Nianyang: A Tale of Deception and Coincidence

Explore the story of Nianyang, a tale of deception, unexpected encounters, and clever swindlers, where a chance meeting leads to surprising twists.

Yi Shi said: Human nature is as treacherous as ghosts and demons, and this is true everywhere, especially in the key transportation routes connecting the north and south, where calamity is particularly severe. Those who wield strong bows, ride fierce horses, and block people from entering the country, everyone knows them as bandits. However, there are those who cut bags and stab purses to steal things, plundering valuables in the streets and markets. Often, in the blink of an eye, property and goods are gone. Isn’t this worse than ghosts and demons? There are also people who meet by chance, speak sweetly, gradually get closer to you, and deepen their relationships step by step. They are often mistaken for true friends, only to result in financial loss disasters. These people set traps randomly, using various methods. People believe that their words are gentle and persuasive, so they are called “Nian Yang” (meaning deceitful flatterers). Nowadays, there are many such people on the northern highways, and many people have fallen victim to them.

My fellow townsman, Wang Zixun, was a scholar in our county. He had a distant relative who held a position as a Hanlin Academy official in the capital city, so he decided to pay a visit. After preparing his travel essentials, he headed north from our hometown, passing through Jinan. After traveling a few miles, he encountered a man riding a black donkey who caught up with him and walked alongside him. This man often engaged in idle chatter, drawing Wang Zixun into conversation, to which Wang occasionally responded.

The man introduced himself as “Zhang” and claimed to be a subordinate dispatched by the county magistrate of Qixia to handle affairs in the capital city. He was humble in his address and quite servile. They walked together for several dozen miles, and Zhang suggested they stay at the same inn. When Wang Zixun walked ahead, Zhang would whip his donkey to catch up, and when Wang followed behind, Zhang would wait by the roadside.

Wang Zixun’s servant became suspicious of him and sternly told him to leave, refusing to let him accompany them. Zhang felt embarrassed and rode away. In the evening, while Wang Zixun was resting at the inn, he happened to take a stroll in the courtyard and saw Zhang enjoying food and drink outside. Wang was surprised and suspicious, but when Zhang noticed him, he immediately lowered his head and stood respectfully, resembling a servant. They exchanged a few polite words, and Wang Zixun thought it was just a chance encounter, having no suspicions. However, Wang’s servant remained vigilant throughout the night.

At daybreak, when the rooster crowed, Zhang approached Wang Zixun and suggested they continue their journey together. The servant scolded him and refused, so Zhang departed.

The sun had risen high when Wang Sheng began his journey. After walking for about half a day, he noticed a man riding a white donkey up ahead. The man appeared to be in his forties, dressed neatly and cleanly, but he was riding with his head lowered, almost nodding off. Sometimes, he would get ahead of Wang Sheng, and other times, he would fall behind. They continued this way for over ten miles. Wang Sheng found this man quite peculiar and asked, “What did you do last night to be so exhausted and sleepy?” The man, upon hearing someone inquire, suddenly stretched and yawned, saying, “I’m from Qingyuan, with the surname Xu. My distant cousin, Gao Qing, is an official in Linzi County. I went to visit him and received some gifts. Last night, I stayed at an inn and unintentionally ended up sharing a room with some dubious flatterers. I stayed vigilant all night and couldn’t close my eyes, so now I’m feeling drowsy.” Wang Sheng intentionally asked, “What are these ‘dubious flatterers’?” Xu explained, “Since you’re a newcomer here, you might not be familiar with the dangers. Nowadays, there’s a group of criminals who specialize in sweet-talking and deceiving travelers. They engage with you, walk with you, and stay with you, all the while looking for opportunities to swindle money and valuables. Just yesterday, a distant relative of mine fell victim to them, and he lost all his travel expenses. We all need to be cautious and vigilant.” Wang Sheng nodded in agreement. He had previously interacted with the magistrate of Linzi County, and Wang had served as his assistant. He was acquainted with some of the magistrate’s associates, including someone named Xu. Thus, he no longer doubted Xu’s sincerity. They continued to chat about various topics, and Wang Sheng inquired about Xu’s brother’s situation. Xu then proposed that they should meet up and stay at an inn after dark, to which Wang Sheng agreed. However, Wang Sheng’s servant remained suspicious of Xu, secretly discussed with his master, delayed their departure, and eventually, they lost track of Xu, and he disappeared without a trace.

On the second day, around noon, Wang Sheng encountered another young man, approximately sixteen or seventeen years old, riding a sturdy mule. He was dressed neatly with fine clothing and a handsome appearance. They walked together for a long time without exchanging a word. As the sun started to set, the young man suddenly said, “We’re not far from Qu Lu’s Inn up ahead.” Wang Sheng gave a faint acknowledgment. The young man then sighed, seemingly unable to control himself.

Wang Sheng inquired slightly, and the young man continued, “I’m from Jiangnan, my last name is Jin. I’ve endured three years of hard studying, hoping to pass the imperial examination, but I never expected to fail. My older brother is in charge of a government department, so he brought our family here to relax. I’m not used to long journeys and the swirling dust on the road, which is quite vexing.” Saying this, he took out a red handkerchief to wipe his face and continued sighing. As the young man spoke, he had a Southern accent and a soft, melodious voice like that of a young girl. Wang Sheng felt fond of him and offered some comforting words.

The young man said, “I ran ahead by myself just now, and my family members and servants have been waiting for a long time without arriving. I don’t know why they haven’t come. It’s getting dark, and I don’t know what to do.” The young man stood still, gazing into the distance, walking slowly. Wang Sheng, feeling pressed for time, continued on the road and gradually distanced himself from the young man.

When night fell, Wang Sheng checked into an inn. As he entered his guest room, he noticed a bed against the wall with luggage already placed on it. While Wang Sheng was inquiring with the innkeeper, another person walked in, picked up the luggage, and said, “Please rest here; I’ll move to another place.” Wang Sheng recognized this person as Xu. Wang Sheng stopped him and suggested they share the same room. Xu agreed, and they both stayed. They sat down to talk.

After a short while, another person with luggage entered. As soon as they saw Wang Sheng and Xu inside the room, they turned to leave, saying, “There are already guests here.” Wang Sheng realized it was the young man he had encountered earlier on the road. Before Wang Sheng could say anything, Xu hastily got up, pulled the young man back, and he took a seat.

Xu inquired about the young man’s family and hometown, and the young man repeated what he had mentioned earlier on the journey. Shortly after, the young man opened his money pouch and placed a pile of silver coins together, which appeared quite substantial. He weighed out more than a couple of taels of silver, handed it to the innkeeper, and instructed to prepare food and drinks for the evening chat. Both Wang Sheng and Xu tried to dissuade the young man, but he insisted. In no time, food and drinks were served. While drinking, the young man discussed the art of writing eloquently and gracefully. Wang Sheng inquired about the exam questions in Jiangnan, and the young man shared all of them. He even recited passages from his own essays, including his interpretations and memorable sentences, expressing his frustration and dissatisfaction. Everyone present empathized with him.

The young man also mentioned his lost family members, the absence of servants, and his lack of knowledge about caring for livestock. Wang Sheng then asked his own servant to help him, which the young man deeply appreciated.

Not long after, the young man stomped his foot and said, “Throughout my life, I’ve faced hardships and misfortunes, and even when I go out, nothing good ever happens. Last night, while staying at an inn, I encountered a group of troublemakers. They were throwing dice and making a lot of noise, which kept me awake and irritated.” In the Southern dialect, they call dice “兜” (dou), and Xu didn’t understand. He kept asking, and the young man used his hands to gesture the shape. Xu then laughed and took a die out of his pocket, asking, “Is it this thing?” The young man confirmed it was. Xu then suggested using the dice as part of a drinking game, and everyone happily joined in. As the alcohol flowed, Xu proposed that they all play dice together, with the goal of making the loser host the next meal. Wang Sheng declined, claiming not to know how to play. So, Xu and the young man played against each other.

Secretly, Xu advised Wang Sheng, “Don’t reveal anything. This young man from the South is quite wealthy, and being young, he may not be well-versed in gambling. If I win some money, I’ll treat you to a meal tomorrow.” Afterward, the two of them moved to another room. Before long, the sound of a lively gambling session could be heard. Wang Sheng sneaked a look and noticed that even the constables from Qixia County were among the players. He was very puzzled, so he opened his bedding and lay down alone to sleep.

After a while, the others came and tried to persuade Wang Sheng to join the gambling. Wang Sheng firmly refused, using the excuse of not knowing how to play. Xu offered to gamble on Wang Sheng’s behalf, but Wang Sheng initially hesitated. However, they eventually forced him to participate. Later, they returned to Wang Sheng’s bedside and reported, “You’ve won several rounds of dice.” Wang Sheng responded in his sleep.

Suddenly, several individuals pushed the door open and began speaking in an unfamiliar foreign language. The leader introduced himself as Mr. Tong and claimed to be in charge of patrolling and apprehending gamblers under a specific banner. At that time, gambling was strictly prohibited, and everyone appeared extremely anxious. Mr. Tong tried to intimidate Wang Sheng loudly, but Wang Sheng used the Tai Shi banner to counter them.

Mr. Tong’s anger dissipated when he realized they were under the same banner as Wang Sheng. He smiled and invited everyone to continue playing. As a result, they resumed gambling, with Mr. Tong joining in as well. Wang Sheng told Xu, “I don’t care about the outcome; I just want to sleep, so please don’t disturb me.” However, Xu persisted and continued to convey messages back and forth.

When the gambling session ended, they calculated the debts, and Wang Sheng owed a substantial amount. Mr. Tong began searching Wang Sheng’s belongings, intending to seize items to cover the debt. Wang Sheng grew angry and resisted. The young man surnamed Jin took Wang Sheng’s arm and whispered, “They are all bandits; it’s hard to predict what they might do. We’re friends in literature; we should help each other out. I won some money in the gambling earlier, which can cover your debt. Originally, I was supposed to get the gambling debt from Mr. Xu, but now let’s switch it up. Ask Mr. Xu to repay Mr. Tong, and you repay me. This is just a temporary cover-up; later on, I’ll return the money to you. Otherwise, from a standpoint of friendship, can I really make you repay the debt?” Wang Sheng was originally a kind-hearted person, and upon hearing this, he believed in the young man’s sincerity.

The young man left the room and explained the debt exchange plan to Mr. Tong. In front of everyone, they opened Wang Sheng’s belongings and placed items worth the gambling debt into the young man’s pocket. Mr. Tong then went to Xu and Zhang to collect the debts.

The young man brought his own bedding over and shared the pillow with Wang Sheng. His bedding was exquisite and luxurious. Wang Sheng also asked his servant to come and sleep on the bed, and they all lay down quietly to rest. After a long time, the young man intentionally started tossing and turning, pressing his lower body against the servant. The servant moved away to avoid him, but the young man leaned closer. The servant’s skin touched the young man’s thigh, feeling smooth and slippery. Thoughts stirred in the servant’s mind, and they attempted to get closer to the young man, who responded warmly. The sound of the blankets moving and their breathing could be heard by Wang Sheng. Although he found it very surprising and strange, he never suspected any malicious intent.

Just as daybreak approached, the young man got up and urged everyone to leave early. He even said, “Your donkey is quite tired, and the things left behind last night, I’ll return them to you further ahead.” Before Wang Sheng could respond, the young man had already packed his belongings and mounted his mule. Wang Sheng had no choice but to follow along. The young man’s mule began to run faster and farther. Initially, Wang Sheng thought the young man would be waiting ahead and didn’t pay much attention. He asked the servant about what happened during the night, and the servant honestly recounted the events.

It was only then that Wang Sheng realized the truth and exclaimed, “We’ve been deceived by these tricksters! How could a young aristocrat voluntarily engage in such activities with a servant?” He thought again, considering the young man’s refined manner of speaking, which didn’t align with the behavior of swindlers. Wang Sheng desperately chased after them for dozens of miles, but there was no sign of them. He finally understood that the individuals surnamed Zhang, Xu, and Tong were all part of the same group, switching scams when one failed, all with the aim of ensnaring people. They had already laid a scheme to evade their debt obligations, and if their disguise didn’t work, they would resort to their earlier plan of forceful robbery. Wang Sheng had followed them for hundreds of miles over a few dozen taels of silver, and he also feared that his servant might expose their conspiracy. They even used their own bodies to gain the servant’s favor, showing their meticulous planning in this plot.

Several years later, there was the incident involving Mr. Wu.

A few years later, another incident involving Mr. Wu occurred.

In the city, there was a man named Wu Sheng, with the courtesy name Anren. When he was thirty years old, his wife passed away, leaving him alone in his empty study. One day, a scholar came to chat with him, and they quickly became good friends. The visitor had a young servant named Guitou, who got along well with Wu Sheng’s own servant. As time passed, Wu Sheng came to realize that they were fox spirits in disguise.

Whenever Wu Sheng went on a journey, they would follow him, even though they shared the same room, they remained invisible to others. Wu Sheng was temporarily residing in the capital and preparing to return home when he heard about Wang Sheng’s encounter with the mischievous fox spirits. He warned his servant to stay cautious. The fox spirits, however, just laughed and said, “No need to worry, this journey will be smooth without any trouble.”

They arrived in Zhuozhou and saw a man tying his horse outside a smoky inn, dressed neatly. When this man spotted Wu Sheng passing by, he stood up and mounted his horse to follow behind. Gradually, he struck up a conversation with Wu Sheng. The man introduced himself as Huang, a native of Shandong, and he worked as a local official responsible for delivering government documents to the Ministry of Revenue. He mentioned that he was heading east to return home and was delighted to have company on the journey to avoid feeling lonely.

As a result, Wu Sheng decided to stop and travel together with Huang. Every time they shared a meal, Huang insisted on paying the bill. While Wu Sheng outwardly expressed his gratitude, he had suspicions about Huang. In private, he asked the fox spirits, who simply said, “It’s fine.” With that assurance, Wu Sheng’s worries eased.

In the evening, they all looked for a place to stay, and a handsome young man was already sitting in the inn. As soon as Huang entered, he greeted the young man warmly and asked, “When did you leave the capital?” The young man replied, “Yesterday.” Huang promptly arranged for them to stay together and introduced the young man to Wu Sheng, saying, “This is Shilang, my cousin, and also a scholar. He can keep you company, discuss poetry and literature, and make the nights less lonely.” Huang then took out money to buy food and drinks for everyone to enjoy together.

This young man was charming and eloquent, leading to mutual admiration between him and Wu Sheng. During their drinking sessions, Shilang often signaled Wu Sheng to cheat during drinking games, imposing penalties on Huang and making him drink. They all laughed and clapped their hands joyfully. Wu Sheng grew even fonder of this young man.

Not long after, Shilang and Huang decided to gamble and invited Wu Sheng to join them. They took out money from their pockets to create a gambling fund. The fox spirits instructed their servant, Bao’er, to secretly lock the door and advised Wu Sheng, “If you hear any commotion, just lie down and pretend to be asleep without moving.” Wu Sheng agreed.

Every time Wu Sheng rolled the dice, he would lose when betting small and win when betting big. By the time it was past midnight, he had won over two hundred taels of silver. Shilang and Huang emptied their money bags and even suggested using their horses as collateral. Suddenly, they heard a loud knocking at the door. Wu Sheng quickly stood up, threw the dice into the fire, and covered himself with a blanket, pretending to be asleep.

After some time, they heard the innkeeper saying that he couldn’t find the key and had to break the door lock to open it. Several people burst in, looking fierce, searching for those involved in gambling. Shilang and Huang both denied any involvement in gambling. One person, however, lifted Wu Sheng’s blanket and accused him of gambling. Wu Sheng refuted their claims. Some of them tried to search Wu Sheng’s belongings.

Just as Wu Sheng was struggling to resist, they suddenly heard the commanding voice of an official outside, leading a large procession of carriages and horses. Wu Sheng rushed out and shouted, which frightened the intruders. They quickly pulled Wu Sheng back into the room, begging him not to raise an alarm. Wu Sheng calmly handed over his bag to the innkeeper. Once the procession had passed by, the intruders left the room.

Huang and Shilang both pretended to be relieved and began searching for a place to sleep. Huang suggested that Shilang share a bed with Wu Sheng. Wu Sheng placed his bundle, which he had wrapped around his waist, under his head and then lay down under the blanket. After a while, Shilang uncovered Wu Sheng’s blanket and slipped into Wu Sheng’s embrace, whispering softly, “I admire your straightforwardness and would like to be close to you.”

Wu Sheng knew it was a deceit but thought it might not be a bad idea, so he embraced Shilang. Shilang flattered him, but to his surprise, Wu Sheng was quite robust, making their encounter feel like a struggle. Shilang moaned in discomfort and quietly begged Wu Sheng to stop. Wu Sheng initially planned to finish but upon feeling the blood, he realized it had gone too far. He released Shilang, allowing him to return to sleep.

At daybreak, Shilang was exhausted and couldn’t get out of bed. He pretended to be seriously ill and asked Wu Sheng and Huang to continue their journey without him. As they left, Wu Sheng gave Shilang some money for medical expenses. On the road, Wu Sheng conversed with the fox spirits, learning that the nighttime procession of carriages and horses had all been orchestrated by the fox spirits.

On the way, Huang became even more attentive to Wu Sheng. At night, they stayed in the same inn again. The room was small, with only one bed, but it was warm and clean. Wu Sheng found it too narrow, and Huang suggested, “This room is a bit tight for two people. If you sleep here alone, it will be spacious enough. What’s the harm in that?” After dinner, Huang left. Wu Sheng also preferred staying alone in a room, as it allowed him to accommodate his fox friends.

Wu Sheng sat for a long time, but the fox spirits had not yet arrived. Suddenly, he heard a sound like a finger tapping on a small door on the wall. Wu Sheng went to open the latch to see what was happening. A young woman, beautifully dressed and resembling a fairy, entered the room and closed the door behind her. She smiled at Wu Sheng, charming him. Wu Sheng was fond of her and asked who she was. She turned out to be the innkeeper’s daughter-in-law. They became intimate and enjoyed each other’s company.

Suddenly, the woman burst into tears, alarming Wu Sheng. She revealed, “I dare not hide it. I was actually sent by the innkeeper to seduce you. Normally, as soon as I enter the room, someone comes in to catch us in the act. I don’t know why they haven’t shown up tonight.” She continued crying and said, “I am an honorable woman and unwilling to do such things. Now that I’ve told you everything in my heart, I beg you to save me!”

Wu Sheng was very frightened, unable to come up with a solution. He urged her to leave quickly, but she refused to go and continued weeping. Suddenly, they heard Huang and the innkeeper fighting outside the door, making a great commotion. Huang shouted, “I’ve been respectful and attentive to you all along, and now you’re seducing my brother’s wife!” Wu Sheng, in fear, pushed the woman to leave. They then heard more noise from outside the small door on the wall. Wu Sheng was in a state of panic, sweating profusely, while the woman remained huddled, crying.

They also heard someone advising the innkeeper, but the innkeeper didn’t listen and continued banging on the door more urgently. The person trying to advise said, “Innkeeper, what do you intend to do? Do you want to kill them? With us customers present, we won’t stand by if violence occurs. If one of them manages to escape, how will you make them confess? Do you want to take this matter to court? It will only reveal that your household lacks proper discipline, and you’ll be the one shamed. Moreover, you run an inn, and it’s clear that this is a scheme of deceit and entrapment. How can you guarantee that the woman has no ulterior motives?” The innkeeper was left speechless and wide-eyed.

Wu Sheng silently thanked and admired the person who intervened but didn’t know who it was. As the inn was about to close, a scholar with a servant arrived and stayed in the courtyard. He brought fine wine and generously offered it to all the guests, especially the innkeeper and Huang. When the innkeeper and Huang wanted to leave, the scholar grabbed their clothes and earnestly tried to keep them from going. Eventually, they found an opportunity to slip away and rushed to Wu Sheng’s room with sticks and knives.

The scholar, hearing the commotion, entered to mediate. Wu Sheng peered through the window and saw that it was his fox friends. He felt secretly delighted. The innkeeper’s arrogance had been subdued, and the scholar intimidated them with strong words. He also asked the woman, “Why didn’t you speak up?” She cried and replied, “I hate myself for not being like a human, forced into such a wretched act!” The innkeeper turned pale with fear. The scholar scolded, “Your behavior, no better than animals, has been fully exposed. This is something we, the guests, unanimously detest!”

At this point, both Huang and the innkeeper dropped their weapons and knelt down, begging for forgiveness. Wu Sheng came out and scolded them angrily. The scholar mediated between the two parties, and they finally reconciled. The woman continued to cry and refused to go back. Several maids and old women rushed out from inside the house, grabbed the woman, and pulled her back inside. She lay on the ground, crying in sorrow.

The scholar suggested that the innkeeper sell the woman to Wu Sheng at a high price. The innkeeper, with his head lowered, said, “After being a midwife for thirty years, today I find myself wrapping a baby in swaddling clothes. Since it has come to this, there’s nothing more to say.” So, they agreed to the scholar’s proposal. Wu Sheng didn’t want to spend too much, but the scholar mediated between the parties, and they settled on a price of fifty taels of silver. After both sides exchanged the money, the morning bells had already rung. They quickly packed their belongings and left with the woman.

The woman had never ridden a horse before and was exhausted from the ride. They rested briefly around noon. When they were about to continue their journey, Wu Sheng called for Bao’er, but Bao’er was nowhere to be found. The sun had already begun to set, and there was no sign of Bao’er. Wu Sheng was puzzled and asked the fox for advice. The fox said, “Don’t worry; he’ll be back soon.” The stars and moon had appeared in the sky when Bao’er finally returned. Wu Sheng questioned him about his whereabouts.

Bao’er smiled and said, “Sir, after you generously paid those scoundrels fifty taels of silver, I felt uneasy about it. So, I discussed it with Guitou, and we decided to go back and retrieve the money.” With that, he placed the silver on the table. Wu Sheng was astonished and asked for an explanation. It turned out that Gui Tou knew that the woman had only one brother who had been away for over a decade. So, he transformed himself to look like her brother and had Bao’er pose as her younger sibling to go to the innkeeper’s house in search of her. As soon as the innkeeper saw them, he was terrified and claimed that she had died. These two individuals threatened to report the matter to the authorities, and the innkeeper became even more frightened, offering them bribes. The bribe amount gradually increased to forty taels of silver, at which point the two of them agreed to leave. Bao’er recounted the entire process to Wu Sheng, who then rewarded him with the money.

Upon returning home, Wu Sheng developed a deep bond with the woman, and their household became wealthier. Later, after careful questioning, he learned that the handsome youth they had encountered on the road was her husband, and “Shilang” was a pseudonym for someone surnamed Jin. She was wearing a luxurious brocade shawl that she had obtained from a man surnamed Wang in Shandong. It turned out that this gang of swindlers had many accomplices, including the innkeeper; they were all part of the same group. Little did they know that Wu Sheng had encountered the very people who had been causing misery for Prince Xun, a delightful coincidence indeed. As the saying goes, “Those who know how to ride a horse often fall off.”
















Leave a Comment