The idiom “a vanished dream” comes from the story The World Inside a Pillow (“枕中记”) by Shen Jiji(1) of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618–907). The record tells of a poor, young scholar named Lu Sheng who changed the course of his life after dreaming at the dinner table.
As the story goes, one evening, the young scholar entered a tavern and sat down at a table with a kind-looking and white-haired, elderly gentleman. He confided in the elder about how he had repeatedly failed to pass the civil service examination.
After having listened patiently, the gentleman suggested he abandon worldly ambitions and study the Dao, but the scholar was not interested. The young man had no idea the elderly man at his table was Lü Dongbin, one of the famous Eight Daoist Immortals.
As they waited for the innkeeper to prepare a simple meal of yellow millet, Lü Dongbin offered the young scholar a pillow, upon which he immediately fell asleep.
In a vivid dream, the scholar finally passed the highest imperial examinations! He then became a government official, was blessed with wealth, and had several beautiful wives. At the height of his career, he was suddenly incriminated for corruption and condemned to death.
In a dramatic scene, the emperor redressed the wrongful charge and spared his life. As the years passed, the scholar became renowned for his civil and military talents, and his family enjoyed the security of fame and fortune. He died, at 81, of a grave illness.
After watching the course of his life play out before his eyes, the young scholar awakened with a jolt. He saw everything in the room was just the same as before, and the meal of yellow millet was not yet ready. It had been a happy dream within such a short period of time.
Lü Dongbin, who was still sitting next to him, asked with a smile: “A person’s life is just like a dream, is it not?”
The young scholar suddenly realized that this was no ordinary encounter. He gave up his earthly pursuits and followed Lü Dongbin to learn the Great Dao.
From this story comes the idiom huáng liáng yī mèng, “a vanished dream.” Literally, it means a dream as a yellow millet meal cooks, and was originally understood as “life is but a dream.” It reminded people of how fleeting wealth and status are—dreamlike illusions that quickly vanish.
Now, it is used as a metaphor to indicate that illusion can never be regarded as reality.
- Shen Jiji (around A.D. 740–800) was a fiction writer and scholar of the early Tang Dynasty. “The World Inside a Pillow” was one of his best short-stories written in the literary language.