The Story of the King Yu Stele Swallowing Snakes

During his tenure as the magistrate of Liangdang County(兩當縣) in Shaanxi(陝西), Tu Chiwen(屠赤文) had a cook named Zhang(張某) under his command. Zhang, a powerful and hearty eater, possessed immense strength and a robust stature but lacked his left ear. Tu Chiwen inquired about the cause of his missing ear, and Zhang recounted his experience.

“I hail from Sichuan(四川), where my family for three generations lived off hunting. We owned an extraordinary book passed down through generations, teaching hunters a peculiar skill: by catching a breeze and sniffing it, one could discern the approach of any wild beast. I learned it when I was young.

Once, I was hunting in the Qionglai Mountains. There was a place in the mountains called the Yin-Yang Boundary(陰陽界). The Yang side was relatively flat and wide, while the Yin side was perilously steep and rarely visited. I had no luck hunting on the Yang side and decided to take provisions to the Yin side. After traveling over fifty miles, dusk had fallen, and I glimpsed a massive fire blazing on a mountain peak ten miles away. The flames soared high, illuminating the trees and valleys as if it were daytime. Then, an odd wind swept through. Uncertain about what lay ahead, I sniffed the breeze, but it was something not documented in the book. Fear gripped me, so I hurriedly climbed to the top of a tree to observe.

Before long, the fire drew nearer, and within it, I saw a towering stone stele. Carved on the top of the stele was the shape of a tiger, radiating a dazzling light akin to thousands of torches, illuminating the surroundings for miles. The stele slowly moved forward. As it reached the base of my tree, it suddenly rose three to four zhang high, as though it intended to devour me, nearly touching my body. I held my breath, motionless, and the stele slowly moved southwest.

Just as I thought I had escaped danger and planned to descend from the tree once the stele had moved far away, I saw countless enormous snakes covering the sky, some as thick as wagon wheels, others as wide as bushel baskets, swiftly approaching. I believed this would be the end for me, swallowed by these snakes, and my panic intensified. Unexpectedly, these snakes soared into the sky, straight towards the clouds. Being far from the tree, I crouched on the tree, completely unharmed. Only a small snake flew lower, brushing past my ear. Instantly, I felt excruciating pain, and when I touched it, my left ear was gone, blood streaming down. Meanwhile, the stele stood in front, stationary within the flames. Every snake that passed by the stele turned into an empty shell, falling to the ground as if countless white ribbons fluttered down. I could only hear the sound of these snakes being devoured. After a while, all the snakes vanished, and the stele moved away.

I stayed in the tree until the next day and then hurriedly sought my way back but ended up lost. It was then I encountered an old man. I told him about my experience. The old man said, ‘I am a mountain dweller here. What you saw yesterday was the King Yu Stele. When Great Yu was controlling the flood and arrived at the Qionglai Mountains, venomous snakes blocked his path. King Yu was furious and ordered the extermination of the snakes, erecting two stone steles to suppress the serpent horde. He instructed the two steles, ‘You shall become deities in the future, tasked with eradicating snakes for generations to protect the people.’ It has been four thousand years now, and indeed, the steles have become deities. There are two, one large and one small. You were fortunate to encounter the small stele, thus escaping death. If the large one had emerged, a great fire would have spread for five miles in all directions, turning the forests to ashes, and you would likely have perished. Both steles feed on snakes. Wherever they go, the snakes follow, ready to die, paying no attention to harming humans. Your ear was poisoned by the snake venom. Once in the Yang side, upon exposure to sunlight, you will perish.’ The old man then took out medicine from his belongings, treated my injury, and showed me the way back. Only then did I bid him farewell.”

Translated from 《禹王碑吞蛇》in 《子不語》:

屠赤文任陝西兩當縣尉,有廚人張某者,善啖多力,身體修偉,面無左耳。詢其故,自言:「四川人,三世業獵,家傳異書,能抓風嗅鼻,即知所來者為何獸,某幼亦業此。曾獵於邛崍山。其地號「陰陽界」,陽界尚平敞,陰界尤險峻,人迹罕至。一日,往獵陽界,無所得,遂裹糧入陰界。行五十里許,天已暮,遠望十里外高山上有火光燒來,燭林谷如赤日,怪風狂吹而至。某不知何物,抓風再嗅,書所未載,心大惶恐,急登高樹頂上覘之。
「俄而火光漸近,乃一大石碑,碑首鑿猛虎形,光如萬炬,燃照數里。碑能躑躅自行,至樹下見有人,忽躍起三四丈,似欲吞齧者,幾及我身。我屏息不敢動,碑亦緩緩向西南去。某方幸脫險,俟其去遠,將下樹矣。忽望見巨蛇千萬條,大者身如車輪,小者亦粗如斗,蔽空而來。某自念此身必死于蛇腹,驚怕更甚,不料諸蛇皆騰空衝雲而行,離樹甚遠,我蹲樹上,竟無所損。惟一小蛇行少低,向我耳旁擦過,覺痛不可忍,摸之,耳已去矣,血涔涔流下。但見碑尚在前,蹲立火光中不動,凡蛇從碑旁過者,空中輒有脫殼墮下,亂落如萬條白練,但聞呿吸嗿然有聲。少頃,蛇盡不見,碑亦行遠。
「某待至次日,方敢下樹,急覓歸路,迷不可得。途遇一老人,自稱:『此山民也。子所見者為禹王碑。當年禹王治水,至邛崍山,毒蛇阻道,禹王大怒,命庚辰殺蛇,立二碑鎮壓,誓曰:「汝他日成神,世世殺蛇,為民除害。」今四千年矣,碑果成神。碑有一大一小,君幸遇其小者,得不死;其大者出,則火燃五里,林木皆灰。二碑俱以蛇為糧,所到處挈以隨行,故蛇俯首待食,不暇傷人。子耳際已中蛇毒,出陽界見日則死。」因於衣襟下出藥治之,示以歸路而別。」

🎨《仿米芾山水圖》董其昌

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