Myths and legends keep alive the hope that a perfect world is somewhere beyond the next mountain peak, across the ocean or through a narrow crevice. Plato described the mythic continent of Atlantis as if it had actually existed. In modern times, James Hilton wrote “Shangri-La” based on a mystical city of Tibetan Buddhism. We'd all like to think there was a magical wardrobe in our house as C.S. Lewis described.
A 1st century poet from China also wrote about an amazing place that some believe actually existed. Tao Yuanming told this story of a fisherman who discovers a wonderful place by traveling to the end of a river.
Every morning a man went out in his boat to fish. Sometimes the fish would bite, other times they would not. Occasionally he sold fish in the local market and brought home a few silver coins. What he caught was enough to live on and the fisherman was content.
On a day like any other he got into his boat and rowed out. The water slapped gently against the boat hull as he rowed. Deep in thought, he lost track of how far he had traveled. He glanced up.
As far as he could see along the riverbank, before him lay an orchard of blooming peach trees. Colorful peach blossoms danced and swirled in the wind. The fisherman could smell the fresh green grass under the trees. Astonished he rowed on, his mouth agape. He asked himself how far these orchards would reach.
He rowed and rowed until he had reached the river's source. There the peach trees grew sparse, and he noticed a mountain. An odd light emanated from a crevice in the rocks.
He jumped from his boat, and approached the crevice. It seemed big enough for him to squeeze through and he soon entered a dark cave. As he pushed further, it became roomier.
He soon stepped into a broad landscape with tidy houses, neatly-plowed fields, clear and sparkling ponds, mulberry trees and bamboo groves. Paved streets led in all directions. He heard cocks' crow and dogs barking. Men and women labored in the fields. They wore unfamiliar attire. Young or old, all seemed happy and carefree.
Some greeted the arrival of the fisherman with curiosity, asking him where he came from, and he explained in detail. They invited him into their homes, brought wine from the cellar, slaughtered chickens and created an elaborate banquet of delicious dishes. When other villagers heard of his visit, all came to take a look at him.
The fisherman had questions, too, and an older villager explained. "Our ancestors arrived here with families and friends during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.E.) to escape the constant fighting. We have never left, and so know nothing of the outside world."
They asked their visitor which dynasty now ruled. They were ignorant of the dynasties that followed the Qin, the Han and Wei, and of course knew nothing of the present Jin Dynasty. They listened spellbound as the fisherman regaled them with tales from his world.
The fisherman stayed for a few days, enjoying their generous hospitality then announced that he must leave to return home. The villagers implored him not to tell the outside world of their existence. Some accompanied him until he reached the cave entrance.
His eyes once more swept over the gorgeous landscape. Then he waved good-bye, turned and plodded toward the darkness of the cave.
He squeezed through the narrow opening in the rock. His boat was where he had left it. On his way back he tried to commit as many landmarks as he could to memory. Having barely arrived home he went to a provincial official to relate his unusual discovery.
The official dispatched several people to accompany the fisherman, and discover the village behind the rock. But soon the fisherman lost his sense of direction and could never find the way to the village.
A nobleman named Liu Ziji from the northern Province of Nanyang heard of this tale and also attempted to find this village but was unable to complete his quest. As soon as he set out on his journey, a mysterious illness overcame him and he soon died.
Later generations called it the “paradise beyond peach blossoms.” Soon people stopped looking for the beautiful land with happy people. This story gave rise to the Chinese expression "shiwai taoyuan," or “land of eternal peace and harmony.”
This story by 1st century Chinese poet Tao Yuanming originated from Wuling near Dongting Lake in south China during the Taiyuan era of the Jin Dynasty (376-396).