top of page

Zhang Cheng

This account mentions two places, Yu and Qi, which were formerly names of parts of China, corresponding to the present day provinces of Henan and Shandong. At the end of the Ming dynasty, Qi was often attacked by the troops of the Manchus, who would later establish the Qing dynasty. The Manchu troops were organized into Eight Banners, the officers of these divisions being known as bannermen.

A man of Yu, named Zhang, was formerly from Qi. At the end of the Ming dynasty, Qi was in total chaos and his wife was carried off by northern troops. Zhang often travelled to Yu, so he made his home there. He married in Yu and had a son, Ne. Soon his wife died, but he married again and his new wife gave birth to a son, Cheng.

   His new wife, Niu, was a hard woman and hated Ne, raising him like a slave and feeding him on scraps. Sent to gather firewood, everyday he had to bring back a shoulder-load; if not, he was flogged and scolded beyond endurance. Niu secretly saved the choice cuts for Cheng and sent him to study under a private tutor. Cheng gradually grew up with a kind-hearted soul and couldn’t bear his brother being overworked, so quietly urged his mother to stop, but his mother wouldn’t listen.

   One day, Ne went to the hills to gather firewood and, before he was finished, there was a great rainstorm. He sheltered beneath a cliff and when the rain stopped it was already dusk. Feeling famished, he carried the firewood back home. Having checked and found his load short, Niu angrily gave him nothing to eat. With hunger burning at his heart, he lay down stiff in his room. When Cheng came back from school, he saw his brother lying dejected and asked, “Are you ill?”

   He said, “Just hungry.”

   Having asked the reason and being told the truth, Cheng sorrowfully left. After a while, he smuggled in a cake to feed his brother. His brother asked him where it had come from, and he said, “I stole some flour and asked the lady next door to make it. Just eat it and don’t say anything.”

   Ne ate it and told Cheng, “In the future don’t do that again. If it was found out, you’d be in trouble. Anyway, with one meal a day, I won’t die of hunger.”

   Cheng said, “When you’re weak, how can you gather much firewood?”

   The next day, after eating, Cheng stole away to the hills, to where his brother was gathering firewood. When his brother saw him, he said in shock, “What are you up to?”

   Cheng replied, “I’m here to help you gather firewood.”

   “Who sent you?”

   “I came of my own accord.”

   His brother said, “I’m not saying you’re not capable, but even if you’re capable, you’re still not allowed to.” Then he urged him to go home.

   Cheng wouldn’t listen, using his hands and feet to break up bits of wood for his brother. Meanwhile he declared, “Tomorrow I’ll bring an axe to use.”

   His brother went up to stop him and, seeing that his fingers were already tattered and his shoes worn through, said sadly, “If you don’t go home at once, I’ll use this axe to kill myself!”

   Only then did Cheng go back. His brother went with him half the way before turning round. On going home with the firewood, Ne stopped at the school and told the tutor, “My brother’s still young. He should be kept inside. In the hills there are many tigers and wolves.”

   The tutor said, “Before noon he went off who knows where. I’ve already caned him.”

   When he got home, Ne said to Cheng, “You wouldn’t listen to me and you received a beating.”

   Smiling, Cheng said, “I didn’t.”

   The following morning, Cheng went there again, carrying an axe. Astounded, his brother said, “I told you clearly not to come. What are you doing here again?”

   Cheng didn’t reply but began quickly chopping wood, sweat streaming down his face and not stopping for a second. When there was about enough for a bundle, he went back without a word. The tutor again punished him, so he told him the truth. Admiring his virtue, the tutor from then on no longer forbade him. Though his brother repeatedly tried to stop him, he never listened.

   One day, he was gathering firewood with a group of people in the hills when suddenly a tiger appeared. They all lay flat in terror. As it happened, the tiger carried Cheng off. Bearing a person, the tiger ran slowly, so it was chased down by Ne. Ne attacked it with an axe, striking its hip. In pain, the tiger charged off wildly. Unable to track it down, Ne went back weeping bitterly. The others tried to console him, but he wept all the more miserably. “My brother was not like other people’s brothers,” he said. “And now he’s died for me, why should I live?” Then he used the axe to cut his own throat.

   The others rushed to save him, but the axe had sunk an inch into his flesh, blood was flowing in a torrent and he had passed out with glazed eyes. In shock, they tore their clothes to bind him and together carried him home. Sobbing, Niu swore at him, “You killed my son. Can’t you even slit your own throat properly?”

   Ne groaned, “Don’t worry, mother. With brother dead, I certainly won’t live!”

   Placed on the couch, unable to sleep from the pain of his wound, night and day Ne merely sat against the wall weeping. Afraid that Ne would also die, his father at times approached the couch and fed him a little, but Niu would always scold him for this, so Ne didn’t eat and died in three days.

   In their village there was a shaman who walked in the ways of death. Meeting this shaman on the way to the underworld, Ne vented his grievances and then inquired about his brother’s whereabouts. The shaman had not heard anything, so turned back and led Ne to a metropolis, where they saw a black-robed figure coming out of the city. The shaman blocked the way and asked on Ne’s behalf. The black-robed one took out a document from a waist pouch and checked it carefully. There were more than a hundred men and women on the list, but none of them were named Zhang. The shaman wondered if it was on another document, but the black-robed one said, “This road belongs to me. How could there be any mistaken identity?”

   Ne wouldn’t believe it and forced the shaman to enter the city. Within the city, new ghosts and old ghosts were coming and going like flickering lights, including some old acquaintances, so Ne asked them about Cheng, but none of them knew. Suddenly there was a general clamour, saying, “The Bodhisattva’s here!”

   Looking up, they saw among the clouds a great figure, strands of light penetrating all around, and at once felt the whole world illuminated. The shaman congratulated Ne, saying, “You’re in luck, my fine man! The Bodhisattva comes to the underworld once every few decades to get rid of all suffering. Today happens to be the day.” Then the shaman yanked Ne to kneel down.

   All the ghosts, in a seething hubbub, pressed their palms together and chanted in unison for benevolence and deliverance, the waves of noise shaking the earth. The Bodhisattva sprinkled holy dew with a willow twig, its drops as fine as dust. Presently mist hid the light and all was lost to darkness. Ne felt the dew dampening his neck and the axe wound no longer gave any pain. The shaman still guided Ne and together they went home. Only when the gate of Ne’s home was in sight did the shaman say farewell and leave.

   Ne had been dead for two days when he suddenly revived. He described in detail what had happened and said that Cheng was not dead. Niu took this for fabricated lies and in return cursed him. Ne suffered the injustice without defending himself and, feeling his wound, found the scar had healed. Pulling himself up, he bowed to his father and said, “I’m going to search heaven and earth to look for my brother. If I can’t find him, don’t expect me to return while I live. Father, please continue to take me for dead.”

   His father led him to an empty place to cry together, but didn’t dare to detain him. So Ne left and at every thoroughfare sought news of his brother. Along the way, his travelling money was used up, but he went on by begging.

   After a year, he reached Jinling, his clothes in tatters, and shuffled hunched over along the road. He happened to see ten or so horsemen approaching and moved to the roadside to avoid them. One of them appeared to be an officer – he was around forty years old, with strapping soldiers on fiery horses galloping before and behind him. One youth riding a pony looked at Ne repeatedly. Thinking he was a nobleman’s son, Ne didn’t dare look up. The young man stopped whipping and came to a halt for a moment, then suddenly got off the horse and called out, “Aren’t you my brother?”

   Ne raised his head to look closely, and it was Cheng. Grasping his hand, Ne burst into floods of tears. Also crying, Cheng said, “Brother, how have you been driven to this state?”

   Ne explained the circumstances and Cheng was even more miserable. The horsemen all dismounted to ask the situation and explained it to the officer. The officer ordered a horse given over to carry Ne and side by side they rode back home, where they began to ascertain all the details.

   At first, when Cheng was carried off by the tiger, it deposited him by the roadside at a time unknown and he lay on the path overnight. It happened that Adjutant Zhang, who had come from the capital, passed him and, seeing his gentle appearance, took pity on him. As he caressed him, he slowly revived. Naming his neighbourhood, it was already far away. So he picked him up and took him home. Then he applied medicine to his wounds, which after several days began to heal. As the adjutant had no heir, he adopted Cheng as his son. Thus he had followed him to go sightseeing. Cheng told all this to his brother.

   As he was speaking, the adjutant entered and Ne bowed to him in thanks again and again. Cheng entered the inner rooms and brought out a silk robe, which he presented to his brother, then set out a banquet. They chatted and the adjutant asked, “How many members of your clan are there in Yu?”

   Ne said, “None. My father was a native of Qi in his youth and later settled in Yu.”

   “I’m also a native of Qi,” said the adjutant. “Which area does your hometown belong to?”

   Ne replied, “I’ve heard my father say it belongs to Dongchang area.”

   Amazed, the adjutant said, “I come from the same place! Why did your father move to Yu?”

   Ne said, “At the end of Ming, the Qing troops entered the territory and kidnapped his former wife. From the ravages of war, father was left homeless. Formerly he had traded on the western routes and was familiar with Yu from his comings and goings, so he settled there.”

   Again in amazement he asked, “What is your father’s name?”

   Ne told him and the adjutant stared, bowed his head as if in doubt, then hurried into the inner rooms. Soon, he reappeared with his mother. When they all had bowed to her, she asked Ne, “Are you the grandson of Zhang Bingzhi?”

   “That’s correct.”

   The old lady burst into tears and said to the adjutant, “These are your younger brothers.”

   Ne and Cheng couldn’t understand it, so the old lady said, “I was married to your father for three years before I was taken away to the north. I had belonged to Bannerman Hei for half a year when I gave birth to your elder brother. Half a year later the bannerman died. Your brother filled the vacancy in the brigade and rose to this position. Today he has quit his post. At every moment I miss my old hometown, so I deregistered and restored my former clan status. Many times I’ve sent messengers to Qi without finding any trace of your father – how could I know he had moved to the west!” Then she said to the adjutant, “Fancy taking your brother as your son – that’s seriously tempting fate!”

   The adjutant said, “When I asked Cheng, he never said he was a native of Qi. I suppose he’s too young to recall it.” Then they arranged themselves by age: the adjutant, being forty-one, was oldest; Cheng, at sixteen, was the youngest; and Ne, at twenty-two, became the middle brother. Having gained two younger brothers, the adjutant was overjoyed.

   The three of them slept in the same bed and, having thoroughly learnt the causes of their separation, made a plan to move back home. The old lady was afraid she would not be welcomed, but the adjutant said, “If it’s acceptable, we can live together; if not, we can live apart. Where in the world would folk be fatherless?”

   So, having auctioned their residence and packed their belongings, they set a date to leave for the west.

   When they reached their neighbourhood, Ne and Cheng hurried first to report to their father. After Ne had left, their father’s wife had soon died; left a lonely widower, he had none but his own shadow for company. Suddenly seeing Ne come in, he was ecstatic and overcome by surprise; then he noticed Cheng and was so happy he couldn’t even speak, but dissolved into tears. Then they told him the adjutant and his mother had come and the old man stopped crying in astonishment – trapped between happiness and sadness, he stood there in a daze.

   Before long, the adjutant came in and bowed down, while the old lady took the old man’s hand and they faced each other in tears. When he saw maids and servants crowding around the door, he didn’t know whether to sit or stand. Not seeing his mother, Cheng asked about her and, when he found she was already dead, he howled himself hoarse and passed out, only reviving after some time.

   The adjutant provided the funds to build a mansion and engaged a tutor to instruct his two brothers. With horses prancing in the stables and people clamouring in the house, they indeed became a great family.


The Cryptohistorian says: As I heard this story to the end, several times my tears were shed: when the ten year old boy chopped the firewood to help his older brother, with deep feeling I sighed. That was one time. When the tiger carried Cheng off, I couldn’t help crying out wildly, ‘The ways of Heaven are so blind!’ That was another time. When the brothers unexpectedly met, I wept again for joy; then when another brother was added and another sad tale, I wept for the adjutant. When the whole family was reunited, with surprise beyond imagining and delight beyond imagining, I shed uncontrollable tears for the old man too. Who knows if in future generations there will be anyone who loves crying as much as me?

bottom of page