Explore the story of Zhu Er, a tale of supernatural events, family bonds, and an illness that changed everything.
Changzhou resident Li Hua had a lot of farmland in his family. He was already in his fifties and still didn’t have a son. He had a daughter named Xiao Hui, who was beautiful in appearance. He and his wife loved her dearly. However, when she was only fourteen, she suddenly fell seriously ill and passed away. The family became desolate, and life lost its joy. So, Li Hua married a younger wife. After more than a year, they had a son, whom they cherished dearly and named Zhu Er. Zhu Er gradually grew up and became strong and adorable. However, he had a special mental disability. At the age of five or six, he couldn’t distinguish between beans and wheat, and his speech was unclear and stuttered. Li Hua still loved him and didn’t mind his shortcomings.
At that time, there was a one-eyed monk who begged for alms in the marketplace. He could uncover people’s secret affairs, which astonished everyone. They believed he was a deity and even spread rumors that he could control people’s life and death. This monk would ask for money and goods from people, ranging from tens to hundreds or thousands, and no one dared to refuse him. The monk approached Li Hua and asked for a hundred coins. Li Hua felt troubled but offered ten coins. The monk refused. The amount gradually increased to thirty coins, and the monk sternly said, “It must be a hundred coins, not a single coin less!” Li Hua became angry and took back his money, then walked away. The monk got angry and said, “You may regret this, you may regret this!”
Not long after, Zhu Er suddenly experienced severe chest pain, clutching the bedding in agony, and his face turned pale. Li Hua was frightened and took eighty coins to beg the monk for help. The monk smiled and said, “It’s not easy to take out so much money, but what can this humble monk do?” Li Hua returned home, but his son had already passed away. He was deeply saddened and filed a complaint with the county official. The county official sent people to arrest the monk and interrogated him, but the monk cleverly defended himself without revealing the truth. The county officer tortured the monk, as if beating a drum. They searched him and found two wooden figurines, a small coffin, and five small flags. The county official was furious and showed the evidence to the monk, who finally became afraid and repeatedly kowtowed. The county official, however, didn’t listen and beat him to death with a stick. Li Hua thanked the county official and returned home.
At that time, the sky had already darkened, and Li Hua sat on the bed with his wife. Suddenly, they noticed a young child rushing into the room, saying, “Dad, why did you walk so fast? I chased you as hard as I could, but I couldn’t catch up.” Judging by the child’s appearance, he seemed to be around seven or eight years old. Li Hua was taken aback and was about to question him when he saw the child appearing and disappearing like smoke and mist, and in a blink of an eye, he was already sitting on the bed. Li Hua pushed him off, and the child made no sound when he fell to the floor. The child said, “Dad, why act this way?” In the blink of an eye, he was back on the bed. Li Hua was frightened and, along with his wife, ran away in fear. The child followed them, calling out for his father and mother, making baby sounds incessantly. Li Hua ran to his younger wife’s room, hastily closed the door, and when he looked back, the child was already standing next to him. Astonished, Li Hua asked the child what he wanted to do, and the child replied, “I’m from Suzhou, and my last name is Zhan. I lost my parents when I was six, and my older brother and sister-in-law rejected me, sending me to my maternal grandfather’s house. One day, while playing outside, I was misled by an evil monk and killed under a mulberry tree. He forced me to be a malevolent ghost, and my grievances were buried deep under the earth, unable to be resolved. Luckily, you avenged me, and I’m willing to be your son.” Li Hua said, “Humans and ghosts belong to two different worlds; how can we rely on each other?” The child said, “Just clear out a small room, set up a bed for me, and give me a cup of cold rice soup every day; that’s all I need.” Li Hua agreed. The child was pleased and began living alone in a small room. In the mornings, he would come and go in the courtyard, just like the other children in the house. When he heard Li Hua’s younger wife crying for her son, he asked, “How many days has Zhu Er been dead?” She replied that he had been dead for seven days. The child said, “The weather is cold, and the body won’t decay. You can open the coffin and take a look. If the body is undamaged, I can bring him back to life.” Li Hua was very happy and went with the child to the grave. They opened the coffin and found the body unchanged. Just as they were grieving, they turned around, and the child had disappeared. Li Hua was very surprised, so he carried the body back home. As soon as he placed the body on the bed, the eyes began to move. After a while, the boy asked for hot water, drank it, started sweating, and then got up.
Everyone was delighted that Zhu Er had died and come back to life, and he was now intelligent and agile, unlike before. However, at night, he would lie motionless, without a trace of breath. When they tried to turn his body, he remained completely still, just like he was dead. Everyone was shocked and thought he had died again. It was only as dawn approached that he seemed to awaken from a dream. When they approached him and asked, he said, “When I used to follow the evil monk, there were two of us children, one named Gezi. Yesterday, I couldn’t catch up with Dad because I was saying goodbye to Gezi behind. Now he’s in the underworld, serving as the adopted son of Jiang Yuanwai, and he’s quite comfortable there. He comes to play with me at night. Just now, he sent me back with a yellow horse with a white nose and a black mouth.” His mother asked, “Did you see Huixue in the underworld?” He said, “I don’t know, I’ll look for her next time.”
When Li Hua used to do business in Jinling, he owed money for goods to Yan Zifang. Later, Yan Zifang died, and no one knew about this debt. Li Hua was very frightened when he heard this. His mother asked again, “Have you seen your sister Hui?” He said, “I don’t know, I’ll look for her next time.”
A couple of days later, the child said to his mother, “Huixue is doing well in the underworld. She has married the young master of King Chujiang. Her head is adorned with pearls and jade, and when she steps outside, a hundred or so people shout and clear the way for her.” His mother asked, “Why doesn’t she come back home to visit?” The child replied, “After a person dies, they have no connection with their living relatives anymore. If someone were to recount the details of her life before death, it might jog her memory and move her. Yesterday, I asked Jiang Yuanwai to help me find a way to see my sister, and I met her. She asked me to sit on a coral bed. I talked to her about our parents’ concern, but at that time, she seemed unresponsive, like she was dozing off. So I said, ‘When you were alive, you loved to embroider twin flowers. Once, you pricked your finger with scissors, and your blood stained the silk, creating a red cloud-like pattern. Mother still hangs it on the wall by her bed, constantly missing you. Have you forgotten all about it?’ Only then did she feel saddened and said, ‘Let me tell my husband, and I will come home to visit Mother.'” His mother asked when she would come back home, but the child said he didn’t know.
One day, the child said to his mother, “Sister is about to arrive, and there are many servants accompanying her, so we should prepare more food and wine.” After a while, the child ran into the house and said, “Sister has arrived!” He moved a chair to the main hall and said, “Sister, please sit down and rest for a while, don’t be too sad.” Everyone else couldn’t see this scene. The child, along with the people, burned paper offerings and poured wine outside the door. He returned and said, “The attendants have been temporarily sent away. Sister asked, ‘The green brocade quilt we used in the past, which had a bean-sized burn mark from a candle, is it still here?'” His mother said, “Yes, it’s still here.” They immediately opened a chest and took it out. The child said, “Sister asked me to put the quilt in the chamber where she used to stay. She’s tired and wants to take a short nap. She’ll talk to Mother again tomorrow morning.”
The daughter of the Zhao family from the east, who was a good friend of Xiao Hui during their teenage years, had a dream one night. In her dream, she saw Xiao Hui wearing a headscarf and a purple shawl, visiting her with the same words, laughter, and appearance as usual. She said, “Now I am no longer human, and seeing my parents is as difficult as crossing vast oceans and mountains. I wish to borrow your body to speak with my family, so do not be alarmed.” As soon as the day broke, the daughter of the Zhao family was talking to her mother when she suddenly collapsed to the ground, unconscious. It took a while before she woke up and said to her mother, “Xiao Hui and Aunt have been separated for several years and have both grown old with white hair.” Her mother, startled, asked, “Is my daughter insane?” The daughter bid farewell to her mother and went outside. Her mother sensed something unusual and followed her.
The daughter of the Zhao family went straight to the Li family’s courtyard, where she embraced Li’s mother and cried mournfully. Li’s mother was astonished and did not understand what was happening. The daughter said, “I came back yesterday, feeling very tired and couldn’t speak. I have been unfilial, leaving my parents midway and causing them grief. It’s truly a sin.” It was only at this moment that Li’s mother suddenly realized what was happening and began to cry bitterly. After crying, she asked, “I heard that my daughter has become a noblewoman. I find comfort in that. How did you manage to come here?” The daughter replied, “My husband treats me very lovingly, and my in-laws also adore me. They do not find any fault in me.”
When Xiao Hui was alive, she liked to rest her chin on her hand, and the daughter of the Zhao family noticed that she often did the same while talking, imitating her exactly as she used to be. Soon, Zhu Er ran in and said, “The people here to fetch my sister have arrived.” The daughter stood up, cried, and knelt to bid farewell, saying, “I am leaving.” After that, the daughter of the Zhao family collapsed to the ground again and only woke up after an hour.
After several months, Li Hua’s condition worsened, and medical treatments proved ineffective. The child said, “I’m afraid he may pass away sooner or later, and there’s no way to save him! Two little spirits are sitting at the foot of the bed, one holding an iron rod, and the other holding a long hemp rope, about four or five feet long. The child pleads with them day and night, but they just won’t leave.” Li’s mother cried and prepared old clothes and bedding to offer to the spirits.
In the evening, the child walked in briskly and said, “Ladies, please step aside. My brother-in-law is coming to see father.” After a while, the child clapped his hands and laughed heartily. His mother asked him, and he said, “I’m laughing at those two little spirits. I heard my brother-in-law is coming, and they both hid under the bed, just like a pair of timid tortoises.” After a short while, the child looked up at the sky and greeted, inquiring about his sister’s well-being. He clapped his hands again and said, “Those two little spirit servants begged not to leave, but now they’ve finally left, which is a great relief!” He then went out the door but returned to say, “My brother-in-law has left, and the two little spirits were tethered to a horse’s bridle. Father’s illness should be improving. My brother-in-law said, ‘Go back and report to the King, and ask for a hundred years of life for our parents.'” The whole family was overjoyed.
During the night, Li Hua’s condition significantly improved, and after a few days, he made a full recovery.
Li Hua invited a teacher to educate his child. This child was very intelligent and, at the age of eighteen, passed the examination to become a scholar. At that time, he could still speak about matters related to the underworld. When he saw someone in the neighborhood fall ill, he could pinpoint the presence of spirits or ghosts. By burning certain things with fire, he often managed to cure the illnesses.
However, later on, Zhu Er fell seriously ill, with a bluish-purple complexion. He claimed that he was being punished by supernatural beings for revealing things he shouldn’t have spoken about, and from that point on, he never discussed matters related to the underworld again.