Tian Qilang: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Tian Qilang

Explore the remarkable story of Tian Qilang, a man who never forgot a meal's kindness, sought to vindicate his grievances even in death, and left a lasting legacy.

Wu Chengxiu was a native of Liaoyang who enjoyed socializing with well-known individuals. One night, Wu Chengxiu dreamt that someone told him, “Your friends are spread all over the country, but none of them have been chosen. Only one person can endure hardship with you. Why don’t you know him?” Wu Chengxiu asked, “Who is he?” The person replied, “Isn’t it Tian Qilang?” Wu Chengxiu woke up feeling puzzled. In the morning, he asked those he socialized with about Tian Qilang. Someone recognized Tian Qilang and said he was a hunter from the East Village. Wu Chengxiu respectfully visited Tian Qilang and knocked on his door with a riding whip.

Before long, a man in his twenties emerged. He had round tiger-like eyes, a slim waist, wore a greasy cap, and had a black knee-length apron with many white patches. He respectfully bowed with his hands folded in front of his forehead and asked where Wu Chengxiu came from. Wu Chengxiu introduced himself and explained that he wasn’t feeling well on his journey, hoping to rest at his place. He also inquired about Tian Qilang, to which the man replied, “I am he.” He then invited Wu Chengxiu inside. Inside, they entered a few dilapidated rooms supported by tree branches for walls. There were no chairs or stools to sit on. Tian Qilang laid a tiger skin on the ground for his guest to sit on. As Wu Chengxiu conversed with Tian Qilang, he found Tian’s words to be simple and sincere, and he liked him very much.

Wu Chengxiu promptly offered silver as living expenses to Tian Qilang, who initially refused. Wu Chengxiu insisted, and Tian Qilang accepted but later returned the silver to Wu Chengxiu. He repeatedly declined Wu Chengxiu’s offerings. Tian’s mother, elderly and dignified, came to the small room and sternly said, “I have only one son and do not wish for him to serve a distinguished guest like you!” Wu Chengxiu felt embarrassed and left the small room. On his way home, he pondered this encounter and couldn’t fathom its meaning.

Coincidentally, one of Wu Chengxiu’s attendants overheard what Tian’s mother had said behind the house. She had commented, “I just observed wrinkles on that young man’s face that indicate impending misfortune. I’ve heard that when you receive kindness from others, you should rush to help them in their times of need. The wealthy repay with money, but the poor repay with loyalty. Therefore, receiving excessive gifts without reason is not a good sign, and you might have to repay this person with your life.” Wu Chengxiu deeply admired Tian’s mother’s virtue and held Tian Qilang in even higher regard.

The next day, Wu Chengxiu arranged a banquet and invited Tian Qilang, but he declined the invitation. Wu Chengxiu went to Tian Qilang’s house, and as he sat down, he asked for some wine. Tian Qilang personally poured him wine and served dried venison, displaying both sincerity and politeness. After a day, Wu Chengxiu extended another invitation, and this time, Tian Qilang accepted. The two of them had a harmonious and joyful conversation.

Wu Chengxiu wanted to give silver to Tian Qilang, but he refused. Wu Chengxiu claimed it was for buying tiger skins, and then Tian Qilang accepted. However, when Tian Qilang went into the mountains for three days, he couldn’t catch anything because his wife fell ill, and he had to take care of her and couldn’t hunt. Ten days later, his wife passed away, and he had to spend some of the received silver on arranging her funeral. Wu Chengxiu personally came to offer condolences and conducted a high-standard ceremony. After his wife’s burial, Tian Qilang carried his bow and arrows, entering deep forests and mountains, hoping to repay Wu Chengxiu with game. Unfortunately, he couldn’t catch anything. Wu Chengxiu learned of the situation and constantly reassured Tian Qilang not to worry.

Wu Chengxiu earnestly wished for Tian Qilang to visit him when he could, but Tian Qilang was uneasy due to his debt and hesitated to go. So Wu Chengxiu proposed to take the tiger skins Tian Qilang already had at home as a way to motivate him. However, when Tian Qilang checked the skins, he found them damaged by worms and furless, making him even more despondent. Wu Chengxiu, upon seeing the damaged skins, said, “This is fine. I didn’t care whether they had fur or not.” He rolled up the skins and took them with him, inviting Tian Qilang to come along. Tian Qilang refused and returned home.

Realizing that the skins were insufficient to repay Wu Chengxiu, Tian Qilang took some provisions and went into the mountains. After several nights, he managed to catch an old tiger and gave it entirely to Wu Chengxiu. Wu Chengxiu was overjoyed, prepared food and drinks, and insisted that Tian Qilang stay for three days. However, Tian Qilang firmly declined. In response, Wu Chengxiu locked the door, preventing him from leaving. Wu Chengxiu’s guests thought Tian Qilang was uncouth and criticized Wu Chengxiu for his strange choice of friends. Despite that, Wu Chengxiu’s courtesy and respect towards Tian Qilang surpassed that towards his other guests.

Wu Chengxiu wanted to give Tian Qilang new clothes, but he refused. Wu Chengxiu took advantage of Tian Qilang’s sleep and secretly changed his clothes. Tian Qilang had no choice but to accept them. When he returned home, his son, acting on his grandmother’s orders, returned the new clothes and asked for his father’s old ones. Wu Chengxiu smiled and said, “Tell your grandmother that I’ve used the old clothes to make insoles for shoes.” From that day on, Tian Qilang sent game such as rabbits and deer to Wu Chengxiu every day, but he never accepted any invitation to visit.

One day, when Wu Chengxiu went to visit Tian Qilang, he was out hunting and hadn’t returned. Tian Qilang’s mother came out and said to Wu Chengxiu from behind the door frame, “Stop trying to entice my son; you have ulterior motives!” Wu Chengxiu respectfully bowed, feeling embarrassed, and left Tian’s house.

About half a year later, the family suddenly said, “Tian Qilang had a dispute with someone while hunting leopards and ended up killing a person. He has been taken into custody by the authorities.” Wu Chengxiu was greatly alarmed and hurriedly rode to check on him. Tian Qilang was already in custody, wearing restraints, confined in the prison. When Wu Chengxiu met him, Tian Qilang didn’t say much, only expressing, “In the future, please take care of my elderly mother.” Wu Chengxiu left the place with sorrow in his heart. He quickly used a substantial bribe to influence the local magistrate and also offered a hundred taels of silver to appease the victim’s family. After a little over a month, things settled down, and Tian Qilang was released and returned home.

Tian’s mother sighed and said, “My son’s life was saved by Master Wu; I can’t cherish it enough. I only wish Master Wu a lifetime without misfortune. That’s my son’s blessing.” Tian Qilang wanted to express his gratitude to Wu Chengxiu, but his mother advised, “You can go if you want, but there’s no need to thank Master Wu when you see him. Small favors can be acknowledged, but great favors cannot be repaid.” When Tian Qilang met Wu Chengxiu, he was comforted with gentle words. Tian Qilang only repeatedly expressed his gratitude.

While his family found Tian Qilang distant, Wu Chengxiu appreciated his honesty and integrity, treating him even better. From then on, Tian Qilang frequently stayed at Wu Chengxiu’s home for several days at a time. Whatever he gave, Wu Chengxiu accepted without further refusal or expectation of repayment.

On this particular day, it happened to be Wu Chengxiu’s birthday, and there were many guests and servants present. The guesthouse was fully occupied with visitors staying overnight. Wu Chengxiu and Tian Qilang slept together in a small room, while three servants slept beneath the bed on a pile of hay. In the middle of the night, when the second watch was almost over, the servants were already asleep, but Wu Chengxiu and Tian Qilang were still engaged in a lively conversation.

Suddenly, the sword hanging on the wall beside them sprang out of its scabbard, several inches high, making a “clang” sound and emitting a cold light like lightning. Wu Chengxiu was startled, immediately getting up, and Tian Qilang also rose and asked, “Who sleeps under the bed?” Wu Chengxiu replied, “Those are our servants.” Tian Qilang said, “Among them, there must be a wrongdoer.” Wu Chengxiu inquired how he could tell, and Tian Qilang explained, “This sword was purchased from a foreign land, and it has always been said that whoever it touches will die instantly. Passed down for three generations, it has beheaded thousands and remains as sharp as new. This sword makes a sound and leaps out of its sheath when it encounters evildoers, indicating that danger may be close. Master, you should be close to virtuous people and distant from wicked ones; perhaps there is still a glimmer of hope to avoid calamity.” Wu Chengxiu nodded earnestly.

However, Tian Qilang remained melancholic, tossing and turning in bed, unable to sleep. Wu Chengxiu asked, “Misfortunes and disasters are preordained; why are you so deeply troubled?” Tian Qilang replied, “I fear nothing, but my heavy concern lies with my elderly mother.” Wu Chengxiu inquired, “Why has it suddenly reached such a point?” Tian Qilang responded, “As long as she’s safe, that’s all that matters.”

It turned out that among the three servants under the bed, one was named Lin’er, a cherished and favored servant whom the master adored. Another was a young servant, about twelve or thirteen years old, often called upon by Wu Chengxiu. The third was named Li Ying, the most stubborn and unruly, frequently engaging in disputes with Wu Chengxiu over trivial matters, leading to his frustration. That night, Wu Chengxiu quietly pondered the situation and suspected that Li Ying might be the culprit.

The following morning, Wu Chengxiu summoned Li Ying and kindly sent him away.

Wu Chengxiu’s eldest son, Wu Shen, married a woman named Wang. One day, when Wu Chengxiu was out, he left Lin’er in charge of the house. The chrysanthemums in the study were in full golden bloom. Wang thought that since her father-in-law was away, the study must be empty, so she went alone to pick chrysanthemums. At this moment, Lin’er suddenly rushed out and tried to seduce and harass her. Wang intended to escape, but Lin’er forcibly took her into the house. Wang cried and resisted, her face turning pale, and her voice growing hoarse.

Wu Shen rushed into the study, and only then did Lin’er release Wang and flee. When Wu Chengxiu returned home and learned of the incident, he angrily went to find Lin’er, but Lin’er had already disappeared. After two or three days, it was discovered that Lin’er was hiding in the home of a certain imperial censor. This imperial censor held an official position in the capital city, and his household affairs were managed by his younger brother.

Wu Chengxiu, in a spirit of camaraderie, wrote a letter to request Lin’er’s return. Surprisingly, the younger brother of the imperial censor ignored the request. Infuriated, Wu Chengxiu brought the matter to the attention of the county magistrate. Although the arrest warrant was issued, the constables didn’t make any effort to apprehend Lin’er, and the county magistrate showed no interest in the case.

Just when Wu Chengxiu was filled with anger and frustration, Tian Qilang happened to arrive. Wu Chengxiu said, “Your words have come true,” and proceeded to explain the situation to Tian Qilang. Tian Qilang’s face became sorrowful, and he remained silent throughout. He then simply got up and left.

Wu Chengxiu ordered his efficient servants to patrol and track Lin’er’s whereabouts. When Lin’er returned home at night, he was captured by the patrolling servants and brought to see Wu Chengxiu. Wu Chengxiu interrogated Lin’er, but Lin’er still uttered offensive words against Wu Chengxiu.

Wu Chengxiu’s uncle, Wu Heng, was an elderly man known for his integrity. Fearing that his nephew’s anger might bring calamity, he advised Wu Chengxiu to punish Lin’er according to the laws of the authorities. Wu Chengxiu followed this advice and had Lin’er taken to the official court. However, a letter from the imperial censor’s household reached the county, and the county magistrate released Lin’er, allowing the steward of the imperial censor’s household to take him away.

Lin’er became even more audacious and slanderous. He publicly accused his master’s daughter-in-law of having an illicit relationship with him. Wu Chengxiu, frustrated and helpless, became furious and rode to the imperial censor’s residence. There, he vented his anger with strong words and gestures. Neighbors intervened to mediate and console him, and eventually, he returned home.

However, the next day, a servant reported that Lin’er had been dismembered, and his body was discarded in the wilderness. Wu Chengxiu was shocked and relieved, as this incident allowed him to release some of his pent-up frustration. Shortly thereafter, he heard that the imperial censor’s household had accused him and his uncle, so they went for a confrontation. The county magistrate, without allowing any defense, intended to punish Wu Heng. Wu Chengxiu loudly declared, “The charge of murder is a false accusation! As for insulting the gentry, that is indeed my own doing and unrelated to my uncle.” However, the county magistrate seemed to ignore his words.

Wu Chengxiu, in anger and desperation, attempted to approach and save his uncle, but the constables, wielding rods, were the imperial censor’s lackeys. Wu Heng, an elderly man in his seventies, couldn’t withstand the beating and lost consciousness before they were even halfway done. Seeing that Wu Heng was close to death, the county magistrate decided not to pursue the matter further. Wu Chengxiu cried out in grief and anger, but the county magistrate acted as if he hadn’t heard him.

Wu Chengxiu had his uncle, Wu Heng, carried back home, filled with sorrow and frustration. He wanted to discuss the situation with Tian Qilang, but Tian Qilang had not visited even once to offer condolences. Wu Chengxiu wondered, “I have treated Qilang well, why is he suddenly treating me like a stranger?” He even suspected that Tian Qilang might be the one who killed Lin’er. However, he had second thoughts and considered, “If that were true, why wouldn’t he come to discuss it with me?” So, he sent someone to inquire at Tian Qilang’s home, but they found the gate locked, silence within, and even the neighbors had no information about Tian Qilang’s whereabouts.

One day, the younger brother of the imperial censor was in the county yamen, discussing matters with the county magistrate. In the early morning, as people were delivering firewood and water, a woodcutter suddenly approached, dropped his burden, drew a sharp blade, and headed straight for the younger brother of the imperial censor. The younger brother, in a panic, tried to defend himself with his hands, but the blade fell on his wrist, severing it. The woodcutter then struck again, finally beheading him. The county magistrate was greatly startled and fled in disarray. The woodcutter remained nervously vigilant, looking around.

A group of constables hastily closed the gates of the yamen, wielding clubs and shouting loudly. In response, the woodcutter took his own life by seppuku. Onlookers gathered to identify the body, and some recognized the woodcutter as Tian Qilang. The county magistrate, once his shock subsided, came out to examine the situation. He saw Tian Qilang’s lifeless body lying in a pool of blood, still clutching the knife. As the county magistrate paused to inspect closely, the corpse suddenly sprang upright, decapitating the county magistrate before falling back down.

The yamen officials went to apprehend Tian Qilang’s mother and son, but they had fled several days earlier.

Upon hearing of Tian Qilang’s death, Wu Chengxiu rushed to mourn him, expressing profound grief. People speculated that Wu Chengxiu had instructed Tian Qilang to carry out the act. To avoid prosecution, Wu Chengxiu expended his family’s wealth and bribed those in power. Tian Qilang’s body remained in the wilderness for over thirty days, guarded by eagles and dogs. Wu Chengxiu eventually retrieved the body and gave him a dignified burial.

Tian Qilang’s son, who adopted the surname Tong and

Yi Shi Shi commented: Not easily accepting even a single coin of assistance is the behavior of those who never forget a meal’s kindness. How wise was Tian’s mother! As for Tian Qilang, his anger did not dissipate even in death, and he sought to vindicate his grievances. How extraordinary and remarkable! If only individuals like Jing Ke coul












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