During the Tang Dynasty, there was a man named Wei Gu who lived in Duling, China. He was orphaned at a young age. After he grew up, he wanted to get married and have a family as soon as possible. He entrusted someone to seek a wife for him, but with no success. In the second year of Yuanhe (A.C. 806-820), he toured the Qinghe area and stayed in an inn south of Songcheng City. A guest at the inn suggested that he propose to Sima Panfang's daughter, who lived in Songcheng. They made an appointment to meet the next day at the entrance of Longxing Temple to discuss the matter.
To show that he was sincere about marriage, Wei was at the appointed place before dawn. When he got there, he saw an old man sitting on the stairs of the temple going through a list of books in the moonlight. Wei quietly browsed through the list of books, but he could not recognize the characters of the book titles.
Wei asked the old man, “What book are you looking for? I have studied hard since I was little, and it is rare that I encounter characters that I do not recognize. I can even read Sanskrit. However, I am not familiar with the books you are looking for. What are they?” The old man smiled and answered, “These are books of the netherworld. Since they do not belong to this world, of course you have not seen them. I am from the netherworld and am charge of the affairs over here. I was not supposed to run into you, since we are separated by yin and yang, but you came here early, and I did not expect you.”
Wei asked the old man, “What are you in charge of?” He replied, “I am in charge of the marriages of this world.” Wei got excited and asked him, “I was orphaned when I was little, so I wanted to get married quickly so I can have descendants. I have proposed marriage to many girls over a dozen years, but with no success. I will meet a friend here today to talk about marrying Sima Pancheng's daughter who lives in Songcheng. Will it work out?”
The old man told Wei, “No. If you are not destined to marry someone, even if that someone is of low social status and you condescend to marry her, it will still not work. Your wife just passed her three-year birthday. She will marry into your family when she is 17.”
Wei then asked the old man, “What do you carry in your bag?” He answered, “Red strings. I use them to tie the feet of the husband and wife together in the human world. When a person is born, he or she already has a string on his/her foot tied to his/her future spouse. It does not matter if the two are enemies, or if one is rich and the other is poor, or if they live in the two most remote corners of the world. Once this red string ties them together, they can not disobey their destiny. Your foot is tied to someone. Nothing is going to change it, regardless of your enthusiasm for seeking an early marriage.”
Wei asked, “Where is my wife? What does her family do?” The old man told him, “Your wife is the daughter of a woman with the last name Chen. She sells vegetables in a market north of the inn.” “Can I see her,” Wei asked. “Chen often takes her daughter to the market. Follow me, I can point her out to you,” said the old man.
Wei's friend never showed up that day. Wei followed the old man to the market. An old woman with a blind eye carrying a three-year-old girl walked toward them. The girl's clothes were worn and she looked ugly. The old man pointed at the girl and told Wei that she was his wife. Wei got very angry: “Can I kill her?” “The girl has a prosperous future, and she will have a wealthy life with you. She should not be killed,” said the old man, and then he disappeared.
Wei was very upset, “That old ghost is absurd. I was born into an educated family with social status. I should marry someone with equal standing. Even if I never get married, I could be friendly with some beautiful women. Why should I marry a blind woman's ugly daughter?” He sharpened a knife and handed it to his servant, “You are a capable person. If you kill this girl for me, I will reward you with a lot of money.”
The next day, Wei's servant put the knife in his sleeve and went to the market to assassinate the girl. The crowd fell into chaos. Wei and his servant got away during the chaos. He anxiously asked his servant whether he had stabbed the girl. His servant told him, “I aimed at her heart but I missed and stabbed her between her eyebrows.” After that, Wei proposed many times to many women, but had no luck.
Fourteen years later, Wei was working under Wang Tai through an old acquaintance of his father's. Wang was the head of the Procuratorate in Xiangzhou. He was in charge of collecting evidence and making interrogations. Wang admired Wei's superior ability and decided to let his 17-year-old daughter marry Wei.
Wang's daughter was virtuous and intelligent. She was gorgeous but always pasted a flower between her eyebrows. She would not take it off even when she took a bath or was alone. A year after they were married, Wei suddenly remembered the assassination in the market years before and asked his wife about the flower. His wife cried and told him, “I was adopted by the Wang Tai, the head of the Procuratorate. My father was once the magistrate in Songcheng City. When he passed away, I was still a baby. My mother and my older brother died after that, leaving a farmstead south of Songcheng. I lived with my nanny, Chen. Because we lived close to a market, Chen made a living selling vegetables. When I was three years old, a gangster stabbed me while Chen was holding me in the market, leaving a scar between my eyebrows and hence I cover it with a flower. About seven years ago, when my stepfather was in Lulong, he adopted me as his daughter.”
Wei asked his wife whether Chen had a blind eye. His wife confirmed it and asked how he knew about it. Wei told her that he was the person who had ordered the assassination and told her everything that happened back then. After they learned what had happened, they respected each other even more. They had a son and named him Kun. When Kun grew up, he became a prefecture chief in Yanmen. Wei's wife was honored as Lady of Taiyuan Prefecture. After the magistrate of Songcheng learned their story, he named the inn Wei stayed in 14 years before the Engagement Inn.
The story tells us that marriage is predestined. It has been decided based on one's virtue and karma and cannot be changed. Wei refused to acknowledge his destiny. He would never have known that his wife would change from an ugly girl into a beautiful, virtuous woman. His pursuit of a wife with equal standing and good looks changed nothing except to leave a scar on his wife's beautiful face.
In a morally degenerate society, the relationships between men and women are a mess. It's not unusual to see husbands and wives commit adultery, abandon and fight with each other, and end their marriages in divorce. Perhaps Li Fuyan from the Tang Dynasty was trying to tell today's people something in his story of the Engagement Inn.
(This story is based on Li Fuyan's book Xu'xuan'guai'lu.)
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