Beyond the Heavenly Shell

Ancient explanations of celestial bodies through the theory of “hun-tian” suggest that heaven and earth are one entity, like an egg. When the yolk and white of the egg are undivided, the world remains in a state of chaos. Once the yolk separates from the white, heaven and earth are formed. Humans cannot exist outside this eggshell. Therefore, the Taoist belief in the existence of thirty-three heavens beyond seems somewhat far-fetched.

The region of Guanzhong(关中) has thick layers of soil, often experiencing earthquakes and land fissures, causing entire villages to collapse. During these violent tremors, black water may shoot into the sky, smoke and fire might erupt, or the land may split and then rejoin. However, those buried beneath the collapsed land, the residents and their houses, never resurface, leaving their fate unknown.

In the third year of the Shunzhi era, a tragic incident of land fissures and village collapse occurred in Wuwei, Gansu. There was a man named Dong Yu(董遇) who specialized in practicing Daoist physical arts. He could control his breath and sink into the sea without perishing. Astonishingly, nine days after Dong Yu’s entire family was buried underground due to land fissures, he emerged alone from beneath the earth.

Dong Yu recounted that when he first sank into the earth, he felt his body continuously descending. After a day and a night, he fell into an underground spring. As he descended, his posture seemed to fly yet not fly, to turn yet not turn, it was smooth and comfortable, and he could still converse with his family. However, as soon as he fell into the spring, his entire family drowned.

At that moment, Dong Yu controlled his breath and sank to a depth of over a thousand feet, feeling the surroundings gradually dry up, enveloped in pure yellow on all sides. After a while, as daylight appeared, Dong Yu looked downward to behold a vast expanse of land. Listening intently, he heard the voices of residents, as well as the sounds of chickens and dogs, carried by the wind. Dong Yu thought that this must be the world beyond the heavenly shell. If he could descend to the second heavenly palace, even if he landed on someone’s roof, wouldn’t the residents revere him as a celestial being from above? Thus, he exerted all his strength to descend further but was thwarted by a whirlwind, circling aimlessly in mid-air.

Soon after, a person dressed in ancient attire, standing at twenty feet tall, loudly reprimanded Dong Yu: “This is the boundary of the second heaven. Throughout the ages, immortals and sages have been unable to breach this boundary. Who are you, daring to act so recklessly? Hurry, return to the human world while the land hasn’t yet closed up. Otherwise, once it does, plunging millions of feet deep, although you can pass through water, you won’t pass through earth. Death is inevitable for you.”

Before the person finished speaking, countless beams of golden light surged from afar, scorching and unstoppable.

The person in ancient attire comforted Dong Yu, saying, “Quickly, quickly, the sun has turned this way! Even I need to avoid it, not to mention your mortal body. If you don’t leave now, you’ll turn to ashes.”

Dong Yu shuddered at these words and immediately used his energy to soar upwards. Due to exposure to water, Dong Yu’s face turned as black as charcoal, his clothes sticking to his skin. It wasn’t until a month later that he regained his original appearance. After this incident, he called himself the “Hermit Beyond Calamity(劫外叟).”

I’ve read in the “Huainanzi(淮南子)” that “beneath the temperate zone, there are no living creatures.” According to this, the area near the sun might be what the “Huainanzi” refers to as the “temperate zone(溫帶).”

Translated from 《天殼》in 《子不語》:


🎨 《聽阮圖》李嵩, in the Song Dynasty

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