Borrowing a Coffin for a Carriage

Zhang Yuangong(張元公) from Shaoxing(紹興) opened a cloth shop at the Chang Gate(閶門) in Suzhou and employed a helper named Sun, a Shaanxi native known for his honest and diligent nature. Sun managed business affairs that always garnered triple profits, fostering a close relationship with his employer. After three to five years, Sun accumulated a fortune of one hundred thousand guan for Zhang, repeatedly asking to return home. However, Zhang adamantly refused. Angrily, Sun said, “If I die, will you still refuse to let me go?” Zhang laughed and promised, “If you really die, I will personally escort you home. I won’t hesitate, despite the three to four thousand miles journey.”

A year later, Sun indeed fell seriously ill and was near death. Zhang visited him, asking if he had any final instructions. Sun said, “My home is near the Bell Tower in Chang’an County, Shaanxi. I have two sons. If you remember our past friendship, please transport my body back home and hand it over to my sons.” With that, he breathed his last. Zhang wept bitterly, regretting his stubbornness and remembering that his wealth of one hundred thousand guan had come from Sun’s assistance. He couldn’t break his promise. Zhang took one thousand taels of silver for funeral expenses and personally carried Sun’s coffin to Chang’an.

Arriving at Sun’s house, Zhang explained Sun’s passing to his elder son, who, despite hearing the news, showed no signs of panic or grief. Instead, he calmly instructed the family to place the coffin beside the main hall, showing neither sorrow nor filial piety. Perplexed, Zhang couldn’t fathom their demeanor. Later, Sun’s younger son arrived, thanked Zhang, and appeared content, as if nothing had happened. Zhang found these sons utterly unlike their father and wondered how such a good man like Sun could have raised two seemingly heartless sons.

As Zhang overheard the mother calling from inside, worried about the guest’s hunger, the sons declined to join, citing their lower status compared to Zhang. The mother scolded them, calling their deceased father a fool for not acting appropriately. She then prepared a feast while fetching a large axe to split the coffin, exclaiming, “You’ve arrived home, why pretend otherwise!” Sun burst out laughing, lifted the coffin lid, and thanked Zhang, saying, “You truly uphold principles like the ancients, promising to bring me home and not backing down!”

Puzzled, Zhang asked why Sun played this joke. Sun replied, “If I don’t die, would you let me return home? Besides, it’s more comfortable lying in the coffin than enduring the hardships of travel.” Zhang suggested they return together to Suzhou since Sun had recovered, but Sun explained, “Your fate is destined for only one hundred thousand in wealth. Even if I go back to Suzhou, it won’t increase your fortune.” Sun hosted Zhang for three days before Zhang returned to Suzhou, still unaware of who Sun truly was.

Translated from 《借棺為車》 in 《子不語》:


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