Read the heartwarming story of Zhang Cheng, a teenager who goes to great lengths to reunite with his family, facing challenges, sacrifice, and unexpected joy along the way.
In Henan, there was a man named Zhang, originally from Shandong. During the chaotic years at the end of the Ming Dynasty, his wife was abducted by northern soldiers. Since he frequently traveled to Henan, he settled there. The Zhang family in Henan married a woman and had a son named Ne. Soon after, his wife passed away, and he married another woman, who gave birth to a son named Cheng. The stepmother, Mrs. Niu, was very cruel and resented Zhang Ne, treating him like a servant and providing him with poor food and clothing. She sent him to the mountains to gather firewood, requiring him to bring back a bundle of firewood every day, or else he would be scolded and beaten. Zhang Ne suffered greatly. However, when it came to Zhang Cheng, she always hid delicious food for him and encouraged him to study. Zhang Cheng gradually grew up, and he was filial to his parents and loving towards his brother. Unable to bear seeing his brother suffer so much, he often secretly urged his mother to treat his brother better, but his mother refused to listen.
One day, Zhang Ne went into the mountains to cut firewood. Before he could gather enough, a sudden storm came, so he took shelter under a rocky overhang. When the rain stopped, it was already dark, and he was extremely hungry. He carried the firewood back home. Mrs. Niu noticed that there wasn’t enough firewood and angrily refused to give Zhang Ne any food. Zhang Ne was starving and collapsed on his bed as soon as he entered the house. When Zhang Cheng returned from school and saw his brother looking downcast, he asked, “Are you sick?” Zhang Ne replied, “No, I’m just hungry.” When Zhang Cheng asked why, Zhang Ne told him the truth, and Zhang Cheng walked away, feeling very upset. After a while, Zhang Cheng sneaked some bread for his brother to eat. Zhang Ne asked where the bread came from, and Zhang Cheng said, “I stole a bit of flour and had the neighbor’s wife make it for you. Just eat it and don’t tell anyone.” Zhang Ne ate the bread and advised his younger brother, “Don’t do this again in the future. If it gets out, you’ll get into trouble. Besides, you shouldn’t starve yourself by cutting so much firewood every day.” Zhang Cheng said, “You are already physically weak, how can you cut so much firewood?”
The next day, after Zhang Cheng had eaten, he secretly went up the mountain to where his brother was cutting firewood. When Zhang Ne saw him, he asked in surprise, “What are you doing here?” Zhang Cheng said, “I’m here to help you with the firewood.” Zhang Ne asked again, “Who told you to come?” Zhang Cheng replied, “I came on my own.” Zhang Ne said, “Even if you knew how to cut firewood, I wouldn’t let you do it.” He urged him to go back. Zhang Cheng didn’t listen and used his hands and feet to break the firewood to assist his brother, saying, “Tomorrow, I should bring an axe.” Zhang Ne approached his younger brother, preventing him from working. His fingers were bleeding, and his shoes were worn out. He sadly said, “If you don’t go back quickly, I will use an axe to cut my own throat!” Only then did Zhang Cheng return. Zhang Ne accompanied him halfway before going back. After finishing the firewood, Zhang Ne went to school and told the teacher, “My younger brother is still a child, you should keep an eye on him. There are many dangers in the mountains.” The teacher said, “I don’t know where he went this morning, but I already punished him with a ruler.” Zhang Ne returned home and said to Zhang Cheng, “See, you got punished for not listening to me.” Zhang Cheng smiled and said, “No, I didn’t.” The next day, Zhang Cheng carried the axe and went again. Zhang Ne exclaimed, “I didn’t ask you to come, why are you here again?” Zhang Cheng didn’t answer, busily chopping firewood. Sweat was dripping down his face, and he didn’t take a break. When he estimated that he had enough wood, he returned. The teacher scolded Zhang Cheng again, but Zhang Cheng told the teacher the truth. The teacher praised Zhang Cheng for his virtue and stopped prohibiting him. Zhang Ne repeatedly tried to stop Zhang Cheng from cutting firewood, but Zhang Cheng simply wouldn’t listen.
One day, Zhang Cheng and a few other people were in the mountains cutting firewood when suddenly a tiger leaped out. Everyone was frightened and hid, but the tiger grabbed Zhang Cheng and ran off with him. Because the tiger was slowed down by carrying a person, Zhang Ne caught up with them. Zhang Ne wielded an axe and struck the tiger with force, hitting its hip bone. The tiger, in pain, fled wildly, and Zhang Ne couldn’t catch up anymore. Zhang Ne returned home in tears, and everyone tried to comfort and console him. Zhang Ne cried even harder and said, “My brother is not an ordinary brother, and he died for me. How can I go on living?” He then tried to use the axe to cut his own throat. Everyone rushed to stop him, but the axe had already cut over an inch deep into his neck, and blood was flowing profusely. He fainted right away. Everyone was shocked and quickly tore off their clothes to wrap his wound and helped him back home.
Mrs. Niu cried and scolded Zhang Ne, saying, “You killed my son, and now you want to use slitting your throat as an excuse!” Zhang Ne groaned and said, “Mother, don’t be troubled. If my brother is dead, I won’t live either!” Zhang Ne lay in bed, in unbearable pain from his wound, unable to sleep day or night. He wept by the wall day and night. His father, fearing that he wouldn’t survive, would sometimes feed him a little food by the bedside, but Mrs. Niu would scold him fiercely whenever she saw it. Zhang Ne stopped eating altogether, and after three days, he passed away.
In the village, there was a “spirit dancer,” and on his way, Zhang Ne encountered him. Zhang Ne shared his past sorrows with the spirit dancer and inquired about his younger brother’s whereabouts. The spirit dancer couldn’t provide a clear answer, so he turned back and led Zhang Ne to search together. They arrived in a town and saw a person in black clothing coming out of the city. The spirit dancer stopped the person and asked about Zhang Ne’s brother. The person in black took out a ledger from his pouch and checked it, which contained the names of over a hundred men and women, but Zhang Cheng’s name was not among them. The spirit dancer suspected it might be in another ledger, but the person in black said, “This is my jurisdiction; I couldn’t have made a mistake.” Zhang Ne didn’t believe it and insisted that the spirit dancer accompany him into the city.
Inside the city, there were new and old spirits coming and going. Some were acquaintances, but when asked, they claimed not to know anything. Suddenly, there was a commotion, and everyone said, “The Bodhisattva is here!” They looked up and saw a majestic figure in the sky, radiating brilliant light, illuminating the world. The spirit dancer congratulated Zhang Ne, saying, “You are truly fortunate! The Bodhisattva visits the underworld only once every few decades, dispelling various sufferings. Today, you are witnessing it.” With that, he pulled Zhang Ne to kneel down.
The multitude of spirits were in chaos, reciting prayers of compassion and salvation, creating a deafening noise that shook the heavens and the earth. The Bodhisattva sprinkled nectar with willow branches, and the tiny droplets resembled dust. After a while, the mist dissipated, and the light disappeared, and the Bodhisattva was nowhere to be seen. Zhang Ne felt that he had also been touched by the nectar on his neck, and the wound from the axe was no longer painful.
The spirit dancer then led him back to the mortal world, and when they reached the door of his home, they parted ways. Two days after Zhang Ne’s death, he suddenly came back to life. He recounted what he had seen and heard and insisted that Zhang Cheng was still alive. Mrs. Niu thought Zhang Ne was making up lies to deceive her and scolded him instead. Filled with grievances and unable to explain, Zhang Ne touched his wound, which was completely healed. He struggled to stand up and bowed to his father, saying, “I will go to the ends of the earth to find my younger brother. If I can’t find him, I will never return. Father, please consider me as if I were already dead.” Zhang’s father took his son to a secluded place, cried bitterly, and couldn’t bring himself to keep his son from leaving.
After Zhang Ne left home, he traveled to various major roads to inquire about his younger brother’s whereabouts. Along the way, he ran out of money, so he begged for food while walking. After more than a year of journeying, he arrived in Jinling. He wore tattered clothes and hunched over as he walked along the road. By chance, he saw a group of over ten people on horseback approaching, so he hid by the roadside. Among the riders, there appeared to be an officer in his forties, leading a group of sturdy soldiers riding powerful steeds, closely guarded on both sides. A young man on a small horse continuously stared at Zhang Ne. Because they seemed like noble gentlemen, Zhang Ne didn’t dare to look directly at them. The young man stopped his whip and stared for a while, then suddenly dismounted and shouted, “Isn’t that my brother!” Zhang Ne raised his head and took a closer look, realizing that it was indeed Zhang Cheng. He tightly grasped his hand and cried in sorrow. Zhang Cheng also cried and said, “How did my brother end up in such a situation?” Zhang Ne told him the truth, which made Zhang Cheng even more sorrowful. The people on horseback dismounted and inquired about the situation, then reported to their officer. The officer ordered a horse to be given to Zhang Ne, and they rode side by side back home, listening carefully to the whole story.
As it turned out, after the tiger had taken Zhang Cheng, it somehow left him by the roadside. Zhang Cheng spent a night lying on the road. It happened that Zhang Bie Jia, passing through this area on his way from the capital, saw Zhang Cheng’s refined and pitiable appearance. He took care of him, and Zhang Cheng gradually regained consciousness. Zhang Cheng’s original residence was now far from where he was found, so Zhang Bie Jia brought him back to his mansion. After returning to the mansion, they treated Zhang Cheng’s injuries with medication, and after a few days, he had fully recovered. Since Zhang Bie Jia didn’t have any grown-up sons, he treated Zhang Cheng as his own son. Zhang Cheng had been touring with Zhang Bie Jia. He shared his own situation with his brother.
While they were speaking, Zhang Bie Jia entered, and Zhang Ne kept expressing his gratitude. Zhang Cheng went to the inner room and brought out silk clothing for his brother to wear. They then set up a feast and began conversing. Zhang Bie Jia asked, “Is your family originally from Henan? Are there any other relatives?” Zhang Ne replied, “No, there are no others. My father was originally from Shandong when he was young, but later he moved to Henan.” Zhang Bie Jia said, “I’m also from Shandong. Which jurisdiction in Shandong does your family belong to?” Zhang Ne replied, “My father mentioned that it was under the jurisdiction of Dongchang Prefecture.” Zhang Bie Jia exclaimed, “We are from the same hometown! Why did your family move to Henan?” Zhang Ne explained, “During the late Ming Dynasty, when the Qing soldiers invaded, they kidnapped my father’s first wife. My father suffered from the chaos and lost all his property. Since he used to trade in the west frequently and was familiar with that area, he decided to settle there.” Zhang Bie Jia asked again, “What is your father’s name?” Zhang Ne told him. After hearing this, Zhang Bie Jia stared at Zhang Ne for a while, then lowered his head in thought and quickly entered the inner room. After a while, an elderly lady came out. After Zhang Ne and his companions paid their respects to the elderly lady, she asked Zhang Ne, “Are you Zhang Bingzhi’s grandson?” Zhang Ne replied, “Yes.” The elderly lady burst into tears and said to Zhang Bie Jia, “This is your brother.” Zhang Ne and his brother were puzzled. The elderly lady continued, “I married your father three years ago, but later we separated, and I went to the north and joined the Black Flag leader. Half a year later, I gave birth to your older brother. Another half year later, the leader passed away, and your older brother succeeded him in this position. He eventually resigned from the position and returned to our hometown because he always missed it. He left the flag and regained his original family lineage. We tried to inquire about him in Dongchang several times but got no news, little did we know your father had moved westward!” She said to Zhang Bie Jia, “Treating your brother as your own son is a great blessing!” Zhang Bie Jia replied, “When I asked Zhang Cheng before, he never mentioned being from Shandong. Perhaps he was too young to remember.” So, they arranged their positions in order of age: Zhang Bie Jia, at forty-one, became the eldest, Zhang Cheng, at sixteen, was the youngest, and Zhang Ne, at twenty-two, went from being the eldest at home to the second oldest.
Zhang Bie Jia was delighted to have his two younger brothers back, and they all slept together, talking about the family’s experiences and planning to go to Henan together. The elderly lady was concerned that the family in Henan might not accept them. Zhang Bie Jia said, “If they accept us, we’ll stay together, otherwise, we’ll live separately. After all, where in the world is there a family that doesn’t acknowledge their father?” So, they sold their house, prepared their belongings, and on an appointed day, they set out to the west. When they reached their hometown, Zhang Ne and Zhang Cheng rushed ahead to inform their father. Since Zhang Ne had left, Zhang’s wife had passed away, leaving him a lonely old man, living a solitary life. Suddenly seeing Zhang Ne enter, he was so overjoyed that he couldn’t believe his eyes. When he saw Zhang Cheng was also alive, he was too happy to speak, tears streaming uncontrollably. Zhang Ne then informed him that Zhang Bie Jia and his mother had also arrived. Zhang’s father was stunned, his tears stopped, and he stood there in a daze. Before long, Zhang Bie Jia arrived and paid his respects to his father. The elderly lady, holding the old man, wept bitterly face to face. Zhang’s father, seeing many maids and servants following, felt out of place amidst the crowd. Zhang Cheng, learning that his mother had passed away, cried bitterly until he fainted. It took a while after a meal for him to regain consciousness. Zhang Bie Jia provided the funds to build a new house, halls, and invited a teacher to educate his two younger brothers. The Zhang family prospered all of a sudden, with horses frolicking by the trough, people laughing in the hall, and becoming a prominent local household.
The chronicler of strange tales said, “When I heard this story, tears welled up in my eyes several times from beginning to end. A teenager willingly going up the mountain to chop firewood and helping his abused brother, I couldn’t help but exclaim, ‘Is there really such a person as Wang Lan appearing again!'” So, I shed tears for the first time. When the tiger carried away Zhang Cheng, I couldn’t help but cry out, ‘How can the ways of heaven be so blind!’ So, I shed tears again. When the brothers unexpectedly reunited, I shed tears out of joy. The unexpected addition of another brother and the added sorrow made me shed tears for Zhang Bie Jia’s experiences. A family reunion, unexpected encounters, unexpected joy, and tears for no apparent reason made me shed tears for old Zhang. I wonder if there will be anyone in the future who sheds tears as easily as I do?”