Follow the journey of Zhou and Cheng as they navigate a world of magic and transformation in this captivating Chinese folklore tale.
In Wendeng County, there was a scholar named Zhou who, since childhood, had been studying together with another scholar named Cheng. They became close friends, disregarding social status or wealth. Cheng came from a very poor family and relied on Zhou for support throughout the year. Due to their age difference, Zhou was older, and Cheng referred to Zhou’s wife as “sister-in-law.” Throughout the seasons, Cheng would visit Zhou’s home to pay his respects, and they were as close as family. Later, Zhou’s wife gave birth to a child but tragically passed away due to a sudden illness after childbirth. Zhou remarried a woman named Wang, and Cheng had not yet had the opportunity to meet her because Wang was much younger. One day, Wang’s younger brother came to visit his sister, and Zhou hosted a banquet for him in the inner chamber. At that moment, Cheng arrived, and when the servant informed Zhou of Cheng’s arrival, Zhou asked his servant to invite Cheng in to join the festivities. However, Cheng declined the invitation and took his leave. Zhou moved the banquet to the main hall and called Cheng back. Just as they were settling down, they received news that the servants from a rural estate had been severely whipped upon the orders of the county magistrate.
The incident originated when a servant of the Huang family, who held an official position in the Ministry of Personnel, was herding cattle and inadvertently trampled on the farmland of Zhou’s family. This led to a heated argument and insults exchanged between the servant of the Huang family and Zhou’s family’s servant. After the Huang family’s servant reported the incident to his master, the Huang family apprehended Zhou’s family’s servant and brought him to the government office, resulting in the punishment of flogging for Zhou’s family’s servant. Upon learning the cause of the matter, Zhou became extremely angry and exclaimed, “How dare the Huang family’s servant behave this way! Their ancestors served under my grandfather for a lifetime, and now, all of a sudden, they have become arrogant and look down on everyone!” Filled with rage, he angrily prepared to confront the Huang family. However, Cheng quickly restrained him and advised, “In this ruthless world, distinctions between right and wrong are often blurred. Moreover, many officials in positions of authority nowadays are like robbers who don’t wield swords or guns. It’s not worth it.” Zhou initially ignored Cheng’s advice, but Cheng persisted in dissuading him, even shedding tears and pleading earnestly. Eventually, Zhou halted his steps and did not proceed further. Nevertheless, the anger still consumed him, and he spent a restless night in bed. At dawn, Zhou said to his family, “The Huang family has wronged me, and they are now my enemies, but that’s not the main issue. The county magistrate is an official appointed by the imperial court, not a local authority figure. Even if there is a dispute, it should be handled impartially. Why should he act like a dog, blindly biting upon his master’s command? I will write a petition to demand punishment for the Huang family’s servant and see how he handles it.” His family members encouraged him, and Zhou made up his mind. He wrote a petition and went to meet the county magistrate. When the magistrate saw the petition, he tore it apart and threw it on the ground. Zhou was greatly infuriated and used disrespectful language towards the magistrate. Enraged and embarrassed, the magistrate ordered his arrest and threw him into jail.
After some time had passed, Cheng went to visit Zhou’s home and learned that Zhou had gone to the city to file a complaint and defend himself. He hurriedly went to the city to try and dissuade Zhou, but Zhou had already been thrown into a prison cell. Cheng was distraught and frustrated, unable to come up with a solution. At this time, the county captured three pirates, and the county magistrate and the Huang family bribed them to falsely accuse Zhou of being their accomplice. The county magistrate then used their testimonies to report to the higher authorities, leading to the revocation of Zhou’s status as a successful candidate in the imperial examinations and subjecting him to brutal torture. Cheng visited Zhou in prison, and the two of them discussed directly appealing their case to the imperial court. Zhou said, “I am trapped in this prison like a bird in a cage. Even though I have a younger brother, all he can do is bring me prison meals.” Cheng volunteered, saying, “This is my responsibility. What use is a friend if they don’t come to help in times of danger?” With that, he set out. When Zhou’s younger brother came to deliver some money for him, Cheng had already been on the road for a long time. Cheng arrived in the capital but struggled to find a way to file his appeal. One day, he heard that the emperor was going on a hunting expedition, so he concealed himself in the forest. When the emperor’s procession passed by, Cheng came forward, prostrated himself on the ground, and tearfully pleaded for justice. The emperor accepted his petition, sent it down through the postal relay, and ordered the Shandong governor to investigate. By this time, more than ten months had passed since Zhou’s imprisonment in the county. In the county, Zhou had been coerced into making a false confession and had been sentenced to death. Upon receiving the emperor’s decree, the Shandong governor was shocked and decided to personally review the case. When the Huang family heard this news, they became fearful and plotted to kill Zhou to silence him. They bribed the prison guards, who denied Zhou food and water. When Zhou’s younger brother came to deliver food and visit him, they were turned away. Cheng continued to plead for justice at the governor’s office, and he finally persuaded the higher authorities to begin reviewing Zhou’s case. However, Zhou had become too weak from hunger to move. The governor was furious and ordered the prison guard responsible for denying food to be beaten to death with a club. The Huang family was in extreme fear and quickly offered a substantial bribe to have themselves absolved, avoiding being reported and accused. The county magistrate was sentenced to exile for corruption. After Zhou was released and returned home, his bond with Cheng grew even stronger.
Since the conclusion of the legal case, Cheng had grown disillusioned with the ways of the world, and his heart had turned to ashes. He invited Zhou to join him in retreating to a remote mountain to live in seclusion. However, Zhou, indulgent of his young wife, laughed at Cheng’s old-fashioned ideas. Though Cheng didn’t say much in response, his decision was already made. After their parting, Cheng didn’t visit Zhou’s home for several days. Worried, Zhou sent someone to Cheng’s home to inquire, and Cheng’s family began to suspect that he might be staying at Zhou’s house. When Cheng couldn’t be found in either place, everyone became concerned and puzzled. Zhou understood the reason behind Cheng’s actions and dispatched people to search for his whereabouts. They scoured Buddhist temples, Daoist monasteries, deep mountain valleys, and nearly everywhere else but still found no trace of him. Zhou had no choice but to frequently send money and clothes to comfort Cheng’s son.
After another eight or nine years had passed, Cheng suddenly returned on his own, now dressed as a Daoist, wearing a Daoist hat and robe, appearing to be a genuine Daoist. Zhou was overjoyed and grabbed his arm, asking, “Where have you been? I searched everywhere for you!” Cheng replied with a smile, saying, “I’ve been a lone wanderer, drifting aimlessly without a fixed abode. Fortunately, my health remained strong after our separation.” Zhou immediately ordered his servants to prepare a feast, and the two friends spent some time catching up after their long separation. Zhou suggested that Cheng change out of his Daoist attire, but Cheng just smiled and didn’t respond. Zhou said, “You are being foolish! How could you abandon your wife and children like a pair of old shoes?” Cheng smiled again and replied, “It’s not like that at all. If the world abandons me, how can I abandon anyone?” Zhou then asked where Cheng had been living, and Cheng mentioned he had resided at the Upper Qing Palace on Mount Lao. That night, they slept foot to foot, and Zhou had a dream where Cheng lay naked on his chest, making it difficult for him to breathe. He asked Cheng why he was doing this, but Cheng didn’t respond. Zhou woke up in surprise, called out to Cheng, but there was no response. When he sat up and touched the bed, it was empty—Cheng had disappeared. Zhou regained his composure after a while and realized he was sleeping in Cheng’s bed. His own beard had been thick, but now he felt it sparser when he touched it. He looked in the mirror and cried out, “Cheng is here, so where did I go?” After a moment, he finally understood that Cheng had used some kind of illusion to persuade him to live in seclusion. Zhou wanted to return to his own chamber, but his younger brother, seeing Zhou’s drastically changed appearance, blocked his way. Zhou had no way to explain everything, so he ordered his servants to prepare horses to search for Cheng together.
After traveling for several days, they entered Mount Lao. The horses were fast, and the servants couldn’t keep up. Zhou stopped his horse under a tree to rest, and he noticed many Daoists coming and going. One of the Daoists kept staring at him, so Zhou approached him to inquire about Cheng’s whereabouts. The Daoist smiled and said, “I’ve heard that name before. He seems to be at the Upper Qing Palace.” With that, he walked away. Zhou watched as the Daoist left and noticed that he had a brief conversation with another person not far away before departing. The person he was talking to gradually approached Zhou, and upon closer inspection, Zhou realized it was a fellow scholar from their hometown. The man, astonished to see Zhou, asked, “It’s been several years, and everyone says you’ve been studying Dao in the famous mountains. Are you still engaging in worldly affairs?” Zhou understood that the man mistook him for Cheng and recounted the strange situation. The fellow scholar was surprised and said, “I just saw him a while ago, and I thought he was you, Zhou. He left not long ago, maybe he hasn’t gone far.” Zhou was equally surprised and remarked, “It’s really strange! How can I not recognize my own face when I meet it face to face?” At that moment, Zhou’s servants had arrived, and he hurriedly rode his horse to chase after the Daoist. However, the Daoist had disappeared without a trace. After chasing for a while, Zhou looked around and saw the vast and boundless mountains, feeling lost and unsure of which way to go. He pondered the situation and realized that he had nowhere to return to, so he decided to pursue this mystery to the end. However, the terrain became increasingly rugged, making it impossible to continue riding the horse. He entrusted his horse to the servant and instructed him to return, while he continued on foot alone.
After walking for a while, Zhou spotted a Daoist disciple sitting alone in the distance. He approached and asked for directions, explaining that he was searching for Cheng. The Daoist disciple claimed to be a disciple of Cheng’s master and offered to carry Zhou’s provisions and clothing while guiding him. They traveled together, enduring hardships, camping under the stars, and walking for a long time. It took them until the third day to arrive, but it wasn’t the Upper Qing Palace as described in the mortal world. By this time, it was mid-October, yet the surroundings were covered in blooming mountain flowers, bearing no resemblance to early winter. The Daoist disciple informed them of the guest’s arrival, and Cheng immediately came out to welcome Zhou, who finally recognized his own appearance. They entered the house hand in hand and began to talk while enjoying wine. Exotic and colorful feathered birds, remarkably tame and unafraid of people, with calls resembling melodious music, often flew in and sang in front of them. Zhou was greatly astonished, but he couldn’t forget the earthly world and had no intention of staying here for long. There were two straw mats on the floor, and Cheng gestured for Zhou to sit cross-legged on one of them. After the second watch of the night, Zhou’s mind gradually emptied, and it seemed as if he had dozed off. Suddenly, he felt as though his body had switched back with Cheng’s. He was still a bit skeptical, so he touched his chin and found that his thick beard had returned to its previous state.
After daybreak, Zhou insisted on returning home, but Cheng was determined to keep him. Three days passed, and Cheng finally said, “Please rest for a while, and then I will escort you back early.” Zhou had just closed his eyelids when he heard Cheng calling him, “Your belongings are ready.” So he got up and followed Cheng on the journey, but the path they took was completely different from the one they had come. They hadn’t gone far when Zhou’s house came into view. Cheng waited by the roadside and let Zhou continue on his own. Zhou tried to persuade Cheng to come home with him, but Cheng refused. Reluctantly, Zhou continued alone, slowly approaching his home. He knocked on the door, but there was no response. He thought about climbing over the wall to get inside but suddenly felt as light as a leaf, leaping over the courtyard wall effortlessly. He repeated this several times until he reached his bedroom. The lamp inside was still lit, and his wife, Wang, was still awake, muttering to someone. Zhou stealthily tore a hole in the window paper and peered inside, only to see his wife drinking with a servant, both behaving lasciviously. This filled him with anger, and he wanted to trap the two inside but feared being outnumbered. Quietly, he retreated and opened the main door, running to Cheng for help. Cheng gladly followed him, and they entered the bedroom together. Zhou picked up a stone and smashed the door, causing chaos inside. But the harder they pounded on the door from the outside, the more securely it seemed to be held from within. Cheng used his sword to pry it open, and the door swung wide open. Zhou rushed inside, and the servant tried to escape through the window but was blocked by Cheng outside. With a swift stroke of his sword, Cheng severed the servant’s arm. Zhou captured his wife and interrogated her, only to discover that she had been having an affair with the servant during the year he was imprisoned. In a fit of rage, Zhou borrowed Cheng’s sword and beheaded his wife, hanging her intestines on a tree in the courtyard. They then left the house and returned to the mountain following the same path. At that moment, Zhou suddenly woke up, realizing he was still lying in bed. Astonished, he said, “I had such a strange and terrifying dream!” Cheng chuckled and said, “In your dream, you thought it was reality, but now that you’re awake, you believe it was just a dream.” Zhou asked, bewildered, what he meant by that. Cheng showed him the sword, which still bore traces of blood. Zhou, both frightened and sorrowful, suspected it was an illusion created by Cheng. Recognizing Zhou’s thoughts, Cheng packed up and escorted him back home.
The two of them slowly reached the entrance of Zhou’s village, and Cheng said, “On that previous night, I was waiting for you with the precious sword right here, wasn’t I? I detest witnessing the impurities of the mortal world. Please allow me to wait here for you. If you don’t arrive by afternoon, I will leave on my own.”
When Zhou arrived home, he saw that the entrance appeared desolate and abandoned, as if no one lived there. He then entered his younger brother’s courtyard. His brother, upon seeing him, burst into tears and said, “After you left, one night, robbers broke in and brutally killed my wife. They even disemboweled her before leaving. It was a horrific act. The authorities have been searching everywhere but haven’t caught the culprits.” Zhou was deeply shocked by this revelation and proceeded to explain the truth to his brother in detail. He also advised him not to pursue the matter any further. His brother, after a long moment of astonishment, complied. Zhou then inquired about his own son, prompting his brother to bring the child to him. Zhou told his brother, “This infant in swaddling clothes will be the one to carry on the Zhou family line. Take good care of him, my brother. It’s time for me to bid farewell to the mortal world.” With these words, Zhou got up and left on his own. His brother, tearfully, tried to persuade him to stay, but Zhou only smiled and didn’t look back. In the wilderness, Zhou met up with Cheng, who had been waiting there, and they continued on their journey together. Zhou looked back from a distance and shouted, “Being able to endure and yield in one’s actions is the greatest joy!” His brother had more to say but watched as Cheng’s wide sleeves fluttered, and the two of them immediately disappeared. Left behind, his brother stood in dismay for a while before sadly returning home.
Zhou’s younger brother was a simple and slow-reacting man who wasn’t adept at managing his family or their estate. As the years passed, their household grew increasingly impoverished. Zhou’s son, as he grew older, lacked the means for a proper education, so Zhou’s brother had no choice but to teach him himself. One day, Zhou’s brother entered the study and found a tightly sealed letter on the table. The envelope bore the inscription “To My Virtuous Brother,” and upon opening it, he was surprised to discover that it contained nothing but a fingernail, about two finger joints in length. He was greatly puzzled by this strange gift. Placing the fingernail on an inkstone, he left the room to inquire with the household about the origin of the letter, but no one knew anything about it. When he returned to the study and examined the fingernail once more, he was astonished to find that the inkstone had transformed into shining gold. Deeply shocked, he used the fingernail to test copper and iron, and they, too, turned into gold. From that point on, the Zhou family became exceedingly wealthy. Zhou’s brother also gave a thousand taels of gold to Cheng’s son as a gift, leading the local community to speculate about these two families possessing the ability to transmute base metals into gold.