by Feng Menglong (1574-1646)
(an interpretation by Michael Henrik Wynn)
It is said that during the cultural revival of the Song Dynasty in the early middle ages, there was a high-ranking official named Chen Ya, who, due to a dispute with the learned Zhang Zihou, was demoted to the position of pacification commissioner for the eastern region of Jiangdong. As such, he was obliged to oversee the important city of Jiankang, located inland on the Yangtze River.
One day, while attending an official banquet by the riverside, he suddenly heard a shrill voice beyond the perimeter shouting, “I am able to foresee all your futures, even without consulting the sacred Five Elements!”
“Who dares utter such words in my presence?” Chen Ya exclaimed.
One of the officials recognized the man and said: “That, my lord, is the fortune-teller Bian Yin of Jinling.”
“Bring him to me.” Chen Ya declared.
Bian Yin was summoned to the gate, and stepped barefooted forth from the crowd wearing nothing but rags and a tattered hat. His white bushy beard and gleaming eyes gave him a haggard appearance. Supporting himself on a staff, he made a deep and respectful bow before he sat down at the edge of the steps.
“You are nearly blind and not even able to read ancient classics, how dare you belittle the Five Elements?” asked the commissioner.
“I am adept in discerning the minute signs that fate transmits by sound, the ebb and flow of life. I can even hear faint footsteps move across soft grassland,” the old man said.
“And how accurate are these skills of yours?” Chen Ya asked.
At that very moment a painted boat appeared suddenly on the river heading downstream, its oars creaked as its keel clashed against the water.
“What is the fortune of the vessel we now see? the commissioner said.
” I can hear sorrow in the creak of those oars, my lord. A man of high-rank has been summoned by eternity,” Bian Yin sighed.
The commissioner then sent someone to inquire. Upon their return, he learnt that Li, a lieutenant of the army stationed at Linjiang, had passed away on duty. The boat was transporting his remains to his hometown.
“Even if Dongfang Shuo were resurrected, he could not surpass you!” exclaimed the astonished commissioner. The old fortune-teller was rewarded with ten jars of wine and ten taels of silver, and then dismissed.
The first fortune-teller thus heard the fate of a man in moving oars.
But there was another fortune-teller named Li Jie. He came from Kaifeng, the capital city located in a bend of the great Yellow river. After serving in Zhuofu, a County deep inland, he set up a divination stall. Here he displayed a large sword and a sign that read:
“This blade is for use by anyone in China who wishes to question the skills of the owner.”
Li Jie was indeed well-versed in the Book of Changes (Zhouyi), adept at deciphering the Six Writings, and had a deep understanding of astrology and geomancy. He could explain the significance of the Five Stars and predict good or bad fortune like a deity. His knowledge of the Three Fates allowed him to determine success or failure and rise or fall with great accuracy.
One day, as he displayed his sign, a man entered his stall, wearing what might be termed an unusual costume: a headscarf, two black collared shirts, a silk sash around his waist, clean shoes, and neat socks. He also carried a scroll of text. He greeted the diviner, and provided his date and time of birth for a prediction of his fate.
“This fortune is difficult to foresee.” Li Jie complained as he examined the hexagram.
“Why is it difficult?”
“Honorable sir”, Li Jie said anxiously, “you should abstain from drinking and tell only the truth”.
“I am as sober as you, and I have nothing to hide,” the man muttered.
Fearing errors, Li Jie then verified the dates he was given, and recalculated. Upon seeing the hexagram, he then said: “Honorable sir, some fates are better unprobed.”
“I am afraid the signs are unfavorable.” Li Jie replied. He then wrote four lines:
“A tiger approaches your birthdate,
When it does, calamity awaits.
Tomorrow, at the hour of the Ox,
Your family will grieve in shock.”
“But what does this hexagram indicate in terms of fortune and misfortune?” the man asked.
“I dare not hide the truth,” Li Jie sighed, “it means that you will die.”
“This year.” Li Jie replied.
“In which month of this year?”
“This month.” Li Jie answered.
“On which day of this month?”
“Today,” Li Jie replied.
“At what time during the night?”
“At the third night watch of tonight,” Li Jie said.
“If I truly die tonight”, the man said, “everything will be over. If I do not die, I will deal with you at the county office tomorrow!”
“If you do not die tonight”, Li Jie said with sorrow, “come back tomorrow. On that wall hangs a sharp sword. You must then apply that blade upon my neck!”
The enraged man could not contain his anger, and dragged Li Jie out of the divination stall. Li Jie had meddled in worldly affairs and now he was deeply worried. However, several county officials approached the man, who was in fact, Sun, a magistrate. “What was this commotion?”
“This man has tricked me by means of absurd arguments. I purchased a divination reading, and he told me I would die at the third night watch tonight. I am not ill, and how could I die at the third night watch? I will take him to the county office, and the official investigation will clear things up.”
“Divinations are like selling houses and selling divination readings is just talk. Sun, the magistrate, was sold a poor product,” was the popular and quite unanimous conclusion.
“You have reached beyond your skill by divining for Sun, the magistrate, “they told Li Jie, “and now you can no longer conduct divinations here. The fate of the poor and the lowly may be simple to forsee. Yet, the length of any life is shrouded in mystery, and the moment of death impossible to specify. Only fathers and brothers can predict life and death with the certainty of hours and minutes. You have been inconsiderate. Divinations can be inauspicious if they flatter people and can lead to misunderstandings if they tell the truth.”
Li Jie apologized, closed his divination stall, and moved to another city.
Sun, the magistrate, had been calmed by the crowd, and now he felt ashamed and returned to his office.
At home, his wife recognized the worried lines on his face.
“What troubles you, husband? Are you having problems at work?” she asked.
“No, don’t ask!”
But she continued: “Have you been reprimanded by your superior?”
“Did you have a dispute with someone of a higher rank?” she persisted.
“No! I bought a divination reading today, and the fortune-teller told me that I would die at the third night watch tonight.”
Hearing this, his wife widened her brown eyes and raised her brows, saying, “How could anyone deliver such a message in this way? Why didn’t you report him to the authorities?”
“I wanted to, but I was persuaded not to. Wife, I want you to stay with me this evening. If I don’t die tonight, I’ll settle the matter with him tomorrow, which is better than you going to someone else’s house.”
Dusk now descended on their home.
“Let’s prepare a few cups of wine to pass the time. I won’t sleep; I’ll spend the night awake”, Sun said. After drinking three or four cups, however, he became intoxicated nevertheless, and Sun, the magistrate, then dozed off in his official chair.
“My husband, you must not sleep,” she said and called their daughter for assistance. “Shake your father awake, child!”
The daughter did her best – in vain.
“My child, we must get your father into bed. The chair is not suited for sleep.”
The drowsing and quite drunk magistrate had insisted on staying awake, as if attempting to keep Time itself at a standstill. But, such a feat is beyond even the very wise.
The magistrate struggled against the pull of his own mind, and his wife wishing to assist her spouse, instructed the maid, Ying’er, to light a candle in the kitchen.
“Have you heard the awful news? A fortune teller has today told my husband that the hexagrams have predicted his death at the third watch tonight?”
“Yes, I have heard. But how can this be?”
“Ying’er, I will even pay you for your effort. Take what coins I have! If my husband does not die tonight, we will confront the fortune-teller tomorrow.”
“Make sure you don’t fall asleep!”
“I won’t dare!” Ying’er replied.
Ying’er did her best, but eventually night overcame her, and she dozed off.
“Ying’er, I told you to stay awake” the magistrate’s wife shouted. “How can you fall asleep?”
“I won’t sleep,” the drowsy maid replied. But soon after, her head dropped, her eyes reluctantly shut and she drifted off. Her employer now shook the maid, but was unable was unable to get a response. At that very moment, the sudden and steady thumps of a drum pierced the night. The night-watch had arrived for the third watch.
“Ying’er, stop pretending!” shouted the magistrates wife. “Don’t do this now!”
But to no avail.
Suddenly, the middle door of the house creaked, footsteps moved in the hallway and then the front gate slammed. In a frantic effort the magistrate’s wife woke the maid, lit a lamp and together spied into the darkness outside. The front door was open, and a human form dressed in white, the head of their household, slid hurriedly through courtyard towards the raging river, covering his face with one hand. They both rushed outside, only to see him jump into the water and vanish.
Two female voices echoed through the night:
“What is to become of us now! Magistrate, why did you jump into the river?”
Several neighbors were then summoned for help, and the grieving wife then recounted the story of her husband’s death, as you have now heard it.
“This is truly a strange occurrence!” the of them said shaking her head. “Yesterday, I saw the magistrate returning with a Taoist priest in a straw robe and carrying scriptures. I even greeted him.”
“Yes, I also greeted the magistrate when he returned with the Taoist priest” added another. “I went to the county office in the morning, and I saw the magistrate scolding a fortune teller who was selling hexagrams. Who could have known?”
“Why didn’t the magistrate come to us for help?”
They all cried, and before they left one of them turned in the door, placed her hand on the new widow’s shoulder and sighed: “Considering what a virtuous man your husband was, anyone would be overcome by grief. This decent man will now never be seen again.”
The matter was immediately reported to the authorities, and the magistrate’s wife was ordered to perform good deeds and offer prayers for the deceased.
The mourning period passed in the blink of an eye. One day, two rosy-cheeked women came strolling towards the late magistrate’s house. One of them had a bottle of wine, and the other carried two bundles of wildflowers.
“Have we come to the right place?” they said and lifted the curtains. The magistrate’s wife then recognized Zhang and Li, the local matchmakers.
“I have not seen you two in a very long time!” she said.
“We should have been here earlier. We hope you are not offended,” Zhang replied.
“How long has it been since my husband passed away?”
“Oh, more than a hundred days!” Li replied.
“Over a hundred days,” the widow sighed, “well…. time flies! Sun was really a very decent man. Sometimes, he would scold me, but he could still be affectionate. Now that he has been gone for some time, the house is very quiet…….”
“It’s time to discuss marriage proposals,” Zhang concluded.
“I am not sure there will be another man like Sun in this world for me?” The magistrate’s wife said.
“Actually, it will not be difficult to find one,” Li said confidently. “You have a good daughter-in-law, don’t you?”
The widow nodded.
“But, I am old and tired, and in order for another marriage to make any sense, I have certain specific demands….three in fact. If you can find one who matches my needs, then we can talk about a proposal. If not, I’d rather live alone.”
“What are your demands?” Zhang asked.
“Well,” the magistrate’s wife said: “First, I am too old to change my surname. I am used to it now. I want to marry someone with the same surname as my late husband, Sun. Second, my late husband had a very good job as magistrate. So, I want someone with a similar position. Third, if we don’t marry, I want him to enter the household.”
“Alright! And if we are able to find a person who meets your requirements, will you then agree to a marriage?” Li asked.
“I will believe that when I see it. But go ahead and give it your best effort. Maybe fate will intervene, who knows?”
Zhang smiled. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life! We will do our best,” she said.
“I don’t have any couplets for marriage proposal in my house,” the widow replied.
“I have some here,” Li said triumphantly and produced a pair of marriage couplets from her pocket. They read:
“Snow hides the mountains of Sichuan until it’s seen;
Willow conceals the parrots’ chatter until it’s known.”
In the afternoon, the magistrate’s wife scribbled down her own marriage proposal and presented it to Li and Zhang. Gifts were then exchanged, and after a lengthy communication back and forth, a new husband nicknamed Little Sun arrived at her doorstep. Little Sun was everything the widow had wanted, and she was everything he wanted, and the union was judged a great success.
One day, the newlyweds both got drunk on sweet wine, and the maid Ying’er then decided to prepare some sobering soup. In the kitchen, she attempted to start a fire, but found that the chimney was blocked. She began knocking on the side trying to clear whatever it was that prevented the flow of air. Suddenly, a cold hand dropped from the opening. Then a neck and a noose followed. And finally the head itself covered by long silvery locks. The tongue protruded from mouth of the corpse, and its eyes seemed to weep blood. While she recovered her breath, she thought it lifeless. But then a spark flickered in the dark eyes, facial muscles contracted – and a faint whisper emerged from its blue parted lips:
“Do not forget!”
Then the scream of Ying’er echoed through the house, followed by a thump as she fell unconscious to the floor. Wife and husband rushed into the kitchen, and found her lying by the fireplace. Her face had seemed pale, her eyes had shifted back and forth as if she were in a delirium, her lips had turned purple and her fingernails blue. Eventually she came to, and later they told her how happy they had been in that moment. For some minutes they even feared that her soul had been freed, like some caged bird, from the confounds of her body.
They then brewed her a herbal potion to restore her health, and asked her what had happened. Ying’er told them about her strange and grotesque vision by the fireplace, how a corpse of what she had assumed was the late magistrate, Mr. Sun, with a noose around his neck, blood dripping from his eyes and hair covering his face, had appeared before her, whispered and frightened her from her wits.
This fantasy about the dead magistrate infuriated the widow who immediately slapped her maid in the face and said: “You idiot! I told you to make soup, and you start rambling about my deceased husband. Stop this charade, put out the fire and go to your room!” Ying’er returned to her room and soon after fell asleep.
Later that night, as the couple withdrew to their sleeping quarters, the widow whispered, “Husband, that girl is no longer useful. We should send her away.”
“Yes, but where?” he replied.
“I have a plan.”
The next day, after they had breakfast, Little Sun went to handle official matters. The magistrate’s wife called Ying’er and said, “Ying’er, you’ve been with us for seven or eight years, and I’ve always treated you well. But now you bring back so many memories of my late husband. I know that you are dreamer. Have you never a dreamed of a husband yourself?”
“I wouldn’t dare to expect such a thing. You should know that I am grateful for what you have done for me.”
“I don’t want you to marry just anyone,” the magistrate’s wife continued, “we will consult the matchmakers, read sign and hexagrams, and set the same demands as we did for me. We will tell them you too should marry a man with the surname ‘Sun’. What do you say?”
Ying’er hesitated, but realized that becoming the second wife of a magistrate like Little Sun was not only an honor, but a significant promotion.
However, once the principle of a marriage had been settled and the matchmakers had consulted wise men, hexagrams and the stars, it was decided that she marry another, more suited man. That man’s name was not Sun, but Wang Xing, a notorious drunk and a gambler.
It did not take long before Ying’er saw all their savings vanish. One day, when Wang was drunk, he came home and scolded Ying’er, saying, “You worthless woman! Can’t you see how I suffer for us both? Why didn’t you ask your father for some money to support us?” Unable to bear his insults, Ying’er tied up her skirt, left her home, and returned to the residence of Magistrate Sun.
When the magistrate’s wife saw her, she said, “Ying’er, you’ve already married someone else. What brings you here?”
Ying’er tearfully explained, “I don’t dare to hide anything. The man I married is a drunkard and a gambler. In just three months, we’ve spent all our money. I don’t know what to do, so I came to ask for a loan, we need three to five hundred coins to survive.”
“Ying’er, your marriage is your own affair. I’ll give you some silver this time, but don’t come back again,” the magistrate’s wife replied.
Ying’er accepted the silver and expressed her gratitude before returning home. However, a few days later the new money was gone as well.
One evening Wang was short of cash, and had to return to his house sober. When he saw his wife, he shouted:
“You useless woman! How can you do this to me? Why didn’t you ask the magistrate’s wife for another loan? I need three or maybe five hundred coins!”
“I have been once”, Ying’er replied, “I used the necklace as collateral, and told her all sorts of lies to persuade her. How can I go to her another time?”
She sensed the anger in Wang’s eyes as he turned to her.
“Listen, you’ll better do as you’re told. If not, I’ll break your legs!”
This was too much for Ying’er. As dusk descended, she walked the shameful path to the magistrate’s residence. When she arrived, she found the door bolted for the night. She could not wake the whole house by hammering at the entrance? So, she continued down the road passed the lighted windows of her old neighbors. As she stopped to rest, she suddenly heard a voice saying:
“Ying’er, you must be ware! The path of any marriage is uncertain. Trust me, life must be lived on its own terms.”
Ying’er immediately turned towards the source of the sound, and noticed movement under the eaves of a house. She made out the silhouette of a hat, and outstretched arms in the moonlight.
“Ying’er”, was the sudden whisper: “I am the restless soul of the former magistrate. It is with great sadness that I approach you, please accept what I offer.”
A lonely woman on a deserted road at night will do what she is told. Before she knew it the shadow had melted into dusk, and she was left holding a small silk purse – filled to the brim with shiny silver.
Tucking her robe tightly around her slim waist, she then hurried through evening mist. At home, she found the front door locked, and began knocking. To no avail.
Then she shouted, and eventually there was a reply:
“Damn you wife, why haven’t you gone to ask for help from the Magistrate? It may be too late now!”
“I have already been there, but they’ve already bolted their door. I couldn’t make a nuisance of myself. I was about to return when a man calling himself “the former magistrate” appeared out of nowhere and practically donated me some silver.”
“What is this nonsense about ghosts! Bags of silver do not magically materialize. Show me this silver.”
Ying’er handed him the silver. At first he was confused, but when he saw the amount, he exclaimed:
“This is stolen property! We must report it, or face punishment!” He shook his head in despair. “Keep it safe, tomorrow we must bring it to the local courthouse”.
Morning, however, brought second thoughts to Wang.
“You know, when I think about this,” he said, “……I cannot accuse a magistrate of theft or dishonesty? And what evidence do I have? He makes good money, why would he do such a thing?” His forehead furled under strenuous thought.
“I have an idea, let’s order some new clothes and have them sent to my friend Pei’s house. We then collect them there. They will think he paid for the order.” He smiled.
A scheme was thus hatched, and the very next day Wang purchased fine silks and garments for himself and his wife, and had everything sent to his friend’s house. Arriving at the unwitting co-conspirator in the evening, they then cleaned themselves and changed into their new lavish costumes. However, the spectacle caught the eye of their friend’s curious mother.
“Where did you get the money for all this?” she asked as she saw the colorful fabrics.
“Yesterday I got two taels of silver from some work I had done, bought this and had it sent here,” Wang lied. “I have stopped gambling and drinking…”
“Wang Xing”, the mother said thoughtfully, “can you spare your wife for a couple of days? I am old and I need her help, you see?”
When the husband had left, her wrinkled face turned to Ying’er.
“My dear,” she said, “tomorrow we will burn incense in the great temple.”
They woke at dawn, did their chores and made their way to Dongyue Temple. They burned incense
in the two long corridors of the lower hall, and were moving passed some offices, when Ying’er felt her skirt loosen. She stopped to fix it while the old mother continued towards the exit. She was tying it up in the back, when she noticed a judge in one of the offices. He wore a slender hat, and like her he was in the process of arranging his attire, the corner of his belt had loosened. Suddenly his face turned towards her, and he whispered:
“Ying’er, I am your first magistrate. If you want a sentence, I will pass one. This official paper is yours.”
Ying’er received the sealed scroll with shaking hands.
“But this is very odd!” she exclaimed. “How can a stranger pass sentences on me? I have never heard of such a thing…”
Ying’er hid the document in her clothing, hurried on her way and said nothing to the old woman waiting outside.
However, when she entered her own familiar home, she did tell her husband. Wang examined the scroll. It turned out to be a riddle on a single sheet of paper, which read:
Follow women who waive in an alley,
both young and old have purpose
on both sides of a tomb.
Listen to the drum of the third watch,
Men will plunge and arise from water.
The text seemed incomprehensible, and a puzzled Wang ordered his wife to keep silent for many months.
It was in February, a year later, that the great Judge Bao entered the story. He was born in Luzhou district in southern China. His full name was Bao Mingzheng. During the Song dynasty, China had system of pavilions, which were higher state institutions. Bao became a member of the Longtu Pavilion, and later he rose to the position of bachelor there. Hence his name became Bao Longtu.
He was still a mere county magistrate when these events occurred. But he had been intelligent and upright since childhood, and in his official capacity he always cut straight to the bone, bringing clarity to many who struggled in confusion.
Judge Bao had been in office a mere three days, when he one night had a dream that he was sitting in the hall, and there was a couplet posted on the wall:
“To know the three changes,
light your fires and plunge into water.”
The next morning, Bao went to the hall and summoned local wise men to explain the two sentences to him. No one could make any sense of them. He then asked for a white card on which to write a riddle that had come to him in his dream. When he was done, Judge Bao said:
“If anyone can make any sense of this conundrum, they will be rewarded with ten taels of silver.”
He then hammered the card to the county gate causing much commotion. Even some officials and their servants, sensing an opportunity for profit, arrived to examine the mysterious text.
It so happened that Wang- Ying’yer’s drunkard of a husband – was buying food from a stall nearby. He noticed the chatter and the murmur, and overheard puzzled remarks about the magistrate who had pinned an unsolvable riddle to the old oak door.
Curiosity then got the better of him. He made his way through the throng, and approached the small white sign. He could not believe his own eyes, before him was the message that a ghost had presented to his own wife. Wang had the odd feeling of being watched, and turned. Suddenly he stared straight into the round face of his friend Pei.
“There is no use in hanging around”, Wang said desperately trying to mask his surprise, “the new magistrate is an odd man with a ferocious temper. I can let you in on a little secret”, Wang whispered, “my wife is the only person on earth – except for myself- that has any inclination about what this riddle might mean.”
Wang then bought his food, and returned home. The house was empty when he entered, and he began pacing back and forth across the squeaking wooden floor. It was by no means a large home, so he turned frequently, scratching his.arms as if bitten by a leech. At the sound of his wife outside, he rushed out. But then he stopped, afraid to appear unmanly, sucked it all up and followed her slowly inside. Finally, he could bear it no longer and unburdened his mind.
“First, the ghost of the old magistrate appeared three times to teach me to avenge him,” Ying’er said, “and I got a bag of silver for nothing. Whatever you do, you must not lock yourself up here like a coward.”
It was with a certain reluctance that Wang returned to the county gate. Again he navigated through the throng towards the sign, hoping that it had vanished. But it had not. When he again spotted his friend Pei, he felt slightly relieved and dragged him into a deserted street to ask his advice.
There were rows of two storied houses. The sky was blue, but the sun had passed its zenith and long shadows stretched of from the buildings on the opposite side, almost to their feet. They stood under the a solitary tree, and Wang recounted his story under the shade of sighing branches. Then Pei looked at him and said: “What do you want me to do? Where is this piece of paper that the spirit-judge handed your wife?”
“The last time I saw it, my wife had stuffed into a closet with her clothes.”
“We must bring this before Judge Bao and collect your reward. I will go and tell him that you will present crucial evidence in the case. Go home, fetch the paper and bring it to the court office. When Judge Bao asks for it lay it before him.”
At that moment, they heard someone coming up the alley and lowered their voices.
“Go now!” Pei whispered as he turned to make out the shadow approaching from the shade at the other end. Wang did as he was told, and hurried off.
Pei heard footsteps in the alley, but could not make out where they were coming from. This was not a common place for robbers? Suddenly a door in the side gallery creaked open, and the clear silhouette of Judge Bao appeared three paces from him. Pei immediately threw himself to the ground crying “My Lord, we were just coming to see you. Please do not harm me!”
“My dear stranger, please get up!” Judge Bao exclaimed. “I am not here on your account”.
Pei looked up with surprise, then he slowly rose to his feet, brushed dust from his clothes and glanced furtively at the Judge.
“I am here to buy food from the stalls, just like everyone else,” he said and smiled. “But now that you have admitted that you have something I need to hear, you might as well tell me what that might be.” So it was that Pei recounted what he knew to Judge Bao.
Ying’er was nowhere to be seen when Wang opened the door. He headed straight for her closet, throwing all her garments to the floor, even her fine red silk scarf. At last he found the wrinkled piece of paper, but when he unfolded it the calligrapher’s strokes had vanished , leaving only solitary ink stain in one corner. There was no more evidence and no case to be made, and Wang sank down in a chair.
Daylight was fading outside, small gleaming stars penetrated the darkening blue above. Suddenly he heard the sound of a horse. It neighed, and out front and man’s voice shouted: “Wang Xing you are hereby summed by the Lord Bao to appear before his court. Bring your evidence and follow!”
Wang grabbed the blank paper, and followed the trotting horse of the stern sword carrying official down the road, across the bridge, through the city streets- all the way to the court house. Before he knew it he had been lead down several corridors and a great metal door had closed behind him. He was in a darkened hall, only lit by flickering oil lamps along the walls. In the middle stood Judge Bao.
“My envoy has informed me that you collected a piece of paper in the Yue Temple”, the judge said, “I wish to see it”.
Wang bowed as respectfully as he could and said “My wife burned incense at the Yue Temple last year, my Lord. As she passed by an office, a spirit showed himself and delivered this written message. “I am sorry, My Lord, but the message seems to have vanished”
Judge Bao carefully examined the paper and then directed his penetrating eyes at Wang.
“Wang Xing, I’m asking you,” the Judge said, “did that spirit give any instructions to your wife along with this piece of paper?”
“The Shinto only instructed her to seek justice,” Wang replied.
Judge Bao became angry and said, “Nonsense! No Shinto priest would ask such a thing? Shouldn’t she be the one granting justice instead? This is an absurd story! Who do you think you can fool?”
Wang quickly knelt down and said, “My lord, I will explain.”
“Your story does not make sense,” Judge Bao said, “If your explanation is reasonable, you will be rewarded; otherwise, you’ll be in trouble.”
“My wife used to serve under Magistrate Sun’s family,” Wang began, “and her name is Ying’er. She heard an astrologer predict that Magistrate Sun would die at the age of fifty-three during the third watch of a certain year and month. When it happened as predicted, the magistrate’s wife remarried to the current Magistrate Sun and married off Ying’er to me. When Ying’er was working in the magistrate’s house, she saw the former magistrate appear twice. The first time, he was hanging on a well fence, disheveled, with his tongue sticking out and blood in his eyes. He said, ‘Ying’er, help me decide.’ The second time, near Magistrate Sun’s house, she met the former magistrate again, who gave her a bag of silver. The third time, at the Yue Temple, a mysterious shinto priest appeared and gave her this paper, instructing her to seek justice. The appearance of the judge was exactly like that of Magistrate Sun, who was formerly her guardian.”
“I see!“ Judge Bao said with a sardonic smile. “Bring me the second magistrate Sun and his wife. Now!”
His subordinates lowered their gazes and did as instructed.
“You two have done a fine job! Well executed,” Judge Bao said mockingly as they were brought before him.
“We have done nothing wrong,” Magistrate Sun replied.
Judge Bao then lifted his scroll, looked at them with doubt and pronounced the following solution to the unsolvable riddle:
“‘This text speaks of two magistrates, you and your predecessor. It also hints at your marriage to his widow. And even specifies the time of your predecessor’s death, and the rewards lavished upon you by such good fortune. But more than this, the spirit claims that you keep him prisoner below boiling water. We all know what what your maid saw: the dangling corpse with bleeding eyes and protruding tongue ….and fluttering white locks. In my experience this is the face of a strangled man. Finally, the ghost mentions the time of my arrival and these very words now spoken to you.”
The widow sighed.
“Take Magistrate Sun and his wife to their house”, Judge Bao ordered. “Search that stove and kitchen from end to end. Every spirit must be free to join its ancestors!”
The small crowd looked at each other with doubting eyes and muttered. However, they all obeyed without question, and wife and husband were brought to their own home. There they stood silent while men scoured the kitchen. Even the great stove was moved to one side. Immediately, a hidden stone slab appeared, and beneath it they found a well with cold and murky water. The well was then drained, and a bamboo basket was lowered. From that moist and dark cavity a rotting corpse was then retrieved. It was the old Magistrate, and there was evidence of strangulation. The widow and her new husband turned pale and mute. The onlookers were shocked.
As it turned out, the younger Magistrate Sun had initially been a man who been saved from the cold during a heavy snowstorm. After restoring him to health, the elder magistrate had taken him in, educated him, and taught him to read and write. However, the young man later had an affair with Magistrate Sun’s wife. On the day a diviner predicted the death of the elder Magistrate Sun, the old man had discovered the truth.
Fearing exposure, the younger magistrate got his rival drunk and strangled him to death, hiding the body in the well. The couple then staged a suicide using the maid as a witness. Thus the rumor of a personal tragedy was spread, an old magistrate had drowned himself. Later, his young rival returned and moved the stove to cover the well. A marriage was then arranged. No-one would have suspected, unless the elder Magistrate’s spirit, tormented by the lack of a proper burial, had made three visits to the maid, Ying’er.
This case helped spread the reputation of Judge Bao far and wide. To this day, people speak of Bao Longtu, who solves riddles from this world and the other. As you can hear in the following poem:
In a calligrapher’s elegant riddle we find,
Judge Bao tracing your footsteps in his mind.
If the deed is done, you must be ware,
His scarred spirit will be arriving here.