Jack Hsing, chief editor of The World of English, retells a classic ghost story from the 17th century
Jack Hsing, chief editor of The World of English, retells the story “Miss Yingning, or the Laughing Girl” (《婴宁》) from Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, a collection of Chinese folk tales by Qing dynasty scholar Pu Songling (蒲松龄). Many of the stories collected have to do with ghosts and fox spirits. Read our review of the Penguin Classics (2006) edition of the book here.
Once upon a time, there was a young man called Wang Zifu. Wang lived an affluent life with his widowed mother. Now at the age of 17, he still had not gotten a wife, which was a headache for his mother—at that time people usually married at very early age.
On the day of the Lantern Festival, Wang took a tour around the countryside. On his trip, he came across a girl and fell in love with her immediately. Not knowing the strange girl, he just ogled her silently.
The girl was young and elegant, holding a flower twig in one hand. She giggled loudly as she talked, not noticing that someone was watching her. “Oh, see that stealthy pair of eyes watching you!” the girl’s maid informed her. The young girl turned around and saw Wang looking in her direction. Instead of getting angry, she gave him a friendly smile. Then she dropped the flower twig to the ground and walked away with her maid. When the girls had walked too far away to see, Wang picked up the flower twig and took it home.
From that day on, Wang could not stop thinking about the girl and hoped to meet her again. Lovesick, he became very depressed, and gradually his health became worse and worse. However, he would not reveal his secret to his mother. Since she could do nothing to bring relief to her son, the mother had her nephew, a Mr. Wu, come over to comfort her son. Wang spilled his guts to his cousin and pleaded with him to find that girl. His cousin promised to help.
Several days later, Wang was delighted to receive a letter from his cousin. The girl was none other than a cousin of theirs living in a hilly village a few miles away. Wang was anxious to meet her and set out for the hills in the early morning of the next day. At noon he reached his destination and spotted a large house surrounded by trees. As he hesitated to knock on the door, he saw an old lady, who stepped out and invited him to come in.
There were all kinds of flowering trees in the garden of the house, and all were in full bloom. Amid the flowers he heard a girl giggling. To his pleasure, it is the same girl that he had met several days ago. The old lady invited him to dinner. During the dinner, he told the old lady his surname and said that he was the son of his dear sister. The old lady said her surname was Qin, and she was not sure whether she was really his “dear aunt.” She indeed had a sister who had married a Mr. Wang, said the old lady, but had not had any news from her for many years.
Wang then asked to see his cousin, the young girl he was missing so much. His aunt said that the young girl was her stepdaughter and born of the concubine of her late husband. Both of the girl’s parents died when she was still a baby, and the old lady had brought her up. Her name was Yingning, and she was 16 years old.
After dinner, Wang found an opportunity to be alone with Yingning in the garden. He presented her the withered flower twig that he had treasured from their first meeting.
“You like the flowers on this twig, cousin?” Yingning giggled.
“Yes, I do,” Wang replied.
“Good, I like flowers too. See this garden; you can take as many flowers as you like when you leave,” Yingning said.
“I do not love these flowers. I love the lady who was holding this very flower twig that day when we first met. It’s you,” Wang declared.
“Ridiculous! We are dear cousins, and we should certainly love each other,” Yingning giggled again.
“I do not mean that kind of love between relatives. I mean a man’s love for a woman.”
“Is there any difference?” the girl asked seriously, still missing the point.
“If a man and a woman love each other, they can sleep together.” Wang said bluntly, hoping to win her affections.
“Sleeping with a stranger makes me uneasy.” the girl answered.
The maid suddenly appeared, and said that the old lady wanted to see them.
“You two stayed in the garden for such long a while. What were you talking about?” the old lady inquired.
“My cousin wanted to sleep with me, Mother.” Yingning replied bluntly, which embarrassed Wang awfully. Fortunately, he found that his aunt was hard of hearing. He quickly gave Yingning a glance, hinting at her to say no more.
Later, Yingning asked her cousin why he had interrupted her.
“Those words can only be said between couples, not in front of others,” Wang said.
“Not even in front of my dear mother?”
“Yes, not to anybody else.”
Although she nodded in agreement, the naïve girl still seemed to not have the faintest idea about his cousin’s intentions.
Several days later, Wang confessed to his aunt that he loved Yingning and wanted marry her. He humbly asked for consent from his aunt.
“Since I am not her birth mother, you can take her as your wife. But you know, she is too innocent to be seduced by scoundrels; therefore, I am glad that my own nephew will marry my dear stepdaughter.”
Wang then took Yingning to his own home. The mother welcomed her son with joyful tears, for he had been absent from home for many days. It gave her a great shock to see a beautiful young girl come in with him. She wanted to know what had happened. Wang told his mother that her nephew Wu had told him to find his aunt in a hilly village, and he had met the aunt there, and gotten her consent to marry her stepdaughter, the beautiful girl.
“Oh!” cried his mother, “Wu had lied to you. The hilly village and the aunt were completely his invention. This is very strange. ”
Wang then described his aunt’s appearance in detail to his mother. The mother pondered for a minute.
“I did have an elder sister who married a Mr. Qin, but she died 20 years ago. How can a dead person come back to life? Although the old lady’s appearance is the same as my sister, I still feel it’s unnatural,” said the mother.
“My elder sister died before her husband. Your uncle Qin lived as a widower for some time, and then he fell in love with a fox spirit. They lived together as husband and wife. The fox then gave birth to a baby girl. Shortly after that, Mr. Qin died too, leaving the girl and her fox mother alone. And later, the fox took her daughter away and we never saw them again. If the girl is still alive today, she would be 16. ”
The mother then turned her face at the girl standing beside her son, and cried out, ”Oh! Isn’t this the daughter of your uncle Qin? What is her name? ”
“She is called Yingning.”
“Oh yes, the baby girl’s name was Yingning too.”
The mother took great pity on the girl, and agreed to let her stay with the family. Yingning was a good girl, elegant and cheerful. She soon won the favor of everybody. She was always giggling, and there seemed nothing can could upset her. She loved planting flowers, and soon, all kinds of flowers were flourishing the yard.
But just as her stepmother warned, she was too guileless to be seduced by scoundrels. The neighbor’s son was a womanizer and wanted to take advantage of the pretty girl. One day he sent a message to the girl for a date at the foot of the wall. Yingning placed a thick log there in advance, and put a scorpion as large as a small crab in the hole of the log. When night came, in the pitch darkness, the bad neighbor’s son took the log for the girl, and tried to have sex with her. His penis was stung by the large scorpion, and he yelled in agony. In this way, the clever girl saved herself and taught the scoundrel a good lesson.
One day Yingning told the mother and son about her life. When her father died, her fox mother took her away. But soon after, her mother became very sick. The dying mother asked the ghost of Mr. Qin’s wife to come to take care of her child. As Yingning was also the child of her husband, Mr. Qin’s wife was obligated to do so. She agreed to bring Yingning up as her own child. Ever since then, they had lived together in the isolated hills.
Wang sent some people to visit the hills to try and find the house and his aunt. But when they reached the place where the old lady lived, there was neither house nor old lady, only flowers surrounding a lonely tomb.
Wang and Yingning were soon married. A year later, Yingning gave birth to a baby boy, who always giggled as his mother did. One year after the birth of the child, Wang passed the Imperial Examination and became a government official. The family lived happily together ever after.
Cover Image from VCG