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Tales of the Marvelous: Ma Zheng

A translation of Pei Xing's ancient Buddhist tale of a shape-shifting tiger villain


Tales of the Marvelous: Ma Zheng

A translation of Pei Xing's ancient Buddhist tale of a shape-shifting tiger villain


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 stories. 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; here is one of them.

Ma Zheng

There was an honorable man named Ma Zheng in the Changqing period (821 – 825) of the Tang Dynasty. Despite his merits, he preferred traveling among mountains and rivers rather than pursuing a position in the government. No matter how precipitous a hike, there was no mountain that Ma couldn’t conquer.

On day while he was lingering in central Hunan, he climbed the Zhurong Peak in Hengshan Mountain to visit Monk Fuhu. When he arrived, he entered the worship hall and found it clean and tidy. Sweet fragrance emanated from fruits and snacks while silverware decorated the room. He found an old monk on the chair whose eyebrows were as white as snow. His look had simplicity and naturalness, and his build was quite robust.

The monk was very glad to receive Ma and his servant who carried the luggage. The monk asked: “Would it be okay to send your servant to the nearby town’s market to buy some salt and cheese?” Ma agreed. So the servant headed downhill with some money in his pocket. Soon the monk was also nowhere to be found.

A while later, a hermit who traveled alone arrived and seemed relieved to meet Ma. He told Ma: “On my way up, I saw a tiger eating a person. I don’t know who that poor boy was.” He described the boy’s apparel and Ma discovered in horror that it was his servant. The hermit continued: “From far away, I saw the tiger devouring the boy, afterwards, it took off its fur and changed into Buddhist garment; it turned itself into an old monk!” Ma was terrified.

When the old monk reappeared, the hermit whispered to Ma: “It was him!”

Ma said to the monk: “This hermit just told me my servant was killed by a tiger on the way. What do I do?”

The monk was furious and yelled: “In my territory, there were no tiger or wolf, no poisonous insect in the grass, no snake by the road, nor ferocious bird in the forest. You shouldn’t believe such nonsense!”

But when Ma observed the mouth of the monk closely, there were still traces of blood on his lips.

That night, Ma and the hermit lodged in the dining room. They tightly shut the door and the windows, lit up the candles and waited.

Late at night, an angry tiger came roaring in the courtyard. It bumped into the door three or four times. Thankfully, it held strong. The two were scared to death, spending the whole night burning incense and kowtowing to the clay statue of Venerable Pindola 1.

It felt like ages has passed. Suddenly, the clay statue started to talk: “The yin only drowns in the water within the rails; wu zi should share the metal beside gen. Let the te jin re-stretch the bow, and the passer-by general would have his heart broken.”

On hearing these words, the two tried to decipher their meaning: “Yin 2 means the tiger, water within the rails, that must be a well; Wu zi 3 refers to us, while the metal beside gen 4 is silver.” As for the rest, they were left clueless.

At the break of dawn, the old monk came knocking on their door: “Time to get up, the breakfast porridge is ready.” The two finally dared to open the door.

After breakfast, Ma and the hermit said to each other: “The old monk is still here, what excuse we should use to get away?” They then decided to make up a lie. So they led the monk to the well and told him: “There’s something unusual in the well.” When the monk leaned over and peered into the well, the two pushed him into it. The monk immediately turned into a tiger. The two threw a giant rock into the well and killed the beast.

The two packed the silverware in the house and headed down. At dust, they encountered a hunter up in a tree-house “Be careful not to set my trap off,” He said to the two, referring to the crossbow trap he had set up in the bushes. “It’s still a long way going down the hill, and there are fierce tigers haunting the area,” he suggested, “Why not come up here to spend the night in my tree-house?”

With dread, the two climbed the tree and went in the tree-house. When it came to go to bed, suddenly a crowd of 30 to 50 people came over. There were Buddhist monks, Daoist monks, men and women. They were singing and dancing along the way until they came to a halt by the trap. They said angrily: “This morning, two thieves murdered our Zen master. We were just chasing them. Here, another guy dares to come up with this trap to hurt our general! ” So they disabled the trap and continued on their path.

The two were baffled by what had happened, so they asked the hunter about it. He said: “They were chang ghosts, people who were eaten by the tiger. Their souls turned into the tiger’s servants, clearing the path for the beast.”

The two then asked about the name of the hunter, he answered: “My given name is Jin.” The two were overjoyed, saying: “the clay statue’s last two lines were clear, ‘te jin ’ was referring to hunter Jin. And the general means the coming tiger.”

So they asked the hunter to reset the trap, and the hunter did so. As soon as the crossbow was set and hunter was back on the tree, a tiger came roaring. Its forelegs touched the wires of the trap and arrows shot into its forehead and through its heart.

Soon, the group of chang ghosts rushed back. They wept at the dead tiger in deep grief, crying: “Who killed our general?”

The two on the tree couldn’t resist anymore and scolded them: “You ignorant ghosts! You lost your lives to the tigers and we avenged you. You are not grateful, but to mourn over the tiger’s death. What kind of imbeciles are you?!”

The ghosts fell silent. All of a sudden, a ghost replied: “We had no idea that the general is the tiger. Thanks for your words and we now have awakened.” They then started to curse the tiger over its body. After they thanked the three, they were gone.

At daybreak, the two shared the silverware with hunter and went their separate ways.

– Translated by Jue Liu (刘珏)


1. The Venerable Pindola-Bharadvaja, one of the eighteen Arhats in Mahayana Buddhism, the original followers of the Buddha. Pindola is known for his vigor and for subduing a ferocious tiger. In Chinese, he is known as Fuhu Luohan (伏虎罗汉, Taming Tiger Arhat). Ironically, “Fuhu” is also the pseudonym assumed by the tiger-turned-monk in this story.

2. Yin (寅) is one of 12 Earthly Branches (地支), a traditional ordinal system in which every branch is matched with a Chinese zodiac animal. Yin is the third branch and is matched with tiger.

3. Wu zi (午子) is phonetically the same with wu zi (吾子), which means “you” in ancient Chinese.

4. Metal (金) besides gen (艮) is a word puzzle, referring to the metal radical “钅” by the side of 艮, forming the character for silver, “银” .

5. Te jin (特进) is a official title for noble man in Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 25 CE). Here, the author was playing with the double meaning of “jin”.


Want more tales of the marvelous? Check these: The Kunlun Slave, Wei Zidong, Nie Yinniang