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》:

紹興張元公,在閶門開布行。聘伙計孫某者,陝人也,性誠謹而勤,所經算無不利市三倍,以故賓主相得。三五年中,為張致家資十萬。屢乞歸家,張堅留不許,孫怒曰:「假如我死,亦不放我歸乎?」張笑曰:「果死,必親送君歸,三四千里,我不辭勞。」
又一年,孫果病篤,張至牀前問身後事,曰:「我家在陝西長安縣鐘樓之旁,有二子在家。如念我前情,可將我靈柩寄歸付之。」隨即氣絕。張大哭,深悔從前苦留之虐。又自念十萬家資皆出渠幫助之力,何可食言不送?乃具賻儀千金,親送棺至長安。
叩其門開,長子出見。告以尊翁病故原委,為之泣下,而其子夷然,但喚家人云:「爺柩既歸,可安置廳旁。」既無哀容,亦不易服,張駭絕無言。少頃,次子出見,向張致謝數語,亦陽陽如平常。張以為此二子殆非人類,豈以孫某如此好人,而生禽獸之二子乎!
正驚嘆間,聞其母在內呼曰:「行主遠來,得毋饑乎?我酒饌已備,惜無人陪,奈何?」兩子曰:「行主張先生,父執也,卑幼不敢陪侍。」其母曰:「然則非汝死父不可。」命二子肆筵設席,而己持大斧出,劈棺罵曰:「業已到家,何必裝癡作態!」死者大笑,掀棺而起,向張拜謝曰:「君真古人也,送我歸,死不食言。」張問:「何作此狡獪?」曰:「我不死,君肯放我歸乎?且車馬勞頓,不如臥棺中之安逸耳。」張曰:「君病既愈,盍再同往蘇州?」曰:「君命中財止十萬,我雖再來,不能有所增益。」留張宿三日而別,終不知孫為何許人也。

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