This time for the Literati Corner, we’ll be finishing up our look at the Ping Yao Zhuan by Feng Menglong (冯梦龙的 “平妖傳”, my translation: The Demon Suppressing Tale.) Since it’s public domain, I’ll give you the links again. Here is the version in Chinese:
and here is an English language translation by Nathan Sturman:
When we left off last time in chapter 6, mother fox Holy Auntie went with her children Chu and Mei’r to a Taoist temple to get training in magic to protect her daughter Mei’r from a terrible fate. After leaving Chu to become a disciple at the temple, Holy Auntie and Mei’r head out for a Taoist nunnery where Mei’r is set to take her vows when a storm whips up. Holy Auntie has a dream during the storm where she meets Empress Wu Zetian, who is now the Devil Queen of Hell and also a fox spirit who is reincarnating this cycle as a man! Empress Wu is a very important Tang Dynasty ruler in China that needs a little more examination:
The women talk about reincarnation and Mei’r’s fate, which is bound up with We Zetian’s. I think this part is fairly confusing since it references a number of historical figures I‘ve never heard of, and Ming Dynasty novels tend to use reincarnation as a plot device in rather wild ways. If I understand this part correctly, the idea is that Hu Mei’r and Wu Zetian will both be reincarnated as other people, a man and a woman, in a future life and be destined to be together. That plotline comes up in the second half of the novel, which incorporates the old 13th century novel into this piece. Wu Zetian gives Holy Auntie a prophecy, and Holy Auntie wakes up at that point with the poem. She realizes her daughter Mei’r is gone.
Holy Auntie continues her pilgrimage to Mount Hua alone. After a passing palanquin brings up the name of Granny Yang to Holy Auntie, she curiously asks around for more information about who this figure is and discovers there is a devout couple, wealthy magistrate Yang Chun and his wife, whom Holy Auntie can go to for alms. So Holy Auntie dresses as a nun and goes to visit the Yangs for aid. When she arrives at their house, she hears that they have discontinued their almsgiving because of frauds taking advantage of them:
“Of course the Master and Lady took pleasure in supporting the many bonzes, wizards, novices and nuns who came by to preach sutras or charms. They lived in the rooms or camped on the grounds of the estate every day of the year, unlike now. And they were even given stipends for travel and clothes upon moving off. This here door was usually crowded with folks taking up collections for charity, not deserted and silent like now. It all started about a month ago when a nun, no older than forty, came up the road from the south. Now, she could chant moral verses about deeds and results, and as Granny Yang loves these Buddhist parables about the wages of good and evil more than anything else, the nun was a guest here for over half a month. But there were also fourteen or fifteen wandering monks who mostly faked the reading of the sutras. And among them were fast switch artists and pickpockets, and a few who were a bit fond of the flesh if you know what I mean.” He continued: “Well, our estate fed them on the one hand, while giving them cash and cloth. Who ever imagined that for the most part they were a gang of thieves, and the nun only an inside informer in cahoots with them who cased the house so they could carry off a number of things in a bold strongarm job!” (Ping Yao Zhuan, chapter 7, translated by Nathan Sturman)
Master Yang’s servant explains this situation to her and mentions a special holy book that a monk from Turkestan left that he is trying to read called the Golden Character Sutra, which is written in a strange writing they can’t decipher. She offers to read it herself if it is in Sanskrit. He scoffs, but then she offers to arrange an audience with the Puxian Bodhisattva. Flabbergasted, he agrees.
Here is a great profile on the Puxian Bodhisattva at Mt Emei in China with gorgeous photos:
Master Yang is informed of Holy Auntie’s offer, and at that moment Granny Yang rushes in saying she saw an apparition of the Puxian Bodhisattva, who was actually none other than Holy Auntie herself using her fox magic to deceive them:
“When I went into the courtyard to look at the pomegranate flowers I saw a five-colored lucky cloud to the southeast, coming this way. And in the cloud appeared a Bodhisattva so solemn and august looking in gold, pearl and jade necklaces and holding a treasure box, seated atop a white elephant. I knew in my heart it was an appearance of the Puxian Bodhisattva and I hurriedly fell to my knees in worship, but when I lifted my head she was gone. Tomorrow let’s call for her as she instructed, and if she comes give her the Sutra to read and see what happens. If she really were a disciple of the Puxian Bodhisattva she wouldn’t ever lie!” (Ping Yao Zhuan, chapter 7, translated by Nathan Sturman)
When Holy Auntie arrives disguised as a Taoist nun, they test her out, and she passes. They decide to keep her on in their household in order to listen to her religious lectures.
Meanwhile, the story starts to follow the plotline of a Buddhist monk who finds an egg and decides to try to see if it will hatch. He gets someone’s hen to sit on it, and the hen is found dead with a human infant hatching out of the egg. Alarmed at what has emerged from the egg, the monk buries it. Later, he finds it bursting out of the dirt, alive. Considering it ghostly, he tries to rebury it with even more piled on top so it can’t get out. Still, it rises out of the grave and disappears. When they find him, they decide a widowed old man who was childless should raise the delicate little boy. When the boy reaches one years of age, he shaves his head and joins them at the monastery, from then on called “Bonze Egg.”
By the time he turned 15, Bonze Egg developed a strong spiritual life and was very accomplished. He goes in search of sorcery charms to steal, and through a series of events, he crosses paths with Holy Auntie in chapter 11. His failure to retrieve the charms he sought leaves him dumbstruck after the copy he made disappears, leaving the scroll blank, and an old man suggests the charms will reappear on his scroll in the moonlight. He tries again. When the writing reappears, the scroll mentions Holy Auntie, but he doesn’t know who that is. He decides to find her by sitting next to the road with the words “Visit Holy Auntie” painted on his white fan. He finds out right away that she’s at the Yangs’ place:
“My surname’s Qin, like the first emperor, and I’ve got a single first name, Heng. Last year when I made a pilgrimage to Mt Hua over in Huayin County I overheard folks talking about her in the streets. They were saying that the county’s Deputy Magistrate Yang was sheltering a living Buddha in his home. ‘How do you reckon she’s a living Buddha?’ I asked them, and they told me that the Yangs had procured a Golden Sutra and nobody but Holy Auntie could read it. They said Deputy Yang respected and worshipped her like a God and kept her in the west garden of his estate. Folks from counties all around mobbed the place seeking to worship her as their teacher, and once there they had a lot of fun as well in all the general gaiety. Pretty soon though the crowds got bigger and bigger and they closed the place to outsiders. I’ve heard that as of now she’s been living there for over a year.”
“Aside from reading Sanskrit has she mastered any real magic powers?”
“I’ve heard there are some mysterious things about her. She can go a whole month without eating and not feel hunger. And she often meets with Bodhisattvas but ordinary folks aren’t allowed access to her. ” (Ping Yao Zhuan, chapter 11, translated by Nathan Sturman)
The Yangs are now back to their lavish almsgiving to throngs of Buddhists, and their house is bustling with people again as Holy Auntie is the center of attention:
“A crowd of slave girls and maids then appeared, ever so carefully carrying Holy Auntie, in her new clothes, out in front of the Buddha to offer incense and a blessing, with Deputy Yang following prayerfully. The musicians then emerged from the hall while Holy Auntie brazenly climbed onto the throne and seated herself. Deputy Yang then publicly proclaimed her to be his teacher and fell upon his knees before her. Among the masses gathered there some had worshipped her the previous year and others were new, but they all followed him in the spirit of the occasion and all kowtowed in unison to her while the old vixen just sat, solidly unmoving.“ (Ping Yao Zhuan, chapter 11, translated by Nathan Sturman)
Bonze Egg arrives in the midst of this and asks for an audience with the old fox, saying she saved him in a dream. This audience is granted, and they talk about the Golden Sutra text she had been reported to have read for them when no one else could. Bonze Egg shows her a page of his own mysterious writing of the charm that he collected, and after insisting upon seeing all of it, she reads him what she thinks it means. They end up talking about alchemy and transformations. He’s grateful for Holy Auntie’s teachings, though he feels threatened when she shows signs of true supernatural power, such as suddenly disappearing.
Finally, Holy Auntie delivers on her promise that the Yangs would have a visitation by the Puxian Bodhisattva. She arrives in the sky riding a white elephant in a spectacular apparition that stuns Master Yang and Bonze Egg.
Finally, Holy Auntie prepares a letter to be taken back to the Daoist temple where she left her son Chu to summon him to the Yangs’ place. He receives her letter, but he has to escape the troublesome priests there. In chapter 13, Chu is reunited with his mother in the Yang’s garden. They feel some consternation that Mei’r is not with them at their reunion. Holy Auntie introduces Chu to Bonze Egg, and the three of them get wrapped up in Bonze Egg’s alchemy charms and amulets:
“And so they carried on their fiery magic for one, then two, then three weeks, all with very little effect. Perhaps there was only a swish of a ghostly sword to be heard or a faint hue revealed from a passing gown. They weren’t yet getting the real spirits, just subordinate deities sent to check out the situation at the altar. But in the fourth and fifth weeks the real ghosts began to manifest themselves, sometimes half visible and sometimes whole in form, alone as well as riding in groups with others following. They appeared to be coming and going, without stopping in the hall…. Anyway, on this occasion the ghosts had been seized by the charms and were compelled to pass by the altar. Now, with hearts and minds totally concentrated upon meeting the spirits and eyes agleam with this purpose how come they still couldn’t see them properly? Well, the sole appearance of their parading back and forth was all due to the charms’ lack of complete effectiveness. But at the end of the seven weeks, right on the forty-ninth day, the legion of spirits appeared in full view right in that hall, all hands reporting for duty as ordered! Flanked all about by escorts there seemed to be a mighty sea of men and horses, not seeming in the least bit confined by the narrow worldly space of the chamber.” (Ping Yao Zhuan, chapter 13, translated by Nathan Sturman)
“At that point Holy Auntie tossed her head back, mumbled a few lines and spewed forth from her lips a fine mist that soon spread over everything. Quickly she swept her hands about, and everyplace they had been turned gold in their tracks. And before long that huge, heavy stone behind the building changed into a shining mountain of gold! Quezi then busied himself cutting out a paper tiger, reciting the lines of a magic charm onto the passing wind. “Come to life!” he shouted, and that paper tiger changed into a yellow spotted animal, snarling fiercely and no different from the real thing, bounding a couple of steps toward him.” (Ping Yao Zhuan, chapter 13, translated by Nathan Sturman)
They go totally wild with all of their newly found magical skill.
The text then returns to the Mei’r storyline in chapter 14, which I covered in the last post. Holy Auntie appears again after that, picking up with the old novel incorporated into Feng Menglong’s original work.
Next time on the Literati Corner, I will continue with this year’s fox theme by looking at Japan’s Noh drama, The Killing Stone.