Translated by Yilin Wang
During the Kaiyuan era of the Tang dynasty, a young man from the county of Wu traveled to Chang’an city to take part in the keju imperial exams. After arriving in the capital, the scholar spent his free time meandering about in the city’s alleys and walled neighborhoods. Suddenly, two unfamiliar youths dressed in linen clothes approached him. They bowed deeply with respect and humbleness, but the scholar didn’t recognize them, so he continued onward, assuming they had mistaken him for someone else.
The scholar ran into the two youths again several days later. They told him: “As locals, we haven’t had a chance to welcome you properly yet since your arrival. We were planning to invite you over today, so it must be fate that caused us to meet here.” The two youths invited him to go with them.
Swayed by their enthusiasm, the scholar pushed aside his doubts. He followed the youths through a few streets until they entered a narrow alley in the East Market. He trailed them into a clean, polished residence facing the street. The youths led him to a raised seat in the main hall, where more than twenty other well-mannered youths had already gathered for a feast. These youths glanced repeatedly at the entrance, as if waiting for the arrival of an important guest.
After noon passed, someone shouted that the one they had been waiting for was finally here. The creaking sounds of carriage wheels grew louder. An elegant carriage, which was followed by several youths, pulled up to the courtyard outside the main hall. The curtain covering the carriage’s entrance swung open, and a gorgeous young woman around seventeen or eighteen years of age stepped out. Her hair was adorned by flowers and jewels, while her robes appeared simple and refined.
She didn’t reply to the bows of respect from the two youths. When the scholar also bowed, she finally greeted the three of them and invited them into the hall. The woman took the seat of honour at the center of the feast, facing the entrance. The two youths and the scholar all bowed to her before they returned to their seats. Another dozen youths dressed in new clothes each bowed to her before they took the seats for those who had lower ranks.
More fresh, delicious dishes were added. After several rounds of drinking, the woman turned to the scholar and raised her cup. “The two youths have spoken of you to me before, and I’m delighted to finally meet you. I hear you’re highly skilled. Can you show us what talents you have?”
“I have studied nothing but Confucian classics for most of my life,” he replied humbly. “I don’t know how to sing or play any instruments.”
“No, that’s not what I mean,” the woman replied. “Think carefully. What used to be your strongest skill?”
The scholar pondered for a long moment. “Once, at school, I walked a few steps up the side of a wall. I haven’t performed any other feats.”
“That’s what I was referring to,” she replied. “Would you show us?”
The scholar ran up the side of a wall, walking a couple steps before landing back on the ground.
“It’s indeed a difficult feat,” she replied.
Turning to the seated youths, she gestured them to show their skills as well. Each of them rose and bowed to her in turn. Some scuttled up and down walls. Others swung around in mid-air while gripping ceiling beams. They flocked about like birds, performing dexterous feats with speed and grace. The scholar gasped, stunned and unnerved by their skills. A moment later, the woman rose, saying farewell before she departed. The scholar sighed as he left, his heart heavy with unease.
A few more days passed. The scholar met the two youths on the street again.
“May we borrow your horse?” They asked.
“Yes,” he said.
On the next day, the palace announced the news that it had incurred a theft. The guards couldn’t catch the thieves, but they managed to track down the horse that carried the stolen goods on its back. After searching around for the horse’s owner, they found the scholar and arrested him, dragging him to the Palace Affairs department for questioning.
A guard led the scholar through a prison cell gate and shoved him in the back. He rolled over and fell into a deep pit. He climbed back onto his feet and glanced up. The ceiling of the cell was more than seven meters tall. The only opening was a tiny gap at the edge of the ceiling, barely a few inches wide.
On the next day, at breakfast time, a rope dropped down through the tiny opening. It held a small container of food. He devoured it, feeling famished. The rope withdrew immediately after he finished eating. As night fell, the scholar whimpered alone in the darkness. But no one was here to listen to his rants about all the injustices and mistreatments he had suffered.
The scholar suddenly glimpsed a movement in the darkness. Something dived towards him like a swift bird. The shadowy outline of a person neared him, reaching out with a hand. “You must be terrified, but you don’t need to worry as long as I’m here.” The voice belonged to the woman in the carriage who he had met days prior.
“I’m here to rescue you,” she said, tying him onto her back with pieces of silk. Then she leaped into the air, soaring upwards, flying higher and higher, across the palace and city walls. When they were more than ten miles beyond the city gates, she landed at last. “You should return to Jiang Huai,” she said to the scholar. “Your plans to take the imperial exams and pursue a government post will have to wait.”
The relieved scholar escaped back to Wu County on feet, begging for food and shelter along the way. He never dared again to return to Chang’an for the imperial exams, forever giving up his aspirations of pursuing a scholarly title or government post.
“The Woman in the Carriage” appeared initially on Yilin Wang’s blog as a part of her #LIteraryJianghu Chinese Literature and Folklore project. This folktale was originally recorded in Yuan Hua Records and later compiled in Extensive Records of the Taiping Era.
About the translator
Yilin Wang is a Chinese diaspora writer, editor, and Chinese-English translator. Her fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction have appeared in Clarkesworld, The Malahat Review, Arc Poetry Magazine, Grain, CV2, carte blanche, The Tyee, and elsewhere. Her translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Pathlight, Samovar, and Living Hyphen, while her work as a martial arts fiction enthusiast has led her to be featured on CBC’s North by Northwest, interviewed on gaming podcasts, and consult for the tabletop role-playing game Hearts of Wulin. Yilin is a member of the Clarion West Writers Workshop 2020/2021. She has a webpage, and her twitter is @yilinwriter.