There is a certain Prefectural city in the south of China, which has earned a reputation distinguishing it from all such towns throughout the Empire.
In outward appearance this city is very much like every other of similar size. The streets are narrow, and the houses are crowded close up to each other. Every foot of land has been utilized, and no room has been left for sanitation, or for parks and open spaces, where the people may breathe the pure air of heaven. These things are modern inventions of the West and have never yet touched the thought or the life of the East, where sullen heat, fetid atmosphere, and stifling surroundings are the natural inheritance of the men and women who throng the cities and crowd and elbow each other in the great battle of life.
There was one thing, however, for which this city was deservedly celebrated. It had a great reputation for learning, and was famous as the abode of scholars.
In the main thoroughfares, where men with a dexterity begotten of long experience just managed to evade jostling each other, the long-gowned students were conspicuous by their numbers. Their pale intellectual faces, and their gleaming black eyes burning with hidden fires, marked them out distinctly from the farmers and artisans and coolies, with their coarser, heavier features, who moved along side by side with them. And down the narrow alley-ways, where fetid smells and impure airs floated the live-long day, one's ear would catch the shrill tones of more youthful students, who in unhealthy rooms were mastering aloud the famous classics of China, in order that in time they might compete in the triennial examinations for the prizes offered by the Empire to its scholars.
The ambition for learning was in the air, and a belated wayfarer, wandering down the labyrinth of streets in the early hours of the morning, would hear the solemn stillness broken into by the voices of the students, as in their highest tones they repeated the writings of the great sages.
The town was therefore dear to the God of Literature, who has ever been ready to champion the cause of his scholars, whenever anyone has dared to lay a hand upon their privileges.
A legend in which there is widespread belief declares that on one occasion, when the scholars of five counties had assembled at a triennial examination, the Imperial Examiner, who for some reason or other had conceived a spite against the competitors from this particular city, determined that not one of them should pass.
As their essays came into his hands, he carefully laid them in a pile close beside him on the table. The God of Literature, who was sitting in his shrine at the far end of the room, became indignant at the insult that was about to be put on his favourites, and breathed some classic phrases under his breath, to the effect that he would never allow such a wrong to be perpetrated as long as he had power to prevent it.
The last paper had been examined and laid carefully on the top of the others, when, as if by a flash of lightning, the examiner was seized with a stroke of paralysis, and fell to the ground unconscious. That was the answer of the God to his evil schemes.
The greatest dismay was exhibited by the under-officials of the examination. Thousands of students were waiting outside for the list to be issued of those who had passed, but the only man who had the power to prepare this list lay helpless in the grip of paralysis. Yet something must be done, and that speedily. As they looked over the manuscripts lying on the table, a little pile was discovered, evidently placed there by the examiner for some purpose of his own. One of the officials at once suggested that these must belong to the men who had gained their degrees. The idea was enthusiastically accepted as the correct one. There was no need for further delay. The names of the writers were hurriedly copied out and pasted up on the board in front of the Examination Hall.
To the amazement of all the assembled scholars, the only men who had got their degrees were those belonging to the city favoured of the God. This was the God's second answer to the examiner, who would unjustly have excluded them from the honours of the day.
There was another thing for which the people of this city were noted, and that was the pleasure taken by the leaders of society in recognizing those who displayed conspicuous civic virtues.
Outside one of the four gates, and well beyond the streets and houses which had grown up as an overflow from the great city, there was a considerable open space, through the middle of which the main road meandered on its way to the countless towns and villages in the regions beyond, and finally to the far-off capital, Peking, thousands of miles away in the extreme north. It was a busy, much-frequented road, and the tread of human feet and the sound of the voices of passing travellers never ceased from early dawn until darkness had fallen and driven men to the shelter of the city.
The striking feature about the long stretch of uninhabited land which bordered one side of this road was a magnificent series of memorial arches built in close succession to each other for a considerable distance. They were composed of granite slabs, some very plain in their design, whilst others were highly artistic, and had evidently been produced by men who were masters of their craft. The general plan and execution were the same in all, but the ornamentation in some was most elaborate, and filled one with pleasure and delight to look at it.
Every one of these arches had been erected to commemorate some person who had already passed away, but whose virtues in life had been so conspicuous that the community had determined that they should not be forgotten, but that a record of them should be handed down to posterity, not only to keep their memory fragrant, but also to provide beautiful examples for succeeding generations.
Amongst the virtues recorded on these granite slabs, the most common was that of filial piety. A son had distinguished himself by his devotion to his parents, and had sacrificed his very life in faithful service to them. In undying words the story was carved into the stone; and the two mystic characters, "Holy Will," in the centre of the middle arch showed that the Emperor had given his permission for the erection of this memorial to a virtue so admired by the whole Chinese nation.
Other arches, almost as numerous as those raised to dutiful sons, were those setting forth the virtues of widows who had refused to marry again after their husbands had died.
In one case a widow had been left in great straits, and had been compelled to struggle with poverty and privations of every kind. All these she might have avoided had she been willing to listen to the offers of marriage that were made to her. Nothing, however, could make her forget the allegiance which she believed she still owed to the man who had first won her heart, or induce her to neglect her duty to the children of her marriage. She could never consent to let them become the property of another man, who might despise and ill-treat them, and who at any rate would never have for them the kind of affection which would lead him to make the sacrifices necessary to help them towards gaining a better position in life. Accordingly, she struggled on, enduring the greatest sufferings in order to provide for the needs of her sons as they gradually grew up; and eventually, owing to the hardships which she had borne so heroically, they all passed with honour through their examinations into the service of the Emperor.
On her death her story was forwarded to the capital, and his Majesty was so much moved by it that he gave his sanction for an arch to be erected to her memory, in order that for ages to come the crowds passing daily under its shadow might read the record of her self-sacrifice, and might learn how an admiring community had built this imperishable memorial of her wifely and motherly virtues.
But of all the numerous arches spanning the road there was one which attracted more attention than any other in the long line.
This was not because the virtues of the person, in whose honour it was raised, were so conspicuous, or because they so far outrivalled those recorded on the other arches, that men were constrained to stop and ponder over a life so remarkable for its heroism.
On the contrary, no virtues of any kind were mentioned. On the central arch, in large letters cut into the granite stone, were the words: "The Wonderful Man"; and that was all. Not a word of explanation was given as to who this wonderful man was; not a hint as to the special story of his life.
Scholars passing along the dusty road would catch a sight of this brief but cryptic inscription, and would at once be set wondering what a phrase so unclassical and so mysterious could possibly mean. They would walk round to the other side of the arch, to see if any explanation were afforded there. But no, the inscription was simply repeated in the same cold and veiled language; and so they would pass on, no wiser than before.
Farmers, with produce of their own growing suspended from their shoulders on stout bamboo poles, would come along at their accustomed trot, and would gaze at these words, "The wonderful man," with a curious look on their faces. They were not profound scholars, for on account of their poverty they had been compelled to leave school before they had mastered the ancient characters which make up the Chinese written language; but they knew enough to read such simple words as these. But what did the words really mean? They would laugh and joke with each other about them as they sped on their way, and many a witty suggestion would be merrily thrown out as a solution of the mystery.
The story that really lay behind this strange inscription was after all a most romantic and a most pathetic one.
Many years before, in a village beyond the hills skirting the plain on which the city was built, there lived a family of three; that is to say, a man and his wife and their little son. It was a supremely happy home. The husband and wife were devotedly attached to each other, and the ambition of every family amongst the four hundred millions of China had been granted them; for they had a son, who in the future would perpetuate the father's name, and present at his grave sacrificial offerings which would reach him in the Land of Shadows and keep him from starvation there.
The one great sorrow of the home was its poverty. There was no question but that they were exceedingly poor; and every morning, as the dawn broke upon them, they felt that they stood close up to the line beyond which lay hunger and even starvation.
But China is full of homes in such a situation. In this respect, indeed, the country is a land of heroes and heroines, for with vast masses of the people it is a daily struggle for food. Millions scattered throughout the Empire never or very rarely get enough to eat, and yet with splendid and pathetic patience they set themselves to suffer and to die, sternly and uncomplainingly, as becomes an Imperial race such as the Chinese are.
All that this particular family had to live upon were a few diminutive fields, which under the most favourable circumstances could produce barely enough sweet potatoes to keep body and soul together, and a scanty supply of vegetables with which to season them. If the rains failed and the potato vines were parched and blasted in their ridges by the great red-hot sun, then the husband had to look out for some other means of earning enough money to provide the bare necessaries of life for his little home.
Sometimes he would engage himself as a porter to carry the produce of the larger farmers to the great market-town which lay ten miles distant; but even then he could earn only just enough to provide the most meagre fare for his family for a week or two at the very most.
At other times he would secure better-paid employment by carrying a sedan-chair to some distant place, which would take him from home for several days at a time. He would return, it is true, with some goodly strings of cash, which would make his wife's eyes gleam with satisfaction at the possibilities they contained for at least another month of better food for them all; but it was dearly earned money. The man had not been trained as a chairbearer, and so had not learned the knack of manipulating the cross-bars, which rested on his shoulders, in such a way as to make the heavy burden less distressing to him. The result was that every time he returned from one of these expeditions, he was so seriously knocked up that for several days he had to lie in bed and refrain from all work.
Time went on, and the severe strain of his labour, and the poor quality of the food upon which he had to live, and the constant wear and tear of a constitution that never had been very strong, told upon the poor, overworked father. Gradually he became a confirmed invalid, so that he could not perform even the lightest work on his little farm. The shadows of coming misfortune grew darker and blacker every day. Hope began to abandon the hearts of husband and wife, and the sound of the footsteps of cruel Fate could almost be heard, as they drew nearer and nearer. Still these two heroic souls uttered no complaints, and there were no signs of heartbreak, except occasionally when the wife's eyes overflowed with tears, which she brushed hastily away lest her husband should see them and be distressed.
One night the storm was blowing a north-east gale outside, and the wind howled and moaned in such weird and doleful tones around the cottage, that it seemed as though some troubled spirit had been let loose to wail out a solemn requiem over a departing soul.
The Chinese believe that the air is filled with demons who have a mortal hatred of human beings, and who are ever on the watch to compass their destruction. These evil spirits gather round when disaster is about to fall on a home. They stand with invisible forms and peer into the darkened room, where some one lies dying, and they breathe out their delight in unholy sounds that strike terror into the hearts of the watchers.
In her anxiety about her husband the wife had not been able to sleep. Her heart throbbed with an infinite pain, and suppressed sobs now and again showed the anguish of her spirit. She began to realize, during this dreadful night, that her husband was exceedingly ill and might very probably die. The storm which raged outside, and the furious blasts and the uncanny sounds in the air, had terrified her and made her nervous.
It was true that only that day she had gone to the nearest temple, and had been assured by the god that her husband was going to recover; but he had been growing steadily weaker and weaker, and now the tempest had broken her courage and filled her with an unspeakable dread. What a tumult there was outside! Whose were the hideous voices that shrieked round the building, and whose were the hands that tore at the doors and windows until they shook and rattled under their grasp?
At last she could stand it no longer. She felt she must get up and see whether the mad and furious spirits, who had evidently gathered in force around the dwelling, were going to prove to be true prophets of evil.
The room was in darkness, so she lit the tiny wick that lay in a saucer of oil, and, peering into her husband's face, she looked with all her heart in her eyes into his sunken features. He seemed to know her, for a wan and wintry smile flickered round his lips and died out in a moment. She gazed at him with an almost breaking heart, for her instinct told her that the greyness of his face and the sudden paling of his lips were the forerunners of death. A long-drawn sigh, and a sob or two, and the one who was the dearest to her in all the world had left her forever.
After the funeral, which swallowed up everything she possessed, even to the very fields, which she had been compelled to sell in order to meet the expenses, the widow was left almost destitute. She was a woman, however, with a very strong character, and she realized the absolute necessity of making up her mind at once as to her course of action. That she should marry again seemed to every one the only course open to her; but this she determined she would never do. The memory of her dead husband was too precious to her, and besides it was her duty to rear up her little son to manhood, so that he might take his place amongst the scholars and thinkers of the Empire.
Soon a scheme, as original as it was daring, sprang up within her brain. No one must ever learn what it was. It must be the secret of her life, which she should bury within her own bosom, and which not even her own son should ever know, if she could possibly help it.
Having sold her cottage, she moved away to a quiet suburb outside the great city which was so renowned for learning. Then she discarded her woman's attire and dressed herself as a man. In no other way could she support herself and her child, for in China a woman is always under great disadvantages in the way of earning her own living. As a man, she knew that she could hold her own in any of the unskilled employments which she was capable of taking up. And so it turned out. She could carry as heavy a load as any of the men with whom she had to compete, and she was so civil and so well-behaved and so free from the use of profane language, that employers unaware of her sex used to pick her out in preference to others who offered themselves.
The years went by, and her little son was growing up to be a fine young man. The mother had determined that he should be a scholar. This was the one ambition of her life, and for this she slaved and toiled and denied herself almost the very necessaries of life.
Twenty years had passed since that stormy night. In the neighbouring city, the triennial examinations were just finished and the excitement was intense amongst the thousands of students who gathered round the Examination Hall to learn the names of the successful candidates.
By-and-by the son came home with a light step and with his eyes flashing with delight. His excitement was so great that he could hardly utter distinctly the words which rushed from his lips.
"Father," he cried, "the great desire of your heart and of mine has been granted to us to-day. I have passed, and that too with honours, for my name stands at the very top of the list of those who have been adjudged successful. And now, my beloved father, there will be no more hard work for you. My name will soon be flashed throughout the Province and will be posted in every Confucian guild, and scholars everywhere will speak with admiration of the great success I have won. My fortune has indeed been made, and it is due entirely to your self-denial, and to the sufferings and hardships you have consented to endure, during the long years of the past, that I have at length come into my kingdom, and that I need not be a labouring man, earning but a few cash a day, as you, my dear father, have been willing to do for the love of me."
All the time her son was talking, the mother's face shone with delight, for the hopes and wishes of a lifetime had come to her with a rush that almost overpowered her.
"Ah! if only my husband could have been with us now," she thought, "to share with us the supreme joy of this moment!" And her memory wandered back to that dreadful night, the blackest she had ever known in her life; and the roar of the storm which had thundered round the poor little shanty of a home and the ominous wailings of the spirits of evil which had struck a chill into her very blood, once more sounded in her ears as though the tragedy had happened only the night before.
In the fulness of the new joy which had suddenly transformed his life, the son went on to talk of the plans that he had been mapping out for the future. There would be no lack of money any more, he said, for employment would open up to him in all directions. He would be invited by the wealthy men of the city to teach their sons. He was a notable scholar now, and men of means would compete with each other to secure his services.
Before long too, he would be certain to obtain a government appointment which would bring riches into the home; and then his father would be a gentleman, and would live with him in his yamen, and be treated by all with honour and respect. And so with glowing face and glistening eyes, as the visions of the future rose up before him, the boy talked on with the enthusiasm of youth, whilst his mother gazed at him with admiring eyes.
At last he suddenly stopped. The laughter died out of his countenance, and with a grave and solemn face he exclaimed, "Father, I want you to tell me where my mother is buried. I must arrange to go to her grave and make the proper offerings to her spirit, and tell her how her son has prospered, and how grateful he is to her. That is my duty as a filial son, and I must not delay in performing it."
The young fellow did not notice the deadly pallor that spread over his parent's face as he uttered these words. He did not know that they produced a feeling of despair in the heart of his mother, for she now felt that she had come to the end of her life. She was a true and noble woman, with a high ideal of what a woman's life ought to be, and she dared not face the opinion of the world when it was discovered that she had lived as a man, and for many years had freely mingled with men. She had violated the laws of etiquette which regulate the conduct of women in every grade of society, and now the only thing left for her to do was to die.
Next morning, at sunrise, when the son entered his father's room, as was his daily custom, he found him lying upon his bed, dead, but marvellous to say, dressed in a woman's clothes. That the death was not accidental could be seen at a glance. The body lay prepared as if for a funeral. The clothes and the dressing of the hair, and the other minute details necessary in laying out a body for burial, had all been attended to. No outside hands need touch her, and no curious or unsympathetic eyes be gratified by peering too deeply into the mystery of her life.
The story spread with wonderful rapidity from the suburbs into the city. There it was discussed in every home, gentle and simple. The universal feeling was one of intense admiration for the devotion and heroism which had caused the mother to sacrifice her life for her son, and the mandarins and scholars petitioned the Emperor to issue an edict permitting an arch to be erected in order that the memory of such a noble woman should be kept alive for ever.
This petition was granted; and it was decided that the inscription to be carved upon the arch should consist simply of these words: "THE WONDERFUL MAN."
Notes: Features 11 Chinese folktales
Author: Rev. J. Macgowan, D.D.
Editor: Andrew Lang
Publisher: Macmillan And Co., Limited, London