Painted Skin

Scholar Wang of Taiyuan was out on a morning walk when he came across a young lady, who was clutching a bundle and rushing along on her own with great diffculty at every step. Hurrying over and catching her, he saw she was a pretty sixteen-year-old and he fell in love with her at once. “Why are you out walking all alone so early in the morning?” he asked.

     The girl said, “A passer-by can’t solve my worries, so why bother to ask?”

     “What worries, my dear?” said the scholar. “If there’s any service I can render, I’ll spare no effort.”

     Gloomily, the girl said, “Because my parents coveted costly gifts, they sold me as a concubine to a wealthy family. The wife’s so jealous she curses me by day and beats me at night. The humiliation’s unbearable. All I can do is flee far away.”

     “To where?”

     “For a fugitive, any port in a storm will do.”

     The scholar said, “My humble abode isn’t far. May I trouble you to honour me with a visit?”

     Delighted, the girl complied. The scholar carried her bundle of things and led her back with him. Seeing the house empty, the girl asked, “Don’t you have any family?”

     He replied, “It’s just my study.”

     “This place is perfect,” said the girl. “If you take pity on me and let me live, we must keep this a total secret.”

     The scholar promised. Then he slept with her. He let her hide in a secret room and several days passed without anyone knowing. The scholar mentioned her vaguely to his wife. The wife, Chen, suspecting she was an escaped concubine from an important family, urged him to get rid of her. Wang wouldn’t listen.

     It happened that he went to market, where he met a Taoist, who stared at him in astonishment. The Taoist asked, “What have you run into?”

     “Nothing,” replied Wang.

     The Taoist said, “An evil aura hovers over you – how can you say ‘nothing’?”

     The scholar again strongly denied it.

     At this the Taoist left, saying, “Deluded! It just shows there are people in this world who won’t wake up even on the verge of death.”

     The strangeness of these words caused the scholar to doubt the girl. But then he thought how could such a manifest beauty be in any way evil, and guessed the Taoist made a living by pretending to perform exorcisms.

     Soon he reached his study gate, but it was blocked from within and he couldn’t enter. Suspicious that something was going on, he went over the fallen-down wall. However, the study door was also locked. Tiptoeing over and peering in the window, he saw a hideous demon with a jade-green face and teeth jagged as a saw. It had spread a human skin out on the couch and was painting it with coloured brushes. When it was done, the demon cast aside the brushes, held up the skin like it was shaking down clothes, wrapped it round its body, and at once it was transformed into the girl.

     Seeing this, Wang was terrified. He slunk away on all fours. In a panic he ran to find the Taoist, but the Taoist had gone. He searched everywhere and found him out in the countryside, then kneeled down and begged for his help. The Taoist said, “If you want, I’ll get rid of it. But this creature also suffers much until it finds someone to replace it and I can’t bear to take its life.” So he gave his fly-whisk to the scholar and told him to hang it above the bedroom door. As they were parting, they arranged to meet at Qingdi Temple.

     The scholar went home, but didn’t dare to enter his study, and slept instead in the inner rooms, first hanging up the whisk. After a couple of hours, he heard muffled noises outside the door, and being too scared to look for himself, told his wife to take a peek. What she saw was the girl coming, staring at the whisk and not daring to enter, just standing there and gnashing her teeth. After a long time, she left. But soon she returned. Cursing, she said, “That Taoist’s trying to scare me. But there’s no way I’m spitting out what’s already in my mouth!”

     Taking the whisk and tearing it up, she smashed through the bedroom door. Climbing straight onto the scholar’s bed, she tore open his abdomen, scooped out his heart, and left. The wife wailed. A servant-girl came in with a candle – Wang was dead and blood from the cavity was scattered everywhere. Chen snivelled in silence, not daring to make a sound.

     The next day she told Wang’s younger brother to hurry and inform the Taoist. The Taoist raged, “I took pity on it, but that demon still dares to do that!” At once he followed the scholar’s brother.

     The girl had already gone from the house. After a time, the Taoist raised his head to gaze around, and said, “Luckily it hasn’t fled far.” And he asked, “Whose home is in the southern courtyard?”

     “That’s my place,” said the brother.

     The Taoist said, “It’s in your house now.”

     Stunned, the brother couldn’t believe it. The Taoist asked him, “Has anybody you don’t know come round?”

     He replied, “Early this morning I rushed off to Qingdi Temple, so I’m really not sure. Let me go home and ask.” He went and soon returned, saying, “There really is someone. This morning an old woman came hoping to be hired as a head servant and my wife retained her. She’s still there now.”

     The Taoist said, “That’s the creature.”

     Straightaway they went together. Brandishing a wooden sword in the centre of the yard, the Taoist yelled, ‘Evil demon! Come and pay me for my whisk!”

     Inside the house, the old woman turned pale in fright and tried to escape out the door. The Taoist pursued and attacked her. The old woman fell, her skin splitting and peeling off. She changed into a fierce demon and lay there, shrieking like a pig. The Taoist used his wooden sword to slice off its head – its body dissolved into dense smoke that swirled around the yard in mounds. The Taoist took out a calabash, pulled out its stopper, and placed it in the midst of the smoke – there was a flurry like a mouth sucking in air, and in an instant the smoke had disappeared. The Taoist stopped up the calabash and put it in his bag. Everyone examined the skin – it had eyes, eyebrows, fingers, feet, every feature perfect and complete. The Taoist rolled it up like he was rolling up a scroll, bagged it too, then turned to go.

     Chen threw herself before him at the gate and begged him in tears to somehow bring her husband back to life. The Taoist apologized that he couldn’t. Chen wept all the more, lay flat on the ground and wouldn’t get up. The Taoist pondered, then said, “My powers are limited and I really can’t raise the dead. But I’ll suggest a man who possibly could. Going and pleading with him might prove effective.”

     “What man?” she asked.

     “In the market there’s a lunatic who sometimes lies in the muck. Try kneeling and imploring him. If he humiliates you, don’t get angry, though.”

     The brother already knew of him, so he went with his sister-in-law, taking leave of the Taoist. They saw the beggar singing dementedly in the street, mucus dangling down three feet from his nose, too filthy to approach. Chen crawled on her knees before him. The beggar laughed, and said, “Does the beauty love me?”

     Chen told him what had happened. Again he roared with laughter and said, “Any man will do for a husband – why save his life?”

     Chen continued to implore him. So he said, “Strange! A man dies and she begs me for his life. Am I the king of the underworld?” And in a rage he struck Chen with his stick.

     Chen bit her lip and bore it. The people in the market gradually crowded round in a wall. The beggar coughed up a handful of spittle and phlegm and raised it towards Chen’s lips, saying, “Eat it!”

     Chen’s face flushed with embarrassment. However, remembering the Taoist’s words, she forced it down. She felt it slide into her throat, clot like a ball of cotton, then drop haltingly to settle and congeal in her chest. The beggar guffawed, “The beauty loves me!” Then he got up and walked away, without looking back.

     Chen tailed him right into a temple. She asked for him urgently but no one knew where he was. She made a thorough search all round but he had disappeared without a trace, so, angry and ashamed, she went home. Grieving over the cruelty of her husband’s death and ruing the shame of eating saliva, she tossed her head with mournful tears, wanting only to die at once.

     When the time came to put the body in the coffin, the servants just stood there and stared, not daring to go near. Chen hugged the corpse and replaced the entrails, crying as she tidied them up. She sobbed herself hoarse – suddenly she started to throw up. She felt the object stuck in her diaphragm surge up and out, and before she could turn away it had fallen in the middle of the cavity. She stared in shock – it was a human heart, beating away in the cavity like it might leap out, heat and steam rising up like smoke.

     She was amazed. Desperately closing the cavity with both hands, she hugged him as tight as she could. When she relaxed, a breath of life came out from the crack, so she split some silk and hurriedly bound him. As she stroked the corpse, it gradually became warm. She covered him with a quilt. In the middle of the night she lifted it for a look – breath was coming from the nostrils. By daybreak, he was wholly alive. He was able to say, “It was as if I was in a dream, and the only feeling was a faint pain.”

     They checked the wound and found a scab like a coin, which soon healed.

 

The Cryptohistorian says: How stupid people are! What is manifestly evil, they regard as beautiful. Deluded idiots! What is manifestly true, they regard as nonsense. A man lusts after a woman’s looks and snares her, so his wife must eat another’s spit and like it. The ways of Heaven are reciprocal – what goes around, comes around – but stupid deluded people don’t cotton on. What a shame!