– Hung Low Meng –


Written by

Cao Xueqin


Translated by

E. C. Bowra





FINDING MYSELF USELESS IN THE WORLD and unable to accomplish anything, recognizing, moreover, upon reflection, that in point of conduct my female companions of earlier days were all superior to me and that my beard and manliness were not equal to their feminine dress and adornments, I was grieved indeed. Grief, however, was idle and of no avail and in my case appeared hopeless in the extreme. My object, in writing this book, is to record my past experience of life and to relate the benefits heaped upon me, the virtues of my relatives, my days of wealth and luxury, prosperity and easy living. So that I may tell all how I frustrated the kind designs of my parents, repaid the advice of friends and the instructions of teachers with ingratitude, to become, at length, the useless, lifeless, helpless wretch I now am.

I write this book to make the world acquainted with my many sins of ingratitude.

There are noteworthy denizens of the female apartments whom it would not, on any account, be right to involve in one joint obscurity as consequence of my individual worthlessness and the merited visitation of my shortcomings. Hence the misery of my present state; the hut of straw and the bed of cordage, the hearth of stone, all are insufficient to deter me from my purpose. Besides, the fresh breeze of morn, the bright moon at night, the waving willows and the fragrant carnations, these still are mine and add their charms to the delight of composition.

Ignorant and unlettered though I am, there is no reason why I shouldn't write a fiction in simple style, in order to set forth the virtues of the inmates of the inner apartments. And thus divert the mind and afford amusement to the reader, by relating the story of Jia Yu Cun and others.

WHEN NU-WASHI FUSED THE ROCKS IN ORDER TO RESTORE THE HEAVENS she took thirty-six thousand, five hundred and one blocks of stone of enormous size from the Wu Ji quarry in the Da Huang Hills; thirty-six thousand, five hundred of these were used and the one left-over was cast down to the bottom of Mt. King Geng. That stone, like its kin fashioned by primeval fusion, was endowed with spiritual perception and the power of kinetic action, by self-contraction and expansion. When it realized that the others had been used to decorate heaven and that it alone had been rejected, cleaved from the batch and dejected, wrongly thinking itself useless and worthless, feeling vexed, deeply grieved and heartbroken and subject to the greatest injustice, it fell into a deep depression; spending its days and nights forever pining and sighing. Until one day, while the stone was thus weeping and wailing and shedding bitter tears, a Budhist priest and a Taoist monk appeared unexpectedly. Arriving at the foot of the hill, they sat down to rest and have a chat. Then they saw the stone, lying there in a pool o' tears, shiny and bright yet all shrivelled-up to the size of a fan-knob.

Clutching it, the Budhist priest said smiling: "One may see from the appearance of this stone that it is endowed with life and spiritual perception, but it is without any practical value; let's engrave a few characters on it so that people will know that this is an unusual stone."

"Then we will take you, stone, to a bright and flourishing country, to a cultivated and courteous family employed in the service of the state, to a place of luxury and delight; where there're blossoming flowers and waving willows, where beauty and prosperity are supreme, we will take you there."

Great was the delight of the stone on hearing this, and it said: "But I do not yet know what words you will write upon me, or to what place you will take me. Tell me, I pray."

The priest replied: "There is no need for you to ask, you will know all in good time," he then put the stone up his sleeve and, thus laden, together with the Taoist priest disappeared from sight.

Whither they went it's impossible to say, nor can we tell how many ages passed. One day though, a priest seeking the truth of Metempsychosis came by a hillside, there under a fir, laying flat on its face was a stone slab with writing all over its back, neatly etched in narrow grooves. It told a tale which the priest read from beginning to end, learning thereby that this stone was a rock; that after having been found useless to star in heaven, had put on some shape and form and had thus become fit to enter the world by the hand and grace of our two priests, the Budhist Mang-Mang and Taoist Miao-Miao.

Written on the stone was the place where it had fallen and the family into which it had been entered. On it were recorded the household affairs, the pastimes and amusements of the inner apartments of that family, as well as the odes, verses and riddles which the members of the family composed. The date and dynasty only were not given and were nowhere to be found. On the stone's back, however, was the following verse:

Beyond deep skies of blue and mist

Barren stars to twinkle 'n' twist

Of many lives lived and what befell

Where a scribe, a tale to tell

Looking at the stone, the priest made himself acquainted with the writing it bore and said: "My stone brother, the subject which you have to speak of is, as you say, of some interest and the story has been written in order that such strange a matter may be made known to the world. But, first of all, I see that no dynasty or date can be ascertained and, secondly, you do not record here any major feats of clerical achievement to improve the administration of the state. Instead, you simply deal with the loves and follies, the paltry talents and the petty virtues of some secluded women. Even if I were to put your tale down on paper, it still wouldn't be regarded as anything exceptionally outstanding or worthy of mention."

Thereupon the stone replied: "You are dull of comprehension, good sirrah. Rambling chroniclers have always borrowed the name and designation of some dynasty, best it'd be to rely on my own resources, with my own novel method, than to avail myself of their redundant and despicable schemes. Besides, those rambling chroniclers, whose names are legion, either malign the monarch and slander his ministers or scandalize good wives and spoil their daughters. Degenerate misfits dealing in nothing but adultery and fornication, wickedness and crime, writing love stories of veiled lust and obscenity connived only to deprave the minds of tender youths. And as to the stories of men of extraordinary genius and women of surpassing beauty, well, their heroines are all like Wen-jun and their heroes like Zi-jian; in a thousand volumes you'll find but one story, in a thousand heroes but one character. In every book the same manifestation of prurience and indecency. As for the writers, cretins who only wish to publish their amatory rhymes and sentimental odes all copied down from the same boilerplate: Invent a hero and a heroine, then throw in some buffoon to wrap the lovers in trouble and add some excitement to the plot, that easy! But still more disgusting is the padding and bombast, the absence of rhyme, sense or reason, the complete disregard for principle and the endless self-contradictions so anticlimactic and base."

"Such stories are certainly not of equal value with the record of what I have myself seen and heard during the course of my long lifetime. Although I cannot venture to assert that the characters found in my book are superior to those found in previous dynasties, still the story in its development and progress may serve to sooth a little grief and subtract care, while my irregular attempts at verse may perhaps induce a little smile. The meetings and partings, the joys and sorrows, the seasons of flourishing and decadence, the workings of destiny, all are based on facts which I have not ventured to add to or subtract from, to embellish or to alter. For all I wish is that in times of mirth as in times of weariness, when seeking to avoid worries and dispel anxiety, this tale of mine may be taken up by way of amusement; that it may not only drive away all importunate troubles, but also help drain, some, that caustic and corrosive humour which is so detrimental and noxious. So say then, do you think my account can be compared to those turgid and extravagant productions I have spoken of?"

On hearing this, the priest reflected for a while, then picked up the stone, looked at it again and seeing that it contained really nothing more than harmless romantic chitchat, that it was founded on fact and devoid of prurience or lust, by which it might be injurious to public morals; copied it from beginning to end and, on his return home, published it to the world. Thus, this abstracted and thoughtful priest, having generated beauty from void, rose through beauty to an instinctive perception of love. And thus, by making love originate in beauty from the void, made sure love wouldn't be lost alone in the void. He then changed his name to 'Priest of Love' and 'The Book of Stone' was now to be known as 'Tales from the Priest of Love'.

Cao Xue Kin of the Dao Hong Xuan studied the book for ten years, amended it several times, made a comprehensive index, divided it into chapters and books and added the title: 'The Twelve Beauties of Nanking'. He also added a stanza which runs thus:

Pages full of silly litter,

Tears a handful sour and bitter;

All a fool the author hold,

But their zest, who can unfold?

The reader has now learned the origin of the 'Tale of the Stone', but has not yet been introduced to its characters or even become acquainted with the affairs it treats. Listen then, kind reader, to this stone recording:

IN THE CITY OF SOOCHOW, THE QUARTIER OF THE CHANG GATE WAS ONCE THE RICHEST, most flourishing and prosperous neighbourhood in the entire Empire. Beyond the gate was a street called 'Ten Mile Street,' branching off from this street was a lane called the 'Lane of Goodwill and Peace' and on this lane was a Temple which, on account of its shape and the limited nature of the grounds, was usually known by the name of the 'Gourd Temple.' Adjoining the Temple was the residence of a family of good position named Zhen, the head of which was Shi Yin. His wife, a member of the Feng family, was a woman of intelligence and virtue, well versed in propriety and the rites. Although not very rich, Zhen Shi Yin was regarded as a man of importance by his neighbours and was looked up to with considerable respect and esteem. He was by nature quiet, retiring and unambitious in manner; devoted to growing flowers and bamboos, finding enjoyment in poetry and wine, tranquil and content, in tune with the mind of the gods. One thing only was wanted to complete his contentment: he was now more than half a century old and, save for a daughter named Ying Lian, now three years old, had no children to dandle on his knee. One lazy afternoon, after long hot summer's day, while Shi Yin was sitting idle in his library his hand begun to grow tired, he dropped the book he was holding and, leaning his head on a cushion, fell asleep. Deep in his sleep, he could feel himself drifting into some alien land, somewhere new, somewhere he'd never been or seen ever before. When, suddenly, two silhouettes seemed to pop-up out of the blue: a Budhist priest and a Taoist monk wound up in tête-à-tête, coming closer yet not seeming to notice him.

"Where then are you taking the rock to?" The Taoist asked his companion.

"Rest assured," replied the Budhist, "I'm putting together a romantic plot to introduce our lithic friend therein. It'll warrant a happy ending, to be sure, but I'm still working on the roles inherent in the play. In the meantime, I'll just launch this here rock to Earth, for it to gain some experience there, see?"

"Time is nigh," said the Taoist, "for the actors in love of this romantic plot to don human form and be ushered in to the world, but where does this drama begin?"

"In the western heavens, on the banks of Spirit River by the Stone of the three Ages (Past, Present and To-be), there once grew a blade of pearly crimson grass," the Budhist indicated. "It happened that the stone Nu-Washi had discarded but which had retained the power of locomotion, came one day to the genie that counsels in dreams. The genie, once acquainted with its saga, gave it a room at the Palace of Crimson Mist and an appointment as Divine Warden there.

Ruby Warden was in the habit of going for walks on the banks of Spirit River, where it happened to stroll into the pearly crimson grass. Filled with admiration it would show its appreciation, daily, by watering it with Heavenly Dew; and thus that leave of grass was kept alive for many years. Until, doused with the luxuriant essence of the universe and some of Heaven's Dew, shed its grassy attire and donned a more humane constitution: that of a woman. And as such, she would wander far beyond the Heavens of Grieflessness, eating when hungry Fruit of Hidden Love and drinking when athirst the waters that wash away sorrow. In this state of bliss, but unable to repay the tender care Ruby Rock had exercised in nourishing her when she was so vulnerable, with her mind filled with a growing sense of gratitude and a yearn for retribution; she came to the conclusion that: "The Amulet Pebble gave me rain and dew, but since I cannot repay it likewise in kind, then, when it sheds a more manly figure, I will take it into my bosom and there endeavour to replenish his goodness with the tears of a lifetime."

Similarly, many of the other actors cast in this play, too, will be drawn into the world to bear their parts, along with the gem of Ruby Pearl Grass. But for now, that it's quietly sitting there, let's take the Rock before the Genie of Dreams and Fables, to be named and cast among its peers."

"You are right," said the Taoist, "to call this a comedy of romance. I'd never before heard of a debt of gratitude repaid in tears. What if you and I too were to descend into this world, to direct and guide some among the players? Wouldn't that be just swell?'

"Yes," said the Budhist, "that is very much in harmony with my own thinking. However, first we'll repair to the palace of the genie who warns in dreams and fables, to deliver ourselves from this awkward burden. Then, as soon as the rest of the crew of this love drama have all landed, we will descend there ourselves. At present only half the characters are on stage, the cast is not yet complete."

"In that case," nodded the Taoist, "when and whithersoever thou goest, there will I follow thee!"

Now, Shi Yin having overheard all this fuss could restrain himself no longer, stepping forward and bowing, he said: "Please, allow me to pay my respects to your reverences."

After exchanging mutual greetings, Shi Yin proceeded: "Not often are mortals allowed to witness the designs of fate discussed as I have now done, but I am a bit doltish and do not clearly understand all I hear. If you would only deign dispel my ignorance, but a little, I would listen to your suggestions with attention. Any enlightenment, however small, may yet enable me to raise above this unfathomable pit of misery my benightedness has dropped me into."

"The designs of heaven are not to be divulged before their proper season," said the priests smiling. "Pray you'll remember us, that when the time comes you'll see how to flee from your bane."

Unable to enquire any further Shi Yin said: "The designs of heaven mustn't be revealed, yet what is this trifle token you spoke of just now, may it be looked at so that I may judge for myself?"

"As to that" replied the priest, "it is stated that you shall see it;" and producing the Amulet put it on Shi Yin's hand. On scrutiny, he found it to be a beautiful gem of clear resplendent jade, so lustrous and clear that traces of characters were still visibly etched on its surface. "Precious Gem of Spiritual Perception", it read. On its reverse, as well, he found several streams of minute words which he was just about to begin reading, when the priest exclaimed: "We've reached the verge of fable and reality!" Then, taking it away from Shi Yin, wandered off with his friend under a massive stone arch, on the cornerstone of which were inscribed four large characters which said:


While on the buttress, it read:

When vacuum puts on a mask,

That face becomes a fake.

When space is turned to matter,

All that stuff is but batter.

Shi Yin was just about to follow in the archway when a loud clap of thunder, as if the hills were falling down and the earth was caving in, woke him with a start. Looking round he saw aught but the sun shining on his library window panes and the ample-leaved planes waving in the courtyard beyond.

Just then nurse came in, carrying his daughter Ying Lian. Seeing his child more than usually endearing and pretty he half forgot his dream, taking it in his arms he stroked and played with it for a while, then he walked her to the front porch to amuse her with the bustle of a passing parade. He was about to turn around to go back indoors, when he saw a Budhist priest and a Taoist monk approaching. The Budhist was bare-footed and his head was exposed, while his companion was lame and had tousled hair. They were both acting like madmen, laughing and talking nonsense. As soon as they reached where Shi Yin was standing child in arms, the Budhist turned to Shi Yin and shrieked: "Why clasp to your breast this luckless doll, good sir, fated as it is to bring grief and doom upon yourself and its mother?"

Shi Yin, realizing that this bonze was out of his mind, ignored him completely; but the priest went on, "Give me, give me, give the child to me!" Shi Yin would not endure this any longer and, clasping the girl closer to his chest, retreated back indoors. The bonze then burst into a fit of laughter and pointing at Shi Yin with his finger begun:

That which you now cuddle and caress

Wasted by snows your growing distress

When the lantern lit carnival wanes

What was kindled by fire will burn in flames

On hearing this, Shi Yin was deeply troubled. He was about to ask for an explanation, when the Taoist pointed out that: "Neither you nor I need travel together any further, let us now part company, that we may mind our own businesses in private. Within three periods, I'll be at the field on Bey Mang Hill, waiting for you. Then, when you do come, we'll head together once again for the Visionary Confines of the Great Void, to erase the name of the stone from the annals."

"Grand!" belched the Budhist in assent. Bonze and monk then vanished, leaving not a trace behind and never to be heard off again. Later, in hindsight, Shi Yin would of course regret he'd let go the opportunity to inquire further on the matter.

But, hélas, that's all too late. Standing in the doorway, lost in thought, he became suddenly aware of a neighbour accosting him, it was Yu Cun the poor student staying next door, at the Gourd Temple.

Yu Cun came from Hu-zhou and belonged to a family of literary and official distinction. He was born, however, at a time when the fortunes of the family were unpropitious. All his relatives had died, so in the end he alone was left to represent the family. Since his hometown was offering no chance of advantage he set out for the capital, to seek public employment in the hope of restoring the family's fortune. This pilgrimage took him to Soochow, where he was compelled to remain for more than a year by dire circumstances. Having taken up temporary quarters at the temple, he was making a living writing essays and copying manuscripts. Shi Yin was well acquainted with him. Seeing Shi Yin at the gateway, Yu Cun immediately paid his respects saying: "Is there anything a breeze, venerable sir, that you stand at your door looking on at the street?"

"Nothing at all," replied Shi Yin, "My little girl was crying, so I brought her out to amuse her. I was just wondering what I might do with myself; your visit is very timely indeed, step in, we'll while away this long summer's day with pleasant chat," and as he spoke he called a maid to take the child and showed Yu Cun into the library.

Tea was served. The pair had been chatting but a few moments, when a servant hurriedly announced that Mr. Yan had called in. Shi Yin excused himself at once from Yu Cun, whom he begged to sit awhile and await his return.

Yu Cun replied: "My dear sir, pray consult your own convenience and don't consider me a stranger. I can wait well enough."

Shi Yin went out to the hall and Yu Cun amused himself by turning over the leaves of a book of poems. Suddenly, he heard what sounded like a woman coughing outside the window, on rising and going to see, he saw a maid picking flowers in the garden. The air and appearance of the maiden were refined, her eyebrows were clearly marked and her eyes were bright. Though not divinely beautiful, she was yet fair enough to be attractive to the opposite sex. Yu Cun stood there staring at her, forgetful of all else. Then, when the maid was done with the flowers and was about to leave, she raised her head and saw the strange fellow. Seeing that although Yu Cun's hat was battered and his clothes ragged, he was stout and stalwart, and had bold and comely features improved by curved eyebrows and shinny eyes, a straight nose and well filled cheeks; the maid thought to herself, as she turned round in haste to retire: "This person, of such distinguished appearance and yet such shabby dress must certainly be the Yu Cun my master so frequently speaks of and whom he's so anxious to assist, if he can but find a way. My master certainly has no relatives or friends in such a state of poverty, no wonder that my master should say he is not a man to be kept down by adverse circumstances."

Thinking thus, the maid couldn't help turning her head once or twice. Yu Cun, noticing this, was delighted beyond measure to think that she might entertain a certain curiosity about him.

"This must obviously be a very sensible and perceptive girl, to make out my worth notwithstanding this mess I'm in."

Then a servant entered and Yu Cun learned that Shi Yin's guest was going to stay for dinner; being unable to stay any longer Yu Cun went out quietly, through the hallway and out a side gate.

After his guest had left, Shi Yin learnt that Yu Cun too had gone, so he didn't ask him back. But, on occasion of the Mid-Autumn Festival, after partying with his family, Shi Yin had a separate table laid in the library and then strolled over to the temple, under moonlight, to invite Yu Cun. Now, since the time Shi Yin's maid had turned her back to look at Yu Cun and he had eulogized her as a woman of sense and sensibility, she'd never been absent from his thoughts. So much so, that on this night of autumn festival he could not refrain any longer from cherishing her remembrance. Making the moon his confidant, he geared up to sing her this song:

The hopes of ages long since past, of ages yet to be,

All add unto my present state fresh pangs of misery,

Corroding care o'ercasts my brow, sad thoughts my bosom swell,

My bitter grief the back-throw glance is powerless to dispel.

This sadden'd face, this worn attire, all recall my wretched state.

How, seeing these, can I still hope with one so fair to mate?

Kind moon, if mortal loves engage your all-protecting care,

Pray, shed your guardian lustre down upon her head so fair!

After this elegy, Yu Cun realized how, thus far, his literary feats had not had much success nor had they been met with an opportunity to be esteemed, so he wiped his brow. Looking up at the moon and scratching his head, he heaved a deep sigh and said:

For that gem in casing, dear price is sought;

While this pin in sheath, to prick it stalks.

Just at this moment Shi Yin came by and, having overheard this distich, complimented Yu Cun's dexterity.

"You are too complimentary," replied Yu Cun, "I was only quoting the rhymes of an ancient poet, I don't deserve your commendations. But what brings you here, venerable sir?"

Shi Yin replied: "This is the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival and fancying you must be rather lonely, a stranger at this monastery, I have come to invite you to join me at my humble dwelling for a small feast. I hope you will oblige."

Yu Cun, without hesitation, said: "How can I venture to decline your undeserved hospitality and kindness?" and forthwith left with Shi Yin. Tea was immediately served in the Library, and as soon as this was finished cups and plates were spread. Of the excellence of the wine and the delicacy of the food we need not speak.

The two companions ate and drank, at first with becoming slowness, then faster, warming up by degrees, with wine going round, until the moon's disk was completely exposed and shined on everything with an all pervading lustre; as the sound of music and dancing could be heard coming from every side.

Yu Cun at this time, under the influence of the wine he had taken and ecstatic beyond measure, addressed this verse to the moon:

Brightly shines the moon o'erhead

Covering earth with tender light

Balustrades and balcony

Glowing in lustre bright

Pendent in the Heaven's high

That the Earth thy light may see

All the myriad sons of men

Upward turn their eyes to thee.

"Capital," cried Shi Yin, "I have always said that you should not long remain in obscurity, the verses you have just recited are an omen and a pledge to your prompt rising. It won't be long before you are walking among the clouds. Let me congratulate you." And, as he spoke, poured a cupful of wine pledging his friendship.

Yu Cun drained the cup, then, sighing, said: "I am not merely bagging in my cups when I say that my attainments in literature might perhaps enable me to gain some fame yet, but the fact is that I have no means of paying for the trip. The capital is too far away and copying and writing essays will never enable me to reach it."

"Why didn't you speak of this before," said Shi Yin, interrupting him. "I have often thought on the subject, but, since it was never mentioned between us, I had not ventured to come forth. I make no pretensions to wisdom, but I understand the meaning of the two phrases: Love of Right and Love of Gain. Fortunately, next year is the year of the great Triennial Examination; you must go at once to the capital and enter the lists. Your learning will certainly not be unappreciated. As for travelling expenses, I will provide, so that you will not have known me altogether in vain." Then, having ordered a servant to pack fifty taels of silver and two suits of winter clothes, he continued: "The nineteenth will be a day of good omen for you to engage your boat and start your journey. When we meet again next winter you will have attained your first degree, by then. It will indeed be a pleasant meeting."

Yu Cun received the money and the clothes handed to him, returned thanks without making much ado, and the two friends then continued gossiping over their wine, until late at night. After seeing Yu Cun off, Shi Yin returned to his room and, falling asleep, did not wake until it was broad daylight and the sun was high in the sky. Reflecting, as soon as he awoke, upon matters discussed the night before, he thought of writing a couple of letters of introduction for Yu Cun to carry with him to the capital, so that he might be assured of influential friends and a temporary residence there. Accordingly, he quickly sent over to invite Yu Cun back. But the servant returned almost immediately declaring that he had already started for the capital before dawn, but had left a message for Shi Yin with the priest to the effect that propitious or unpropitious days were of no concern to this keen scholar, absorbed since he was with the pressing matter at hand. He concluded by expressing regret at his inability to take leave of Shi Yin in person. Message received, Shi Yin dismissed the affair from his mind.

With the unemployed time glides along swiftly and almost unnoticed. The Feast of Lanterns having come, Shi Yin ordered Huo Qi, one of his servants, to take Ying Lian out to see the decorations. That evening, while he had a look around, the servant sat Ying Lian on a windowsill. He had only turned his back but a minute, but when he turned round again the child had vanished and was nowhere to be found. Anxious and dismayed Hou Qi searched desperately the whole night through, then, at dawn, not daring to return and face his master's wrath, ran away deep into the woods.

Alarmed at the lengthened absence of their child, Shi Yin and his wife sent out some to make enquiries. When the messengers returned without having discovered any tangible trace of the child of their old age, distraught with grief and feeling, suddenly, hopelessly lost, began neglecting themselves and ceased hatching further hopes. Within a month both husband and wife fell ill, spending their days consulting doctors and querying astrologers.

Some months later, by springtime, while one of the monks from the Gourd Temple was engaged in preparing some offerings he carelessly allowed the oil in a marmite to catch on fire. Because the autochthones had built their homes from wood and bamboo, when fire spread to the window-paper the entire neighbourhood was doomed. With fire jumping from house to house, soon the whole street was ablaze like a range of live volcanoes. Soldiers and neighbours rushed to the rescue, but the fire having already gained the upper hand, could not be extinguished. It burned throughout the night, before it petered out. Since Shi Yin's house was next door to the temple, it was the first to be reduced to a heap of charred bricks and tiles. Husband and wife barely managing to save their lives, along with their servants.

Under the currently pressing circumstances, and after having talked it over with his wife, Shi Yin determined that: The farm they had, which had been devastated alternately by floods and droughts and, moreover, which been rendered absolutely untenable by bandits and soldiers chasing them, ought to be sold without delay. Then, with the proceeds, plus a couple of servants, Shi Yin and his wife could go live with her father, in the country.

Feng Su, Shi Yin's father in-law, a native of the department of Ta-yu, was, though only a farmer, a man of means and respectability. And was, by no means, at all pleased when he saw his son in-law arrive in such a destitute manner. Fortunately, Shi Yin had the money from the sale of the farm. Producing it, he asked his father in-law to invest it as he thought best; on a house and some land, enough to provide them with food and clothing. Half the money Feng Su kept for himself, with the remainder he bought Shi Yin a worthless plot of land with a rickety shack and some coturnix in the middle of a field, for them to live in.

Shi Yin was a man of letters, unaccustomed to trading or farming, but he constrained himself, nonetheless, to spend two or three years in this fashion; growing meeker by the year, with his father in-law pitching stale advice at his face and depicting him as a lazy parasite who was unable to earn his own living. Shi Yin then realized, his wife's father was not an honest man; the grief inflicted by this sudden awareness, added to their recent misfortunes, contrived putting him in a state of great pain, deep sorrow and utter misery. Already of a certain age, laden with years and attacked both at once by poverty and ill health, the early symptoms of ruin and decay soon began to make themselves manifest on his person.

However, as luck would have it, one day while leaning on his walking stick, struggling along the street and endeavouring to forget his grief for a while, he saw a Taoist Priest approaching. The Priest was lame, pale and poorly dressed; wore sandals of straw and his manner was queer and lunatic. As he approached, he heard him muttering the following verses:

Though the virtues of the Gods

All mankind fully knows,

Earthly longings and ambitions

They unwillingly forego.

Yet, pause and think,

The wise and brave of old,

Now, where are they?

Their graves overgrown and hid with weeds,

Themselves a heap of clay.

Though the virtues of the Gods

All mankind fully knows,

Still, stacking up great riches

They reluctantly forego.

Daily they regret their failures,

With each and every breath.

'Til surfeited to meet the saviour,

Their eyes are closed in death.

Though the virtues of the Gods

All mankind fully knows,

Still, the love of lovely women

They reluctantly forego.

The virtues of their lively Lords

Women will daily praise.

But once buried, beneath the soil,

They to others their love will raise.

Though the virtues of the Gods

All mankind fully knows,

Yet, the love of their children

They reluctantly forego.

Foolish, tender-hearted parents

In this world are very many;

Honest and obedient children,

Who has ever met with any?

Shi Yin now stepped forward, enquiring what it was that the priest was chanting, saying that he could understand but a few rhymes. The Taoist replied and explained the object of the verses, whereupon Shi Yin, who was naturally a man of considerable intelligence and had perceived the drift of the ode as soon as he had heard it, exclaimed: "What would you say if I explained and paraphrased your verses?" The Taoist nodded and Shi Yin begun:

The spot where once a happy mansion stood

Is now deserted and in solitude,

Whence once soft music streamed the breeze,

No life is now, save weeds and bare trees.

The beams and pillars once with carvings gay,

Festooned with cobwebs, shrink from the light of day;

The silken gauze, which summer breezes wooed,

Now hangs before some casement mean and rude.

Rich fragrant spice once decked the brow

On which ol' Time has shed its frost, now.

Scarcely a husband's corpse is consigned to clay

That the house with nuptial rites again is gay.

Today you boast of wealth, a boundless store,

Yet, an hour'll see you wretched, beggar'd and poor.

Life's short brief span you mark and heave a sigh,

The sigh scarce finish'd – 'tis your turn to die!

To train your children rightly is your aim.

But by theft and fraud, they soon disgrace your name.

For thy daughters seeketh a happy home?

In the path of vice they'll surely roam.

Your present rank, do you esteem it vain?

Yet, it may soon change into a captive's chain.

Your robes of state in low esteem you hold,

Then, turned to rags to plug the cold.

You've played your part and exit take;

The stage I stage, a formal entrance make.

Each plays his part with vigour and zeal

And each one acts as though his world were real.

All in all and in a nutshell:

It's just spinning yarns for folks to knit.

The Priest clapped his hands and applauded the paraphrasing. Then Shi Yin pulled the Taoist's sack away from him, slung it over one shoulder and said: "Let us be off!" And setting off in a direction opposite to that which led to his house, disappeared with the Taoist Priest.

The news of his disappearance spread throughout the neighbourhood and soon reached his wife, who, distressed, begun weeping. Scouts were sent in all directions to make enquiries, but none found any trace of Shi Yin or his whereabouts. Now there'd be nothing left for his wife to do, but to pass the time nagging her parents. Fortunately, she still had two of her old handmaids with her; thus, mistress and maid would now employ themselves night and day at needlework, so that by so doing they might contribute to the family budget. And although Mr. Feng Su did not approve of these arrangements, he could but comply.

One day, as the older of the two maids was at the gate buying thread, she suddenly heard the guards shouting at the people to clear off the streets. The onlookers told her that a new magistrate was entering his appointed office. Curiously, she stood on her toes anxious to see the parade, yet standing within the doorway, her eyes following the guards, lictors and attendants marching behind a large sedan chair in which was seated a young clerk in bright uniform.

The sight of the officer caused the maid to gasp, and she said to herself: "This mandarin's face looks familiar, as if I'd seen him somewhere before." On entering the house, however, the matter passed from her mind and was entirely forgotten.

That evening as they were about going to bed, they were startled by a loud, unexpected, knocking at the front gate and the noise of men shouting; saying they'd been sent by His Worship the Mandarin to bring Feng Su before his presence, for examination. Feng Su was struck dumb with alarm when he heard this. In awe and fearing some looming calamity, he promptly followed the guards.






© White Knight