Chinese Folktales

22. Old Chiang

ONCE there Was a man Who was known as Old Chiang. He lived in the country near Yangchow as a gardener. His neighbour, called Wei, was an official in Yangchow, whose daughter had just reached marriageable age. He therefore summoned a marriage broker and instructed her to find a handsome bridegroom. When Old Chiang heard about this he was greatly pleased. He prepared food and wine, invited the marriage broker and told her to recommend him as a bridegroom. But the old woman left him, scolding and ranting.

The following day he again invited her and gave her money. The old woman said: ‘You do not know what you are asking. Why should the beautiful daughter of a great gentleman marry a poor old gardener? Even if you had pots of money your white hair and thin blood would not suit her. There can be no question of marriage.’ But Old Chiang persisted, urging her: ‘Just try and mention my name! If they do not listen to you then I shall have to bear my fate.’

The old woman had accepted his money and therefore, even though she was afraid of being rebuked, suggested him to the lord Wei. But he got angry and wanted to throw her out.

‘l knew you would blame me,’ the old woman said, ‘but the old man so pestered me I could not help telling you of his intentions. ‘

‘Tell the old man he can have my daughter for a wife if he brings me this very day two lumps of white jasper and four hundred plummet-weights of yellow gold.’ But he merely intended to mock the old man’s foolishness, for he knew that he could never produce such riches. The woman went to see Old Chiang and gave him the message. Old Chiang agreed and instantly took the full amount of gold and the precious stones to the house of the lord Wei. Wei was greatly startled and his wife, when she heard the news, began to lament and wail. Bat the girl comforted her mother: ‘My father has given his word and I must not break it. I how to bear my fate.’

So the lord Wei gave his daughter to Old Chiang. Chiang did not give up gardening even after his marriage. He still carted manure, hoed his field and sold his vegetables as before. His wife had to carry water and make the fire in her kitchen. All this she did without being ashamed. Her relations rebuked her but she remained steadfast. One day a noble relation came to see the lord Wei and said to him: ‘Even if you are poor surely there were enough young gentlemen in the neighbourhood for your daughter. Why did you have to let her marry such an old wrinkled gardener? Now that you have thrown her away like that it would be better if the two left the neighbour. Then the lord Wei prepared a banquet and invited his daughter and Old Chiang to his house. When they had drunk a good deal of wine he hinted at what he wanted. Old Chiang said: ‘l only stayed here because I thought you would miss your daughter. But if you are tired of us I will gladly move away. I have a small country house beyond the mountains. Early tomorrow we shall depart.’ next morning, just at daybreak, old Chiang and his wife came to say goodbye. The lord Wei said: ‘If we should miss you later my son can go out and look you up.’ Old Chiang put his wife on a donkey and put a Straw hat on her head. He himself picked up a stick and walked behind.

A few years passed without any news from the two. The lord Wei and his wife missed their daughter and sent out their son to enquire about her. When he had arrived on the far side of the mountains he came upon a servant ploughing with a team of yellow bullocks. He asked him: ‘Where is the country house of Old Chiang?’

The servant let go of the plough, bowed and said: ‘You have been a long time coming, master. The village is not far from here. I will show you the way.’

They crossed another mountain. At its foot ran a stream. Having forded the stream, they had to climb another mountain. Gradually the scenery changed. From the summit they could see a valley, flat in the middle, surrounded by steep peaks and shaded by green trees from among which peered roofs and turrets. That was the country house of Old Chiang. Outside the village ran a deep stream with clear blue water. They crossed a stone bridge and reached the gate. There were thick clumps of trees and flowers. peacocks and cranes fluttered about. From afar came the sound of flutes and strings. The pure notes rose up to the clouds. A herald in purple attire received the guest at the gate and led him into a hall which was splendid in the extreme. The air was filled with strange perfumes and with the tinkle of pearly bells. Two women servants came out to welcome him. They were followed by two long rows of beautiful girls. Behind them came a man with a soft turban, robed in scarlet silk and wearing red slippers on his feet. The guest saluted him. He was solemn and dignified and yet youthfully vigorous. At first he did not recognize him, but as he looked closer he saw that he was Old Chiang. With a smile Chiang said; ‘l am glad the long journey did not deter you. Your sister is just combing her hair. She will receive you in a moment.’ Then he invited him to sit down and drink tea.

After a little while a serving maid came and led him to the inner rooms of his sister. The beams of her room were of sandal-wood, the doors were made of tortoise-shell, the windows were encrusted with blue jasper, the curtains were strings of pearls and the steps were of green jade. His sister was magnificently arrayed and far more beautiful than before. She asked him lightly how he was and how their parents were, but she was not particularly cordial. After a superb repast they prepared a room for him. ‘My sister would like to take your sister on an excursion to the Fair Mountain,’ Old Chiang said to him. ‘We shall be back by sunset. You may rest here until we get back.’

Thereupon brightly coloured clouds rose up in the court-yard and delightful music rang out. Old Chiang mounted a dragon, his wife and his sister rode on phoenixes, and their entourage on cranes. Thus they rose up into the air and disappeared in the east. They did not return till after sunset.

Old Chiang and his wife said to him: ‘This is a house of the blessed. You may not Stay here too long. Tomorrow we shall see you off.’

The following day, as they parted, Old Chiang gave him eighty plummet-weights of gold and an Old Straw hat. Whenever you need money,’ he said to him, ‘you can go to Yangchow and ask for Old Wang’s pharmacy in the northern suburb. There you can draw ten million copper pieces; this hat is your voucher for them.’ Then he commanded the servant to accompany him home. Back home, When the brother reported what he had seen, many thought that Old Chiang was a saint, but others believed it had all been a magic illusion.

After five or six years the lord Wei’s money had run out. His son therefore went to Yangchow with the straw hat and there asked for Old Wang. Wang was just standing outside his pharmacy, blending herbs. When he heard the request he said: ‘The money is here. But is this hat genuine?’ He took the hat in his hands and looked at it closely. From an inner room a young girl came out and said: “l myself wove the hat for Old Chiang; there should be a red thread in it.’ And true enough there was. So Wang gave the ten million copper pieces to Yang Wei, and Yang Wei now really believed Old Chiang to be a saint. He therefore once more crossed the mountains to see him. When he came to the summit the path had disappeared. He questioned some woodcutters but they knew nothing. Sadly, he turned back. He wanted to question old Wang, but he had vanished too.

Several years later he was in Yangchow again and was in the meadow outside the gate. There he came servant of Old Chiang. The servant asked him: upon ‘And how are things with you? ‘ and produced ten pounds of yellow gold from his pocket. He gave them to him and said: ‘My mistress commanded me to give this to you. My master is just drinking wine with Old Wang in the inn across the road.’ He followed the servant and wanted to greet his brother-in-law. But when he came to the inn there was no one to be seen there. He turned about and the servant had disappeared. Old Chiang has never been heard of since.