In former times in China, certain people would be employed to act as intermediaries in some important situations. Go-betweens would be used to convey marriage proposals and shamans would be asked to make contact with the spirit world.
Sun Zichu of Guangxi, a renowned man of letters, was born with an extra finger. Pedantic by nature and slow of speech, when people lied to him he would always take it for the truth. If there happened to be singing girls or courtesans seated somewhere, as soon as he saw them at a distance he would run off. Some people, knowing he was like that, tricked him into coming and had prostitutes press themselves against him, then he would blush from face to neck and beads of sweat would trickle down. So everyone would laugh at him. Afterwards descriptions of his idiocy were circulated by post as abuse and he became known as “Foolish Sun”.
In his county there was a certain tycoon whose wealth equalled that of princes and whose relatives by marriage were all of noble blood. He had a daughter, Treasure, who was exceedingly beautiful. Each day they sought a fine match for her, sons of prominent families vying to present engagement gifts, but none met the old man’s expectations.
At that time Sun had lost his wife and for a joke someone urged him to send a go-between. Utterly misjudging himself, Sun really followed this suggestion. The old man had long heard of Sun’s reputation but said he was too poor. As the go-between was leaving, she happened to meet Treasure, who asked her purpose. When she told her, the girl joked, “If he gets rid of his extra finger, then I’ll marry him.”
The old woman told this to Sun, who said, “That’s not hard.”
When the go-between left, Sun used an axe to chop off his own finger. The agony pierced him to the core and blood poured out, leaving him on the brink of death. After several days, he was able to get up, so he went to see the go-between and showed her. The old woman was shocked and rushed to tell the girl. She too was amazed by this and jokingly asked that he also get rid of his folly.
Sun heard about this and noisily refuted it, saying he wasn’t foolish; however, he had no route to see her and vindicate himself. He reconsidered: Treasure might not be as beautiful as an angel after all, so why should she regard herself so highly? From then on his former ardour abruptly cooled.
It happened to be Qingming and, as is the custom on that day, women were out strolling. Frivolous young men also formed groups to follow them around, brazenly rating them. Several members of his club pressured Sun to go with them. Some of them mocked him, saying, “Don’t you want to take a look at your beloved?”
Sun knew they were making fun of him; however, because of the ridicule he had suffered from the girl, he also wished to see her for himself, so he gladly followed the crowd to seek her out. From a distance they saw a girl resting beneath a tree, horrible young men gathered round like a wall. They said, “That must be Treasure.”
They hurried over and it really was Treasure. On close inspection, she was indeed incomparably beautiful. Shortly, the crowd became denser and the girl got up, leaving abruptly. Everyone was bowled over by her. They commented on her face and feet, gabbling over each other like crazy. Only Sun remained silent. When everyone headed off, they looked back and Sun was still standing foolishly in the old spot. They shouted at him but he didn’t reply, so the group dragged him off, saying, “Has your soul gone to follow Treasure?”
He still didn’t answer, but as he was always slow of speech, they didn’t think it strange. They got him home, some pushing and some pulling him. Once home, he went straight to bed and lay there, not getting up the whole day, insensate as if drunk, not awaking when called. His family suspected his soul was lost and went to the wilderness to summon it back, but to no avail. When they slapped him forcefully and questioned him, he replied indistinctly, “I am at Treasure’s home.” But upon further interrogation, he was again completely silent.
To begin with, when Sun saw the girl leaving, he couldn’t bear to let her go and he felt himself following in her wake. Gradually he drew close to her and slipped his hand inside her sash, with no one scolding him. So he followed the girl home and stayed beside her whatever she was doing. At night he would have sex with her, and they were made for each other. However, he felt a strange hollowness in his stomach. He wanted to return to his own home, but in his confusion didn’t know the way.
The girl every night dreamt she was having intercourse with a man, and when she asked his name, he said, “I am Sun Zichu.” She marvelled at this, but couldn’t tell anyone.
Sun lay for three days, gasping for breath as if about to expire. In terror, his family asked someone to tactfully tell the old man that they wished to summon Sun’s soul at his house. The old man laughed and said, “In the past there have been no relations between us, so how could he have left his soul at my house?”
Sun’s family continued to plead with him, until he finally consented. The shaman went there carrying some of Sun’s clothes and his straw mat. The girl enquired the reason for this visit and, in utter astonishment, led the shaman straight to her room, not letting him go elsewhere, and allowed him to perform the summoning then leave. By the time the shaman returned and reached the door, Sun was already groaning upon his bed. On waking, he could recount without any error all the perfumes and toiletries in the girl’s room, their name and appearance. When the girl heard of this, she was even more astounded and secretly was touched by the depth of Sun’s feeling.
Once Sun had left his bed, he was constantly absorbed in thought and lost in forgetfulness. He was always waiting for a glimpse of Treasure, hoping to be favoured with another encounter. At the Buddha-Bathing Festival, he heard she was going to take perfume to Watermoon Temple, so early in the morning he went there to wait by the side of the road till his eyes glazed and his eyeballs ached. The day had passed noon when she finally arrived. Spotting him from within her carriage, with her dainty hand she lifted up the curtain and fixed him with an unflinching gaze. Increasingly excited, Sun tailed behind her. The girl suddenly ordered her servant to go and ask his name. Sun eagerly identified himself, his spirit ever more shaken. Only when her carriage was gone did he return home.
Having returned home, he fell ill again, lying vacant and refusing food, repeatedly calling out Treasure’s name in his dreams. He always cursed his soul for not repeating its magic. His family had long kept a parrot, which suddenly died, and his little boy was holding it on the bed, playing with it. Sun thought to himself: if I became a parrot, with a flap of my wings I could reach Treasure’s room. As his mind concentrated its thoughts, his spirit had already animated the parrot, which immediately flew off, straight to Treasure’s room. Delighted, the girl pounced on it, chained its leg and fed it sesame seeds. It yelled out, “Sister, don’t chain me! I’m Sun Zichu!”
In great astonishment, the girl undid the bindings, but it didn’t leave. She said in prayer, “Your deep affection is already engraved upon my heart. Now that we are different species, person and bird, how can we consummate our union?”
The bird said, “Just being near your fragrant presence can satisfy my desires.”
When other people fed it, it wouldn’t eat; only when the girl herself fed it would it eat. When the girl sat, it would nest on her knee; when she lay down, it would rest on her bed. So it went for three days. The girl felt great pity for it and secretly sent someone to observe the scholar – he had lain stiff and unbreathing for three days, but his heart was not yet cold. Again the girl prayed, “If you can return to human form, then I vow to remain with you till death.”
The bird said, “You’re cheating me!”
The girl pledged herself to it and the bird looked askance as if considering something. Before long, the girl bound her two feet, removing her shoes beside the bed. The parrot suddenly swooped down and flew off with a shoe in its beak. The girl called to it anxiously, but it had already flown far away.
The girl sent an old woman to go and make enquiries, and the scholar had already awoken. His family had seen the parrot come carrying an embroidered shoe and drop down dead on the floor. As they were all wondering at this, the scholar had revived and immediately asked for the shoe. None of them knew the reason for this. At this point the old woman arrived and went in to see the scholar. When she asked him where the shoe was, the scholar said, “It is a proof of Treasure’s pledge. Take this message in return: I won’t forget her golden promise.”
When the old woman reported back, Treasure was all the more amazed and so sent the maid to reveal this affair to her mother. Having confirmed the veracity of it, the mother said, “This young man’s literary reputation isn’t bad, but he’s as poor as a beggar. To take a husband like that after years of choosing I fear will make influential people laugh.”
Because of the shoe, the girl vowed to have no other. Her father and mother agreed and swiftly informed the scholar. Sun was delighted and his illness was cured at once. The father proposed he come to live in their home, but the girl said, “A husband shouldn’t stay long in his in-laws’ home. And given that he’s also poor, after a while people would all the more belittle him. As I am promised to him, I will gladly live under a thatched roof and eat wild leaves without complaint.”
So the scholar escorted the bride to his home to complete the ceremony and they came together like lovers from another life. From then on, with his wife’s dowry, his family was modestly well-off and acquired a number of assets. While the scholar was a fool for books and didn’t know how to manage the family’s business, the girl was good at making savings and didn’t trouble the scholar with other matters. After three years, the family was increasingly wealthy.
Suddenly the scholar fell ill with diabetes and died. Treasure wept grievously, her tears never drying, even refusing to sleep or eat. She wouldn’t accept any consolation and during the night hanged herself. A maid sensed it and swiftly saved her, reviving her, but still she wouldn’t eat.
On the third day, when the relatives gathered to bury the scholar, they heard moaning and breathing from the coffin. They opened it and Sun had already come back to life. He himself said, “When I was called before the king of the underworld, because of my lifelong honesty I was appointed a minister. Suddenly someone announced: ‘Minister Sun’s wife will soon arrive.’ The king checked the register of ghosts and said: ‘She shouldn’t be dying yet.’ Again it was explained: ‘She hasn’t eaten for three days.’ The king turned to me and said: ‘Thanks to your wife’s integrity, you may live again for now.’ Then he ordered a driver to send me back by horse.” After that his health gradually stabilized.
It happened to be the year of the imperial exams and, before entering the exam chambers, some young men played a trick on Sun. Together they devised seven obscure topics, led the scholar to a secluded place and said, “We managed to get hold of these key questions. We’re secretly sharing them with you out of respect.”
The scholar believed them and pondered on it night and day until he had fashioned seven essays. Everyone privately laughed at him. At that time the officiating examiner, concerned that the familiar topics were leading to plagiarism, strove to counter convention. On the examination paper, all seven essays tallied. Because of this, Sun took top honours.
The next year, he passed the highest imperial exams and was made a member of the Imperial Academy. The emperor, hearing of his strange story, summoned and questioned him. Sun presented a compete memorial and the emperor greatly commended him. Later he also summoned Treasure for an audience and bestowed further rewards upon them.
The Cryptohistorian says: Foolishness means fixation of will, thus a fool for books is bound to write adeptly and a fool for art is sure to have fine skill; the down-and-out failures of this world are all those who claim themselves to have no folly. And those who squander their property on powdered ladies or ruin their families by gambling are fools in human affairs instead. From this we can know that being overly cunning is the true folly. What was so foolish about Master Sun?