In Ding Shuiqiao(丁水橋), a town in Tangxi(塘西鎮), Zhejiang(浙江), there was a boatman named Ma Nanzhen(馬南箴). One night, he was paddling a small boat on the river. On the shore, there was an old lady with her daughter, signaling the boat, requesting passage. Several passengers on the boat advised Ma Nanzhen to ignore her and refuse to ferry the old lady. However, Ma Nanzhen said, ‘It’s late at night, and they are women without a place to stay. Giving them passage can be considered accumulating some virtue.’ So, he invited the mother and daughter onto the boat. The old lady and her daughter boarded the boat silently, sitting in the cabin without saying a word.
It was early autumn at that time, and the handle of the Big Dipper pointed to the west. The old lady pointed to the constellation and laughed, saying to her daughter, ‘The pig-boy is pointing westward again. He seems to like following the trend so much?’ The daughter replied, ‘No, he has no choice! If he doesn’t keep indicating directions with the passing hours, people in this world might lose track of the seasons.’ The passengers in the cabin listened to their conversation, exchanging surprised glances, but the old lady and her daughter didn’t mind at all.
When the boat reached Beiguanmen, it was already dawn. The old lady poured out about a liter of soybeans from her bag to thank Ma Nanzhen. She also untied a piece of hemp cloth, wrapping the beans for him, saying, ‘My surname is Bai, and I live in Xitianmen. If one day you want to see me, just step on this hemp cloth, and you can ascend to the sky and find my home.’ After saying this, they disappeared.
Ma Nanzhen thought they might be monsters, so he scattered the beans they gave him in the fields. When he returned home and rolled up his sleeves, he found a few beans still there. Upon closer inspection, they turned out to be pure gold. Regretting his actions, he thought, ‘Could it be that I encountered immortals?’ He hurried back to the field where he scattered the beans, but they were gone, while the hemp cloth remained. He stepped on the cloth and felt clouds drifting around him, lifting him lightly. He looked down and saw clearly the residents and villages passing beneath his feet. He arrived at a place with magnificent buildings, and a woman in green clothes was waiting outside, saying, ‘Sir, you’ve finally come.’ The woman in green helped the old lady come out, saying, ‘I have an old bond with you. I promise my daughter to you.’ Ma Nanzhen was humble, saying he wasn’t worthy. The old lady said, ‘Worthiness or not, if there’s a bond, it’s enough. When I signaled you to ferry me on the riverbank, the bond began from my side; when you agreed to ferry me, the bond began from your side.’ As soon as she finished speaking, a feast was laid out, music played, and a wedding ceremony took place. Ma Nanzhen stayed for over a month. Despite the love between husband and wife and a life of luxury, he missed his hometown. He discussed with his wife, who taught him how to descend on the clouds by stepping on the hemp cloth again. Ma Nanzhen followed her instructions and finally returned to Ding Shuiqiao. People in the village gathered at Ma’s home, not believing he came back from the sky.
Afterward, Ma Nanzhen frequently traveled between heaven and earth, relying on a piece of hemp cloth as his means of transportation. However, his parents detested their son’s actions and secretly burned the hemp cloth. The aroma left during the burning lingered for a month. Nevertheless, Ma Nanzhen’s path to heaven was thus cut off. Some say the old lady who claimed her surname was Bai was probably the White Rainbow Spirit from the heavens.
Translated from 《白虹精》 in 《子不語》:
🎨 《桃源仙境圖》仇英 明