Portraits of Thirty-three Swordsmen – 7 Old Man of Lanling

Old Man of LanlingNo. 7 Old Man of Lanling: the old man’s skin got struck*, the mayor’s beard got shaved.

Tang Dynasty, when Li Gan was mayor of Changan, there was a big drought. So he went to the temple to pray for rain. Thousands gathered to watch. When he was arriving at the temple with his security, the people parted like a wave. However there was one old man who stood his ground. Enraged, Li Gan told his men to grab him and strike him back with staff twenty times. When the staff landed, the sound did not make sense – it was like striking a drum make of tough cowhide. The old man did not cry out for pain. When the punishment was over, he casually strolled away.

Surprised, Li Gan ordered an old soldier to tail the old man. The old man went all the way to Lanling neighborhood. He went inside a small door. He could be heard saying “I really got bullied today, quickly, bring me some hot water!” The soldier immediately went back to report.

The more Li Gan thought about what happened, the more afraid he became. So he put on an old jacket on top of his official uniform, and went to the old man’s place with the soldier.

It was already dark by this time. The soldier went in first to announce his arrival. Li Gan followed in, and knelt on the ground before the old man: “earlier I was blind and offended zhangren (respectful term for an elder). For that I should’ve died ten times!” Surprised, the old man rose up, “who led you here?” Observing the old man’s reaction closely, Gan Li thought maybe he could persuade him with reason, so he said “I am the mayor of the city. If I do not command the respect of the people, that could lead to chaos. Zhangren were hidden amongst the average people, without unusual insight, it was extremely difficult to spot the difference. If zhangren blame me for what happened today, that might be a little unreasonable, and not the way of the righteous.” The old man laughed “then it is this old man’s fault then.” He took out some food and drink, spread them on the floor, and invite Li Gan and the soldier to sit down.

Deep into the night, when they got to the topic of life cultivation, the old man’s words were deep and pithy. Li Gan felt a mixture of admiration and fear. The old man said “This old man knows one insignificant skill, I shall embarrass myself by demonstrating it to your highness.” He went inside another room. A while later, he came back. He had changed his cloth – now dressed in purple, his hair are tied with red bands, he held seven long swords of various length. The old man started wielding them in the middle of the courtyard. The swords flashed in the night like arcs of lightening, sometimes they flew in straight lines, sometimes in circles, Li Gan got dizzy trying to follow their movements. There was one particular two-foot long sword that kept darting toward Li Gan, touching his cloth. Li Gan entire body shivered uncontrollably.

After time enough for a meal, the old man threw up his hands. The seven sword flew up, and landed on the ground at the same moment in the shape of big dipper. “That was just to test your courage”, he said.

Li Gan bowed down on the ground: “my life after this moment are but gifts from zhangren. Please let me follow you!” The old man said “you lack dao energy in your bones, therefore not suitable for transmission of my art. Let’s talk about this later.” With that, he saluted and went inside.

By the time Li Gan went home, he felt sick. When he looked at himself in the mirror, he found that his beard has been trimmed an inch or so. The next day he went back to Lanling neighborhood to visit the old man again, but the room was empty.

Notes and commentary:
*The original word used in caption is bao – peeling off. Obviously the old man did not get his skin peeled off. If we look deeper, we’ll find that in Yi Jing, bao is gua 23, where the following meanings where included in explanation: the good and innocent are endangered, impending disaster is approaching the body (剥床以足,以灭下也). Here it is a reminder that the old man skin was struck.

The reason there were such a big crowd watching Li Gan praying for rain was that Li was going to perform the whole ritual himself. He was unique amongst people who attained that level of position in that he did not pass the imperial examination. Rather, he background was that of an astrologist. He was a favorite of those high in the ruling class who believed in astrology, alchemy, and other types of magical thinking.

In China we say Daoism was practiced by people in three different levels: at highest level it was practiced as philosophy (spiritual cultivation), the middle as religion (both mind and body – the goal is still immortality, by not letting the body die), and the lowest being superstition (astrology, alchemy, witchcraft, fortune-telling, exorcism, etc). No wonder than the old man found Li Gan too low level, lacking the genuine daoist spirit necessary to study his art. However low level, Li Gan must have really believed in magic, otherwise why would he be so fearful throughout the whole episode?

As we can observe from the account here, like many people who do well making a living at fortune-telling, Li Gan has the cleverness necessary for sizing people up very quickly, and he certain has a politician’s gift of gab. Perhaps that explains his long career in the government. He was actually the longest serving mayor (8 years) of the capitol city during Tang. His career was to reach even higher planes after this incident.

But as with what happened here, eventually his real shortcomings caught up to him: he conspired with powerful eunuch Li Zhongyi 刘忠翼 to set up someone else as the heir to the throne. At first the details were unclear, he was merely exiled. On the day he left the city, thousands of citizen saw him off, throwing gravel and tiles, not unlike the scene in Doorman of Xuanci Temple. Later on, when the new emperor Dezong found out the exact details, he ordered Li Gan to commit suicide.

I particularly like the realism in the portrayal of the old man. Obviously he had strong qigong to protect himself from the beating. But I think the reason he didn’t step aside in the beginning is not to deliberately engineer everything that came after. He may just be hard of hearing. Why else would he not discover the old soldier following him? Also, the way he responded when Li Gan showed up, it was very reasonable. Unlike the Old Man from Jingxi, he as not some guy with magical abilities who was in complete control the whole time. He reacted as a normal person would.

As for the skill he displayed, it was very high level performing art, not martial art. Earliest recording of such skill was probably by the great 5th century BC philosopher Liezi: Lan Zi of Song Kingdom can “juggle seven swords repeatedly while dancing, often five of the seven swords were in the air at any time…” Recently excavated Han paintings also depict this type of skill.

With the previous two tales – Hongzhou Scholar and The Man in Black Cap, we have the refusal to learn from the part of ordinary person encountering people with extraordinary abilities. Here it was the master who refused to teach. In an upcoming tale – Nie Yinnang, we shall see what the training for swordsman was like.




夜深,語及養生,言約理辨,黎轉敬懼。因曰:“老夫有一技,請為尹設。” 遂入。良久,紫衣朱囊,盛長劍七口,舞于中庭,迭躍揮霍,批光電激,或橫若掣帛,旋若救火。有短劍二尺余,時時及黎之衽。黎叩頭股栗。



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