Ranka (爛柯) or Lankeshan ji, or Rotten Axe Handle in English, is a Chinese legend similar to that of Rip Van Winkle, although it predates it by at least a 1000 years. The exact date of origin of the legend is unknown. Its earliest known literary reference is a poem written in 900 by the Japanese poet and court official Ki no Tomonori upon returning to Japan from China:
mishi goto mo arazu
ono no e no
kuchishi tokoro zo
Here in my hometown
things are not as I knew them.
How I long to be
in the place where the axe shaft
moldered away into dust.
The legend features a woodcutter, Wang Chih, and his encounter with the two immortals in the mountains.
- Wang Chih was a hardy young fellow who used to venture deep into the mountains to find suitable wood for his axe. One day he went farther than usual and became lost. He wandered about for a while and eventually came upon two strange old men who were playing Go, their board resting on a rock between them. Wang Chih was fascinated. He put down his axe and began to watch. One of the players gave him something like a date to chew on, so that he felt neither hunger nor thirst. As he continued to watch he fell into a trance for what seemed like an hour or two. When he awoke, however, the two old men were no longer there. He found that his axe handle had rotted to dust and he had grown a long beard. When he returned to his native village he discovered that his family had disappeared and that no one even remembered his name.
Kiseido Publishing Company (Japan), The Immortals, http://www.kiseido.com/printss/immort.html
Ki no Tomonori, “991” In Kokin Wakashū: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry, trans. Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985), 216.
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