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Tales of The Marvelous: Wei Zidong

Enjoy a fantastical tale by the pioneer of Chinese short fiction


During the Zhenyuan Period (785 – 804) in the Tang Dynasty, there was a man named Wei Zidong who valued valor and loyalty above all things. He once traveled to Taibai Mountain and stayed in General Duan’s mansion; the general knew him to be vigilant and courageous.


While overlooking the valley, one day, they noticed a small path.


“Where does that path go?” Zidong asked.


General Duan answered, “There used to be two monks living on the mountain top, where you can find a magnificent temple, trees, and sweet spring water. The temple was built by Master Wanghui’s disciples during the Kaiyuan Period (713-741). Its uncanny workmanship is mythical. Woodsmen tell me that the monks were eaten by monsters and that they haven’t been seen in years. Other people say that the monsters rule that mountain now, and that no one dares to set foot in the area.”


Zidong was outraged by the statement and said angrily: “To fight evil and keep peace is my purpose. What kind of monsters are they? How dare they eat humans! Tonight, I will bring you their heads.”


The general tried to dissuade him, saying, “That is as risky as fighting beasts without a weapon or crossing a river without a boat. Why lose your life over this?”


Zidong ignored him, picked up his sword, and left.


“He will only have himself to blame!” General Duan exclaimed.


Swinging on vines and jumping from stone to stone, Zidong climbed to the mountain top. He reached the temple, but found no one. The doors to the monks’ bed chambers were wide open. Their shoes and rods were all present and their beds made. But, everything was covered with a thick layer of dust. Young grass grew from the cracks of the main hall floor. Zidong also found signs indicating that giant beasts lived there; the wall was covered with the fell of boar and black bear. There were leftovers of cooked meat, alongside pots and some firewood.


The woodsmen’s words proved true.


While the monsters were away, Zidong pulled up a planted cypress about the width of a bowl, cutting all the branches and leaves off, making it into a spear. He then pushed a stone figure of Buddha in place to hold the door.


That night, the moonlight shone so bright that it almost turned the dark night into day. By midnight, one of the monsters returned with a dead deer on its back. Upon discovering the disturbed door, the monster flew into a rage, roaring and banging the door with its head. When the stone figure fell, Zidong swung the spear at the monster’s head and killed it. He dragged its body inside. Later that night, he killed the second monster in the exact same way. Knowing the danger was over, he closed the door and cooked the deer for his dinner.


By dawn, he had cut off the monsters’ heads, taking them to General Duan along with the leftover deer meat. Duan was stunned, saying, “You are just like Zhou Chu, the slaughterer of tigers and dragons!” So, they cooked the deer meat and drank to celebrate.


Visitors rushed to catch a glimpse of the hero. In the crowd, a Taoist priest bowed to Zidong and said: “I have a sincere request, may I ask it of you?”


Zidong replied: “Why not? My goal in life is to protect people.”


“I have devoted myself to the study of Taoism and alchemy for a long time,” said the Taoist. “A few years ago, I obtained help from an immortal to develop an elixir. I am on the verge of success, but demons disturb me constantly. They damage my equipment and ruin my efforts. I was hoping to find a guard to protect my endeavors with his sword. There will be rewards when I succeed. What do you say?”


Zidong jumped to his feet and cried, “That’s exactly what I want!”


The journey with the priest was arduous and dangerous as they traveled to the highest peak of Taibai Mountain. A hundred steps into the cave, there was an alchemist chamber with only one disciple there.


“Please guard the entrance with your sword starting in the early hours of tomorrow morning,” said the priest. “Strike down any demon you see.”


“I will do as you say,” Zidong replied.


Zidong lit a candle and waited.


Soon, a python—meters-upon-meters long—appeared with flashing golden eyes, snow-white teeth, and surrounded by a thick poisonous smoke. Zidong struck its head to prevent it from entering the cave. The beast turned into a light fog and faded away. After a eating his meal, a stunning young woman appeared holding lotus flowers. She slowly stepped close. Zidong didn’t hesitate in slashing her with his sword. Again, the woman faded to fog.


At the next meal, an unfamiliar Taoist priest arrived on a crane, flying with clouds. His attendants seemed to be well disciplined. He greeted Zidong: “The demons are gone and my disciple’s work is almost done. I am here to witness his success.” The priest hovered in the sky until sunrise. He congratulated Zidong: “I’m delighted that the elixir is done. I have a poem for you: ‘For a long time you prayed to the immortals, then I came to provide the recipe. With the elixir, your mortal bodies will be saved and live forever in the magic mountain among the clouds.’”


Pondering the meaning of these words, Zidong inferred that this mysterious figure was the immortal he was told of. He put down his sword and bowed. Immediately after, he let the immortal into the cave, the stove exploded with a bang and the elixir was ruined.


Realizing he’d been tricked, the real priest entered and broke into tears. Zidong was tortured with deep regret. They decided to wash the container that held the elixir with spring water and drink it. From then on, Zidong grew younger in appearance. He traveled to Hengshan Mountain where he was never heard from again, along with the Taoist priest. Today, in the mansion of General Duan, the skulls of the monsters still remain.


– 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: The Kunlun Slave, Nie Yinniang, Ma Zheng


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The World of Chinese, Jan-Feb 2018: Fast Forward
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