In the district of Hóu-tcheou-fou, the magistrate’s assistant Chen was taking a nap in his study. Suddenly, a celestial functionary appeared, and beckoned him to follow. He led Chen down a path hidden by rustling thickets of bamboo to a clearing where, on a pedestal, an enormous mirror waited.
“Regard what you once were in your previous life,” the apparition commanded him. Looking into the mirror, Chen saw a man with a pointed cap on his head and red slippers on his feet, dressed in the manner of a scholar from the Ming dynasty.
“Now see what you were in the life before that one.”
Chen looked again. This time, he saw a high official in old Ming costume. Black cap, red dragonfly robe, belt with jade buckle, black boots.
Just then a disheveled servant rushed into the clearing, prostrated himself before Chen, and exclaimed, “Don’t you recognize me? I was your valet in Tá-t’oung-fou, but of course that was over two hundred years ago.” Rising to his feet, he held out a scroll.
“What’s this?” asked Chen.
“Let me explain,” the servant handed over the document. “During the reign of Kiá-tsing in the Ming dynasty, you were known as Wâng-siou, and under that name you held the military governorship of Tá-t’oung-fou. You have been summoned here today with regard to a controversy from those times.
Five hundred lost souls have filed a complaint with the underworld magistrate Wênn-sinn-wang. They were rebels who had surrendered after the defeat of Liòu-ts’i, only to take up arms once again. You are to be questioned about the cause of their deaths—but I, your loyal servant of yore, remember that those wretches were slain against your wishes! It was General X who had them killed. You see, X orchestrated the massacre to prevent them from rising up again, even though you had written him a letter to dissuade him from this course of action. That is the document I have brought to you. It will clear your name.”
Upon hearing this story, affairs from long ago came back to Chen, albeit in a cloudy and disordered fashion. He thanked his old servant.
“Would you prefer to travel on foot, or by some other means?” inquired the celestial functionary, standing by.
“Whoever heard of a high official trudging about on foot?” exclaimed Chen’s servant.
Out of nowhere, an ornate sedan chair borne by two stout porters whisked Chen away. After a journey of many leagues, he arrived at a splendid palace. In the great hall reclined an old man with a white beard, dressed in regal apparel. A bailiff in a black cap and violet robe, holding a massive registry, summoned the military governor Wâng-siou to the stand.
“Please call on General X first,” Chen said. “He’s the one who’s responsible for all this.”
The bailiff summoned X. A towering figure in full military regalia emerged from an alcove, sword at his side. Chen recognized the man as his former lieutenant. After interrogating X at length, the judge summoned Wâng-siou once again. Stepping forward, Chen bowed deeply and took the stand.
“General X has just confessed it was he who had those five hundred men of Liòu-ts’i’s militia put to death,” the judge informed him. “Now, you claim that you are completely innocent because you wrote to him not to do it. But Ming law gives you more power over X than that. You failed your duty, Chen. At best, you were negligent.”
Chen couldn’t disagree.
“It fell to me to eliminate the threat,” General X concluded his testimony. “I did what had to be done. They’d already broken their word once before. If I’d let them go, it was only a matter of time until they took up arms yet again. As ranking field officer, I had them put to death, by virtue of my mandate, in the national interest. It was nothing personal.”
At these words, a whirlwind black as ink rose from the ground, accompanied by a low whistle and the unbearable odor of blood. From the vortex, five hundred skulls rolled out like so many marbles, trailed by five hundred skeletons. Snapping their jaws, the skulls tried to sink their teeth into General X. Chen leapt back in horror.
“Wretches!” the judge cried out, pounding his table. “Weren’t you beheaded for taking up arms again after you’d already surrendered?”
“True,” replied the plaintiffs.
“Then General X slit your throats with good reason,” the judge observed.
“False,” objected the spirits. “X did it to curry favor with the emperor—neither for the country’s good, nor for the good of the people.”
“Not for your good, perhaps,” sneered the judge, “but it was certainly in the public interest. Anyway, two hundred years have passed since the deed was done. It’s beyond my jurisdiction. I’m going to refer this matter to the Supreme Tribunal of Pure August. Meanwhile I’ll write up an interim sentence or two. First, due to the suspicions hovering over his past conduct, the ex-General X will be suspended without promotion indefinitely; second, as they refuse to renounce their ressentiment, the plaintiffs are barred from rebirth in human form; third, as punishment for his debility, the former military governor Wâng-siou shall return, in the next life, as a girl.”
Cradling their heads under their arms, the five hundred wraiths bowed before the judge, shouting in unison, “So be it!”
The underworld judge ordered his functionary to conduct Chen home. They passed through dark thickets of bamboo into the clearing with the mirror, where Chen’s former servant congratulated him on his acquittal.
“Over here,” the functionary positioned Chen before the mirror once again. “See what you were in this life.”
Chen peered into the mirror and saw himself, dressed as an assistant magistrate from the Qing dynasty.
“Now see what will become of you,” said the functionary.
At these words, Chen was so seized with fear that he woke, bathed in cold beads of sweat. He’d been laid out in his study, his loved ones weeping over him. Someone told him that he’d been dead to the world all day and night, with only the region over his heart retaining some faint trace of human warmth.
Suspended over the hearing room of the infernal judge, Chen had glimpsed a number of horizontal and vertical maxims. He could remember none but the following:
The court of the dead makes exceptions for no one.
All is counted on the celestial abacus.
When the waters fall, the stones appear; thus everything is revealed in time.