Yue Yunhe and Xia Pingzi when young lived in the same neighbourhood and when grown studied in the same academy. The two of them were bosom friends. Xia when young was bright and at the age of ten was well-known. Yue humbly learnt from him and Xia also advised Yue untiringly, so Yue’s writing daily progressed and thanks to that he became equally renowned. However, he was frustrated in the exam hall, always failing in the contest.
Before long, Xia died in an epidemic. His family was too poor to bury him, so Yue stepped forward and took the responsibility. Xia left behind a child in swaddling bands and a widow, to whom Yue would often provide relief. Whenever he gained any grain, he was sure to divide it in two and Xia’s wife and child depended on this to live. Due to this, the scholarly community respected Yue all the more.
Yue’s fixed assets were not many, and with also taking care of Xia’s family concerns for him, his family livelihood daily became more stretched, and so he said with a sigh, “Even with writing like Pingzi’s, one still dies with nothing, let alone mine! For wealth and honour in life, one must seize the time. Being anxious the whole year round, I fear I will die in a ditch before the dogs and horses. Better to give up this life and make my own plans.”
Thereupon he gave up studying for trading. After conducting business for half a year, his family income was moderately prosperous.
One day, when travelling in Jinling, he rested at a hotel. He saw a man towering and tall, his muscles and bones bulging, pacing up and down beside the seats with gloomy looks and a sorrowful appearance. Yue asked, “Would you like to eat?”
The man didn’t speak. Yue offered him some food to eat and, using his hands, he gobbled it down, finishing it in an instant. Yue then added victuals enough for two and again he ate it up. So Yue ordered the owner to carve a leg of pork and make a stack of steamed cakes. Again he finished food enough for several men before finally his stomach was full and he thanked Yue, saying, “In the past three years, I have never been as well-fed as this.”
Yue said, “You’re certainly a mighty man. Why are you drifting around like this?”
“My crime provoked the wrath of heaven. I cannot speak of it.” Asked where he lived, he said, “On land no home, on water no boat; at dawn in the country and at dusk in the city.”
Yue readied his load and prepared to depart, but the man followed him, reluctant to leave. When Yue bid farewell, he told him, “You’re facing a catastrophe and I can’t bear to forget the kindness of a meal.”
Yue was surprised by this, and so they travelled on together. Along the way, Yue invited him to share his meal, but he declined, saying, “In a whole year I only have several meals.” Yue marvelled at him all the more.
The next day, as they crossed the river, the wind and waves suddenly surged and the merchant ships were all overturned. Yue and the man were both cast into the river. Presently the wind calmed and the man carried Yue out of the water, treading on the tide, and boarded a passenger boat, before again plunging into the waves; after a short while he returned, pulling a boat, which he helped Yue onto.
Urging Yue to lie and keep watch, he again leapt into the river and brought out Yue’s goods under both arms, throwing them into the boat; again he went in, and several times went in and came out, until rows of goods filled the boat. Yue thanked him, saying, “That you saved me is more than enough, without returning my property too!”
Inspecting his commodities, he found none were missing. All the more pleased, Yue regarded the man as superhuman. As the boat was about to depart, the man said his goodbyes, but Yue earnestly asked him to stay, so they crossed together. Yue joked, “In this disaster, the only thing I lost was a single gold hairpin.”
The man wanted to search for it again. Just as Yue was urging him not to, he had already dived into the water and disappeared. Yue stood there stunned for a long time. Suddenly he saw the man appear, smiling, and he handed the hairpin to Yue, saying, “Luckily my mission didn’t fail.” All the people on the river were astounded.
Yue returned home with him and they shared Yue’s sleeping place. He would only eat once every ten days or so, but when he ate he would munch through incalculable amounts. One day, he again said farewell, but Yue firmly pulled him back. Just then the daylight darkened with imminent rain and the sound of thunder was heard. Yue said, “Who knows what it’s like in the clouds? And what is thunder? If only I could reach heaven to observe, these questions could be resolved.”
The man laughed and said, “You wish to travel among the clouds?”
Soon Yue felt extremely tired and lay flat on the bed to take a nap. When he awoke, he felt his body rocking, not like he was on a bed; opening his eyes, he found himself among the clouds, which surrounded him like cotton. Rising in shock, he felt dizzy as if on a boat. Where he stepped was soft with no ground. Looking up at the stars, they were right before his eyes. So he suspected he was dreaming.
Looking carefully, he saw the stars were embedded in the sky, like lotus seeds in a seedpod. The large ones were like urns, the next like vases and the small ones like jars. Shaking them by hand, the large ones were too solid to move, but the small ones wiggled and it seemed they could be plucked off. So he plucked one and stored it in his sleeve. Moving aside the cloud, he peered down – the Milky Way was boundless and he saw the cities below were like beans. Astounded, he thought to himself: if I lost my footing, how could this body survive?
Presently he saw two undulating dragons coming pulling an unadorned cart. One sweep of their tails was like the crack of a bull whip. On the cart there were vessels, each of them a dozen metres round and storing water to the brim. There were dozens of people scooping up water with containers and sprinkling it all over the clouds. Suddenly seeing Yue, they were all surprised. Yue observed that the mighty man was there too and was saying to them, “This is my friend.”
He then took a container and handed it to Yue, telling him to sprinkle water. At that time there was a hard drought, so Yue took the container, parted the cloud, aimed vaguely towards his hometown and poured as much water as he liked. Before long, the man told Yue, “I’m actually a thunder officer. Before I issued the rain incorrectly and was banished for three years. Today the heavenly sentence is complete, so from now we must part.”
So he cast the rope for harnessing the cart out ten thousand feet, telling Yue to grasp the end and let himself down. Yue thought it dangerous, but the man laughed and said, “No harm.”
Yue did as he said and drifted in an instant down to the ground. Looking around, he had fallen to his feet outside his village. The rope gradually was drawn back up into the clouds and couldn’t be seen. At that time there had been a long drought. Ten li away the rain was only a finger deep – in Yue’s neighbourhood alone were the ditches and channels all full.
Returning home, he felt inside his sleeve and the star he had plucked was still there. Taking it out and placing it on the table, it was as dull and dark as a stone, but at night it shone with a bright light, illuminating the whole room. Treasuring it all the more, he wrapped it up tenfold and stored it away. Whenever he had fine guests, he would bring it out to drink by its light. When looked at directly, its rays would dazzle the eye.
One night, his wife sat facing it tying up her hair, when suddenly she saw the star light become as small as a fly and begin flying around. As the wife started in alarm, it had already entered her mouth. She couldn’t cough it out and instead it went down her throat. Stunned, she rushed to tell Yue and he was also amazed.
After he went to sleep, Xia Pingzi appeared in his dreams and said, “I’m a Junior Officer Star. Because my late father misplaced his virtue, that shortened my lifespan. Your kindness is unforgotten in my heart. Then to be taken home by you from heaven, that can be called our destiny. Today I have become your heir, in order to repay your great integrity.”
Yue was thirty and had no son, so he was very pleased to have this dream. From then on his wife indeed was pregnant, and when she gave birth a brilliant light filled the room, just like when the star was on the table. Thus they named him “Star Boy”. He was extremely sharp-witted and at sixteen passed the highest imperial exams.
The Cryptohistorian says: Master Yue’s writings were known to all his generation. To suddenly feel an exalted position for him lay not in that, and so to renounce the writing brush like removing his shoes, how is that any different to Ban Chao casting aside his pen? As for the Thunder Officer being grateful for the kindness of a meal and the Junior Officer requiting the understanding of a good friend, these were not the spirits’ personal repayment for favours bestowed but Creation’s public repayment for heroic virtue.
Ban Chao was a great general of the Han dynasty famed for giving up his scholarly studies to become a soldier.