Zhang Guangding lived in a time of great upheaval, a time when the "old hundred names," the common people were subjected to much turmoil, violence, and lawlessness, when authorities were rolled in and out, like drawers in some chest.
And so, with great reluctance, he made plans to flee his home and area with his family, as many others were doing. After much thought, he came to the agonizing decision to leave his four year old daughter behind instead of subjecting her to the hardships, trauma and danger of witnessing people being killed or seeing corpses, starving people and ruined, smoldering buildings. So, he decided to hide his child in some spot with a supply of food and return to the area as soon as possible.
At the entrance to the village was an ancient cemetery. There, he found an old tomb on top of a cave. He lowered his little girl down into the cave beneath the tomb through a small opening; he then lowered down some food and water.
"We'll be back soon!" he said to her, knowing that his words were most likely a lie. Her little face stared back at him and her mother from the hole deep in the ground. "Don't worry! We'll be back for you! Be good and don't make any noise!"
Little did Zhang know that he and his wife would not be able to return until three years later.
And now on this early evening, three years later, here he and his wife were, running as fast as they could into the quiet cemetery after what had seemed like eternity.
There it was, the old tomb . . .
Zhang put his face to the hole in the ground and, trying to keep doubt and fear at bay from entering his mind, cried, "Daughter! Daughter! Are you there?"
"Yes, Father, I am here!" a little girl's voice replied.
A . . . ghost . . . he thought. It has to be . . .
Nevertheless, he said, "I'm lowering a rope down to pull you out. Hold on!"
He pulled the rope up, and from out of the hole came his now, very much alive seven year old daughter, as cute as ever, amazingly healthy, though understandably a bit dirty for the ordeal. The child smiled happily as she wiped away her tears.
It's a miracle she's still alive after all this time, Zhang thought. How did she survive without food and water?
Once the three were in a safe place, the little girl related her bizarre ordeal about how she stayed alive.
It wasn't long, she told them, before all the food and water were gone. She became wracked with hunger and thirst, but there was nothing she could do about it, as she had agreed to obey her father and stay below and not make noise.
The hunger and thirst had become unbearable when she noticed something moving about in the darkness, in a far corner of the cave, something with a long enough neck that enabled its head to touch the ground, something for which she had never been taught a name. She studied it as it moved slowly along the ground. She decided to copy the movements and habits of this thing, whatever it was. She got down on her arms and knees and moved over the floor or ground of the cave, keeping her face as close to the bottom as she could.
Eventually, something happened: She discovered by mimicking the actions of this creature or being that her hunger and thirst went away. She also discovered that whenever the pangs of hunger and the thirst reappeared, all she had to do was to repeat the creepy-crawly movements and to keep her face to the ground.
And that was how she had survived those three long years, living underground beneath a tomb!
Zhang's curiosity soon got the better of him; he had to know what thing was down in that cave. He later went to the cemetery and made an opening in the dirt big enough to enter. There was nothing down there, nothing save a large tortoise slowly moving about.
Wisdom From Chinese Stories of Gods and Spirits [中國神怪故事裡的智慧], Ceng Yifeng [曾一鋒], ed. Taipei: How Do Publishing, 2006; pp. 18-20; 张广定女_CNKI学问s; 陈寔写的故事--打印文章
The original source of this old tale is from Chen Shi [陳寔], or Chen Zhonggong [陳仲弓](A.D. 104-187), of the Eastern Han Dynasty. The longer, more modern version in Ceng's book, makes no mention of the wife. The other versions mention her only in conjunction of her being with her husband. The story implies Zhang Guangding made the incredible and unthinkable decision by himself to leave his small daughter in the tomb.
A giant tortoise supported the world, the ancients believed. (Not so ancient. I still remember more than forty years ago a high school classmate from Hong Kong remarking earnestly to me that his grandparents still believed that.) In any case, the tortoise is a cosmic symbol of longevity. One can see today stone tortoises outside Fort Providentia [赤崁樓], Tainan, supporting edicts,
commendations, etc., in Chinese and Manchu on huge tablets. Such an animal would be a most fitting vehicle to convey that which is supposed to be eternal.
Motifs: B491.5, "Helpful tortoise"; cB535, "Animal nourishes abandoned child"; R131ff, "Exposed or abandoned child rescued"; cZ356, "Unique survivor."