Portraits of Thirty-three Swordsmen – 29 The Man in Black Cap

No. 29 The Man in Black Cap: You are extraordinary, I am content.

Ren Yuan, zi1 Jinshu, is a resident of the capitol. When young he served his father who was an official in the Jiang Huai (portions of Jiansu, Anhui provinces that are north of Long River and south of Huai River). He had some education; by temperament he was simple, honest, refined, and generous. He had some inheritance, the family is modestly well-off. He lived a secure, uneventful existence, with no great ambitions or desires.

In the second year of Xining (Song Dynasty, 1069 AD), on the 15th day of spring festival, he went for a stroll. Between the people, the horses, and carriages, the streets were overcrowded. Ren had a bit too much to drink. At one point, when jostled by people next to him, he lost his balance and fell onto the body of a woman. The woman’s husband thought Ren was taking liberties with his woman, got very angry. He immediately started punching Ren, not really giving him a chance to explain. Ren neither defended himself nor attacked back, merely covering his face with his wide sleeves, letting the punches land. The husband got more and more angry as he went on. Soon there was a huge crowd of onlookers.

Amongst the onlookers there was a man wearing a black cap. He saw the unfairness of it, and shouted for the husband to stop. The assailant paid him no attention. Enraged, the man in black cap knocked down the assailant with just one punch, then he help propped up Ren and took him aside. The crowd dispersed in an instant. Ren Yaun expressed his gratitude: “Thank you so much for helping out a stranger.” The man walked away without responding.

Several days later, Ren Yuan ran into the black-capped man again, so he invited him to have a drink at a bar. Sitting down, Ren now sees that the man had a piercing gaze like lightening and a very firm, resolute, intimidating presence. Ren thanked him again “in the previous day I was assaulted by some vulgarian of the streets, if not for a hero like you, who would’ve come to my aid?” The black-capped man replied “That was nothing. Hardly worth thanking me again. Let’s do this again the day after tomorrow, this time I will be the host. Please don’t refuse.” He saluted and left.

Ren Yuan came to the bar at agreed-upon time, and saw that the black-capped man was already there. They picked a clean, secluded spot. After more than 10 rounds of drinks, the man in black cap confided: “I am an assassin. I had a great enemy that I’ve been trying to find for many years. I finally had my revenge today.” He took off the black leather pouch from his waist, and brought out a human head. He then started shaving the flesh off it, putting half in the plate in front of Ren Yuan, “please, go ahead.” Shocked and horrified, Ren Yuan didn’t know what to do. The man in black cap casually ate his portion. Several times He urged Ren to eat, each time Ren declined. Laughing, the man finally reach over to Ren’s plate and finished the rest. Afterwards, he took out a short knife, and start shaving off the skull. The blade was so sharped, bones came off easily like rotten wood. He swept the tiny bone fragments onto the ground where no one could identify them for what they were.

The man in black cap then turned to Ren Yuan: “I have a special skill I like to impart, would you be willing to learn?” Ren Yuan: “Which skill is that?” Man in black cap: “I can turn iron into gold, and copper into silver.” Ren Yuan: “I have a one room shop on the market left by my father. Every day I can make 1,000 qian. For a family of several people, we wear thick cotton in the winter, poplin in the summer, no worries ever about food and wine. Living in such comfort, I already felt guilty, often afraid such excess will invite loss2. How dare I tempt fate further by learning such miraculous skill?” The man in black cap sighed in admiration: “You genuinely know contentment. Someone like you would surely have a long life.” He then took out a pill: “take this, this will strengthen your body, no demon will come near you.”

Ren Yuan took the pill with the wine. The two kept drinking, not parting until deep into the night. They never saw each other again.

Notes and commentary:
1. Before the modern era, a Chinese man has at least two names, ming – the formal name, and zi – information that friends, family, and acquaintances use.

2. This is a very traditional attitude: that everything comes in cycles, and that in everything there must be a balance. If you do something excessively, you will get the opposite result. For example, if you get too greedy in your investment and took excessive risks, you will end up poor. Hence it is said “excess/fullness invites loss”. The best way to prevent loss then, is not to ask too much, in fact, the most appropriate thing is to be a little less than full (perfect).

How appropriate then the main character’s name is Ren Yuan. Ren: let, allow, give free reins to, no matter (how, what, when…). Yuan: wish. When our desires become excessive, they become our shackles. Only when we truly know contentment can our spirit be genuinely free.




愿及期而往,青巾者亦先至矣。共人酒肆。酒十余舉,青巾者曰:“吾乃刺客也。有至冤,銜之數年,今始少伸。”乃于跨間取烏革囊,中出死人首,以刀截為半,以半授愿。愿惊恐,莫知所措。青巾者食其肉無孑遺,讓愿,愿辭不食。青巾者笑,探手取愿盤中者,又食之。取腦骨,以短刀削之,如劈朽木,棄之于地。复云:“吾有術授子,能學之乎?”愿曰:“何術也?”曰:“吾能用點鐵為金。” 愿曰:“旗亭門有先子別業,日得一緡,數口之家,寒綿暑葛,日食膏鮮。自謂逾分,常恐召禍,安取學此?幸愛之。”青巾者嘆伏,曰:“如子,真知命者也!子當有壽。”乃出藥一粒,云:“服之,百鬼不近。”愿以酒服之。夜深乃散。后不复見焉。


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