Part 2 of Kang Fu’s whimsical modern take on “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio”
Author: Kang Fu 康夫
Kang Fu graduated from Tsinghua University and has studied in Israel. Once a prolific traveler, she now spends most of her time at home as “an unknown screenwriter, idler, and author of unprofitable books, loving monster legends and food.” She has published The Jobless Journey based on her travels, and a novel, The Gray Cat Curiosities Agency.
In the capital, there was a poor merchant surnamed Hu who sold fish at the wet market. One day, he found a stray cat and took it in. The cat was orange-yellow, but its four paws were white—what people called a “snow paw” cat. It would also frequently rub the side of its face with its right paw—thus, Hu named it “Lucky.”
Hu rose early and lived frugally; after two or three years, he had enough savings to rent a store. After a few more years of hard work, he finally managed to buy a shop. Unfortunately, the building was condemned, and he wasn’t allowed to start a business there. By the time Hu found this out and went after the seller, the man was long gone. Angry and worried, Hu fell sick. Without a source of income, his family subsisted on scraps, but Lucky still had a fresh fish every day, and never suffered.
After a month, Hu’s savings were almost depleted, and his case wasn’t getting heard. The entire family was panicking. Hearing that the Temple of Great Awakening in the west of the city produced great results, Hu bathed, changed clothes, and went to pray in spite of his poor health. Recalling how his years of hard labor had been wiped out in a moment, leaving his family in dire straits, he couldn’t help but start crying in front of the Buddha.
After Hu returned home, nothing much happened. Within a few days, the family was completely broke, without even enough money to buy warm clothes for the winter. Hu let out a long sigh; his sojourn in the capital was over—no choice but to return to the village and farm. Thus, he put together enough money to buy a train ticket, packed his belongings, and prepared to head out the next morning.
That night, Hu tossed and turned, unable to sleep. Suddenly, a young man in yellow robes appeared to him, saying: “Don’t be in such a hurry to leave. Things may still take a turn for the better.” The man didn’t look like an ordinary person, but had a round face with two big, bright eyes. Before Hu could ask for more, he suddenly woke up; there was nobody else in the room.
The next morning, someone from the sub-district office arrived with a document in hand. It said that in this time of peace, prosperity, and the glory of all things, the capital would construct subway lines to facilitate transportation. Hu’s building was on the planned route, and scheduled to be demolished. But not to worry, the nation cared for the welfare of the people and would handsomely compensate the owners.
So there was light at the end of the tunnel. Things were, indeed, taking a turn for the better. Thinking about the young man in yellow from his dream, Hu thought it must have been a bodhisattva. Hu quickly returned his ticket, prepared chicken, duck, and fruits, and took his family to the temple to give thanks. They bowed their heads and kowtowed before the Buddha’s statue to show gratitude.
After some time, the compensation arrived—it was indeed a windfall. That night, the man in yellow appeared again by Hu’s bedside, instructing him. “Now that you’ve escaped poverty, you should make plans for your wealth. Use the money to buy a store in the city center with good foot traffic. Buy real estate in good school districts, the more the better.”
Hu heeded the advice. Not long after, property prices in the city blew up. Shops and residences, whether new or old, beautiful or decrepit, exponentially increased in value. Hu simply rode this wave and, with some smart financial planning, became quite wealthy in a few short years.
Hu was very well aware that this health was a gift from the bodhisattva, and his piety increased hand in hand with his prosperity. At the start, he just worshipped at the temple, but gradually he started to give to charity, free captive animals, and, later on, donate generous amounts to build temples and invite Tibetan monks to be his honored guests.
In just a few years, he found himself on the brink of his 40s. As a child, a fortune-teller told him that things would “go downhill” when he was 40. Because of this, he was cautious. On the eve of the new year, he promised that he would become an ascetic and cultivate good fortune. The entire family, old and young, driver and nanny, all gave up meat, even refusing to use pork fat for cooking. Lucky was no exception; his daily meals of fish, shrimp, and sashimi became tofu soup mixed with soft rice and buns, which was supposed to mimic the taste of dried fish.
One afternoon, Hu was copying scriptures near the window, lost in thought, when he suddenly saw the man in yellow outside; he quickly stood up and saluted. Seeing the man’s hollow cheeks and furrowed brows, Hu was concerned: “I haven’t seen you in a while. Why do you look so tired?”
“Your life of luxury peaks here,” the man answered. “I came to say goodbye; take care of yourself.”
Hu was shocked, and hurried over to the man, seizing him by the arm. “I’ve been earnest in my devotion to the Buddha. I’ve not been neglectful. Why would the bodhisattva forsake me so? Even if it’s too late, tell me what I did wrong,” he pleaded. The man in yellow robes shook his head and sighed, but left without answering.
At this time, Hu woke with a start, and discovered he had fallen asleep in his chair while copying scriptures. He hurried outside, but there was no sign of the man in yellow. Beneath the parapet, though, he heard voices. It seemed like a few people were chatting, but the voices didn’t sound human.
One voice spoke: “The High Minister descended to the mortal realm as a cat, and saved Mr. Hu from poverty as thanks for saving his life—’tis truly exemplary conduct in heaven.”
Another answered: “Mortal life was bitter, but that wasn’t the issue. It’s just that this Hu takes whole fish and chunks of meat to the clay statues in the temple, yet treats my true body with tofu and soaked bread. Preposterous! How could he possibly not be aware that cats are the so-called bodhisattva of this world?” It was the voice of the young man in yellow.
A female voice joined in: “Humans have always focused on the trifles without looking at the core; they value appearance, but neglect the substance. In practicing religion by the book, they believe they can accrue merit through good works, but they’re just fooling themselves and others.” The other voices joined in in agreement.
Hu was shocked to hear these words, and ashamed. He peeked over the wall, and saw five cats under the rafter; in the middle was Lucky. The cat on the left had a black forehead and white face, with the look of a judge about him. To the right was a female calico, which looked like a grand lady. There were also two stocky black cats with bright eyes, which looked like guards.
Lucky enjoined: “The mortal world is foolish and there’s no need for us to stay. Let’s go back to heaven.” The two black cats saluted, dropped down on their forepaws, and pushed back on their hind legs, their hair standing on end. Seeing this, Hu hopped over the wall and practically rolled over to them. He prostrated himself upon the ground and kowtowed repeatedly: “We humans are stupid. I thought the statue was the true deity; I really was foolish. Now that I know that cats are the real gods of all things, I promise to serve faithfully and with dedication. I beg you to please forgive us our ignorant crimes.”
Hearing this speech, Lucky strolled toward Hu, and patted his forehead consolingly with a white paw: “Although I’ve already made up my mind to go, you did save my life, and take care of me for so long. I will not forget.”
As he finished speaking, five colorful clouds descended, and the cats stepped aboard with dignity. Hu stayed on the ground, kowtowing as they flew away.
After this, Hu no longer built temples or bowed to bodhisattvas, but fed every stray cat he came across. He placed statues of Lucky all around his house, and, rather than burning incense and presenting flowers, made offerings of chicken, duck, fish, and shrimp. In the years later, even though the property market tanked, Hu’s assets always avoided disaster, and the returns stayed plump.
Hu would tell everyone he met: “If you desire wealth, be a slave to cats.” People liked the saying, and followed suit. In time, it became a tale known to all.
– Translated by Moy Hau (梅皓)