I found this story last year in "Vitality, Energy, Spirit: a Taoist Sourcebook." Curious about your thoughts on it, please feel free to share your feedback below in the comments section. Or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
"In the time of the emperor Mu-tsung (Muzong) of the T’ang dynasty, in the ninth century, among the members of the elite corps of the imperial guard was a Japanese man named Kan Shiwa.
Kan Shiwa was a most extraordinary sculptor. He could fashion any sort of bird and make it so that it could drink water, hop around, stretch out its neck and call, and so on, all in the most beautiful and charming manner. He put machinery in the bellies of the birds he made, so that besides having beautiful plumage they could also fly one or two hundred feet in the air.
Also, Shiwa sculpted cats that could do even more; they could run around and even catch small birds.
Now the captain of the guard thought this was truly marvelous, and wrote to the emperor about it. Emperor Mu-tsung summoned Kan Shiwa into his presence, and he too was captivated by Shiwa’s skill.
The emperor asked Shiwa if he could carve something yet more marvelous. Shiwa told the emperor he would make a 'dais for seeing dragons.'
Several days later, the dais was done. It was two feet high and looked like an ordinary footstool. When he saw it, the emperor wondered what was so special about it. Shiwa told him he would soon see if he stepped up onto the dais.
Not without misgivings, the emperor stepped up. The moment he did so, a gigantic dragon appeared in the sky. It was about twice the size of a man and had scales, a mane, claws, and horns; it flew into the clouds and rode on a mist, dancing in the sky. Its energy and appearance were such that one would never think it to have been made by human hands.
The emperor was flabbergasted. Frantically he jumped off the little platform and said, 'Fine, fine, very good, now take it away with you!'
Strange to say, the moment he got off the dais the big dragon disappeared. All that remained was to put it back in its place.
Now Shiwa apologized to the emperor for startling him so, and offered to make good by doing something amusing.
The emperor, after protesting that he had not been frightened but merely surprised, asked Shiwa what he intended to fashion.
'Something small,' replied Shiwa, producing a box from his pocket. When he opened it up, inside were little scarlet bugs.
'What are they?' the emperor asked.
'They’re like spiders,' said Shiwa. 'They’re flycatchers.'
'Are they real?' the emperor asked, amazed by their lifelike quality.
'No, they’re manmade,' Shiwa answered.
'Then why are they scarlet?' asked the emperor.
'Because I feed them cinnabar powder,' Shiwa explained. 'Similarly,' he continued, 'if I fed them sulfur they’d be golden, and if I fed them powdered pearl they’d be pearly.'
Then the emperor asked what the insects could do. Shiwa said, 'They will dance for Your Majesty. And so that we may have Your Majesty view the dance, I have invited the musicians to play 'The Song of Liang-chou,’ which is the insects’ favorite tune.' Now as the musicians prepared to play, the little red spiders scrambled out of the box and arranged themselves in five rows. They now stood in formation, waiting for the music to start.
When the orchestra began to play, the spiders began a very orderly dance in harmony with the music. They went forward, then backward; the rows came together then rearrayed at angles, now suddenly shifted to form a circle.
The choreography was beautiful indeed, resembling an intricate and picturesque brocade, truly dazzling to the eye. And as the music played, the spiders also made a humming sound, as loud as the buzzing of a fly, keeping time with the music.
Finally, when the music ended, the spiders went back to their beginning position, arrayed in five rows; in unison they bowed to the emperor, and then went in orderly files back into the box.
The emperor exclaimed his delight. Shiwa went on to explain that the spiders were, as their name suggested, indeed flycatching bugs. To demonstrate, he took one of them and placed it on the palm of his hand; pointing to a fly near a tree, he said, 'Grab it.' The spider caught the fly just as a hawk might catch a sparrow. Then spiders leaped from Shiwa’s hand to catch flies alighting on people’s shoulders, or even flies buzzing through the air. Catching the flies, one by one they returned to Shiwa’s palm.
The emperor marveled at this. He gave Shiwa a big reward of silver, which Shiwa ungrudgingly gave away to poor people in the city. Now the rumor passed around among the people of the city was that Kan Shiwa was a spiritual immortal from the Isles of the Blest in the Eastern Sea. Just when this gossip reached its peak, Kan Shiwa disappeared from the imperial guard, and no one ever saw him again.
Meanwhile, Emperor Mu-tsong had planted his garden with the finest and most luxuriant peonies, which filled the palace with their fragrance in season. Every evening, myriads of butterflies danced and chased each other amidst these blossoms.
Strange to say, the butterflies were all golden or pearly, and their dazzling brilliance made the palace seem as beautiful as the celestial realms. Countless thousands of them appeared in the evenings, but not one was to be found in the morning.
Every evening the palace ladies would vie with one another to catch these beautiful butterflies, and they found them very easy to do so. They used silk thread to tie the butterflies to their bosoms, or to their hairpins.
These shining butterflies, used as ornaments, were very pretty indeed, but when morning came, they were found to have lost their sheen, so the girls took them off. Then the following evening the butterflies would come to life again, flashing their brilliant lights as they danced among the flowers.
At these times Emperor Mu-tsung would roam around the garden happily, but what he liked most was to catch several hundred of the butterflies, let them loose in the palace, and enjoy watching the palace girls chase them.
The emperor enjoyed this sport every evening, never tiring of it, until one day the butterflies did not return to the flower garden. Emperor Mu-tsung and his ladies thought they had caught them all, but that wasn’t so. Wherever flowers grew throughout the city, there now began to appear these strange and beautiful butterflies. They proved to be especially easy to catch among the flowers and the trees planted by poor people; and so the poor would often catch them and sell them to rich people for a high price; using the proceeds to purchase things they needed.
One day the emperor went to his treasure house to get a certain dish made of gold. When he got there, he found that this precious article had already been smashed to pieces, and so had other items of gold and pearl.
From the midst of the fragments he could vaguely discern the pattern of a butterfly, and at that moment realized that the missing butterflies were the work of Kan Shiwa. He immediately searched the whole treasure house, but could find no trace of the wizard. After that he had the palace and the whole capital city, from its avenues to its alleyways, searched thoroughly, but the man was never found again.
And the butterflies never returned."
“…’Golden Butterflies’ is about a Japanese immigrant living in the T’ang dynasty China (619-905), probably one of the many Japanese students and pilgrims who went to China during the early T’ang to learn Chinese arts and sciences for their own newly developing nation of Yamato (Japan). The name of this particular individual, Han Shih-ho (Han Shiho, or in Japanese, Kan Shiwa) would seem to indicate that he was in fact of fairly recent Chinese or Korean ancestry, as were many families among the upper classes of ancient Japan and in the craft guilds they patronized. Kan Shiwa was a master craftsman, one of the professional pursuits traditionally associated with Taoism. Although stories about him mention no details on this point, he was evidently also a martial artist, another profession with traditional Taoist connections, for he served in the imperial guard of the ruling house of the T’ang. His story illustrates a number of Taoist ideas. His ability to make lifelike moving replicas of insects, animals, and birds represents what is sometimes called taking over creation, the power to infuse inert matter (the physical body) with vitality, energy, and spirit. The relationship between the color of his mechanical insects and the 'food' he gives them illustrates the way personality is formed by education and environmental influences. The story of the golden butterflies represents the Taoist theory of 'equalizing things' in worldly terms, through redistribution of wealth by nonviolent means."
-from Vitality, Energy, Spirit: a Taoist Sourcebook // translated and edited by Thomas Cleary (p.37-38)