Laoshan is known all over China first as a Taoist holy site, and second as the source of some of the best water in the country. The water gained its fame when it was included as the master ingredient in the original Tsing Tao beer recipe. While Tsing Tao brewery no longer taps the water of Laoshan, and operates plants spread around Qingdao and Shandong province, the water remains famous. Yet until recently, I had never known that the water of Laoshan comes with its own legend. This is the beauty of the folklore tradition – you can come across stories so specific that even many locals have never heard them before.
Imagine the lush mountain forests, brilliant green tea gardens, ocean rain and rushing streams of Laoshan Village. The local lore explains that in ancient times, Laoshan was dry, cracked earth with none of the beauty that covers the mountains today. In the midst of wars among chieftains, a struggling emperor, and droughts across the land, Laoshan was just a poor village like any other.
The people had to walk miles to the nearest well to draw enough water to drink, and no matter how many wells they tried digging nearby, none yielded fresh water – only ocean salt water. One man, Wang Quan, worked hard every day to carry water to feed his little plot of root vegetables. He was very poor, but never complained, and freely shared everything he owned with his neighbors.
On one particularly hot day, Wang Quan made the long trek to the spring and hauled two full buckets of water. On the way back to town he came across a frail old man who had fallen and could not get up. When Wang Quan saw the old man he ran over to help, dropping one bucket of water and spilling it on the dry earth. He helped the old man sit up and gave him what little food he was carrying. “Please kind sir, I am thirsty. May I have that bucket of water?” Though Wang Quan knew that he would not be able to make the trek back to the well before dark, and that his wilted vegetables would surely dry out, he gave the man his last bucket of water. “You are a king among men. May your tables run full, your cup run over, and your pockets overflow with copper.”
Wang Quan thanked the old man for his blessing and went on his way, happy to help one in need, but heart heavy knowing that his harvest would surely perish. In the morning he woke up to dig out the potatoes and other vegetables in hope of saving a few pieces. Digging in his field, he found that indeed, all the vegetables had dried up. There was nothing to do but to replant and hope that he could make it through the season. As he dug new holes, he struck something hard- it was a large clay offering bowl. He thought perhaps it had been left by a wandering Taoist monk from the Temple above the village. “Is this a sign? Am I to take up the life of a wanderer and beg for my food?” Wang Quan loved his village and didn’t want to abandon his neighbors.
He set the bowl on his table and poured in his sack of dry potatoes. He was about to turn around to go to sleep when the potatoes disappeared from the bowl, and a feast poured forth and his table truly overflowed with roasted meats, grilled fish, steamed buns and more. He didn’t know what to do with himself. Nobody in the village had ever seen so much food before. The bowl was clearly magic. He took the bowl, wrapped it in clothes and hid it away. Then he ran across the village inviting everyone to come and eat. He didn’t want to mention the bowl, so he simply said that a miracle had occurred. Everyone was too hungry and too happy to ask any more questions.
Some say that Laoshan’s famous Gah La clams recipe came first from the magic bowl, because until recently, villagers would not have found the cilantro and ginger needed to steam the fresh clams with peppers to recreate the dish that has become famous at all the finest restaurants in Shandong province.
The next day, Wang Quan took out his bowl, and remembered the old man’s words about his pockets, his cup and his table overflowing. “Can this bowl create a bounty from anything?” He took a few coins from his pocket and tossed them into the bowl out of curiosity. Immediately, a mountain of copper coins filled the room. It was true – the bowl would make anything spring forth from it- money, food and wine, but also weapons and other unsavory things. This bowl could not be trusted to any one man. Wang Quan thought that the best thing to do would be to bury the bowl again and forget about it, but when he went out with his shovel, the ground was so hard and dry that he couldn’t even dig a hole. “Of course!” he exclaimed. “Water.”
Wang Quan gathered all the villagers at his house on the mountainside. “I have found an answer to our hardship. This bowl overflows with whatever is put in as an offering. The feast came from potatoes. Last night the bowl filled my house with piles of money, which we should all share, because I gave it one copper piece. This is enough money for us all to live in comfort. Our village lacks only one thing- water.” With that, he took a handful of water from his bucket and poured it into the bowl. A spring of the sweetest, purest water flowed forth and watered all the fields. The villagers rejoiced, and festivities continued for days celebrating the selfless generosity of Wang Quan.
Yet soon, Wang’s fears were realized. The neighboring villages all came to sieze the bowl. Wang could only avert violence by wrapping the bowl again in cloth and hiding it high in the mountains. He said that the gods had taken the bowl away, and that he had it no longer. Of course the village chiefs didn’t believe him and offered him high marriage, gold, anything for the bowl. Eventually the emperor himself came and offered Wang Quan his daughter, a whole province to govern, riches beyond imagining, just to have the magic bowl. Wang Quan said that it wasn’t his to give, that it belonged to the whole village, and that the people would die without water.
The emperor couldn’t be satisfied. “If the bowl belongs to the village, and they would dare offend an emperor, perhaps I should start making examples of your neighbors? If you want to protect your people, you will give me the bowl.”
Wang Quan realized what had to be done. “No, my emperor. The bowl is mine alone, not the villages. I can give it to whomever I want, and none in the village can tell me otherwise. If you promise that the reward shall be only mine, I will show you where I have hidden the bowl.”
The emperor smiled. “On my honor I promise to reward only you. None in the village will share your benefit.” The villagers did not understand how Wang Quan could betray them so quickly. He and the emperor’s entourage left the village and climbed to the top of Laoshan Mountain. Wang Quan dug out the bowl and unwrapped it, showing it to the emperor. “I present the bowl, my bargain fulfilled. However, one man cannot posses this power. It is not right. The bowl is a gift to the village, and to the village it must return.” Wang Quan flung the bowl over the cliff before the emperor could stop him. “And now I shall take my reward.” He jumped from the cliff, following the bowl to his death.
As he fell from the mountain cliff he saw the horrified look of the emperor, heard the bowl shatter into hundreds of pieces, and then, miraculously, water sprung forth from the ground at every spot touched by a shard of the clay, creating the hundred springs of Laoshan. Some say that he died, but others believe that a deep pool of water formed so quickly that it broke his fall and carried him away safely to other lands. In any case, nobody in Laoshan ever found his body. They named the great spring that carried him off Wang Quan in his honor.
Some say that he was a supernatural being sent down from the heavens the whole time to look after the village, and that when he jumped, he actually became the spring. After all, ‘quan‘ does mean “spring” in Chinese. Wang is a common surname, but it also means king. Did a god of water come down to rescue a village, or was he just a man destined to make the ultimate sacrifice to save his people?
In any case, this little known legend reveals the values of Laoshan Village, and creates an aura of beauty around the sweet water that feeds the fine teas now produced on the mountainside.