Strange Happenings in Yangzhou

Whilst doing research on my forthcoming book, A Book of Changes: Sixty-four Chance Pieces, I came across a curious little tale in The Dream Pool Essays (Mengxi Bitan / 夢溪筆談), written in the eleventh century by Shen Kuo (沈括). The tale was about the miraculous appearance of a celestial pearl, and is an entertaining and intriguing read.

My interest in the story was provoked when I was reflecting upon a curious encounter I had back in 2010 with a man in a coffee shop in the city of Baoji in China, a man who swore that he was an alien (you can read the story of this encounter here)… So, although I have zero confidence in the veracity of tales of extraterrestrial visitors, I thought I’d have a stab at translating the passage.


In Yangzhou, during Jiayou era, there was an extremely large pearl that everybody could see when the sky was dark. It first emerged from the marshes of Tianchang, and then it turned towards Bishe lake, and only then disappeared into Xinkai lake. Over a period of ten years, it was quite normal for those who lived there and for travellers passing by to see it. I had a friend whose studio was by the lake, and one evening he suddenly saw this pearl. It was very close. It slightly opened its door, and from the opening light shot out. It was like a ray of golden light. And then, all at once, from inside the shell — now it was as large as half a seating-mat — there was a white light like silver, and a pearl as big as a fist. Its brilliance was such that it could not be looked at straight-on. For ten li, the trees all cast shadows, and light shone like the rising sun, but in the distance the sky was the crimson of wild fires. Then suddenly it disappeared into the distance, going on its way as if it was flying, floating amongst the waves, after which it dimmed like the sun.

And here, just for the fun of it, is the original Chinese, which comes from the twenty-first folio on the subject of strange happenings (the Project Gutenberg link is here).



This tale has been doing the rounds in China since the 1970s, and apparently some quite eminent figures have claimed it as clear evidence of extra-terrestial visitors. I take this as clear evidence that eminence and credulity are not mutually exclusive.

I myself knocked out this translation of the passage from the Dream Pool Essays some time towards the beginning of this year. However, it seems that in the last few months the story has broken out in the English-speaking world and has been picked up by a number of UFO sites. Although I remain unconvinced, when I’m next in China, should I run into any other coffee-shop aliens, I will make sure that I recommend they head straight to Guangzhou, where the mothership, I assume, will be waiting.

Image: Shen Kuo, from the Beijing Observatory, courtesy of Hans A. Rosbach. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons.


cube explorer

You may mock. I am still waiting, and I have better teeth.

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