In the northern parts of Tzu-chou there lived a man named Hsu, a fisherman by trade. Every night when he went to fish he would carry some wine with him, and drink and fish by turns, always taking care to pour out a libation on the ground, accompanied by the following invocation — “Drink too, ye drowned spirits of the river !” Such was his regular custom; and it was also noticeable that, even on occasions when the other fishermen caught nothing, he always got a full basket.
One night, as he was sitting drinking by himself, a young man suddenly appeared and began walking up and down near him. Hsu offered him a cup of wine, which was readily accepted, and they remained chatting together throughout the night, Hsu mean- while not catching a single fish. However, just as he was giving up all hope of doing anything, the young man rose and said he would go a little way down the stream and beat them up towards Hsu, which he accordingly did, returning in a few minutes and warning him to be on the lookout. Hsu now heard a noise like that of a shoal coming up the stream, and, casting his net, made a splendid haul, — all that he caught being over a foot in length.
Greatly delighted, he now prepared to go home, first offering his companion a share of the fish, which the latter declined, saying that he had often received kindnesses from Mr. Hsu, and that he would be only too happy to help him regularly in the same manner if Mr. Hsu would accept his assistance. The latter replied that he did not recollect ever meeting him before, and that he should be much obliged for any aid the young man might choose to afford him; regretting, at the same time, his inability to make him any adequate return. He then asked the young man his name and surname; and the young man said his surname was Wang, adding that Hsu might address him when they met as Wang Liu-lang, he having no other name. Thereupon they parted, and the next day Hsu sold his fish and bought some more wine, with which he repaired as usual to the riverbank. There he found his companion already awaiting him, and they spent the night together in precisely the same way as the preceding one, the young man beating up the fish for him as before.
This went on for some months, until at length one evening the young man, with many expressions of his thanks and his regrets, told Hsu that they were about to part for ever. Much alarmed by the melancholy tone in which his friend had communicated this news, Hsu was on the point of asking for an explanation, when the young man stopped him, and himself proceeded as follows : — “The friendship that has grown up between us is truly surprising; and, now that we shall meet no more, there is no harm in telling you the whole truth. I am a disembodied spirit — the soul of one who was drowned in this river when tipsy. I have been here many years, and your former success in fishing was due to the fact that I used secretly to beat up the fish towards you, in return for the libations you were accustomed to pour out. Tomorrow my time is up : my substitute will arrive, and I shall be born again in the world of mortals. We have but this one evening left, and I therefore take advantage of it to express my feelings to you.”
On hearing these words, Hsu was at first very much alarmed; however, he had grown so accustomed to his friend’s society, that his fears soon passed away; and, filling up a goblet, he said, with a sigh, “Liu-lang, old fellow, drink this up, and away with melancholy. It’s hard to lose you; but I’m glad enough for your sake, and won’t think of my own sorrow.” He then inquired of Liu-lang who was to be his substitute; to which the latter replied, “Come to the riverbank tomorrow afternoon and you’ll see a woman drowned : she is the one.” Just then the village cocks began to crow, and, with tears in their eyes, the two friends bade each other farewell.
Next day Hsu waited on the riverbank to see if anything would happen, and a woman carrying a child in her arms came along. When close to the edge of the river, she stumbled and fell into the water, managing, however, to throw the child safely on to the bank, where it lay kicking and sprawling and crying at the top of its voice. The woman herself sank and rose several times, until at last she succeeded in clutching hold of the bank and pulled herself, dripping, out; and then, after resting awhile, she picked up the child and went on her way.
All this time Hsu had been in a great state of excitement, and was on the point of running to help the woman out of the water; but he remembered that she was to be the substitute of his friend, and accordingly restrained himself from doing so. Then when he saw the woman get out by herself, he began to suspect that Liu-lang’s words had not been fulfilled.
That night he went to fish as usual, and before long the young man arrived and said, “We meet once again: there is no need now to speak of separation.” Hsu asked him how it was so; to which he replied, “The woman you saw had already taken my place, but I could not bear to hear the child cry, and I saw that my one life would be purchased at the expense of their two lives, where- fore I let her go, and now I cannot say when I shall have another chance. The union of our destinies may not yet be worked out.”
|“Alas!” sighed Hsu, “this noble conduct of yours is enough to move God Almighty.”
After this the two friends went on much as they had done before, until one day Liu-lang again said he had come to bid Hsu farewell. Hsu thought he had found another substitute, but Liu-lang told him that his former behavior had so pleased Almighty Heaven, that he had been appointed guardian angel of Wu-chen, in the Chao-yuan district, and that on the following morning he would start for his new post. “And if you do not forget the days of our friendship,” added he, “I pray you come and see me, in spite of the long journey.”
“Truly,” replied Hsu, “you well deserved to be made a God; but the paths of Gods and men lie in different directions, and even if the distance were nothing, how should I manage to meet you again?”
“Don’t be afraid on that score,” said Liu-lang, “but come;” and then he went away, and Hsu returned home. The latter immediately began to prepare for the journey, which caused his wife to laugh at him and say, “Supposing you do find such a place at the end of that long journey, you won’t be able to hold a conversation with a clay image.” Hsu, however, paid no attention to her remarks, and travelled straight to Chao-yuan, where he learned from the inhabitants that there really was a village called Wu-chen, whither he forthwith proceeded and took up his abode at an inn.
He then inquired of the landlord where the village temple was; to which the latter replied by asking him somewhat hurriedly if he was speaking to Mr. Hsu. Hsu informed him that his name was Hsu, asking in reply how he came to know it; whereupon the landlord further inquired if his native place was not Tzu-chou. Hsu told him it was, and again asked him how he knew all this; to which the landlord made no answer, but rushed out of the room. Soon the place was crowded with old and young, men, women, and children, all come to visit Hsu. They then told him that a few nights before they had seen their guardian deity in a vision, and he had informed them that Mr. Hsu would shortly arrive, and had bidden them to provide him with traveling expenses.
Hsu was very much astonished at this, and went off at once to the shrine, where he invoked his friend as follows : – “Ever since we parted I have had you daily and nightly in my thoughts; and now that I have fulfilled my promise of coming to see you, I have to thank you for the orders you have issued to the people of the place. As for me, I have nothing to offer you but a cup of wine, which I pray you accept as though we were drinking together on the river-bank.” He then burnt a quantity of paper money, when a wind suddenly arose, which, after whirling round and round behind the shrine, soon dropped, and all was still.
That night Hsu dreamed that his friend came to him, dressed in his official cap and robes, and very different in appearance from what he used to be, and thanked him, saying, “It is truly kind of you to visit me thus: I only regret that my position makes me unable to meet you face to face, and that though near we are still so far. The people here will give you a trifle, which pray accept for my sake; and when you go away, I will see you a short way on your journey.”
A few days afterwards Hsu prepared to start, in spite of the numerous invitations to stay which poured in upon him from all sides; and then the inhabitants loaded him with presents of all kinds, and escorted him out of the village. There a whirlwind arose and accompanied him several miles, when he turned round and invoked his friend thus : – “Liu-lang, take care of your valued person. Do not trouble yourself to come any farther. Your noble heart will ensure happiness to this district, and there is no occasion for me to give a word of advice to my old friend.” By-and-by the whirlwind ceased, and the villagers, who were much astonished, returned to their own homes.
Hsu, too, traveled homewards, and being now a man of some means, ceased to work any more as a fisherman. And whenever he met a Chao-yuan man he would ask him about that guardian angel, being always informed in reply that he was a most beneficent God. Some say the place was Shih-keng-chuang, in Chang-chin : I can’t really vouch for it.