The Mirage Sea Market: Exploring the Mysterious World of Illusions

Delve into the enchanting tale of Bian He, a world of illusions, and the mysterious Dragon Princess in this captivating story.

马骥, with the courtesy name Longmei, was the son of a merchant. He was born with a graceful and elegant demeanor, displaying charm and elegance from a young age. He had a fondness for singing and dancing, often performing with the disciples of the pear garden, taking on the role of a beautiful woman with a silk scarf wrapped around his head, making him look as attractive as a beauty. As a result, he earned the elegant nickname “Junren” or “handsome man.” At the age of fourteen, Ma Ji excelled in the county examinations and gained a great reputation.

As his father grew old and weak, he retired from his business and stayed at home. He said to Ma Ji, “With just these few volumes of books, you can’t eat when you’re hungry or keep warm when it’s cold. My son, it’s better for you to take over the family business.”

From that point on, Ma Ji gradually began to learn the art of commerce.

Ma Ji accompanied someone overseas for business. Their ship was blown away by a fierce storm, and after several days and nights, they arrived at a city. The people there were extraordinarily ugly. When they saw Ma Ji, they thought he was a monster, and they shouted and screamed, quickly running away. Ma Ji was initially terrified by this sight, but when he realized that the people of that country were afraid of him, he took advantage of the situation to tease and bully them. Whenever he came across food, Ma Ji would rush forward, causing people to panic and flee, allowing him to eat the leftovers.

Before long, Ma Ji arrived at a small mountain village. There were people there who resembled humans in appearance, but they were dressed in ragged clothing, resembling beggars. Ma Ji rested under a tree, and the villagers dared not approach him, only observing from a distance. As time passed, the villagers gradually gathered closer as they realized Ma Ji wouldn’t harm them. Ma Ji smiled and spoke with them, even though their languages were different, they could still understand each other to some extent. Ma Ji then narrated his own background.

The villagers were delighted and spread the word among their neighbors that the visitor didn’t intend to harm anyone. However, those who were remarkably strange-looking just took a glance and walked away, still too scared to approach. Those who came closer had facial features similar to the Chinese. They arranged a feast to welcome Ma Ji. When Ma Ji asked them why they were impoverished, they explained, “In our country, what matters most is not literary talent but physical appearance. Those with the most beautiful appearances become central officials, those slightly less attractive become local officials, and those less fortunate can still seek favor from influential figures to support their families. People like us are considered inauspicious from birth, often abandoned by our parents. Those who cannot bear to abandon their children do so to ensure their lineage.”

Ma Ji inquired about the name of this country, and they replied, “It’s called the Great Rakshasa Kingdom. The capital is located thirty miles north of here.” Ma Ji requested to be shown around, and so the villagers rose early and led Ma Ji on a sightseeing tour.

After daybreak, they finally arrived at the capital city. The capital city was constructed with black stone walls, as dark as ink. The towers and pavilions soared to nearly a hundred feet in height. However, the roofs were rarely tiled; instead, they were covered with red stones that, when ground, resembled cinnabar. It was no different from powdered cinnabar when crushed. At that time, the court was concluding its morning session, and an ornate carriage with a canopy departed from the palace. The villagers pointed and said, “That’s the Prime Minister.” Ma Ji took a look and saw that the Prime Minister had ears that had grown backward, three nostrils, and eyelashes that covered his eyes like curtains.

Following that, several others rode out of the palace on horses, and the villagers explained, “These are high officials.” They went on to point out their respective ranks. All of them had strange and grotesque appearances, but as their positions gradually descended, their appearances became less ugly in corresponding fashion.

Not long after, Ma Ji began his journey back home. As people in the streets caught sight of him, they screamed and fled, stumbling over one another as if they had encountered a monster. The villagers did their best to explain, and eventually, the people on the streets dared to stop at a distance. When Ma Ji returned to the village, word spread throughout the country that an unusual person had arrived. The gentry and officials were eager to broaden their horizons and sent invitations for Ma Ji to visit. However, every time Ma Ji arrived at a house, the gatekeepers would quickly shut the doors, and both men and women would discreetly peek through the gaps, discussing among themselves. After a whole day, no one dared to meet Ma Ji in person. The villagers said, “There is a veteran diplomat here who has served as an envoy to foreign countries on behalf of the former king and has met many people. Perhaps he won’t be afraid of you.” Ma Ji went to visit the veteran diplomat, who indeed welcomed him as an honored guest.

Upon seeing the diplomat’s appearance, he looked like a man in his eighties or nineties, with bulging eyes and a thick, curly beard, much like a hedgehog. The diplomat said, “In my earlier years, I had the most diplomatic missions on behalf of the king, but I never had the chance to visit China. Now that I am over a hundred and twenty years old, I finally get to meet people from your country. I must report this to the king. However, I have retired to the mountains and forests and haven’t set foot in the court for more than ten years. Tomorrow morning, I will make an exception for you.” He then prepared a lavish meal and treated Ma Ji with the utmost hospitality. After several rounds of drinks, the diplomat called for more than ten songstresses and dancers who took turns performing songs and dances. These performers looked like yakshas, all wearing white silk scarves on their heads, with red robes trailing on the ground. They sang songs with lyrics that no one understood, and their singing style and rhythm were peculiar and bizarre.

The diplomat was delighted and asked Ma Ji, “Does China also have this kind of music and dance?” Ma Ji replied, “Yes.” The diplomat asked Ma Ji to sing a song, and Ma Ji sang a tune while tapping on the table. The host exclaimed, “It’s truly marvelous! Your singing is like the cry of a phoenix and the roar of a dragon. I’ve never heard anything like it.” The next day, the diplomat went to the court and recommended Ma Ji to the king. The king was pleased and issued an edict to receive him. However, two or three ministers expressed concerns about Ma Ji’s unusual appearance, fearing it might startle the king, so the king did not issue the edict. The diplomat left the palace and informed Ma Ji, expressing deep regret.

After a long time, Ma Ji and the veteran diplomat got drunk while drinking. They started dancing with swords and smeared coal on their faces, pretending to be Zhang Fei. The diplomat thought it was splendid and said, “You should present yourself to the Prime Minister with the appearance of Zhang Fei. He will surely be willing to employ you, and you won’t find it difficult to obtain a generous salary.” Ma Ji replied, “Well, it’s all fun and games, but how can I change my appearance to seek honor and glory?” The diplomat insisted, and Ma Ji finally agreed. The diplomat arranged a banquet, invited high-ranking officials, and had Ma Ji prepare his face. Shortly after, the government officials arrived, and the diplomat asked Ma Ji to come out and meet the guests. The government officials were astonished and said, “How strange! You were ugly before, but now you look handsome!” They then drank with Ma Ji and had a great time. Ma Ji danced gracefully and sang in the Yiyang style, captivating everyone in the room.

The next day, the government officials submitted memorials recommending Ma Ji. The king was overjoyed and sent messengers carrying banners and insignia to summon Ma Ji. During their meeting, the king inquired about the principles of governing and protecting the country in China, and Ma Ji explained them one by one. His explanations received high praise and admiration from the king, who hosted a banquet for Ma Ji in a nearby palace. When the wine was flowing, the king said, “I’ve heard that you are skilled in performing refined music. Can you perform for me?” Ma Ji immediately started dancing, wearing a white silk scarf on his head like the female performers, and sang some enchanting melodies. The king was greatly pleased and appointed Ma Ji as a lower official on that very day. Ma Ji frequently attended the king’s private banquets and received extraordinary favor.

As time went by, the officials in the court began to suspect the disguise worn by Ma Ji. Wherever he went, he could always see people whispering and discussing him, but they weren’t very friendly. Ma Ji started feeling isolated and became uneasy. He then submitted a memorial requesting to retire from his official position, but the king did not approve. He also asked for a short leave, and the king granted him three months of leave. He then traveled back to the mountain village in a carriage, carrying gold and jewelry with him. The villagers welcomed him with reverence. He distributed his wealth among those who had been close to him in the past, and the villagers rejoiced.

The villagers said, “With the rewards from the official, we, the common people, will go to the sea market tomorrow. We should be able to find treasures and curiosities to repay the official.” Ma Ji asked, “Where is this sea market?” They replied, “It’s a market in the sea, where merfolk from all over the world gather to sell treasures. People from twelve different countries come here for trade. There are also many divine beings who engage in various activities. The sky there is often covered with colorful clouds, and occasionally, the sea becomes turbulent. Wealthy individuals value their lives and are unwilling to endure the hardships, so they entrust their money to us to purchase rare and exotic items. The day for the sea market is approaching.” Ma Ji asked how they knew when the sea market would occur, and they said, “Whenever we see vermilion birds flying over the sea, the sea market will take place seven days later.” Ma Ji inquired about the departure date, as he wanted to visit the sea market with the villagers. However, the villagers advised him to consider his status. Ma Ji replied, “I originally traveled across the ocean as a merchant. Am I still afraid of the wind and waves?”

Before long, as expected, people came to Ma Ji’s door to offer money and request the purchase of treasures. Ma Ji and the villagers loaded the money onto a boat. The boat could accommodate dozens of people, with a flat bottom and high railing. Ten people rowed together, creating layers of waves as the boat sped forward like an arrow. After about three days of travel, they could see the vast expanse of the sea, with towering buildings and numerous trading ships densely packed like ants on the water. Shortly thereafter, they arrived at the city’s outskirts. The bricks on the city walls were as tall as people, and the city towers soared into the clouds. They anchored their boat and disembarked, entering the city. They saw a dazzling display of rare and exotic treasures in the sea market, most of which were not found in the mortal world.

At this moment, a young man riding a swift horse approached. The people in the market scattered in fear, saying that this person was the “Third Prince of the Eastern Seas.” As the prince passed by, he looked at Ma Ji and remarked, “This is not a foreigner.” Immediately, one of the prince’s attendants asked about Ma Ji’s place of origin. Ma Ji, by the roadside, bowed and detailed his hometown and family name. The prince joyfully said, “Since you have graced us with your presence, it must be fate!” He then gave Ma Ji a horse and invited him to ride alongside him. They left the western part of the city.

Upon arriving at the shores of the island, their horses neighed and leaped into the water, which startled Ma Ji and made him cry out in fear. The sea water then parted on both sides, resembling towering walls. Before long, Ma Ji saw a palace adorned with mother-of-pearl beams and roofed with the scales of bream fish. The walls were sparkling and could reflect shadows, shining brightly. Ma Ji dismounted and respectfully bowed, entering the palace. When he looked up, he saw the Dragon King seated on high, and the Crown Prince reported, “While wandering in the sea market, I encountered a virtuous scholar from China who has come to pay respects to Your Majesty.” Ma Ji approached and performed a ceremonial dance and bow. The Dragon King said, “Mr. Ma is a talented scholar, and his literary skills may surpass those of Qu Yuan and Song Yu. I would like to request Mr. Ma to wield his mighty pen and compose a ‘Sea Market Ode.’ I hope you won’t hesitate to use your exquisite writing to create this beautiful piece.” Ma Ji prostrated himself and accepted the command. Crystal inkstones and dragon-whisker brushes were brought for him, and the paper was as smooth as snow, with ink that exuded a fragrant scent like orchids. Ma Ji immediately wrote over a thousand words and presented them in the hall. The Dragon King greatly admired it and said, “Mr. Ma’s talent shines brightly, bringing honor to our water kingdom!” He then gathered various branches of the dragon clan to hold a feast at the Palace of Gathering Radiance. After several rounds of drinks, the Dragon King raised his cup to Ma Ji and said, “I have a beloved daughter who has not yet found a suitable partner. I hope she can be married to you. Do you perhaps have the intention?” Ma Ji left his seat, filled with gratitude and embarrassment, and agreed. The Dragon King spoke to those around him, and soon, several palace maidens led the Dragon Princess out. The sound of jingling jewelry filled the air, and the music suddenly began playing. After the ceremony, Ma Ji took a discreet glance and saw that the Dragon Princess was indeed a beautiful celestial maiden. After the Dragon Princess paid her respects, she rose and departed. Shortly afterward, the banquet concluded, and palace maidens with double buns holding painted palace lanterns escorted Ma Ji into a side palace, where the Dragon Princess, adorned with heavy makeup, sat waiting for him. The coral bed was decorated with eight types of jewels, including gold, silver, pearls, and agate. The tassels on the canopy were adorned with large pearls, and the bedding was fragrant and soft. At daybreak, young palace maidens came to attend to them and stood by their sides. After Ma Ji got up, he quickly walked out to express his gratitude. Ma Ji was granted the title of Commander of the Imperial Guards and his ode was spread throughout the seas. The Dragon Kings from all the seas sent emissaries to congratulate him and invited him to banquets. Ma Ji dressed in splendid attire and rode a hornless blue dragon, leading a procession with people calling out in front and surrounding him from behind. Dozens of mounted warriors carried elaborately decorated bows and bore white staffs, shining and filling the road. Along the way, someone played the zither, and there was someone playing the flute in the carriage. It only took them three days to tour all the seas. From then on, the title of “Ma Longmei” resounded throughout the four seas.

Inside the Dragon Palace, there was a jade tree: its trunk was thick enough to encircle, crystal-clear like white glass, with a pale yellow core in the middle, slightly thinner than an arm. The tree’s leaves resembled green jade, about as thick as a copper coin, and hung down in dense shade. Ma Ji often sang and recited poetry with the Dragon Princess under this tree. The tree blossomed with flowers similar to gardenia. Each falling petal produced a clear, melodious sound resembling gold and jade. When one picked up a petal, it looked like intricately carved red agate, shining brightly and delightful to behold.

In the Dragon Palace, there was often a peculiar bird that came to sing. This bird had feathers that were a mixture of gold and green, with tail feathers longer than its body. Its calls sounded like the mournful melodies played on jade instruments, touching the depths of one’s soul. Whenever Ma Ji heard the song of this bird, he would think of his homeland and say to the Dragon Princess, “I’ve been away from my parents for three years, far from home. Whenever I think about it, tears fill my eyes, and sweat soaks my back. Can you come back with me to my home?”

The Dragon Princess replied, “The path between the mortal and immortal realms is blocked, and I cannot accompany you back. I also cannot bear to take away the joy of reuniting with your parents because of our love as husband and wife. Allow me to slowly think of a solution.”

Ma Ji couldn’t help but shed tears upon hearing this, and the Dragon Princess sighed, “This may not be easily reconciled.”

On the second day, Ma Ji returned after being away. The Dragon King said, “I heard you are longing for home. Will you set out on your journey tomorrow morning?” Ma Ji expressed his gratitude, saying, “As a lonely subject living in a foreign land, I am deeply touched by your love and kindness, and I am burdened with the desire to repay your favor. Please allow me to return home temporarily to visit my family, and I will find a way to reunite with you.”

In the evening, the Dragon Princess hosted a farewell banquet and bid farewell to Ma Ji. Ma Ji wanted to set a date for their future meeting, but the Dragon Princess said, “Our destiny has come to an end.” Ma Ji was filled with sorrow. The Dragon Princess continued, “Returning home to care for your parents reflects your filial piety. Life’s meetings and partings are as fleeting as a day or a night. What use is it to weep like a child? From now on, I will remain faithful to you, and you will remain faithful to me. Though we may be apart, our hearts are together, and that makes us husband and wife. We don’t have to be together day and night to grow old together. If anyone breaks our vows today, our marriage will be inauspicious. If you worry about household affairs, you can take a maid as a concubine. There is one more thing to tell you: since our marriage, I seem to be pregnant. Would you please name the child now?”

Ma Ji replied, “If it’s a girl, let’s call her Dragon Palace; if it’s a boy, let’s name him Blessing Sea.” The Dragon Princess asked Ma Ji to leave a token, and he took out a pair of red jade lotus flowers he had obtained in the country of Rakshasas and gave them to her. The Dragon Princess said, “Three years from now, on the eighth day of the fourth month, you can take a boat to the South Island. At that time, I will return our flesh and blood to you.” She then brought out a fishskin bag filled with jewels and handed it to Ma Ji, saying, “Keep these treasures safe; they will be enough for generations to come.”

As the day was breaking, the Dragon King arranged a farewell feast and presented many gifts to Ma Ji. Ma Ji respectfully bid farewell, left the Dragon Palace, and the Dragon Princess accompanied him in a white ram-driven carriage to the seaside. Ma Ji disembarked on the shore, dismounted his horse, and the Dragon Princess said, “Please take care.” She turned the carriage and quickly disappeared into the distance. The sea closed up again, and the Dragon Princess could no longer be seen. Ma Ji then returned to his hometown.

Since Ma Ji set sail on the sea, everyone believed he had perished. When Ma Ji returned home, his family was astonished. Fortunately, his parents were still alive, but his wife had remarried. It was then that Ma Ji understood the Dragon Princess’s words about him “upholding righteousness” were a premonition of this day. His father wanted him to remarry, but Ma Ji declined, taking a maid as a concubine instead.

Ma Ji remembered the three-year deadline and, at the appointed time, took a boat to the South Island. There, he saw two children floating on the water’s surface, splashing and laughing, unmoved and unswayed by the waves. Ma Ji approached to pull the children ashore. One child laughed joyfully, grabbing Ma Ji’s arm and leaping into his embrace. The other child cried loudly, seemingly reproaching Ma Ji for not rescuing them. Ma Ji also brought this child to the shore. Upon closer inspection, he found that there were one boy and one girl, both with beautiful features. They wore crowns adorned with exquisite jade, and the jade was none other than the red jade lotus flowers.

There was a pouch on the children’s backs, and inside was a letter that read: “I assume both you and your parents are safe and sound. Three hurried years have passed, and the mortal world has forever separated us. The shallow waters of the sea have made it impossible for us to communicate. I have missed you endlessly, and my longing has turned into dreams. I have looked to the distance constantly, but it only brought more fatigue. Faced with the vast blue sea, what use is there in harboring resentment? Thinking of Chang’e on the moon still being alone in the moon palace and Zhinü facing the Milky Way in loneliness. Who am I to be eternally in love with you? Just thinking about it makes me laugh through my tears. Two months after our separation, I gave birth to twins. They can now babble and understand adult speech; they can find dates to eat and pears to enjoy. They can live independently away from their mother. So, I respectfully send them to you. I have adorned the red jade lotus flowers you gave me in their crowns as a mark. When you hold the children in your arms, it’s as if I am right there with you. I heard you can fulfill our past vows, and my wish finds solace. I will remain faithful to you for my entire life, with no wavering. The items kept in the dressing box are no longer fragrant hair oil; the reflection in the mirror no longer needs makeup. You are like a traveling wanderer, and I am a wife guarding an empty house. Even if we cannot be close, separated by distance, how can we not be considered a harmonious husband and wife? However, I still ponder. Although your parents have embraced their grandchildren, they have never met their daughter-in-law. It seems like a regret. One year later, when my mother-in-law passes away, I will personally visit her grave to fulfill my daughter-in-law’s duties. From then on, may ‘Dragon Palace’ be safe and peaceful, and perhaps there may be a way to communicate with ‘Blessing Sea.’ Please take good care, and let the unspoken words in my heart end here.”

Ma Ji read the letter repeatedly, wiping away tears. The two children embraced Ma Ji’s neck and said, “Let’s go home!” Ma Ji became even more sorrowful, caressing the two children and saying, “Do you know where home is?” The two children cried incessantly, childishly and earnestly calling for home. Ma Ji gazed at the boundless sea, vast and limitless, touching the sky, but the beautiful Dragon Princess was nowhere to be seen, and there was no path through the misty waves. He had no choice but to carry the children on board and sadly return to his home.

Ma Ji knew that his mother’s life was drawing to a close, so he prepared all the necessary funeral clothing and items and planted over a hundred pine and oak trees at the burial site. After a year, his mother indeed passed away. When the hearse arrived at the gravesite, they saw a woman dressed in mourning clothes standing in front of the grave. Everyone was surprised and stared at her, but suddenly, a strong wind blew, thunder roared, and it started pouring rain. In the blink of an eye, the woman disappeared. The newly planted pine and cypress trees, which had previously withered, suddenly came back to life.

As their son Fu Hai grew older, he often missed his mother. One day, he suddenly jumped into the sea and didn’t return for several days. Their daughter, Long Gong, being a girl, couldn’t go with him and frequently cried behind closed doors. One day, in broad daylight, the sky suddenly darkened, and Long Gong saw the Dragon Princess entering the room. She comforted Long Gong, saying, “You will have your own family someday. Why are you crying?” She gave Long Gong a coral tree that was eight feet tall, a packet of dragon brain incense, a hundred pearls, and a pair of golden boxes inlaid with the Eight Treasures as her dowry.

When Ma Ji heard the Dragon Princess’s voice, he suddenly rushed into the room, holding her hand, choking back tears. In no time, a thunderclap shattered the house, and the Dragon Princess had vanished without a trace.

Yi Shi Shi said: Putting on a false facade to conform to customs is no different from deceiving both human and spirits. People with peculiar tastes for indulging in unsightly habits can be found everywhere in the world. Articles that one writes with slight embarrassment, aiming to please others, are considered decent; but those that one writes with great shame are praised as exceptional. If a man boldly ventures into the city pretending to be something he’s not, it’s unlikely he won’t frighten people away. As for the foolish man Bian He, who was honored as the Lord of Lingyang, where did he go to lament over his priceless jade when it was lost? Alas, wealth and honor can only be found in the illusionary sea market of a mirage!
















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