Part of a Peony’s Tavern translation project at fruitydeer.com.
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Source: 芍藥客棧 by Yi Mei Tong Qian // Translated By: Xin (fruitydeer)
Hi friends, starting now, I’m going to be updating Peony’s Tavern once a week on weekends as my schedule permits. Enjoy the chapter!
She raised her right foot and made to back out, but before she could move away, someone pushed her by force: “Hurry on in.”
She tumbled forward, and as her face fast approached the floor, she was suddenly caught by someone and was pulled into a warm embrace. Shao Zi looked up. Was it not that lazy scholar standing right there?
The scholar looked down at her, his expression slightly furrowed. He raised a hand to wipe at the tears on his face, smiling: “Don’t cry, I’m here.”
Shao Zi’s heart quivered and she reached out to hug him, not understanding why she had cried. Just now, she really wanted to go in and be with Grandpa and everybody, be with the tavern. But she did not see the scholar.
The scholar’s entire body stiffened, come to think of it…was this the first time that Shao Zi took the initiative to hug him? He inhaled softly, concentrating his line of sight. He looked at this dream that looked just like the real thing, constructed so well and grand without a single crack. It seemed, unfortunately, that even immortals would have a difficult time escaping this place, potentially getting intoxicated by this dream themselves. But even though her spiritual power had clearly not made its return, Shao Zi was actually able to break away from this dreamscape so quickly and could avoid getting mystified by it. He looked down and asked: “Why didn’t you go inside just now?”
Shao Zi looked at him: “I didn’t see you inside.”
The scholar stilled: “Mn?” He looked inside. There wasn’t a person in sight; there was nothing at all.
Shao Zi also looked over. Grandpa was still counting the bills, Fat Bottle Gourd and the rest were all smiling happily. They even waved her over. Suddenly, there came a feeling akin to ghosts trying to lure the soul away. She felt chills in her heart, then hugged him a little tighter: “Grandpa, Lady Xin, and all the rest of them were there, but you weren’t. Something just felt wrong, so I came back out.”
Did this signify that he held a very important place in her heart? The scholar chuckled, feeling quite delighted. Shao Zi looked left and right: “Are we in an illusion?”
“It’s a dreamscape.”
“What’s the difference?”1
“Illusions are constructed for people, dreamscapes are made by the individual. The former can be seen by anyone who enters the mirage, the latter can only be seen by the individual themselves.”
Shao Zi frowned: “But I was able to see both the Yuan Family and Old Master He.”
The scholar smiled: “It’s because you’re the latest prey of the dreamland. If it, as the master, wants you to see something, it’s easy to accomplish. If you had stepped inside just now, you would become his new quarry and forever live inside your own imaginings.”
“So those people who caught the sleeping sickness are all living inside of their own dreamscapes right now?”
“Mn, their essence is getting sucked away by their dreams, and since they are no longer consuming food in the Mortal Realm, they’ll eventually reach a point of exhaustion and eventually die because of their dreams.”
Shao Zi shivered: “Who could be this evil and do such a bad thing?”
“It’s not a bad thing.”
The voice reverberated like a torrent, shaking the entirety of the bluestone road. Shao Zi looked up, but what she saw was not a person. The blue sky above her head was already covered in white fog. There was no end in sight.
“This is what they chose. The dreamscape was created by themselves and they were willing to enter the dream, willing to live inside it forever. What’s the wrong in that? How could this be considered a bad thing?”
Shao Zi bared her teeth: “Just now, you even went so far as to push me. I obviously wasn’t willing to go in. You pushed me. Do you dare say that no one else was pushed by you? What kind of demon are you? Hurry and come out, stop playing god and messing around!” 2
“This old man is not a demon. I’m an honorable Tu Di Gong.3 I regard the fortune and blessings of people of the world with great importance. This old man is merely lending you a helping hand in dying by means of a beautiful dream should you end up in a dreamscape.”
“Pei, there isn’t even any immortal energy here. You dare say you’re Tu Di Gong. Is there such a sneaky Tu Di Gong?” Shao Zi tugged at the scholar’s arm, “Innkeeper, drag him out and give him a beating. Once he’s been beaten out of insanity, we can get Old Master He’s silver.”
The scholar blinked. The reason Shao Zi came was not for the benefit of the entire Zhuang Yuan Town but…for the tavern instead. So the tavern was indeed the most meddlesome third wheel after all. He sighed quietly. He hadn’t even climbed into Shao Zi’s heart yet and the second most important spot was already occupied by something else. His heart instantly soured: “Hurry and come out, I’m in a bad mood. If you don’t, I really will drag you out and give you a beating.”
The one proclaiming to be Tu Di Gong had not yet revealed himself. And the scholar, who was getting thwarted by the tavern, was getting really unhappy. His heart was so very, very sour. His left foot lifted ever so slightly, then gently touched the ground. It was enough to give the skies and earth a violent shake. The sky immediately fell to dust, the earth split into seven to eight enormous cracks, and their surroundings seemed to shatter. Only where the two stood was it completely fine. Just like a lone island.
Shao Zi’s mouth shifted into an “O” shape, and the scholar continued his tyrannic behavior. She gulped, then said sincerely: “Innkeeper, the feeling of being on the same team as you is quite nice.”
But that Tu Di Gong had still not come out. The scholar raised his foot once more. Yet another violent shake. But this time, the space immediately surrounding the lone island did not crack open and sink. Rather, a “ka-cha” sound adjacent to their ears and the entire street was destroyed. Shortly after, Shao Zi saw the tavern sink completely as well. Even though she knew it was fake, she still felt a lot of heartache, ya.
Finally, someone crawled up from beneath the earth, beginning with a head of silver hair. This was indeed in line with the image of Tu Di Gong that Shao Zi recognized. But when he came out, his figure was not short, nor was he carrying bottle gourd cane. And when she saw his face, she was so shocked that her jaw dropped into another “O” shape. It turned out to be that old candied art grandpa!
The old candied art man wore garbs of white while his hair was silver, his beard white. Even his eyebrows were white. His expression was calm as he looked at the two and said faintly: “This old man has done nothing wrong, I’m just helpless in being able to defeat the two of you. But even if you’ve captured me, I shall not yield.”
Shao Zi studied him. Was that candy the instrument used to induce people into entering a dream? So this was why all those people who had fallen asleep had that one point of similarity–they all showed up near the tavern. During the day, she had suspected that the old candied art man was the culprit, but she detected no such immortal or demon energy on his person. But the more she thought about it in detail…wait, he didn’t have any traces of mortal energy either! She sucked in a cool breath: “What the heck is your real identity?”
The old man smiled: “Tu Di Gong.”
“Tu Di Gong are immortal beings. Even though they are low ranked officials, they still possess immortal energy. You have none.”
The old man’s pupils contracted. The scholar said: “You are Tu Di Gong, but you were consecrated by the mortals. You are not documented in the Immortal Realm’s registry. Thus, you have no immortal energy, nor are you a demon, or even a ghost. That is to say, you were cast from the worship and prayers of mortals. You have no true form.”
It was the first time Shao Zi had heard of this type of “immortal” being. She didn’t quite understand. He was a little bit like the little flower lantern, borne of others’ prayers. But the little flower lantern had a real form whereas this person did not. Come to think of it, the Mortal Realm indeed had all sorts of Tu Di Gong that mortals worshipped. Still, it was the first time that she saw one in the flesh. “Since you are borne of humans, then why must you hurt them by leading them into dreaming for life?”
He closed his eyes, shaking his head: “I did not harm them…that dream is what their hearts desire ah…”
He sounded so helpless. And because he knew he was incapable of defeating them and that his days were limited, he even trembled. He stared at the two in a daze, his eyes suddenly shifting.
It was only a moment before but Shao Zi got a whiff of sugary sweetness, so sweet that it seeped into the heart. But gradually, that sweet fragrance became a little sour, even a little bitter. So bitter that it…also seeped into the heart.
In his stupor, the scholar reached out and rested his free hand atop her hands that were wrapped tightly around his arm, frowning while watching the old man open up a dreamscape. He obviously knew that this would not do him any good, so why still…
The old man spoke faintly, his voice hoarse and low: “Let’s go into the dream.”
The old candied art man said those words with sincerity. When he looked up again, what he saw was the he of centuries past.
In the tenth year of Tian Qing4 and the Eastern City opened an imperial road. One could also say it was a road of business. For a time, either side of the street was filled with shops, always bustling as if spring had newly arrived.5 Shops covered in an array of colors looked just like rows of blooming flowers. Each corner of the land was rich with wealth. At this time, the Feng Yu Bridge had also been newly erected.
Even if it were out in the wilderness, there would still be people who would pile up a few stones and light a joss stick, treating the sight like a consecration of the gods. But in reality, it was merely a mortal pleading for some peace of mind. And when the Yu Feng Bridge was built, there just so happened to be a little erected pile of stones that was no higher than one’s calf. Before it were even a few burning joss sticks. When a Daoist priest came and saw it, he said it was Tu Di Gong. Best to leave it there. Thus, that little pile of stones was built into a little temple of bricks that was as high as a person’s waist. It was treated as the consecration of Tu Di Gong.
Nevertheless, through the nurture of the joss sticks lit by the mortals, a spiritual consciousness gradually developed, turning into into a creature that was neither demon nor god. His daily entertainment was to watch mortals, demons, and devils walk over the bridge. Occasionally, someone would even leap off the bridge, or people would shout at each other on the bridge. There were so many different sights to see.
One day, during the early hours of morning, he was just in the midst of a beautiful sleep6 when he suddenly detected the smell of smoke. When he opened his eyes and looked over, he saw a maiden kneeling in front of him, burning a few joss sticks. She said softly: “Bless San-lang7 in placing first in the imperial exam. Bless San-lang in placing first in the imperial exam.
She repeated this many times over before finally taking her leave. He yawned, then continued sleeping. Though he was able to help people, it only encompassed things at the level of looking for cats or catching dogs, so making a wish like this was of no use.
The next day, during the early hours of the morning, that maiden returned once more.
This situation went on for a month. When he had become accustomed to that maiden coming on time every single day, she suddenly stopped showing up. After another five or six days, she finally appeared. Just as he was about to revel in happiness, he noticed that she had no joss sticks in hand. She walked onto the bridge in a stupor, stepped onto the stone railing, then jumped into the moving current.
Startled, he froze for a moment before immediately jumping in to save her. If her name was really written into the Book of Life and Death, even he could not save her. So him saving her was technically not a disturbance to the Netherworld and he need not fear condemnation from the ghosts.
He looked at the maiden from next to her. She was quite pretty. Why did she seek to her end life just like this? He stilled, then recalled the thing she prayed for all month. Was it that…the one called San-lang did not pass the exam?
The maiden came back to consciousness. When she saw him, she sat up with a start. He chuckled: “I was passing by and saw you jump into the river, so I saved you.”
She took pause, then began choking with sobs: “Why save me…just let me die.”
He frowned: “Isn’t there a saying among men, it’s better to live a bad life than to die. What could have caused you to court death over life? Why don’t you…tell me about it? Perhaps I can help you.”
Translator’s Note: In Taiwan, Tu Di Gong is hugely important to local worship. I briefly mentioned this in one of the footnotes, but to add to that, pretty much every town or city has a place of worship for Tu Di Gong, some even have multiple. There’s many gods in the Daoist pantheon and people will often go to certain ones that cover specific domains, but Tu Di Gong is often the go-to guy. He watches over the land, harvest, and local community. He is well-revered, regardless of if temples dedicated to him are large or small.
Though not everyone practices worship, this sort of folk religion has pretty much become engrained in the culture. Temples are much everywhere. Sometimes, they’re grand and spacious, other times they’re crowded and tiny. Even in big cities like Taipei, you can find some tucked into corners of alleyways or small cross-sections of a street. Traditionally, these are built on-site and artisans specialized in painting and carving. They are sometimes even given living accommodation for the duration of constructions. BBC’s Chinese website has a short video and accompanying piece on a factory in Taiwan that specializes in constructing modern temples. Unfortunately, it’s only available in Chinese, but a tidbit I found quite interesting is the owner’s response when asked whether or not it is disrespectful to build temples in such a fashion. He mentions that they only produce the temple’s structure, the actual form of the temple’s god only arises through a consecration ceremony. Before a proper ceremony, statues are just ordinary statues holding no spirit.
I’m not too sure on the details, but I’ve seen festivals consecrating new temples and what happens is that another temple will bring a statue of the deity with them and parade to the other temple. In this way, the deity will bless the new temple bring good fortune to the new temple. The parade is a whole affair, filled with music and spectators galore.
I’ll see if I can find some photos from my last trip to Taiwan so I can share next chapter. Also, I’ve only been speaking on Taiwan’s folk religion as it is what I have knowledge in. If anyone is familiar with folk religion in China, please do share!
- The word for dreamscape is meng jing (夢境) while the word for illusion is huan jing (幻境).
- 裝神弄鬼 // Zhuang Shen Nong Gui: Idiom. Pretending to be a “god” but engaging in hocus pocus or ghostly shenanigans..
- 土地公 // Tu Di Gong: God of the land and soil in Daoist folklore. Different villages and townships will have their own Tu Di Gong and their neighborhood will effectively fall under the “jurisdiction” of that Tu Di Gong. My mother often jokes that even though Tu Di Gong falls under the most basic rank of the Daoist pantheon’s “officialdom” and is basically like the head of neighborhood watch, he is nevertheless very important to local worship and is highly regarded.
- Most likely referring to the era name of the reigning emperor.
- Lunar New Year marks the beginning of spring and is when business is usually booming.
- The word for joss sticks is xiang (香) and the original text said he was sleeping very xiang (香) [fragrantly] which just means having a lovely sleep, but it’s also being used as a pun.
- Lang loosely translates to gentleman and is usually a generic way of referring to a male. San is three. Thus, san-lang denotes that this person is the third son of his respective household and is a polite way others might to refer to him.