Luo Zifu was a native of Bin. Both his parents died young and from the age of eight or nine he depended on his uncle, Daye. Daye held office in the Imperial College and his home boasted gold and silks, but he had no son and he loved Zifu as his own child.
At the age of fourteen, Zifu was enticed down the narrow paths of vice by villains. There happened to be a courtesan from Jinling living abroad in the prefecture and Zifu became obsessed with her. When the courtesan returned to Jinling, Zifu secretly eloped with her. He lived in the courtesan’s establishment for half a year until all his bedside funds were exhausted and he was greatly derided by the sisterhood.
Before long, his syphilis sores festered and burst, contaminating the bed sheets, and so he was abruptly driven out. He begged in the market and when the townsfolk saw him, they would always keep well clear of him. Himself fearing he would die in a strange land, he begged the food to travel west; every day he crossed thirty or forty li and gradually reached the border of Bin. Then, considering his ragged clothes and filthy pus, he hadn’t the face to enter his neighbourhood and hesitated near by the city.
The sun was already setting and he planned to hurry to a mountain temple to sleep, when he came across a girl who looked like an angel. She approached him and asked, “Where are you going?”
Zifu told her the truth. The girl said, “I am a hermit and I live in a mountain cave. You can sleep there and you needn’t fear tigers or wolves.”
Delighted, Zifu followed her. Deep within the mountains, he saw a cave-dwelling. As they entered, across the gateway was a stream and a stone bridge spanning it. A few yards further in there were two stone rooms, bright and clearly lit with no need for candles or a lamp. She told him to remove his tattered rags and bathe in the stream, saying, “When you wash them, your sores will heal.”
After that she opened the bed-curtains, straightened the bedding and urged him to sleep, saying, “Please, have a nap now and I’ll make some trousers for you.” Then she took some big leaves like banana palms, cutting and stitching them to make clothes. Zifu lay and watched her. Making them in very little time, she folded them up beside the bed, saying, “In the morning you can take them to wear.” Then she went to sleep on the couch opposite.
Since bathing, Zifu felt his sores no longer hurt. As soon as he woke, he touched them and found thick scabs had formed. At daybreak he was about to rise, but doubted whether palm leaves could be worn. Taking them for a close look, he found they were the smoothest green silk.
After a short while, they dined. The girl took some mountain leaves and called them pancakes, and upon eating them, they really were pancakes. She also cut out some chicken and fish to be boiled, and they were all like real ones. In the corner of the room was an urn containing fine brew from which they repeatedly drank; when it ran low she would just replenish it with stream water.
In several days, the scabs from his sores all dropped off and he approached the girl, asking to sleep with her. The girl said, “You playboy! As soon as you’re given shelter, you start to get wild ideas!”
Zifu said, “I wish to repay your kindness.” So they lay down together and took great pleasure in each other.
One day, a young woman came in, laughing, and said, “Pian-Pian, you little devil, you’re living in bliss! When did Sister Xue’s happy dreams come true?”
Welcoming her with a laugh, the girl said, “Miss Huacheng, long your dainty feet haven’t passed this way. Today a south-westerly wind has blown you here! Have you borne a little man yet?”
“Another little wench.”
Pian-Pian laughed, “Miss Hua’s only good for producing girls! Why not bring her along?”
“I’d only just sung her to sleep.”
Thereupon she sat down and was served a drink, and then, turning towards Zifu, she said, “This young gentleman’s a fine answer to your prayers.”
Zifu observed her – she was twenty three or four years old with more than ample beauty – and took a liking to her. When a peeled fruit fell off the table by mistake, while bending to pick up the fruit he secretly tweaked the tip of her toe. Huacheng looked elsewhere and laughed, as if unaware. Just as he was about to lose his mind, he suddenly felt no warmth from his robe and trousers; looking down at his clothes, they had all become autumn leaves. He almost fainted with shock. After sitting up straight for a while, they gradually changed back to how they had been. He was silently thankful the two ladies hadn’t seen.
Shortly, as they exchanged toasts, he again stroked her delicate palm with his finger. Huacheng calmly cracked a joke, absolutely insensible to it. As his heart palpitated pit-a-pat, his clothes had already turned into leaves, which after a while changed back again. From then on, shame-faced, he controlled himself and ceased his wild fantasies. Huacheng joked, “The young man of your house is hugely improper! If it wasn’t for Miss Jealousy Pot, I fear he would have soared up to the clouds.”
Pian-Pian also said with a smile, “The flirty chancer deserves to freeze to death!” They clapped their hands with each other.
Huacheng left her seat, saying, “The little wench has awoken. I fear she’ll cry her heart out.”
Pian-Pian also rose, saying, “Too busy seducing other people’s men to remember little Jiangcheng crying to bits.”
Once Huacheng had gone, Zifu was afraid he would be censured, but in the end Pian-Pian treated him as usual. Before long, the autumn grew old and the wind cold, frost fell and the trees were stripped bare, so Pian-Pian gathered in the fallen leaves to store up as delicacies to resist the winter. Noticing Zifu huddling up, she held out a cloth to collect in the clouds at the cave mouth to make cotton padded clothes, which were as warm as a fur coat to wear and as light as fresh silk floss.
After a year, she bore a son who was extremely intelligent and handsome. Every day at the cave mouth they would play with their son for fun. However, Zifu often missed his hometown and asked her to go back there with him. Pian-Pian said, “I can’t follow, but you could go by yourself.”
They carried on for two or three years and their boy gradually grew up, so they concluded a marriage agreement with Huacheng. Because of his uncle’s age, Zifu often thought of him. Pian-Pian said, “Uncle’s years are many, it’s true, but luckily he’s strong and healthy, so there’s no need to be anxious. Wait until Bao’er is married and then you can go as you wish.”
Within the cave, Pian-Pian always wrote books on leaves to teach their son to read and the boy could understand them after one look through. She said, “This boy has an auspicious appearance. Send him out into the mortal world and with no difficulty he would reach cabinet office.”
Before long, the boy was fourteen years old. Huacheng personally escorted her daughter over. The girl was magnificently adorned, her looks bright enough to dazzle. Husband and wife were overjoyed and the whole family gathered for a feast. Pian-Pian rapped her hairpin and sang:
“I have a fine son,
I envy not wealth and rank.
I have a fine wife,
I envy not silks and damask.
This night we gather,
All should be happy.
For you I’ll serve wine,
And urge you to dine.”
Afterwards Huacheng left and the young couple lived in the room opposite. The bride was filial and reluctant to leave their side, just like their own child. Zifu again spoke of returning home, and Pian-Pian said, “You have common bones and after all are not of immortal nature. Our son is also a man of wealth and honour. You can take him away – I won’t delay his life course.”
The bride wished to say goodbye to her mother, and Huacheng had already arrived. Son and daughter longed to stay, tears filling their eyes, but the two mothers consoled them, saying, “Go for now. You can come back again.” Pian-Pian then cut out a leaf as a donkey and told the three of them to ride it home.
Daye was already old and retired to obscurity. Thinking his nephew already dead, when he suddenly returned home bringing a fine grandson with a beautiful wife, he was as happy as if he’d gained a treasure. When they went inside, each of them saw that their clothes had all become palm leaves; torn open, the padding evaporated and blew away. So they were all replaced simultaneously.
Later Zifu missed Pian-Pian and together with his son went to search for her, but only found yellow leaves covering the path and the way leading to the cave lost. Shedding tears, they turned back.
The Cryptohistorian says: Presumably Pian-Pian and Huacheng must be immortals? Dining on leaves and dressing in clouds – how strange is that! And yet, bantering in the boudoir, having intimate relations and bearing infants – how is that any different to the world of men?