried, with tombs erected over them.

The ink slab of the old master, Chu An, later drifted back to Quynh Do village, turning the water of the pond there black, which is why people nowadays still refer to it as Dam Muc, or Ink Pond. As for the brush, it drifted to To village. According to the elders, it’s thanks to this that To village (now known as Ta Thanh Oai) is home to many scholars and successful people. As for the tombs of the two serpent brothers, a shrine was built to worship them, known today as Gan Shrine.

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