Scholar Qiao of Jinning when young enjoyed a reputation for talent, but at the age of more than twenty his progress was still thwarted. He was open-hearted in conduct, and friendly with a Scholar Gu; when Gu died, he often gave aid to his wife and children. The county magistrate held his writing in high esteem; when the magistrate expired in office, leaving his family members stranded and unable to return home, Qiao used up his assets to escort the coffin, travelling more than two thousand li there and back. Because of this the scholarly community respected him all the more, but his family’s fortunes from then on further declined.
Master of Letters Shi had a daughter with the taken name Liancheng, who was skilled at embroidery and well-read. Her father pampered her. He brought out her tapestry, entitled “Weary of Embroidery”, and invited young men to compose odes to it, with the intention of choosing a son-in-law. Qiao presented a poem, which read:
Her languid chignon coiled up high entwines her glossy locks,
Early at her orchid bower jade lotus leaves she sews;
While stitching lovebirds in the design her soul is shocked,
Silently her needle halts as she knits her tender brows.
In another he praised the artistry of her needlework, saying:
Each stitch she sews seems writ from life,
The blooms and birds from nature grown;
The brocade of yore showed no such art,
Yet moved the monarch with a palindrome.
The girl was delighted with these poems and sung their praises to her father, but her father considered him too poor. The girl commended him to everyone she met and also sent an old woman, on the pretence of her father’s orders, to present him with silver to help with lighting. Qiao said with a sigh, “Liancheng understands me!”
He adored and yearned for her, like a starving man longs to eat. Before long, the girl was betrothed to the son of a salt merchant, Wang Huacheng, and Qiao began to give up hope; however, in his dreams his soul still admired her.
In no time, the girl was struck with consumption so chronically that she couldn’t rise. There was a mendicant monk from the Western Regions who claimed he could cure her, but he would need five grams of flesh from a man’s breast to pound and combine with medicinal powders. Shi sent a man to the Wang family to inform the husband-to-be, who laughed and said, “Foolish old man, wanting me to slice off the flesh from my heart!”
The messenger returned, and so Shi declared in public, “Whoever is willing to sacrifice their flesh can marry her.”
Hearing this, Qiao went there, took out a naked blade and cut from his own breast, handing it to the monk. Blood soaked his robe and trousers, only stopping when the monk applied a dressing. The monk compounded three pellets of medicine and in three days, when they had all been taken, the illness disappeared.
Intending to keep his word, Shi first informed Wang, but Wang angrily threatened to bring the case to court. So Shi invited Qiao to a feast and laid out a thousand silver pieces on the table, saying, “Please take this as repayment for the heavy burden of gratitude I owe you.” He then fully explained the reason for breaking his pledge.
Qiao said indignantly, “The reason I didn’t care about the flesh from my breast was merely to requite an understanding, not to sell my flesh!” He returned home with a flick of his sleeve.
Hearing of this, the girl felt unbearably sorry and, through an old woman, passed down her condolences. She also said, “With his literary talent, he will not long be neglected. Why worry there will be no fine lady for him in this world? My dreams are inauspicious. Within three years I’m bound to die. There’s no need to compete with others for one who’s in the grave.”
Qiao told the old woman, “A man of honour will die for one who understands him, not because of desire. My real fear is that Liancheng might not truly understand me – what harm is there in not marrying?”
The old woman swore an oath of fidelity on behalf of the young lady. Qiao said, “If that’s so, when we meet she should give me a smile and I can die with no regrets!”
After the old woman had gone, several days passed and Qiao happened to be out when he met the girl returning home from her uncle’s home. He glanced at her and the girl’s limpid eyes turned towards him, her lips parting winsomely. Qiao said in great delight, “Liancheng truly understands me!”
When the Wang clan came to discuss the date for the wedding, the girl’s former condition returned and after several months she died. Qiao went there to mourn and, in a pang of sorrow, expired. Shi had him carried back home.
Qiao himself knew he was already dead, but wasn’t at all sad. Going out from his village, he still hoped for a sight of Liancheng. Gazing from a distance at the road to north and south, the passers-by were in lines like ants, so he also mingled in amongst them. Presently, he entered an office building, where he happened upon Scholar Gu, who asked in shock, “How do you come to be here?” And he grasped Qiao’s hand to send him back home.
With a deep sigh, Qiao explained, “The matters on my mind are still unresolved.”
Gu said, “I’m in charge of the archives here and entrusted with considerable responsibility. If I can be of any help, I won’t hesitate.”
Qiao asked about Liancheng. At once Gu led Qiao around many places until he saw Liancheng together with a young lady in white, sitting on the floor in the corner of a corridor, tears streaking their eyeliner. Seeing Qiao come, she immediately rose in apparent delight, briefly asking how he had come. Qiao said, “With you dead, how could I live?”
Weeping, Liancheng said, “Someone as ungrateful as me and still you didn’t spurn me, but why sacrifice yourself? Though it’s impossible to be betrothed to you in this incarnation, I’m willing to promise my next life to you.”
Qiao told Gu, “You can go about your business. I’m happy to be dead and I have no wish to live. But I’ll trouble you to check where Liancheng will be reborn, so I can go together with her.”
Gu promised and left. The young lady in white asked who Qiao was and so Liancheng related their history. Having heard it, the young lady seemed unbearably sad. Liancheng told Qiao, “She and I share the same surname. Her childhood name is Binniang and she’s the daughter of Imperial Prefect Shi of Changsha. We came by the same route and so have taken to each other.”
Qiao looked at her and she had a tender manner. He was just about to ask for more details, but Gu had already returned and he congratulated Qiao, saying, “I’ve already determined what should be done. I’ll arrange for the little lady to follow your soul back to life at once. How about that?”
Both of them were delighted. Just as they were going to take their leave, Binniang burst into tears and said, “If sister goes, where can I turn? I beg you, take pity on me. I could be sister’s handmaid.”
Feeling wretched, Liancheng had no idea what to do and turned to discuss it with Qiao, who then implored Gu. Put in this difficult position, Gu sternly protested that it was impossible. Qiao continued to push him, and so he said, “I’ll have a try, for what it’s worth.”
He left for a while and then returned, waving his hands and saying, “What to do? There’s really absolutely nothing that can be done!”
Hearing this, Binniang began to weep delicately and clung to Liancheng’s elbow, afraid that she would leave at any moment. In despair and without any way, they all faced each other silently. Seeing her anxious, woeful countenance was enough to make a person sick and weak at heart. Scholar Gu said hotly, “Take Binniang away with you, please. Should any blame be incurred, I’ll sacrifice myself and accept it.”
Binniang was overjoyed and followed Qiao out. Qiao was worried she had far to travel and no companions. Binniang said, “I’ll follow you where you go. I don’t want to return home.”
“Now you’re being too silly,” said Qiao. “If you don’t go home, how will you come back to life? Someday I’ll come to Hunan and if you don’t shun me, that will be great good fortune.”
There happened to be two old women carrying documents heading for Changsha, so he attached her to them and Binniang, weeping, bade farewell and left.
Along the way, Liancheng walked haltingly and each li or so would stop for a rest; after ten or more rests they finally saw the gate to their neighbourhood. Liancheng said, “After we return to life, I fear there will be setbacks. Please come and ask for my remains – if I revive in your home, there should be no cause for regret.”
Qiao agreed, and so together they returned to his home. She seemed apprehensive as if unable to take a step, so Qiao stood waiting for her. The girl said, “Reaching here, my limbs are shaking as if out of control. I’m afraid our intentions will not be realized. We should talk it over; otherwise, after we revive, how can we be free?”
So they helped each other into a side room. After a brief period of silence, Liancheng smiled and said, “Do you hate me?”
Shocked, Qiao asked her the reason for this question. Blushing, she said, “I fear things will not work out and I will fail you again. Let me repay you first as a ghost.”
Qiao was delighted and they made love with the greatest joy. They then lingered, not venturing to hastily revive, within the room for three days. Liancheng said, “As the proverb goes: ‘An ugly wife must eventually meet her parents-in-law.’ Worrying here is not a long-term plan.” And so she urged Qiao to go in.
As soon as he reached the bier, he suddenly revived. His household were amazed and brought in some hot water. Qiao then sent someone to ask Shi to come, requesting he bring Liancheng’s corpse, saying that he could bring her to life. Shi was overjoyed and did as he said. Just as the body was borne into the room, she was seen to have awoken. She said, “I have already given myself to Master Qiao, and what’s more I have no reason to return home. If there’s any change to that, I will just die as before!”
Shi returned home and sent a maid to go and wait upon her. Hearing of this, Wang provided a statement putting his case and the magistrate, having taken a bribe, ruled that Liancheng must return to Wang. Qiao was so upset and depressed he wanted to die, but there was nothing he could do.
After Liancheng arrived at Wang’s home, in fury she refused to eat or drink and just sought a speedy death. When no one was in her room, she hung her girdle from the rafters. The following day, she was even more enfeebled, almost on the verge of death. Terrified, Wang sent her back to Shi. Shi then had her carried back to Qiao. Wang knew this, but there was nothing to be done, so he let it be.
When Liancheng recovered, she always thought of Binniang and wanted to send a messenger to go and search for her, but because of the great distance, it was hard to go. One day, the servants entered and said, “There’s a horse and carriage at the gate.”
Husband and wife went out to look and found Binniang was already there in the courtyard. They greeted each other with joy and sorrow. The Imperial Prefect had personally escorted his daughter and Qiao invited him in. The Imperial Prefect said, “My little daughter came back to life thanks to you and has sworn not to marry any other, so now I’ve accepted her wishes.”
Qiao kowtowed in thanks as etiquette required. Master of Letters Shi also arrived and confirmed clan ties with the Imperial Prefect.
Qiao’s given name was Nian and his taken name Danian.
The Cryptohistorian says: To promise oneself on the understanding of a smile, most people might view that as silly; but were all the five hundred followers of Tian Heng fools? This is the rare value of understanding, by which the virtuous and gallant will be moved to unite and not think of themselves. However, it’s regrettable that within this vast land such a splendid talent was left merely to give his heart for the smile of a beautiful lady!
Tian Heng was a great military leader at the beginning of the Han dynasty who committed suicide to protect his honour. His five hundred closest followers all then also killed themselves.