DURING the Eastern Jin dynasty (317–420), famous Chinese poet Tao Yuanming, also known as Tao Qian, wrote a piece of short prose about a fairyland hidden from the outside world, where the people led a happy and peaceful life.
Titled Tao Hua Yuan Ji (often translated as Peach Blossom Spring or The Land of Peach Blossom), the story has prompted many people to search for this mysterious place, but all in vain.
In Tao Hua Yuan Ji, a fisherman from Wuling town came upon a huge peach grove when rowing on a river. He explored the grove and discovered a cave that was barely wide enough for him to squeeze through.
The cave led him to a valley. There were houses, crop fields and farms as well as poultry and pets roaming around.
The villagers were all smiling and happy. They took turns inviting him to their homes, where they served him food and wine.
Sharing their stories with the “new friend”, the villagers said their ancestors settled in the valley after fleeing a war during the Qin dynasty some 600 years earlier.
The fisherman spent a few days there. Before he left, the villagers begged him not to tell others about the valley. But he did not intend to keep his promise. As he rowed away, he marked the route.
The fisherman reported his experience to the mayor, who then sent officers along with the fisherman to search for the place. But the markings were gone and they could not find the village.
It was commonly believed that the story was fiction written by Tao to express his desire for a utopia because he lived in an era full of turbulence and political instability.
But that did not stop people over the centuries from dreaming of visiting such a beautiful place.
This inspired the Chinese government to identify an area of natural beauty near Changde city in the South of Hunan province as a modern-day Land of Peach Blossom.
It was gazetted as a national park and developed into the Taohuayuan scenic area.
Spread over 157 sq km, the tourist destination has more than 10 attractions, including the Taohua Mountain, Five Willows Lake, Taohuayuan Ancient Town, Peach Blossom Grove, Qin Brook and Qin Valley.
I was given a tour of the park recently, along with journalists from other Asian countries.
Unfortunately, we were there at the wrong season because the flowers only begin blooming in March, when the annual Peach Blossom Festival is held.
The first impression was rather disappointing. The entrance was “over-decorated” and the brick buildings had not-so-attractive wall paintings of women dressed in ancient Chinese attire, just like what we see on mooncake boxes.
But after that, we were greeted with a totally different scenery. Walking down the stone path, I found myself in a valley surrounded by mountains and greenery.
Next to the path is a river, where visitors can choose to take a boat to reach the cave, just like the fisherman did in the story. After a short walk, we arrived at the cave that led us into Taohuayuan. We saw farms, poultry cages, and thatched and wooden cottages, exactly like how Tao described.
“Villagers” clad in ancient costumes sang songs and danced to entertain the visitors. The guests were served tea eggs, fruits, peach blossom wine and steamed sweet potatoes.
The journalists were given a chance to try making rice cakes and bean curd, and using ancient equipment to extract oil from flower seeds.
The park’s highlight was a night-time musical theatre performance along the 4.6km river. We travelled on boats to watch the 90-minute show based on Tao Hua Yuan Ji.
Another notable attraction was the Taoyuan Craftsmanship and Art Museum, featuring a wide range of ancient wooden beds from the Ming and Qing dynasties, embroidery, and stone and bronze carvings.
The most precious item in the collection is a giant willow tree root carving that depicts the fisherman’s journey and the daily lives of the locals in the valley.
Tao’s story remains an important work that still moves people to write songs, plays and movies.
And tao hua yuan is widely used to describe a beautiful paradise hidden away from the rest of this hectic world.
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