Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

To all my readers and their loved ones, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Fred Lobb

Friday, November 19, 2010

Stories of Filial Children -- Series Four

(1) Shaokang (Xia Dynasty)

Shaokang was the sixth monarch of the legendary Xia Dynasty (c. 2070-c. 1600 B.C.) and lived from from 2118 until 2058 B.C.

It was when his mother was pregnant with Shaokang that the emperor, Shaokang's father, was assassinated. Shaokang was thus born in exile in what is now Jining County, Shandong Province. Growing up, he was greatly influenced by his mother, the ex-empress, who instilled in him the need to restore the great Xia dynasty. In time, because the traitor Han Zhuo was on his trail, he had to flee even farther to the area of what is now known as Yongji County, Shandong. There, he was taken in by a friendly tribal king who offered to Shaokang his second daughter's hand in marriage. In addition, the king bestowed upon Shaokang a small fiefdom and a personal army of five hundred men, a pittance compared to what his father the emperor had had but still a beginning!

He was not a young man who mourned the past; instead, he took the resources he was given by his father-in-law and turned his own small fiefdom into a prosperous mini-state, one which did nothing but increase the prestige of the toppled Xia and developed within the people a deep sympathy for that fallen house's cause.

In time, Shaokang was to have his revenge.

In 2078 B.C., the usurping Han Zhuo regime fell prey to an insurrection. Shaokang contacted his father's loyal minister Count Mi and other leaders of the anti-Han movement. Shaokang amassed an army which in a crucial battle defeated the Han force but not before the traitor Han Zhuo was slain.

And thus did Shaokang, acting out of the greatest filial devotion to his parents, avenge his murdered father and restore the mighty Xia!


from Sanshiliuxiao, p. 14. (For full citation, see 4/17/09 for full citation.)

This is story #2 in the Wu Yanhuan edition.

(2) Gu Yanwu (Ming & Qing Dynasties)

At the tail end of the Ming Dynasty and the beginning of the Qing, there lived a man in Kunshan County, Jiangsu, named Gu Yanwu (1613-1682 A.D.), the second oldest of five boys. At the age of two, he was adopted by the widow of his father's younger brother. He remained devoted and filial to his adopted mother all her life.

When the Ming fell to the Qing (1644), his adopted mother took her life. In her final testament, she wrote, "Though I am a woman, I am still a recipient of the nation's grace and prefer to die with my nation, the Ming, than live without it. I will not live as a subject of foreign rulers and thus betray the Ming. Thus, I prefer to sink into the darkness of the underworld."

This message left a deep impact on Yanwu, one which he was to remember to the end of his days.

After the establishment of the Manchu Qing dynasty, he became a great scholar respected by many, both Ming loyalists and many among the Qing authorities. On more than one occasion, Qing agents approached him with blandishments and veiled threats in attempts to enlist him in the Qing cause. Each time with great bravery and ignoring the risks, he rebuffed these servants of the Qing.

That is how he lived up until his death--mindful of his adopted mother's dying words, filial and patriotic to the end.


from Sanshiliuxiao, p. 76 (See 4/17/09 for full citation.)

This is story #33 in the Wu Yanhuan edition.

(3) Ding Chunliang (Qing Dynasty)

Ding Chunliang (1813-1873) was born in Jinjiang, Fujian Province. When he was thirteen, he followed his father over to Taiwan, where in Lugang, his father set up a grocery store. There, he worked for his father diligently.

Not long after, however, his father had a stroke. He became blind and unable to move half of his body. Walking without assistance became impossible. Chunliang took over the management of the store and then, at night, he would help his father out of bed and outside to sit with him whenever there were evening opera performances.

The years passed but the elder Ding's condition did not improve. His appetite decreased; furthermore, Chunliang needed to continue helping him dispose of bodily wastes. He did so without complaint, even when his father often soiled his bed and blankets.

It came to the point where Chunliang spent each available moment by his father's bedside, sleeping on the floor, and always alert to the slightest sound or request his father might make. When such a sound or request was made, Chunliang would immediately get up and meet his father's every need.

This went on for more than ten years. Not once did Chunliang demonstrate any anger, annoyance or impatience.

When a fire in the vegetable garden threatened the house, Chunliang picked up his father and headed for the front door. The fire had already spread, with flames and smoke on both sides of Chunliang and his father. Chunliang stood in the doorway, holding his father in his arms, protecting his father from the fire. Fortunately, the fire was put out in time before either was killed.

When Chunliang was thirty one, his father passed away. Chunliang then observed the proper rites for his father.

Chunliang's long devotion to his father was not lost upon the local city fathers. A memorial stele detailing his acts of filial piety was erected. After Chunliang's own death, his named was inscribed in the shrine dedicated to filial youths.


from Sanshiliuxiao, p. 82 (See 4/17/09 for full citation.)

This is story #36 in the Wu Yanhuan edition.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Fox Maiden (Manchu)

There was a young woodcutter named Bayang'a who lived all by himself; he had to, for he was too poor to afford a wife. Anyway, he was out in the forest chopping wood one day when he heard a commotion behind some trees and bushes. He stepped over to take a look.

In a clearing a group of boys had captured a young fox and were finishing tying up its legs. The fox was a beautiful creature, with piercing and sparkling black eyes.

"Where did you boys get that fox?" asked Bayang'a.

"In that cave over there, " one of them answered, pointing to a cave just beyond the clearing.

"And what do you plan to do with it?"

"Skin it!" replied another. "Then we'll sell the fur as lining for a jacket!"

Bayang'a looked the fox over. He shook his head. "Yes, maybe when it's bigger, but it's still too small. Killing it now would really be a waste, a shame. How about if I buy it from you?"

The boys agreed, and Bayang'a paid them the little money he had on himself. The boys ran off with their "riches," and Bayang'a carried the fox to the mouth of the cave, where he untied the creature's legs.

"All right, there you go," he said. "Go back into your cave and find your parents!" The fox darted back inside. "And make sure you don't go carelessly running around in these parts!"

The fox's old father cried tears of joy to be reunited with his daughter. "I thought I'd never see you again!" he said, embracing her. "What happened?"

The daughter fox explained how a kindhearted woodcutter had arrived in just in time and bought her from the boys who had intended to skin her for her fur.

"Then this is what you must do," said the father. "You must help him. You must reward him. We foxes always repay a kindness, so the next time you see him, you must find a way to repay him!"

The daughter fox agreed. She had found Bayang'a not only tenderhearted but also rather handsome. She decided she would repay him with the magic known to all foxes.

So, not long after that, the daughter fox left the cave and, seeing Bayang'a off in the distance, chopping wood, turned herself into a mortal, a beautiful girl with alabaster skin and long, black hair like shimmering silk. She approached Bayang'a.

"Hello, there, Brother," she said.

Bayang'a stopped what he was doing. "Hello to you."

"Why are you chopping all this wood?"

"I sell what I can and burn the rest for myself."

"And you use that which you burn to cook for yourself?"

"If I don't cook for myself, no one else will!"

"Is there no one else in your life, Brother?"

"No one else. Just myself."

"Well, I too, as a person," she said slyly, "have no one else in my life, either. I wouldn't mind being married to one such as yourself!"

Bayang'a's face turned a deep red. He looked down for a few seconds. Then, he looked up and asked, "You'd be happy married to a poor person such as myself?"

" 'Poor'! Ha! What's being 'poor'? I have two hands; I am not afraid to roll my sleeves up and get my hands dirty! You and I'd always have food to eat!"

Well, the long and short of it was they did indeed marry each other!

Now married to Bayang'a, the fox girl did not remain idle. As soon as she was married, she sat in Bayang'a's small home and embroidered purses and pouches. She didn't stop until she had beautifully embroidered ninety-nine of them.

These were no ordinary designs!

The embroidered birds actually seemed to fly; the deer, if you didn't blink, appeared to prance and to run; the swaying tall grass, if you sniffed, exuded a fragrant redolence; and the fish, you'd swear, leaped right out of the water and back into the brine.

It took her five days to do the job. Once completed with the embroidering, she turned the bags over to her husband.

"Bayang'a," she said, "take these to the market to sell. Take this extra large bag and display it outside the stall. It will get the attention of the crowd for sure! One more thing: Make sure you absolutely do not tell anyone who had embroidered them!"

"Yes, my wife."

Bayang'a, shouldering a pole to carry two large sacks containing the ninety-nine bags, went to the town market. It happened to be some festive day, so the market was bustling with people from near and far. There were stalls everywhere--those selling huge red dates, sugar, fabrics of every kind, glutinous rice cakes wrapped in leaves, and so on. Each vendor pitched his or her wares with nearly ear-splitting inducements to the passersby. "The melon seller insisted his melons were sweet; the flower seller claimed his flowers were fragrant; the pickle seller swore his pickles were sour," as the old saying goes.

Bayang'a, totally unversed in the way of selling a product, chose an out-of-the-way spot to set up his stall. Luckily for him, the sheer fragrance of the pouches and purses, especially the rather large one displayed on a pole by his stall, quickly attracted people his way. Soon, he was doing a very brisk business.

"Unbelievable!" one customer exclaimed, holding up the pouch he had bought, examining it from every angle. "I'll tell you this--not even a celestial goddess could embroider like this!"

Before long all the purses and pouches had been sold--all but one, the large sample purse. And it was this purse that caught the attention of the local garrison commander, an officer called Liu Shi San.

"Bayang'a!" he said, coming up to the stall, looking over the large purse. "Who on earth did this embroidery?"

"Oh . . . just somebody . . ."

"Come, come now! Who did this amazing work? a fairy?"

"Just . . . just . . . somebody I know . . . "

"Bayang'a, I'm asking you a direct question. Allow me to ask you again. Who did this work?"

"A . . . relative."

" 'A relative.' Very well, Bayang'a. I wish to have some. Can you have your relative embroider some more for me?"

"Certainly, Your Excellency."

"One more thing: You must take me to meet the embroiderer."

"Well . . . I don't know . . . "

"Baiyang'a, are you refusing my order? My patience with you is already wearing thin. Pack up your things and your earnings, and let's go."

Well, Baiyang'a was in a fix. He couldn't very well refuse a royal officer, so he dutifully led Commander Liu Shi San to his home, where, the officer came face-to-face with Baiyang'a's gorgeous bride. Her beautiful black eyes, however, glowered at the officer like angry burning coals.

Immediately, the commander was smitten by her beauty; in fact, he was just about shot through the heart. However, he was, above everything else, a loyal subject of his king. Wait until I tell His Majesty about this fetching woman! he thought. He was sure he'd be rewarded beyond his dreams when the king himself discovered this stunning young lady and added her to his collection of beauties.

Commander Liu Shi San stuttered and stammered. Without even saying how many pouches he wished to order, he abruptly grabbed one of the embroidered bags, turned around, leaped over the threshold bar, and fled to the royal palace. Once there, he told his sovereign about the girl with the milky-complexioned egg-shaped face, ruby lips, and shimmering dark eyes.

"Moreover, Your Majesty," added the commander, "she embroidered this pouch!" He produced the pouch, which, if you looked at it from the right angle, you could see darting deer, leaping fish, and churning water. You could also, of course, smell the sweetness of the swaying grasses.

"Who is this woman who is as lovely as a celestial maiden and who can also embroider thus?" asked the king.

"Bayang'a's wife, Your Majesty."

"Bring her to me at once!" thundered the king. "Drag her forcibly if you must but bring her here immediately!"

The fox girl knew as soon as the commander had left that their troubles were just beginning.

"Bayang'a, act quickly. That man will be back to take me to the palace--"

"I shall never let anyone separate us!" Bayang'a cried, embracing her.

She pushed him away and said, "No, act quickly, I said! We have no time to lose! Go up the mountain and strip away bark from yellow bi trees. Bring lots of the bark back to me right away!"

Without a further word, Bayang'a quickly headed up the mountain. He came back as fast as he could with a sack full of yellow bi bark. His wife took the bark, crushed it in a tub, added some water, stirred the ingredients and made a paste. She then applied the paste to her face and the rest of her body.

"How do I look?" she asked Bayang'a.

"You . . . you look very sick . . . as if you had jaundice!"

Before long, the commander, as expected, showed up with some of his men. Without any resistance, the fox girl allowed him to escort her to the king's palace. She strode into the king's chamber, without kneeling or even so much as a lowering of her head.

"The wife of Bayang'a reports to His Majesty!" she said to the astonished king.

Commander Liu Shi San looked at the king. He had imagined his king would be ecstatic to have such a rare beauty before his eyes. Instead, the monarch looked both displeased and disgusted.

"Take her away!" the king cried. "Send her to the kitchen and have her boil water! Filthy-looking, ill-bred creature!"

"Your Majesty, I must report something to you," said the fox girl, turning her head back to the king as she was led towards the royal kitchen. The king looked at her. "Just recently I became ill. I'm very ill right now, as a matter of fact. Please don't blame me before I die for infecting your kitchen staff and anyone in the royal household!"

"Get her out of here before I fall ill!" screamed the king, attempting to pull up his shirt up with one hand to cover his face and pinching his nose with fingers from the other hand. "Turn her out at once! Go! Go! Go!"

The fox girl was escorted to the outer gates of the palace. Once beyond the threshold of the palace gate, she had the heavy gates slammed in her face. She smiled, shrugged and trudged back home.

Inside the palace, the king slowly turned to the commander. "You brought that filthy, diseased woman in here! Guards! Guards! Take the ex-commander to the chopping block this instance!"

Once back home, the fox girl and Bayang'a decided to flee the area, which they did!


from Minjian gushi, pp. 182-185. (See 3/26/08 for complete citation.)

This is yet another version from the worldwide Supernatural Wife cycle of tales. Other examples can be found at 12/21/07 and 1/23/08. In the story the fox wife never reveals her true identity to her husband and presumably remains in human form for evermore. Commander Liu Shi San's name simply means "sixty-three." Like many characters from Chinese and Indo-European folktales, he behaves like a clueless automaton, allowing a dangerously ill-appearing woman to approach his king. I have not been able to locate the identity of the bi tree.

Motifs: B601.14, "Marriage to fox in human form"; D313.1, "Fox transformed to human"; J242.3, "Fox masks as beauty."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Hunter Hailibu (Mongol)

In days past there lived a mighty hunter, Hailibu. Like many great hunters, he sought game not merely to take a life but to feed himself and those in the area who could no longer hunt for themselves. And like many great hunters, he knew as well when not to take a life. In all the mountain and forest villages he passed, he was welcomed, for everyone knew him to be generous to a fault and a straight talker, a man who did, not one who just spoke of doing.

One day he was out hunting in the heart of the forest when he came upon a tree that grew on the peak of a steep hill. On one of the top branches of that tree, a little white snake was curled up, apparently very comfortably, and seemingly fast asleep.

Hailibu mused to himself how content that snake looked, as content as a human taking a nap on a hot day during a break in work.

He took a wide detour around the tree so as not to disturb the snake.

Suddenly he noticed a gray shadow in the sky. Down swooped a stork and immediately snatched the little snake up in its talons!

"Help! Save me!" cried the little white snake.

"Fear not, little friend!" replied Hailibu, who swiftly took out an arrow and aim it at the stork, which was rapidly ascending into the sky. Hailibu's arrow was likewise swift. It nicked the stork, which dropped the snake, and then flew beyond the treetops as fast as its wings could carry it.

Hailibu reached the spot where the snake had landed.

"You're safe now, little one," he said to the serpent as it looked up at him. "Go back home to your mother and father."

The snake nodded its head and slithered off.

The next day Hailibu found himself in the exact same area. There, underneath the tree upon which the little white snake had rested the day before, were now a whole host of snakes circling the little white snake. obviously guarding it. Hailibu found this strange and watched the snakes.

"My rescuer!" said the little white snake. "I was hoping you'd be here."

"Yes, well here I am . . . "

"You do not know this," continued the snake, "but I am the daughter of the Dragon King. He and my mother sent me back here today to see if you would return. They wish to thank you for saving my life yesterday. You are hereby invited to my home, the palace, to be exact, the gem storehouse of the palace!"

"I'd be honored."

"Once there, you will be rewarded. You will be offered anything in my father's gem storehouse. But listen carefully, hunter. Refuse whatever is in the storehouse. Instead, ask as a reward the gem my father always carries in his mouth!"

"Oh? May I ask why, Princess?"

"You are a hunter, are you not? Then you should be very interested in obtaining that gem. If you too carry that gem in your mouth, you shall be able to understand the language of every animal that crawls, walks, flies and swims!"

"How marvelous!"

"Yes, marvelous it is; however, please listen carefully. Whatever knowledge you obtain by listening to what animals say, you must keep it all to yourself. You must never divulge the knowledge of this secret to anyone, for if you do, you shall die a horrible death. You will, starting from the head, slowly turn to stone."

"I understand," said Hailibu. "I'll be careful."

"Let's be off, then . . . "

The little white snake led Hailibu down into a steep valley; the farther they went, the colder he felt. Finally, they reached the storehouse, a nondescript building far away, inaccessible, from the world of most humans.

"We are here, Hailibu," said the little white snake. "Now we are to wait for my parents to arrive."

By and by the Dragon King and Queen themselves slithered up to the little white snake and Hailibu.

"You are the young man who saved our daughter!" said the Dragon King. "For that the Queen and I are very grateful! Come with me inside the storehouse here and feel free to select any jewel or gem that you like!"

"Please forgive me for being so bold, Your Majesty," replied Hailibu. "What I would really like, if you don't mind, is that gem that is in your mouth right now!"

"The gem in my mouth?"


"You are sure that is all you want?"


"Very well."

The Dragon King reluctantly spat the gem into the palm of Hailibu's hand. What could he do? He was supposed to reward Hailibu. Hailibu thanked the King and Queen and excused himself to return to the world of people. The little white snake accompanied him to the border between her world and ours.

"Remember, Hailibu," said the little snake, "you may instantly understand what any animal within earshot says. Not only that, you may use that information to help yourself. Just make sure you don't tell anyone else about it or the secret of the gem! Otherwise, the consequence will not be pretty!"

Hailibu nodded, said goodbye to the snake, put the gem in his mouth and headed out into the forest.

From that day on, hunting became a very leisurely activity for him. No more would he have to lie in wait; no more would he have to approach an animal in stealth; no more would he have climb any trees, scale any cliffs or ensconce himself in scratchy bushes. Instead, he listened in to animals wherever he went and simply took several steps in a particular direction to find his prey.

One day he was out in the forest when he heard the chatter from some birds overhead.

"Come on!" cried one bird to the others. "Let's hurry and make sure the rest of the flock get the message!"

"You're sure about this?" cried another. "It means we'll all have to find a new home, start new nests over and--"

"Of course I'm sure! When have I ever been wrong? I'm telling you the coming flood will send a small ocean of water crashing down from the mountain tomorrow! You want to wait and see? Hurry! This time tomorrow this whole valley will be underwater, and so will all the people living here! Come on . . . "

This put Hailibu in a fix. To tell what he had overheard from the birds would spell his doom; not to tell, just to wait and see if the bird had exaggerated and then discover it had not, would mean the destruction of everyone in the nearby village . . .

He took the gem from his mouth and put it in his pouch.

"Prepare to flee!" he cried out, walking through the village. "Tomorrow an ocean of flood water will be coming down!"

Washerwomen put down their laundry; farmers stopped plowing their fields; children quit their games and their mothers rushed to pick them up. All stared at Hailibu.

"Come on! Gather your belongings! Tomorrow this whole area'll be underwater!"

"And how do you know this, Hailibu?" asked an old man.

"Believe me--it will happen." He started to weep, something no one had ever seen him do, ever. "If I died before you right this minute, would you believe me then?"

Everyone stared at him. Had the great hunter suddenly lost his mind?

"Hailibu," said the old man, "everyone in this village has known you for a very long time. All of us have always known you to be straight up the line. What you're saying now, though, makes you sound like a crazy man. How is it you know all this is going to happen tomorrow? I mean, confound it, if you are telling me to flee my own village, my ancestral home, to leave my home with all my possessions, I'm going to need to know more. Don't the rest of you agree?"

All the villagers who had just gathered into a circle vigorously nodded their heads.

Hailibu opened the pouch and extracted the small gem. He held it up for all to see. He then told the villagers everything about the gem--how he had obtained it, what powers it gave him, how he had overheard the flock of birds, with one bird in particular, and what it had said.

He concluded by saying, "I'm about to leave you for the next world. Let my death be the final evidence . . . "

He then turned to stone, right before their astonished eyes.

Everyone then scurried back to their homes, wrapped their possessions in blankets or bags, gathered up their children and elders, rounded up their animals and fled the village and the valley as fast as their legs could move.

Fleeing the village, they became aware of the thick black clouds that had formed overhead.

Early the next morning, the village was already empty when the first raindrops fell. Soon torrents of rain came down, loosening the rocks on the mountain top. A huge amount of water gushed and roared down the mountain, along with it, boulders, smashing the village huts and inundating the whole area with water that nearly reached the treetops.

The rain and flooding had stopped. When it was finally safe to return to the area, the villagers came back to survey the damage. The rock that had been the mighty hunter Hailibu was located; it had been carried by the floodwater and deposited atop a hill.

There, on the hill, generations of people continued to pay homage to Hailibu, making the rock a holy site. To this day, Hailibu's rock is still there.


from Jia & Sun, Zhongguo minjian gushixuan, Vol. 1, pp. 202-204. (For full citation, see 7/22/07.)

For similar stories of individuals being turned into stone, see the stories for 6/22/07 and 2/13/08. Motifs: A974, "Rock from transformation of people to stone"; C961.2, "Transformation to stone for breaking tabu"; D231, "Man transformed to stone"; W28, "Self sacrifice."

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Weird & Eerie Stories From Old China

Not ghost stories--I already have an ongoing series of such stories--but rather the first of what might hopefully be a collection of tales dealing with anomalies other than ghosts.

(1) Thirteen Cats
Imperial Censor Wang of Jiangning, Jiangsu, once had a concubine who, when she was seventy years of age, had thirteen cats. She loved those cats and took care of them as if they were her own children. She gave each one a name, and whenever she called one by its name, it would immediately come to her. In the forty-sixth year of the Qianlong Emperor (A.D. 1781), this woman died. The thirteen cats sat around her casket morning, day and night, unceasingly moaning. When offered fish to eat, the cats continued to cry and refused to touch the food. On the third day after the old woman's death, the thirteen cats, still surrounding the casket, were all found dead.


Zi bu yu (Matters the Master [Confucius] Did Not Discuss) by Yuan Mei (1716-1798); in Lingyi guaitan, p. 172. (See 7/8/10 for full citation.)

Yuan Mei derived the title for his book from a statement by Confucius: "I do not discuss weird abilities or contemptible spirits." Confucius's words reflect the ultra-Confucian attitude of aloofness from the incorporeal world.

(2) The Daughter of Xiang Shui
There once was a man named Xiang Shui who lived in Henai (now in Henan Province). When he was living in Wu Xing Qun (?), his wife gave birth to a girl. When the girl was a toddler, she came down with an illness. While she was sick at home with nothing to do, this child came across a small knife and started playing with it. Her mother saw her holding a knife and went to take it from her. Doing so, the mother accidentally nicked her own hand. After this incident, the poor child, now very ill, died.
A year passed. Xiang's wife had now given birth to another girl.

When this girl was four years old, she suddenly said to her mother, " Whatever happened to that small knife?"
"What knife, my daughter?"

"You know, the small knife you you took from me, the one I cut you with . . . "

As one can imagine, the mother was dumbstruck. Neither she nor her husband had ever talked about the now deceased daughter's playing with a knife and accidentally cutting her mother's hand. She went to tell Xiang Shui.

"Well," said Xiang Shui, " where exactly is that knife? Do we still have it?"

"Ever since the day our first daughter left us," replied the wife, "I've not used that knife. It breaks my heart just to think of the knife, for it reminds me of her. I put the knife away."

"Do this. Find that knife and put it amongst a bunch of similar knives. See if our daughter can spot the one you think she was talking about."

The mother did exactly this--she placed a number of small knives, including the small knife in question, before her daughter. In no time the small child gleefully picked up the small knife her late sister had played with four years before, the same knife which had cut the mother's hand.


Taiping guangji (The Comprehensive Records of Peace and Tranquility) by Li Fang (925-997 A.D.); in Lingyi guaitan, p. 101.

Throughout the world, down through the centuries and in many if not most cultures, there have been frequent reports of small children blurting out details of a supposed previous existence of which they could not have possibly known. For another story of reincarnation, see 6/14/10. The case of Shanta Devi and the research done by Dr. Ian Stevenson come to my mind after reading this story of suggested reincarnation from ancient China.

(3) Sometimes We Must Look to the Past

In the state of Pei (now Anhui Province), there lived a scholar and his wife. He and his wife had been blessed by their having triplets, boys. However, though each son was normal in every respect, none of them could enunciate normal speech. All they could do was to grunt unintelligible sounds.

By the time they reached the age of twenty, their condition remained the same. And so the three, along with their parents, were much disheartened. But what could they do?

Now one day, a well-meaning stranger happened to pass their house while the three boys and their father were out in the front. The stranger slowed down as he heard the garbled, incoherent mutterings of the three young brothers.

Turning to the embarrassed-looking father, the stranger asked, "What is this sound?"

"My sons. They are unable to speak."

"Oh?" asked the stranger. "Have you ever asked yourself if you had a role in why these fine young gentlemen should be unable to speak?"

The father looked at the stranger and seemed lost in thought for a long time. Finally, he replied, "When I was a boy, there was a swallow's nest just outside my bedroom window. In the nest were three young baby swallows. Their mother would fly over to the nest to feed each one. I can still remember seeing how each one would raise its beak and open it to receive the food.

"I was young, naughty and immature at the time. I took three short rose stems, with thorns and all, and climbed up to the nest. I then dangled a stem before each baby bird. When it opened its beak, I shoved the stem down its throat, killing it. I did this to each bird. How I regret doing that! "

The stranger nodded. "That's it" was all he said.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the three young men began conversing with each other for the first time in normal, articulate speech.

Thus, sometimes we must look to the past for an explanation to a current problem!


from Soushen ji by Gan Bao; in Lingyi guaitan; p. 10.

A Buddhist proverb teaches us that "if you wish to know why you are the way you are now, look to the past; if you wish to know how you shall be in the future, examine the way you are now." This karma may also reflect how the sins of the father, so to speak, can impact an otherwise blameless child.

May we all be so fortunate as to have well-meaning strangers enter our lives.

(4) The Secret of the Snake

There once was a scholar who had become an official. In some distant field, somewhere in the "two Guangs" (Guangdong and Guangxi provinces), he came across a huge peaceable snake, its girth nearly one chi (approx. 1/3 of a meter). He stood away, just observing it. It eventually crawled up a tree, and, to the amazement of the official, it began to devour all the leaves on the tree. Once all the leaves were gone, the circumference of the snake gradually but perceptibly grew smaller and smaller until at last the reptile had totally vanished!

A nearby local explained to him that the snake had probably eaten a whole deer earlier and was unable to digest the meal. So, in order to do so, it ate all the leaves in the tree.

The official decided to experiment. He picked as many leaves as he could and carried them back to his quarters. There, he kept the leaves, awaiting the perfect time to begin his research.

One night, when he felt particularly sated by food and drink, he decided he would do what the snake had done. He mashed the leaves with water, brewed a huge pot of soup with the ingredients, and drank all of it down.

The next day, when the official hadn't come down, his family members went up to look in on him. He was not in his bed. Someone pulled his bed cover back, revealing a collection of white bones and the rest, mostly tissue which had dissolved into water.


from Wen qi lu (Record of strange things heard) by Yu Ti (?); in Zhongguo qitan, pp. 19-19. (See 3/26/09 for complete citation.)

For another tale about a snake with a huge appetite, see 6/13/07.

(5) Fate

Long before he had ever made a name for himself, Zhang Jiazhen had time to kill one day and stopped by an old fortuneteller who had "set up shop" by a busy road. The old man consulted his various charts and devices and wrote up a number of different forecasts for Zhang, sealing each one in a separate envelope.

"Don't open them all up at once," the old man said. "They're numbered. Open each one in order just before you're given a new post or assignment." He then handed Zhang all the envelopes.

So each time Zhang was ready to leave a current post, he'd open an envelope to see what was in store just before the very next time he was posted or given an assignment. Amazingly, the old man's predictions were all completely accurate. Each sealed prediction foretold a post more prestigious than the current one.

Then came a glorious job assignment that had likewise been foretold: prefect of Dingzhou, Hebei Province! What office could be higher? Yet there was one envelope left. That was forgotten in his taking office in Dingzhou.

Not long after becoming prefect, Zhang Jiazhen came down with an illness. His family members became quite anxious and urged him to go see a physician.

"Ah, think nothing of it!" said Zhang. "I'm fine and going to stay fine. I have one yet envelope to open before I retire, don't you remember? Well, seeing as how you are all worried, I'll go ahead and open the envelope now, though it's a bit early to do so."

There, standing before his loved ones, he opened the final envelope. He took out the paper. Upon it was written just one character, "kong" (i.e., "empty," "blank," etc.).

He then knew that he was at the end of the road. He died shortly after.


from Dingming lu (Records of Determined Fates) by Zhao Zidong (?); in Zhongguo qitan, pp. 42-43.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Three Contemporary Chinese Fables

(1) The Master Builder

A master builder had worked many years building houses for his employee, Mr. Li. He and his wife had talked about his retiring one day, so today he would notify Mr. Li that he would no longer be working for him or for anyone else, for that matter."

"Oh, Shifu (i.e., master, maestro), you can't be serious?" asked Mr. Li. "Is there any way I convince you to stay on, at least for one more project?"

"No, Mr. Li, my mind's made up. I've worked for you for many years, and, while I appreciate working for you and the good salary you've paid me, the time has come for me to retire. I now want to spend more time with my wife and grandchildren."

"Listen, I have just one more project coming up for you, and I really need your help! This house will be the biggest, grandest, most opulent house of all, built with only the finest redwood and marble. How could I possibly have it constructed with anyone else but you overseeing the job? Please, Shifu, don't desert me at this time!"

"Well . . . "

"No, I must really beg you to reconsider!"

The master builder sighed. "Well, all right . . . but just this one house and that's it!"

"Thank you, Shifu!"

The master builder went home to tell his wife that he would work on yet one more construction project for Mr. Li, a house which when completed would be a masterpiece.

"Oh, you foolish man!" his wife said. "You're such a walkover for others. Since you agreed, just quickly get the thing done."

"But it is to be built with the finest of materials . . . "

"Who cares! Just hurry up and build it!"

So the master builder got started on this new job which was to be his last, and, yes, he had his crew do a rather slapdash job. He was more interested in getting the job done than in doing the job well. The result--a house with many shortcomings, most of which were not immediately noticeable.

When the house was completed, Mr. Li showed up, bearing a piece of paper and some keys, which he thrust into the hands of the startled master builder.

"What's . . . all . . . this, Mr. Li?" the master builder asked.

"Surprise! These are the deed and keys to your house, Shifu! This is my gift to you and your wife upon your retirement and for your many, many years of exemplary work. May you live for many years in total comfort in this house you yourself have built!"

(2) Dogfight

A young hoodlum swaggered through a neighborhood with a large dog he had trained to be vicious. If he encountered anyone taking a dog for a walk, he'd challenge the other dog owner to let both their animals fight.

Of course one look at his snarling and snapping dog was enough to make others turn around with their own dogs and head quickly away.

So this young thug strutted through the neighborhood, acting as if he owned the place, intimidating others into keeping their dogs indoors.

Now one day he walked his dog over to a park on the edge of the neighborhood. There, he saw an old man and his dog up on a knoll, sitting under a tree. The dog under the tree was the ugliest, weirdest-looking mutt he had ever seen, with a very thick snout, surely no match for his own killer dog.

"Hey, you!" the young hoodlum cried.

The old man looked up.

"Yeah, you! Let your dog and mine fight and see which is tougher. I'll wager you my dog'll rip yours apart!"

"Let them fight, eh?"

"Yeah! C'mon!"

The old man scratched his scrawny beard. He looked at the young tough's dog, then at his own pet, and then back at the young man.

"Very well, if you want . . ."

He untied the leash from the collar of his dog as the young hoodlum did the same. Then the old man gently pushed his dog in the direction of the snarling dog now bounding up the knoll towards them.

The strange-looking dog and the hoodlum's dog crashed into each other.

It was all over in a matter of seconds.

It wasn't even close.

The young hoodlum's vicious dog had been shredded, ripped apart to its very bones. What remained of the poor dog lay in a sickening, bloody heap.

The hoodlum was shaken and dumbstruck. "Wha- . . . Wha- . . . What happened? Your dog . . . what kind of dog is that?"

The old man just shook his head as his animal came back to him and allowed itself to have its leash reattached to its collar. "I guess I can't blame you for not knowing, seeing as how I have his fur all shaved off. He's actually what you call a 'lion.' That might answer your question."

(3) Old Wang and Old Chen

Old Wang and old Chen were two neighbors in adjoining apartment units. Now the Wangs were a noisy lot, always quarreling late into the night, while the Chens were very quiet, with nary a peep ever coming from out of the walls.

None of this was lost on old Wang, who was very embarrassed at how noisily he and his wife argued. He desperately wanted to apologize to old Chen but could never seem to find the chance.

One day he spotted old Chen waiting at the elevator. He jumped at the chance to make amends and rushed to join him while waiting for the elevator car to appear.

"Mr. Chen, my old friend, I really have to apologize for the way my wife and I argue! I know we must be very noisy and have probably kept you and Mrs. Chen up late on more than one occasion. We ought to be like you and Mrs. Chen--as quiet as the grass!"

"Don't worry about it, my friend," said old Chen. "All that arguing you and your wife do only proves one thing."

"What's that?"

"That you two are good people!"

"What?! Don't you mean that you and your wife are good people?"

"No, we're not good people; we're bad."

"Oh? How so?" Now Mr. Wang was mystified.

"Well," said Chen, "it's like this. What did you say the other day when your wife sat down on your reading glasses? 'What are you, woman, blind?'" Old Wang had to wince at that. "Then," continued Chen, "what did your wife say when you spilled tea all over the carpet? 'You clumsy old fool! Are your hands made of rubber?' Do you remember that?"

"Yes," said Wang, "of course I do."

"You must both be good people because each time you scold each other, which you both frequently do, you do so as the hero, while the other is the villain, the bad person!"

"Oh . . . "

"Now my wife and I, " continued Chen, sighing, "on the other hand must be bad! We're both constantly apologizing to each other for the slightest thing! And we do many, many bad things! Why, just this morning, my wife said she was sorry for accidentally shrinking my favorite shirt in the laundry! I quickly forgave her with a smile, of course. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I had to apologize because I had forgotten to bring in the laundry! Whew, I shudder when I think about how rotten my wife and I really are!"

"Ah . . . I see . . . "

"Oh," said Mr. Chen, "the elevator's finally here. Oh, my goodness! I'm awfully sorry! After you, please!"


Special thanks to my mentors and dear friends Sue Lau, Sally Zhang, and Joseph Tu for relating these examples of modern Chinese tales to me. For more examples of contemporary Chinese legends, this time, ghost stories, see 6/15/07.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Some More Proverbs From Shandong Province, the Home of Confucius

Having reat riches depends on one's fate; having small riches depends on one's determination. (Not all will attain great wealth, for affluence, according to this particular saying, depends on one's fate, perhaps on one's previous existence. Mere survival, however, is open to all through hard work and perseverance.)

Just as the great river has flowing water and the little river has fish, a soup of fatty meat has fat. (There's a reason for everything.)

Thirty summers must pass before one really knows how high the heavens are and how deep the land is. (I have heard some friends from mainland China and Taiwan say that "the young aren't mature and the mature aren't young.")

The sky above needs a below, just as a maiden needs a man to marry--there's no way out of it. (Some things are predetermined by nature whether we like it or not.)

Count on the tough and hardy to come out of the countryside and the rich soil to support a harvest! (In other words, have faith! Let nature take its course.)

If you don't plant the bamboo this year, exactly when do you expect to get the shoots? ("Make hay while the sun is out.")

A mighty dragon might find it difficult to defeat a snake hiding low in the grass. (When you must fight, do so knowing exactly who, what and where your enemy is. Don't take anything for granted; don't be cocky. Is it not said that elephants panic at the sight of a mouse?)

When you reach the age of eighty-eight, you don't go around mocking the lame or the blind. (The future is unknown to all of us; thus, it is wrong to make fun of others in their present plight.)

To see whether one has finesse or not is as simple as seeing whether the brush wipes the table clean and whether the broom sweeps the floor clean. ("The proof is in the pudding.")

Don't demand that the dates on sale at the market come without pits. (Nothing's perfect.)

Just as a farm field fears an early fall, a person may fear an old age with poverty. (When we are younger, we need to take care of our later needs. The message here is reminiscent of that found in Aesop's "The Ant and the Grasshopper.")

Like the crow's laughing at the pig for being black. ("Like the kettle's calling the pot black.")

To eat someone else's flesh and then to complain that the meat is not tasty! (Said of those who are ungrateful.)

People can see with their own eyes what you have done with your money; without your money, you have only your promises of what you claim you shall do. ("Money talks." It is with money that much can be accomplished.)

Whose grove doesn't have at least one crooked tree? ("No one is perfect.")


from Zhongguorende suhua. (See 6/9/07 for full citation.) For more proverbs from Shandong, see 11/18/09.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Waif of White Water -- Possibly the Oldest Recorded Han Chinese Folktale

During the reign of Emperor An of the Jin Dynasty (396-419 A.D.), there lived an official named Xie Duan. When he was very young, he became orphaned after both parents had died. He had no relatives whatsoever, so all the neighbors pitched in to raise him and to guide him.

By the time he reached the age of eighteen, he was a very fine young man, honest and respectful to all and without any vices.

It was at this time he decided to leave the village of his birth and venture farther out into the world. His neighbors had been very much concerned about him and wanted to see him married to a nice young woman. Some had even conspired to introduce him to eligible young women, but, for whatever reason, most likely the lack of money, he remained unwed. And so he left the village to seek his fortunes elsewhere.

He ended up in another village where he worked farm fields.

One day while in the city, he picked up in the market a large river snail, the shell of which was as big as a three-sheng kettle. He found this to be a very curious object, and so he took it home and placed it in a tub of water under his window.

Every day Xie Duan got up early to work and came back late from the fields. And now lately he would come home to discover the same thing: his dining table would be set with several nice hot dishes and a soup. It was as if somebody lived with him, a wife, perhaps! Yet, no one else would be in the house when he returned home.

After this had happened on several occasions, he went to a neighbor to thank her for her kindness and thoughtfulness.

"Why are you thanking me?" asked the astonished neighbor. "I've never entered your hut while you were gone!"

What could Xie Duan do? He still suspected his neighbor--if not this one, perhaps another--was practicing an act of kindness. He still thanked her and left.

Again, for the next several nights, the same thing occurred--a delicious hot dinner awaiting him every night after he came home from work.

He went back to the woman he had thanked earlier. The nice young man he was--he must have been very embarrassed!

This time the woman laughed and said something very mysterious. "Xie Duan, stop teasing me with all your thanks! You know you are married and keep a wife inside your home! You have a wife, so why would I need to sneak into your home to cook you dinner every night?"

Now Xie Duan was completely mystified. Fine. He thanked the woman once more and went home. Now, what to do? He had a plan . . .

The next morning, he got up early with the crowing of the roosters. But then, he quietly returned home very early. He crept up to the fence around his home and peered over it, looking directly at his window.

He saw something that made the hair stand on his head: a very young and pretty woman rose from the tub and lit the oven.

Xie Duan rushed into his hut, startling the young woman. He looked into the tub; the snail shell was gone.

"Miss," asked Xie Duan, "from where do you come, and why do you prepare a dinner for me nightly?"

The young woman was clearly nonplussed, probably as much as Xie Duan. She gazed longingly for the tub of water under the windowsill, as if she wished she could escape into the water inside that tub. However, she couldn't.

"I am from the river, the White Water. The God of Heaven took pity on you for having to live all alone while being such a polite, decent and modest person. So I have been sent here to you to cook for you. I was to stay here with you for ten years to take care of all your meals. Ten years from now, you will be prosperous enough to have a wife. I would then be able to leave you. You were not supposed to see me, but now you have come in and seen who I really am.

"So now I must leave. You have seen me in my true form, and because of that I cannot remain here. Take heart, though. Your life will be better in the years to come. Though I must leave, I shall leave behind the empty snail shell. You may dry it and use it as a grain container and as a keepsake.

"Farewell . . ."

"Please stay," Xie Duan said.

The girl just shook her head.

She then stepped outside the hut and vanished into the wind.

Xie Duan created for her a small shrine in his home, where on each holy day, he would pray and provide incense and offerings for her.

Throughout the years, he improved his standard of living and, in time, became affluent. He was then able to afford a very nice bride and was thus married. Later, Xie Duan became county magistrate of Changyun County.

Eventually the little shrine to the Waif of White Water became a temple consecrated to her!


from Lingyi: guaitan (The Occult: Chats on Strange Things), Xiao Zhiguai, ed. Beijing: Xin Shijie, 2006; pp. 29-30. Originally from Gan Bao's Soushen ji.

For another variant of this story ("The River Snail Shell Girl") and background discussion of this story's position as being perhaps the oldest Han Chinese folktale, see 3/19/08.

One sheng is approximately one liter.

Compared to "The River Snail Shell Girl," this story is relatively spare with specifics. The province in which "Changyun County" is located is unidentified. However, a Baishui ("White Water") River exists in Southeastern Fujian, the setting for "The Snail Shell Girl." As in many folktales, the hero unwittingly violates a taboo, causing him to lose something, in this case the services of the Waif, when he observes her activities in his home. (Motif: F302.6., "Fairy mistress leaves man when he breaks tabu.") However, in general, he is rewarded. (D855.5., "Magic reward for good deeds.")

The Taoist "God of Heaven" is not to be confused with the Judaeo-Christian God, though the same name
Shangdi is used by both Chinese Christians and Taoists for their respective deities. This Taoist god is actually one of the Three Emperors, legendary rulers later deified. He is often associated with the legendary emperor and culture hero, the sage Fuxi, the revealer of the Bagua (Pa-kua) and first instructor to show the people how to cook with fire and to catch fish with nets. The other two members of the threesome are the god-emperors Shennong and Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor. I cannot speak with authority about mainland China, but there are still temples dedicated to Fuxi on Taiwan today.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Incarnations of General Bai Qi (Han)

Bai Qi (d. 257 B.C.) was one of the ablest generals of the Qin kingdom during the Age of Warring States (475-221 B.C.). Having successfully occupied more than seventy enemy fortresses and cities, he was conferred with the title Prince of Wu An.

During his campaign against the Zhao kingdom, battling the army of Zhao general Zhao Kuo at Changping (today, in Shanxi Province), General Bai Qi emerged as victor after his forces circled the enemy, forcing them to surrender or to starve. As he had done on other occasions, he had nearly all the enemy prisoners, reputed to be more than 400,000 men, put to death. As can be imagined, this loss shattered the state of Zhao.

Years later, General Bai was ordered to finish off the remnants of Zhao but was defeated. When the Qin king ordered him to press on his attack on Zhao, General Bai feigned illness in order to avoid further battle. Enraged, the king of Qin revoked General Bai's princely title, delivered a sword to him and commanded him to kill himself with the blade.

Clutching the sword, General Bai Qi supposedly spoke these words: "Which evil act of mine offends heaven? At Changping, I had 400,000 Zhao prisoners killed! That's enough to warrant 10,000 deaths for myself!"

He then took his own life.

Now his own journey through several different incarnations would begin.

(1) Hungry Ghost

In the reign of the Tang emperor Gao Zong, during the era Xianheng (A.D. 670-674), the monk Daoying lived and worked in Fahai Temple.

One morning the chief abbot Huijian observed two men approach the temple in a leisurely manner. He then saw them make a sudden turn and enter the wing of the temple where Daoying lived, where they then suddenly vanished. Abbot Huijian knew that the pair had to be ghosts, and so he sought out Daoying to tell him what he had just seen.

"Yes, they are indeed ghosts," said Daoying. "Not only that, but they are personal emissaries of the Qin king Zhuangxiang."

(King Zhuangxiang was the third Qin dynasty ruler, who reigned from B.C. 249 to 247, just before the reign of Qin Shihuang, the first Qin emperor.)

"And why has King Zhuangxiang sent them?" asked Huijian.

"They have been sent by King Zhuangxiang to our realm to entreat us to offer him, the king, more food sacrifices. According to them, the king has been a wandering hungry ghost for a long time, and he is desperate for something to eat. He also has three hundred hungry-ghost retainers in our realm who are likewise starving."

Daoying had personally communicated to the two ghostly emissaries that he would provide the proper offerings for the king and his hungry ghost retainers. The emissaries further informed Daoying that among the three hundred Qin ghosts there was one whose crimes were especially heavy, dooming him to become a wandering hungry ghost. In fact, so heinous and monstrous had been his deeds in life that he had wandered for eighty years without eating anything.

That particular hungry ghost was none other than General Bai Qi, formerly of the Qin royal dynasty.

(2) Animals: Centipede and Pig

Once in the midst of a snowstorm, a Mr. Wu Shan crushed a one chi-long white centipede. On closer inspection, Wu Shan saw on the dead arthropod's back two characters: "Bai Qi." Another anecdote tells us how the friend of Pan Congxian, Ruan Jun, was once at the butcher's when he witnessed a pig being slaughtered. On the pig's back there could be clearly seen three characters: "Qin" (i.e., "of the Qin dynasty") and "Bai Qi."

(3) Back From Hell Itself

There was once a seventeen year old girl, a Miss Chen, who lived south of the Yangtze. Now this girl had never gone to school, so there would have been lots of historical facts unknown to her. One day she came down with a very serious illness and was confined to bed.

When she was about to die, she summoned her family to her bedside and suddenly exclaimed: "I am General Bai Qi who lived during the Age of Warring States. When I was alive, I killed more than 100,000 men, and in hell, I endured all types of punishments without cessation. Only recently, have I been able to leave and take residence in the body of this girl at her birth. But now you can see I am about to die, for I would not be allowed in this existence to live beyond twenty years. My fate . . . is . . . thus . . ."

With those words, the young woman slowly closed her eyes as her time on earth expired.

From these vignettes, you can see the karmic journeys of Bai Qi's soul--from hungry ghost, to lowly centipede and then pig, to resident of hell, then to the body of the unfortunate short-lived girl and then into some other newborn baby's body and so on and so on and so on . . . !

Behold the never-ending reward for those who commit unspeakable acts! Can anyone deny being afraid of receiving the same fate? Can anyone refuse to take care so as not to meet such a fate?


Yinguo baoying gushi leibian (A dictionary of karmic retribution stories), compiled by Tang Xiangqing. No publisher or location listed. 1982; pp. 57-59.

The book from which this story comes was printed to be distributed freely. It is thus a category of book called shanshu, "good book(s)," religious tracts which are printed by donations and handed out for free. I obtained it either on Taiwan or at an Yiguandao temple (see 4/17/09 for more about Yiguandao, or IKT) in Southern California more than twenty years ago.

chi is approximately a third of a meter.

Interestingly, while in the incarnation of the dying Miss Chen, General Bai Qi claims to have "killed more than 100,000 men," as opposed to the 400,000 plus for which he is usually credited according to Chinese annals. (The general was an actual historical person and is considered to have been a master strategist and tactician.) The story does not identify who Wu Shan, Pan Congxian, and Ruan Jun were.

Stories of centipedes rescuing heroes notwithstanding, the centipede, one of the "five evil" creatures, and the pig are lowly animals, and any human's reincarnation as either one should be a powerful statement on that human's status within the wheel of karma. In other words, it shows us how far that human has been degraded from once having been a human being. Before being reborn as Miss Chen, General Bai Qi goes through the three horrible stages of nonhuman existence in Chinese Buddhism: hungry ghost, animal and hell-imprisoned being.

For a much less grimmer story alluding to rebirth, see "To the Other Realm and Back," 7/10/07.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Ghost Stories From Ancient China -- Series Five

(1) From Behind the Veil

The prefect of Hongdian, Henan Province, had a lovely daughter, and when she was twenty eight, she became engaged to a man surnamed Lu. On the day she and her family were preparing the wedding at their home, a woman who had often come into their home, a magician, a practitioner of the secret arts, showed up.

"My daughter is on her way to be married tonight!" said the mother to the magician. "You've seen her fiance several times. Tell me--what is his fortune like?"

"Let's see. . . Mr. Lu, you say? The Mr. Lu with the long beard?"


"He is not to be your son-in-law. No, your son-in-law will be a man with a medium build, clean-shaven and light complexioned."

The mother was flabbergasted. "No, no. How could that be? Don't you see my daughter is dressed for her wedding ceremony? She is to belong to the Lu family. There can be no mistake about this."

"There is no mistake indeed. I am correct," replied the magician.

"Can you please tell me why Mr. Lu is not to be my son-in-law then?"

"I do not know why, madam. All I can tell you is that Mr. Lu will not be your son-in-law."

At that very moment, the "bride price," gold and other valuable gifts, arrived, brought over by special couriers ahead of the wedding entourage of the groom-to-be. The prefect's wife was now completely irate.

"Look! Look at this gold, these jewels," she said to the sorceress. "Can you still say my daughter is not to wed Mr. Lu tonight?"

"The wedding is to be tonight, madam, not this very instant. A lot can happen before the night is over."

By this time, the ruckus attracted the attention of the prefect himself and the rest of the wedding party. He ordered the magician to leave immediately, which she did.

The Lus had finally arrived! Father, mother and son climbed down from their sedan coach and entered the prefect's house. There, they exchanged both pleasantries and then, gifts.

But then, as the time for the service to begin, as the future groom and still veiled bride faced each other for the first time, from out of the blue . . .

"Ahhhh!" Young Mr. Lu screamed. He was completely gripped by overwhelming panic.

And then, to the utter amazement of everyone present, he leaped upon a horse and fled the scene! More than one person there also climbed upon a horse to chase the frightened man. Once they had caught up with him, no one could convince him to return to the prefect's house.

As one could imagine, the prefect was beside himself with rage, which he felt all the way to each root of hair on his head. He looked at his daughter, so beautiful in her silk gown, destined this day to be dressed for a wedding but to remain unwed. He turned to the gathered guests.

"How can this be?" he asked. "How can this be? Behold my daughter." She now stood before everyone, unveiled. "You can all see her very clearly, can you not? Is she truly so hideous? If she doesn't marry today, lies will spread that she has the face and body of a beast! I shall not have that! Do you hear me? I shall not have that! So, gathered guests, hear what I have to say. If any man among you wishes to marry my daughter tonight, to marry her right now, you may do so with my blessings! Well? Is there a man among you who would take my daughter as your wife home with you tonight?"

A young man, a guest, named Zheng, stepped forward. He had admired the prefect's daughter. Yes, she was, by any standard, beautiful. Not only that she was also graceful and gentle.

"I would like to take your daughter as my wife, Excellency!" said Mr. Zheng. "I desire the honor of calling you my father-in-law!"

This Mr. Zheng--he was of medium height, beardless, rather pale--just as the magician had foretold. And that night, he became the prefect's honorable son-in-law.

Several years passed.

One day Mr. Zheng ran into Mr. Lu, his old friend whom he had not seen since that night.

"Please tell me," said Zheng, "what happened to you the night you were supposed to marry the lady who became my wife? Why did you run off that way?"

"Believe it or not, " Lu responded, "she appeared to me as a ghost. Her two eyes were a fiery red, and her face, from behind the veil, very dark, a greenish black. I had never been so frightened before in my life!"

Mr. Zheng laughed and called for his wife, who was actually nearby. She walked up to join her husband and Mr. Lu.

"Does she still look like a ghost now?" asked Mr. Zheng.

Mr. Lu was obviously deeply ashamed and hung his head low, unable to speak. He had to walk away.

From this we can see that only those truly meant to be together shall be wed and that to expect otherwise would be all in vain.


from Zhongguo qitan, pp. 172-174. (For original citation, see 3/26/09.)

This tale is originally from the Tang dynasty anthology by Li Fuyan, More Amazing Records of Oddities (Xuxuan guailu). Brides in China have been wearing veils at least since the Northern and Southern Dynasties (A.D. 420-589). Anthologist Liu Yiqing (A.D. 403-444) in his famous New Chats on Worldly Happenings (Shishuo xinyu) related a tale of a groom who retired to the "marriage room" with his bride to remove her veil only to storm out unwilling to return because of her extraordinary homeliness. The character Lu's description of the bride's appearance tallies with traditional descriptions of ghosts. For a tale with a somewhat similar theme, karma and the inviolable sanctity of marriage, see 5/4/08, "The Old Man Under the Moon." Motifs: E338(b), "Female ghost seen in house"; E421.1.1., "Ghost visible to one person alone"; E363.1.1., "Ghost substituting for bride."
(2) Pretty White Dress
Zhong Yao, a man of Yingchuan, Henan, had already stopped seeking out his friends for eating and drinking engagements for several months now. He had just dropped out of sight. When some of his old pals finally ran into him, they noticed a change had come over him. He just didn't seem himself; he seemed burdened. So one of his friends asked him if he was all right.

"Well . . . " he replied slowly, hesitantly, "a girl . . . a girl often comes to visit me."

In those days, such things were just not likely to happen. Moreover, Zhong Yao appeared anguished. The friends put two and two together.

"Listen, Yao," said one of the friends, "you're being visited not by a human but by a ghost. Don't fall for her charms. She means you harm. Next time she comes by, you need to kill her."

The friends parted. Zhong Yao returned home.

That had been some mighty drastic advice! The suggestion left Zhong more confused, uneasy than ever. To kill her! Yet, to let her grow upon him, as a ghost does like a cancer, weakening him, sickening him . . . That was hardly an acceptable alternative as well. He was torn up about what to do; the choices were both eating him alive. He knew his friends had been right; she was an evil spirit. But the solution! He couldn't stand the thought of what he must do.

Not many days later, the girl, wearing her pretty white silk dress and red vest, showed up at his front gate. This time, though, she just stood there, unwilling to enter.

"Well, why don't you come in?" asked Zhong Yao.

The girl paused before answering. She finally spoke. "You're planning to kill me."

"What? How could you even say such a thing?" He motioned for her to enter, which she did, ever so hesitantly.

She was now inside his home. Zhong Yao felt his head would burst. A knife lay on the table. Should he step quickly over to the table and grab the knife? He clapped his hands onto his head; he felt his veins throbbing. Should he just let her go? Then what? She'd return again and again, and he'd grow sicker and sicker; eventually he'd waste away to nothing . . .

Meanwhile, she stood there, watching him.

He gritted his teeth, ran to the table and grabbed the knife. He attacked her and they struggled. She was somehow able to get away, though he had nicked her leg, making her cry out in pain. She made it outside and escaped into the street, patting her wound with cotton liner from her vest, trailing blood in the street.

The next day, Zhong Yao had a friend follow the bloody trail. It led all the way into the cemetery and ended at a tomb. When Zhong Yao heard this, he mustered his courage and went with a couple of his friends to the cemetery. There, they dug up the coffin from this tomb where the trail of blood had ended. They opened the coffin to find a beautiful but dead young woman, whose flesh was totally uncorrupted, who looked as fresh and alive as the last time he had seen her, clothed in a white silk dress under a red vest made even redder by stanching the flow of blood . . .


from Hanwei liuchao guiguai xiaoshuo, p. 64. (For original citation, see posting for 3/26/09). Originally from Sousenji by Gan Bao.

In this grisly tale, the friends of Zhong Yao are correct in identifying their friend's lover as a ghost/vampire partially due to her unseemly behavior in presenting herself at his house. (The term "vampire" is used very loosely here, as the Chinese version doesn't lust for blood. Rather, it mechanically attacks and slashes people, even devouring them.) Ghost (
gui) or vampire/zombie (jiangshi)? That is a blurred distinction in old China, as zombie-like revenants, jiangshi, propelled by their hatred for and need to kill the living, also appear in ghost-story anthologies. Both ghosts and vampires are classified as guiguai, which means something like "ghosts and the hideous and bizarre," a catchall phrase for evil revenants much like the Japanese bakemono, i.e., vengeful, murderous ghosts and "things capable of transforming," or "shapeshifters." However, the young lady here possesses a consciousness that is usually lacking in the robotic jiangshi. She is anything but the unthinking, killing and grisly looking automaton that characterizes Chinese vampires, or "stiff corpses." . Motifs: B511.1.3, "Vampire sheds blood"; E422.4.4(a), "Female revenant in white clothing"; H56, "Recognition by wound."

(3) Youchang's Wife

The scholar Jin Youchang, originally from Henan, had been living on Zhongtiao Mountain, Puzhou, Shanxi Province, for five years, when he saw from his yard a country girl carrying a bucket of water from a stream. She was a total beauty, and so it became a habit of Youchang's to tarry by his gate every day so that he could catch a glimpse of her as often as possible as she returned from her trip to the stream. She did not disappoint him; she came to fetch water from the stream daily.

On this day, he decided he would finally speak to her, so he waited once again by his gate. Sure enough, the girl soon showed up on the path, lugging her heavy pail of water.

"Young woman!" he accosted her as she passed by. "Why should a rare beauty like you have to carry pails of water?"

The girl, not very shy, laughed and replied, "Why shouldn't I have to carry water? I need water too. Truth be told, I'm an orphan and live with my aunt and uncle. I fetch the water for them."

Then, rather boldly, Youchang said, "If you are not already spoken for, which would be difficult to believe, I hope you'd consider being my wife, if you find me at all to your liking!"

"If you don't mind, I'll return after sundown and we can speak more of this."

Well, she did return that night and they had their talk. In very short time, they were husband and wife! They were very happy and affectionate as newlyweds are, and each day and night was a joy for them to be with each other. It was her habit to be at her husband's side as he studied way into the early hours of the morning, when he would nod off with his nose in his books. He would stagger off to bed, lie down and fall fast asleep. Only then would she lie down by his side and join him in sleep.

Life was like this for half a year.

Now one night in the study, Youchang was busy reading, his wife standing nearby. She showed no intention of sitting down next to him.

"Oh?" he asked. "You're not going to sit with me? Come! Sit and rest. You have been up and about, pacing since I came in."

She slowly turned around and looked down at him. "I am going to bed early. I have to ask you something."

"Certainly." He returned to his book.

"When you come to bed," she said, "whatever you do, please don't bring the lantern with you."

"Fine . . . Fine . . . " He was now concentrating on a challenging passage in the book.

"I'll be very happy--it'll be good for me--if you don't bring the lantern."

"Good . . . Fine . . . "

She went to bed. He continued to pour all his attention to his reading and soon forgot what she had told him. After a while, his eyes sore; he got up and headed for the bedroom.

In his hand, he carried the lantern.

He entered the bedroom. The lantern showed him very clearly--there on his bed was not his wife but a pile of bones.

The shock and the horror! He did what others might have also done--he covered up the bones with a blanket, whereupon the bones once again quickly grew flesh and hair and became a living person, or so it seemed, once more--his wife.

She came out from under the blanket.

"All right, so now you know," she said. "I am no longer a person, just the spirit of those lifeless bones you saw."

"Who are really you then?" he asked.

"I am one of the spirits that belong to the southern side of this mountain.. On the northern slope is the king of the local spirits, King Hengming. Each month, we spirits and ghosts must pay our respects to the king. I have not done so since marrying you, not for six months. For that I am being punished. A shade was sent to beat me, whip me with an iron whip, which he did one hundred times! You could not see this, but I surely did and felt it! I could not sit down without crying out in pain and had to come in, lie down and rest."

Youchang was speechless.

"And now," his wife continued, "I've been discovered."

"You . . . you are my . . . wife . . . "

"I cannot be now! Listen to me, Youchang! Please leave me and this place! Tonight! Now! Don't be so wrapped up in me that you lose your life by staying here!"

"But. . . "

"No! Listen! Everything on this accursed mountain belongs to King Hengming--everything! If you stay here, you will meet a horrible end! Leave . . . now . . . while you have . . . the chance . . ."

With that, she vanished before his eyes.

Youchang cried a small river of tears. Now, with his wife gone forever, he deeply regretted carrying that lantern into the bedroom. He gathered up the things he could carry, and though it was dark and the middle of the night, he left the house and went down the mountain.


from Zhongguo qitan, pp. 198-200. (See citation for 3/26/09). Originally from Jiyi ji by Xue Yongruo. (See 5/04/09).

In this version of the supernatural spouse tale, the wife is a ghost, not an animal or a shapeshifting goddess. Jin Youchang apparently doesn't sicken and die for cohabiting with a ghost. Motifs: C932, "Loss of wife for breaking tabu"; E1, "Dead brought back to life"; E481, "Shadow people"; E481.3, "Abode of dead in mountain."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Black Pagoda and the White Pagoda (Fujian)

The crown of Fuzhou, or the "dragon's horns," are the two pagodas, the Black Pagoda and the White Pagoda. Together, they are "the twin towers of the Banyan City."

More than a thousand years ago, before the region around Fuzhou became part of the Song empire, Fuzhou and its environs were ruled by a local king. He was not consent being king of the region, however. He wanted to rule a larger area and so kept this desire in his heart, hoping, biding for a chance to be a greater fish in a larger pond, to become even an emperor one day.

One day a Taoist priest traveling through the area had an audience with the king.

"Ahh, your Banyan City, Fuzhou, is indeed a lucky place, Your Majesty!" the priest told the king.

"Oh? How so?"

"Well, the northwest hills resemble the undulating back of a dragon, leading up to its head, the city itself. This is a very good sign for you, Your Majesty, presaging your rise to emperor one day. Yes, it's a pity . . ."

"What is a 'pity'?"

"Something's missing in this pattern I see with the dragon's back and its head. What's missing is there are no horns for the dragon. No horns for the dragon means an incomplete dragon, an incomplete promise of greatness for this region . . . and for you."

The king was interested; after all, a vision of tremendous majesty for him had just been foretold and was now, just as quickly dispersing like smoke in the wind.

"What can be done, Priest? What do you suggest?"

"You need to let the dragon have its horns!" Build two pagodas--one on Wushishan and the other on Yushan. Then will your dragon come to life!"

The king was delighted. He immediately posted notices in the area calling for men to build the pagodas. He also employed two builders, a master builder and his student. The master was in his sixties, a very dedicated professional; his student was very young--only thirty--but was very clever and talented. They had both built many towers and pavilions in Fujian but had never undertaken as lofty a project as two tall pagodas. Nevertheless, they were hired by the king for the job.

The master builder and his student then mustered a large workforce of laborers to begin the project. The laborers first went to the quarry to extract slabs of stone. Then, under the direction of the master builder, they carried the many heavy slaps to the first construction site, Wushishan, where what would be the future Black Pagoda was to be built. When the first floor of the first pagoda was finished, the master builder had his men cover the outer circumference of the first floor with packed dirt.

"Why did you have the men pack the base of the pagoda with earth that way, Master?" asked the student.

"Each slab weighs several hundred jin," the master replied. "If we don't do so, how can the men carry the slabs up to the second floor?"

Well, the student thought this was mighty foolish, wasteful of time and labor, but he held his tongue and did his part to help the master.

By the time the fourth floor was ready two months later, the dirt surrounding the growing pagoda resembled a small mountain.

"This is taking too long, Master," said the student. "Surely there must be another way other than building high dirt ramps all the way round the pagoda!"

"What do you know?!" snapped the master. "This is a time-honored method. If you have a better way, go ahead!"

The student then left to see the king. He asked the king's permission to begin building the other pagoda on Yushan. The king gave him authorization.

When the master builder found out, he said to his student, "All right, fine. You go right ahead. Let's see what you can do. You're still my apprentice, so I'm obligated to helping you if you end up needing my help. Just make sure you don't allow the pagoda to lean."

So the apprentice began work on what was to become later known as the White Pagoda. And there would be no mounds of dirt built up around each successive floor of this pagoda! No, thank you, indeed! Instead, he would build this pagoda the way it should be built--with more ease. There would be no shortcuts regarding quality, durability or permanency; however, it would be built in a manner that didn't require needless backbreaking labor and time delays. It would be built of bricks without the need of having huge slabs lugged up ramps of dirt. He also decided to have bamboo scaffolding, not the dirt, for the workers to ascend the pagoda. The scaffolding could easily be extended higher and higher as the pagoda grew.

All went well, maybe too well.

When the sixth floor of the master's pagoda was still being built, the student had already completed the second floor of the pagoda. By the time the master was finished with his sixth floor, the student was finished with his, as well.

And then it happened--the seventh and final floor of the apprentice's pagoda was finally completed, while the master and his crew still labored on their tower!

The apprentice catered a huge feast and lots of wine. He invited his teacher over and the two celebrated. They ate and drank too much and ended up sleeping it off in the work tent where construction of the pagoda was overseen.

The pair woke up early in the morning. A huge windstorm had blown down the tent. They scrambled out to look at the pagoda.

It had noticeably tilted.

"I'm done! I'm doomed!" cried the student. "The next time the king pays a visit and sees the pagoda leaning like that, he'll have our heads for sure!"

He now deeply regretted having been such an upstart maverick, unwilling to listen to caution or to follow the proper way.

"Don't panic," said the master. "Leaning pagodas and towers can be straightened, but it's not easy, and we have to act immediately. As your teacher, I'll help you. There's one thing you must promise me, though."

"Yes, yes! Anything! What is it, Master?"

"Once we're done with your pagoda, you and your men must help me finish the seventh floor of my pagoda."

The student agreed, of course. The pair then quickly gathered many, many wooden pegs.

Taking an iron mallet, the master turned to his student and said, "I'm going inside. I'll hammer pegs to redirect the way the pagoda must lean. You wait outside and keep an eye out to let me know as soon as the pagoda begins to move back in the right direction."

And so the master entered the pagoda with his mallet and innumerable pegs. He proceeding to hammer away.

Day and night, skipping meals and sleep, the master desperately hammered away as his apprentice assistant kept watch outside. The master hammered and hammered until he was worn out but he continued.

The sound of blows coming from within the pagoda began to diminish and become softer.

Some time during the seventh day, the student shouted, "Master! You can stop now! The pagoda has returned to an upright position!"

No response came from inside.

The student entered. There, sitting on the floor of the pagoda with his mallet resting beside him was the master, a smile on his face, but he would breathe no more . . .

The student cried and cried. Then he realized the next day the king would show up to observe the progress of the two pagodas.

The student had the pagoda painted white to show his filial devotion to his late master.

The king indeed showed up the next day. When he saw that one of the pagoda's was white, the color of mourning, instead of black like the unfinished one, he became livid.

"What on earth!" the king thundered. "What were you thinking, doing such a thing?! Are you trying to subvert my reign, my plans?"

The student just stood there, unable to answer.

"You didn't have permission from me to mourn your teacher by painting my pagoda white!"

The king snapped his fingers for his guards. He had them bind the student and prepare to behead the young man on the spot.

"Your Majesty, please don't let anger overtake your good judgment!"

The king turned his head to see who had addressed him thus. His prime minister was there.

"Your Majesty, might it not be a better idea to let this man finish the other pagoda first? You can always execute him later."

"Fine," said the king. Then, turning to the student, he said, "By tomorrow, have this white pagoda painted in five colors. I'll also give you one month to complete the other pagoda. Now, get to it!"

He was untied and left in the dust as the king and his men departed. He picked himself up. With great fury but also deep grief over the loss of his mentor, he stormed into the White Pagoda.

If this tyrant ever became an emperor, heaven help us all! he thought. He then took a brush and wrote the following poem on the top floor of the pagoda:

The completion of the seventh floor of this pagoda
Is a disaster for Fuzhou.
We must overthrow and kill this dissolute despot
And change the dynasty.
Pull up the new weeds by the roots,
And you won't need to worry about them ever again.
Anyone want to be the next king?
You'd better act fast!

He then left the pagoda and escaped into the night, never to be seen in those parts again.

The next morning, the prime minister and one of the king's generals came by to see if the pagoda had been repainted. When they say it was still white, they became furious. They looked for the student, but he was nowhere to be found. They then grabbed a pair of nearby monks and pressed them for answers. Frightened, the first monk concocted a story.

"I saw what had happened!" the monk said. "It was last night. A great whirlwind descended from the heavens and whisked the young builder right up! It circled three times and then zoomed up into the heavens and out of sight!"

The prime minister and the general now turned to the second monk, who was no less frightened than the first.

"Yes, Excellencies, I saw all that too! What's more, I heard celestial music as the young builder rode a crane inside the whirlwind funnel up into the night sky!"

Instead of being suspicious, the prime minister was actually afraid, though he didn't show it. In fact the monk's story confirmed something for him: the student was some kind of immortal or even a god in human form.

The pair let the monks go and entered the pagoda. At the top, they spotted the poem and had workers quickly paint over it. Then they left to report back to the king.

"Your Majesty," said the prime minister, having told the king that the student had disappeared, "I suspect the missing apprentice is some kind of deity or demigod . . . "

"Do l look as though I care what he is?" the king replied. "I need that pagoda finished, and I'm leaving it all up to you and your friend the general here. Now, within the next three days, you'll need to paint dragons, phoenixes, and Buddhist images upon the pagoda. Not only that, I'll give you one month to finish the top of the pagoda. There need to be three more floors for the Black Pagoda, nine in all! Get this job done, or you'll both lose your heads!"

Now they were in a jam. Neither was, of course, by profession an architect or builder. They quickly gathered a work crew together and, unable to find an architect or builder, they plunged ahead to the best of their abilities. The result? Masonry came loose and fell; many workers died. A few more days into the ongoing and already deadly fiasco, the prime minister and general sat down together to discuss the progress.

"We might as well as forget about the ninth floor," said the prime minister. "Let's just cap the pagoda with a pointed roof."

"Fine," said the general. "I'll order the men to remove the dirt ramps."

The roof was put in place and the dirt was removed. It was now the nineteenth day. The king was asked to come and inspect his now completed Black Pagoda. The prime minister and the general now openly discussed the unmentionable that was already obvious in their hearts.

"Tomorrow the king arrives," said the prime minister.

"Yes, I know."

"And the Black Pagoda is clearly tilted."

"I know."

"That means tomorrow the king will see this and have us both beheaded. I wonder if there's anything we can do . . . "

"'Anything we can do'!" snorted the general. Then he became quiet for a moment, as if in a reverie. "If he wants our lives, he'll take them, unless . . . we . . . take . . . his . . . first . . ."

"Ha! Yes! Do you remember what that immortal, the student builder, wrote before we had it covered up?"

They looked at each other and smiled; they had some planning to do . . .

The next day, as soon as he left his palace to head out for the Black Pagoda, the king was ambushed by the general's men and killed by a single arrow. The general and his force then stormed the palace and put to the sword every member of the king's family.

Their project completed, the prime minister and the general agreed to share power and each rule as king. Before long, relations between the two "kings" had deteriorated; the men propping them up then broke into two factions that loathed each other. And soon, all out fighting between the two broke out. Neither man had been popular with the people of Fuzhou. During the struggle, the people rose up and slew both the former prime minister and the general.

The people wanted the apprentice builder to serve as new king; however, he was nowhere to be found . . .

And so, Fuzhou never did get another king. A few decades later, Fuzhou became part of the Song empire.

And the Black Pagoda and the White Pagoda? They still stand in Fuzhou, black and white, "dragon horn" landmarks of the Banyan City!


from Wuta baita (The black and white pagoda), the Association for Research of Chinese Folk Literature, ed. Fuzhou: Fujian Renmin Chubanshe, 1982; pp. 7-12.

The king alluded to in the story was no doubt a member of the Wang family who founded the Kingdom of Min (909-945 A.D.). "Min" is the alternative name for the province of Fujian, and its character occurs in other names related to Fujian (i.e., the Min River; Minbei, Minzhong, and Minnan, dialects spoken in Fujian, with the later serving as the main dialect of Taiwan). The story seems to have an anachronistic element: the Black Pagoda was built in 799 A.D., but the White Pagoda wasn't constructed until 905 A.D.