Two texts from Tingshi, or "Stories Noted at Home on a Small Table"

These two texts come from a collection of random notes, called the Tingshi, or "Stories Noted at Home on a Small Table." Such collections, relating historical events, observations about contemporary life, and notes made while reading the classics, histories, poetry, and other works, became a staple of Song literary life and have continued as a genre into the twentieth century. These were first published in 1214 by Yue Ke (1183-after 1243), a scholar and grandson of a famous Song general and martyr, Yue Fei (1103-1142).


A Crafty Demon Concocts a Dream

When he was young, Yang Ru'nan of Qingzhang took the prefectural examinations at Lin'an. While awaiting news of the test results at an inn, he dreamed at night that someone doused his head in oil. Greatly alarmed, he awakened. When the test result placards were brought out, they were unfavorable. This happened on three occasions, and he thought to himself that it was bizarre.

In 1145, he returned to the examinations at the capital. Fearing the dream's recurrence, on the eve of the release of the test result placards, he summoned the other residents at the inn and told them the story. They bought wine and delicacies in great quantity, and in a brightly lit room, brought out their gambling paraphernalia. They drank together with considerable ardor, waiting for the dawn.

At night, with the facing columns and four walls silent, a servant, named Liu Wu, sleeping under the western window, groaned as if in a nightmare. He was quickly stirred and shouted awake. He said, "Originally, because of the ordeal of the moxibustion treatments, I slipped away to my pillow, having noticed that the gambling was going full tilt and feeling fortunate that master did not summon me. Suddenly (in my dream) there were two men carrying a three-legged container full of oil, who came up into the building. They were in a rush, as if on a visit. They saw the master seated, took the container, and poured it on him. I was furious and struggled with them, and so had this nightmare." Hearing this, Ru'nan was greatly shaken. He said, "I am on a mission two thousand li away, and today this dream has returned." His fellow residents sighed to each other and stopped their gambling on his account.

At daylight, they all forced Ru'nan to look at the placard, and his name unmistakably was on the list. They gazed at where the placard had been placed in the ground. It was dark, as if there were traces of something. He raised up his robe and (bent down to) touch the ground. The surface was oily and wet. In all probability, when the censor was writing with light ink, he was in a hurry because it was nighttime and spilled the lamp bowl, and the clerk dared not to tell him (about the mess on the ground).

In 1180, Wu Shengzhi of Wanling received his degree from the Board of Rites and set out for an audience with the throne. Several tens of li from his home, there was a place called Zhutang, which all boats had to pass through. A local literatus one night dreamed that someone had said to him, "On Wu Shengzhi's trip to the capital, when he arrives at Zhutang, he will return." He awoke and told many people. At the time, Wu had an aged father, and he worried that the dream meant he might be deterred from his trip.

Later, nothing untoward happened. At the Palace of Assembled Excellencies, (the emperor) bestowed him with his degree, making him third in the first class. First place was Zhu Duanzhang and next was Tang Yi. Only then did Wu awaken to the dream's significance. The local literatus said angrily, "What does Wu Shengzhi's passing the examination have to do with me? A demon is abusing me!"

The two incidents are very similar. In sum, they tell us that passing the examinations is a fixed destiny; it cannot be sought through the power of one's intelligence. Tang had the facilitated degree of the first degree, and the present Record of Successful Candidates does not give the order of the passage. Ru'nan is the elder brother of my grandmother, Madame Yang, and my maternal relatives were able to recite and pass down this story. When I was prefect (in Jiaxing prefecture), Shengzhi and I were colleagues, and he told me this story personally.


The Wanchun Entertainers' Tale

Supervising Secretary Hu had become the new head of the Examination Office, and the examinations happened to fall on the following year, gengzi, in the sexagenary cycle. He made them a grand affair, ordering decorations and examiners on twice the previous scale. (Note) Officials dressed in swan-brocaded white robes entered the examination site, the tea attendants offered beverages, and the official cooks followed with meat. The chairs and tables were broad and immaculate, the officials meticulous and reverent, at ease and content, lending an untrammeled air to literary culture, and the literati spoke of their great satisfaction.

At the first round of tests, the poetic essay question came from the Mencius: "When Shun heard of goodness, it was like water bursting the dikes of the Yangtze (Yangzi) or Yellow River," and the rhyme was, "Hearing of good, he proceeded as a torrent (peiran) without restraint." (Note)

The literati had gone to their examination tables. Szechuan (Sichuan) customs revere the elderly and esteem the older worthies. Students always ask their teachers for further explanation at any general examination. In the early evening, an elderly scholar suddenly showed a rhyme from the Book of Rites to the students. It said that the character pei was from the fourteenth (hexagram) taiyu (Possession in Great Measure). One meaning was dianpei ("to stumble"), another was peiyi ("Pei township"). (Note) The commentary had no definition of pei as "to burst." The only recourse was the character pei (which has the rain radical on top of the pei character in the examination question), where the meaning could be guessed at from its rain radical yu. The students said, "Agreed," and, full of enthusiasm, they went to ask the examination official. The one who issued the topic happened to be taking a nap, and so a young man came out to respond to them. In his carelessness, and without understanding what they meant, he said only, "Since the Book of Rites commentary says it is wrong, adding a 'rain' top is fine." The students bade him farewell and left, writing in their test booklets as he had said. Some of those far from the official quarters did not learn about this ruling and still used the previous character. Thus half of the answers used pei (without the rain radical) and half used pei (with the rain radical).

The next day, as they were about to be tested on the Analects, a hubbub spread that all those who used the pei character (without the rain radical) were in a bind. The students again made inquiries of the officials. The one who issued the topic did not know at first about the conversation the night before and responded, "Just as (the original) character." The courtyard fell into a great uproar, which gradually became uncontrollable. The fracas entered the examiner's quarters, where the students said, "The examination officials have ruined horribly our three years." The door to the supervisors' area was completely destroyed, as if it had folded its arms. Some students entered the official quarters, seized an official who did the grading, and beat him. Panicked, he quickly said, "With the rain top is acceptable; without the rain top is acceptable." Some further criticized his sloppiness, and he said, "I certainly dare not do so the second round." Such words, probably for begging for his release, weresaid for the moment. A while later, as the situation calmed down somewhat, the examination bureau reported the disruption at the examination site. Hu believed the incident did not accord with ritual propriety, and, infuriated, had all the apparent instigators arrested and jailed, further incensing the poor literati.

Having removed the numbers, the supervising examiners by precedent were to be feasted as a reward for their work. The three ceremonial toasts concluded, entertainers then were presented at the banquet in sequence. At the front was one dressed like a Confucian. Another, to the side, greeted him, and together they showed off their erudition, debating ancient and contemporary events, solemnly refusing to admit defeat. So each chose an item to be recited and remembered in its entirety. The question was the famous grand councilors of the four-hundred-year Han dynasty. The Confucian began with Xiao Cao and named them one by one, without missing any. The entertainers all praised his ability, and he said, "I have named the Han grand councilors. May I ask you who were the famous generals and marshals of the three-hundred-year Tang dynasty?" The Greeter to the Side also listed Ying, Wei, and their dates, saying, "Zhang Xun, Xu Yuan, and Tian Wanchun." The Confucian began to argue vehemently, saying, "Xun and Yuan are correct, but Wanchun's surname was Lei. Researching and examining the historical records, there was never a case where lei was tian." The Greeter on the Side would not submit and argued with him. Later an actor who played comic roles, dressed in green and calling himself a professor, came to the front and sat at a table. The two men respectfully put the question to him, and he said, "It was the surname Lei." Greatly humiliated, Greeter to the Side bared his arms and shook his fists. The professor quickly assumed a terrified appearance and said, "With the rain top is acceptable; without the rain top is acceptable." (Note) The seated audience immediately blanched, knowing that the act poked fun at them. Suddenly an actor dressed in yellow and holding a command banner, jumped out from a group of people and said, "I bear the order of the National University's Supervising Secretary. With examination officials seated here, how can you all be so impolite?" The actors immediately restrained themselves and quickly exited, promising, "We certainly dare not do so the second round." The entertainers at the sides all laughed.

The guests were greatly embarrassed and left the next day, and soon the arrested were released. Hu believed the act had been set up by the prefecture's literati. He apprehended the entertainers and interrogated them. They were expelled from the area after being punished with bastinado. The story, however, has been passed down with great relish up to the present.

(Translated by Mark Halperin)