The God Guan Settles a Prison Case

Ma Feng(馬豐), a scholar who had not passed the provincial imperial examination, taught at the Li family(李家)’s school in the western village of Liyang County(溧陽). Their neighbor(王某), Wang, was known for his vicious and cruel nature, often subjecting his wife to physical abuse. Wang’s wife, often starving, stole a roasted chicken from the Li family once when she couldn’t bear the hunger anymore.

When the Li family discovered it, they informed Wang. In a drunken state, wielding a knife and dragging his tied-up wife, Wang arrived at the Li household, intending to kill her publicly. Terrified, his wife, in desperation, falsely accused Ma Feng of being the thief.

Ma Feng argued with her, unable to prove his innocence. He suggested consulting the Guandi Temple(關神廟) in the village, using the method of throwing clamshells to divine the truth(擲杯珓卜): if the divination showed the yin side, it meant the woman stole the chicken; if it showed the yang side, it meant Ma Feng was the thief.

Everyone agreed to Ma Feng’s proposal. After three consecutive throws, all sides showed yang. Wang dropped the knife, released his wife, and returned home. However, Ma Feng bore the blame for the theft and lost respect in the village. For years, nobody asked him to teach.

Once, during a spirit-writing ritual, a Taoist claimed to be the ‘God of Guandi(關神)’. Ma Feng remembered the incident of being falsely accused years ago and cursed Guandi for not being effective.

Suddenly, the spirit-writing tray moved, and words appeared: ‘Ma, you will hold an official position in the future, do you know the importance and urgency of handling matters? You carry the stigma of a chicken thief, losing your teaching post. If Wang’s wife is proven to be the thief, she will become a wandering ghost. I would rather bear the reputation of being ineffective as you say, but I seek to save a life. Heaven has praised my ability to discern the importance of governance, and I have been elevated three levels in rank. ‘

‘Why do you blame me?’ Ma Feng asked, ‘Has Guan been promoted to a god? Why the elevation?’

The spirit replied, ‘Now, Guandi temples have been constructed across the lands under Heaven’s command. Guandi spirits from local righteous ghosts are chosen to represent and execute duties in these temples. The real Guandi remains by the side of the Heavenly Emperor and would not descend to Earth.’

Ma Feng was convinced by these words.

Original text from 《關神斷獄》in 《子不語》:

溧陽馬孝廉豐,未第時,館于邑之西村李家。鄰有王某,性凶惡,素捶其妻。妻饑餓,無以自存,竊李家雞烹食之。李知之,告其夫。夫方被酒,大怒,持刀牽妻至。審問得實,將殺之。妻大懼,誣雞為孝廉所竊。孝廉與爭,無以自明,曰:「村有關神廟,請往擲杯珓卜之。卦陰者婦人竊,卦陽者男子竊。」如其言,三擲皆陽。王投刀放妻歸,而孝廉以竊雞故,為村人所薄,失館數年。

他日,有扶乩者方登壇,自稱關神。孝廉記前事,大罵神之不靈。乩書灰盤曰:「馬孝廉,汝將來有臨民之職,亦知事有緩急重輕耶?汝竊雞,不過失館;某妻竊雞,立死刀下矣。我寧受不靈之名,以救生人之命。上帝念我能識政體,故超升三級。汝乃怨我耶?」孝廉曰:「關神既封帝矣,何級之升?」乩神曰:「今四海九州皆有關神廟,焉得有許多關神分享血食。凡村鄉所立關廟,皆奉上帝命,擇里中鬼平生正直者代司其事,真關神在帝左右,何能降凡耶?」孝廉乃服。

🎨 梁楷《潑墨仙人圖》, in the Southern Song Dynasty

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