Lan Ke (爛柯, Làn Kē, or The Rotten Axe Handle in English), is a Chinese legend which has been compared to that of Rip Van Winkle, although it predates it by at least 1000 years. The exact date of origin of the legend is unknown, but it has literary antecedents from the 5th century AD, and the "rotten axe handle" plot element was certainly present by an early 6th-century version.
The early 4th-century compilation of legends and occult tales Yiyuan (異苑) by official Liu Jingshu (劉敬叔) recorded a tale about a traveller riding a horse, who saw two elderly men by the side of the road playing shupu (樗蒲), a race game, and got off his horse to watch. In the middle of the game he glanced at his horse and was astonished to see that it had turned to a skeleton. When he returned home, he found that all of his family were gone. The 4th-century Dongyang Ji (東陽記) by Zheng Qizhi recorded a slightly different version: a man named Wang Zhi went to Mount Shishi, in Zhejiang, to chop wood, and stopped when he heard four youths singing. The youths gave him food that looked like date cores. He ate them, and was not hungry. By the time the youths finished singing, and he started on his way home, he noticed that his axe handle had rotted. When he returned home, he realised that decades had past. The Dongyang Ji version was quoted by Li Daoyuan's influential 6th-century work Commentary on the Water Classic, which made the story famous. Still later, 6th-century author Ren Fang's Tales of the Strange (述異記) reworked the story once again, so that the youths were playing a board game and singing, although he did not specifically mention Go.
The later versions of the story that identify two elders playing Go may also be influenced by the motif of immortals playing Go in other stories, such as the tale that appeared in Gan Bao's 4th-century compilation of supernatural stories In Search of the Supernatural, in which the gods Bei Dou (the Big Dipper) and Nan Dou (the corresponding stars in Sagittarius) were playing Go, when the youth Yan Chao approached them to ask for a longer life.
The legend, as frequently retold in its settled form, features a woodcutter, Wang Zhi or Wang Chih (王質, Wáng Zhì), 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.
Lanke Mountain, also known as Shishi ("Stone Room") Mountain or Shiqiao ("Stone Bridge") Mountain is a hill located 10 km southeast of Quzhou city centre in Zhejiang, beside Wuxi River. The hilltop is 164 metres above sea level. The top of the hill features a rock formation in the form of a bridge. A cave is located under the bridge, which is said to be the location of the legend concerning Wang Zhi.
A poem by Tang Dynasty poet Meng Jiao called The Stone Bridge of Lanke Mountain referenced the legend: "The path on which the wood chopper returned / the rotten axe handle goes with the wind / only the stone bridge remains / to ride above the red rainbow
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.
Later generations interpreted the game that the immortals were playing in the legend as Go. As a result, Lan Ke, or Ranka as pronounced in Japanese, became a literary name for Go.
- Liu Jingshu (刘敬叔), Yiyuan (《异苑》)："In the olden days, a man rode a horse into a mountain. Two elderly men were by the side of the road playing shupu. He got off the course, and leaned his whip on the ground and watched. He thought only a moment had passed, but when he looked at his horse whip, it had completely rotted; he then looked at his horse, and it was a skeleton. When he got home, none of his family was alive. He died from the grief. (“昔有人乘马山行，遥岫里有二老翁，相对樗蒲。遂下马，以策拄地而观之。自谓俄顷，视其马鞭，漼然已烂，顾瞻其马，鞍骸骨朽，既而至家，无复亲属，一恸而绝。”)
- Commentary on the Water Classic(《水经注》), quoting Dongyang Ji: "In Xing'an County there is a Xuanshi ("Hanging Room") Hill. In mid-Jin dynasty, a commoner Wang Zhi was chopping wood when he came upon the stone room. He saw four youths playing a stringed instrument and singing. Zhi stayed, listening while leaning on the handle of his axe. The youths gave him an item, similar to a date core. Zhi held it in his mouth and was no longer hungry. A moment later, the youths said, "we are leaving", and left. The axe handle had completely rotted. When he returned, Zhi found that he had been gone for several decades, and all his family had died. (「信安縣有懸室坂，晉中朝時，有民王質，伐木至石室中，見童子四人彈琴而歌，質因留，倚柯聽之。童子以一物如棗核與質，質含之便不復饑。俄頃，童子曰：其歸。承聲而去，斧柯漼然爛盡。既歸，質去家已數十年，親情凋落。」)
- Ren Fang (任昉), Shu Yi Ji (《述異記》: "At Mount Shishi in Xing'an County, during the Jin Dynasty, a Wang Zhi was chopping wood, when he saw several youths, playing a board game and singing. Zhi stopped to listen. The youths gave an item to Zhi, which was similar to a date core. Zhi held it in his mouth and felt no hunger. A moment later, the youths said: "Why are you not going?" Zhi rose, and saw that the axe handle had completely rotted. When he returned, he saw no-one from his own time." (「信安郡石室山，晉時王質伐木，至見童子數人，棋而歌，質因聽之。童子以一物與質，如棗核，質含之不覺饑。俄頃，童子謂曰：『何不去？』，質起，視斧柯爛盡，既歸，無復時人。」)
- Ki no Tomonori, “991” In Kokin Wakashū: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry, trans. Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985), 216.