STORIES FROM A MING COLLECTION, ed. Feng Meng-lung, transl. Cyril
Birch, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1959 (early 1620s)
Here are six of the STORIES OLD AND NEW, a collection of the harvest
of traditional Chinese storytelling. These tales are fascinating for
the glimpse they provide of that art (for example, recapping to bring
late comers up to date, giving the audience time to settle in, using
such stock phrases as, "Here our story forks," interspersing prose
with verse, etc.) and the expansive scroll they unroll depicting life
in traditional China. Above all, however, here are six selected stories
of very high quality. One would have to be quite preoccupied indeed not
to respond to so entertaining a product of so enchanting an art.
"The Lady Who Was A Beggar" (pp. 19-36) is the tale of a poor scholar
who marries the daughter of the head of the Beggars Guild. Although
she provides him with money to buy books, pursue his studies and
socialize with the right people, he is ashamed of her background. The
head of the Beggars Guild has money, but not status. So, on his way to
his first post, the ungrateful husband pushes his dutiful wife into
She is seen and rescued by none other than the superior of her husband.
This superior and his wife console the victim and look after her as
their adopted daughter. After several months, the ambitious protagonist
learns his superior has an attractive daughter and seeks to marry her.
All is arranged and the wedding takes place. However, when the husband
enters the private appartment he is set upon and thrashed. He begs to
know why he is being beaten. Then he sees that his new bride is
actually his original wife. He is reprimanded for his past conduct,
told that now maybe he has a suitable father-in-law and lives more
worthily, respecting also his wife's natural father.
"The Pearl-Sewn Shirt" (pp. 45-102) is the story of a merchant who
leaves his wife, with whom he is madly in love, to go on a business
trip. He is supposed to be back in a year, but is delayed
significantly. His wife thinks she sees him, throws back the curtains
and smiles. However, it's another guy who then wants her. He goes to an
old woman to seek assistance in the seduction. This takes months of
effort, but at last he becomes the lover of the lonely wife. After
time, however, he, too, decides he must go on a business trip. She is
understandably reluctant to see him go, but she accepts the departure
and gives him a special shirt of her husband's.
Well, the lover boasts to a new acquaintance that he has seduced the
wife, and the acquaintance sees for himself the shirt. He is, of
course, the cuckolded husband who restrains himself with difficulty.
When he at last gets home he divorces the wife.
Now, the lover had a wife of his own. She notices this shirt, hides it
and her husband ends up dying on an unlucky trip. She goes to retrieve
the body, but there are financial difficulties and to make a long story
short, she ends up marrying again, a man, you guessed it, who is amazed
at the workings of providence, when he sees his pearl-sewn shirt and
realizes that he is now married to the man who had seduced his first
The story proceeds to tell how that seduced first wife becomes the
concubine of a magistrate who, on learning she still loves her first
husband, allows the two to be reunited. Thus, the story ends with both
women married to the merchant who likely had learned his lesson about
not staying too long away from home.
"Wine and Dumplings" (pp. 103-115) is based on the actual historical
figure of Ma Chou. He was staying with General Ch'ang Ho when the
T'ang emperor T'ai-tsung asked for comments on the state of his reign.
The emperor recognized Ch'ang Ho's remarks to exceed the general's
capacity, found the source of those comments and Ma Chou is appointed
to high office. The story includes the romantic interest of Widow Wang
the dumpling seller.
Next comes Niu Su's "The Story of Wu Pao-an" (pp. 121-128). This story
written around 804 C.E. concerns the remarkable determination of a
captain of the feng-yi guard to rescue Kuo Chung-hsiang aide to General
Li Ming. The general, disregarding the advice of his aide, had not been
content with a victory over incoming southern barbarians, but had
pushed far south pursuing them. He was savagely defeated and committed
suicide on the battlefield. Kuo Chung-hsiang, nephew of Prime Minister
Kuo Yuan-chen, was captured and held ten years by the barbarians, until
Wu Pao-an had raised the money to ransom him. The one rescued had
suffered greatly and repays his benefactor by most honourably ensuring
for the transport of his remains and full mourning, as well as taking
care of Wu Pao-an's son.
The T'ang story above was included in this collection for comparison
with "The Journey of the Corpse" (pp. 129-149), a Ming retelling of
the same story. The Ming version is better, and in addition contains
details that struck this reader as particularly interesting. For
example, we are told that Kuo Chung-hsiang for part of his captivity
was tending southern war-elephants. Also, because of the abuse he had
received to his feet, the ransomed man was in great pain when he tried
to transport the bones of his benefactor the long distance by foot to
the appropriate place of burial. He ritually pleaded with the spirit
for the pain to be relieved.
...he went all the way to Wu-yang without feeling any more pain.
This was a case of divine Heaven protecting a good man, and was not
due merely to the efficacy of Wo Pao-an's spirit. p. 146
This story includes more detail of Kuo Chung-hsiang's care for Wu
T'ien-yu, son of the man who paid the ransom with such sacrifice. And:
The people of Lanchou, to perpetuate their esteem, erected a temple,
The Temple of Twin Loyalties, where sacrifices were made to Wu
Pao-an and Kuo Chung-hsiang. All in the town who had contracts to
make or oaths to swear would accompany these by prayer in the
temple, and to this day there has been no break in the burning of
incense. p. 149
"The Canary Murders" (pp. 155-171) concerns the murder in 1121 C.E. of
one Shen Hsiu and the theft of his prize canary.
Canary is used purely for the sake of familiarity to represent the
bird hua-mei. There are in fact several points of resemblance. The
hua-mei is a member of the oriole family: it is known to
ornithologists as Oreocinola dauma aurea. It is 4-5 inches in
length. The plumage is greyish-yellow, speckled with black, the
breast being yellowish-white. White markings above the eyes give
rise to the name hua-mei, literally 'painted eyebrows'. The male
bird is both a singer and a fighter. The hua-mei is commonly found
in North China, both wild and as a pet. p. 203
Shen Hsiu has had his head cut off and placed in a hollow tree trunk.
A reward is offered for the discovery of the head. Two poor sons of a
poor old father decide to follow the old man's advice, cut off his
head, let it soak in the river until it's unrecognizable and then
claim the reward.
Now it happened that Shen Yu, father of the slain canary breeder,
spotted the precious bird at the Imperial Aviary in the Eastern
Capital. He makes a fuss, and Li Chi, the man who purchased the bird
from the murderer and then presented it to the Imperial Aviary, was
arrested, flogged until he confessed and beheaded.
Li Chi has two friends who go at once to look for the cooper they
witnessed selling the bird to Li Chi. They find him, lay an
accusation, have him arrested, and on being flogged and threatened
with torture, he confesses. He also reveals the location of the
victim's head. The two poor men who had presented the wrong head
confess after being flogged.
Chang, for premeditated murder for gain and for wronging an innocent
man, was to be executed in accordance with the law. In view of the
seriousness of the crime, the execution was to be performed by the
slow process, with two hundred and forty cuts, and his corpse
dismembered. The Huang brothers, convicted of patricide for gain,
were both without distinction to be executed by the slow process,
with two hundred and forty cuts, their corpses dismembered and their
heads publicly exposed as a warning. p. 171
The last story is "The Fairy's Rescue" (pp. 175-198). This one has the
prose interspersed with a bit more verse than embellished the others.
It is, as perhaps can be expected from the title, more of a fantasy,
as well. It begins in the year 525 C.E. when the emperor's fine white
horse, Jade Lion, goes missing and the stable officials follow the
tracks to the abode of an impressive old man. The very old man becomes
interested in the daughter of the Inspector of the Imperial Stables,
although she is only seventeen.
The girl's brother, who has been away fighting in the north, is quite
upset to discover on his return that his sister is married to this very
old man. When he swings his sword at the old man, his sword shatters to
pieces. When the brother returns to the old man's abode, he finds both
his sister and her aged husband gone. He pursues them to Mt. Mao-shan,
ascends the mountain and there beholds a wondrous place:
He had walked for some little distance when he saw beyond the
surrounding plants and trees a palace, from within which he could
hear the sound of voices. Wei I-fang crept up behind a red-lacquered
screen, licked a hole in a paper panal, and looked through. And this
is what he saw:
Lofty chambers, the walls carved and painted,
Flanked by crimson pillars, approached by steps of jade;
Screens open out, cloud-painted or set with pearls;
Jasper towers soar over jewelled halls.
Over paths banked with fairy flowers
Phoenixes, green or red, fly in and out... p. 193
He meets his sister and the ruler who says that he'll have to leave as
the paths of mortals and immortals differ. He's given a message to an
innkeeper at the foot of the mountain. He learns that twenty years have
elapsed in a day. He receives money from the innkeeper, money that had
been left for him. later he sees the innkeeper and the ruler who
'My real name,' said mr. Chang, 'is Chang the Ancient, Elder
Immortal of Eternal Joy. Lady of Letters is the Jade Maiden of the
Upper Heaven. But she longed for earth. The Supreme Ruler was afraid
of her defilement at the hands of mortal men, and so I assumed this
guise to rescue her and take her back to heaven. p. 198
The story concludes with the innkeeper and Chang the Ancient mounting
white cranes and flying off.
The book also has a good general introduction, introductions to each
story and notes at the end. It is very much worth the read.