More Translations from the Chinese/The Story of Miss Li
 THE STORY OF MISS LI
Miss Li, ennobled with the title "Lady of Ch'ien-kuo," was once a prostitute in Ch'ang-an. The devotion of her conduct was so remarkable that I have thought it worth while to record her story. In the T'ien-pao era there was a certain nobleman, Governor of Ch'ang-chou and Lord of Jung-yang, whose name and surname I will omit. He was a man of great wealth and highly esteemed by all. He had passed his fiftieth year and had a son who was close on twenty, a boy who in literary talent outstripped all his companions. His father was proud of him and had great hopes of his future. "This," he would say, "is the 'thousand-league colt' of our family." When the time came for the lad to compete at the Provincial Examinations, his father gave him fine clothes and a handsome coach with richly caparisoned horses for the journey; and to provide for his expense at the Capital, he gave him a large sum of money, saying, "I am sure that your talent is such that you will succeed at the first attempt; but I am giving you two years' supply, that you may pursue your career free from all anxiety." The young man was also quite confident and saw himself getting the first place as clearly as he saw the palm of his own hand.
Starting from P'i-ling he reached Ch'ang-an in a few weeks and took a house in the Pu-chēng quarter. One day he was coming back from a visit to the Eastern Market. He entered the City by the eastern gate of P'ing-k'ang and was going to visit a friend who lived in the south-western part of the town. When he reached the Ming-k'o Bend, he saw a house of which the gate and courtyard were rather narrow; but the house itself was stately and stood well back from the road. One of the double doors was open, and at it stood a lady, attended by her maid-servant. She was of exquisite, bewitching beauty, such as the world has seldom produced.
When he saw her, the young man unconsciously reined in his horse and hesitated. Unable to leave the spot, he purposely let his whip fall to the ground and waited for his servant to pick it up, all the time staring at the lady in the doorway. She too was staring and met his gaze with a look that seemed to be an answer to his admiration. But in the end he went away without daring to speak to her.
But he could not put the thought of her out of his mind and secretly begged those of his friends who were most expert in the pleasures of Ch'ang-an to tell him what they knew of the girl. He learnt from them that the house belonged to a low and unprincipled woman named Li. When he asked what chance he had of winning the daughter, they answered: "The woman Li is possessed of considerable property, for her previous dealings have been with wealthy and aristocratic families, from whom she has received enormous sums. Unless you are willing to spend many thousand pounds, the daughter will have nothing to do with you."
The young man answered: "All I care about is to win her. I do not mind if she costs a million pounds." The next day he set out in his best clothes, with many servants riding behind him, and knocked at the door of Mrs. Li's house. Immediately a page-boy drew the bolt. The young man asked, "Can you tell me whose house this is?" The boy did not answer, but ran back into the house and called out at the top of his voice, "Here is the gentleman who dropped his whip the other day!"
Miss Li was evidently very much pleased. He heard her saying, "Be sure not to let him go away. I am just going to do my hair and change my clothes; I will be back in a minute." The young man, in high spirits, followed the page-boy into the house. A white-haired old lady was going upstairs, whom he took to be the girl's mother. Bowing low, the young man addressed her as follows: "I am told that you have a vacant plot of land, which you would be willing to let as building-ground. Is that true?" The old lady answered, "I am afraid the site is too mean and confined; it would be quite unsuitable for a gentleman's house. I should not like to offer it to you." She then took him into the guest-room, which was a very handsome one, and asked him to be seated, saying, "I have a daughter who has little either of beauty or accomplishment, but she is fond of seeing strangers. I should like you to meet her."
So saying, she called for her daughter, who presently entered. Her eyes sparkled with such fire, her arms were so dazzling white and there was in her movements such an exquisite grace that the young man could only leap to his feet in confusion and did not dare raise his eyes. When their salutations were over, he began to make a few remarks about the weather; and realized as he did so that her beauty was of a kind he had never encountered before.
They sat down again. Tea was made and wine poured out. The vessels used were spotlessly clean. He lingered till the day was almost over; the curfew-drum sounded its four beats. The old lady asked if he lived far away. He answered untruthfully, "Several leagues beyond the Yen-p'ing Gate," hoping that they would ask him to stay. The old lady said, "The drum has sounded. You will have to go back at once, unless you mean to break the law."
The young man answered, "I was being so agreeably entertained that I did not notice how rapidly the day had fled. My house is a long way off and in the city I have no friends or relations. What am I to do?" Miss Li then interposed, saying, "If you can forgive the meanness of our poor home, what harm would there be in your spending the night with us?" He looked doubtfully at the girl's mother, but met with no discouragement.
Calling his servants, he gave them money and told them to buy provisions for the night. But the girl laughingly stopped him, saying, "That is not the way guests are entertained. Our humble house will provide for your wants to-night, if you are willing to partake of our simple fare and defer your bounty to another occasion." He tried to refuse, but in the end she would not allow him to, and they all moved to the western hall. The curtains, screens, blinds and couches were of dazzling splendour; while the toilet-boxes, rugs, and pillows were of the utmost elegance. Candles were lighted and an excellent supper was served.
After supper the old lady retired, leaving the lovers engaged in the liveliest conversation, laughing and chattering completely at their ease.
After a while the young man said: "I passed your house the other day and you happened to be standing at the door. And after that, I could think of nothing but you; whether I lay down to rest or sat down to eat, I could not stop thinking of you." She laughed and answered: "It was just the same with me." He said: "You must know that I did not come to-day simply to look for building-land. I came hoping that you would fulfil my lifelong desire; but I was not sure how you would welcome me. What—"
He had not finished speaking when the old woman came back and asked what they were saying. When they told her, she laughed and said, "Has not Mencius written that 'the relationship between men and women is the ground-work of society'? When lovers are agreed, not even the mandate of a parent will deter them. But my daughter is of humble birth. Are you sure that she is fit to 'present pillow and mat' to a great man?"
He came down from the daïs and, bowing low, begged that she would accept him as her slave. Henceforward the old lady regarded him as her son-in-law; they drank heavily together and finally parted. Next morning he had all his boxes and bags brought round to Mrs. Li's house and settled there permanently. Henceforward he shut himself up with his mistress and none of his friends ever heard of him. He consorted only with actors and dancers and low people of that kind, passing the time in wild sports and wanton feasting. When his money was all spent, he sold his horses and men-servants. In about a year his money, property, servants and horses were all gone.
For some time the old lady's manner towards him had been growing gradually colder, but his mistress remained as devoted as ever. One day she said to him, "We have been together a year, but I am still not with child. They say that the spirit of the Bamboo Grove answers a woman's prayers as surely as an echo. Let us go to his temple and offer a libation."
The young man, not suspecting any plot, was delighted to take her to the temple, and having pawned his coat to buy sweet wine for the libation, he went with her and performed the ceremony of prayer. They stayed one night at the temple and came back next day. Whipping up their donkey, they soon arrived at the north gate of the P'ing-k'ang quarter. At this point his mistress turned to him and said, "My aunt's house is in a turning just near here. How would it be if we were to go there and rest for a little?"
He drove on as she directed him, and they had not gone more than a hundred paces, when he saw the entrance to a spacious carriage-drive. A servant who belonged to the place came out and stopped the cart, saying, "This is the entrance." The young man got down and was met by some one who came out and asked who they were. When told that it was Miss Li, he went back and announced her. Presently a married lady came out who seemed to be about forty. She greeted him, saying, "Has my niece arrived?" Miss Li then got out of the cart and her aunt said to her: "Why have you not been to see me for so long?" At which they looked at one another and laughed. Then Miss Li introduced him to her aunt and when that was over they all went into a side garden near the Western Halberd Gate. In the middle of the garden was a pagoda, and round it grew bamboos and trees of every variety, while ponds and summer-houses added to its air of seclusion. He asked Miss Li if this were her aunt's estate; she laughed, but did not answer and spoke of something else.
Tea of excellent quality was served; but when they had been drinking it for a little while, a messenger came galloping up on a huge Fergana horse, saying that Miss Li's mother had suddenly been taken very ill and had already lost consciousness, so that they had better come back as quickly as possible.
Miss Li said to her aunt: "I am very much upset. I think I had better take the horse and ride on ahead. Then I will send it back, and you and my husband can come along later." The young man was anxious to go with her, but the aunt and her servants engaged him in conversation, flourishing their hands in front of him and preventing him from leaving the garden. The aunt said to him: "No doubt my sister is dead by this time. You and I ought to discuss together what can be done to help with the expenses of the burial. What is the use of running off like that? Stay here and help me to make a plan for the funeral and mourning ceremonies."
It grew late; but the messenger had not returned. The aunt said: "I am surprised he has not come back with the horse. You had better go there on foot as quickly as possible and see what has happened. I will come on later."
The young man set out on foot for Mrs. Li's house. When he got there he found the gate firmly bolted, locked and sealed. Astounded, he questioned the neighbors, who told him that the house had only been let to Mrs. Li and that, the lease having expired, the landlord had now resumed possession. The old lady, they said, had gone to live elsewhere. They did not know her new address.
At first he thought of hurrying back to Hsüan-yang and questioning the aunt; but he found it was too late for him to get there. So he pawned some of his clothes, and, with the proceeds, bought himself supper and hired a bed. But he was too angry and distressed to sleep, and did not once close his eyes from dusk till dawn. Early in the morning he dragged himself away and went to the "aunt's house." He knocked on the door repeatedly, but it was breakfast-time and no one answered. At last, when he had shouted several times at the top of his voice, a footman walked majestically to the door. The young man nervously mentioned the aunt's name and asked whether she was at home. The footman replied: "No one of that name here." "But she lived here yesterday evening," the young man protested; "why are you trying to deceive me? If she does not live here, who does the house belong to?" The footman answered: "This is the residence of His Excellency Mr. Ts'ui. I believe that yesterday some persons hired a corner of the grounds. I understand that they wished to entertain a cousin who was coming from a distance. But they were gone before nightfall."
The young man, perplexed and puzzled to the point of madness, was absolutely at a loss what to do next. The best he could think of was to go to the quarters in Pu-chēng, where he had installed himself when he first arrived at Ch'ang-an. The landlord was sympathetic and offered to feed him. But the young man was too much upset to eat, and having fasted for three days fell seriously ill. He rapidly grew worse, and the landlord, fearing he would not recover, had him moved straight to the undertaker's shop. In a short time the whole of the undertaker's staff was collected round him, offering sympathy and bringing him food. Gradually he got better and was able to walk with a stick.
The undertaker now hired him by the day to hold up the curtains of fine cloth, by which he earned just enough to support himself. In a few months he grew quite strong again, but whenever he heard the mourners' doleful songs, in which they regretted that they could not change places with the corpse, burst into violent fits of sobbing and shed streams of tears over which they lost all control, then he used to go home and imitate their performance.
Being a man of intelligence, he very soon mastered the art and finally became the most expert mourner in Ch'ang-an. It happened that there were two undertakers at this time between whom there was a great rivalry. The undertaker of the east turned out magnificent hearses and biers, and in this respect his superiority could not be contested. But the mourners he provided were somewhat inferior. Hearing of our young man's skill, he offered him a large sum for his services. The eastern undertaker's supporters, who were familiar with the repertoire of his company, secretly taught the young man several fresh tunes and showed him how to fit the words to them. The lessons went on for several weeks, without any one being allowed to know of it. At the end of that time the two undertakers agreed to hold a competitive exhibition of their wares in T'ien-mēn Street. The loser was to forfeit 50,000 cash to cover the cost of the refreshments provided. Before the exhibition an agreement was drawn up and duly signed by witnesses.
A crowd of several thousand people collected to watch the competition. The mayor of the quarter got wind of the proceedings and told the chief of police. The chief of police told the governor of the city. Very soon all the gentlemen of Ch'ang-an were hurrying to the spot and every house in the town was empty. The exhibition lasted from dawn till midday. Coaches, hearses and all kinds of funeral trappings were successively displayed, but the undertaker of the west could establish no superiority. Filled with shame, he set up a platform in the south corner of the square. Presently a man with a long beard came forward, carrying a hand-bell and attended by several assistants. He wagged his beard, raised his eyebrows, folded his arms across his chest and bowed. Then, mounting the platform, he sang the "Dirge of the White Horse." When it was over, confident of an easy victory, he glared round him, as if to imply that his opponents had all vanished. He was applauded on every side and was himself convinced that his talents were a unique product of the age and could not possibly be called into question.
After a while the undertaker of the east put together some benches in the north corner of the square, and a young man in a black hat came forward, attended by five assistants and carrying a bunch of hearse-plumes in his hand. It was the young man of our story.
He adjusted his clothes, looked timidly up and down, and then cleared his throat and began his tune with an air of great diffidence.
He sang the dirge "Dew on the Garlic." His voice rose so shrill and clear that "its echoes shook the forest trees." Before he had finished the first verse, all who heard were sobbing and hiding their tears.
When the performance was over, every one made fun of the western undertaker, and he was so much put out that he immediately removed his exhibits and retired from the contest. The audience was amazed by the collapse of the western undertaker and could not imagine where his rival had procured so remarkable a singer.
It happened that the Emperor had recently issued an order commanding the governors of outside provinces to confer with him at the capital at least once a year.
At this time the young man's father, who was governor of Ch'ang-chou, had recently arrived at the capital to make his report. Hearing of the competition, he and some of his colleagues discarded their official robes and insignia, and slipped away to join the crowd. With them was an old servant, who was the husband of the young man's foster-nurse. Recognizing his foster-son's way of moving and speaking, he was on the point of accosting him, but not daring to do so, he stood weeping silently. The father asked him why he was crying, and the servant replied, "Sir, the young man who is singing reminds me of your lost son." The father answered: "My son became the prey of robbers, because I gave him too much money. This cannot be he." So saying, he also began to weep and, leaving the crowd, returned to his lodging.
But the old servant went about among the members of the troupe, asking who it was that had just sung with such skill. They all told him it was the son of such a one; and when he asked the young man's own name, that too was unfamiliar, for he was living under an alias. The old servant was so much puzzled that he determined to put the matter to the test for himself. But when the young man saw his old friend walking towards him, he winced, turned away his face, and tried to hide in the crowd. The old man followed him and catching his sleeve, said: "Surely it is you!" Then they embraced and wept. Presently they went back together to his father's lodging. But his father abused him, saying: "Your conduct has disgraced the family. How dare you show your face again?" So saying, he took him out of the house and led him to the ground between the Ch'ü-chiang Pond and the Apricot Gardens. Here he stripped him naked and thrashed him with his horse-whip, till the young man succumbed to the pain and collapsed. The father then left him and went away.
But the young man's singing-master had told some of his friends to watch what happened to him. When they saw him stretched inanimate on the ground, they came back and told the other members of the troupe.
The news occasioned universal lamentation, and two men were despatched with a reed mat to cover up the body. When they got there they found his heart still warm, and when they had held him in an upright posture for some time, his breathing recommenced. So they carried him home between them and administered liquid food through a reed-pipe. Next morning, he recovered consciousness; but after several months he was still unable to move his hands and feet. Moreover, the sores left by his thrashing festered in so disgusting a manner that his friends found him too troublesome, and one night deposited him in the middle of the road. However, the passers-by, harrowed by his condition, never failed to throw him scraps of food.
So copious was his diet that in three months he recovered sufficiently to hobble with a stick. Clad in a linen coat,—which was knotted together in a hundred places, so that it looked as tattered as a quail's tail,—and carrying a broken saucer in his hand, he now went about the idle quarters of the town, earning his living as a professional beggar.
Autumn had now turned to winter. He spent his nights in public lavatories and his days haunting the markets and booths.
One day when it was snowing hard, hunger and cold had driven him into the streets. His beggar's cry was full of woe and all who heard it were heart-rent. But the snow was so heavy that hardly a house had its outer door open, and the streets were empty.
When he reached the eastern gate of An-i, about the seventh or eighth turning north of the Hsün-li Wall, there was a house with the double-doors half open.
It was the house where Miss Li was then living, but the young man did not know.
He stood before the door, wailing loud and long.
Hunger and cold had given such a piteous accent to his cry that none could have listened unmoved.
Miss Li heard it from her room and at once said to her servant, "That is so-and-so. I know his voice." She flew to the door and was horrified to see her old lover standing before her so emaciated by hunger and disfigured by sores that he seemed scarcely human. "Can it be you?" she said. But the young man was so overcome by bewilderment and excitement that he could not speak, but only moved his lips noiselessly.
She threw her arms round his neck, then wrapped him in her own embroidered jacket and led him to the parlour. Here, with quavering voice, she reproached herself, saying, "It is my doing that you have been brought to this pass." And with these words she swooned.
Her mother came running up in great excitement, asking who had arrived. Miss Li, recovering herself, said who it was. The old woman cried out in rage: "Send him away! What did you bring him in here for?"
But Miss Li looked up at her defiantly and said: "Not so! This is the son of a noble house. Once he rode in grand coaches and wore golden trappings on his coat. But when he came to our house, he soon lost all he had; and then we plotted together and left him destitute. Our conduct has indeed been inhuman! We have ruined his career and robbed him even of his place in the category of human relationships. For the love of father and son is implanted by Heaven; yet we have hardened his father's heart, so that he beat him with a stick and left him on the ground.
"Every one in the land knows that it is I who have reduced him to his present plight. The Court is full of his kinsmen. Some day one of them will come into power. Then an inquiry will be set afoot, and disaster will overtake us. And since we have flouted Heaven and defied the laws of humanity, neither spirits nor divinities will be on our side. Let us not wantonly incur a further retribution!
"I have lived as your daughter for twenty years. Reckoning what I have cost you in that time, I find it must be close on a thousand pieces of gold. You are now aged sixty, so that by the price of twenty more years' food and clothing, I can buy my freedom. I intend to live separately with this young man. We will not go far away; I shall see to it that we are near enough to pay our respects to you both morning and evening."
The "mother" saw that she was not to be gainsaid and fell in with the arrangement. When she had paid her ransom, Miss Li had a hundred pieces of gold left over; and with them she hired a vacant room, five doors away. Here she gave the young man a bath, changed his clothes, fed him with hot soup to relax his stomach, and later on fattened him up with cheese and milk.
In a few weeks she began to place before him all the choicest delicacies of land and sea; and she clothed him with cap, shoes and stockings of the finest quality. In a short time he began gradually to put on flesh, and by the end of the year, he had entirely recovered his former health.
One day Miss Li said to him: "Now your limbs are stout again and your will strong! Sometimes, when deeply pondering in silent sorrow, I wonder to myself how much you remember of your old literary studies?" He thought and answered: "Of ten parts I remember two or three."
Miss Li then ordered the carriage to be got ready and the young man followed her on horseback. When they reached the classical bookshop at the side-gate south of the Flag tower, she made him choose all the books he wanted, till she had laid out a hundred pieces of gold. Then she packed them in the cart and drove home. She now made him dismiss all other thoughts from his mind and apply himself only to study. All the evening he toiled at his books, with Miss Li at his side, and they did not retire till midnight. If ever she found that he was too tired to work, she made him lay down his classics and write a poem or ode.
In two years he had thoroughly mastered his subjects and was admired by all the scholars of the realm. He said to Miss Li, "Now, surely, I am ready for the examiners!" but she would not let him compete and made him revise all he had learnt, to prepare for the "hundredth battle." At the end of the third year she said, "Now you may go." He went in for the examination and passed at the first attempt. His reputation spread rapidly through the examination rooms and even older men, when they saw his compositions, were filled with admiration and respect, and sought his friendship.
But Miss Li would not let him make friends with them, saying, "Wait a little longer! Nowadays when a bachelor of arts has passed his examination, he thinks himself fit to hold the most advantageous posts at Court and to win a universal reputation. But your unfortunate conduct and disreputable past put you at a disadvantage beside your fellow-scholars. You must 'grind, temper and sharpen' your attainments, that you may secure a second victory. Then you will be able to match yourself against famous scholars and contend with the illustrious."
The young man accordingly increased his efforts and enhanced his value. That year it happened that the Emperor had decreed a special examination for the selection of candidates of unusual merit from all parts of the Empire. The young man competed, and came out top in the "censorial essay." He was offered the post of Army Inspector at Ch'ēng-tu Fu. The officers who were to escort him were all previous friends.
When he was about to take up his post, Miss Li said to him, "Now that you are restored to your proper station in life, I will not be a burden to you. Let me go back and look after the old lady till she dies. You must ally yourself with some lady of noble lineage, who will be worthy to carry the sacrificial dishes in your Ancestral Hall. Do not injure your prospects by an unequal union. Good-bye, for now I must leave you."
The young man burst into tears and threatened to kill himself if she left him, but she obstinately refused to go with him. He begged her passionately not to desert him, and she at last consented to go with him across the river as far as Chien-mēn. "There," she said, "you must part with me." The young man consented and in a few weeks they reached Chien-mēn. Before he had started out again, a proclamation arrived announcing that the young man's father, who had been Governor of Ch'ang-chou, had been appointed Governor of Ch'ēng-tu and Intendant of the Chien-nan Circuit. Next morning the father arrived, and the young man sent in his card and waited upon him at the posting-station. His father did not recognize him, but the card bore the names of the young man's father and grandfather, with their ranks and titles. When he read these, he was astounded, and bidding his son mount the steps he caressed him and wept. After a while he said: "Now we two are father and son once more," and bade him tell his story. When he heard of the young man's adventures, he was amazed. Presently he asked: "And where is Miss Li?" He replied: "She came with me as far as here, but now she is going back again."
"I cannot allow it," the father said. Next day he ordered a carriage for his son and sent him on to report himself at Ch'ēng-tu; but he detained Miss Li at Chien-mēn, found her a suitable lodging and ordered a match-maker to perform the initial ceremonies for uniting the two families and to accomplish the six rites of welcome. The young man came back from Ch'ēng-tu and they were duly married. In the years that followed their marriage, Miss Li showed herself a devoted wife and competent housekeeper, and was beloved by all her relations.
Some years later both the young man's parents died, and in his mourning observances he showed unusual piety. As a mark of divine favour, magic toadstools grew on the roof of his mourning-hut, each stem bearing three plants. The report of his virtue reached even the Emperor's ears. Moreover a number of white swallows nested in the beams of his roof, an omen which so impressed the Emperor that he raised his rank immediately.
When the three years of mourning were over, he was successively promoted to various distinguished posts and in the course of ten years was Governor of several provinces. Miss Li was given the fief of Chien-kuo, with the title "The Lady of Chien-kuo."
He had four sons who all held high rank. Even the least successful of them became Governor of T'ai-yüan, and his brothers all married into great families, so that his good fortune both in public and private life was without parallel.
How strange that we should find in the conduct of a prostitute a degree of constancy rarely equalled even by the heroines of history! Surely the story is one which cannot but provoke a sigh!
My great-uncle was Governor of Chin-chou; subsequently he joined the Ministry of Finance and became Inspector of Waterways, and finally Inspector of Roads. In all these three offices he had Miss Li's husband as his colleague, so that her story was well known to him in every particular. During the Chēng-yüan period I was sitting one day with Li Kung-tso of Lung-hai; we fell to talking of wives who had distinguished themselves by remarkable conduct. I told him the story of Miss Li. He listened with rapt attention, and when it was over, asked me to write it down for him. So I took up my brush, wetted the hairs and made this rough outline of the story.
[Dated] autumn, eighth month of the year Yi-hai, (A.D. 795), written by Po-Hsing-chien of T'ai-yüan.
- A.D. 742-56.
- In Kiang-su, near Ch'ang-chou.
- See p 58, "170 Chinese Poems," Alfred A. Knopf, 1919.
- The "Sword-gate": commanding the pass which leads into Szechuan from the north.
- See "Book or Rites," xxxii, 3. On returning from his father's burial a son must not enter the house; he should live in an "out-house," mourning for his father's absence.
- A.D. 785-805.
- A writer.