Submitted Thursday, May 8, 2014
Translator’s note: Author Pu Songling (1640-1715), a native of Shandong, China, was like so many great talents largely unknown during his troubled life of frustrated ambitions that never amounted to the career he envisioned. It may be of consolation to his wandering spirit that his magnum opus collection of supernatural stories, Liao Zhai Zhi Yi 聊齋誌異 (Tales of the Strange from Liaozhai), is widely regarded as among the finest Chinese prose produced in near-modern times.
Audiences came for the ghosts and wherefoxes, but they ended up staying for the exquisite turns of phrase and moral lessons neatly tucked into each carefully crafted story. The following is a translation of one of the 492 tales usually included in what some label the Chinese answer to One Thousand and One Nights. – W. Holzer
A Monk’s Sins
Upon dying an unfortunate and sudden death, Mr. Zhang found his spirit taken into the custody of infernal envoys who issued him a summons to see their master. He followed them to the netherworld, where Yama, judge of the dead, was reviewing the records of life and death. As the transcendental judge flipped through the pages, he flew into a rage – for his spectral servants had grabbed the wrong soul! – and once berated and rebuked, they were tasked with bringing Zhang back to the world of the living where he rightfully belonged. But as Zhang was heading out from the capital of the dead, he asked his otherworldly escorts if they could first take him to do a little bit of sightseeing.
The ghastly guides led Zhang past the Nine Layers’ abominable attractions, from Knife Hill to the Tree of Blades, and as the tour was drawing to a close, there hung a monk, screaming in pain and wishing for death as he swung upside-down from a rope threaded through a hole in his thigh. Zhang was shocked as he drew near to discover that this tortured soul was his own brother!
“What sin warrants punishment like this?” he asked his guides.
“This man collected alms far and wide, yet despite his vows, he used the money to support a lifestyle of gambling and debauchery,” replied one of the spirits. “This is his punishment. Repentance is the only means of ending this suffering.”
And with that, Zhang was at once back in the land of the living. Awakening, his thoughts turned immediately to when and how his brother, who had been living in the monastery at Xingfu Temple, had died, and he set out to learn more. It was no sooner than he arrived at the temple’s gates that he heard a terrible scream of pain from within. Inside was none other than his brother, whose thigh was covered with a festering sore, oozing with pus and blood. The monk lay with his afflicted leg elevated upward and tethered against the wall – an almost perfect recreation of the scene from the netherworld. Mr. Zhang, the traveler, was taken aback.
“It feels a little better when I suspend my leg like this,” explained the brother. “Otherwise, the pain would rip me apart.”
When Zhang began to relay the details of his visit to the netherworld, his brother, too, was astonished. Understanding, the monk pledged to give up meat and wine for good and to devote himself fully to reading the sutras. His ailment was cured within half a month, and he went on to become known as a model of monastic devotion.
The Historian of the Strange adds: Sinners justify themselves by saying that the very existence of hell and its demons is disputable. Could it be that just like that, there is nothing to fear for our sinful behavior? What they fail to see is that those misfortunes and ailments that befall us in the light are but our just penalties sent from the dark.
Editor’s note: Below is the same story written in news form by Wesley – just for fun. When I asked him about the motivation behind wanting to do something as laborious as this, he just said it was something he’d been wanting to do for a while but never had the time for. Thanks again. The Salad Bowl appreciates every bit of your creativity! – J. Feng
Sinful monk repents after brother’s eerie ‘trip to afterlife’
(Jinan, Shandong, Sept. 17 — Wesley Holzer) A wayward monk at Xingfu Temple was set back on the path of righteousness by none other than his brother, who says he came to help after seeing a vision of the indulgent holy man suffering in the afterlife.
Area resident Mr. Zhang says he grew concerned about his brother after allegedly spotting his suffering soul during a transcendental tour of the infernal realm that greets all sinners.
Despite the happy ending, social critics were quick to blast a monk who needed to undergo supernatural censure before deciding to right his wrongs.
“Sinners justify themselves by saying that the very existence of hell and its demons is disputable,” noted the Historian of the Strange, a Zichuan-based expert on long tales.
“What they fail to see is that those misfortunes and ailments that befall us in the light are but our just penalties sent from the dark,” the Historian concluded.
Zhang recounted his experience for a Strange Times reporter.
The Shandong native says he died on a recent day without any warning to find himself being judged before Yama, the judge of the dead who would decide his soul’s fate.
But the judge discovered that Zhang’s death was nothing more than a clerical error.
Zhang said Yama was furious. “You grabbed the wrong soul,” the spirit judge berated his ethereal entourage. “I order you to return him!”
On his way out, after sightseeing at the sharp apex of Knife Hill and the unwelcoming branches of the Tree of Blades that Zhang by chance noted the soul of his brother the monk, hanging upside down and swinging tortuously from a rope threaded through a gaping hole in his thigh.
“I thought, ‘What sin warrants a punishment such as this?'”
His ghastly guides reportedly answered: “This man collected alms far and wide, yet despite his vows, he used the money to support a lifestyle of gambling and debauchery.”
It turned out his younger brother was still on this plane, but the monk had developed a festering sore on his thigh, a bottomless morbid tap pumping out a constant stream of pus and blood. The monk had been lying on his back for some time with his leg suspended — as if by a rope through his afflicted thigh — in a bid to ease the pain.
“It feels a little better when I suspend my leg like this,” the monk explained, unaware of the eerie similarity to his elder brother’s vision.
Chilled by the elder brother’s vision, Zhang the monk promised to give up meat and wine for good and dedicate himself to studying the sutras.
“I was better in half a month,” attested the monk.
“And I’ve since become a model of asceticism,” he added, without even the slightest hint of pride.
Wesley Holzer was born in California, United States. He is a translator living in Taiwan who likes to pass himself off as a journalist just to see if people are paying attention. He started studying Chinese in high school as a deal with the school principal to get out of taking a required math class and has never once regretted the decision. Wesley took up photography in 2008 as an expensive experiment to boost his impressively poor memory. I met Wesley in March, 2014, when I started my internship at the Central News Agency. His affinity for words and excellent grasp of the Chinese language and its underlying culture left me desperate to share this man’s talents with our audience. Thank you for your contribution. – John.