This is a retelling of the story “Miss Abao; or Perseverance Rewarded” from Pu Songling’s 1740 collection of supernatural tales, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, as translated by Herbert Giles in 1880.
I love everything I’ve read so far. I’m not sure why this particular story got my attention, but it did. Enjoy.
In Guangxi Province there lived a poor but knowledgable scholar named Sun Zichu, who was born with a sixth finger on one of his hands. Like many academically or scholarly-minded people, Sun was a bit naive and bubble-headed about real life matters: he would believe any outrageous story that he heard. He was also very shy around women. Generally, he would run away when he encountered them, and if he couldn’t, he would blush like a pomegranate and beads of sweat would drip off him like he had fallen into a river. His friends found all this hilarious, and they nicknamed him “Silly Sun” behind his back.
In the same town where Sun lived, there was a wealthy merchant who wanted to find a husband for his beautiful daughter, Abao. Since she was both very beautiful and very rich, all the upper-class young men in the area came courting; but none of them were good enough for Abao’s parents.
“You should try for her, too,” Sun’s friends told him, jokingly. Sun really had no idea that his friends thought him so ridiculous, and he thought this was a great idea. So he sent a matchmaker to present his suit to Miss Abao’s parents (that was how it was done in those days). As a scholar, Sun had an excellent reputation, but he was also quite poor, and so the merchant and his wife rejected the suit. On the way out of the house, the matchmaker ran into Miss Abao herself.
“Tell him that if he cuts off his extra finger, I’ll marry him,” Miss Abao said, joking, of course. The matchmaker repeated this to Sun — who promptly took a chopper and whacked off his sixth finger. He bled so much from the wound that he nearly died, but when he recovered he sent the matchmaker back to Abao’s family to report that he had met Miss Abao’s condition.
Taken aback, Abao replied that she would marry him if he would cut the “Silly” from his name. Of course he didn’t know what she was talking about, and decided that she probably wasn’t as beautiful as everyone said, anyway, and who needed her? And that was that.
Until the next spring festival, that is, when Sun and his friends, while wandering around the festivities, saw Abao resting under a tree, surrounded by admirers. Sun stopped dead in his tracks and stared at Abao like an idiot; even when Abao got up to return home, Sun stood, unmoving. His friends couldn’t rouse him from his trance, so they pushed and prodded him home, assuming that he was just drunk.
But he didn’t wake up. When they shook him and called to him, he would only say in a drowsy voice that he was at Miss Abao’s house. After three days, his family and friends concluded that his spirit had left his body to follow Abao, and so they sent a magician to the merchant’s house to fetch back Sun’s spirit before Sun’s body died. The merchant was skeptical of the story, but he let the magician in. The magician found Sun’s spirit in Abao’s room. He trapped the spirit, then returned to Sun’s house.
As soon as the magician stepped through Sun’s door, Sun awoke. He was able to describe Abao’s room perfectly and in great detail. The story got back to Abao, and she couldn’t help feeling a little flattered at his devotion (though I would have also felt more than a little creeped-out at the idea of someone’s incorporeal spirit spying on me in my bedroom).
Sun missed Abao terribly, and thought about her constantly. About this time, the Sun family’s pet parrot died; Sun, seeing the body, wished that he were a parrot so that he could fly to Abao. Presto! The bird’s dead body came back to life and flew out the window, and Sun’s body collapsed.
The bird flew straight to Abao’s window; she was delighted at the sight and fed the parrot seeds, and tried to tie a string to its leg. “I am Sun Zichu!” the parrot told her (at least it was honest), and wouldn’t fly away even after Abao untied his leg. The parrot stuck to Abao day and night, and refused to be fed by anyone but her. Abao became very fond of her parrot, but she felt guilty about Sun the man, too. After three days, she sent a servant to inquire after the scholar. The servant returned and told her that Sun had been dead three days, though his heart was still warm.
“Poor Sun!” she said to her parrot. “If only you would come back to life, I would be yours forever!”
“You don’t really mean that?” said the parrot. “Of course I do,” said Abao.
The parrot sat silent, thinking. Abao slipped her shoes off for the evening, and the parrot grabbed one of them and flew out the window. She called for it to come back, but the bird was gone; after a moment’s thought she sent a servant to call at Sun’s house. The servant reported that the bird had flown into the house with an embroidered shoe, and dropped down dead. Sun immediately awoke and called for the shoe, saying that it was “a pledge from Miss Abao.”
Well, Abao really had meant what she said. She went to her mother and told her the whole story. At first, her parents wouldn’t approve the match — Sun was poor, remember — but Abao told them that she had pledged herself and wouldn’t marry anyone else. Eventually, her parents gave in. Abao’s father wanted Sun to come and live with them, but Abao wasn’t having any of it, on the grounds that a husband shouldn’t live with his in-laws (very sensible) and it would be even more humiliating because Sun was poor.
“I agreed to marry him,” she said, “and I will live in his humble house and eat his simple food with no complaints.” Good for her.
Abao had a dowry, so she and Sun were a little less poor than before. Sun had no head for managing a household, sticking only to his books; luckily Abao was pretty good at household business, so they lived comfortably and happily for three years, when Sun suddenly took ill and died.
Abao was heartbroken. She wouldn’t eat, she wouldn’t sleep, and one night, she hanged herself. Luckily, her maid found her in time to cut her down, but Abao still refused to eat. After three days, they held Sun’s funeral. In the middle of the ceremony, they heard a sigh come from inside the coffin. They opened it up and found Sun, alive.
Sun told them his soul had gone before The Great Judge, who had awarded Sun an official heavenly appointment as a reward for his virtuous life (Chinese heaven is apparently a great bureaucracy in the sky). As Sun was accepting his appointment, the Judge’s attendants came to report that Sun’s wife was on her way (this was when she tried to hang herself).
The Judge checked the register. “It’s not her time yet.”
His attendants reported that Abao refused to eat or sleep. As a reward for Abao’s devotion, the Judge decided to return Sun to life.
After his resurrection, Sun’s health improved, and the following year he went for his Master’s degree. His friends, as a joke, told him that they had an inside scoop on the examination subjects, and gave him seven obscure themes to study. Sun believed them, of course, and studied all the subjects he had been given, while his friends laughed behind his back.
It’s a good thing Sun had a great wife, because his friends were jerks.
As it happened, the examiners did suspect that the examination topics had been leaked, and so they changed the themes at the last minute — to exactly the ones Sun had studied. So Sun passed the exam at the top of the list. The next year he got his doctorate and was admitted to Hanlin Academy, the most prestigious appointment possible for a scholar.
And so everything went well for Sun and Abao. The story doesn’t say, but I’d like to think that they died together in their sleep, after a long and happy life.
And that’s how Silly Sun got married.