Li Hua, a citizen of Changzhou, was a wealthy man of landed property, but at the age of more than fifty still had no son. His one daughter, named Grace, was pretty and elegant, and the man and his wife loved her more than anything. When she was fourteen, she was seized by a sudden illness and died in her prime, leaving the house desolate and deprived of the joy of life. Only then did Li take a concubine, and after a year or so, she gave birth to a boy. Li regarded the boy as a precious treasure and named him Jewel. The boy gradually grew up to be sturdy and lovable, but he was extremely slow by nature and at the age of five or six still couldn’t tell beans from wheat. He also stuttered when he spoke. Nevertheless Li loved him and ignored his faults.
It happened that a one-eyed monk came to collect alms in the market. He seemed to know people’s secret affairs, so they were amazed by his miraculous powers; he even claimed to be able to decide life and death, fortune and misfortune. He would demand various sums by name and none dared disobey. Calling on Li, he solicited one hundred strings of cash. Reluctantly, Li offered him ten silver pieces, but he wouldn’t accept, so gradually Li raised it to thirty. With a stern look, the monk said, “It must be a hundred, not a penny less!”
Angrily, Li put away the money and abruptly left. Becoming furious, the monk shouted, “Don’t regret it! Don’t regret it!”
Before long, Jewel’s heart was struck by a sudden pain and he began thrashing around on the bed, his face as pale as ash. Terrified, Li took eighty silver pieces and called on the monk to beg him for help. Smiling, the monk said, “So much money is really not easy to get! But what can a simple monk do?”
When Li returned home, the boy was already dead. In the deepest sorrow, Li filed a complaint with the county magistrate. The magistrate arrested the monk and interrogated him, but he dissembled callously. When he was flogged, it was like striking a leather drum. His body was ordered to be searched and they found two wooden figurines, a small coffin and five small banners. In a rage, the magistrate raised his hand to signal execution. Then the monk, in fear, flung himself down in surrender countless times. However, the magistrate wouldn’t listen and had him caned to death. Li bowed in thanks and went home.
By the time he got home it was twilight, and he sat on the bed with his wife. Suddenly a little boy scurried into the room, saying, “Dad, why do you walk so fast? I tried my best but I couldn’t catch up with you.”
Judging from his appearance, he had to be seven or eight years old. Startled, Li was just about to question him, when he saw that he was shimmering and indistinct, like a wisp of mist, and while he hesitated, the boy climbed up and sat on the bed. Li pushed him off and he fell noiselessly to the floor. “Dad,” he said, “don’t be like that!”
In the twinkling of an eye he climbed back up. Li and his wife fled together in terror. The boy called out “Father! Mother!” in a ceaseless babble. Li entered his concubine’s room and hurriedly closed the door; when he turned round to look, the boy was already at his knee. Astonished, Li asked him what he wanted. He replied, “I come from Suzhou and my family name is Zhan. When I was six I lost my parents and I wasn’t welcomed by my elder brother’s wife, so I lived in my grandfather’s house. I happened to be playing outdoors when I was enchanted by that evil monk and killed beneath a mulberry tree. He ordered me around like a slave and, wrongly sealed in the grave, I couldn’t break free. Thankfully I was released by you, Dad, so I’m willing to be your son.”
Li said, “Men and ghosts live in different worlds. How can we live together?”
The boy said, “Just clear out a small room and put up a bed and mattress for me. Each day pour me a cup of cold thick porridge and you don’t need to worry about anything else.” Li agreed. The boy was delighted and from then on slept alone in his room.
When morning came he would go in and out of the house like it was his own home. Hearing the sound of the concubine crying over her son, he asked, “How many days has Jewel been dead?”
The reply was seven days. He said, “The weather’s so cold, the body shouldn’t have rotted. We can try and open the tomb for a look and if there’s no damage, your boy can be brought to life.”
Delighted, Li went with the boy to open up the pit and check, and the bodily shell was as before. When he turned around to look, laden with deep grief, the boy had disappeared. Surprised by this, he picked up the corpse and went home. As soon as the body was laid on the bed, the eyes began to glance around. After a short while he called for hot water; when he’d drunk the water he began to sweat; when he’d sweated then he rose.
Everyone was delighted that Jewel had been reborn and furthermore was brighter and more nimble, totally different to the past. However, during the night he lay stiff, with no sign of breath, and when they turned him onto his side he was as silent as death. They all were stunned and declared he had died again; but when the sky brightened he came round as if woken from a dream.
They gathered together and asked him about it, and he replied, “In the past, when I was with the evil monk, there were two of us boys, the other named Buddy. Before, when I couldn’t catch up with Father, that was because I was behind saying goodbye to Buddy. Now, in the nether world, he’s become the adopted heir of a Squire Jiang and he’s very leisurely and carefree. At midnight, he insisted on coming and inviting me to play. Just now he sent me home on a tan horse with a black mouth and white nose.”
Then his mother asked, “Did you see Jewel in the underworld?”
“Jewel has already been reincarnated,” he said. “He and Daddy were not meant to be father and son, but Yan Zifang of Jinling demanded the payment of a debt of a hundred and ten thousand.”
Originally, when Li was trading in Jinling, he had owed Yan the money for some goods but hadn’t paid before Yan died, and no one knew of this matter. When Li heard this, he was astonished.
His mother asked, “Did you see your sister Grace?”
The boy said, “I don’t know. Next time I go I must enquire.”
Two or three days later, he told his mother, “Sister is doing very well in the underworld. She’s married to the young son of the king of Chujiang, with a head full of pearls and jade. Whenever she goes out, there are tens or hundreds clearing the way and bringing up the rear.”
His mother said, “Why has she never come home to visit?”
“When people die, they have no concern with their flesh and blood. If someone describes in detail their previous life, then they may suddenly bring it to mind. Last night I pleaded with Squire Jiang to use his connections to let me see my sister, and she called me to sit on her coral bed. When I spoke with her of how father and mother miss her, it was as if she was asleep. I said, ‘When you were there, you liked to embroider twin lotus flowers on a stalk. The scissors pricked your finger and blood stained the silk fabric, so you just embroidered it as red water and clouds. Now mother still has it hanging on the wall beside your bed and thoughts of you never leave her mind. Have you forgotten, sister?’ Sister began to feel sad and said, ‘I have to tell my husband, then I’ll return home to visit mother.’” His mother asked when it would be and he replied that he didn’t know.
One day he told his mother, “Sister will arrive soon. Her retainers are manifold – you should prepare plenty of wine.” After a while, he rushed into the house and said, “Sister’s here!” Moving the couch to the central room, he said, “Sister, have a rest for a moment. Don’t cry now.” None of the others could see anything.
The boy led some people to burn paper and pour libations outside the gate, then returned and said, “The attendants have been ordered to retire for now. Sister says, ‘The green brocade quilt that used to be my cover with a burnt spot the size of a bean from the candle snuff – is it still here?’”
The mother said, “It is.” And she opened a basket and took it out.
The boy said, “Sister told me to lay it out in her old bedroom. She’s weary and going to have a little lie down. Tomorrow she’ll talk with you again, Mother.”
The daughter of their eastern neighbour, named Zhao, used to have sleepovers with Grace. That night, she suddenly dreamt Grace, in headdress and purple cape, came to visit her, speaking and smiling just as usual. She said, “Now I am a ghost, to meet with my parents is like crossing mountains and rivers. I’m going to borrow you to speak with my family – there’s no need to be alarmed.”
As soon as it was light, she was talking to her mother when suddenly she fell to the floor in a faint. After a moment she came round and said to her mother, “I’m Gracie. Auntie, we’ve been parted for several years – how quickly your locks have grown white hairs!”
Astonished, the mother said, “Daughter, have you gone mad?’
The girl bid farewell and went straight out. Understanding there was something strange about her, her mother followed. She went directly to Li’s place and embraced the mother, weeping plaintively. The mother was amazed and didn’t know what to say. The girl said, “When I got home yesterday I was really exhausted and had no time to talk. I’m not a good daughter, abandoning my parents halfway, causing you so much grief – it’s the utmost sin!”
The mother suddenly understood and began to cry. When she’d stopped, she asked, “I hear you are a noble now, which really comforts my heart, but as you reside in a royal home, how are you able to come?”
The girl said, “My husband and I are extremely fond of each other and my parents-in-law also take good care of me and never say anything bad to me.”
When Grace was alive, she liked to hold her chin in her hand, and while the girl was speaking she always made this old pose, her expression just the same. Presently, Jewel rushed in and said, “Sister’s attendants have arrived.”
So the girl rose, bid farewell with tears streaming, and said, “I must go.” Her words completed, she fell down once more, then after a while came round.
A few months later, Li became critically ill and medicine proved ineffective. The boy said, “Today or tomorrow, I fear there’s no saving him! Two devils are sitting at the end of his bed, one wielding an iron stick, one pulling a ramie rope about four or five feet long. I’ve been begging them day and night, but they won’t go.”
The mother cried and then prepared the burial clothes. At dusk, the boy hurried in and said, “Men and women, withdraw for a moment – brother-in-law is here to see Dad.” Presently he applauded and roared with laughter. The mother asked him why and he said, “I’m laughing at the two devils. When they heard brother-in-law was coming, they both hid under the bed like turtles.”
After another moment, he addressed some polite greetings to the air and asked whether his sister was well. Subsequently he clapped his hands and said, “I begged those two devils but they wouldn’t go – now I’m deeply gratified!” Then he came out of the front gate, before turning back and saying, “Brother-in-law has gone. The two devils have been chained on the horse’s harness. Father will soon be well again. Brother-in-law said he would go back and inform his Majesty and plead for a long life of a hundred years for father and mother.”
The whole family were delighted. That night the illness was already much better and after several days Li had recovered. He engaged a tutor to teach his son to read. The boy was extremely bright and at the age of eighteen passed the county exams. He would still speak of nether world matters, and when anyone in the neighbourhood was ill, he would point out where the devils were lurking. Burning them with a fire would often lead to recovery.
Later he became violently ill and his whole skin turned blue. He himself said the spirits blamed him for revealing their secrets, and from then on he no longer spoke of them.