Ye Sheng: A Reflection on Friendship and Destiny

Explore the remarkable journey of Ye Sheng, the trials of scholars, and the search for kindred spirits amidst life's challenges.

In Huaiyang County, there was a scholar surnamed Ye, whose first name I cannot recall. His essays and poetry were considered top-notch at the time, yet luck was never on his side as he repeatedly failed the imperial examinations. At this juncture, a man from the east named Ding Chenghe arrived in the county to assume the position of county magistrate. He came across Ye’s writings and was greatly impressed. He summoned Ye for a conversation, and their words resonated with each other, bringing them immense joy. Ding Chenghe invited Ye to reside in the government office, provided him with funds for study expenses, and frequently offered financial support for his family.

As the time for the provincial examinations approached, Magistrate Ding spoke highly of Ye in front of the chief examiner, and as a result, Ye achieved the top score, earning him the qualification to participate in the township examination. Magistrate Ding had high hopes for him. After the township examination, Ye was asked to submit his written work to Magistrate Ding, who, upon reading it, couldn’t help but express admiration. However, due to the constraints of fate, despite Ye’s writings despising the twists and turns of human destiny, he still did not pass the examination when the results were announced. Ye returned home with a dejected look, ashamed of disappointing his close friend. He became emaciated, resembling a wooden puppet in his dull and lifeless state. Upon hearing this, Magistrate Ding called him for consolation. Tears welled up in Ye’s eyes as he listened. Magistrate Ding sympathized with him and made a promise. When his term as magistrate was over, he would take Ye with him to the capital. Touched by this, Ye expressed his gratitude and, after bidding farewell, secluded himself at home, never to step out again.

Not long after, Ye fell seriously ill and couldn’t get out of bed. Magistrate Ding repeatedly sent gifts as tokens of his sympathy, but despite taking many medicines, Ye’s condition did not improve. At this time, coincidentally, Magistrate Ding was dismissed from his position due to a dispute with his superiors and was about to be relieved of his duties. He wrote a letter to Ye, the gist of which was: “I had already set a date for my return journey eastward, and the reason I haven’t departed yet is that I’ve been waiting for you. If you arrive in the morning, I will leave in the evening.” Magistrate Ding sent a messenger to deliver the letter to Ye’s bedside. Tearfully, Ye took the letter and

Upon returning to their hometown, Magistrate Ding asked his son to become Ye’s student, and Ye spent day and night teaching Magistrate Ding’s son. The son, named Reichang, was sixteen at the time and didn’t know how to write the standardized eight-legged essays. However, he was exceptionally bright; after reading an eight-legged essay two or three times, he wouldn’t forget it. After living in the Ding household for a year, Ye successfully taught Magistrate Ding’s son how to write essays fluently. With his father’s influence, Magistrate Ding’s son gained admission to the county school. Ye transcribed the eight-legged essays he had written for exam preparation and taught Magistrate Ding’s son to recite them. When Magistrate Ding’s son participated in the township examination, he encountered seven questions, and not a single one was beyond his preparation, allowing him to achieve the sixth place in the scholar’s ranking. One day, Magistrate Ding said to Ye, “Sir, by imparting only a small portion of your knowledge, you have helped my son achieve fame. Yet truly talented individuals often remain unrecognized for a long time. How can this be right?” Ye replied, “Perhaps this is the destiny I am meant to follow. However, now, by your good fortune and kindness, my writings can shine, and the world can know that my life has not been in vain due to my limited abilities. Moreover, for a scholar to find a true friend, there is nothing more to regret. Why must one achieve fame on the imperial exam and change one’s humble status to consider it good luck?” As Ye had been away from his hometown for a long time, Magistrate Ding was concerned that he might miss the regular annual examination and advised him to return home for the test. Ye felt unhappy upon hearing this.

Upon returning to his hometown, Ye saw the desolate and dilapidated scene in front of his own door, which deeply saddened him. He hesitated and entered the courtyard, where he coincidentally encountered his wife holding a winnowing basket. However, upon seeing him, she dropped the winnowing basket and fled in terror. Ye, feeling melancholic, said, “I have become wealthy now. After three or four years of not seeing each other, how have you reached a point where you don’t recognize me?” His wife, from a distance, replied, “You have been dead for a long time. What do you mean by wealth? The reason I have kept your coffin unburied for so long is because our family is too poor, and the children are too young. Now that Ada has grown into an adult, it’s time to find a place to bury you. Please don’t haunt us and scare the living!” Hearing these words, Ye displayed a disappointed and despondent expression. He slowly walked into the house and saw a coffin placed prominently there. He collapsed to the ground and disappeared. His wife, terrified, approached to take a closer look and found Ye’s clothes, hat, shoes, and socks scattered on the ground, like the shed skin of a cicada. Overwhelmed with grief, she held his clothes and burst into tears. Ye’s son returned from school, saw a horse tethered at the front door, and inquired about the reason. He was horrified and rushed to inform his mother. Tearfully, she described what she had witnessed. After carefully questioning the servants who had accompanied Ye, they finally learned the whole story. Upon hearing this, Magistrate Ding’s son was deeply saddened, and tears flowed from his eyes. He immediately had a carriage take him to Ye’s home, where he mourned in front of Ye’s spirit, funded Ye’s funeral, and buried him according to the customs of a scholar. Magistrate Ding’s son also gave a substantial amount of money to Ye’s son and hired a teacher to educate him. Magistrate Ding’s son made a recommendation to the local education authorities, and a year later, Ye’s son passed the imperial examination and became a xiucai.

The chronicler of strange tales said: Can a person’s soul, following their confidant, actually forget that they have already passed away? People who hear this story may not believe it, but I deeply believe it. In “Record of the Departed Spirits,” the beautiful maiden was able to separate her soul from her body for her beloved, accompanying him in life and death. Zhang Min and Gao Hui, as close friends separated by thousands of miles, could also meet in their dreams. Furthermore, the words on the page contain the blood and sweat of us scholars, and friends like Zhong Ziqi truly understand us scholars and share our fate! It is lamentable! Finding such a kindred spirit is something that cannot be expected, and many of us scholars often find ourselves in the lonely predicament of not having such a confidant. We are left alone, lamenting in front of our own shadows for a long time. Unfortunately, with our proud and unyielding nature, we cannot help but feel disappointed, without a plan, and self-pitying. Pity the poor and shabby-looking scholar, who even ghosts and monsters come to mock. If one fails the exams repeatedly, even every strand of hair seems ugly. Once a name falls from the list of successful candidates, every aspect of one’s writing seems flawed. Throughout history, one of the most famous mourners is Bian He, whose precious jade was rejected. Facing the reversal of good and bad, who is the discerning judge of talent? Possessing exceptional skills, unappreciated by others, one can only keep their name card close, as Me Heng did, until the characters are worn away after three years. Looking around in all directions, there is no place to turn in the world. In life, one should walk with eyes closed, following the fate set by heaven, be it prosperity or poverty. There are many exceptional individuals like Ye Sheng who have lived in obscurity their whole lives, but how can we make someone like Ding Chenghe reappear and accompany them in life and death? Alas!

《叶生》

淮阳叶生者,失其名字。文章词赋,冠绝当时,而所如不偶,困于名场。会关东丁乘鹤来令是邑,见其文,奇之。召与语,大悦。使即官署,受灯火,时赐钱谷恤其家。

值科试,公游扬于学使,遂领冠军。公期望綦切。闱后,索文读之,击节称叹。不意时数限人,文章憎命,榜既放,依然铩羽。生嗒丧而归,愧负知己,形销骨立,痴若木偶。公闻,召之来而慰之。生零涕不已。公怜之,相期考满入都,携与俱北。生甚感佩。辞而归,杜门不出。

无何,寝疾。公遗问不绝,而服药百裹,殊罔所效。公适以忤上官免,将解任去。函致生,其略云:“仆东归有日,所以迟迟者,待足下耳。足下朝至,则仆夕发矣。”传之卧榻。生持书啜泣,寄语来使:“疾革难遽瘥,请先发。”使人返白,公不忍去,徐待之。逾数日,门者忽通叶生至。公喜,逆而问之。生曰:“以犬马病,劳夫子久待,万虑不宁。今幸可从杖履。”公乃束装戒旦。

抵里,命子师事生,夙夜与俱。公子名再昌,时年十六,尚不能文。然绝惠,凡文艺三两过,辄无遗忘。居之期岁,便能落笔成文。益之公力,遂入邑庠。生以生平所拟举子业,悉录授读。闱中七题,并无脱漏,中亚魁。公一日谓生曰:“君出馀绪,遂使孺子成名。然黄钟长弃,奈何?”生曰:“是殆有命。借福泽为文章吐气,使天下人知半生沦落,非战之罪也,愿亦足矣。且士得一人知己,可无憾,何必抛却白纻,乃谓之利市哉?”公以其久客,恐误岁试,劝令归省。生惨然不乐。公不忍强,嘱公子至都为之纳粟。公子又捷南宫,授部中主政。携生赴监,与共晨夕。逾岁,生入北闱,竟领乡荐。会公子差南河典务,因谓生曰:“此去离贵乡不远。先生奋迹云霄,锦还为快。”生亦喜。择吉就道,抵淮阳界,命仆马送生归。

归见门户萧条,意甚悲恻。逡巡至庭中,妻携簸具以出,见生,掷具骇走。生凄然曰:“我今贵矣。三四年不觌,何遂顿不相识?”妻遥谓曰:“君死已久,何复言贵?所以久淹君柩者,以家贫子幼耳。今阿大亦已成立,行将卜窀穸。勿作怪异吓生人。”生闻之,怃然惆怅。逡巡入室,见灵柩俨然,扑地而灭。妻惊视之,衣冠履舄如脱委焉。大恸,抱衣悲哭。子自塾中归,见结驷于门,审所自来,骇奔告母。母挥涕告诉。又细询从者,始得颠末。从者返,公子闻之,涕堕垂膺。即命驾哭诸其室,出橐营丧,葬以孝廉礼。又厚遗其子,为延师教读。言于学使,逾年游泮。

异史氏曰:魂从知己,竟忘死耶?闻者疑之,余深信焉。同心倩女,至离枕上之魂;千里良朋,犹识梦中之路。而况茧丝蝇迹,呕学士之心肝;流水高山,通我曹之性命者哉!嗟呼!遇合难期,遭逢不偶。行踪落落,对影长愁;傲骨嶙嶙,搔头自爱。叹面目之酸涩,来鬼物之揶揄。频居康了之中,则须发之条条可丑;一落孙山之外,则文章之处处皆疵。古今痛哭之人,卞和惟尔;颠倒逸群之物,伯乐伊谁?抱刺于怀,三年灭字;侧身以望,四海无家。人生世上,只须合眼放步,以听造物之低昂而已。天下之昂藏沦落如叶生其人者,亦复不少,顾安得令威复来,而生死从之也哉?噫!

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