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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1073

A young Chinese, Han Fook, is possessed by the desire to perfect himself in the art of poetry. Despite his youth, he has already written poems and is respected by the learned men of his province. He is a handsome youth whose loving parents have recently arranged a marriage for him with a beautiful and virtuous girl. Nevertheless, Han Fook is not satisfied; his heart is still filled with the longing to become an accomplished poet.

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One evening a lantern festival is being celebrated beside the river. From the opposite shore, Han Fook watches the guests arriving and sees a thousand lights shimmering on the water, reflections from the lanterns. The sounds of zithers and flutes drift toward him, and the night sky appears to hover over the festival like a temple. As much as he wants to join the festivities with his bride-to-be, so much more does he want to remain here, to observe, to take in the scene until he is able to express what he sees in a perfect poem. He realizes that he will always be a lonely spectator of life, and his only true happiness will come if he is able to capture all of life in poetry; only in this way can he possess life.

As he stands entranced, he hears a rustling noise and turns to see an elderly man in purple robes leaning against a tree. Han Fook greets him with the respect that is due an elder. The old man smiles and recites several verses that express in beautiful lyric forms the very thoughts that have been in Han Fook’s mind. “Who are you?” Han Fook asks in amazement, and the old man answers, “If you want to become a poet, come to my hut where the great river begins in the north-western mountains. My name is Master of the Perfect Word,” and then he is gone. Han Fook can find no trace of him and thinks that he must have imagined the whole experience. He hurries to the festival, but amid all the gaiety he continues to hear the mysterious voice of the old man, and his own soul seems to have departed with him.

Several days later, Han Fook’s father is about to call relatives and friends together to announce the date of his son’s wedding, but Han Fook begs him to delay. He wants more time to be alone with his thoughts and his poetry. The father is surprised but grants him the wish. He may spend a year pursuing his dream, for perhaps it was sent by a god. “Perhaps it will take even two years, who can know,” answers Han Fook.

After writing his bride a letter of farewell, Han Fook follows the great river to its source, where he finds the bamboo hut and the old man seated before it playing the lute. The master does not greet his guest, but only smiles and lets his fingers run over the strings. The sounds enchant Han Fook, who now becomes his servant and his pupil. He soon learns to despise the poems he has already written and forgets all those that he has studied. The old man scarcely speaks to him but teaches him instead to play the lute, until his entire being is flooded with music.

After two years, his goal seems as distant as ever, and he is homesick. The master, as if reading his thoughts, tells him, “You are free to go wherever pleases you.” Han Fook goes home, arriving early in the morning. Listening at the window of his own home, he hears his father’s heavy breathing as he sleeps. At his bride’s home he climbs a pear tree, and through the open window he can see her combing her hair. As he compares this picture with the one he has painted in his thoughts of home, however, he realizes that he must be faithful to his inner voice, which is still calling to him. In the dreams of poets there is a beauty and dignity that he would seek in vain in the reality of life. Without announcing his visit, Han Fook returns to the elder.

Now that Han Fook has mastered the lute, the old man teaches him to play the zither, and months fly away like snowflakes in the wind. Once Han Fook dreams that he is at home, planting a tree in his own garden. His wife is standing beside him, and his children are consecrating the tree with wine and milk. Then, however, he awakens to find himself in the hut with the master, who is slumbering nearby. Suddenly he feels a bitter hatred toward this man who seems to have destroyed his life and cheated him of a future. He wants to kill him. At this moment the old man opens his eyes, smiles, and says, “Remember, Han Fook . . . you are free to do whatever pleases you. You may go home and plant trees, you may hate me and kill me, it is of little consequence.”

“How can I hate you,” Han Fook realizes aloud. “It would be as if I hated heaven itself.” Thus he stays and learns to play the zither and to compose poetry. What outwardly appears to be an art expressing only the simple and unpretentious things, he finds, can move the listener’s soul as the wind moves the surface of the water.

Han Fook no longer knows how long he has lived with the master, but one morning the master is gone. Han Fook takes the lute and begins his homeward journey, and along the way he is greeted in the manner reserved for old and respected men. When he arrives in his village, he finds that his father, his bride, and his relatives are dead. That evening, the village is celebrating the lantern festival, and he stands across the river, leans against a tree, and plays his lute. The women sigh and look with rapture into the night, and the young men call out to the lute player, whom they cannot find, saying they have never heard such music. Han Fook can only smile and watch the reflection of the lanterns in the water. He cannot distinguish them from the real lanterns, and there seems to be no difference between this festival and the one of his youth, when he first heard the words of his master.

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Themes