Marriage in ancient China would be arranged through a matchmaker or go-between. The old man under the moon was the god of marriage, responsible for bringing couples together.
A farmer’s son, Ma Tianrong, in his twenties lost his spouse and was too poor to remarry. He happened to be weeding in the fields when he saw a young woman, splendidly adorned, trampling on the grain and passing by across the field paths. She had a russet appearance and her manner was free and easy.
Ma suspected she had lost her way, and, seeing that the surrounding countryside was deserted, joked suggestively with her. The woman was somewhat receptive, so he wanted to couple with her in the wild. She laughed and said, “Under blue skies and in broad daylight, how would that be appropriate? If you go home, close the door and wait, after dusk I will come.”
Ma didn’t believe it, but the woman promised him. So Ma told her the detailed location of his home, and then the woman left. At midnight, she indeed came and so they took pleasure in each other. He felt that her skin was extremely tender; torchlight revealed her skin was red and soft like a child’s and fine fur covered her body, which was odd. Adding to his suspicions of her uncertain origins, he wondered to himself whether she might be a fox. So he jokingly enquired and the woman herself freely admitted it.
Ma said, “Since you’re an immortal, there must be no request you can’t grant. Now that we have been intertwined, why not relieve my poverty with some silver?”
The woman agreed to this. The next night when she came Ma demanded the silver. The woman feigned surprise, saying, “I’ve gone and forgotten.”
As she was about to leave, Ma again reminded her. That night, he asked, “You haven’t forgotten what I asked for, have you?”
The woman laughed and requested to bring it another day. After several days, Ma again demanded it. Laughing, the woman took out from her sleeve two ingots of silver, worth five or six taels, with fine veins on the upraised sides making them refined and adorable. Delighted, Ma hid them away deep in a casket.
After half a year, he happened to need the silver, so he took it and showed it to someone. The person said, “That’s tin.”
He bit it with his teeth and it sank at his bite. Astounded, Ma collected it up and went home. That night, when the woman arrived, he indignantly censured her. The woman said, laughing, “Your lot is meagre. You’re unable to enjoy real silver.” She dismissed it with a laugh.
Ma said, “I heard fox immortals are all great beauties, but that’s really not so.”
The woman said, “Our kind all change appearance to suit the person. As you don’t even have the fortune of a single silver piece, how could you enjoy a beauty who puts the wild geese and fish to shame? Someone as plain and clumsy as me certainly couldn’t be considered high class, but compared to someone with big feet and a hunchback, I’m still a great beauty.”
Several months later, she suddenly presented three silver pieces to Ma, saying, “You keep on demanding this and I reply that it’s not your lot to have silver saved up, but now it’s time for your betrothal, please use this present as money for a wife and also take it as a parting gift.”
Ma declared that he hadn’t had any betrothal talks. The woman said, “In one or two days a matchmaker will come.”
Ma asked, “How about the woman in question’s looks?”
“If you think she’s a great beauty, then of course she will be a great beauty.”
Ma said, “I don’t dare hope for that. But how can three silver pieces buy a wife?”
“That’s decided by the old man under the moon,” said the woman. “It’s not within people’s power.”
Ma asked, “How come you’re saying farewell so suddenly?”
“Being clothed in the moon and stars in the end is no solution. Since you have your own wife, why go through the motions?”
At daybreak she left, giving him a measure of yellow powder and saying, “After parting I fear you will be ill. Take this and you may be cured.”
The next day a matchmaker really did come. First Ma asked about the girl’s looks and the reply was, “Somewhere between beautiful and unsightly.”
“How much silver for the engagement?”
“About four or five pieces.”
Ma wasn’t troubled by the price, but insisted on seeing the bride for himself. The matchmaker was afraid the child of a good family would not want to flaunt herself, but subsequently arranged to go together and watch for any opportunity that might arise. Having reached her village, the matchmaker went ahead and let Ma wait outside the village. After a long while, she came and said, “It’s settled. My cousin lives in the same compound, and just now I saw the girl sitting in her room. Please pretend to be calling on my cousin and pass by, then you can take a peek at her close up.”
Ma followed her. He indeed saw the girl within her room, lying flat on the bed, asking someone to scratch her back. As Ma hurried past, he took a glance at her and her looks were truly as the matchmaker had said.
When the betrothal was discussed, they didn’t argue over the value, only asking for one or two silver pieces to dress up the girl for her wedding. Ma felt it was cheap, so paid the money; together with the payment for the matchmaker and the notary, the three taels of silver were used up without any more needed.
An auspicious date was chosen to welcome the girl into the family, but when she crossed the threshold he found her chest and back were both hunched and her neck shrunk like a turtle’s, while looking down at the base of her skirt, her lotus barges were a full foot long. Then he realized there was good reason for the fox’s words.
The Cryptohistorian says: ‘We change appearance to suit the person’ was perhaps the fox lady deflecting ridicule from herself; however, her words on fortune and favour are profoundly credible. I always say, unless your forefathers for several generations have practised self-cultivation, you cannot obtain high office, and unless you yourself for several incarnations have practised self-cultivation, you cannot gain a fine wife. Those who believe in karma will not consider my words high-flown.