Wang Cheng

Wang Cheng was the son of a distinguished family of Pingyuan. By nature bone idle, day by day he sank further into poverty. He only retained a dilapidated house with a few rooms where he and his wife lay wrapped up in rags and argued endlessly.

     It was midsummer and the heat was scorching. Outside the village were the former gardens of the Zhou family, the walls all fallen down, with just one pavilion still standing. Many villagers had lodged there for the night and Wang was among them. At daybreak, the other sleepers all left. Only when the sun was high in the sky did Wang start to stir and ponder whether to go home or not.

     Hidden in the grass he saw a golden hairpin, and when he picked it up for a look, he found it was engraved in fine letters with: “Made for the Royal Guest of Honour.” Wang’s grandfather had been guest of honour at the palace of Prince Heng and many of the antique objects in his home had been of this design, so he hesitated there with the hairpin in his hand.

     All of a sudden an old woman came searching for the hairpin. Though Wang was poor, his heart was honest and he immediately gave it to her. The old woman was delighted and praised his virtue highly, saying, “This hairpin may not be worth much, but my late husband bequeathed it to me.”

     “Your husband was whom?” asked Wang.

     She replied, “The former royal guest of honour, Wang Jianzhi.”

     Wang said in surprise, “That’s my grandfather. Fancy meeting like this!”

     The old woman was also amazed. “You’re Wang Jianzhi’s grandson? I am a fox immortal. A hundred years ago your grandfather and I were deeply in love. Since he died, I’ve been a recluse. I passed here and dropped this hairpin, but luckily it fell into your hands – it must be fate!”

     Wang had heard before that his grandfather had a fox wife, so he believed what she said and invited her to visit his home. The old woman followed him there. Wang shouted to his wife and she came out, wearing ragged cotton clothes, looking famished and dejected. The old woman sighed, “Oh! That Wang Jianzhi’s grandson should be as poor as this!” Then, looking at the broken unused stove, she said, “With your home in this state, how can you earn a living?”

     Due to this dissection of their poverty, the wife began to whimper and dissolve into tears. The old woman gave her the hairpin, sent her to pawn it for cash to buy some rice, and said she would come again three days later. Wang urged her to stay. The old woman said, “You can’t even keep your wife alive. If I was here, sitting and staring up at the ceiling, what good would that be?” And so she left at once.

     Wang told his wife her story, which terrified the wife. Wang recounted her virtue and told his wife to treat her as a relative, and she agreed. Three days later the old woman did appear, and spent several silver coins on millet and wheat for each of them. That night she slept on the couch with Wang’s wife. At first the wife was frightened, but when she saw her intentions were sincere, she no longer doubted her.

     The next day, the old woman said to Wang, “Grandson, don’t be idle – you should start a small business. You can’t just sit around eating forever.”

     Wang told her he had no capital. The old woman said, “When your grandfather was alive, I could have as much silver and silk as I wanted. Because I’m a spiritual being, I don’t need material things, so I didn’t ask for much. I’ve still got forty ounces of silver for cosmetics that I’ve never spent. I’ve kept it so long and it’s no use to me, so you can take it to buy ko-hemp cloth and set a date to go to the capital, where you can make a little profit.”

     Wang did as she said, purchased over fifty bolts and took them back. The old woman instructed him to quickly pack, calculating that he could reach the capital in six or seven days. She urged him, “Work hard and don’t be lazy, make haste and don’t delay; any regrets will be too late, if you’re late by just one day!”

     Wang respectfully promised and set off with the goods in a sack. Halfway there he ran into rain and his clothes and shoes got soaked. Having never experienced the hardships of the road, Wang was tired out, so he rested for a while at a hotel. Unexpectedly, it poured down through till evening, the rain running off the eaves in columns. After a night the mud was deeper than ever. Seeing travellers going past, trampling through the mire, sinking up to their shins, Wang shied at the difficulties. He waited till noon, when it started to dry, but then dark clouds gathered again and there was torrential rain once more. He stayed a second evening then went on.

     As he neared the capital, there was a rumour that the price of ko-hemp cloth was spiraling up and he was quietly delighted. Entering the city, he deposited his bags at an inn, but the owner told him with deep regret that he was too late. Prior to this, the southern route had just been cleared and ko-hemp cloth was in extremely short supply. The noble households were desperate to buy some, so the price soared at once, up to three times the normal rate. The day before they’d just purchased enough and all latecomers went away disappointed. The innkeeper informed Wang of this. Wang was utterly depressed.

     The following day there was more and more ko-hemp cloth and the price fell further still. Wang wasn’t willing to sell at a loss. He delayed for ten or more days, and as he counted the cost of bed and board, he became increasingly gloomy. The innkeeper urged him to change his plan and sell cheap. Wang followed his advice and sold the lot, at a loss of over ten ounces of silver.

     Rising early, he made a plan to go home, took a look in his sack, and found the silver was gone. Shocked, he informed the innkeeper. The innkeeper didn’t know what to suggest. Someone urged Wang to complain to the authorities and demand compensation from the innkeeper. Wang sighed, “This is my bad luck – what’s it got to do with the innkeeper?” Hearing this, the innkeeper was grateful and gave him five ounces of silver to help him get home.

     Thinking to himself that there was no way he could face his grandmother, he hung around, unable to go forward or back. He happened to see some folk quail-fighting, betting thousands at a time. The common cost of a quail was more than one hundred coins. Suddenly having an idea, he calculated that the money in his sack was just enough to buy some quails. He talked it over with the innkeeper, who egged him on enthusiastically. He even invited Wang to stay without having to pay for bed or board. Delighted, Wang went at once, bought as many quails as he could carry and re-entered the city. The innkeeper was pleased and wished him a quick sale.

     That night, there was heavy rain through till dawn. By daybreak the streets were like rivers and it was raining as if it would never end. Wang stayed and waited for it to clear, but it carried on for days and still wouldn’t stop. Peering inside the cages, he saw the quails dying one by one. In his panic, Wang didn’t know what to do. The following day, more died. Only a few were left, so he put them together in one cage. After a night, he went for a look – only one quail remained. When he told this to the innkeeper, he couldn’t help bursting into tears. The innkeeper also wrung his hands.

     Realizing that his money was finished and he couldn’t go home, all Wang wanted was to die, but the innkeeper consoled him. He went with him to look at the quail, examined it carefully, and said, “This seems to be an outstanding creature. All the quails that died, who’s to say they weren’t killed by this one? As you have nothing else to do, why not train it? If it’s a good one, you could still make a living from gambling on it.” Wang did as he suggested.

     As soon as it was trained, the innkeeper told him to take it to the street corner and gamble for food and drink. The quail was extremely tough and won every time. The delighted innkeeper rewarded Wang with some silver and sent him off again to gamble against his sons and younger brothers. In three fights, he had three wins. In half a year, he’d saved up twenty silver pieces. Greatly relieved, he viewed the quail as his lifeblood.

     Meanwhile, the crown prince had a love of quail fighting and every Lantern Festival would mingle with the common people, allowing quail-fighters into the palace grounds for a tournament. The innkeeper said to Wang, “Today you could win a fortune. Who knows? It all depends on your destiny.”

     He carried on to relate the whole matter and led Wang along with him. He urged, “If you lose, then that’s just bad luck. If your bird is one in a million and it wins, the prince is sure to want to buy it – but don’t accept. Just hold your ground until I raise my head, wait for my nod and then accept.”

     Wang said, “All right.”

     At the palace, quail-fighters were crowded shoulder to shoulder at the bottom of the palace steps. After a short while, the prince came out of the imperial hall. His retinue declared, “Any fighters who are ready may ascend.”

     At once a man rushed forward and into the hall, clutching his quail. The prince ordered his quail to be released and the contestant also released his; one lightning leap and the contestant’s quail was already beaten. The prince roared with laughter. Presently, several contestants had ascended only to be beaten. The innkeeper said, “Right.” Together they ascended the stairs.

     The prince looked at the quail and said, “There’s a fury in its eyes – this one’s a tough bird. It won’t be easy to defeat.”

     He ordered Iron Beak to be brought out to face it. It leapt again and again until the prince’s quail’s wings were wrecked. He chose another of his finest and again it was quickly beaten. Frantic, the prince ordered the Jade Quail to be fetched from within the palace. Soon it was brought out, feathers white like an egret, an extraordinarily noble bird. Wang Cheng lost his nerve, kneeled down and begged him to stop the contest. He said, “Your Majesty’s quail is out of this world. I’m afraid it will injure my bird and destroy my business.”

     The prince laughed and said, “Release it. If it dies fighting, you’ll be generously compensated.” Only then did Wang release it.

     The Jade Quail rushed straight at it. When the Jade Quail approached, it crouched like a fighting cock and waited. When the Jade Quail pecked fiercely, it rose in the air like a circling crane and attacked. Advancing and retreating, soaring and swooping, they were locked in a stalemate while breath was held. The Jade Quail gradually weakened, but the other’s fury only intensified, its fighting only became more violent. Soon the snowy feathers were wrecked, the Jade Quail’s wings drooped and it fled. The thousands of spectators gasped in admiration.

     At this point, the prince demanded to hold Wang’s quail for himself and looked it over from beak to claws. He asked Wang, “Is this quail for sale?”

     Wang replied, “I’m a nobody with no property and our lives depend on each other, so I’m not willing to sell.”

     The prince said, “I’ll grant you a considerable price that could make you a middle-class man of property. Aren’t you willing?”

     Wang bowed his head in thought for a long time, then said, “In fact I’m not happy to sell; but since your Majesty is so keen on it, if you can let a poor man get food, clothing and property, then how can I refuse?”

     The prince asked his price and his answer was a thousand silver pieces. Laughing, the prince said, “You lunatic! What precious treasure is it, to be worth a thousand silver pieces?”

     Wang said, “Your Majesty may not consider it a treasure, but to me it’s worth more than the most precious jade.”

     “How’s that?” said the prince.        

     “If I take this quail to the market, every day I can win several silver pieces, which I can exchange for millet. My family has more than ten mouths to feed, and if they never need fear cold or hunger, then what treasure can compare with it?”

     The prince said, “I don’t want to leave you short, so I’ll give you two hundred silver pieces.”

     Wang shook his head. He added a hundred. Wang looked at the innkeeper – his expression hadn’t changed. So Wang said, “If it pleases your Majesty, I can offer a discount of one hundred.”

     “Enough!” said the prince. “Who would give nine hundred silver pieces for a quail?”

Wang put the quail in his bag and started to leave. The prince shouted, “Quail man, come here! I’ll give you six hundred; if you’re willing then sell; if not, that’s it.”

     Wang looked at the innkeeper again, but he was still impassive. Wang wanted to ask for more, but he was afraid of missing the opportunity, so he said, “I’m really not happy to sell at that price, but not to strike a deal would be an even greater sin. I have no choice but to do as your Majesty commands.”

     The prince was happy, immediately weighed out the silver and paid up. Wang pocketed the silver, thanked the prince and left. The innkeeper fumed, “I told you what to do – why did you sell yourself out so quickly? A little more bargaining and you would have had eight hundred silver pieces in your hand.”

     Wang went back, tossed the silver on the table and asked the innkeeper to help himself, but the innkeeper refused. Wang insisted, so he calculated the price of his food and took that. Wang purchased what he needed for the journey and returned home. Reaching home, he related all that had happened and took out the silver for celebration. The old woman ordered him to buy fifty acres of fertile land, build a house and buy furniture, to regain the family’s former status.

     The old woman would rise early, make Wang supervise the ploughing and his wife supervise the weaving. Any sign of idleness and she would scold them. Husband and wife lived in peace and didn’t dare make any complaint. After three years, when the family was increasingly wealthy, the old woman said goodbye and started to leave. Both husband and wife pulled her back, their tears streaming down. Therefore the old woman stayed. But when the next day dawned, she had already disappeared.

                                                                                

The Cryptohistorian says: Wealth always comes from hard work; only here does it come from idleness, or at least it’s the first time I’ve heard of it. Wang was reduced to utter poverty and didn’t change his noble character, thus Heaven at first made sport of him and finally took pity on him. That’s how laziness can result in wealth!