Posts Tagged ‘Portraits of Thirty-three Swordsmen


Portraits of Thirty-three Swordsmen – 31 Xia wife

No. 31 Xia wife: no need for [offering of] gold, when there is this robe.

Dong Guodu, formal name Yuanqing, of Jiangxi province, passed the national exams in the sixth year of Song emperor Huizong, and became Jiaoshui (in Shandong province) county governor’s secretary. Upon Jin army’s incursion south, he stayed at his post by himself, while his family remained in Jiangxi. After the central plains fell to the Jin army, he became stranded. Abandoning his post, he sought refuge in the neighboring countryside. He became good friends with his landlord who, sympathetic toward his situation, arranged the purchase of a concubine for him.

It’s not clear where that concubine is from, but she is smart as well as beautiful. Seeing Dong’s financial straits, she started to plan a way out. She used the entire savings to purchase donkeys and wheat. She would mill the wheat using the donkeys, then every couple of days, would ride the donkey into the city to sell the flours, returning in the evening with money. Three years passed like this, a lot of money was earned, enough to purchase house and land.

Never less, separated from his mother, wife, and two sons, with all communications cut off, Dong was often melancholic, rarely joyful. Over the years the concubine often asked him reasons for his poor mood, now he told her everything: “I was actually a Song official, my whole family is in the south, I alone am drifting outside, not sure when I would return. My heart breaks every time I think about this.” The concubine replied “why didn’t you say so earlier. I have an older brother who loves to help people. He will arrive soon, and we can ask him for help.”

In ten days or so, a tall man with big curly beards showed up. He rode in on a tall horse, trailed by ten or so carriages. The concubine said “Here he is, my older brother has arrived!” She rushed out to greet the man, and introduced him to Dong. The three of them drank until deep into the night. Only then did the concubine brought up the issue of returning to the south.

But now Dong started to become afraid. At this time there was a standing order by the Jin government, anyone who was a Song official must volunteer his status. If it was revealed by others, he would be put to death. Afraid to let this secret come out, Dong started to deny he was a Song official. The curly bearded man started to become angry, but held it in check “You and my younger sister had been a couple several years now. You are like my flesh-and-blood now. This is why I’m willing to risk my life to help you return south. If you’re discovered, I would be in trouble because of you. Seeing how you are behaving now, how can I be sure you won’t betray me when we encounter trouble? Here, hand over the official order for you assignment as collateral, otherwise I will turn you over first thing in the morning.” Dong, becoming even more afraid, thinking he would be dead no matter what he does, handed over the document. After the curly bearded man was gone, he spent the rest of the night in tears, panicking, not knowing what to do, what to expect.

Early next morning, the bearded man showed up with an additional horse, telling Dong “Let’s go.” Surprised and overjoyed, Dong rushed back inside to get the concubine. But she said to him “I have some urgent matters that I must take care off, I can’t leave just yet, I shall come looking for you next year. I’ve sewn a quilted robe for you. I wear it and go with older brother. When you arrive in the south, my brother will attempt to give you money, perhaps in the hundreds of thousands, but you must refuse it no matter what. If he persists, hold up this robe and show it to him. The reason for this is I’ve done a big favor for him before. Escorting you back to the south by itself is not enough to return that favor. If he accepted his money, he’d think we’re even and he won’t bother helping me come over as well. So be careful, take care not to lose this robe.”

Dong was stunned, all of this is just too bizarre. Afraid to draw the curiosity of neighbors, he hastily bid his concubine a teary farewell. They sped to the coastline, where a large ship is about to leave. The bearded man ordered Dong to board immediately, and bid farewell himself. The ship immediately sailed south.

Alone on his journey, with hardly any money on him, Dong felt awkward. However everyone on the ship was extremely courteous toward him, offering him food, drink, everything he needed. Yet no one asked a word about his destination.

Several days later, the ship arrived in the Song territory. When they docked, the bearded man was already waiting by the bank. He took Dong to a restaurant to celebrate his arrival, where he offered Dong twenty ounces of gold. Remembering what the concubine told him, Dong firmly declined. The bearded man was equally firm: “You arrive home with empty pockets. What are you planning to do, have your wife and children starve together with you?!” With that said, he got up and left. Dong chased him down outside, and held up the quilted robe. Staring at the robe, the bearded man was astonished, but he quickly recovered and laughed, “Sigh, she is indeed smarter than me. Looks like my work is not done yet. I will escort your beauty back here next year.” With that, he turned around and left.

Upon returning home, Dong Guodu found everyone to be fine. They spent much time talking about what had transpired since the separation. At one point Dong’s wife held up the robe to examine it closely, and saw yellowish light dimly emanating from it. Upon taking it apart, they saw there’s a gold leaf inside each quilted patch.

After settling things at home, Dong reported back to the central government, where he received a promotion as a county level junior military officer. In the second year of his return, the big curly bearded man brought over his beloved concubine as promised. The two of them lived together to happy old age.








Portraits of Thirty-three Swordsmen – 32 Xie Xun’s Concubine

No. 32 Xie Xun’s Concubine: should have just left, why harm others, jealousy is reproachable*.

Xie Qian and his younger brother Xie Xun have always loved each other. During the Jing Kang Incident, Xie Qian was stationed in Hubei province, and became a highly decorated general. Meanwhile, Xie Xun was trapped in the occupied northern territories. His wife had attempted to return to her mother’s home in the south, but was abducted by the defeated army midway. Separated from wife and family, Xie Xun was poor, miserable, and alone. Later, through introduction, he took a concubine who brought a lot of money with her. Only then did Jie Xun’s start having good days in his life again.

Still, Xie Xun missed his wife. One year, during the Chong Yang Festival, he was thinking about his wife, and tears started to stream down his face. Seeing this, the concubine was moved, and decided to help him return south, even saying “if your formal wife is still alive, I would gladly offer half of my dowry to her.” She was extraordinarily capable: planning and arranging every detail of the journey, passing through each checkpoint without incident, and overcoming all manners of obstacles and difficulties on land as well as on water.

Ecstatic upon reuniting with his beloved younger brother, in addition to a new residence, Xie Qian offer Xun four young servant girls. Thinking the concubine would object, Xun initial instinct was to decline. But the concubine advised otherwise: “We really need them right now, and should count ourselves lucky. If you like we could raise them as our children. So why refuse?” Soon however, Jie Xun, being a man still in his physical prime, started to drift away and neglect the concubine, and shift his affection and attention to the new, younger girls.

One day, while drinking with the concubine, they started arguing. The concubine accused him “when you were stranded in the north, you didn’t know where your next meal would come from. If not for me, most likely you would’ve been starved to death by now. But as soon as fortunes changed, you forgot all about past kindness and righteous conduct, such is not the behavior of a real man!” Xie Xun, shouting back, started to punch the concubine. The concubine just sneered, neither saying anything nor doing anything to physically defend herself. Meanwhile, Jie Xun continued with his angry tirade and wild punches. Then suddenly, the concubine stood up, all the lamps went out at the same moment, an oppressive chill struck the bodies of all who stood around. The four servant girls, terrified, all fell helplessly to the floor.

A long time passed before someone dared to light the candles. They can see Xie Xun’s body on the ground, separated from his head. The concubine is gone without a trace.

General Xie Qian, shocked by the report of his brother’s sudden death, immediately sent 3,000 of his elite troops after the concubine. They found nothing.

Notes and commentary
* Ren Xong’s attitude is typical of his time, that in a situation like this, the discarded woman should just leave. In a society where polygamy was the norm, jealousy was deemed a vice unbecoming of a good women.


解潛与其弟洵,素相友愛。建炎、靖康之際,潛積軍功,帥湖南。洵獨陷北境。其妻歸母家,又為潰兵所惊。數年后,為間關得歸。見潛,相持悲慟,潛置酒勞苦,而語之曰:“吾弟雖不幸流落。而兄幸蒙國恩,握兵權。每与虜及群盜戰,奏功于朝,必為弟審名籍中,已至正使,誥命皆在此。”即畀之。洵再拜謝過望,因言: “頃自汴都過河朔,孤單羈困,或見怜,為娶婦,奩裝丰厚,不暇深詳其出處。正無以為活,殊用自慰。偶以重陽日把盞,起故妻之思,不覺墮淚。婦惻然曰:“君豈非欲本朝乎?茲事易辦也。經旬日來告曰:“川陸之計已具,惟命是從。我亦俱行。倘君夫人固存,自當家嫁而分囊橐之半;万一捐館,當為偕老。”遂登途,水宿山行,防閑營護,皆此婦力也。今在舟中,未敢輒參謁。”潘嗟异,途命車招迎。見其眉宇秀茹,言詞明慧,益加敬重。



Portraits of Thirty-three Swordsmen – 20 Old man on Weiyang River street

No. 20 Old man on Weiyang River street: not going to kill Yongzhi, order [him] to return your wife.

Lu Yongzhi worked under King of Bohai Gao Pian in Weiyang. He was a corrupting influence on the political scene, wielding his powers however he liked, bullying and oppressing people with his secret police.

In the Fourth Year of Zhong He, a merchant named Liu Sun arrived in Weiyang on a huge ship, bringing along his family and many treasures. It was not long when Lu Yongzhi was informed about all of this by his secret police. They told him the merchant’s wife had a beauty rare in this world. So Lu had the merchant thrown in jail on some trumped up charges, and took his wife as well the merchandise.

Lu eventually managed to bribe his way out of jail, but his wife was taken away from him by force by another man, he could not help but be angry and sad. He wrote three poems about it*. After writing them, he often sat by himself, humming those lines.

One night, while starring out the window of the boat, he saw a curly-bearded old man on the street by river. His walked at a brisk pace, spirit strong but reserved, eyes bright as lightening, his skin light and translucent as that of snow and ice. Sensing something unusual, Liu took a couple more glances at him. The old man jumped aboard. Bowing, he inquired “What injustice is troubling you sir, why do you look so angry and sad?” So Liu told him everything. The old man said “I will get your wife and merchandise back tonight. However, as soon as they’re back, you must leave immediately. This is dangerous ground, you cannot stay.”

Liu guessed the old man must be a xia with unusual abilities. He bowed down right away: “Sir, if you can right wrongs in this mortal world, why not eliminate the root of evil, why let him live and carryout more lawless acts?” The old man replied: “Lu Yongzhi oppresses the people, and he took away your wife by force. It wouldn’t be hard to kill him, it take but one swipe of the sword. However, his crimes are too great; incurring the great wrath of both gods and men, that would be letting him off easy. As his crimes pile up, so are the karmic retributions. He will not be able to keep his head to his body, dooming not just his own fate but that of his ancestors as well. Right now I will only help you get your wife back; as to his fate, the gods will take care of that, I dare not interfere in that with my hands.”

The old man went to Lu Yongzhi’s house, secreted himself on top of the ceiling arch and shouted “Lu Yongzhi! You betrayed your emperor and your father, acting as a force of demonic evil in this world, raping and pillaging, bullying and oppressing. Your crime stinks to high heavens. The Lord of Underworld has recorded every one of these crimes, the gods have already ordered your punishment. Death is but breaths away, while you still dream of eternal life through alchemy. I’ve been sent to observe you, to report back to the Celestial Emperor. You must answer for every one of your crimes, starting with the latest one: release Lu Sun’s wife and properties right away, if you hesitate out of greed, the executioner’s sword will shall immediately!”

The old man then flew out of the house and disappeared.

Lu Yongzhi, only hearing the voice from midair and not seeing anyone, thought it really was a warning from heaven. Panicking, he lit incense for the altar, praying and koutouing countless times. That night he released Lu Sun’s wife and properties.

Ecstatic, Lu left Yang Zhou before dawn. The curly-bearded old man disappeared as well.

Notes and commentary
* So far I have done a word by word literal translation of these tales. But these three poems are very bad, and as Jin Yong said “very low level, but befitting Liu’s station”. Since this is only for my amusement, I won’t bother translating these.

According to historical records, the real person’s name is Huang Sun, not Liu Sun. And he was engaged to the girl, not yet married. However, she was rescued in a manner similar to one described here, except not by a bearded old man, but by an foreign Buddhist priest.

As for Lu Yongzhi, decapitation was too good for him. When Yang Xingmi (Zhang Xun‘s superior) conquered the city, he executed Lu slowly by cutting him off at the waist. His many innocent victims then ‘chopped up his body until it was reduced to meat sauce’. Lu Yongzhi felt for the trick here because he was just like his boss Gao Pian, extremely superstitious and fearful of death. Both of them in their later years focused their time and energy primary on achieving immortality, their neglect and indifference to the people eventually caused their premature deaths.






Portraits of Thirty-three Swordsmen – 10 Jing Shisan Niang

No. 10 Jing Shisan Niang: adores Zhongli, despises Zhuge.

End of Tang Dynasty, Zhejiang Wen Zhou, there was a jinshi named Zhao Zhongli who was righteous, generous, and gregarious. One time when he stayed at the Zhi Shan’s Chan temple, he met a female merchant named Jing Shisan Niang*. She was performing rites for her deceased husband. She felt in love with Zhao, and they simply started living with him as husband and wife.

The two of them traveled to Yang Zhou together. Zhao was very generous toward friends, he spent a considerable amount of Jing Shisan Niang’s treasures. Shisan Niang adored him, and did not mind it at all.

Zhao had a friend named Li Zhenglang in Yang Zhou. Li’s 39th brother met and fell in love with a prostitute. The prostitute’s parents, who loved only money, forced them apart and gave her to Zhuge Duan instead.

At this time Yang Zhou was under the control of general Gao Pian. The general was extremely superstitious, his favorite advisers were alchemist charlatans like Lu Yongzhi and Zhuge Duan. Afraid of bullying from Zhuge Duan, Li’s younger brother could only grieve in private. One time by chance the young man confided in Jing Shisan Niang. She told him: “This is but a trivial matter. No need to worry about it any further, I will take care of everything. Just cross the river, and wait for me by the Beigu mountain in Ren Zhou on June 6th at noon time.”

The young man waited at the foot of the mountain as instructed on that day, and he saw Jing Shisan Niang arriving with a huge sack on her back. Opening the sack, Li’s beloved prostitute jumped out. There were also two heads in the bag, those belonged to her parents.

Afterwards Jing Shisan Niang and Zhao Lizhong went back to Zhejiang together. After that [we] don’t know anymore.

Notes and commentary
* Jing Shisan Niang: Jing: family name. Shisan: thirteen. Niang: woman. So she’s the thirteenth girl in her family.

This tale is from the same book as the previous tale No. 15 Scholar Ding.






Portraits of Thirty-three Swordsmen – 15 Scholar Ding

No. 15 Scholar Ding: coming in during a snowy night, let’s have a drink.

Lang Zhou daoist Luo Shaowei for a time stayed at Ziyan Temple on Mao mountain. There was a scholar1 named Ding also staying there. Other than his lack of interest in pursuing government positions, Ding did not really stand out from the ordinary by words or actions. By now Ding had stayed at the temple for several years, the chief priest has always been courteous toward him.

One night in the middle of the winter, several daoist priests and Ding sat around the stove chatting. Everyone agreed, on a cold night such as this, there would be no greater joy if they could be enjoying some lamb2 and wine. Some people were practically salivating. Ding said “That’s not so difficult.” But trapped on top of mountain by snow, where could one find such delicacies? The daoists all thought he was joking. But Ding was already getting up and leaving.

By midnight the scholar returned, covered entirely in snow. But in his hands were a big silver wine jar and one fully cooked lamb. “It’s from a big chef’s kitchen in Zhejiang” he said. Surprised and delighted, the daoists laughed and clapped. Ding took out a long sword, threw it in the air, and leapt away, leaving the silver jar behind on the table. No one had seen him since. The chief priest was afraid of any possible official investigation stemming from this, so he voluntarily reported the incident to the local authorities.

This story appeared in Sun Guangxian’s book “Trivial words of Northern Dreams”. At the end of that entry, he wondered: “in the poem ‘Xia Ke’, the poet monk Guangxiu had the following lines ‘at dusk the wind and rain felt like chime stone [weighing down on the body], bidding me farewell where would [you] be going?’ Perhaps the monk was inspired by a similar incident he heard about in the Jianghuai area?”

1 The original word here is xiu cai 秀才, meaning a scholar who passed the lowest level of national civil service examination.

2 Chinese custom: it is believed that lamb stores a great deal of heat (calories really). So it’s the ideal food for winter.






Portraits of Thirty-three Swordsmen – 22 Li Sheng

No. 22 Li Sheng: killing [him] would not be an act of courage, just make him afraid.

Scholar Li Sheng often travelled around the western mountains of Hong Zhou. On one snowy night, he was drinking with scholar Lu Qi and five or six of his friends when one person had a random comment: “with snow coming down like this, one could not go out.” Li Sheng replied “What do you want, I can go.” The person said: “I have some books in Xingzi, can you get them for me?” Li Sheng said “yes” and left. He returned with the books before the party started dispersing. Xingzi is more than 300 Li (1 Li = 0.5 km) away.

A daoist priest at Youwei Temple was often rude to Li Sheng. Li said to himself “I can’t kill him, I will just make him afraid.” One day, the daoist was sleeping behind closed doors. Li Sheng asked a young servant to knock on the daoist door and retrieve Li’s dagger. When the daoist rose [to answer the door], he saw that the dagger was stuck in front of his bed, the handle still vibrating. From then on he changed his attitude and was always courteous to Li.

* The original word here is chǔ Shi 處士, meaning a scholar who is not an official.





Portraits of Thirty-three Swordsmen – 33 Jiao Jin Daoist

No. 33 Jiao Jin* Daoist: a drink would be sufficient, [as I] have no attachments.

Capital city, there was a man named Guo Lun, one time he took his family sightseeing on New Year’s Eve. They came home late. When passing through a run-down, out-of-way street, there ran across ten or so vicious youth. They were carousing loudly, unconcerned with other people’s need for peace and quiet. When they saw how attractive Guo Lun’s wife is, they started harassing her. Guo, knowing he does not have the strength to stop all of them, became anxious and embarrassed.

Right at this moment, a daoist dressed in black cloth and pointy cornered hat suddenly appeared: “this man is trying to escort his family home safely late at night, do not make trouble for them.” The punks shouted back: “We’re having our fun here, mind your own business!” They surrounded the daoist, trying to start something. The women took this opportunity to make their escape, only Guo Lun remained behind.

The daoist, unable to reason with the youths, shouted: “If you really want to engage in such wild indecent behavior, then I will oblige you with a lesson.” Swinging his arms, he started fighting with the youths. It was all very effortless, like a grown man fighting with infants. Very soon, all the youths were either on the ground moaning or fleeing the scene.

The daoist started walking away slowly. Guo Lun ran up to him to thank him “We’ve never met, but thanks to your help, my wife is safe. How can I ever repay you?” The daoist replied “I didn’t set out to do any good deeds. I saw injustice and merely reacted. I want nothing of the world, so I had expect nothing from you. That said, a drink would be sufficient.”

Upon hearing that, Guo Lun happily invited the daoist to his house for a drink. After drinking to his heart’s content, the daoist bid farewell. “Where are you going?” Guo Lun asked. “I am swordsman, not of this conventional world” was the daoist’s only reply. He bowed and left. A few steps out of the door, a sword popped out of the daoist ear; he hopped onto the sword and disappeared in the night sky.

Notes and Commentary:
* Jiao Jin is a type of hat with pointy corners. It was often worn by hermits.

In Chinese literature, Bai Bi 敗筆, literally unsuccessful brush stroke (like a mishit in tennis), means one mistake, especially near the end, that drastically reduced the overall achievement of the flawless performance so far. Here, the part about the daoist flying away on top of his sword is one such example, much like the reincarnation bit in Hong Xian.


京師人郭倫,元夕攜家觀燈。歸差晚,過委巷,值惡少年十輩行歌而前,聯袂喧笑,睢盱窺伺,將遮侮之。倫度力不能胜,窘甚。忽有青衣角巾道人來,責眾曰: “彼家眷夜歸,若輩那得無禮!”眾怒目:“我輩作戲,何預爾狂道事!”哄起攻之,婦女得乘間引去,倫獨留。道從勃然曰:“果欲施狂暴耶?吾今治汝矣!”揮臂縱擊,如搏嬰儿,頃之,皆顛仆哀叫,相率而遁。


January 2020
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