It was during the Feast of All Souls, or the Ghost Holiday. That, of course, is right in the middle of the Month of Ghosts, the seventh month of the lunar calendar.
Right outside the Sanyuan Palace, on a platform, an opera performance was underway. An ocean of onlookers was jostling, pushing, shoving, taking in the opera for a few minutes, or a few seconds, before moving off to the rows and rows of food and goods stalls, with the hawkers screaming their lungs out, calling out to the visitors to come and sample their wares.
Into the noisy throng stepped young scholar Cui Wei, taking a day off from his studies to enjoy all the sounds and sights.
The crowd grew very large and surged like the waves of the ocean itself. Cui Wei was concerned for an elderly beggar woman he spotted about ten people away from himself. The crowd then suddenly surged in a direction, sending the old woman falling against a wine stall, upsetting a jug of wine, which then crashed to the ground.
The wine seller immediately came from around the stall, grabbed the old woman by her collar, and shouted to her, "All right, you, pay up! I mean it! Pay up now or else!"
Alarmed for the woman's safety, Cui Wei rushed over and spoke to the wine seller.
"Please let her go! I'll pay for the wine. How much do I owe you?"
"How much?" asked the wine seller, letting the woman go. "I'll tell you how much! A string of copper coins! Do you have that much on you?"
Cui Wei fished around in his pockets. "No, I don't, but listen. I'll give you my outer garment. Surely you can sell it for more than a string of copper coins. What do you say?"
The wine seller agreed. Cui Wei took off his outer garment and handed it to the man. Cui Wei then turned to the old beggar woman, but she had already turned away and headed into the crowd, her head hanging low, leaving without saying as much as a "thank you."
Oh, well, thought Cui Wei. He didn't need any thanks to perform a good deed. He continued his outing and soon forgot about the whole thing.
A few nights later, he was completely startled when, responding to persistent knocking on the gate of his residence, he came face to face with the same beggar woman.
"Young man," she said, "I am tremendously grateful for your saving me the other night. I've come to give you something you might find useful." She handed him a small sack. "Inside are mugwort cones. Do you know anyone with a wart or some kind of growth? Burn a cone upon it and it will fall right off! Please accept these cones as a token of my gratitude!"
Before Cui Wei could say a word, the old beggar woman had vanished into air, astounding Cui Wei even more.
A few days later, Cui Wei visited a temple. There he encountered a monk with a growth the size of small teacup right on his ear. He told the monk about his mugwort cones and how the mysterious old woman had guaranteed the cones could remove any growth or wort. Was the monk interested? Yes, he was indeed. He was very interested, even excited, about the prospect of having his unsightly lump finally removed. Cui Wei hurried home, retrieved his sack of mugwort cones, and quickly returned to the temple. He had the monk lie down on a cot and then placed a cone on the lump. He lit the cone and within minutes, the huge growth completely fell off the monk's ear.
The monk was ecstatic.
"Listen," said the monk, "not far from here, by the mountain, is the Ren mansion. Mr. Ren is a major temple donor. He has a tumor the size of a papaya lodged next to his ear! Here's what I'll do. I'll write you a letter of introduction to Mr. Ren. Take your cones over to his home now and remove his tumor the way you removed mine. He'll be very grateful."
Soon, Cui Wei had arrived at the sprawling Ren mansion. Before long, after showing his letter of introduction to the head servant, he was ushered in to meet Mr. Ren himself. The monk had not exaggerated a bit about the size of Mr. Ren's growth. It was truly the size of a papaya.
"Can you remove this?" asked Mr. Ren, pointing to the tumor hanging from below his ear. "It is painful to carry this around."
"Let's see if the melon is ripe!" said Cui Wei, who had Mr. Ren lie down. He proceeded to place a mugwort cone upon Mr. Ren's giant tumor and then soon burned it right off.
"Splendid! Splendid!" cried the delighted Mr. Ren. He snapped his fingers for his head servant. He whispered something to the man; the servant disappeared from the room and soon reappeared with a string of coins worth 100,000 imperial dollars! Mr. Ren pressed the money into the reluctant scholar's hands.
"Mr. Ren, I . . . I . . . can't possibly . . . " stammered Cui Wei.
"Take it! I insist! You more than deserve this money," Mr. Ren said. "I have one more favor to ask of you. I want you to stay with us as long as you like, as a most honored guest of my family. Will you do me this great honor?"
Well, of course, Cui Wei agreed, as Mr. Ren was so earnest and insistent.
Hearing "yes," Mr. Ren told his servant to show Cui Wei his quarters. He then left, rubbing his hands together in delight.
What Cui Wei didn't realize, what no one living outside the Ren mansion had ever imagined, was that the friendly Mr. Ren, the great temple donor and fabulously wealthy merchant, was as evil as a lame wolf. Mr. Ren and a few of his cohorts secretly worshipped a false and evil entity, the so-called "one-legged god." This evil spirit required a human sacrifice every three years. The head of the dead person would be offered to the one-legged god. The three years were now up, and, as he had been unable to find a victim, Mr. Ren quickly decided to select Cui Wei, even though Cui Wei had just relieved him of a painful, unsightly tumor.
Late at night, when Cui Wei was fast asleep in his guest bedroom, the head servant sealed Cui Wei's door, making sure that there would be no escape for Cui Wei when Mr. Ren and his accomplices came for him early in the morning.
Fortunately for Cui Wei, he had a secret friend, an ally, someone who was watching out for him.
Mr. Ren's daughter had suspected her father was going to murder Cui Wei; however, she liked Cui Wei. Her suspicions were confirmed when she secretly witnessed the head servant double locking Cui Wei's door. After the head servant had left, she went to the kitchen, took a long kitchen knife and then went outside. She tiptoed over to Cui Wei's window and tapped on the pane. Cui Wei got up and opened the window.
"Mr. Cui," she whispered, "take this knife and leave here immediately! My father is planning to sacrifice you to his one-legged ghost-god before sunrise. Leave, now!"
Cui Wei thanked Miss Ren and took the knife. He gathered up his things, including his bag of mugwort cones, and jumped the short distance out the window. He started running for the gate.
Way behind him he could hear many voices and the falling of many running footsteps.
"Did she just help him get away?!"
"Hey, you! Stop! Stop, I say!"
Cui Wei didn't stop to turn around. He sprinted the best he could and pushed himself over the wooden gate. He continued to run as voices shouted at him.
"Come back here! Come back here!"
He had made it out of the compound! There was no time to take a breather, though, for there were a number of people still after him. He ran across the dark field.
"He is over there! After him! Don't let him get away!"
With no time to slow down or to turn around, Cui Wei kept running.
Suddenly, there was nothing but air below him.
He had fallen into an old well and landed on top of many leaves and twigs from an old tree growing out the side of the well not far above the floor. He lay still, listening to the pounding feet and voices above him.
"Where'd he go? Find him!" cried a voice from above. "Better find him or there'll be trouble from Mr. Ren for sure!"
"Ha! Don't I know it! Let's spread out and comb every inch!"
The voices grew fainter and fainter. Soon they were gone altogether.
Cui Wei looked around him. It was hard to see the mouth of the well. Clearly there would be no escaping, if escape was possible, until daylight. Cui Wei sighed and tried to sleep.
Cui Wei awoke, stretched and looked about him. The well was cavernous; it could hold an army of men and horses! He walked around. There, by the wall of the well, lay a dragon, all curled up, licking water dripping into the well and onto a stone with a hollowed top. It looked up at Cui Wei with big mournful eyes and returned to its activity of drinking water.
"Oh, Dragon Lord, can you help me leave this place?" he asked the dragon.
The dragon sighed and continued to drink.
Cui Wei knelt down by the dragon's head and petted it. He then noticed that upon the dragon's tongue was a huge lump that made drinking or licking water and eating very laborious and certainly painful.
"Dragon Lord, I can help you!" he cried. Help, yes, but how? Cui Wei then thought. How can I light a fire in this damp well? "I need fire, O, Dragon Lord! I can help you if you let me!"
Flaming sparks came down the well. Were they produced by some sympathetic god who sent them down? Who knows? It didn't matter; Cui Wei took out a mugwort cone and lit it with the sparks before they died one by one.
He placed a lighted cone on the dragon's tongue. As expected, the huge tumor rolled right off its tongue and onto the floor of the well.
The dragon stretched, shook and lifted itself up. Life itself had now returned to the dragon. From its mouth rolled a beautiful pearl right towards Cui Wei.
"Many thanks, Dragon Lord, but I really do not need a pearl at this time! I need you to get me out of here! Can you, please?"
The dragon nodded its head. Its tongue shot out and grabbed the pearl, which the dragon then swallowed. It then slithered over to Cui Wei, who moved his legs apart and allowed the dragon to move between them. Cui Wei then sat down upon the dragon's back and held on for dear life.
The dragon raised its head and then shot out of the well with Cui Wei still holding on. They both came to earth near the Sanyuan Palace.
Cui Wei got off the dragon. It vanished into thin air before he had a chance to express his thanks.
Just as he was pondering all that had happened to him, a chuckling old man came up to him.
"You, young scholar," said the old man, still laughing, "are the one I've been instructed to tell everyone about!"
"I beg your pardon?" asked Cui Wei.
"Yes! You are the one with the healing mugwort cones, the one who can rid people of growths, lumps, tumors!"
"And who told you all this?"
The jolly old man pointed to a nearby old well, known locally as the Bao Gu well.
"She?" asked Cui Wei. "But that's a well. You mean Bao Gu herself?"
The old man laughed and then he himself vanished before Cui Wei's eyes.
He had seemed to come full circle. The whole adventure had actually started here, in front of the Sanyuan Palace a few days ago when he had come to the aid of the old beggar woman who was being badgered by the wine seller. This was the well he had fallen into, though? This far from the Ren mansion? How could that be possible? Yet, here he was.
Then it dawned on him.
The old woman had been none other than Bao Gu herself, the daughter of the famed alchemist Bao Jing who used to concoct pills of immortality on the spot where the Sanyuan Palace now stood. All that had happened since he had rescued Bao Gu--Miss Ren's aiding him, his falling into the well, his landing next to the dragon, the sparks that fell from heaven, his flight from the well, the spreading of the word of his skill with the mugwort--all had been orchestrated by Bao Gu.
Eventually, Cui Wei's fame as a healer with mugwort cones did spread, and people with large growths sought him. When he heard that Bao Gu was now preparing pills of immortality up on Luofu Mountain, he went in search of her. No one ever heard from him again.
Ye & Liu, p. 11-15.
The Taoist-oriented fifteenth day of the seventh month has been conflated with the Buddhist remembrance and feast day for the dead, Ullambana. On this day, food is set out for the hungry ghosts. Different regions of China have different methods of observing this day and other noted days that fall within the seventh lunar month, "the month of ghosts." No doubt the fifteenth might be more festive in some areas than in others; however, according to my recollections of Taiwan thirty years ago, this time of the year was one of somber observance and not very joyful. Indeed, I remember hearing how many loathed to engage in unnecessary travel during the whole lunar month. Temples like the famed Longshan Temple in Taipei were bustling with different projects and services, but I don't recall anyone looking forward to this particular day's activities. These days, apparently, this day of the month can become quite rollicking in some areas, if the videos on Youtube are any indication.
The "one-legged god" may be a variant of "the one-legged ghost," which, according to Yuan Ke, is said to appear in nightmares and thus kill dreamers; other one-legged ghosts behave more like the mischievous goblins and elves of European folklore by stealing clothes and food from larders but otherwise not harming people (Zhongguo shenhua chuanshuo cidian, 280).
Motif: B512, "Medicine shown by animal."