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Stones into Sheep: The medieval search for a legendary Daoist master

By Elizabeth Smithrosser

The legend of the Daoist master of Mount Redpine who could turn stones into sheep had fascinated China for centuries. Sometime in the 1200s, one man ventured up the mountain to see if he was still there.

Once upon a time – reportedly in the early 300s – there lived a fifteen-year-old shepherd boy called Huang Chuping. Together with his family, he was a resident of an inland, mountainous area of what is now Zhejiang province in southeastern China.

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Day-to-day life was hard for the family. As early as eight years of age, Huang Chuping had been tasked with taking the family’s flock out to graze on the surrounding mountains.

Today, too, he was out watching over the sheep on the otherwise deserted mountainside as they grazed on Mount Redpine. The clouds had dropped low that morning to form an icy mist that skimmed the hilltops and the teenager huddled deeper into his worn-out woolen cloak. When he looked up, he was astounded to see an elderly Daoist Immortal emerging from the haze.

An early-sixteenth-century image of an elderly Daoist Immortal, in this case Elder Zhang Guo. Wikimedia Commons

That was the day that Huang Chuping renounced the mundane world for a new walk of life. The old Daoist showed him the way to the legendary realm of the Immortals, where he began his own cultivation of the Daoist arts. But the story does not end there.

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One day, over forty years later, Huang Chuping’s elder brother was out on Mount Redpine and happened upon a Daoist hermit. As he drew closer, he realized with astonishment that this man was none other than his long-lost brother. After listening to his stories of the wonders of the magical Immortal realm, Huang’s brother still had one burning question.

“So what happened to the sheep?”

“They’re over on the east side of the mountain.”

Perplexed at this reply, Huang’s brother headed eastwards to investigate, where looking around he could see nothing but a scattered pile of white rocks. Before long, however, Huang Chuping started to wield some kind of shape-shifting power. Slowly but surely, each rock became softer and fuzzier, then started to wriggle and jump. Before he knew it, there was a breathing, bleating flock of little sheep milling about his ankles on the hunt for fresh grass.

Detail from “Huang Chuping turning stones into sheep.” Here we can see a gradual progression from the stones at the top of the image to the fully-formed sheep at the bottom. Image courtesy the Smithsonian

Amazed at what he had just witnessed, whether it had been a real-life miracle or a vision of supranormal intensity, the brother was persuaded. He committed to a new life on the spot, leaving everything behind to follow Huang Chuping in pursuit of the Daoist arts.

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And that is roughly how the story had been retold for centuries. One man who was particularly enchanted by it was Ni Shouyue of the Southern Song period (1127–1279). Sometime in the thirteenth century, he took a trip up Mount Redpine to gather local knowledge and memories to document in writing, thereby preserving them for future generations. He called his testimony the Record of Mount Redpine in Jinhua.

Huang Chuping became a subject of fascination for early modern Japanese artists. This sixteenth-century picture in the Honolulu Museum of Art shows Huang holding his sleeves out of the way while transforming the rock on the left. Look closely—the forelegs, head, ears and one eye are already discernible, while what was moss on the rock is turning into wool.

For Ni Shouyue, this was a pilgrimage of a very personal nature. Not only was he a seasoned Daoist practitioner himself, but he had in fact spent his youth in the vicinity of Mount Redpine. He recalled that, growing up surrounded by scenery like the story, “Everything beheld by my eyes and heard by my ears was akin to that which had given rise to the two Huang brothers’ induction to the Daoist path. While the precise chain of events they experienced was unbeknown to me, in my heart I had nevertheless always felt a deep identification with them.”

Ni had felt the pull of the Daoist path since he had been a very young boy, or “ever since my baby teeth fell out,” to borrow his own expression. Unlike Huang Chuping, though, Ni Shouyue did not have the luxury of a Daoist Immortal to offer him personal training, and therefore had to teach himself. “In the fragrance of the dawn and by lamplight at dusk,” he poured himself tirelessly into meditative and ascetic practices.

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Here is an alternative way to make sheep out of stone (or clay, at least) in the form of these earthenware tomb figurines from the seventh or eighth century. Photo courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Record itself reads like a sightseeing guide to the mountain. Ni has meticulously paired all the local features—cliffs and caves, streams and mountain pools, shrines and temples—with a description and a little history, sometimes pointing out the role they played in the story of Huang Chuping. He also introduces the various other famous Daoist hermits who had taken the mountain as their abode in more recent times.

The number-one sight on the mountain was of course the area to the east, which had by this point become known as “Sleeping Sheep Peak”. The rock formation here was indeed composed of small white rocks, spread across the hilltop at random just like a haphazardly grazing flock of sheep. The Peak had become a site for pilgrimage and tourism alike, with visitors dropping by from nearby cities in the hope of catching a glimpse of the view beheld by Huang’s brother all those centuries ago.

Another Japanese depiction of Huang Chuping and the sheep, by Sesshū Tōyō (1420–1506). Wikimedia Commons

The elder brother’s question of “So what happened to the sheep?” continued to capture the imagination of people of later times. After all, the basic version of the story provided no definite answer. Had the transformation of the stones been a vision conjured up by Huang Chuping, or had they actually turned into sheep?

Either way, the question remains unanswered. If a vision, then what became of the sheep after Huang Chuping left them on the hillside the first time around? And if the stones had physically turned into sheep, given that the stones remained in situ centuries later, it would seem that they had turned into stone upon Huang’s initial departure and then back into stone again after he left with his brother the second time. This raised philosophical questions of its own—were the objects that remained on the mountain best understood as stones, or as sheep?

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Poems on the topic contain both speculation of what became of the sheep and romanticized depictions of the flock watching over the mountain with a calm stillness, day and night, season to season, forever and ever. The eternality granted to the sheep by their stone incarnation was taken to mirror the Daoist immortality sought by the shepherd who had herded them across the mountains all those years ago.

One such poem by literatus Su Shi (1037—1101) likens Daoist practice itself to that of a shepherd, who contentedly allows his flock to freely roam at will while following behind. The poet also imagines how the stone sheep make regular fools out of predatory beasts who patrol the mountain range in search of unattended livestock. Time and time again, as he describes, passing tigers and wolves grin and salivate at the sight of what is ultimately a mere illusion. Of course, the outwardly vulnerable sheep get the last laugh: sharp as these predators’ teeth and claws may be, they are no match for their stony coats.

Another Japanese depiction of Huang Chuping and the sheep, by Kanō Sansetsu (1590–1651

The stone sheep, then, are not viewed as objects of pity. That shepherd-boy, who seemed at first to have abandoned his flock to the jaws of such predators, had, on the contrary, gone above and beyond in his duties. Paradoxical as it may seem, by leaving the sheep alone on the mountainside in this way, he equipped them with the ultimate, eternal protection.

Elizabeth Smithrosser is a PhD Student in Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. Click here to view her university page.

Click here to read more articles by Elizabeth Smithrosser

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