A Cautionary Tale

A renowned writer uses folklore from his homeland to teach an environmental lesson



One June afternoon, I was taking a walk on the Walkway Over the Hudson with our teenage daughter Victoria, drinking in the rare beauty above and about the river. I told Victoria that this reminded me of the beloved Mulan River back in China, the mythical river that we all think descended from heaven.

“From heaven?” She frowned and tilted her head, intrigued and curious, as she is about all things Chinese (she is about to leave for Beijing on a junior-year-abroad program).

I said, “Chinese believe that all rivers descend from heaven, that they are sacred channels offering blessings to Earth. That it is our heavenly good fortune to savor their sweetness, our earthly duty to keep them clean. We believe all rivers are guarded by river gods or goddesses. Some gods are good, saving drowning children in a flood; others are not so good, demanding virgins to be thrown in as sacrificial brides.”

“Why is the river there called Mulan?” She inquired. “That was my favorite childhood movie.”

“The river running through our small village in southern China is believed to be guarded by the goddess, Mulan. (Yes, the same Mulan animated by Disney.) She is said to hover over the entire length of the river, day and night, guarding its purity and ensuring its abundance. As time passed, the river’s original name was forgotten and it came to be known just as Mulan. At the delta, where she pours into the sea, there is a statue of the goddess looking out to the vast ocean, her arms embracing the eastern sun. Her shrines, which dot narrow passages where boats run perilously ashore, guard deep gorges where ships mysteriously vanished.

“Each year on the goddess’ birthday, the third of March, we celebrated her blessings by offering food at her shrines, burning incense for a peaceful year gone by and praying for a bountiful year to come. Year in and year out, Mulan became a part of our lives, our souls.”

“Can I visit the river when I go there in August?” she said rather seriously.

I sighed. “Mulan River is now but a puddle of yellow, smelly water,” I explained. “Thirty new factories along the shore dumped all their waste into her bosom. The stench could be smelled miles away. The region has prospered, but the river has died. Some crabs caught from the river have only seven legs, rather than the usual 10. Catfish taste so sour that even dogs will not touch them. Carp have grown thorns on their heads, like alien monsters. Mulan’s statues and shrines have long been torn down or pushed into the river.

“I have dreamed about Mulan twice. In one, she looked forlornly to the churning China Sea with a sad and stony gaze, her tears catching the sun. In another, she was flying like an angel over the serene Hudson River, with a smile on her face and moonlight on her back.”

“Flying over here?” Victoria asked, this time skeptically.

I nodded. “I think the goddess is now guarding the Hudson, so this sacred river will forever run long and free, from the blue sky to the misty sea.”

She smiled, thanking me for the story, and waved to a peregrine falcon flying over the Walkway, its shadow long down the river, ancient and sun-dappled.

Writer Da Chen is a Highland resident and the author of Colors of the Mountain, a best-selling memoir about his early life in rural China.