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Tales of the Marvelous: The Kunlun Slave

Enjoy a tale of fantastical stories by the pioneer of Chinese short fiction

09·28·2013

During the Dali Period (766 – 779) under the reign of Emperor Daizong of the Tang Dynasty, there was a young nobleman named Cui. His father was a prominent official who befriended a first-class minister. Cui himself only held the honorary title of royal court guard.

 

When the minister was ill, Cui was sent by his farther to sit at his bedside. Young and handsome, Cui was a righteous person with a serene bearing and a refreshing matter of speech. The minister asked his concubine to roll up the blinds and invite Cui into the inner court. Cui delivered his father’s regards.

 

The minister appreciated Cui’s manners, asking him to sit and have a chat. All three concubines-in-waiting were exceedingly beautiful. All holding golden containers featuring cherries soaked in syrup. The minister asked the concubine dressed in red silk to serve Cui. Shy in front of women, Cui refused the offer, but then the minister insisted that the concubine feed Cui cherries with a spoon. Cui relented, opened his mouth, and noticed a smile on the concubine’s face.

 

Cui bade farewell to his host, and the minister said: “You must visit me in your spare time; don’t forget this old man.” The concubine in red silk saw him off. Outside, Cui turned to see the concubine extend three fingers and then flip her hand three times. She pointed to the small mirror on her chest and said: “Remember!”

 

Cui reported back to his father and returned to school, but he was lovesick for his lady in red, rarely speaking or eating. Depressed and deeply lost in thought, he recalled a poem: “By chance, I visited the top of Pengshan, where I was met by a pair of bright eyes; the moon was hidden in a palace behind a half closed red door, where it shines on qiongzhi (a jade-colored mushroom) with beauty and sorrow.” But no one understood Cui’s troubles.

 

A Kunlun (an ancient name for indigenous people in South East Asia who were often hired or bought as servants in the Tang Dyansty) slave named Mole asked Cui: “What’s troubling you? Why don’t you tell your servant?”

 

Cui answered: “People like you will never understand. How dare you even ask!”

 

But Mole insisted: “Just tell me. I’m confident I can make your every wish come true.” Surprised by his words, Cui told him his tale of woe and love.

 

“That’s no problem. Why did you torture yourself and not let me know sooner?” Mole asked. Cui then questioned him regarding her gestures. Mole said, “How was that difficult to understand? It meant that there are 10 courtyards in the house and that she lives in the third one. Flipping a palm three times is 15 fingers in total, meaning 15 days. The mirror means the full moon. She asked you to visit her in 15 days under the full moon.”

 

Cui was overjoyed, “Can you help me make my dream come true?”

 

Mole laughed and said: “Tomorrow night is the 15th night. Dress in fitting clothes of black silk and come with me. The minister uses dogs to guard his concubines in the courtyard. Raised by Menghai, the rebellious hero in Caozhou, these dogs are alert and ferocious. No one except me can deal with them, and I will kill them for you.” With gratitude, Cui treated Mole to wine and meat.

 

Around midnight, Mole set out with a hammer on a chain. He returned and informed Cui: “The dogs are dead; the obstacle is clear.” Cui, dressed in black was carried on Mole’s back. In this manner, they traveled over more than 10 walls before reaching the concubines’ courtyards, stopping at the third door, which was – as expected – unlocked. Light shone through the window. They heard a deep sigh and found the lady in red sitting on her bed, as if she was waiting for someone. She looked lovely, even without any makeup or jewelry, but she seemed sad and anxious.

 

She lamented: “I hear a nightingale sighing in this deep cave and can’t help feeling bitter toward the man who has left. In secret, I have him my earrings as a token of love, but he sends no message, leaving me waiting.”

 

The guards were sound asleep, and silence fell. Cui lifted the door’s curtain and entered the room. it took a while for the lady to come to her senses at such a surprise. She jumped off her bed, grabbed Cui’s hands and said happily: “I knew you were smart enough to understand my gestures, but what magic did you use to get in here?” So, Cui told her abut Mole, his salve.

 

She asked Cui, “Where is he right now?”

 

“He is outside,” Cui said. She then invited Mole into the room and treated him to wine in a golden cup.

 

The lady told Cui: “I was born to a rich family in the north, but the minister forced me to be his concubine. It is to my great shame that I have not ended my life. Though I wear beautiful makeup, my heart is in pain. Despite the luxury, I feel like a prisoner. Since your servant is so talented, is there anyway he can get me out of here? I am willing to die or become your maid if my wish is granted. What do you say?”

 

Cui did not answer, but Mole said: “If my lady insists, to me it is a small matter.” The lady was pleased beyond measure.

 

For the first three runs, Mole carried the lady’s belongings. When that was done, he told them: “I’m afraid that dawn is almost upon us.” Then, he put the couple on his back and went over the walls, all without alarming any of the guards. After reaching the outside, they hid in Cui’s school.

 

At dawn, the minister’s household noticed the dead dogs and the missing concubine. The minister was appalled, and said, “With such a well-guarded house, it would have taken a powerful warrior to leave without a trace. Stay silent about the incident to avoid further trouble.”

 

Cui kept he former concubine for two years, until they took a tour of Qujiang. She was recognized by one of the minister’s staff, and Cui was therefore summoned by the minister. Cui, frightened for his life, told the minister everything, blaming it all on Mole.

 

“It’s the fault of that concubine!” the minister shouted. “ But since she has served you all these years, I will spare her. However, the servant must be punished for the benefit of the public.”

 

He ordered 50 armed soldiers to surround Cui’s house to capture Mole. Dagger in hand, Mole leapt over the high walls of the estate, light as a feather and swift as an eagle. As arrows rained down on him, he remained unharmed, disappearing into the distance. Cui’s entire household was struck with panic and the minister was embarrassed and afraid. Every night for a year, the minister ordered a heavily armored patrol to guard his house, fearing reprisals.

 

Over a decade later, someone from Cui’s family reported seeing Mole in the city of Luoyang, selling medicine. They claimed that he looked exactly the same as he had 10 years earlier.

 

 – Translated by Liu Jue (刘珏) and Tyler Roney

 

About the Author

Pei Xing (裴铏) was known as a pioneer of short fiction in the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), largely because of his work Tales of the Marvelous (《传奇》), a three-volume collection of short stores. Each tale focuses on an individual, often involving immortals, fairies, magical beasts, and dazzling heroes. Little is known of the author’s life, except that he was appointed the deputy governor of Chengdu in 878. Chuanqi became a literary genre unto itself, and eventually served as the inspiration for operas, folklore and later literature. Only 31 stories remain, the rest lost to history.

 

Want more tales of the marvelous? Check these: Wei Zidong, Nie Yinniang, Ma Zheng

 

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