In the past each village in China would have a shrine to the local god of the land. The local god was a low-level deity held responsible for raising the fertility of the land in the local area.
Xu, a fisherman, lived in the northern outskirts of Zichuan. Every night he took some wine to the river to drink while he fished. As he drank, he would pour a libation on the ground, toasting, “For the ghosts of those drowned in the river.” This became his habit. When other fishermen failed to catch anything, Xu alone would have a full creel.
One evening, as he was supping by himself, a young man came up and lingered at his side. Xu invited him to drink and he accepted the invitation with pleasure. Subsequently, the whole night Xu failed to catch a single fish, leaving him rather disappointed. The youth rose, saying, “Let me go downstream and drive them up for you.” Then he floated off. Soon he returned and said, “Fish are coming in droves.” Sure enough, they heard the sound of splashing.
Xu raised his net to find he had caught several, each a full foot long. Overjoyed, he thanked the young man. Turning to go home, he presented the fish to the youth, who refused them, saying, “Having enjoyed your fine wine so many times, how could I expect a reward? If you don’t mind, I hope we can do this more often.”
Xu said, “We’ve only spent one evening together – why do you say ‘so many times’? If you want to keep coming, you’re certainly always more than welcome. But I’m afraid I’ve nothing to show my appreciation.”
Asked his name, the youth said, “My family name’s Wang, no courtesy name – when we meet you can call me Sixth-Son Wang.” And so they parted.
The next day, Xu sold the fish for a good profit and bought some wine. In the evening, when he arrived at the riverbank, the youth was already there, so they drank happily together. They drank several rounds then he drove the fish up for Xu.
It was like that for half a year. Suddenly he told Xu, “It’s been my pleasure to know you, and we’re closer than flesh and blood. However, the time has come for us to part.” His voice was utterly miserable.
Shocked, Xu asked why.
Beginning to speak and stopping several times, at last he said, “We two are such good friends, perhaps you won’t be frightened by my words? Now we must part, there’s no harm in telling you frankly: I’m actually a ghost. I have a weakness for wine – I drowned when I was drunk and have been here for several years. Before, when you caught more fish than anyone else, it was always me secretly driving them up to repay you for your offerings. Tomorrow my purgatory is over, there’ll be a replacement for me, and I’ll go to be reborn. We only have this evening together, so I can’t help being emotional.”
At first Xu was petrified; but as they had long been intimate friends, he soon overcame his terror. And so, also sighing, he poured a drink and said, “Sixth-Son, drink this, and don’t be sad. Parting so soon after we’ve met is reason enough for sorrow. But if your purgatory is over, that’s truly a cause for celebration, not for sorrow.” And so they drank their fill.
Then he asked, “Who is your replacement?”
Wang said, “You can watch from the riverbank – at noon a woman will cross the river and drown. It’s her.” Hearing the village cocks already crowing, they parted in tears.
The next day, Xu waited specially at the riverside to observe the strange event. Sure enough a woman came carrying a baby, reached the river and fell in. The baby, tossed onto the bank, flailed its arms and legs and cried. The woman sank and resurfaced repeatedly then suddenly clambered dripping wet out of the river and onto the bank. She lay on the ground for a short while then left with the child in her arms.
While the woman was drowning, Xu really couldn’t bear it and wanted to rush and save her. But remembering that this was Sixth-Son’s replacement, he stopped himself from helping. When the woman pulled herself out, he wondered why the prediction had not come true.
That evening, as he fished in the old spot, the young man came again, saying, “Today we can be together again and needn’t say goodbye.”
Xu asked him why. He said, “The woman had already taken my place, but I pitied the baby in her arms. To replace the one of me meant destroying two lives, so I gave it up. I don’t know when there’ll be another replacement. Perhaps it’s our destiny not to part yet!”
Xu sighed with feeling, and said, “Such benevolent intentions could move Heaven.” From then on, they got together as before.
After several days, Sixth-Son again came to say goodbye. Xu wondered if there was another replacement for him, but he said, “No. The compassionate thought I had did in fact reach Heaven. Now I’ve been rewarded with the position of local god of Wu Town in Zhaoyuan County, and tomorrow I’ll take up my post. If you don’t forget our friendship, then go and pay me a visit – don’t fear the distance.”
Xu congratulated him, “When an honest man becomes a god, it’s such a comfort for the people. But men and gods live in different worlds – even if I don’t fear the distance, how can we meet again?”
The young man said, “Just go – don’t worry.” And urging him again and again, he left.
Xu went home and at once started to make preparations for heading east. His wife mocked, “You’ll go a hundred miles from here, and even if there is such a place, I don’t think a clay idol can talk to you.”
Xu didn’t listen, and eventually reached Zhaoyuan. He asked the locals and there was indeed a Wu Town. Having found the place, he took a room in an inn and asked where the temple was. The owner said in surprise, “Your name wouldn’t be Xu, would it?”
Xu said, “It is. How did you know?”
Again the owner asked, “Your hometown wouldn’t be Zichuan, would it?”
“It is. How did you know?”
The owner didn’t reply but left hastily. In a moment, people came in a clutter, men carrying their children, women peeping through the door, all closing round him in a wall. Xu was bewildered. Then they told him, “Several nights ago in our dreams, our god said: ‘A friend called Xu from Zichuan will come here soon – you can help him with his travelling expenses.’ We’ve been eagerly expecting you ever since.”
Also amazed by this, Xu went straight to the temple to make his offerings, and prayed, “Since we parted, night and day you’ve never left my mind, so I’ve come all this way to keep our appointment. Then for you to notify the locals in their dreams really makes me proud. I’m sorry I’ve got no expensive gifts, just a cask of wine. If you don’t object, we can drink as we did by the river.”
His prayer concluded, he burnt some sacrificial money. Soon he felt a wind rise behind the altar, swirl about for a while then dissipate. That night, the young man appeared in his dreams, immaculately dressed, quite different to before. He thanked Xu, saying, “You’ve come a long way to see me – it moves me to tears. But my position is trivial and we can’t meet face to face. To be so near and yet so far apart is really hard to take. The locals have some little gifts just for the sake of our old friendship. When it’s time for you to go home, I’ll see you off.”
After staying for several days, Xu decided to go home. Everyone was eager to keep him there, and each day several different families invited him to stay. However, Xu was determined to leave. So they all brought big bundles and vied in sending him parting gifts. Before the morning was out, his bags were stuffed with presents.
The old and the young gathered to see him off from the village. All of a sudden a whirlwind sprang up and accompanied him three or four miles. At that point, Xu bowed down and said, “Sixth-Son, take care! Don’t trouble yourself to come too far. You’re so kind-hearted, you can bring this place blessings – you don’t need an old friend’s advice.”
The wind lingered for a while then left. The villagers all went back, amazed. Back home, Xu’s family became a little richer and he no longer went to fish. Afterwards, when he saw Zhaoyuan folk and asked them, they said Sixth-Son’s spirit always answered their prayers.
The Cryptohistorian says: To reach the clouds but not forget the poor and lowly, that’s what makes a god. These days how many officials in their carriages still acknowledge an acquaintance in a peasant’s hat?