Discover the story of Liancheng, where a profound bond of friendship and love defies all odds and challenges, showcasing the rarity of true kindred spirits in a world of fleeting smiles.
Joesheng was a native of Jinning. In his youth, he gained fame far and wide for his outstanding talent. However, by the time he was in his twenties, he still struggled and had not achieved success. Joesheng was a person of great integrity, always willing to stand by his friends through thick and thin. Joesheng and Gusheng were good friends, and after Gusheng’s death, Joesheng often provided assistance to Gusheng’s widow and children.
The county magistrate of Jinning highly regarded Joesheng’s literary talent, and they shared common interests. Later, when the county magistrate passed away while in office, his entire family, young and old, was stranded in Jinning due to poverty. Joesheng sold all of his family’s property to transport the magistrate’s coffin and family back to their hometown, a round trip of over two thousand miles. Because of this act of righteousness, scholars held him in even higher esteem, but his own family fortunes continued to decline.
There was a scholar named Shi Xiaolian, and his daughter was named Shi Liancheng. She excelled in embroidery and was also well-versed in literature and etiquette. Shi Xiaolian cherished his precious daughter greatly. Therefore, he displayed Liancheng’s embroidered “Weary Embroidery Picture” and invited young talents to compose poems, with the intention of finding a talented husband for his daughter. Joesheng also participated and composed the following poem:
With a lazy bun and a tall hairpin, she sways gracefully,
Early at the orchid window, she embroiders green lotus leaves.
Piercing the mandarin ducks’ souls almost to their breaking point,
She secretly stops her needle and frowns with both eyes.
Joesheng also wrote poems praising Liancheng’s exceptional embroidery skills. He wrote as follows:
The embroidered threads are picked as if sketching life,
Within the artwork, the flowers and birds are naturally formed.
In those days, weaving brocade was not a long-lasting skill,
Fortunately, it conveyed the essence of returning messages to the wise and enlightened.
Liancheng was delighted upon receiving the poem, and she continuously praised the poet’s talent in front of her father. Although Shi Xiaolian felt that Joesheng’s family was too poor, Liancheng would always praise Joesheng when she met people. She even pretended to act on her father’s behalf and sent servants to give Joesheng money to support his studies. Joesheng exclaimed, “Liancheng is my confidante!” From then on, Joesheng poured his deep love into Liancheng, yearning for her like a thirsty soul.
Before long, Liancheng was promised in marriage to Wang Huacheng, the son of a salt merchant. Joesheng felt despair, but Liancheng continued to linger in his dreams, and he couldn’t forget her for a long time. Soon after, Liancheng fell ill with consumption and her condition grew critical.
A monk from the Western Regions claimed to have the ability to cure Liancheng’s illness but needed a piece of flesh weighing one qian from a man’s chest to mix into the medicine. Shi Xiaolian sent someone to inform Wang Huacheng’s family about this matter. After hearing it, Wang Huacheng laughed and said, “This old fool actually wants to cut the flesh from my chest!” When the family returned and conveyed Wang Huacheng’s words to Shi Xiaolian, he publicly announced, “Whoever can cut the flesh for Liancheng will marry her!” Joesheng heard this news and came to the Shi family. He personally used a knife to cut a piece of flesh from his chest and handed it to the monk. His fresh blood quickly stained his clothes and pants, and the monk used it to make three pills. Liancheng took one pill each day, and after three days, her illness was cured.
Shi Xiaolian was ready to fulfill his promise and marry Liancheng to Joesheng. He had informed Wang Huacheng in advance, but Wang Huacheng, upon hearing the news, became furious and immediately threatened to report Shi Xiaolian to the authorities. Helpless, Shi Xiaolian invited Joesheng for a feast and placed a thousand taels of silver on the table, saying, “I have greatly wronged you with my promise. Please allow me to repay you with this!” He then explained in detail the reason for breaking the promise. Joesheng, burning with anger, replied, “The reason I sacrificed my own flesh was to repay a dear friend. Do you think I did it to sell my flesh for silver?” With that, he turned and left.
When Liancheng heard about this matter, she felt deeply saddened. She sent a servant to comfort Joesheng, saying, “With your talent, you won’t remain downcast for long. Isn’t the world vast enough to hold a beauty for you? I had an ominous dream, and I am destined to leave this world within three years. You don’t need to compete for someone who is about to depart.” Joesheng had the servant convey his message to Liancheng: “Ancient wisdom says, ‘A scholar dies for a true friend,’ and it is not about physical appearance. I worry that Liancheng may not truly understand me, but anyone who truly understands me, even if we don’t become husband and wife, what does it matter?” The servant expressed Liancheng’s sincere feelings on her behalf. Joesheng said, “If that’s truly the case, when we meet, and Liancheng can give me a smile, I will die without regrets!”
A few days after the servant left, Joesheng happened to be outside and encountered Liancheng returning from her uncle’s house. He stared at her in astonishment. Liancheng, with a charming look in her eyes, smiled at Joesheng. Joesheng was overjoyed and exclaimed, “Liancheng is indeed my soulmate!”
When the Wang family sent people to discuss the wedding date, Liancheng’s old illness recurred, and she passed away a few months later. Joesheng came to offer condolences, and in front of Liancheng’s spirit, he wept bitterly and collapsed, passing away beside her. Shi Xiaolian sent people to carry him back home.
Joesheng knew that he had already passed away, and there was nothing to be sad about. He walked out of the village, still hoping to catch one more glimpse of Liancheng. He looked into the distance and saw a major north-south road with pedestrians moving like ants. Unconsciously, Joesheng merged into the crowd. After a while, he entered a public hall and ran into his old friend Gusheng, who asked in surprise, “How did you get here?” and tried to take him back. Joesheng sighed and said, “There’s still one matter left unresolved.” Gusheng replied, “I manage official documents here and enjoy the trust of my superiors. If I can be of service to you, I will certainly not refuse.” Joesheng inquired about Liancheng’s whereabouts, and Gusheng led him around, searching several places, until they finally saw Liancheng with another woman in white. Her expression was sorrowful, tears stained her face, and she was sitting in a corner under the eaves. When Liancheng saw Joesheng, she immediately stood up and joyfully asked how he had come. Joesheng replied, “Without you, how could I dare to continue living in this world?” Liancheng cried and said, “I am such an ungrateful person. Why didn’t you give up on me sooner? What’s the point of sacrificing yourself for me? It’s regrettable that we cannot be husband and wife in this life, but I hope in the next life, we can continue our fate together.” Joesheng turned to Gusheng and said, “You have other matters to attend to, please go ahead! I would rather die like this than be reborn. But could you please find out where Liancheng will be reborn? I want to go with her.” After agreeing to Joesheng’s request, Gusheng left.
The young woman in white asked Liancheng who Joesheng was, and Liancheng explained the situation to her. Upon hearing it, the young woman felt deeply saddened. Liancheng introduced the young woman to Joesheng, saying, “This is my sister with the same surname. Her nickname is Binniang, and she is the daughter of the Magistrate of Changsha Prefecture. We have traveled together, so we have grown fond of each other.” Joesheng looked at Binniang, who was beautiful and charming, evoking sympathy.
Just as Joesheng was about to inquire about Binniang’s situation in detail, Gusheng returned and congratulated Joesheng, saying, “I have already arranged everything for you. Your wife will return to the mortal world with you soon. How does that sound?” Joesheng and Liancheng were overjoyed. Just as they were about to bid farewell to Gusheng, Binniang burst into tears and choked out, “If my sister is gone, where can I go? I beg you to have mercy on me and save me. I am willing to serve my sister as a maid and accompany her.”
Liancheng’s heart was heavy upon hearing this, but she couldn’t think of a solution. So, she asked Joesheng for help, and Joesheng turned to Gusheng with a plea. Gusheng was in a dilemma but eventually agreed reluctantly, saying, “I’ll give it a try.” After a while, Gusheng returned, shaking his head, and said, “What can we do? There seems to be no solution.” Binniang burst into tears again. She held onto Liancheng’s arm, fearing she would leave immediately. Everyone was filled with sorrow, helpless, and could only silently exchange glances, gazing at her sad and mournful face, their hearts aching.
Gusheng, moved by the situation, said, “Take Binniang with you! If there are any consequences, I’ll take full responsibility!” Binniang was finally relieved and left with Joesheng and the others. Joesheng was concerned that Binniang would have no companions on her long journey, but Binniang said, “I’ll go with you and won’t return home.” Joesheng replied, “You’re being too naive. If you don’t return home, how can you be resurrected? When I arrive in Hunan later, if you see me, don’t hide, and I’ll be immensely honored.” At that moment, there were two maidservants who were going to Changsha to deliver documents, so Joesheng asked Binniang to accompany them. With tears in her eyes, Binniang bid farewell to Joesheng and Liancheng.
On the way back home, Liancheng walked very slowly, stopping to rest every mile or so. It took more than ten breaks along the way before they reached the city gate. Liancheng said, “After I am reborn, I’m afraid of any setbacks. Please take my bones with you so that I can be resurrected at your home, and they won’t be able to go back on their word.” Joesheng also thought it was a good idea. So, the two of them returned to Joesheng’s home together.
Upon entering, Liancheng felt anxious and fearful, as if she couldn’t take another step. Joesheng stood by, waiting for her. Liancheng said, “As soon as I arrive here, I feel unsteady, as if my limbs are trembling and my mind is in turmoil. I’m afraid that our wishes won’t come true, so we need to plan carefully. Otherwise, how can I have control over my life after being reborn?” Holding hands, the two of them entered a side room, looked into each other’s eyes, and silently gazed at each other. After a while, Liancheng smiled and asked, “Do you dislike me?” Joesheng was greatly surprised and asked why. Liancheng, blushing, said, “I’m worried that I won’t be able to fulfill my promise after being resurrected and will once again fail to reciprocate your deep affection. Please let me repay you in my ghostly form first!” Joesheng was overjoyed, and the two of them shared a bed, experiencing great happiness.
However, due to their indulgence in physical pleasures, Joesheng delayed his resurrection, unwilling to return immediately. They quietly stayed in the side room for three days. Liancheng said, “As the saying goes, ‘An ugly bride must meet her in-laws sooner or later.’ We can’t hide here in fear forever. It’s not a long-term solution.” So, she urged Joesheng to enter the spirit hall quickly. Joesheng had just approached his own deathbed when his body immediately awakened. Joesheng’s family was astonished and didn’t know what to do. They quickly fed him some soup. Joesheng promptly asked them to summon Shi Xiaolian and requested that Liancheng’s remains be brought as well, claiming that he could resurrect her. Shi Xiaolian, overjoyed upon hearing the news, did as Joesheng had said and sent Liancheng’s body over.
As soon as Liancheng’s body was brought into Joesheng’s home, she woke up. Liancheng said to her father, Shi Xiaolian, “Daughter has already committed to Joesheng. There is no reason for me to return home. If you try to marry me off to someone else, I will die again!” Shi Xiaolian returned home and sent maids to serve at Joesheng’s home.
After hearing the news that Liancheng had been resurrected and committed herself to Joesheng, Wang Huacheng was furious and filed a complaint with the authorities. Corrupt officials accepted Wang Huacheng’s bribes and unjustly awarded custody of Liancheng to him. Joesheng was filled with anger but had no recourse.
Liancheng was forced to marry into Wang’s family, and she was so infuriated that she refused to eat or drink, only wishing for a quick death. At one point, when there was no one in the room, she hung her belt from the beam, attempting to end her life by hanging. After a day, Liancheng’s condition worsened, and she was on the verge of death.
Wang Huacheng became afraid and promptly sent Liancheng back to the Shi family. Shi Xiaolian then had Liancheng carried to Joesheng’s home. Wang Huacheng, upon hearing this, had no choice but to relent and let go of the situation.
After Liancheng had fully recovered, she often thought about Bin Niang (宾娘) and intended to send messengers to inquire about her situation. However, due to the long and difficult journey, she had not been able to do so. One day, a family member rushed in and reported, “There are many carriages and horses outside the gate.” Joesheng and his wife went outside to see, and Bin Niang had already entered the courtyard. The three of them met, and emotions ran high.
It turned out that Bin Niang’s father, Shi Taishou (史太守), had personally brought his daughter here. Joesheng hurriedly welcomed Shi Taishou into the hall. Shi Taishou said, “My daughter owes her rebirth to you. She has already vowed never to marry anyone else. Today, I will fulfill her wish.” Joesheng respectfully performed the traditional rites of bowing to his father-in-law.
At this moment, Shi Xiaolian also arrived, and he and Shi Taishou shared their family ties. Joesheng’s given name was Nian (年), and his courtesy name was Da Nian (大年).
The chronicler of strange tales said, “To become acquainted with someone through a single smile and then grant one’s life to them, many might consider such an act foolish. Were the five hundred strong men who died for the sake of friendship during the end of the Qin Dynasty all fools? This helps us realize the rarity and preciousness of true friends, which moves wise and heroic individuals with the sincerity of a kindred spirit. Looking across the vast world, finding a kindred spirit is a daunting task, which is why talented scholars often yearn only for a maiden’s enchanting smile. How tragic it is!”