Chinese Folktales

31. Help in Need

TWENTY miles east of Tsingchao is the Maiden Lake. It covers a few square miles. It is surrounded by thick clumps of green shrubs and by tall forests. Its water is clear and deep blue. Often all kinds of strange beasts are seen in it. The people of the region have built a temple there for the dragon princess and in times of drought they make a pilgrimage there to pray.

West of Tsingchao, 200 miles away, is another lake whose god is called Chao Na and can work many miracles. In the Tang period there was an official in Tsingchao by name of Chou Yao. During his term of office, it happened that, in the fifth month, the clouds suddenly rose, piled up one upon another like mountains, with dragons and serpents winding between them. The clouds drifted to and fro between the two lakes. There was a storm and a down-pour with thunder and lightning so that houses collapsed and trees were uprooted. Some people were killed and great damage was done to the crops. Chou Pao accepted responsibility and prayed to heaven for the people to be

On the fifth day of the sixth month he was sitting in his council chamber, dispensing justice. Suddenly he felt tired and sleepy. He took of his hat and lay on the cushions. No sooner had he closed his eyes than he saw a warrior standing on the steps Outside the hall, wearing helmet and armour and carrying a halberd. The Warrior reported: ‘There is a lady outside who desires to enter.’ Chou Pac asked him: ‘And Who are you?’ The man

replied: ‘l am your door-keeper. I have held this in the invisible world for many years.’ Just then two men in green came running up the steps, knelt before him and said: ‘Our mistress has arrived to visit you.’ Chou Pao rose to his feet. He saw before him delightful clouds from which a gentle rain trickled down, and an unfamiliar perfume captivated him. Then he saw a woman in a simple robe but of extraordinary beauty floating down from on high, with a retinue of many serving women. “They were all clean and neat and were in attendance on the lady as if she were a princess. As she entered the hall she raised her arm in salute. Chou Pao went forward to meet her and invited her to sit down. From all sides coloured clouds floated in and a purple mist filled the courtyard. Chou Pao ordered Wine and food to be served and entertained his guest most munificently. But the goddess sat there with furrowed brow, staring fixedly in front of her, and exceedingly sad. Then she rose to her feet, went close to him and said with a blush: ‘I have lived near here for many years. The injustice I have suffered induces me to overstep the bounds of propriety and lends me courage to put my request to you. Yet I know not whether you want to save me.’

‘May I hear what the trouble is?’ asked Chou Pao. ‘If I can help at all I shall be pleased to be at your disposal.’ The goddess said: ‘My family has been living in the depths of the eastern Sea for centuries. Then, to our misfortune, our riches aroused the envy of humans. so Pi-lo’s ancestor almost totally exterminated our tribe by fire. Our ancestors had to flee and go into hiding, and there could be no question of vengeance. A short while ago our enemy So Pi-lo himself tried to present an imperial letter at the cave of the Tungting Lake. On the pretext of

desiring pearls and treasure he tried to penetrate into the dragon castle and wipe out our tribe. Fortunately, a sage discovered his treacherous intent and prevented him from entering. Then Lo Tsi-chun and his brothers were sent out in his place. Our family feared that they might come to harm in the future and therefore moved to the far west. My father did a great deal for the human race and he is deeply revered among them. I am his ninth daughter. At the age of sixteen I was married to the youngest son of the rock dragon. My good husband had a hot temper and therefore frequently offended against good manners, and before had lived a year with him heaven’s punishment fell upon him. I was left alone and returned to my parents’ house. My father wanted to marry me off a second time, but wished to remain faithful to my husband and swore not to obey my father. My parents were angry and I had to leave home to escape their wrath. That was three years ago. Who would have thought that the common dragon Chao Na, who is seeking a wife for his youngest brother, would force a marriage gift upon me? refused to accept it, but Chao Na succeeded in gaining my father’s favour and was determined to have his way. My father, caring nothing for my wishes, promised me to him. Then the dragon Chao Na and his youngest brother came to carry me off by force of arms. I opposed him with my fifty faithful followers and we battled in the fields outside the city. We were defeated and fear that the rascal will now shame me so that I can never face my late husband again. That is why I plucked up my courage to implore you to lend me your soldiers so I can repel my enemies and preserve my widowhood. If you will help me I shall be grateful to you to the end of my days. ‘

Chou Pao replied: ‘You are of noble family—surely you must have relations who would hasten to your aid in your hour of need. Why do you have to turn to a mortal human?’

‘My tribe is indeed famous and numerous. If I sent word to them and they came to my help, then indeed they would crush that worm Chao Na just as one crushes garlic. But my late husband offended the heavens and he has not yet been pardoned. Moreover, I have opposed my parents’ wishes so that I cannot appeal to my own family for help. You will understand my desperate straits.’ There- upon Chou Pao promised her his help and the princess thanked him and departed.

When he awoke he sighed for a long time at the thought of his strange experience. The following day he dispatched fifteen hundred soldiers to keep watch along the Maiden lake.

On the seventh day of the sixth month Chou Pao rose early. It was still dark outside and it seemed to him that he saw a man standing outside the curtain. He asked him who he was. The man replied: ‘l am the Princess’s adviser. Yesterday you were good enough to send us soldiers to save us in our adversity. But these were all living humans. They cannot do battle with the invisible. You must send us dead soldiers—only then shall we prevail.’

Chou Pao reflected for a while and agreed: ‘Of course it must be so.’ He ordered his army scribe to scan the lists for those of his soldiers who had been killed in battle. These numbered two thousand foot troops and five hundred horsemen. He appointed a dead officer, Mëng Yüan, to be their commander, wrote his order on a piece of paper which he burnt, and in this manner made the troops available to the princess. He then recalled the living

soldiers. As he was inspecting them in his courtyard on their return one man suddenly collapsed unconscious. Not until the following morning did he recover. When he was questioned he reported ‘l saw a man in red robes advance towards me and address me as follows: “Our princess is grateful for your master’s kind help. Yet she has one more request—that is why I am instructed to call on you.” I followed him to the temple. The princess bade me advance and said to me: ‘l am sincerely grateful to your master for sending me his ghost soldiers. Only their commander Mëng Yüan is not efficient. Yesterday the raiders came with three thousand men and Mëng Yüan was defeated by them. When you return and see your master tell him please that I request him to send me a good commander. Then perhaps my troubles will be over.” Thereupon I was conducted back and recovered consciousness.’

When Chou Pao heard these words, which strangely tallied with his dream, he decided to make a test. He there- fore chose his victorious general Chong Fu to succeed Mëng Yüan. In the evening he burnt incense, poured a libation of wine and surrendered the general’s soul to the princess.

On the 26th of the month news came from the general’s camp that he had suddenly died at midnight on the 13th. Chou Pao was afraid and sent a man to look at the body. The man reported that the dead general’s heart was not yet cold. Moreover, in spite of the hot summer weather, the body was showing no traces of decomposition. Chou Pao therefore commanded that he should not be buried. One night an icy ghostly wind sprang up which whirled up the sand and stones, snapped trees and blew down houses. The crops in the fields were all flattened. It went on all day long. In the end there was a loud crash of

thunder, the sky cleared again and the clouds dispersed. At about the same time the dead general began to breathe again on his bed, with a rattle in his throat, and when his family came to look at him he had come to life again.

They asked him What had happened and he told them: ‘First I saw a man in purple robe on a black horse arriving with a great retinue. He dismounted at my door. In his hand he held a letter of appointment which he presented to me with these words; “Our princess requests you respectfully to become her general. I trust you will not refuse.” Then he produced gifts and piled them up on the steps—jasper, brocade and silken clothes, saddles, horses, helmets and armour. I wanted to decline but he would not accept a refusal and urged me to get into a carriage. We drove for a hundred miles when a troop of three hundred armoured horsemen caught up with us. They escorted us to a great city. Outside the city a tent had been set up with a band playing in it. A high official served me a cup of wine as a welcome. When I entered the city there was a solid wall of onlookers. Servants ran to and fro carrying orders. We must have passed through a dozen gates before we reached the castle. There I was asked to get out and change my clothes in order to meet the princess, the princess wanted to receive me as her guest. I considered this too much honour and saluted her from the bottom of the stairs. But she invited me to sit down with her in the hall. She sat upright, in incomparable beauty, surrounded by servant women with painted faces and rich jewellery. They were plucking strings and playing flutes. A host of servants were standing around, with golden belts and purple tassels, awaiting orders. Vast throngs were standing outside the palace. Five or six ladies were sitting in a circle around the princess as I was conducted to my place by a general. The princess addressed me as follows: “I have asked you here to entrust you with the command of my army. If you break my enemy’s strength I shall richly reward you.” I pledged my obedience. Thereupon wine was brought in and the meal served to the strains of music. While we were at table a messenger arrived. “The robber Chao Na has invaded our country with ten thousand men on foot and on horseback. He is approaching our city by various roads. His advance is marked by smoke and columns of fire.” The guests all went pale with fright when they heard the news. And the princess said: ‘Is the enemy who made me turn to you. Save me from my distress!” She then gave me two warhorses, a golden suit of armour and the insignia of a general and bowed to me. I left her gratefully, summoned the commanders, ordered the army to line up and moved Out of the city. At a few key-points I placed my troops in an ambush. Already the enemy was approaching in great strength, carefree and unconcerned, intoxicated with his earlier victories. I first sent forward the least good of my soldiers, who allowed themselves to be beaten in order to draw the enemy in. He was next engaged by lightly-armed men who fell back skirmishing. In this way he was caught in the ambush. Gongs and drums sounded at the game time and from all sides the ring closed round him. The army of the invaders suffered a great defeat. Their dead littered the ground like hemp stalks, but the small Chao Na succeeded in slipping through. I ordered my light cavalry to pursue him and he was captured in front of his generals’ tents. I hastened to send a report to the princess. I reviewed the prisoners outside her palace. All the people, noble and humble, came to congratulate her. Chao Na Was to be executed in the market-place. But suddenly a mounted

messenger arrived with an order from the princess’s father that Chao Na should be pardoned. The princess dared not refuse obedience. So he was sent back to his own country, having first been made to forswear all evil intentions. I was showered with favours for my victory and given an estate with three thousand peasants. I received a palace, carriages and horses, all kinds of jewels, men and women servants, gardens and forests. flags and suits of armour. And the unit commanders were all rewarded according to merit. The following day a banquet was given which was attended also by the noble ladies staying with the princess. Drinking went on until late at night. The princess with her own hand filled her precious cup, ordered a maid- servant to carry it over to me, and said to me: “Widowed at an early age, I opposed the will of my strict father and fled from him to this place. Here I was hard pressed by that rascal Chao Na and was about to suffer humiliation and shame at his hands. But for your master’s great kindness and your own bravery I should have shared the fate of that princess who, married against her will, remained silent to the end of her life.” She then began to thank me and tears of emotion rolled down her cheeks. I bowed to her and requested some leave to look after my family. I was granted month. The following day I was dismissed with a great entourage. A pavilion had been set up outside the city where I was offered a parting drink. Thus I rode away, and as I reached our gate there was a thunder clap and I awoke.’

The general thereupon wrote a report to Chou Pao, conveying to him the princess’s thanks. From then onwards he no longer concerned himself with the affairs of the world but set his house in order and made it over to his wife and his son. When the month was up he died without having been ill.

On that day one of his officers was travelling on the road. Suddenly he saw a thick cloud of dust swirling up and flags and banners darkening the sun. A thousand horsemen were escorting a man who sat in his saddle proudly and heroically. When he saw his face he recognized the general Chong Fu. Hurriedly he stepped to the edge of the road to make way for the procession. They galloped towards the Maiden Lake, where they vanished.

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