According to some accounts, the underworld in any particular area is ruled not by one king but by ten judges, known as the Ten Kings.
Zhu Erdan of Lingyang, whose taken name was Xiao Ming, was bold and uninhibited in character. However, he was slow-witted by nature and though he studied diligently, he still hadn’t made a name for himself. One day, he was drinking together with his literary club when someone said as a joke, “You have a reputation for bravery. If you can go to the Hall of the Ten Kings late at night and bring the judge from the left gallery here, we’ll all pool our money for a banquet.”
This was because Lingyang had a Hall of the Ten Kings of Hell where the images of gods and demons were all carved from wood and made up to be lifelike. Standing in the eastern corridor there was an infernal judge with a green face and red beard whose features were especially ferocious. Sometimes at night the sound of torture and interrogation was heard in both corridors. The hair of those who entered would all stand on end. Thus they used this to challenge Zhu.
Laughing, Zhu rose and immediately left. After a short while, there was a loud yell outside the door, saying, “The bearded master is here at my invitation!”
Everyone rose and presently he carried in the judge, placed him on the table, held up a wine cup and poured three libations. Seeing this, they cowered anxiously in their seats, then asked him to take the judge away. Zhu once more poured wine on the floor, toasting, “Your pupil is willful and uncultured. Please don’t blame me, great master. My simple hut is not far. Should you come in high spirits seeking a drink, I hope you won’t keep your distance.” Then he carried him away.
The next day, the others did indeed invite Zhu to drink. At dusk he returned home, half-drunk, and being still in the mood, sat drinking alone beneath a lantern. Suddenly someone lifted up the curtain to enter – looking up, Zhu saw it was the judge. Rising, Zhu said, “I suppose I am about to die! Last night I affronted you – now have you come to take me to the chopping block?”
The judge’s bushy beard parted in a smile as he said, “No. Yesterday I received your kind invitation and, as tonight I happen to be free, it’s my pleasure to keep an appointment with such an enlightened person.”
In great delight, Zhu urged him to sit by pulling at his robe while himself going to wash the utensils and light a fire. The judge said, “The weather is temperate – we can drink it cold.”
Zhu did as instructed and placed the bottle on the table, rushing to tell his servants to prepare some meat platters and fruit. When his wife heard, she was distraught and warned him not to go out, but Zhu didn’t listen. He stood waiting to take the dishes out when they were ready. Exchanging toasts with his guest, Zhu enquired his name and he said, “My family name’s Lu. I have no given name.”
When they discussed the classics, his answers were like echoes. Asked whether he was familiar with the standard essay form, he said, “I can distinguish the attractive from the unsightly fairly well. What we read in the underworld is basically the same as in the mortal world.”
Lu was a heavy drinker and at one go would down ten cups. As Zhu had been drinking all day, before he knew it he was teetering into oblivion, falling into drunken sleep upon the table. By the time he awoke, the candle was burning its last with a dim yellow light and his ghostly guest had already gone.
From then on he would come once every two or three days and their friendship became deeper. Sometimes they slept feet touching. When Zhu presented his essay drafts, Lu would always cover them in red, saying they weren’t any good. One night, Zhu was drunk and went to bed first, leaving Lu supping by himself. Suddenly, in his drunken dreams, he felt a slight pain in his internal organs; waking up, he saw Lu sitting upright by the bed, taking out the intestines from his opened abdomen and straightening them out. Stunned, he said, “There’s never been any enmity between us. Why do you want to kill me?”
With a smile, Lu replied, “Don’t panic. I’m just changing your heart for a clever one.”
After calmly replacing the intestines, he resealed the hole and finally wrapped Zhu’s waist with foot-binding cloth. When the operation was completed, Zhu noticed there was no trace of blood on the bed and his abdomen just felt somewhat numb. Seeing Lu place a lump of flesh on the table, he asked about it and Lu said, “That’s your heart. From your slowness at composition, I knew the pores were blocked. Just now in the underworld, from among millions of hearts, I picked out an excellent one and I’ve changed it for yours. I’ll keep this to make up the shortfall.” Then he rose, shut the door and left.
At daybreak, Zhu undid the binding for a look – the wound and stitches had already healed, with just a thin red line remaining. From then on his writing made great progress and he would remember passages after one glance through. After several days he again took out his essays to show Lu. Lu said, “Passable. But your blessings are meagre. You can’t reach an illustrious position, only provincial success.”
“When?” asked Zhu.
“This year you’re bound to come first.”
Before long he was ranked champion in the preliminary test and indeed took top honours in the provincial exams. The other scholars in his literary club always made fun of him, but when they saw copies of his exam papers, they looked at each other in shock. Only after careful questioning did they know his strange story. Together they begged Zhu to put a word in for them and wished to enjoy the friendship of Lu. Lu agreed, so they made great preparations for receiving him. At the start of the night, Lu arrived, with his vivid red beard and eyes gleaming like lightning. All of them were dazed and turned pale, their teeth almost chattering. Gradually, they withdrew.
So Zhu took Lu by the hand and went home with him to drink and, when they were soused, said, “By you opening up my stomach and refreshing my organs, I’ve already received a great gift. There’s one more matter I wish to trouble you with, but I don’t know whether I can.”
Lu immediately asked what it was. Zhu replied, “If a heart can be exchanged, I guess a face can be replaced too. My old woman has been my wife since we came of age. Her body’s not bad at all, but her head isn’t too beautiful. Could I bother you to wield your knife once more, what do you say?”
Laughing, Lu said, “I promise. Allow me to formulate a plan.”
Several days later, he came knocking at the door at midnight. Zhu quickly got up to grant him entry. By candlelight, Zhu could see an object wrapped in his jacket. When questioned about it, he said, “What you previously asked of me has been hard to seek out. Now I’ve obtained the head of a beauty, which I respectfully present as requested.”
Zhu took a look and the blood on the neck was still wet. Lu hurried inside at once so as not to alarm the dogs and chickens. Zhu worried that the inner doors were locked for the night, but when Lu came to them, with one touch of his hand, they opened of their own accord. Zhu led him to the bedroom, where they saw his wife sleeping on her side. Lu gave the head to Zhu to hold, while he himself pulled out a naked dagger-like blade from his boot, which he pressed to the wife’s neck as gently as if slicing tofu. The flesh parted before the blade and her head fell beside the pillow; quickly taking the beauty’s head from the scholar’s grasp, he fitted it on the wife’s neck, checked meticulously that it was correctly placed and finally pressed it down. When that was done, he moved the pillow under her shoulders, told Zhu to bury the head in a quiet spot, and then left.
Upon waking, Zhu’s wife felt a slight tingling in her neck, and her cheeks were encrusted; rubbing them, she found flakes of blood and was horrified. She called her maid to draw some water; when the maid saw her face splattered with blood, she was thoroughly alarmed. Washing it off made the whole basin of water red, and when she raised her head, her features were completely changed, which terrified the maid again. The wife reached for a mirror to take a look at herself – she was dumbfounded and unable to explain it.
Zhu came in and told her the truth; then he turned her head back and forth for careful observation – with long eyebrows touching her temples and dimples adorning her cheeks, she was a figure out of a painting. Loosening her collar to check, he found there was a red line right around, and the flesh tone above and below the line was markedly different.
Prior to this, Imperial Censor Wu had a particularly beautiful daughter who had lost two husbands before marriage and thus at the age of nineteen was still unwed. On the Lantern Festival she visited the Hall of the Ten Kings. At that time all sorts of people were visiting there and among them was a shameless criminal who spied her and lusted after her. He therefore secretly sought out her neighbourhood and, under cover of night, entered by ladder and tunneled through the bedroom door. He killed one maid beside the bed and forced the girl to have sex with him; the girl vigorously resisted and shouted out, so he got angry and killed her too.
Madame Wu heard a faint commotion and called a maid to go and look, who was terrified by the sight of the body. The whole family awoke and laid the body in the hall, the head placed beside the neck, wailing aloud as one throughout the night. The following morning they lifted the quilt to find the body still there but the head missing. They flogged each of the serving maids, claiming their dereliction of duty had caused the head to be buried in a dog’s stomach.
The imperial censor informed the prefecture and the prefecture imposed a strict deadline for the killer’s capture, but after three months the offender had not been found. Eventually news of the strange head-swap at Zhu’s home reached Lord Wu. Suspicious, Wu sent an old woman to pay a visit to his home; when she entered and saw the wife, she ran off in shock to inform Lord Wu. Observing that his daughter’s body was still there, his lordship was bewildered and couldn’t be sure what to do. He guessed Zhu had used sorcery to kill his daughter and went to quiz Zhu. Zhu said, “My wife’s head changed in a dream. I really don’t know how it happened. To claim I killed her is just slander.”
Wu didn’t believe it and sued him. Zhu’s servants were taken in for questioning, but they all said the same as Zhu. The district magistrate couldn’t decide the case. When Zhu returned home, he begged Lu for a plan. Lu said, “That’s no problem. I’ll just have his daughter tell him herself.”
That night Wu dreamt his daughter said to him, “I was murdered by Yang Danian of Suxi. It was nothing to do with Scholar Zhu. He just wasn’t satisfied with his wife’s appearance, so Judge Lu took my head and exchanged it with his wife’s. Thus my body is dead but my head lives on. I hope you won’t hold any grudge.”
Waking, he told his wife and she had dreamt the same. So they reported this to the authorities. Enquiries revealed there really was a Yang Danian; he was apprehended and shackled, whereupon he admitted his guilt. So Wu called on Zhu and asked to see his wife, and from then on they were like father and son-in-law. Thus the head of Zhu’s wife was buried together with the daughter’s body.
Zhu entered the national exams three times, but every time was dismissed for infringing the rules, at which he lost hope of official advancement. After thirty years, one night Lu told him, “You haven’t long to live.”
Zhu asked him the allotted time, to which the answer was five days, and said, “Can you save me?”
“What use are selfish wishes when Heaven has made its decree?” was the reply. “Anyway, from an enlightened man’s viewpoint, life and death are as one, so why rejoice at living and grieve at dying?”
Zhu accepted this as so. He promptly prepared his burial clothes and coffin; when that was done, he dressed himself formally and was no more.
The following day, just as his wife was leaning on the coffin and crying, Zhu suddenly floated in from outside. His wife was terrified. Zhu said, “I’m truly a ghost, but no different from when I was alive. I worry about you, a widowed mother with an orphaned son. I long for you so much.”
His wife was overcome with sorrow, tears streaming onto her breast. Zhu lovingly consoled her. The wife said, “In ancient times it was said souls could return. As your spirit still exists, why not come back to life?”
Zhu said, “The will of Heaven cannot be defied.”
“What are your duties in the underworld?” she asked.
“Judge Lu recommended me to supervise case records. I’ve been given an official title and it’s no hardship.” His wife wanted to talk more, but Zhu said, “Judge Lu has come here with me. You can set out some wine and dishes.”
He hurried off and his wife carried out his instructions. All she heard was laughter and drinking within the room and the ringing of loud voices, just as it had been during his life. At midnight she peeked in and they had already disappeared without a trace.
From then on he came once every three or so days and sometimes would stay over out of deep affection, while he was there also managing household affairs. His son, Wei, who was only five, he would always grab for a hug, and when he turned seven or eight began to teach him to read by lamplight. His son was also intelligent and by the age of nine could compose an essay; at fifteen he entered the local academy without ever realizing he had no father. After that Zhu’s visits gradually declined, until he was only appearing monthly. One final evening he came and told his wife, “Today I must part with you, dear, forever.”
“Where will you go?” she asked.
“The Jade Emperor has made me Minister of Mount Hua and to get there I must travel far. My duties are onerous and the distance long, so I cannot return.” Mother and son held him in tears, but he said, “Don’t be like that! Our son has already come of age and the family income is enough to survive. How could any pairing remain unbroken forever?” Turning to his son, he said, “Be a good man. Don’t ruin your father’s work. In ten years we will see each other once more.” He went directly out and left, never to return.
Later, when Wei was twenty-five, he succeeded in the highest imperial exams and was appointed as travelling commissioner. Having been ordered to offer sacrifices at the Sacred Western Mountain, his route passed through Huayin. Suddenly, to his astonishment, there was a chariot with plumed attendants charging towards his guard of honour. Upon closer examination, the man in the carriage was his father. Wei dismounted and prostrated himself in tears by the side of the road. His father stopped his chariot to say, “You have a good reputation as an official. I can rest content.”
Wei remained prostrate; Zhu urged his chariot to leave, hurrying off regardless. Having gone several paces, he turned to look, undid the sword from his waist and dispatched a man to present it to Wei. From a distance, he said, “Wear it and you will prosper.”
Wei wished to pursue him, but saw the chariot with its horses and attendants float like the wind and disappear in an instant. He was sunk in bitter regret for a long while; drawing the sword to inspect it, he found it made from the most refined workmanship and engraved upon it a line of words, which read, “Be stout of heart and full of care; be flexible in intellect and upright in conduct.”
Later Wei reached the position of Minister of War. He had five sons, named Chen, Qian, Mi, Hun and Shen. One night he dreamt his father said, “The sword should be given to Hun.” He obeyed, and Hun was appointed commissioner-general with a high reputation for administration.
The Cryptohistorian says: To cut short the crane’s legs and stretch the wild duck’s is the folly of artificiality, while to graft a flower onto a different tree is a marvel of creativity; but neither can compare to boring through the vitals with a chisel and slicing through the throat with a knife! Master Lu can be called an unsightly skin clothing beautiful bones. From the latter part of the Ming till now is not far in years – does Master Lu still remain in Lingyang? Is he still so miraculous? It would be my pleasure to serve him whip in hand.