Zhang Cheng: A Tale of Reunion, Sacrifice, and Unexpected Joy

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?”

《张诚》

豫人张氏者,其先齐人。明末齐大乱,妻为北兵掠去,张常客豫,遂家焉。娶于豫,生子讷。无何,妻卒,又娶继室,生子诚。继室牛氏悍,每嫉讷,奴畜之,啖以恶草具。使樵,日责柴一肩,无则挞楚诟诅,不可堪。隐畜甘脆饵诚,使从塾师读。诚渐长,性孝友,不忍兄劬,阴劝母。母弗听。

一日,讷入山樵,未终,值大风雨,避身岩下。雨止而日已暮,腹中大馁,遂负薪归。母验之少,怒不与食。饥火烧心,入室僵卧。诚自塾中来,见兄嗒然,问:“病乎?”曰:“饿耳。”问其故,以情告,诚愀然便去。移时,怀饼来饵兄。兄问其所自来,曰:“余窃面倩邻妇为之,但食勿言也。”讷食之,嘱弟曰:“后勿复然,事泄累弟。且日一啖,饥当不死。”诚曰:“兄故弱,乌能多樵!”

次日,食后,窃赴山,至兄樵处。兄见之,惊问:“将何作?”答曰:“将助樵采。”问:“谁之遣?”曰:“我自来耳。”兄曰:“无论弟不能樵,纵或能之,且犹不可。”于是速之归。诚不听,以手足断柴助兄,且云:“明日当以斧来。”兄近止之,见其指已破,履已穿,悲曰:“汝不速归,我即以斧自刭死!”诚乃归。兄送之半途,方复回。樵既归,诣塾,嘱其师曰:“吾弟年幼,宜闭之。山中虎狼多。”师曰:“午前不知何往,业夏楚之。”归谓诚曰:“不听吾言,遭笞责矣。”诚笑曰:“无之。”明日,怀斧又去。兄骇曰:“我固谓子勿来,何复尔?”诚不应,刈薪且急,汗交颐不少休,约足一束,不辞而返。师又责之,乃实告之,师叹其贤,遂不之禁。兄屡止之,终不听。

一日,与数人樵山中,欻有虎至,众惧而伏,虎竟衔诚去。虎负人行缓,为讷追及,讷力斧之,中胯,虎痛狂奔,莫可寻逐。痛哭而返,众慰解之,哭益悲,曰:“吾弟,非犹夫人之弟,况为我死,我何生焉!”遂以斧自刎其项。众急救之,入肉者已寸许,血溢如涌,眩瞀殒绝。众骇,裂之衣而约之,群扶而归。母哭骂曰:“汝杀吾儿,欲劙颈以塞责耶!”讷呻云:“母勿烦恼。弟死,我定不生!”置榻上,创痛不能眠,惟昼夜依壁坐哭。父恐其亦死,时就榻少哺之,牛辄诟责。讷遂不食,三日而毙。

村中有巫走无常者,讷途遇之,缅诉曩苦,因询弟所。巫言不闻,遂反身导讷去。至一都会,见一皂衫人,自城中出,巫要遮代问之。皂衫人于佩囊中检牒审顾,男妇百馀,并无犯而张者。巫疑在他牒,皂衫人曰:“此路属我,何得差逮。”讷不信,强巫入内城。城中新鬼、故鬼,往来憧憧,亦有故识,就问,迄无知者。忽共哗言:“菩萨至!”仰见云中,有伟人,毫光彻上下,顿觉世界通明。巫贺曰:“大郎有福哉!菩萨几十年一入冥司,拔诸苦恼,今适值之。”便捽讷跪。众鬼囚纷纷籍籍,合掌齐诵慈悲救苦之声,哄腾震地。菩萨以杨柳枝遍洒甘露,其细如尘。俄而雾收光敛,遂失所在。讷觉颈上沾露,斧处不复作痛。巫仍导与俱归,望见里门,始别而去。讷死二日,豁然竟苏,悉述所遇,谓诚不死。母以为撰造之诬,反诟骂之。讷负屈无以自伸,而摸创痕良瘥,自力起,拜父曰:“行将穿云入海往寻弟,如不可见,终此身勿望返也。愿父犹以儿为死。”翁引空处与泣,无敢留之。

讷乃去,每于冲衢访弟耗,途中资斧断绝,丐而行。逾年,达金陵,悬鹑百结,伛偻道上。偶见十馀骑过,走避道侧。内一人如官长,年四十已来,健卒怒马,腾踔前后。一少年乘小驷,屡视讷,讷以其贵公子,未敢仰视。少年停鞭少驻,忽下马,呼曰:“非吾兄耶!”讷举首审视,诚也,握手大痛失声。诚亦哭曰:“兄何漂落以至于此?”讷言其情,诚益悲。骑者并下问故,以白官长。官命脱骑载讷,连辔归诸其家,始详诘之。

初,虎衔诚去,不知何时置路侧,卧途中经宿。适张别驾自都中来,过之,见其貌文,怜而抚之,渐苏。言其里居,则相去已远,因载与俱归。又药敷伤处,数日始痊。别驾无长君,子之。盖适从游瞩也。诚具为兄告。

言次,别驾入,讷拜谢不已。诚入内,捧帛衣出,进兄,乃置酒燕叙。别驾问:“贵族在豫,几何丁壮?”讷曰:“无有。父少齐人,流寓于豫。”别驾曰:“仆亦齐人。贵里何属?”答曰:“曾闻父言,属东昌辖。”惊曰:“我同乡也!何故迁豫?”讷曰:“明季清兵入境,掠前母去。父遭兵燹,荡无家室,先贾于西道,往来颇稔,故止焉。”又惊问:“君家尊何名?”讷告之。别驾瞠而视,俛首若疑,疾趋入内。无何,太夫人出。共罗拜,已,问讷曰:“汝是张炳之之孙耶?”曰:“然。”太夫人大哭,谓别驾曰:“此汝弟也。”讷兄弟莫能解。太夫人曰:“我适汝父三年,流离北去,身属黑固山半年,生汝兄。又半年,固山死,汝兄以补秩旗下迁此官。今解任矣。每刻刻念乡井,遂出籍,复故谱。屡遣人至齐,殊无所觅耗,何知汝父西徙哉!”乃谓别驾曰:“汝以弟为子,折福死矣!”别驾曰:“曩问诚,诚未尝言齐人,想幼稚不忆耳。”乃以齿序:别驾四十有一,为长;诚十六,最少;讷二十二,则伯而仲矣。

别驾得两弟,甚欢,与同卧处,尽悉离散端由,将作归计。太夫人恐不见容,别驾曰:“能容则共之,否则析之。天下岂有无父之国?”于是鬻宅办装,刻日西发。既抵里,讷及诚先驰报父。父自讷去,妻亦寻卒,块然一老鳏,形影自吊。忽见讷入,暴喜,怳怳以惊;又睹诚,喜极,不复作言,潸潸以涕;又告以别驾母子至,翁辍泣愕然,不能喜,亦不能悲,蚩蚩以立。未几,别驾入,拜已,太夫人把翁相向哭。既见婢媪厮卒,内外盈塞,坐立不知所为。诚不见母,问之,方知已死,号嘶气绝,食顷始苏。别驾出赀,建楼阁,延师教两弟。马腾于槽,人喧于室,居然大家矣。

异史氏曰:余听此事至终,涕凡数堕。十馀岁童子,斧薪助兄,慨然曰:“王览固再见乎!”于是一堕。至虎衔诚去,不禁狂呼曰:“天道愦愦如此!”于是一堕。及兄弟猝遇,则喜而亦堕。转增一兄,又益一悲,则为别驾堕。一门团圞,惊出不意,喜出不意,无从之涕,则为翁堕也。不知后世亦有善涕如某者乎?

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