My great-grandfather was named Hu Guohua. The Hu family were landlords of no small repute: in their glory days, they owned over forty houses across a block of three city streets. The Hus counted government officials and merchants amongst their number, and in the early Qing dynasty, they even had a hand in managing the logistics of the army’s food supplies.

But, as the saying goes, wealth never survives past the third generation. There’s quite some truth in this: no matter how a family’s coffers may overflow with gold and silver, they won’t withstand the extravagances of a prodigal son.

In the Republican era, when my great-grandfather came of age, the Hu family’s fortunes took a downturn, and they broke up their estate1. Hu Guohua was left with a considerable sum, more than enough to keep a prudent man clothed and fed for life. But, due in part to the social circumstances of the time, Hu Guohua was not a prudent man. He lost himself in gambling, and soon after, opium as well. It was not long before his vast fortunes ran dry.

The young Hu Guohua indulged himself in every vice there was — feasting, drinking, gambling, smoking and whoring — and wound up without a penny to his name. By that time, he had developed a severe addiction to opium, the pangs of which were soon too much to bear; but without money, no one was willing to give him another fix. Back in his wealthier days, the proprietors of the opium dens had practically fallen over themselves attending to his every need. Once his wealth ran out, however, they saw him as nothing more than a beggar, and they chased him out as quickly as they had first welcomed him in.

When poverty drives men to desperation, the concepts of honor and shame mean nothing to them. It was under just such conditions that Hu Guohua hatched a plot: he would seek his uncle and swindle some money out of the old man. His uncle knew of his predilection for the pipe, and under normal circumstances wouldn’t have deigned to give his nephew even a cent. This time, though, the younger Hu told his uncle that he intended to take a wife, and asked him to supply some funds for the occasion.

Hearing this, the old man’s wrinkled eyes welled up with tears: his unruly nephew had found his way onto the right path after all. If the boy were to find an upstanding housewife who could restrain his less scrupulous proclivities, perhaps he’d leave his old ways behind for good.

Hu Guohua’s uncle sent him off with twenty silver dollars2 and kind wishes for he and his bride-to-be, entreating him never again to dirty his hands with the corrupting influence of opium. In a few days, he said, he’d pay his nephew a visit and see his new niece-in-law for himself.

Always scheming as he was, Hu Guohua set to work preparing for his uncle’s impending visit. After he returned home, he took a trip into the village and sought out a craftsman who specialized in making the sort of human- and animal-shaped paper dolls that at the time were often burned in ritual offerings to the dead. The old master’s handiwork was exquisite: whatever his clients described, he could replicate with lifelike precision.

At Hu Guohua’s request, the craftsman built a life-sized paper doll in the shape of a woman, using watercolor paints to give it clothes, hair, and facial features. From a distance, the finished product looked remarkably human.

Hu Guohua carried the doll home, lay it down on his bed3 and drew the covers up over it; he knew exactly how the rest of his plan would unfold. He had only to wait a few days for his uncle to arrive, and thereupon he’d explain that his wife had fallen ill and was presently lying in bed, not in any state to receive visitors; he’d only allow his uncle a quick glance from afar. Hu Guohua, at this point quite pleased with himself, couldn’t help but hum a little tune as he strolled off into the city, heading once more for the opium den.

His uncle came to call not long after, bringing with him some pastries and embroidered cloth as gifts for his newly-married nephew. With all the precision of a well-rehearsed performance, Hu Guohua rattled off a litany of excuses, saying that his wife was unwell and not be disturbed. He led his uncle up to the bedroom doorway and drew aside the curtain4 for just long enough to catch a glimpse inside, but the old man would have none of it.

“You little whelp, so this is how you treat your own uncle, eh? That does it, I’ll see this new wife of yours this very day whether you like it or not! Why, if she really is sick, I’ll pay for a doctor out of my very own pocket!”

Hu Guohua tried desperately to stop his uncle’s advance, but this only served to arouse the latter’s suspicion, and the two descended into a heated argument. Suddenly, the curtain was drawn open from inside, revealing the unmistakable figure of a woman — a round, pale face, shapely buttocks, and a pair of dainty feet.

Hu Guohua’s heart leapt in his throat. Good God, he thought, the doll — alive? How could it be?

The woman bowed respectfully. “My deepest apologies for not coming out to welcome you earlier,” she said. “I hope you’ll forgive my lack of manners. I’ve been feeling out of sorts today, but now I suddenly feel a great deal better. Why don’t you stay a while? I’ll make us all a quick meal.” Almost before the words were out of her mouth, she turned around and headed into the kitchen.

At this, Hu Guohua’s uncle was elated almost beyond words. This nephew of mine really has found the perfect housewife, he thought, the kind of woman who’ll bring her husband good fortune for life!5 If only his mother could see this, how happy she’d be… The old man, now beaming with joy, handed his nephew another ten silver dollars. Hu Guohua himself sat stupefied, his heart pounding in his chest. He hardly knew whether to rejoice or to panic.

Time passed quickly, and night soon fell. The paper doll piled the dinner table high with food, Hu Guohua’s uncle gushing with praise all the while. The younger Hu had no appetite to speak of as he stared at the woman sitting across the table. A feeling of disgust welled up in his throat, as if he’d just swallowed a fly. Her face was pale white, completely bloodless, its ruddy complexion owing only to the layer of rouge painted on by the craftsman.

His uncle’s eyesight wasn’t what it used to be, and the old man took no notice of the woman’s strange appearance. After his uncle had had enough wine to render himself well and truly incapacitated, Hu Guohua borrowed a carriage and drove him back home.

Hu Guohua’s terror only increased on the road home, and he ultimately decided entirely against returning. He spent the night in a house of ill repute, reveling in the pleasures of the flesh amidst a haze of opium, and had soon squandered the entire sum his uncle had given him. Having once again outspent his means, Hu Guohua was chased out, and with nowhere left to go, he steeled himself and headed home.

By the time he returned, the house was pitch black. The paper doll lay on his bed with the covers drawn up over it, almost as if everything he had witnessed the previous night had never occurred.

If I leave her here, Hu Guohua thought, she might well come alive again tomorrow night, and what would I do then? No, better to burn that thing away this instant.

He carried the doll into the courtyard and drew a match6 out of his pocket, but before he could set the flame against it, it began to speak once more.

“You haven’t a damn shred of conscience, do you? I helped you out of the goodness of my heart, and here you are, about to incinerate me in return.”

Hu Guohua recoiled in terror. In the dead of night, all he heard was the paper woman’s voice as she went on. “Oh, poor thing. Even if you do live a life of debauchery, you’re not really bad at heart. What do you say we get married?”

Hu Guohua shook his head as if his life depended on it. “What the hell are you? A demon? A ghost?”

“A ghost, of course — I’ve simply bound myself to this paper doll for the moment, that’s all. Be that as it may, someone as poor as yourself can hardly afford to pass up an opportunity like me. I was loaded when I was alive, you know. The gold and silver buried with me would be enough to keep that opium pipe of yours burning bright for ten lives in a row. Haven’t you heard the saying, “a rich ghost is better than a hundred living paupers?”

Hu Guohua couldn’t help but perk up a bit at the mention of money. He was so badly off at this point that he’d quite literally sold the clothes off his back. On the other hand, he certainly didn’t want to risk his life for riches only to die before he could spend them. He had heard the old folk tell of ghostly maidens tempting men, sapping their life force7 until only dessicated skeletons remained.

With this in mind, he told the doll as carefully as he could, “Even if you’re really doing this out of kindness, there’s no way we could marry. After all, I’m a human, you’re a ghost; your Yin and my Yang just wouldn’t mix. It would be blasphemous!”

The doll sighed. “Well, if you’re going to be so hard-hearted about it, I won’t push you any further. But sooner or later, you’re going to wish you had said yes. Just remember this: if one day you well and truly hit rock bottom, come find me in the cemetery near the thirteenth-mile relay station.8 There’s a mound sitting alone right in the center of the graveyard, with no tombstone on it. My corpse is buried in the coffin there, and with it, heaps of gold, silver, pearls, and gems… And if only you dare to come, all those riches will be yours to spend as you like.”

At this, the doll spoke no more, falling lifeless once again. Hu Guohua grit his teeth as he lit another match and set fire to the figure lying still before him. Before long, it was nothing more than a pile of ash.

Since that time, Hu Guohua had reached the end of his tether on many an occasion, and each time, the thought of unearthing the tomb near the relay station had crossed his mind. In the end, though, he always suppressed the idea, scraping together just enough to keep himself going. Two years later, with nowhere else to turn, he would finally make his fateful trip to the graveyard — but that particular tale will have to wait for a later time.

During that year’s Spring Festival, Hu Guohua’s scheme to swindle his uncle was finally exposed. The old man was so furious that he was stricken ill right on the spot,9 and he drew his last breath just three days later.

From that day on, family and friends alike all treated Hu Guohua like criminal: they weren’t even willing to give him their leftovers, much less lend him any money. He was forced to sell off the last of his possessions, two sandalwood chests that had been his mother’s dowry, for a measly two silver dollars. He had never had the heart to pawn them, wanting to keep them as a memento, but once his addiction flared up, he gave little thought such sentiments. He used the money to buy what small amount of opium he could before hurrying home, so anxious to smoke that he fired up his pipe while he was still on the road. He fell back on his bed as he took two long drags from the pipe, and felt his body become light as a feather, as if he were drifting on a cloud.

For a brief moment, Hu Guohua felt almost godlike. None of the disdain, contempt and persecution he suffered daily was important anymore. As he took another two drags, he suddenly noticed a black shape lying in the corner of his decrepit old bed. He fixed his eyes on it — it was a huge rat! The creature was surely well on in years: its whiskers had gone white, and it was nearly as big as a cat. It sat next to Hu Guohua, sniffing at the smoke drifting out of his opium pipe, almost as if it, too, knew the wonders of opium. It snuffled greedily, clearly enjoying itself.

This piqued Hu Guohua’s interest. “You’re addicted too, eh, buddy? Looks like we’re kindred spirits.” He inhaled again and blew some smoke in the rat’s direction.

The rat seemed to realize he meant it no harm. Unafraid, it lifted its head up to catch a whiff of the smoke. After some time, it crawled away sluggishly, its craving apparently satisfied.

Over the next few days, the rat came back daily to smoke with Hu Guohua. Detested by everyone, with not a friend in the world, he grew fond of the rat, and the two developed a mutual understanding. Sometimes, when the rat ran a little late, Hu Guohua would wait for it, holding back the urge to smoke.

But good things don’t last forever. All that remained of Hu Guohua’s house were four walls and a bed; he no longer had the means to satisfy his addiction.

Helpless and in low spirits, he sighed to the rat, “Today, little friend, my pockets are empty, and my cupboard is bare. I’ve no money to buy any more opium… I’m afraid our days of smoking together are over.” At that, he began sobbing uncontrollably.

Hearing this, the rat’s eyes twinkled, almost as if it was mulling something over, and it turned around and scampered away. It returned at dusk, carrying a silver dollar in its mouth, and laid it beside Hu Guohua’s pillow. Hu Guohua, at once startled and astonished, went into the city that very night for some opium. As soon as he got home, he lit his pipe, and puffed away with abandon under the flickering lamplight, he and the rat joyfully indulging themselves.

The next day, the rat brought back three silver dollars. Hu Guohua was so thrilled he could barely muster the words to thank it, until he remembered an old classic he had studied back at the village school.

“He who knows Guan Zhong is Bao Shuya10. An honorable man sees my poverty, and showers gifts upon me. Truly, he is my closest friend. So long as we trust in one another, we’ll be sworn brothers.”

From then on, Hu Guohua regarded the rat as he would a brother, and called him “Brother Rat.” They ate, drank and smoked together, and Hu Guohua even put together a cotton-wool nest on his own bed so the rat could sleep there with him.

Thus did man and rat find happiness in one another; they were nothing less than the closest of friends. Every day, the rat would bring back one or two silver dollars, sometimes three or even five, and Hu Guohua no longer had to worry about basic necessities. Many years later, my grandfather would recall this time as the happiest in his life.

After the better part of a year, Hu Guohua gradually returned to his wealthy position — but what’s that phrase? “He who is rich encounters friends; he who is poor encounters base men.11” Hu Guohua was fated for poverty, so it was only natural that just such a man fixed his sights on him.

There was a troublemaker in the village who had come to be called Scoundrel Wang12. Now, Hu Guohua had at least been rich once upon a time, having held the title of “Master Hu” for upwards of twenty years. Wang, on the other hand, had no such luck: for eight generations in a row, his ancestors had not so much as worn an untattered pair of pants, and he himself was no different. He felt a distinct joy at seeing Hu Guohua’s estate fall into ruin, and without provocation took it upon himself to shame, ridicule and even beat the so-called “Master Hu”, if only to bring some fleeting comfort to his own troubled mind.

Wang suspected Hu Guohua was up to some strange business: he wasn’t working for a living, he’d pawned off all the possessions he could, and he had almost no relatives left alive — how did he manage to sit at home smoking opium all day? Where was he getting the money? Perhaps he’s stealing it, Wang thought to himself. I should keep an eye on him, quietly. As soon as he tries to nab anything, I’ll drag him right to the authorities! Maybe there’ll even be a reward…

After watching Hu Guohua for quite some time, however, Wang realized that he virtually never left the house, excepting occasional trips to purchase food and opium; nor did he seem to interact with anyone. As the mystery surrounding the source of his income grew, so too did Wang’s desire to crack it.

One day, when Hu Guohua went out to shop, Wang took the opportunity to vault over the wall into his house, rummaging through everything he could find to try to uncover Hu’s secret. He suddenly noticed a huge rat sleeping on the bed, and in one swift motion, grabbed and threw it into a kettle of water that sat boiling on the stove. Just wait until Hu Guohua gets back and drinks this, he thought. I’ll sit back and watch; it’ll be hilarious.

Before Wang could make his exit, Hu Guohua himself walked in, leaving the would-be prankster with nowhere to go. As soon Hu saw the rat, scalded to death in the kettle, his eyes flared with anger, and he took up a nearby cleaver and flew at Wang. The latter suffered over ten strikes, but fortunately for him, chain smokers are not known for their strength, and none proved fatal. Wang fled to the village militia, the captain of which was a relative of a local warlord; the two happened to be sharing a drink when Wang stumbled in, his whole body drenched in blood. “This is an outrage!” the captain bellowed, mortified. “Stabbing a man in broad daylight — is there no law?!”

In no time at all, he had dispatched a few subordinates, who hog-tied Hu Guohua and brought him in. “Why did you try to kill Scoundrel Wang?” the captain shouted as Hu Guohua was dragged before him.

Hu Guohua, his face streaming with tears, sobbed as he recounted what had happened, culminating in a wail. “I was in such dire straits at first, if it weren’t for that rat I wouldn’t be alive today. I never thought a moment of carelessness would lead do Brother Rat’s death. I didn’t kill him, but he died because of me. With my dear friend gone, how can I bear it all, facing the world alone? Since I wounded Scoundrel Wang, punish me, kill me, do as you please! I only beg you, let me return home and bury Brother Rat; if he’s dead, he should at least rest in peace.”

Before the captain could respond, the warlord beside him spoke, deeply moved by Hu Guohua’s lament. “Damn it — ! Not to be merciless is to be benevolent, not to be disloyal is to be righetous. You, my friend, are righteous. Join my army, and I’ll make you my right-hand man!”

Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. In those troubled times, if a man had an army, his word was law. The warlord ordered his subordinates to lash Scoundrel Wang as consolation to Hu Guohua, whom he sent back home to bury the rat. Hu Guohua gave his friend a lavish funeral buried him a wooden box. He grieved for a time, and finally fled into the protection of the warlord.

As the saying goes, when a man is hungry, sugar tastes like honey, but when he is full, nothing tastes sweet. When someone gives a poor man a slice of bread or a bowl of porridge, he is deeply grateful — to say nothing of a mere rat giving Hu Guohua such a large amount of money! (Of course, it was all stolen.) A saint would rather die of thirst than drink from a bandit’s spring, but that is the moral standard of only the holiest among us. Even the ancients could hardly uphold it; how could a mediocre person like Hu Guohua be expected to?13

It’s said that if one smokes opium indoors for long enough, even the rats and flies will become addicted. Apparently, there’s some truth to this.

  1. 分家, “to split the household,” is is a somewhat common practice in East Asian cultures. Under some circumstances, the head of a family may split its land and property between his married sons. [return]
  2. In the late Qing dynasty, this would have been considered an extremely large sum of money. [return]
  3. In the original text the word 炕 (“bed-stove”) is used. This refers to a kind of bed with a hollow base constructed from brick, under which hot air is wafted to maintain heat during cold weather. Used in northern China. See Wikipedia. [return]
  4. Traditional Chinese homes tended to have curtains instead of interior doors. [return]
  5. The phrase used here is 旺夫的好相貌, derived from the concept of 旺夫相, literally “prosperous husband face” As best as I can understand it, this refers to a traditional Chinese belief that certain female facial types can bring good (or bad!) luck to the husband. [return]
  6. “Match” is an approximate translation. The phrase used is 火拆子, which is a kind of torch composed of a tube of slow-burning paper or wool. When lit, it would retain a small amount of burning embers for a long period of time; the user could blow on the tube to create a larger flame when needed. [return]
  7. The word used here is 阳气 yang qi, of which “life force” is of course an approximate translation. [return]
  8. The name of this location in Chinese, 十三里铺, is very hard to express concisely in English. 铺 is essentially the pre-modern equivalent of a truck stop. On long routes, there would typically be one of these every few miles so riders could let their horses feed and rest. 十三里, “thirteen li” refers to the stop’s location along the route, although I’ve used “mile” instead of “li” here for clarity’s sake. [return]
  9. The phrase used here is 生气上火, which refers to a belief in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that “hot” feelings like anger, frustration, sexual desire, etc. are correlated with an increase of 火 (fire) in the body. Sickness occurs when the various elements like 火 get too far out of balance in a person’s body. The idea here is that Hu Guohua’s uncle was so furious that his 火 went out of eqilibrium and he died as a result [return]
  10. Guan Zhong and Bao Shuya were a pair of officials in the state of Qi during the Spring and Autumn period, active in the early 600s BC. They were known for their close friendship; Guan Zhong is quoted as saying “My parents gave birth to me, but it is Bao who knows me best.” [return]
  11. The term used here is 小人, literally “small person.” It refers to a person of low social status or bad character. (Antonym: 大人.) [return]
  12. The word used here is 二杠子, whose literal translation is the nonsensical “two-stick.” It appears to be northern Chinese slang for a person of ill repute. [return]
  13. This last paragraph is a jumbled mess of tenuously-related idioms in the original text — and so it remains here. [return]