In Haichang(海昌), there was a scholar named Chen(陳秀才某) who once visited the Yusu Temple(于肅愍廟) to seek dreams and divine the fortunes of his future. In his dream, Yusu opened the main gate to receive him, but instead of feeling at ease, Chen became restless. After a few steps, he stopped. Yusu said, ‘You are to be my future student, so according to protocol, you should enter through the main gate.’ Once settled, messengers arrived to report that the City God of Tangxi County(湯溪縣城隍) wished to see him. Shortly after, a god wearing a tall hat entered. Yusu instructed Chen to treat the City God with equal respect, saying, ‘He is my subordinate, and you are my student. You should take the higher seat.’ Anxious, Chen sat down. The City God and Yusu conversed in hushed tones, their words indistinct to Chen. He only caught sixteen words: ‘Death in Guangxi, stationed in Tangxi, Nanshan’s obstinate rock, alive for ten thousand years.’
As the City God bid farewell, Yusu asked Chen to accompany him. The City God asked, ‘Did you overhear my conversation with Yusu?’ Chen replied, ‘I only caught sixteen words.’ The City God said, ‘Remember them; they will surely come to pass.’ When Chen recounted the dream to Yusu again, no one could grasp its exact meaning.
Chen’s family was impoverished. His cousin, surnamed Li, was appointed as a magistrate in Guangxi and invited Chen to join him. Chen refused, fearing the City God’s words about ‘death in Guangxi'(死在廣西) might bring ill fortune. Li explained that the City God meant ‘starting in Guangxi,'(始在廣西) using a different meaning for ‘start’ rather than life or death. Persuaded by this reasoning, Chen agreed to accompany Li to Guangxi.
In the office where Li worked, there was a locked western wing that nobody dared open. Chen unlocked it to find a garden with artificial mountains and plants, and he decided to move in. A month passed without any incidents.
One mid-autumn night, Chen, inebriated in the garden, sang a poem: ‘The moonlight bathes the tower like water.'(月明如水浸樓臺) Suddenly, a voice from above corrected him, ‘The moonlight should ‘flood’ the tower, not ‘bathe’ it.’ Startled, Chen saw an old man, wearing a white woven hat and clothed in hemp, sitting on a wutong tree branch. Frightened, he hurried back inside. The old man jumped down, reassuring Chen, ‘Don’t be afraid. Have you heard of a ghost as refined and literary as me?’ Curious, Chen asked about the old man’s identity, but he deferred, suggesting they discuss poetry instead. As they conversed, Chen gradually lost his fear. The old man’s handwriting resembled tadpoles, unreadable to Chen. The old man explained that in his youth, this style was common but expressed a desire to switch to standard script, finding it hard to break the habit. Astonishingly, the old man’s ‘youth’ referred to the ancient era before Nüwa(女媧). From that night onwards, the old man visited Chen regularly, forming a close bond.
Li’s servant often saw Chen toasting and conversing with thin air, alarming Li. Believing Chen had been influenced by evil spirits, Li warned him that he might fulfill the prophecy of ‘death in Guangxi.’ Understanding, Chen plotted with Li on how to swiftly return home and avoid this fate.
Chen hastily boarded a boat home, only to find the old man sitting there, invisible to others. Near Jiangxi, the old man said, ‘Tomorrow, we’ll enter Zhejiang Province, and our connection will end. I have something important to tell you. I’ve been practicing the Dao for ten thousand years, yet I’ve not achieved my goal due to lacking a statue of the Nine-Heaven Immortal carved from three thousand catties of sandalwood. I implore you to help; otherwise, I’ll have to use your heart and lungs.’ Terrified, Chen asked about the Dao the old man followed, to which he replied, ‘The Axle Carriage Dao(斤車大道).’ Understanding the ‘Axle Carriage’ symbolizing ‘execution(斬),’ Chen became even more fearful, promising to deal with it after returning home. Together, they returned to Haichang.
Chen recounted the incident to friends and family, all suggesting the old man might be the ‘obstinate rock of Nanshan’ mentioned by Yusu.
The next day, the old man visited Chen’s house again. Chen asked if the old man lived in Nanshan. Enraged, the old man accused Chen of being misled by evil people. Chen shared the old man’s words with his friends, and they suggested luring the old man to Yusu Temple. Following their advice, as Chen brought the old man near the temple, the old man panicked and tried to flee. Chen held him tightly and dragged him into the temple. With a cry, the old man disappeared, never to be seen again.
Afterward, Chen changed his birthplace to Tangxi and passed the imperial examination. Among his examiners during the final stage was the top scholar, a man named Yu Zhen(于振).
Translated from《南山頑石》in 《子不語》: