To the good people who have been making personal sacrifices out of consideration for our collective health during this pandemic: this story is for you.
Wang Mingxuan of South Willow Town was an itinerant peddler. They attended a few years of village school, but family poverty put an end to their education. In their free moments, they dreamed of scenes from their childhood schooldays.
Wang heard that their maternal cousin, who had been diligent in their studies, lacked the funds to travel to the regional civil service examination. Wang journeyed to the next town to give their cousin the 10 taels of silver that they had painstakingly saved. The grateful cousin promised to repay Wang tenfold should they pass the examination.
After Wang Mingxuan’s cousin set out for the examination site, Wang’s maternal aunt insisted that Wang stay for dinner. At dinnertime, the aunt and their husband asked after Wang’s pregnant wife. Wang said that their wife had been pregnant for nearly a year but had strangely not given birth. Their aunt and uncle offered some words of comfort.
Wang Mingxuan hurriedly left for home in the evening, The crescent moon was already high in the sky by the time they were halfway home. They went off the highway and took a shortcut, coming to a lonely hillock with many old graves. The night wind was howling. Another person might feel their skin crawl at this point, but Wang, who felt that they had lived life with a clear conscience, walked calmly and steadily in the night.
Suddenly, a white-bearded old man appeared before them, blocking the path. This green-faced old man held a wooden box in their hands. They did not appear to be a normal human. Wang Mingxuan wondered if this was a ghost.
They bowed to Wang. “Young man, can you write?”
Wang Mingxuan nodded. “I can read and write commonly-used characters.”
The old man seized Wang by the wrist. “Good! I have a pen here. Can you use the water of the nearby river to write 20,000 characters on this box before daybreak?”
Wang was bewildered. “Twenty thousand characters? Are you making a game of me, elder, seeing that I am traveling alone at night?”
Alarmed, the old man shook their head. “Absolutely not! There is no time to lose! No time!”
With that, the elder knelt down and bowed their head to the ground 3 times. “Young man, listen carefully! The box contains a deadly epidemic spirit. 60 years ago, a Taoist priest sealed it in this box, for this sort of vicious and powerful spirit cannot be destroyed. Every 60 years, it breaks forth from the box to spread disaster in the four directions. Many innocent county folk will fall sick!”
“It is now the Time of the Pig! After the Time of the Hare, the spirit of pestilence will enter the human world, unless someone writes the character ‘封’ “seal” 20,000 times on this box to bind it for another 60 years. I would write the words myself, but I am a shade who does not possess unbridled energy of righteousness. Even if I write 50,000 characters, they will be of no effect!”
The box shook repeatedly as if to bear witness to these words.
Dread rose in Wang Mingxuan’s heart – so this was indeed an encounter with a spirit. No, with two spirits. But the feeling of terror passed as quickly as it arose. They asked the old man. “Elder, you said so yourself that only a person of abundant righteous energy can stop this epidemic spirit. I am only an itinerant hawker. What grand righteousness do I possess? You think too highly of me.”
The old man said, “The proof lies in one’s actions. Over the last few days, I have already begged more than few people to help. Not a single passer-by was willing to assist me. Some fainted from fright before I could even speak to them.”
“As for those scholars on their way to take the civil service examination, those individuals who study the books of the sages to cultivate themselves and manage their households, every single one of them refused the task. They said that writing this many characters in a short time would damage their wrists and render them incapable of holding a pen when they take the civil service examination in the provincial capital. It was not just one or two who behaved thus, but the whole lot of them. Young man, I’m begging you! For the sake of the county folk, I bow to the ground before you! Saving lives is of the greatest importance. We have no time to waste!”
Wang Mingxuan pulled the old man to their feet. “When I was a student, I daydreamed about passing the examination, becoming a government official and doing good for the inhabitants of the land. Today, how could I miss this opportunity to be of service?”
They took the pen from the old man, sprinted to the river’s edge, dipped the brush in water and wrote a “seal” character quickly on the box. The clear water turned cinnabar red when it touched the surface of the box but disappeared when the character was completed. The box stopped shaking momentarily only to start rattling again.
Wang had to write 20,000 words in 6 hours. After a while, their wrist grew sore and their lower back started to hurt. Then sweat started running down their face, and their neck become stiff. As time went on, their legs became numb and their ears buzzed endlessly. Wang Mingxuan felt dizzy but they gritted their teeth and pressed on.
The old man stood by, counting. “One thousand, one thousand and one, two thousand…”
Time was of the essence. When Wang Mingxuan thought of the horrific consequences of an epidemic, they felt another rush of energy. They saw nothing else before them but their right hand writing as quickly as it could.
The hours passed like years. Finally, the old man said, “Enough! Enough!”
Wang’s hand continued to shake as the old man knelt before him. “I thank you on behalf of the county residents.”
Wang Mingxuan answered weakly, “Please rise! You are old enough to be my father. For you to kneel before me so casually would decrease my longevity!”
The old man spoke once more, “I committed a grave mistake while I was alive. As punishement, I was sentenced to guard the epidemic spirit at this location. Every day the bitter winds rake at my body like an iron comb. The days pass like years. In recent days, the spirit of pestilence revived. I asked every night traveler within a square mile for their aid, but you were the only one who agreed to help me. The situation was dire, but now that the spirit of pestilence has been re-sealed, the threat of an epidemic is no more.”
Wang Mingxuan was utterly exhausted. As they drifted off into unconsciousness, the old man’s voice faded. Wang might have heard the old man say something about completing their sentence and becoming eligible for reincarnation. The old man might also have said something about a large sum of gold and silver that they had saved in earlier times…
When Wang awoke in the wilderness, it was already daylight. Despite their trembling right hand, they struggled to their feet and hastened home to find that their wife had just given birth to a “big fat baby boy.” Wang suspected that the old man had reincarnated.
Before long, news came that Wang’s cousin did not pass the civil service examination. When the two met again, the cousin mentioned that they had run into a troublesome ghost that night. They blamed their failure on the encounter with that ghostly old man.
As for Wang Mingxuan’s son, they suddenly went missing the year that they turned three. Wang searched for 2 days before finding their beloved child in front of a hundred-year-old tree. The son refused to leave the spot, insisting that there was “something below”. Wang Mingxuan suddenly remembered the old man’s words. They dug a box from under the tree. It contained gold, silver and jade vessels worth tens of thousands of gold pieces.
The folktale 万字镇疫, available in various supernatural story collections on the Chinese internet.
Why we are using "they" instead of "she/he" as third person singular in this translation