Becoming Immortal: A Tale of Transformation and Adventure

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.

《成仙》

文登周生,与成生少共笔砚,遂订为杵臼交。而成贫,故终岁常依周。以齿则周为长,呼周妻以嫂。节序登堂,如一家焉。周妻生子,产后暴卒。继聘王氏,成以少故,未尝请见之也。一日,王氏弟来省姊,宴于内寝。成适至。家人通白,周坐命邀之。成不入,辞去。周移席外舍,追之而还。甫坐,即有人白别业之仆为邑宰重笞者。

先是,黄吏部家牧佣,牛蹊周田,以是相诟。牧佣奔告主,捉仆送官,遂被笞责。周诘得其故,大怒曰:“黄家牧猪奴,何敢尔!其先世为大父服役,促得志,乃无人耶!”气填吭臆,忿而起,欲往寻黄。成捺而止之曰:“强梁世界,原无皂白。况今日官宰半强寇不操矛弧者耶?”周不听。成谏止再三,至泣下,周乃止。怒终不释,转侧达旦。谓家人曰:“黄家欺我,我仇也,姑置之。邑令为朝廷官,非势家官,纵有互争,亦须两造,何至如狗之随嗾者?我亦呈治其佣,视彼将何处分。”家人悉怂恿之,计遂决。具状赴宰,宰裂而掷之。周怒,语侵宰。宰惭恚,因逮系之。

辰后,成往访周,始知入城讼理。急奔劝止,则已在囹圄矣。顿足无所为计。时获海寇三名,宰与黄赂嘱之,使捏周同党。据词申黜顶衣,搒掠酷惨。成入狱,相顾凄酸,谋叩阙。周曰:“身系重犴,如鸟在笼,虽有弱弟,止足供囚饭耳。”成锐身自任,曰:“是予责也。难而不急,乌用友也!”乃行。周弟赆之,则去已久矣。至都,无门入控。相传驾将出猎,成预隐木市中,俄驾过,伏舞哀号,遂得准,驿送而下,着部院审奏。时阅十月馀,周已诬服论辟。院接御批,大骇,复提躬谳。黄亦骇,谋杀周。因赂监者,绝其食饮,弟来馈问,苦禁拒之。成又为赴院声屈,始蒙提问,业已饥饿不起。院台怒,杖毙监者。黄大怖,纳数千金,嘱为营脱,以是得朦胧题免。宰以枉法拟流。周放归,益肝胆成。

成自经讼系,世情尽灰,招周偕隐。周溺少妇,辄迂笑之。成虽不言,而意甚决。别后,数日不至。周使探诸其家,家人方疑其在周所。两无所见,始疑。周心知其异,遣人踪迹之,寺观壑谷,物色殆遍。时以金帛恤其子。

又八九年,成忽自至,黄巾氅服,岸然道貌。周喜,把臂曰:“君何往,使我寻欲遍?”笑曰:“孤云野鹤,栖无定所。别后幸复顽健。”周命置酒,略道间阔。欲为变易道装,成笑不语。周曰:“愚哉!何弃妻孥犹敝屣也?”成笑曰:“不然。人将弃予,其何人之能弃。”问所栖止,答在劳山之上清宫。既而抵足寝,梦成裸伏胸上,气不得息。讶问何为,殊不答。忽惊而寤,呼成不应,坐而索之,杳然不知所往。定移时,始觉在成榻。骇曰:“昨不醉,何颠倒至此耶!”乃呼家人。家人火之,俨然成也。周故多髭,以手自捋,则疏无几茎。取镜自照,讶曰:“成生在此,我何往?”已而大悟,知成以幻术招隐。意欲归内,弟以其貌异,禁不听前。周亦无以自明,即命仆马往寻成。

数日,入劳山。马行疾,仆不能及。休止树下,见羽客往来甚众。内一道人目周,周因以成问。道士笑曰:“耳其名矣,似在上清。”言已径去。周目送之,见一矢之外,又与一人语,亦不数言而去。与言者渐至,乃同社生。见周,愕曰:“数年不晤,人以君学道名山,今尚游戏人间耶?”周述其异。生惊曰:“我适遇之,而以为君也。去无几时,或当不远。”周大异,曰:“怪哉!何自己面目觌面而不之识!”仆寻至,急驰之,竟无踪兆。一望寥阔,进退难以自主。自念无家可归,遂决意穷追。而怪险不复可骑,遂以马付仆归,迤逦自往。

遥见一僮独坐,趋近问程,且告以故。僮自言为成弟子,代荷衣粮,导与俱行。星饭露宿,逴行殊远。三日始至,又非世之所谓上清。时十月中,山花满路,不类初冬。僮入报客,成即遽出,始认己形。执手入,置酒宴语。见异彩之禽,驯人不惊,声如笙簧,时来鸣于座上。心甚异之。然尘俗念切,无意留连。地下有蒲团二,曳与并坐。至二更后,万虑俱寂,忽似瞥然一盹,身觉与成易位。疑之,自捋颔下,则于思者如故矣。

既曙,浩然思返。成固留之。越三日,乃曰:“乞少寐息,早送君行。”甫交睫,闻成呼曰:“行装已具矣。”遂起从之,所行殊非旧途。觉无几时,里居已在望中。成坐候路侧,俾自归。周强之不得,因踽踽至家门。叩不能应,思欲越墙,觉身飘似叶,一跃已过。凡逾数重垣,始抵卧室。灯烛荧然,内人未寝,哝哝与人语。舐窗以窥,则妻与一厮仆同杯饮,状甚狎亵。于是怒火如焚,计将掩执,又恐孤力难胜。遂潜身脱扃而出,奔告成,且乞为助。成慨然从之,直抵内寝。周举石挝门,内张皇甚。擂愈急,内闭益坚。成拨以剑,划然顿辟。周奔入,仆冲户而走。成在门外,以剑击之,断其肩臂。周执妻拷讯,乃知被收时即与仆私。周借剑决其首,罥肠庭树间,乃从成出,寻途而返。蓦然忽醒,则身在卧榻。惊而言曰:“怪梦参差,使人骇惧!”成笑曰:“梦者兄以为真,真者乃以为梦。”周愕而问之。成出剑示之,溅血犹存。周惊怛欲绝,窃疑成诪张为幻。成知其意,乃促装送之归。

荏苒至里门,乃曰:“畴昔之夜,倚剑而相待者,非此处耶?吾厌见恶浊,请还待君于此。如过晡不来,予自去。”

周至家,门户萧索,似无居人。还入弟家。弟见兄,双泪遽堕,曰:“兄去后,盗夜杀嫂,刳肠去,酷惨可悼。于今官捕未获。”周如梦醒,因以情告,戒勿究。弟错愕良久。周问其子,乃命老媪抱至。周曰:“此襁褓物,宗绪所关,弟好视之。兄欲辞人世矣。”遂起,径出。弟涕泗追挽,笑行不顾。至野外,见成,与俱行。遥回顾曰:“忍事最乐。”弟欲有言,成阔袖一举,即不可见。怅立移时,痛哭而返。

周弟朴拙,不善治家人生产,居数年,家益贫。周子渐长,不能延师,因自教读。一日,早至斋,见案头有函书,缄封甚固,签题“仲氏启”,审之为兄迹。开视,则虚无所有,只见爪甲一枚,长二指许。心怪之。以甲置研上。出问家人所自来,并无知者。回视,则研石粲粲,化为黄金。大惊。以试铜铁,皆然,由此大富。以千金赐成氏子,因相传两家有点金术云。

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