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Nie Xiaoqian

This account refers to various different kinds of demon. Two of the names used are 'yaksha' and 'rakshasa', which were malevolent beings from Buddhist belief.

Ning Caichen of Zhejiang was open-hearted by nature, upright and self-possessed. He always said to people, “A whole life without adultery.”

   He happened to go to Jinhua and, upon reaching the northern wall, unloaded his baggage at a monastery. The hall and pagoda within the temple were majestic; however, the daisies were growing head high and the place seemed untrodden. The double doors of the monks’ quarters to east and west were unlocked; only one small billet to the south had a bolt and latch that looked new. Then, turning to the eastern corner of the hall, he saw towering bamboo two hands round; below the stairs was a great pond where wild lotuses were already in bloom. Its silent seclusion pleased him immensely.

   At that time, as the Education Officer was overseeing exams, the price of rooms in the city was soaring and it seemed convenient to stay put, so Ning strolled around and waited for the monks to return. At dusk a gentleman came and unlocked the south door. Ning hurried over out of courtesy and told him his intentions. The gentleman said, “These rooms have no owner. I’m a squatter here too. If you can bear the bleakness and share your knowledge when time permits, I would be most fortunate.”

   Delighted, Ning lay down dry grass for a bed and put up planks as a desk, planning on a long stay. That night the moon was high and bright, its rays as clear as water, and the two men sat knee to knee in the temple gallery, each revealing their full names. The gentleman said, “My family name is Yan, my taken name Chixia.”

   Ning wondered if he were a student attending the exam, but from the sound of his voice, it was nothing like a Zhejiang accent. When asked, he volunteered, “I’m from Qin.” His speaking was extremely straightforward. Subsequently, they had no more words to say to each other, so they parted politely and retired to their rooms.

   As Ning was staying in a new place, after a long time he still couldn’t get to sleep. He heard a murmuring to the north of his quarters as if among the members of a family. Rising to hide beneath a stone window in the north wall, he secretly peeked through it. Beyond a low barrier, he saw a small courtyard with a woman about forty or so and another decrepit, hunchbacked old crone dressed in faded red silk, a silver comb in her hair, chatting in the moonlight.

   The woman said, “Why hasn’t Xiaoqian come yet?”

   “She’ll be here soon,” replied the crone.

   “She hasn’t been complaining to you, Granny, has she?” said the woman.

   “Not that I’ve heard, but she seems to be ill at ease.”

   “We shouldn’t get too friendly with that young drudge.”

   Before her words were finished, a seventeen or eighteen year old girl appeared, who seemed absolutely gorgeous. The crone said with a laugh, “Don’t speak of others behind their back. Just as we two are talking about the little witch, she comes sneaking up without a sound. Luckily we weren’t criticizing her shortcomings.” Then she said, “Little Miss, you really are right out of a painting. If I were a man, you’d steal my soul away too.”

   The girl said, “If Granny didn’t praise me, who else would say anything good?”

   The women and the girl continued to talk about something or other. Guessing they were from a neighbouring family, Ning lay down and stopped listening. After a while, their voices became silent. Just as he was about to fall asleep, Ning sensed someone had entered his bedroom. Rising swiftly and looking carefully around, he found it was the girl from the north courtyard. Startled, he asked her what she wanted. The girl smiled and said, “On a moonlit night I can’t sleep. I wish to seek some comfort.”

   With a serious face, Ning said, “You should guard against scandal. I fear what others will say. Take one false step and the path of integrity will be lost.”

   The girl declared, “At night no one will know.”

   Ning again rebuked her. The girl hesitated there as if she had more to say. Ning shouted, “Leave now! Otherwise I’ll yell until the scholar in the south billet knows.”

   At this the girl was frightened and retreated. When she reached outside, she turned back and placed a gold ingot on his mattress. Ning picked it up and hurled it on the courtyard steps, saying, “Such an ill-gotten object would pollute my pouch!”

   The girl left in shame, picking up the gold and saying to herself, “This man must be made of stone or iron.”

   The next morning, a scholar from Lanxi arrived with a servant to await the exams. He lodged in the east wing, but come nightfall he died suddenly. In the sole of his foot was a small hole, like a prick from an awl, from which blood was trickling out. No one could tell what had happened. The following night the servant also died in the same condition. Towards evening Scholar Yan returned and Ning questioned him. Yan thought it was a demon. Ning, being firm and upstanding by nature, didn’t let it weigh on his mind.

   At midnight the girl again came to Ning and told him, “I have had experience with many men, but none as strong-willed as you. You truly are a saint, so I don’t dare cheat you. I’m Xiaoqian, family name Nie. I passed away prematurely at eighteen and was buried beside the temple. Since then I’ve been threatened by an evil spirit and forced to do despicable deeds. I’m ashamed to show my face to others, but truly I took no pleasure in it. Now there’s no one in the temple that I can kill, I’m afraid it will come as a yaksha.”

   Alarmed, Ning begged her for a plan. The girl said, “Share a room with Scholar Yan and you can escape it.”

   Ning asked, “How come you don’t seduce Scholar Yan?”

   “He’s a remarkable man. I daren’t approach him.”

   “How do you enchant people?”

   “Those who become intimate with me, I secretly prick their feet with an awl. At once they are lost in a daze, then I draw their blood to give the demon to drink. Or I use gold, which isn’t really gold but the demon bone of a rakshasa – those who keep it can have their heart and liver gouged out. Of the two, I generally just use whichever is best at the time.”

   Ning thanked her and asked when he should be on alert. The answer was the next night. As she left, she sobbed, “I have fallen into the sea of darkness and the shore I seek is out of reach. Your righteousness soars to the sky – you must be able to raise me out of this suffering. If you’re willing to wrap up my remains and take them back to bury in a place of peace, that would be no less than a new life.”

   Ning made a resolute promise. Then he asked where she was buried, to which she replied, “Just remember, a white poplar with a crow’s nest upon it is the place.” With that, she hurried out of the door and disappeared.

   The next day, fearing Yan would go out somewhere, Ning paid him an early visit to extend an invitation. After nine in the morning he provided wine and victuals and carefully weighed Yan up. When he asked Yan to stay overnight, Yan declined, claiming to be fond of solitude by nature, but Ning wouldn’t listen and insisted on bringing Yan’s bedding over. Yan had no choice but to follow, transferring his bunk. He warned Ning, “I know you are a gentleman and I have the greatest respect for you. But there is a tiny secret that cannot be easily revealed. Please don’t peek inside my case and bundle. Disobeying this will be unfavourable for both of us.”

   Ning solemnly accepted this instruction. Afterwards they went to their respective beds, Yan placing his case upon the window. A short while after laying head to pillow, Yan was snoring like thunder. Ning couldn’t sleep.

   Near the end of the first watch, there was a shadowy figure outside the window. Presently it approached the window and peered in with glittering eyes. Terrified, Ning was just about to call out to Yan when suddenly an object split the case and flew out, flashing like a bolt of white silk; it broke through the stone lattice on the window with a whirlwind strike and immediately returned to the case, just like lightning flashing and fading away.

   Awakened by this, Yan rose, while Ning observed him, pretending to be asleep. Yan held up the case and examined it for signs, then took out an object, which he looked at in the moonlight and sniffed; brilliant and crystal-clear, it was maybe two inches long and about as broad as a shallot stalk. After wrapping it firmly in several layers, he placed it back in the broken case. He said to himself, “What evil fiend was that, daring to damage my case?” Then he lay down again.

   Greatly intrigued by this, Ning got up and asked him about it, telling him what he had seen. Yan said, “Since you’ve shown your understanding and affection, how could I keep it concealed? I am a swordsman. If not for the stone lattice, the demon would have died instantly; even so, it’s still wounded.”

   “What was that you sealed up?”

   “A sword. Just now I smelt a demon aura on it.”

   Ning wanted to take a look at it. Yan generously took it out to show to him and it was a tiny glistening sword. From then on he honoured Yan all the more.

   The next day he found a trail of blood outside the window. After that he exited the temple to the north and saw countless neglected graves. There was indeed a white poplar with a crow’s nest at its top.

   When Ning had concluded his business, he quickly packed and prepared to return home. Scholar Yan gave him a farewell dinner for their deep friendship. Presenting Ning with a torn leather pouch, he said, “This is the sword’s bag. Treasure it and it can keep evil spirits away.”

   Ning wanted to learn swordsmanship from him, but he said, “With your good faith and uprightness, you would be capable of it. However, you are yet a man of wealth and rank, not a man of this kind.”

   Therefore, pretending his sister was buried there, Ning dug up the girl’s bones, wrapped them in a shroud, hired a boat and returned home. His study overlooked the countryside, so he arranged a grave and burial for her outside his study. He made a burial offering and prayed, “Out of pity for your lonely soul, I have buried you near my humble abode, where I can hear your songs and tears, so that you won’t suffer oppression by mighty ghouls. This cup of watery wine may not be even slightly delicious to drink – I hope you won’t complain!”

   His prayer concluded, he turned back. Behind him was someone shouting, “Slow down and walk together!” He turned round to look and it was Xiaoqian. Joyfully, she thanked him, “Ten deaths would not be enough to repay your good faith. Allow me to follow you home to make the acquaintance of my parents-in-law. Whether slave or concubine, I will have no regrets.”

   Carefully examined in the light of day, with her skin reflecting the rosy glow of morning and her toes upturned like tender bamboo shoots, she was outstandingly beautiful and delicate. Thus together they arrived at his study. Urging her to sit and wait for a while, Ning went in first to explain to his mother. His mother was astounded. At that time Ning’s wife had a chronic illness and Ning’s mother warned him not to tell her, for fear of alarming her. As they were talking, the girl fluttered in and prostrated herself on the ground. Ning said, “This is Xiaoqian.”

   Ning’s mother had no time but to stare in shock. The girl said to her, “I was adrift all alone, far from my parents and brothers. Having bathed head to toe in the dew of the young master’s beneficence, I wish to serve with dustpan and brush to repay his magnanimity.”

   Seeing how ethereal and lovely she was, Ning’s mother gained the courage to speak to her, and said, “Young lady, your kind attention to my son makes me happy beyond words. But in my life I only have this one son who can continue the family line, so I daren’t allow him to take a ghost spouse.”

   “I truly have no other intentions,” said the girl. “Since one from the underworld cannot gain your trust, mother, allow me to take him as my elder brother and serve at your side from dawn to dusk. How would that be?”

   Moved to pity by her sincerity, Ning’s mother consented. The girl then wanted to pay her respects to Ning’s wife, but the mother declined this due to the wife’s illness, so she stopped. At once she went into the kitchen and took charge of the cooking in the mother’s place. Entering the rooms, she threaded round the furniture like a long-time resident.

   At sunset, the mother, in fear of the girl, bid her retire to sleep, but without setting out a bed or mattress. Detecting the mother’s meaning, the girl eventually left. She passed the study and was about to enter, but then retreated and paced up and down outside the door as if afraid of something. The scholar called to her and she said, “This room has a fearsome sword-aura. That’s the reason why I didn’t have the honour of seeing you just now en route.”

   Realising it was because of the leather pouch, Ning took it and hung it in another room. Thus the girl entered and sat down close to the candle. For a while she didn’t say a single word. At last she asked, “Do you read at night? When I was young I could recite the Surangama Sutra, but now I’ve forgotten the greater part of it. If you could find a copy, when you’re free at night you could correct me.”

   Ning promised. Again she sat there silently until the second watch was almost over and didn’t mention leaving. Ning urged her to go. Sorrowfully, she said, “To a lonely soul in a strange land, a desolate grave is terribly frightening.”

   “In my study there are no other beds,” Ning said, “and even brother and sister should remain above suspicion.”

   The girl rose, her brows knitted and on the verge of weeping, her feet shuffling and loathe to move, and slowly went out, descended the stairs and disappeared. Secretly pitying her, Ning wanted to let her stay in another bed but feared his mother’s displeasure.

   In the morning the girl would present herself to Ning’s mother, bringing a basin and ladle for washing, and then go off to manage the household tasks, never failing to fulfill the mother’s wishes. In the evening, when she retired for the night, she always passed by the study and recited scripture by candlelight. When she sensed Ning wanted to sleep, she would leave miserably.

   Prior to this, with Ning’s wife being an invalid, his mother had been unbearably overworked; since gaining the girl’s help, she was quite at ease and felt grateful to her. Day by day she gradually became familiar with her and came to love her like she was her own child, even forgetting that she was a ghost. She couldn’t bear to send her out at night and let her stay to sleep in the same room.

   At first the girl didn’t eat or drink, but after half a year she began to sip thin rice gruel. Mother and son both doted on her and avoided mentioning she was a ghost – others also couldn’t tell that she was. Before long, Ning’s wife died. The mother secretly had the idea to bring the girl into the family, but was afraid it would be harmful to her son.

   The girl became subtly aware of this and took the opportunity to tell the mother, “Having lived together for more than a year, you must know my innermost feelings. Because I didn’t want to harm travellers, I followed Caichen here. As the young master is open-hearted and upright and regarded with admiration by heaven and men, my humble self has no other wish than to support him for several years and enjoy the reflected glory of his ennoblement to brighten the underworld.”

   The mother knew she meant no ill, but worried that she would be unable to prolong the ancestral line. The girl said, “Sons and daughters are only bestowed by heaven. In the Register of Blessings it’s noted that Caichen will have three sons to safeguard your lineage. That won’t be taken away on account of a ghost wife.”

   The mother believed her and discussed it with her son. Ning was delighted and so laid on a banquet to inform his kinsfolk. Some of them asked to meet the bride and the girl readily came out all made-up. The whole hall gawped, not because they guessed she was a ghost but because they thought she was a fairy. After that all the female relatives from each branch of the family came bearing gifts for congratulation and vied to make her acquaintance. The girl was skilled at painting orchids and plum blossom, so always repaid them with picture scrolls. Those who received them wrapped them in ten layers, considering themselves honoured.

   One day Xiaoqian stood beside the window, neck bowed and melancholy as if lost. Suddenly she asked, “Where is that leather pouch?”

   Ning said, “Because you were afraid of it, I sealed it up and put it somewhere.”

   “I’ve been absorbing the breath of life for a long time now. I needn’t be afraid of it anymore. You’d better take it and hang it above the bed.”

   Ning asked what she was thinking and she said, “For three days my heart has been palpitating without cease. I think the demon from Jinhua hates me for escaping and I fear sooner or later it will track me down.”

   So Ning brought the leather pouch out. The girl turned it over to examine it and said, “This is what the sword-immortal used to hold human heads. With it worn-out like this, who knows how many men he killed! Looking at it today, my flesh still trembles.”

   And so he hung it up. The next day she again told him to move it and hang it above the door. That night she sat facing the candle and arranged with Ning not to sleep. All of a sudden there was something like a bird swooping down. Startled, the girl hid among the curtain folds. As Ning watched, a creature in the form of a yaksha, with lightning eyes and a bloody tongue, advanced with darting glances and grasping claws.

   When it reached the door, it stepped back; after hesitating there for a long time, it gradually approached the leather pouch and snatched it down with its claws, as if about to tear it apart. Suddenly the pouch, with a gurgling sound, grew as big as a pair of hod baskets; there seemed to be a phantom, half its body protruding, which dragged the yaksha in. Then there was silence, and the pouch at once shrank to the size it was before. Ning was astonished.

   The girl also emerged and, in great delight, said, “Safe and sound!”

   Together they looked in the pouch and there was nothing but a few cupfuls of plain water.

   Several years later, Ning did indeed pass the highest imperial exams. The girl bore a son and, after a concubine was brought into the family, she and the girl each gave birth to another son. All of them gained repute in their official careers.

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