30
Mar
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Portraits of Thirty-three Swordsmen – 19 The Merchant’s Wife

No. 19 The Merchant’s Wife: righteous as wife to her husband, but cruel as mother to her son.

Tang Dynasty. Sheriff Wang Li reached the end of his term at Yugan County, and had to go to capitol Changan to obtain new assignment. Unfortunately he made a mistake in his paperwork, earning the ire of the chief administrator who rejected it, withholding his new appointment. The situation became desperate as his money ran out: he had to let go of his servant, and sell his horse. Stranded in an unfamiliar place, three meals a day became a rarity. He resorted to begging at various temples for cold, left-over food.

Walking back from the temple late one night, he met a beautiful woman on the road. Sometimes ahead, sometimes behind, sometimes side by side, they struck up a conversation. He was honest and sincere, both of them found their conversation agreeable. He invited her to where he was staying. She did not refuse. They became intimate; that night she stayed with him.

The next day, the woman said to him “Gong (term of respect for man), how desperate and destitute your life is! I reside at Chongrenli. My finances are more than adequate, how about you come live with me?” Li, delighted by her beauty, and touched by her generosity, said “I am in such a pitiful situation, your generosity is more than I dare hope for. May I ask how you make a living?” The woman replied “My husband, a merchant, passed away more ten years ago. The business still stands. I can go attend to the business in the morning, and take care of you and our home in the evening. If I can make 300 Qian (unit of currency, usually made of copper. In Tang dynasty 1.5 kilos of rice can be purchased with 3-5 Qian) a day, it would be enough to take care of all household needs. But it may not be enough for entertainment and travel while Gong is waiting for new assignment. So long as Gong find me agreeable, why not stay with me until the new assignment comes down in the winter?” Li promptly agreed.

So it is they came to live together at the merchant’s wife place. She always kept the house in perfect order, was very capable in running the business, and treated Wang Li with love and respect. She handed over to him the keys to everything.

Before she leaves every morning, she would have the whole day’s meals prepared. Every evening, she would return with rice, meat, and money earned during the day. Seeing how hard she works, Wang Li suggested she get a servant. She said that was not necessary. So Wang Li did not press the issue.

The two lived very happily together. After a year, she gave birth to a son. So every day she would return at noontime to nurse him.

Two years passed. One day she returned with a sad expression on her face. “I have an enemy whom I loath with my very being. I’ve been searching for him for a long time, waiting for an opportunity for vengeance. Today I finally accomplished that goal. I must leave the capitol immediately. Please take care of yourself. This house was build for 500,000 Qian. The deed to it is inside the screen. This house and everything in it are my gifts to you. I cannot take the baby with me. He is your flesh and blood, please look after him often.” Saying all of this with tears in her eyes, she bid him goodbye. Try as he might, Wang Li could not get her to stay.

But he froze when he spotted what was in the leather bag she was holding with one hand. It was a human head. Seeing all colors draining from his face, she smiled “don’t be afraid, this has nothing to do with Guan Ren (popular expression in Tang and Song dynasty for husband), you will not be implicated.” Lifting up the bag, she agilely leaped over the wall. Her body was so light, she looked like a bird in flight. By the time Wang Li chased to the door, she was long gone.

Feeling gloomy and melancholic, Wang Li paced the courtyard alone. But then he heard the sound of her from outside the door. Overjoyed, he rushed to open it. “I cannot bear parting with the child, I want to nurse him just one more time.” Holding up the child, she could not stop caressing him. After a while, she stood up to leave again, waving as she departed. Wang Li saw her off to the door.

When he returned to the room, and raised the lamp to check on their son, he saw the bed was covered in blood: the child’s head and body in separate places.

Confused and horrified, Wang Li stayed up all night. After burying the child, he dared not stay in the house. He took out some money, acquired a servant, and moved to the outskirt of the city to lie low and observe what happens next.

But strangely, a long time passed without new news of the killing(s). Later in the year Wang Li finally received the new assignment. He sold the house and went on his way to the new post. After that, he never heard any news about the woman again.

(from Xue Yongnuo‘s book Collection of Strange Incidents)

賈人妻

唐余千縣慰王立,調選佣居大宁里。文書有誤,為主司駁放。資財蕩盡,仆馬喪失,窮悴頗甚,每丐食于佛祠。徒行晚歸,偶与美婦人同路。或前或后依隨。因誠意与言,气甚相得。立因邀至其居,情??甚洽。

翌日,謂立曰:“公之生涯,何其困哉!妾居崇仁里,資用稍備。倘能從居乎?”立既悅其人,又幸其給,即曰:仆之阨塞,阽于溝瀆,如此勤勤,所不敢望焉,子又何以營生?”對曰:“妾素賈人之妻也。夫亡十年,旗亭之內,尚有舊業。朝肆暮家,日贏錢三百,則可支矣。公授官之期尚未,出游之資且無,脫不見鄙,但同處以須冬集可矣。”立遂就焉。

閱其家,丰儉得其所。至于扃鎖之具,悉以付立。每出,則必先營辦立之一日饌焉,及歸,則又攜米肉錢帛以付立。日未嘗缺。立憫其勤勞,因令佣買仆隸。婦托以他事拒之,立不之強也。周歲,產一子,唯日中再歸為乳耳。

凡与立居二載,忽一日夜歸,意態惶惶,謂立曰:“妾有冤仇,痛纏肌骨,為日深矣。伺便复仇,今乃得志。便須离京,公其努力。此居處,五百緡自置,契書在屏風中。室內資儲,一以相奉。嬰儿不能將去,亦公之子也,公其念之。言訖,收淚而別。立不可留止,則視其所攜皮囊,乃人首耳。立甚惊愕。其人笑曰:“無多疑慮,事不相縈。”遂挈囊逾垣而去,身如飛鳥。立開門出送,則已不及矣。方徘徊于庭,遽聞卻至。立迎門接俟,則曰:更乳嬰儿,以豁离恨,就撫子。俄而复去,揮手而已。立回燈褰帳,小儿身首已离矣。立惶駭,達旦不寐。則以財帛買仆乘,游抵近邑,以伺其事。久之,竟無所聞。

某年,立得官,即貨鬻所居歸任。爾后,終莫知其音問也。

Commentary:
As someone who grew up with tales of knight-errants, what’s shocking is not the head of the enemy in a bag thing, or even the infant killing (will elaborate on this later in commentary on Tale no. 9 – Nie Yinniang), but how open the society was 1500 years ago: a man and a woman, strangers on the road, can proposed to live together within the first day they met…

And one is drawn to speculate about her interior life endlessly: what was Wang Li to her (her major attachment was not to him but with the child, a bond she severed in the most definitive manner), what their brief years of normal life meant for her, what will she do now that her biggest goal (vengeance, not family happiness) has been met…

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