Maverick Genius．Unusual Stories
Women have always been fickle and weak,
Flinging their affections about.
So tempered let your censure be,
And chide not those who stand out.(1)
In peacetime chastity is easy to swear,
But in war it's hard to uphold.
Silk that comes white from an indigo jar
Will be worth a thousand in gold.
Loyalty, filial piety, chastity and fidelity are terms of general approbation that everyone rejoices in. The trouble is that loyalty is regularly found on the lips of traitorous officers and filial piety in the mouths of incorrigible sons, while adulterous husbands are constantly holding forth about fidelity and wanton wives about chastity. As a result it is almost impossible to distinguish true virtue from false. However, as the proverb has it: 'Fierce winds reveal the sturdy plant and troubled times the loyal subject. 'Generally, if you want to tell whether something is true or false, you subject it to a test. The trouble is that in this case there is no test applicable. When metals are tested in a furnace, for example, the false are destroyed and the true survive. But if the people who claim to posses these four virtues are put to the test, the false will survive and only the true will perish.
But let me put loyalty, filial piety and fidelity aside, and address myself solely to the subject of chastity.
During the final two decades of the Ming dynasty, from the time the roving bandits fomented their rebellions and the Dashing Brigand(2) seized his chance right up until the change of mandate, countless women were abducted. Their reactions varied widely. Some kept their vows and either killed themselves or submitted to execution; these, numbering less than one in a thousand, belong in the very highest category. Some were raped by the bandits at the outset and later felt so ashamed that they committed suicide; they should be placed near the top of the middle category. Others went willingly with the stranger but still longed for home and wrote letters begging their husbands to come and ransom them; shameful as their conduct was, it is still understandable, and we have no choice but to put them near the bottom of the middle category. The most despicable of all were those who lived off the fat of the land and dressed in fine raiment, who delighted in singing the alien tunes and spurned their native accents. They even refused to acknowledge their husbands after they have travelled great distances to ransom them. Sluts like these belong in the lowest category of all, and even to mention them is enough to make us gnash our teeth. True, I have heard tell of one righteous commander who actually beheaded such a slut on the spot to avenge her husband, but heart-warming actions like that are only hearsay, I have never witnessed one myself.
Gentle reader, is it not tragic that so many women spoke about chastity and martyrdom before the rebellions, but then, once they were cast into the furnace of sexual and the true were separated from the false, only the false one survived?
I shall now tell of a jewel of a woman who did survive the test and whose actions will be spoken of for generations to come. Although her case cannot be regarded as the norm, she still ranks higher than those who endured disgrace in order to avenge themselves later. Gentle reader, to follow the criteria by which The Spring and Autumn Annals criticized the virtuous and to demand perfection of such a woman—that is no fair or proper way to judge people at the end of an epoch.
During the Chongzhen period, there was a certain woman living in the countryside outside Wugong county of Xi'an prefecture in Shaanxi. Her husband, surnamed Geng, was the second in his generation, so she was known as Secunda Geng. She was, we need hardly say, a woman of personable looks and graceful figure. But in addition to these qualities, she was also exceptionally intelligent. Although she could neither read nor write, she was naturally perceptive. If you were troubled by some insoluble problem, you had only to tell her about it and she would manage, by some imaginative inference, to come up with a brilliant solution that no one else would have thought of, and proceed to solve your problem. While she was applying it, everyone would say it was pointless, but when they thought about the matter afterwards, they were forced to conclude that hers was the ideal solution.
Once, while she was still a girl in her mother's household, there was a neighbour fishing by the river who chanced to be holding a fishhook in his mouth while talking. He swallowed the hook, which then lodged in his throat. He had the line in his hand, but he was afraid to pull on it, lest the hook catch in his throat, and he was equally afraid to swallow the hook, lest it puncture his intestines. He couldn't cry, any more than he could laugh. The doctors he consulted all told him that there was nothing on that topic in any of the medical treatises and that therefore there was no cure. In a state of panic, he rushed about asking everyone he met for a solution. Secunda was at home when she heard the news. 'I knew a solution,'she told her brother. 'Do such-and-such and such-and-such, then pull it out.'
(1) The poem contains a reference to The Spring and Autumn Annals and its technique of censure.
(2) The rebel Li Zicheng, who helped topple the Ming dynasty, was known as 'The Dashing Prince', of which 'Dashing Brigand' is a sardonic variation. The change of mandate refers to the founding of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty.
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Research Centre for Translation, The Chinese University of Hong Kong.