High Strangeness in Old China:

A Selection of Premodern Chinese Forteana

Translations by Rick Davis

Translator’s note: This is the first of a planned series of translated selected stories from the huge Qing Dynasty collection called LiaoZhaiZhiYi, which was written and compiled by Pu Songling (1640-1715). Note the different styles in which Pu has written the stories. For example, the first selection, “Blowing Water,” is very much like a newspaper article, while “Nie Xiaoqian” is a long story which develops its characters.

1. Blowing Water: The Old Bag Exposed

When Song Yushu of Laiyang was a local public official, he rented a mansion that was seriously run down. One night when two maidservants were attending to Song’s mother in the main hall, they heard a shoosh-shoosh sound in the courtyard, a sound like a tailor spraying water onto material. Song’s mother awakened the maidservants, and had them poke holes in the window paper and peek out on the courtyard, where they spied a short, hunchbacked old woman with hair like a broom and topknots about two feet long, walking around the courtyard like a crane, blowing water continually as she walked.

Aghast, the maidservants returned and reported what they had seen to their mistress, who was shocked and got out of bed to see for herself. The maidservants accompanied her to the window, where they all peered out on the courtyard. As they were watching, the old woman suddenly came to the window and blew water into the lattice. The window paper was reduced to tatters and the three women collapsed, but no one in the house knew about it.

In the morning when the sun was already well into the sky, the people of the house all gathered and knocked on the door, but as there was no response they grew alarmed. Forcing the door open, they found all three women lying together, apparently dead. But one of the maidservants still had some warmth in her bosom, so the people splashed water on her. After a while she came to and related the previous night’s events. Song then arrived, and was so overcome by grief that he himself felt he wanted to die.

After a close examination of the place where the old woman had apparently disappeared, the people began digging and found white hair somewhat over three feet down. Further digging uncovered a corpse that matched the maidservant’s description. Its face was plump and looked alive. Song ordered the men to beat the corpse, whereupon they found that it was literally a bag full of water, its bones and flesh rotted away.


萊陽宋玉叔先生部曹時所僦第甚荒落。一夜二婢奉太夫人宿廳上聞院內扑扑有聲 如縫工之噴水者。太夫人促婢起穴窗窺視見一老嫗短身駝背白發如帚冠一髻長二尺許。周院環走竦急作行且噴水出不窮。婢愕返白太夫人亦驚起兩婢扶窗下聚觀之。嫗忽 逼窗直噴櫺內窗紙破裂三人俱仆而家人不之知也。東曦上家人畢集叩門不應方駭。撬扉入見一主二婢駢死一室 一婢膈下猶溫扶灌之移時而醒乃述所見。先生至哀憤欲死。細窮沒處掘深三尺余漸暴白發。又掘之得一尸如所見狀面肥腫如生。令擊之骨肉皆爛皮內盡清水。

2. Planting a Pear Tree: The Fruitful Illusionist

A farmer was selling pears at the market. They were sweet and fragrant, and were selling for a high price. Along came a daoist priest wearing a ragged hood and tattered robe. He stood in front of the cart and asked for a free pear, but the farmer gruffly refused. Still the priest stood there, so the farmer became angry and heaped verbal abuse on the priest. “You have hundreds in your cart,” said the priest, “but I’m only asking you for one. It would be no great loss to you, so why are you so angry?” People watching told the farmer to give the priest a bruised pear and make him go away, but the farmer was adamant. A shop employee who couldn’t stand the noisy exchange bought a pear and gave it to the priest, who offered humble thanks, and then addressed the bystanders.

“Those of us who have left home to enter the priesthood don’t know what it’s like to be stingy. I have a nice pear, and I’m going to share it with you.”

A bystander asked, “Now that you have it, why not eat it yourself?”

“Actually,” explained the priest, “I wanted this pear’s seeds to plant,” and so saying, he took the pear in hand and wolfed it down. After consuming the fruit he extracted the seeds, took the mattock from his shoulder, dug a hole several inches deep, put the seeds in, and covered them with earth. He then asked the merchants to bring hot water for the seeds. A curious person went to a streetside shop and got some boiling water, which the priest then poured over the place where he had planted the seeds. As the bystanders looked on, a sprout emerged from the ground, rapidly grew, and in no time at all became a tree with luxurious branches and leaves. Blossoms quickly appeared, followed soon by many large fragrant pears crowding the branches. The priest immediately set to work picking the pears and passing them out to the bystanders. Soon the pears were gone, and the priest then started chopping down the pear tree with his mattock. After a while the tree finally came down, whereupon the priest shouldered it, foliaged branches and all, and leisurely walked off.

When the priest had first begun working his magic, the farmer too had stepped into the crowd and watched with rapt curiosity, completely forgetting about his own work. But now he looked back at his cart for the first time since the priest’s departure and noticed that his pears were all gone. At that instant it dawned on him that it was his own pears the priest had given to the crowd. Looking closely at his cart, he saw that one of its thills was missing, and it had just been cut.

Mortified, the farmer took off after the priest. Rounding the corner of a wall, he found his cut thill lying there abandoned, and realized this had been the trunk of the pear tree cut down by the priest, who was nowhere to be seen.

People in the market were having a good laugh.


有鄉人貨梨於市。頗甘芳價騰貴。有道士破巾絮衣丐於車前。鄉人咄之亦不去鄉人怒加以叱罵。道士曰一車數百顆老衲止丐其一於居士亦無 大損何怒。觀者勸置劣者一枚令去鄉人執不肯。肆中傭保者見喋聒不堪遂出錢市一枚付道士。道士拜謝。謂曰 出家人不解吝惜。我有佳梨請出供客。或曰有之何不自食。曰吾特需此核作種。於是掬梨大啗。且盡把核於手 解肩上鑱坎地深數寸納之而覆以土。向市人索湯沃灌。好事者於臨路店索得沸瀋道士接浸坎處。萬目攢視見有勾萌出漸大。俄成樹枝葉扶蘇。倏而花倏而實碩大芳馥纍纍 滿樹。道士乃即樹頭摘賜觀者頃刻向盡。已乃以鑱伐樹丁丁良久乃斷。帶葉荷肩頭從容徐步而去。初道士作法時鄉人亦雜中 引領注目竟忘其業士去始顧車中則梨已空矣。方悟適所俵散皆己物也。又細視車上一靶亡是新鑿斷者。心大憤 恨。急跡之。轉過牆隅則斷靶棄垣下始知所伐梨本即是物也。道士不知所在。一市粲然。

3. Corpse Incident: Dying to Meet You

There was an old man of Yangxin County, who was from Caidan. The village was about five or six miles from the local town. He and his son ran an inn on the main thoroughfare, and provided lodging for itinerant salesmen. Since the inn had several cartmen, salesmen traveling the road often lodged there.

One evening four travelers came and asked for lodging, but the inn was full. Realizing there was nowhere else to go, they persistently implored the innkeeper to put them up. After careful consideration, the old man thought of a place, but his countenance betrayed his concern that the men would not like it.

“Anyplace where we can have a roof over our heads is all right,” said the four. “We won’t be picky.”

At that time the son’s wife had just died. Her body had been placed in a room while the son was gone to buy a coffin. Since no one would be using that place, the old man led the travelers to another building across the road. Inside they saw a dim lamp on a stand, and behind that a curtain, inside which the deceased had been temporarily laid to rest, under a paper coverlet.

In the adjoining room were a number of beds for guests. Since the four men were exhausted, they fell asleep almost immediately after lying down. But one of the men was still only half asleep when suddenly he heard a rustling sound from the corpse’s bed. Immediately opening his eyes, he could clearly see by the lamplight that the corpse woman had taken off her coverlet and sat up. After a while she got off the bed and slowly came into the room where the men were sleeping.

Her face was pale yellow and she had white silk wrapped around her head. Looking down as she walked, the dead woman approached the sleeping men and blew her breath on three of them. The awake man was terrified, afraid that it was now his turn, so he stealthily pulled the quilt over his head and listened. Soon the corpse came and blew on him as she had the others. Then the man could hear her leaving the room, and after that the sound of the paper coverlet. Sticking out his head and taking a peek, he saw the she-corpse lying on her bed as before.

The traveller was scared out of his wits and didn’t dare make a sound. He surreptitiously stuck his foot out of the covers and nudged his companions, but they didn’t move a muscle. Wondering what to do, he finally decided the best course of action would be to get dressed and run for it, but barely had he gotten up and started dressing than once again he heard the rustling of the paper coverlet. Alarmed, he quickly got back into bed and pulled the covers over his head. There was the sound of the dead woman coming in again. This time she blew her breath on the traveller a number of times, then finally left.

After a while the traveller could hear the sound of the corpse getting back on her bed, and he knew she had lain down again. Now was his chance. He cautiously stuck his hand out from beneath the covers and retrieved his trousers. He jumped out of bed, hurriedly put them on, and made a mad dash for the door without stopping for his footwear.

The corpse was up, and it appeared she was after him! But by the time she had emerged from behind the curtain, the traveller had already unbolted the door and run outside. Yet, the she-corpse was in hot pursuit. The traveller yelled for help as he ran, but nobody in the village seemed to notice. He thought of knocking on the innkeeper’s door, but he would lose time and allow the corpse to catch up, so he ran as fast as he could down the road leading to town.

Upon reaching the town’s eastern outskirts he spied a temple and could hear the sound of someone chanting sutras, so he rushed up to the gate and pounded on it, but the monk inside thought strangely of this sudden pounding and elected to listen instead of opening the gate right away.

Turning on his heel, the traveller saw that the she-corpse was already there, nearly upon him. Now he really had to do something. Near the gate was an aspen tree whose trunk was four or five feet around, so the traveller kept the tree between himself and the corpse by moving in the opposite direction whenever she tried to pounce on him. The corpse was increasingly enraged. But gradually both the pursuer and pursued tired, and then the corpse suddenly stopped in her tracks, just standing there. The traveller hid on the tree’s opposite side, sweat-drenched and panting. Then suddenly the corpse lunged at him from behind the tree, one arm outstretched on either side of the trunk, and tried to grab him. But she missed, and then became motionless, hugging the tree. The traveller, meanwhile, had been so shocked by the corpse’s sudden effort that he’d collapsed on the ground.

For some time the monk had been listening, and now when there were no more sounds, he cautiously opened the gate and came outside. He saw the traveller lying on the ground. In the light of the monk’s lamp, he appeared to be dead, but his heart was still beating faintly. The monk carried him inside, and finally the traveller came around in the early morning hours.

The monk gave the traveller hot water to drink and asked what had happened. The traveller recounted the night’s events in detail, and by that time the morning bell had rung and the light of dawn was showing faintly in the sky. The monk went to look outside, and there indeed was the dead woman embracing the tree.

Shocked, the monk reported this to the governor, who personally came to investigate. He had someone try to pull the woman’s hands from the tree, but they were firmly affixed and wouldn’t budge. Close examination revealed that four fingers of each hand were bent like hooks and stuck into the tree so deeply that the fingernails could not be seen. Several men pulled on the woman’s arms as hard as they could and finally dislodged them, exposing finger holes which looked as if they had been drilled.

The governor sent an official to the old man’s home, and when the official arrived, the place was in an uproar because the corpse was missing and three of the travelers were dead. After the official explained what had happened, the old man followed the official to the temple and then carried the corpse home.

The remaining traveller went crying to the governor. “When I left home there were four of us,” he said, “but now I’ll be the only one to return. How am I going to explain this to everyone at home and have them believe me?” So the governor gave the traveller an official document attesting to what had happened, and sent him on his way home.


陽信某翁者邑之蔡店人。村去城五六里父子設臨路店宿行商。有車夫數人往來負販輒寓其家。一日昏暮四人偕來望門投止。則翁家客宿邸 滿。四人計無復之堅請容納。翁沈吟思得一所似恐不當客意。客言但求一席廈宇更不敢有所擇。時翁有子婦新死停尸室中子出購材木未歸。翁以靈所室寂遂穿衢導客往。 入其廬燈昏案上案後有搭帳衣紙衾覆逝者。又觀寢所則複室中有連榻。四客奔波頗困甫就枕鼻息漸粗。惟一客尚朦朧。忽聞靈上 察察有聲。急開目則靈前燈火照視甚了女尸已揭衾起俄而下漸入臥室。面淡金色生絹抹額。俯近榻前吹臥客者 三。客大懼恐將及己潛引被覆首閉息忍咽以聽之。未幾女果來吹之如諸客。覺出房去即聞紙衾聲。出首微窺見僵臥猶初矣。客懼甚不敢作聲陰以足踏諸客。而諸客絕無少 動。顧念無計不如著衣以竄。裁起振衣而察察之聲又作。客懼復伏縮首衾中。覺女復來連續吹數數始去。少間聞靈作 響知其復臥。乃從被底漸漸出手得遽就著之白足奔出。尸亦起似將逐客。比其離幃而客已拔關出矣。尸馳從 之。客且奔且號村中人無有警者。欲叩主人之門又恐遲所及。遂望邑城路極力竄去。至東郊瞥見蘭若聞木魚聲 乃急撾山門。道人訝其非常又不即納。旋踵尸已至去身盈尺。客窘益甚。門外有白楊圍四五尺許因以樹自幛。彼右則左之彼左則右之。尸益怒。然各寖倦矣。尸頓立客汗 促氣逆庇樹間。尸暴起伸兩臂隔樹探撲之。客驚仆。尸捉之不得抱樹而僵。道人竊聽良久無聲始漸出見客臥地上。燭之死然心下絲絲有動氣。負入終夜始甦。飲以湯水而 問之客具以狀對。時晨鐘已盡曉色迷蒙道人覘樹上果見僵女。大駭報邑宰。宰親詣質驗。使人拔女手牢不可開。審諦之則左右四指並捲如鉤入木沒甲。又數人力拔乃得 下。視指穴如鑿孔然。遣役探翁家則以尸亡客斃紛紛正嘩。役告之故翁乃從往舁尸歸。客泣告宰曰身四人出今一人歸此情何以信鄉里。宰與之牒齎送以歸。

4. Nie Xiaoqian: Love Never Dies

Translator’s note: This story was the inspiration for the classic 1987 Hong Kong movie Sinnui yauwan 倩女幽魂 (A Chinese Ghost Story), starring Joey Wong and Leslie Cheung.

Ning Caichen was from Zhe. He was a man of noble spirit, moral rectitude, and discretion. He always said to people, “I’ll never be misled by carnal pleasures.”

Once he went to a place called Jinhua to take care of some business. Upon reaching a temple on the northern outskirts of the city, he set down his bags and changed clothes. Surveying the temple, he noted that although its buildings were quite impressive structures, the grounds were overgrown with weeds as tall as a person, and it appeared there was no longer any human traffic. On the east and west sides there were priests’ quarters, but on both sides the doors were ajar, while only one small building on the south had what appeared to be new locks on the doors. At the east corner of the main hall was a clump of tall bamboo, and beneath the hall a large pond where wild lotuses were already blooming. Ning liked the quiet seclusion. Besides, the Commissioner of Education was in the city, so rent there was higher. For those reasons he decided to stay at the temple, and walked around while waiting for the priest to return.

In the evening a man came and opened the door to the south building. Ning hurried over to him, said a few words of greeting, and explained that he would like to stay at the temple.

“There’s no sexton supervising these quarters, and I’m sojourning here myself,” said the man. “If you can put up with a run-down place like this, I’m more than happy to have the company.”

Delighted, Ning spread straw for a bed, set up some boards as a desk, and made plans for an extended stay. That night the moon was high and bright, and its clear light washed like a liquid over the temple. The two men sat facing each other on the temple veranda and introduced themselves.

“I’m Yan Chixia,” said the man.

Ning had thought this man was a student who had come to sit for the examinations, but his accent revealed that he was not from this area, so Ning asked.

“I’m from Qin,” said Yan. His manner of speaking was plain and sincere.

When the two had talked themselves out they parted and retired to their respective quarters. Because Ning was not accustomed to sleeping in these new surroundings, he lay awake for a long time. To the north of the building he heard voices, and it sounded as if people were having a conversation. Ning got up, hid under the window on the north, and peeked outside. On the other side of a low wall was a small house, a woman in her 40s, and an old, stooped-over woman wearing faded scarlet clothing and a silver comb in her hair.

The middle-aged woman said, “How come Xiaoqian hasn’t come here in so long?”

“She’ll come any time now,” replied the old woman.

“Hasn’t she complained to you?”

“She hasn’t said anything to me, but it seems something’s got her down.”

“You have to be careful around her.”

As they were talking, a young woman of 17 or 18 came along. She was an absolute, stunning beauty.

The old woman spoke. “One shouldn’t talk about others behind their backs, but just now this little wretch sneaks up on us without making a sound, so it’s a good thing we weren’t badmouthing her! You look as beautiful as someone in a painting. If I were a man, I’d have already been robbed of my soul.”

“If you didn’t say nice things like that,” responded the girl, “who would speak so kindly of me?”

Ning didn’t know what they were talking about, but he figured they were members of the family living in the house next door, and went back to bed without listening to the conversation any further.

After a while it became quiet, and he couldn’t hear voices any more. He was drifting off to sleep when he sensed someone had come into his room. Jumping up and looking about, he saw it was the young beauty from the neighboring house. Startled, he asked her what she was doing in his room.

“On moonlit nights I can’t sleep,” she said, smiling. “How about relaxing together for a while?”

Ning looked at her gravely. “Listen, miss. We have to be careful about what people will say. Make one mistake, and we have no honor.”

“But at night nobody will know.”

Ning upbraided her again, but the woman hesitated, looking as though she wanted to say more.

“Get out!" scolded Ning. “If you don’t leave, I’ll call the man in the south building.”

The young woman became fearful and went out the door, but then came back in with a gold bar, which she laid on the bed. Ning picked it up and flung it out into the garden, exclaiming, “I don’t need to be contaminated by this thing!”

Ashamed, the woman went outside, picked up the gold, and said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so rigid.”

The next morning a student came from Lanxi with a servant to wait for the exams, and took up lodgings in the east building, but that night he suddenly died. Small holes were found in the arches of his feet, looking as if they had been made with an awl, and a little blood had emerged. No one understood what this meant. On the following morning the servant too was found dead with the same small holes in his arches. In the evening Yan came back. Ning asked him about this, and Yan said it was the work of a demon, but Ning was a man of great moral courage, and did not worry a bit about such things.

In the middle of the night the woman appeared again, and said to Ning, “I’ve seen many people, but never before has there been a man of steadfast moral probity like you. You’re like a sage. So I’m going to be straightforward with you. My name is Xiaoqian, and my family name is Nie. I died when I was only 18, and was buried by this temple, but soon after I was threatened by ghosts, and I’ve been forced to do one dirty job after another. I certainly don’t enjoy doing this shameful work. Anyway, there’s no one in the temple who can kill you now, so I’m afraid a yaksha demon will come.”

Ning was shocked and asked what he could do to avoid that.

“You’ll be safe if you’re in the same room with Mr. Yan.”

“Why don’t demons try to harm him?”

“He’s not an ordinary person, so they don’t dare get near him.”

“How do these demons lead people astray?”

“They use an awl to stealthily pierce the feet of those who get intimate with me, put them into a stupor, and then extract their blood and give it to the ghosts to drink. They also mislead people with gold bars, but they’re not really gold, they’re the bones of Raksha demons. Leaving them near a person makes it possible to cut out his heart and liver. They tempt each victim with what he wants.”

Ning thanked her and asked when he should be ready for the demon.

“Tomorrow night,” said Xiaoqian. Then when it came time to part, she burst into tears. “I’ve fallen into a dark sea and I can’t reach shore. Your uprightness is of the highest order, so I’m sure you can save me from this suffering. I hope you’ll consent to doing something for me: Dig up my bones, put them in a bag, take them home, and bury them in a peaceful place. I’ll be so grateful.”

Ning consented with resolve, and then asked Xiaoqian where she was buried.

“You’ll know the place because it’s under a bird’s nest in an aspen tree,” she said, then stepped out the door and vanished as if melting into the darkness.

The next day Ning was afraid that Yan might go out, and so he went to Yan’s lodgings early. At somewhat after eight in the morning he prepared wine and food. Watching Yan carefully and waiting for the right moment, Ning asked if he would stay with him that night, but Yan declined, saying that he liked being alone. Ning wouldn’t listen, and insistently brought the other’s bedding to his own quarters, so Yan had no choice and brought his own bed.

Then Yan made a request. “I know you are a man of personal stature, and I have the greatest respect for you. There’s something I need to be frank with you about, but I can’t go into it right now. Just don’t look inside this box or this bundle. It’ll do neither one of us any good.”

Ning respectfully accepted the advice, and the two men decided to turn in for the night. Yan put the box by the window and got into bed, but soon he started snoring so thunderously that that Ning couldn’t get any sleep. After a while he caught glimpses of what seemed to be someone outside the window. It quickly approached the window and peeked into the room. Its eyes blazed. Ning was terrified and was going to wake Yan when something broke the box open and emerged, glinting like a length of boiled silk. It struck and broke the stone window lattice. It flashed once and then immediately returned to the box, disappearing like a flash of lightning.

Yan awoke and got up, but Ning feigned sleep and watched surreptitiously. Yan picked up the box and inspected it, then took something out, held it up in the moonlight, and sniffed and looked at it. The object sparkled white, and was about two inches long and wide as a leek leaf. When he was finished he wrapped the object in the cloth tightly a number of times and put it back in the broken box. “What a bold little demon,” he said to himself. “It broke the box.” Then he lay down again.

Ning thought this very strange, and so arose and asked about it, relating what he had seen.

Yan said, “We have become close friends, so there’s nothing to hide. I am a swordsman. If it hadn’t been for that stone lattice, I’d have gotten that demon, but it’s been wounded.”

“And what’s in that box?”

“It’s a sword. I sniffed it, and it’s got the smell of the demon on it.”

Ning said he wanted to see it, so Yan showed him the box’s contents: a small sword that glinted in the darkness. Ning now had even greater respect for Yan.

The next day Ning looked outside the window and found blood stains. Then he went to the temple’s north side and found rows of run-down graves. As Xiaoqian had said, there was an aspen tree with a crow’s nest at the top.

When his business in Jinhua was finished, Ning made hurried preparations to go home. Yan set out a parting meal that was exceedingly cordial, and as a gift he presented Ning with a ripped leather bag. “Treasure this sword bag, because it can keep demons at bay,” said Yan.

Ning expressed a desire to study swordsmanship under Yan.

“You’re a man of trustworthiness and integrity,” said Yan, “So you are capable of the technique. But you also dwell in wealth and honor, so you could never live as a swordsman.”

Ning then gave the explanation that his younger sister was buried here, and dug up Xiaoqian’s remains. He put them in a burial gown, hired a boat, and went home.

Ning’s study looked out on a moor, so he made a grave outside his study and buried Xiaoqian’s remains there. He held a little ceremony for her and said, “I pity your lonely soul and bury you next to my home. We can hear each other’s singing or crying, and I hope that those evil ones won’t come after you. Here’s a bottle of something to drink. It’s not especially good stuff, but I hope you won’t find it disagreeable.”

Having finished his little speech, Ning started back to the house, and then heard someone calling from behind.

“Wait! I’m going with you.”

Ning turned around to look, and there was Xiaoqian, appearing overjoyed. “I couldn’t repay your trustworthiness even if I were to die ten times,” she said in gratitude. “Let me go home with you and meet your parents. Nothing would make me happier than if you made me your mistress.”

Ning looked closely at Xiaoqian. Her skin was like the drifting mist, and her bound feet were turned up like delicate bamboo shoots. In the daylight she was an unparalleled, breathtaking sight. The two of them walked together into the study. Ning told her to wait there, and went in first to talk with his mother, who was astonished. At that time Ning’s wife had been suffering a long illness so his mother warned him not to tell his wife for fear it would shock her. No sooner had she said this than Xiaoqian glided into the room and prostrated herself in front of Ning’s mother.

“This is Xiaoqian,” said Ning. His mother was flustered, and before she could answer, Xiaoqian spoke.

“Alone and drifting from place to place, I was separated from my parents and siblings, but received the kindness and assistance of your son. I wish to repay his generous help by serving in your household.”

Ning’s mother perceived Xiaoqian’s gentle modesty as lovable, and at last found the courage to speak to her. “Young lady, your kind attention to my son makes this old woman very happy, but we have only this one son, and we need him to be the family heir, so we can’t have him marrying someone who’s deceased.”

“I certainly have no ulterior motive,” said Xiaoqian. “Yes, I’m from the nether world, and I understand your disbelief. So I just ask to serve your son as if he were my elder brother, to follow your instructions and to be of service at all times. What do you say?”

Ning’s mother was attracted to the maiden’s sincerity, and decided to let her stay on in that capacity.

Xiaoqian then expressed a wish to see Ning’s wife, but his mother said no because of the wife’s illness, so Xiaoqian didn’t go to see her. Then she went to the kitchen and did the cooking in place of Ning’s mother, who usually did it. The way she conducted herself around the house made it seem as though she had been a long-time resident.

With the arrival of evening Ning’s mother became afraid of Xiaoqian, told her to sleep at home, and did not let her help make up her bed. Xiaoqian sensed the mother’s feelings and went out. She passed by Ning’s study and started to go in, but then backed off, and walked to and fro outside his door as if there were something that scared her. Ning called her, and she said, “I’m afraid. There’s the essence of a sword in your study. That was the reason I couldn’t be with you on the way here from Jinhua.”

Ning saw that it was the leather bag he’d received from Yan, so he removed it and hung it in another room. Xiaoqian then entered the study and sat next to the lamp. For a while she said nothing at all. Then after a long time she finally spoke.

“Do you read at night? When I was a child I read the Suramgama-samadhi Sutra, but I’ve forgotten most of it. Would you lend me one of the volumes? Then I could read it at night when I’m free, and have you help me through it.”

Ning said he would, and then Xiaoqian again sat silently. The time approached 11 p.m., and still she said nothing about going back to her grave, so Ning pressed her.

Xiaoqian seemed distressed. “Here I am alone in a strange place. I’m really scared of going to that lonely grave out there in the weeds.”

“There’s no place else to sleep here in this room,” explained Ning, “and besides, even a brother and sister have to avoid suspicion.”

Xiaoqian stood up. She was downcast and looked as though she were going to cry. She walked out of the room hesitatingly, with heavy steps. Calmly she walked out the door, down the steps, and then disappeared into thin air.

Ning felt sorry for her, and wanted to let her sleep in his room in a different bed, but he was afraid his mother would be angry.

Every morning Xiaoqian took a pitcher of water and a washbasin to Ning’s mother for washing, then went about doing the housework. She did nothing that was not in accordance with the mother’s will. In the evening she would take her leave and retire to the study to read the sutra by lamplight. When she sensed that Ning was about to sleep, she would sadly withdraw.

For some time, Ning’s wife had been unable to help around the house because of her illness, but with the arrival of Xiaoqian, Ning’s mother had found relief from the unbearable toil that had been imposed on her. For this they were thankful to have Xiaoqian.

With each passing day familiarity grew. Ning’s mother began to love Xiaoqian as her own child, and finally she forgot that Xiaoqian was a ghost. She could no longer bear to order the girl out at night, and had her spend both days and nights in the house with everyone. When Xiaoqian had first come, she didn’t eat or drink anything, but after six months she gradually came to sip thin gruel. Both mother and son loved her deeply, and avoided mention of her being a ghost. No one else could tell, either.

It wasn’t long before Ning’s wife died. His mother secretly harbored a desire to have Xiaoqian be her son’s new wife, but she feared that marriage to a ghost would prove disadvantageous to him. Xiaoqian  noticed this ambivalence and spoke to her at the opportune moment.

“I’ve been here over a year now, so you know me well. I came here with your son because I didn’t want to bring misery to travelers. I have no ulterior motive at all. The purity and magnanimity of your son’s heart are held in great esteem by those in Heaven. I want to be with him and be of service for a few years so that I might avail myself of his status to be raised to the nobility, which would give me honor in the nether world.”

Ning’s mother knew she had no ill intentions, but she feared that this would mean the end of the family line.

“Heaven will give us children,” explained Xiaoqian. “Your son can be found in the Register of Good Fortune. It says he will have three sons who will be a credit to the family. He won’t be deprived of them just because his wife is a ghost.”

Ning’s mother trusted Xiaoqian and discussed the matter with her son, who was overjoyed. Ning arranged the wedding feast and notified his relatives. Someone expressed a desire to see the bride, and with alacrity Xiaoqian appeared before the guests in bright-colored clothing. Everyone was spellbound by her beauty. And while they thought she may be an immortal, no one suspected that she was not among the living. From that time forward, the wives of Ning’s relatives all brought congratulatory gifts and vied with one another in getting to know Xiaoqian. Because Xiaoqian was good at painting orchids and plum blossoms, she repaid the gifts with paintings. Those who received the paintings treasured them and considered it an honor to have them.

One day Xiaoqian was by the window hanging her head, looking sad and as if she had lost something.

Suddenly she asked, “Where’s that leather bag?”

“You were afraid of it,” explained Ning, “so I put it away in another place.”

“I’ve been among the living for quite a while now, so I’m not afraid of it any more. Could you bring it and hang it over the head of the bed?”

Ning pressed her for an explanation.

“For the last three days I’ve been constantly uneasy. I think the demon from Jinhua is resentful that I fled to this distant place, and it’ll come looking for me any time now.”

Ning brought the leather bag, and Xiaoqian turned it over and over, examining it carefully. “A swordsman put people’s heads in this bag,” she said. “Judging by how ripped and damaged it is, I can imagine he must have killed a lot of people. It sends shivers down my spine just looking at it.”

Xiaoqian hung it over the bed, but the next day she had Ning move it over the door. That night she sat by the lamp and told Ning that he mustn’t go to sleep. Suddenly something like a flying bird came. Xiaoqian was startled and hid inside the curtain. Ning looked, and there was something like the yaksha, with eyes that flashed like lightning and a bloody tongue. It set its eyes on Ning and advanced to pounce on him, but at the door it stepped back and hesitated for a time, then slowly approached the leather bag and took it in its claws. It seemed the yaksha was about to tear up the bag with its claws, when suddenly the bag emitted a bang, and swelled to the size of a large basket. A nebulous ghost-like creature stuck the upper half of its body out of the bag, grabbed the yaksha, and pulled it into the bag. All became quiet again, and the bag shrank back to its original size in an instant. Ning was stunned and couldn’t believe his eyes. Xiaoqian emerged from behind the curtain, elated.

“It worked!”

Together they looked inside the bag, where they found only several cupfuls of clear water.

Several years later Ning passed the examinations as Xiaoqian had said. Xiaoqian herself bore Ning a son, and later Ning took two concubines who also brought forth one son each. All of them became public officials and made names for themselves.


甯采臣浙人。性慷爽廉隅自重。每對人言生平無二色。適赴金華至北郭解裝蘭若。寺中殿塔壯麗然蓬蒿沒人似絕行蹤。東西僧舍雙扉虛掩惟 南一小舍扃鍵如新。又顧殿東隅修竹拱把階下有巨池野藕已花。意甚樂其幽杳。會學使按臨城舍價昂思便留止遂散步以待僧歸。日暮有士人來啟南扉。甯趨禮 且告以意。士人曰此間無房主僕亦僑居。能甘荒落旦晚惠教幸甚。甯喜藉支 板作几久客計。是夜月明高潔清光似水二人促膝殿廊各展姓字。士人自言燕姓字赤霞。甯疑赴 試諸生而聽其音聲殊不類浙。詰之自言秦人。語甚樸誠。而相對詞竭遂拱別歸寢。甯以新居久不成寐。聞舍北 喁喁如有家口。起伏北壁石窗下微窺之。見短牆外一小院落有婦可四十餘。又一媼衣(黑+曷)緋插蓬沓鮐背龍鐘偶語月下。婦曰小倩何久不來。媼云殆好至矣。婦曰將 無向姥姥有怨言否。曰不聞但意似蹙蹙。婦曰婢子不宜好相識。言未已有十七八女子來彷彿艷絕。媼笑曰背地不言人我兩個正談道小妖婢悄來無響。 幸不訾短處。又曰小娘子端好是畫中人,遮莫老身是男子也被攝去。女曰姥姥不相譽更阿誰道好。婦人女子又 不知何言。甯意其鄰人眷口寢不復聽。又許時始寂無聲。方將睡去覺有人至寢所。急起審顧則北院女子也。驚問之。女笑曰月夜不寐願修燕好。甯正容曰卿防物議我畏人 言。略一失足廉恥道喪。女云夜無知者。甯又咄之。女逡巡若復有詞。甯叱速去。不然當呼南舍生知。女懼乃退。至戶外復返以黃金一鋌置褥上。甯掇擲庭墀曰非義之物 污我囊橐。女慚出拾金自言曰此漢當是鐵石。詰旦有蘭溪生攜一僕來候試寓于東廂至夜暴亡。足心有小孔如錐刺者細細有血出俱莫知故。經宿僕一死症亦如之。向晚燕生 歸甯質之燕以魅。甯素抗直頗不在意。宵分女子復至謂甯曰妾閱人多矣未有剛腸如君者。君誠聖賢妾不敢欺。 小倩姓聶氏十八夭殂葬寺側輒被妖物威脅歷役賤務顏向人實非所樂。今寺中無可殺者恐當以夜叉來。甯駭求 計。女曰與燕生同室可免。問何不惑燕生。曰彼奇人也不敢近。問迷人若何。曰狎昵我者隱以錐刺其足彼即茫若迷因攝血以供妖飲。又或以金非金也乃羅剎鬼骨留之能截 取人心肝。二者凡以投時好耳。甯感謝。問戒備之期答以明宵。臨別泣曰妾墮玄海求岸不得。郎君義氣干雲必能拔生救苦。倘肯囊妾朽骨歸葬安宅不啻再造。甯毅然諾 之。因問葬處曰但記取白楊之上有烏巢者是也。言已出門紛然而滅。明日恐燕他出早詣邀致。辰后具酒饌留意察燕。約 同宿辭以性癖耽寂。甯不聽強臥具來。燕不得已移榻從之囑曰僕知足下丈夫傾風良切。要有微衷難以遽白。幸 勿翻窺篋襆違之兩俱不利。甯謹受教。而各寢。燕以箱篋置窗上就枕移時齁如雷吼。甯不能寐。近一更許窗外 隱隱有人影。俄而近窗來窺目光睒閃。甯懼方欲呼燕忽有物裂篋而出耀若匹練觸折窗上石櫺然一射即遽斂入宛 如電滅。燕覺而起甯偽睡以覘之。燕捧篋檢微取一物對月嗅視白光晶瑩長可二寸徑韭葉許。已而數重包固仍置破篋中。自語曰何物老魅直爾大膽致壞篋子。遂復臥。甯大 奇之因起問之且以所見告。燕曰相知愛何敢深隱。我劍客也。若非石櫺妖當立斃雖然亦傷。問所緘何物。曰劍 也。適嗅之有妖氣。甯欲觀之。慨出相示熒熒然一小劍也。於是益厚重燕。明日視窗外有血蹟。遂出寺北見荒墳纍纍果有白楊烏巢其顛。迨營謀就 趣裝欲歸。燕生設祖帳情義殷渥。以破革囊贈甯曰此劍袋也。寶藏可遠魑魅。甯欲從受其術。曰如君信義剛直可以此 然君猶富貴中人非此道中人也。甯乃託有妹葬此發掘女骨斂以衣衾賃舟而歸。甯齋臨野因營墳葬諸齋外。祭而祝曰憐卿孤魂葬近蝸居歌哭相聞庶不見凌於雄鬼。一甌漿水 飲殊不清旨幸不嫌。祝畢而返。後有人呼曰緩待同行。回顧則小倩也。歡喜謝曰君信義十死不足以報。請從歸 拜識姑嫜媵御無悔。審諦之肌映流霞足翹細筍白晝端相嬌麗尤絕。遂與俱至齋中。囑坐少待先入白母。母愕然。時甯妻久病母戒勿言恐所駭驚。言次女已翩然入拜伏地 下。甯曰此小倩也。母驚顧不遑。女謂母曰兒飄然一身遠父母兄弟。蒙公子露覆澤被發膚願執箕帚以報高義。母見其綽約可愛始敢與言曰小娘子惠顧吾兒老身喜不可已。 但生平止此兒用承祧緒不敢令有鬼偶。女曰兒實無二心。泉下人不見信於老母請以兄事依高堂奉晨昏如何。母 憐其誠允之。即欲拜嫂。母辭以疾乃止。女即入廚下,代母尸饔。入房穿榻似熟居者。日暮母畏懼之辭使歸寢不設 床褥。女窺知母意即竟去。過齋欲入卻退徘徊戶外似有所懼。生呼之。女曰室有劍氣畏人。向道途中不奉見者良以此故。甯悟革 囊取懸他室。女乃入就燭下坐。移時殊不一語。久之問夜讀否。妾少誦楞嚴經今強半遺忘。浼求一卷夜暇就兄正之。甯諾。又坐默然二更向盡不言去。甯促之。愀然曰異 域孤魂殊怯荒墓。甯曰齋中別無床寢且兄妹亦宜遠嫌。女起容顰蹙欲啼足儴而懶步從容出門涉階而沒。甯竊憐 之。欲留宿別榻又懼母嗔。女朝旦朝母捧匜沃盥下堂操作無不曲承母志。黃昏告退輒過齋頭就燭誦經。覺甯將寢始慘然出。先是甯妻病廢母劬不可堪。自得女逸甚。心德 之。日漸稔親愛如己出竟忘其鬼。不忍晚令去留與同臥起。女初來未嘗飲食半年漸啜稀(食+他)。母子皆溺 愛之諱言其鬼人亦不知辨也。無何甯妻亡。母陰有納女意然恐於子不利。女微知之乘間告母曰居年餘當知兒肝膈。不 欲禍行人故從郎君來。區區無他意止以公子光明磊落天人所欽矚實欲依贊三數年借博封誥以光泉壤。母亦知無 惡但懼不能延宗嗣。女曰子女惟天所授。郎君註福籍有亢宗子三不以鬼妻而遂奪也。母信之與子議。甯喜因列筵告戚黨。或請覿新婦女慨然華妝出一堂盡眙反不疑其鬼疑仙。 由是五黨諸內眷咸執贄以賀爭拜識之。女善畫蘭梅輒以尺幅酬答得者藏什襲以榮。一日俯頸窗前怊悵若失。忽 問革囊何在。曰以卿畏之故緘置他所。曰妾受生氣已久當不復畏宜取挂頭。甯詰其意曰三日來心怔忡無停息意 金華妖物恨妾遠遁恐旦晚尋及也。甯果攜革囊來。女反復審視曰此劍仙將盛人頭者也。敝敗至此不知殺人幾何許。妾今日視之肌猶粟慄。乃懸之。次日又命移懸戶上。夜 對燭坐約甯勿寢。欻有一物如飛鳥墮。女驚匿夾幙間。甯視之物如夜叉狀電目血舌睒閃攫拏而前。至門卻步逡巡久之漸近革囊以爪摘取似將抓裂。囊忽格然一響大可合簣 恍惚有鬼物突出半身揪夜叉入聲遂寂然囊亦頓縮如故。甯駭詫。女亦出大喜曰無恙矣。共視囊中清水數斗而已。後數年甯果登進士。女舉一男。納妾後又各生一男皆仕進 有聲。

The Daoist Adept of Mt. Lao: Walls Pose No Obstacle

There was a young man by the surname of Wang, who was the seventh son of an old family. From childhood he had wanted to learn the Daoist arts, and hearing that there were many Daoist adepts on Mt. Lao, he made preparations and set out.

Upon reaching the summit Wang found a lonely Daoist temple, where a Daoist master sat on a reed mat. The way his white hair hung down to his neck made him look awesomely holy. Wang kowtowed to the master and exchanged a few words with him. Finding the master’s utterances profound and mysterious, Wang asked to become a disciple.

“With that delicate and weak constitution of yours,” said the master, “I’m afraid you couldn’t stand the hardship.”

“I can do it,” said Wang.

The master had many disciples, who all gathered that evening. Wang exchanged formal greetings with each of them, and with that became a resident of the temple.

The next morning the master summoned Wang, handed him an axe, and told him to go with the others to collect firewood. Wang humbly followed the master’s orders. Collecting firewood went on for over a month. Wang’s hands and feet were covered with calluses. He couldn’t stand the hardship any longer, and secretly longed to go home.

One evening on his return to the temple he saw two guests drinking wine with the master. Although the sun was already down, they had yet to light a lamp. The master cut a round piece of paper and stuck it onto the wall. Soon it was shining brightly like the moon, and illuminated the room so well that one could even discern small details.

As the disciples were gathered around busily tending to the master and guests, one of the guests said, “We’re having a great time tonight, but everyone should join in!”

So saying, he took the wine jug from the table, poured for all the disciples, and told them to drink until they were intoxicated.

Wang wondered how one jug of wine could be enough for seven or eight people. Everyone took cups and vied with one another in seeing who could empty his first. Fearing that the wine would run out, everyone kept drinking and pouring, yet the wine continued to flow. Wang thought this quite strange.

Then one of the guests said, “It’s nice to have this moonlight, but it’s lonely drinking like this. Why don’t we have a visit from the Woman in the Moon?” And so saying, he threw a chopstick into the paper moon.

A beautiful woman emerged from the light. At first she was less than a foot tall, but upon touching down on the ground she became life-sized. Slender waisted and with a graceful neck, she lightly performed the Rainbow Skirt Dance, and then sang:

Oh Daoist adepts,

Come back to me,

Held captive I am in the moon.

Her voice was clear and beautiful as a flute. When the song ended she spun around, rose into the air, and alighted on the table. As everyone was watching in amazement, she instantly turned back into a chopstick.

The master and his guests laughed heartily, then one of the guests spoke.

“Tonight has been really great, but I’ve had about enough wine. How about sending me off with a last drink in the moon?”

The three of them got up from their chairs and gradually went into the moon on the wall. The disciples could see them sitting and drinking inside the moon, with even their beards and eyebrows so clearly visible it was like seeing an image in a mirror. After a while the moon gradually darkened, and when the disciples brought a lamp they saw the master sitting alone in the dark. Food still remained on the table, and there was nothing but the round piece of paper on the wall.

“Did you have enough to drink?” the master asked his disciples.

“Yes, we did.”

“Then you’d better get to bed early so you can gather firewood tomorrow.”

The disciples nodded assent and retired. Wang was thrilled by what he’d seen, and decided to stay and continue his training. But after another month he could no longer stand the hardship, and the master had not taught him a single technique.

He couldn’t wait any more and said to the master, “I’ve come hundreds of miles to receive instruction from you. OK, I don’t expect you to teach me the secret of immortality, but maybe just one little technique and I’ll be satisfied. I’ve been here two or three months, doing nothing but going to collect firewood early in the morning, and coming back at night. I never had such hardship at home.”

“There, you see?” laughed the master. “I told you at the outset that you couldn’t bear the hardship, and it’s just as I said. I’ll see you off early tomorrow morning.”

“But wait,” said Wang. “I worked for you many days. If you teach me one little technique, I would have something to show for coming here.”

“OK, what do you want to learn?”

“I’ve often seen that walls pose no obstacle to you. I’d be satisfied to learn that one technique.”

The master smiled and consented. He told Wang the secret, made him recite the spell himself, and then said, “Into the wall!”

Wang faced the wall but didn’t dare go into it.

So the master said, “Come on, give it a try.”

Wang slowly walked to the wall, but it stopped him nonetheless.

“Put your head down and charge into the wall!” said the master. “Don’t hesitate!”

Wang stepped back a few paces and ran to the wall, which seemed to melt away before him. Turning around and looking back, he saw that he was outside the wall. Overjoyed, he went back inside and thanked the master.

“Once you’re back home,” the master cautioned, “you have to maintain your purity or the technique won’t work.” So saying, he gave wang money for his return trip and sent him on his way.

When Wang got home he boasted that he’d met the immortals and that solid walls were no barrier to him, but his wife wouldn’t believe him. Doing as the master had taught him, Wang stepped several feet away from the wall and ran into it, but his head hit the wall and he instantly keeled over. Wang’s wife helped him up, and looking at his head she found a lump the size of a large egg. She laughed at her husband.

Embarrassed and angry, Wang vehemently cursed the master. “Damn that old geezer!”


邑有王生行七故家子。少慕道聞勞山多仙人負笈往游。登一頂有觀宇甚幽。一道士坐蒲團上素發垂領而神觀爽邁。叩而與語理甚玄妙。請師 之。道士曰恐嬌惰不能作苦。答言能之。其門人甚薄暮畢集。王俱與稽首遂留觀中。凌晨道士呼王去授以斧使 隨采樵。王謹受教。過月余手足重繭不堪其苦陰有歸志。一夕歸見二人與師共酌日已暮尚無燈燭。師乃翦紙如 鏡黏壁間俄頃月明輝室光鑑毫芒。諸門人環聽奔走。一客曰良宵勝樂不可不同。乃於案上取壺酒分賚諸徒且囑盡醉。王自思七八人壺酒何能給。 遂各覓盎盂競飲先釂惟恐樽盡而往復挹注竟不少減。心奇之。俄一客曰蒙賜月明之照乃爾寂飲。何不呼嫦娥來。乃以箸擲月中。見一美人自光中出。初不盈尺至地遂與人 等。纖腰秀項翩翩作霓裳舞。已而歌曰仙仙乎。而還乎。而幽我於廣寒乎。其聲清越烈如簫管。歌畢盤旋而起躍登几上驚顧之間已復箸。 三人大笑。又一客曰今宵最樂然不勝酒力矣。其餞我於月宮可乎。三人移席漸入月中。視三人坐月中飲鬚眉畢 見如影之在鏡中。移時月漸暗門人然燭來則道士獨坐而客杳矣。几上肴核尚存。壁上月紙圓如鏡而已。道士問飲 足乎。曰足矣。足宜早寢勿誤樵蘇。諾而退。王竊忻慕歸念遂息。又一月苦不可忍而道士並不傳教一術。心不 能待辭曰弟子數百里受業仙師縱不能得長生術或小有傳習亦可慰求教之心。今閱兩三月不過早樵而暮歸。弟子在家未諳此苦。道士笑曰我固謂不能作苦今果然。明早當遣 汝行。王曰弟子操作多日師略授小技此來不負也。道士問何術之求。王曰每見師行處牆壁所不能隔但得此法足 矣。道士笑而允之。乃傳以訣令自咒畢呼曰入之。王面牆不敢入。又曰試入之。王果從容入及牆而阻。道士曰俛首驟入勿逡巡。王果去牆數步奔而入及牆虛若無物。回視 果在牆外矣。大喜入謝。道士曰歸宜潔持否則不驗。遂助資斧遣之歸。抵家自詡遇仙堅壁所不能阻。妻不信。王傚其作去 牆數尺奔而入頭觸硬壁驀然而踣。妻扶視之額上墳起如巨卵焉。妻揶揄之。王慚忿罵老道士之無良而已。