However, these three novels are based on episodes from Chinese history: how Buddhist scriptures were brought to China during the Tang Dynasty (618–907) in Journey to the West; the chaos that followed the collapse of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) in The Romance of Three Kingdoms; and rebellion and the rise of secret societies during the Song Dynasty in Outlaws of the Marshes. In these books, history is treated in a rather fanciful manner that suited the moral purpose of their authors, and implausible plot devices abound, reflecting the original storyteller’s need to hold the attention of his audience.
Even more popular than these huge historical sagas were self-contained short stories, and by the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), hundreds were in circulation. Freed from the constraints of having to stick, however tenuously, to the facts of history, the storytellers created a series of tales that relied heavily on preposterous coincidences and supernatural agents, precisely because that is what their audiences expected. Unlike the heroes of the great historical novels, the protagonists of these stories were ‘ordinary’ people with whom the audience could identify.
A possibly atypical example of the use of coincidence is Fifteen Strings of Cash, the plot of which is even more implausible than the average American daytime soap opera. The following is a condensed version of this story:
Liu Gui came from a prosperous family in the southern Song capital of Hangzhou. After he had reached adulthood and come into an inheritance, he studied for the imperial civil service examination but was unsuccessful. His only other option was to go into trade, but he had no aptitude for business and soon lost all his money.
In his more prosperous days, Liu had lived in a big house with his wife and a concubine, the daughter of a cake vendor whom he’d married because his wife was unable to bear him a son, but the downturn in his fortunes had forced him to move to a much smaller dwelling with only two or three rooms. He was well liked by his neighbours, who often counselled him to cheer up, because the run of bad luck that he had endured was sure to end soon.
They were wrong, of course, and Liu spent his days moping around the house, feeling desperately sorry for himself and unable to come up with any kind of coherent plan to extricate himself from his financial difficulties. One day, while following this aimless pattern of behaviour, he was surprised by a knock on the door. It was his father-in-law’s servant, who had come to convey an invitation to his master’s birthday celebrations for Liu and his wife.
On the appointed day, the couple set off for the father-in-law’s house, which was several miles outside the city. Shortly after they had arrived, the father-in-law took Liu aside and admonished him.
“When my daughter married you, she expected to be provided with food, clothing and shelter,” he said. “You can’t go on like this.”
“You are right sir,” replied Liu. “But who would sympathize with me as you do?”
“There may be something in what you say,” said the old man. “However, I cannot allow this situation to continue. I propose to lend you fifteen strings of cash so that you can open a grocery shop and thereby make enough money to live on.”
[In imperial China, cash (wen) were small copper coins with square holes in the middle, allowing large numbers of them to be strung together so that they could be more easily carried around. A string of a thousand cash was considered the equivalent of a tael (40g) of silver.]
The father-in-law explained that once Liu had set up his shop, another ten strings of cash would be forthcoming.
“Meanwhile, I suggest that your wife stay here until you are ready to open your shop,” he added. “When you’ve set up everything, I shall bring her home myself.”
It was late in the day when Liu set off for home, and, burdened as he was by the fifteen strings of cash slung over his shoulder, it was dark when he finally reached the city. He really should have gone straight home, but as he passed a friend’s house—a friend who had previously expressed an interest in going into business with Liu—he decided that it would not be amiss to call and inform the friend of his good fortune.
The friend was amenable to the idea of working in Liu’s planned shop and brought out a flask of rice wine to celebrate their arrangement. Unfortunately, Liu was an occasional toper with no head for alcohol, so after only a few cups he took his leave and staggered off home.
The concubine had been left in charge of the house while Liu and his wife were away, but she had no idea when they would return and had fallen asleep with the door barred from the inside and the lamps unlit. Consequently, Liu had to knock on the door for some time before it was opened.
Annoyed by the delay, Liu decided to frighten his concubine by telling her that the fifteen strings of cash were the proceeds of his having sold her, and her new owner would come the following day to collect his purchase. He staggered off to bed, where he collapsed in a drunken stupor with the fifteen strings of cash in a heap beside his bed.
Appalled by the news, the concubine decided that her best course of action would be to return to her parents’ house. Accordingly, she slipped out of the house, pulling the door closed behind her. It was too late to make the journey that night, so she knocked on the door of her nextdoor neighbour, who allowed her to stay the night after hearing her sad story.
An hour or two later, an inveterate gambler was making his way home, having lost all his money, when he thought he spotted an unlocked door. It was Liu’s house, and when the gambler pushed the door it swung open. Once inside, the gambler quickly came across the comatose figure of Liu in bed and the strings of cash by his side. He was picking up the money when Liu stirred. He quickly sized up the situation.
“Stop thief!” he shouted.
The gambler was not a professional thief, so this unexpected turn of events unnerved him, and he fled to the kitchen. However, Liu had suddenly sobered up, so he leapt out of bed and chased the would-be thief, who was now in an almighty panic. In this panic, he spotted the axe that one of the women of the household would have used to chop wood for the kitchen fire. He grabbed it and swung wildly at Liu’s head. Liu was killed instantly by the blow, and the thief took the fifteen strings of cash and disappeared into the night.
The following morning, the concubine left the neighbour’s house and set out for that of her parents. However, she had walked less than a mile before her feet became sore as a result of her unaccustomed exertions, so she sat down to rest. As she did so, a young man hove into view with a bundle over his shoulder. They fell into conversation.
The concubine told the young man that she was on her way to the house of her parents, while the young man said that he was a silk merchant who had been selling his wares in the city’s marketplace. Having sold everything, he was on his way home, which meant that their routes coincided for the next few miles. They agreed to travel together.
However, they had walked only a short distance when they were overtaken by a posse of Liu’s neighbours. Having failed to notice any signs of activity in Liu’s house, they had pushed open the door and found his corpse, lying in a pool of blood in the kitchen. The story they’d heard from the concubine suddenly seemed suspicious, so they had set off in pursuit.
Despite their protestations, the couple were taken back to Liu’s house.
“You can’t just make off,” said a man in the crowd that had gathered. “A man with a clear conscience need not fear the midnight knock on the door.”
“Refusing to go with us would show a guilty conscience,” added one of Liu’s neighbours.
Liu’s house was in a state of turmoil when they returned. Liu’s father-in-law and his daughter had been informed of the overnight murder and had just arrived, and when the concubine and her companion were brought back, accusations were soon being levelled. Although both stuck to their original stories, they were not believed. Liu’s wife made some startling assumptions, none of which were supported by any evidence, but when the young man’s bundle was examined, the proceeds of his silk sales were found to total precisely fifteen strings of cash, not one coin more, not one coin less. [This is the crucial coincidence upon which the entire tale hangs.]
There is no escaping the justice of heaven,” exclaimed the neighbours in unison.
The couple were hauled before the city magistrate, who decided immediately that they must be lying [venal officials were a mainstay of these stories] and refused to listen to their versions of events. In his haste to clear up the case, he decided that the only way to find out the truth would be to have them both tortured. Needless to say, both eventually confessed. Nobody appears to have reasoned that had the couple been guilty of robbery and murder, they would have taken off immediately rather than wait until the following day.
In accordance with the law in such matters, the young man was sentenced to death by decapitation, while the concubine, whose crime was deemed to be the more serious, would be ‘cut by inches’ [the ‘death of a thousand cuts’ of popular Western mythology].
Once the sentences had been carried out, Liu’s widow began the elaborate ritual process of mourning her late husband. She returned to their house, where she set up a shrine to his memory. Her father wanted her to remarry, but she insisted that she must mourn for at least a full year first.
On the first anniversary of Liu’s death, his former father-in-law sent a servant to fetch his still grieving widow. However, on the way, they were caught in a violent storm, and, unable to recognize any usually familiar landmarks, they quickly became lost. Suddenly, they were harangued by a voice from behind.
“I am king of the mountains. Stop and pay the toll!”
A man dressed in an outfit so outlandish that it would have made him stand out in any crowd leapt out of the bushes brandishing a large broadsword and confronted them. However, unimpressed by this show of force, the servant simply put his head down and charged at the bandit, who had no difficulty in running his assailant through with his sword.This and other stories were passed down orally for centuries, until developments in printing technology during the Ming Dynasty enabled books of such stories to be widely disseminated. They have remained popular ever since, although few have been translated into English.
The woman, fearing a similar fate, came up with a desperate plan.
“Well done!” she shouted.
She then told the bandit that she had been tricked by the matchmakers into marrying the old man whom he had just killed, and she was extremely grateful, because he did nothing but eat. The bandit saw an opportunity here: Liu’s widow was still attractive, so he asked her if she would marry him. Realistically, she had no choice, so she agreed.
Another year elapsed, a year during which the bandit was able to seize several large and valuable hauls. The couple became prosperous, but the former Mrs Liu grew increasingly uneasy about the source of their prosperity. She nagged her new husband.
“We have enough now to keep us in comfort for the rest of our lives,” she would say. “If you continue to flout the will of heaven, you are bound to come to a bad end.”
She finally persuaded her husband to abandon his evil ways, rent a house in the city and open a grocery shop. He began to spend more and more of his time in the local temples and monasteries, and one day he told his wife what had been troubling him.
“I’m glad that I’ve changed my ways, but it bothers me that I killed two men needlessly and was responsible for the deaths of two others,” he confessed. “I’ve been pondering how to arrange for prayers to be said for their spirits.”
His wife wanted to know more.
“The second man I killed needlessly was your husband, who charged at me, leaving me with little option but to kill him,” he continued. “Two innocent people lost their lives as a result of the first killing, which happened like this….”
It slowly dawned on his wife that her new husband was describing the murder of her first husband. She said nothing, but as soon as she could do so safely, she slipped away and went straight to the offices of the city magistrate. A new official now occupied this post, and his first action was to send men to arrest the bandit. When he was interrogated, his confession tallied on every point with the court annals relating to Liu’s murder, and he was therefore sentenced to death.
The former Mrs Liu never forgave herself for bearing false witness at the first trial for the murder of her husband and spent the remainder of her life reciting Buddhist sutras for the souls of her former husband, the concubine and the young silk merchant who had strayed, inadvertently, into an episode of The Young and the Restless, until she died of old age.