This past semester at the University of Michigan, I took Development of Chinese Fiction, a course taught by Dr. David Rolston. During this course, we looked at the breadth of Chinese fiction from thousands of years ago into the 20th century. One story of particular interest was 南柯太守传 (The Governor of Nanke), a chuanqi tale from the Tang Dyansty, authored in the early 9th century by 李公佐 (Li Gongzuo).
The story briefly describes the life of 淳于棼 (Chunyu Fen), an impulsive rich man who is too fond of drinking. After being dismissed from his position as a general due to unrestrained behavior, he spends his days partying with his friends. After one such party, he falls into a drunken stupor. He then sees himself taken by carriage through an opening in a locus tree by his house, and proceeds to experience a lengthy dream. In this dream, Chunyu lives a whole successful life which includes being on personal terms with the king, but it all ends in tragedy, with his wife and best friends meeting untimely ends. He then wakes up, and is surprised to find that the whole life he lived was merely a dream.
After investigating the locus tree, Chunyu finds an ant nest hidden inside of the opening through which he was carried in the dream. The arrangement of the soil looks just like the city in his dream. And in the “city” there is a raised platform on which stands “two large ants about three inches in length with white wings and red heads”, one being “their king”. Other discoveries reveal that the ant nest and its tunnels share a striking resemblance to the places Chunyu visited in his dream.
I find this story enlightening, as it reveals the spiritual nature of ants. In fact, the author exclaims:
“Ah! If even the spiritual mystery of ants in unfathomable, how much more are the transformations of those who hide in the mountains or conceal themselves in forests.”
However, it should be noted that an ant colony does not have a “king” as described in this story. While it is true that the males and queens are alate (winged), males die shortly after mating, while the queen is left to all of the duties of building the nest and producing a colony. Furthermore, the queen serves no administrative functions – she is merely the reproductive organ of the colony. However, despite these small inaccuracies in descriptions, Li Gongzuo was truly a gifted man, penning insightful thoughts on the spiritual existence of the ant. In closing, Li writes:
The noblest emolument and position
Power to overthrow cities and lands –
The wise man regards these things
As nothing different from swarming ants.