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Three Lives

According to Chinese superstition, before the souls of the dead are reincarnated they are given a potion of oblivion to drink that makes them forget the past. This is similar to the belief of the ancient Greeks that shades of the dead would drink the water of Lethe to forget their previous existence.

Scholar Liu could remember his previous incarnations and once described them in detail. In one life he was a government official whose conduct had been much blemished and who died at the age of sixty-two. At first when he met the king of the underworld he was treated as a country gentleman, granted a seat and given tea to drink. He spotted that the tea in the king’s cup was clear while his own cup was murky like undecanted wine; he secretly wondered if this could be the potion of oblivion. When the king was looking elsewhere, he poured his cup over the side of the table and pretended he’d finished it.

     Presently, the king checked the record of his previous life’s wrongdoings; furious, he ordered a gang of ghosts to seize Liu and sentenced him to become a horse. At once some stern-faced ghosts tied him up and led him away. He was taken to a house with a threshold too high for him to cross. As he hesitated, the ghosts lashed him hard and he stumbled over in extreme pain. Looking around, he found himself already in a stable. He heard a person say, “The black horse has had a foal! It’s a male.”

     His mind was completely clear but he couldn’t speak. Feeling famished, he had no choice but to suckle from the mare. After four or five years, his body had grown tall and strong, but he was scared stiff of being flogged – on seeing a whip, he would flee in terror. When his master rode him, he had to be covered with a saddle-cloth and have the bit kept loose, then the suffering was not too much; but when the servants and stable boys rode him without the padding and clamped him between their knees, the pain pierced right through him. Therefore, in great indignation, he didn’t eat for three days, and consequently died.

     When he got to the underworld, the king found his sentence had not been fully served, rebuked him for evading his punishment, peeled off his hide and sentenced him to be a dog. He was so despondent he didn’t want to move. A gang of ghosts thrashed him wildly and he fled in extreme pain to the wild. Thinking to himself that he would be better off dead, he indignantly threw himself off a precipice, landed upside-down and couldn’t get up. Looking around, he found himself lying in a hole, a mother dog licking and sheltering him, and he knew that he had already been reborn into the world.

     When he’d grown a little and he saw excrement, he knew it was filthy; but it smelt fragrant and he had to tell himself not to eat it. During one year of being a dog, in his rage he often wanted to die, though he was afraid of being blamed for evasion of his punishment. However, his master wanted to keep him, not kill him. So he bit his master on purpose, taking some flesh out of his leg. His master was furious and beat him to death.

     The king of the underworld interrogated him and, furious at his rabid behaviour, gave him several hundred lashes, then sent him off to become a snake. He was imprisoned in a dark cell with no daylight. Deeply depressed, he climbed up the side of the wall and out of a hole in the ceiling. Looking about, he found himself lying in thick grass – clearly he was indeed a snake. So, swearing not to harm any living being, he swallowed fruit when he was hungry.

     For a year or so, his every thought was: suicide, that’s not allowed; hurting someone and getting killed, that’s not allowed either. He looked in vain for a good way to die. One day, as he was lying in the grass, he heard a carriage passing and darted out into the road; the carriage flattened him at high speed and cut him in two. The king of the underworld was astonished at his speedy return, so he lay prostrate and explained himself.

     Because he was innocent when killed, the king pardoned him, approved his punishment as complete and reincarnated him as a man – that is, as Scholar Liu. From birth, he could speak, write essays and historical accounts, and recite after one reading. He always urged people: when you ride a horse, you must use a thick saddle-cloth; the torture of being squeezed between the thighs is more painful than the whip.


The Cryptohistorian says: Among the ranks of the furred and horned, lords and leaders can be found. So naturally, within the ranks of lords and leaders, there must be those with fur and horns too. When the lowly do good, it is like planting a tree in hope of it flowering; when the noble do good, it is like nurturing the roots when the tree has already flowered. What is planted can grow and what is nurtured can endure. Otherwise we will pull the salt wagon and wear a bridle and yoke, having become horses; or we will feed on excrement and be cooked and confined, having become dogs; or we will be covered in scales and die at the claws of cranes and storks, having become snakes.

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