Ding Kai(丁愷), a bailiff from the Yamen in Fengdu County(酆都縣), Sichuan(四川), was carrying official documents to deliver in Kuizhou(夔州). Passing by the Guimen Pass(鬼門關), he saw a stone tablet inscribed with the words “Boundary of Yin and Yang.” Ding Kai walked up to the stone tablet, touched and observed it for a long time, unknowingly crossing the boundary. Wanting to return the same way, he found himself lost, unable to discern the direction. With no other choice, he continued walking.
He entered an ancient temple where the statues were faded, the ox-headed ghosts on both sides covered in dust, and spiderwebs were abundant. He sighed seeing no head monk in the temple and used his sleeve to wipe off the dust and cobwebs from the statues.
Ding Kai walked for over two miles and suddenly heard the sound of flowing water. A river blocked his path. He saw a woman washing vegetables by the river. The vegetables were deep purple in color, with branches and leaves encircling them, resembling lotus flowers. Approaching closer, Ding Kai realized that the woman was his deceased wife. His wife, seeing him, was greatly surprised and asked, “Why has my husband come here? This is not the boundary of the mortal world!”
Ding Kai recounted getting lost and inquired about where she currently resided and what vegetables she was washing.
His wife explained, “After my death, I was married off by the ox-headed messenger of King Yama and now reside under the locust tree on the west side of the river. What I was washing just now is the fetal plant of the mortal world, commonly known as the ‘Purple River Cart.’ After washing it ten times, the child born will have a clear and bright face and will definitely prosper in the future. Washing it two or three times, the child will grow up to be ordinary. Those fetal plants that remain unwashed will give birth to ignorant and ugly individuals. Yama assigned this task to the ox-headed ghost, and I am washing the fetal plants on behalf of my husband.”
Ding Kai asked if there was a way for him to return to the mortal world. His wife replied, “Let me discuss it with my current husband. But as I was once your wife and now a ghost wife, speaking of both the new and old husbands feels rather embarrassing.”
Afterward, she invited Ding Kai into the house, engaged in casual conversation, and inquired about the well-being of relatives and friends.
Soon, there was a knock on the door. Fearing, Ding Kai hid under the bed. His wife opened the door, and the ox-headed ghost entered, removing the ox-head mask covering his face and placing it on the table. After removing the mask, the ox-headed ghost appeared like an ordinary person in appearance and speech. He complained of fatigue, having spent the day assisting King Yama with numerous significant cases, causing sore feet from standing for long hours. He asked his wife to bring him some wine to ease the discomfort. Gradually, he sensed the presence of a living person in the room, searching around. Realizing the situation could not be concealed, his wife pulled Ding Kai out from under the bed, asked him to kowtow, and explained the situation to the ox-headed ghost, pleading on behalf of her former husband. Upon recognizing Ding Kai, the ox-headed ghost said, “This person not only helped you, my virtuous wife, but he also did me a favor. When I was covered in dust in the temple, he cleaned me up. He is an honest and kind elder. However, I don’t know the length of his remaining life span. I will go to the judge tomorrow, take a look at his life and death register, and then we will know.” The ox-headed ghost invited Ding Kai to sit, and the three of them drank together. When the food was served, Ding Kai attempted to eat with chopsticks, but the ox-headed ghost and his wife hurriedly took them away, saying, “You can drink the ghost wine, but you must not eat ghost food. If you do, you’ll have to stay in the underworld forever.”
The next day, the ox-headed ghost went out early and returned in the evening, joyfully congratulating Ding Kai, saying, “I have checked the register of life and death in the underworld, and your lifespan has not ended yet. Luckily, I have a task at hand that will take you out of the Guimen Pass.” The ox-headed ghost held a piece of meat, red in color and emitting a foul smell, telling Ding Kai, “This piece of meat is for you. If you take it, you’ll become immensely wealthy.” Ding Kai asked for an explanation, and the ox-headed ghost explained, “This is a piece of meat from the back of a man named Zhang in Henan. Zhang usually had a bad reputation. King Yama caught him, hooked his back, and hung him on Iron Spike Mountain. Unexpectedly, in the middle of the night, the meat on Zhang’s back rotted, and he escaped back to the mortal world. Now, Zhang is suffering from back sores, and no renowned doctor can cure him. Go find Zhang, grind this piece of meat into powder, apply it to his back, and his sores will heal. He will surely thank you heavily.”
Ding Kai thanked the ox-headed ghost, wrapped the meat in paper, hid it on his person, and left the Guimen Pass with the ox-headed ghost disappearing immediately. Ding Kai arrived in Henan and indeed found a wealthy man named Zhang suffering from back sores. Ding Kai cured Zhang’s ailment and received five hundred taels of silver as a reward.
Translated from 《洗紫河車》 in 《子不語》: