Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 1/The lost child

A translation (which the author’s note describes as "abstracted, rather than translated") of 生我樓 {"The House of My Birth"), a story from 十二樓 (Twelve Towers) (1658) by 李漁 Li Yu.

2883447Once a Week, Series 1, Volume I — The lost child. A Chinese story
William Pinkerton


[The tale, entitled “Sea-lou (Little-chamber) the Lost Child,” is one of the most popular of Chinese fictions, and fairly indicates the state of intellectual activity prevailing over that extensive and thickly populated empire. The very inanity of the story, with its marvellous coincidences, is significant to our Western minds, while its details afford interesting glimpses of the semi-civilised state of the Chinese people. It is abstracted, rather than translated; but the spirit, characteristic phrases, and curious Chinese tone of thought of the original have been preserved as closely as possible in the following version.]

In a certain district, in the province of Kwantung, there lived a gentleman named Lien, possessed of considerable wealth; not acquired, however, by either official exactions, or the chicaneries of traffic, but by his ancestors’ and his own industry in cultivating the soil. He was married to a lady of great domestic virtues: wealth established their house, prudence regulated their conduct; and the calm current of their happiness was unruffled, save by one unfortunate circumstance—they had no children. Attributing this misfortune to the unpropitious form of his abode, Lien added to the paternal mansion a small apartment, having many lucky angles and corners; and, accordingly, in course of time, in this very room, a son was born to him. In grateful acknowledgment of the beneficial effect of the lucky corners, Lien named his son Sea-lou—the Little chamber. The boy grew, and thrived apace, till between three and four years old, when, happening one evening to go out to play with other children, he did not return home at night. Search was immediately made in every direction, and continued for many days, but without success; so, at last, the disconsolate parents were reluctantly forced to conclude that their darling son had been devoured by a tiger then infesting the district. Lien, being a wealthy man, had many friends to condole with him in his distress. They advised him to pray to Buddha for another son; but he replied, that he had already wearied his mouth in fruitless prayer. Then they advised him to adopt a son; this he also refused to do, alleging that an adopted child could never essentially become like his own, and would ultimately found a family on his wealth; moreover, that, at his death, the adopted, though becoming the master of his household, would not grieve for him.

“It is not right,” he continued, “that I should give the property acquired by myself and ancestors to an entire stranger. But I will wait till I find a young person who has a true affection for me; and I will not adopt one before I have received ample proofs of such affection, and satisfied my heart that I really have secured it.”

Lien’s friends were not altogether disinterested advisers: they all had children, and any one of them would gladly have allowed the rich agriculturist to adopt a son. Several boys, too, about this time seemed all at once to become wonderfully fond of the childless old man. So, one day, Lien said to his wife:

“The people of this place, knowing that my property is fat and thick, and that I have not decided on adopting a child, are continually pestering me with advice upon the matter, and letting down all manner of baits and hooks to deceive me and catch my wealth. I intend, therefore, to travel into a distant country, in order to endeavour to find some one, by land or water, who may evince a true affection for me. I may be lucky enough to find a suitable person, who, by showing a sincere heart towards me, may, on his part, be lucky enough to become my adopted son.”

The project meeting his wife’s approbation, Lien, as soon as he had settled his plums—that is to say, arranged his affairs,—started off on his journey. When he had reached a considerable distance from home, he threw off the garb and character of a well-to-do Chinese gentleman, and assumed the appearance of a beggar, who wished to sell himself as a slave. The various persons he met by the way, reasoned with him, saying that he was unfit to be either a labourer, domestic servant, or tutor,—that, in short, no one would purchase a helpless old man like him. To this Lien invariably replied:

“It is true my years are many, and that I am not worth a hair as a labourer, domestic servant, or tutor; but the purchaser I seek is a wealthy orphan, to whom I could act in the capacity of a father, by taking care of his money and property, managing his affairs, and regulating his household.”

Then the strangers, with much laughter, would say:

“You have an oily mouth, old man; but you will not succeed in this country!”

And passed on their way, wondering whether he were a rogue or a simpleton.

After long and painful travel, Lien, not finding a wealthy orphan to purchase him, determined to try another course. Buying a piece of white cotton cloth, he wrote on it, in large and distinct characters, the following words:

this elderly gentleman is desirous to sell himself to some young man, in order to become his father. the price is ten dollars only. from the day of sale the seller will enter into the most friendly relations with the purchaser, who shall never have reason to repent of his bargain.

Lien placed this placard on his breast; and, travelling onwards, was saluted by deriding shouts, coarse jeers, and contemptuous laughter from all who met him. Nothing dismayed, however, he still kept on his way, passing through towns and villages, though hooted and pelted at by all the rabble. One day, at length, as he was sitting in the market-place of the city of Hwan-Shing, surrounded as usual by an insulting mob, a tall, well-dressed, young man, of benevolent countenance, pushed through the crowd to learn what might be the matter. The young man presenting a fresh butt for the vulgar witticisms of the mob, they cried to him:

“Hallo, sir! you are very charitable and compassionate to widows and orphans. Pull out your purse, pay ten dollars, and have a father.”

While others cried:

“What does the greedy old rogue want with ten dollars? since whoever may be fool enough to buy him will assuredly have to keep him!”

The young man, however, was too much struck by the shrewd but amiable features of Lien, and the extraordinary nature of the placard, to pay any attention to the rude ribaldry of the rabble. Musing, he thought:

“If this old man should really prove a true father to me! I ought to buy him, and thus obtain a renown for benevolence for one hundred years. But he may have relatives, who might some day recognise and claim him.”

To the question if he had any relatives, Lien answered that he had not. To all other questions he did not answer, but merely pointed to the words on the placard—“The purchaser shall never have reason to repent of his bargain.” Without saying more, the young man gave Lien ten dollars. Then the latter tore the placard off his breast, and put it in the hands of the young man, as a receipt in full, thus consummating the bargain after the Chinese fashion. Then the young man, seizing his newly purchased father by the arm, led him through the uproarious crowd to the nearest wine-shop, where, seating him in the place of honour, he put a pot of rich warm wine in his hands with all due filial reverence. The rabble followed, shouting as they ran:

“Is this old man a god, a devil, or an ass, that he should lead the sharpest young broker in our city into so foolish a bargain?”

But the broker soon quieted them, by giving the wine-shop keeper some silver to treat them all round, in honour of the joyous occasion; and then, calling a sedan-chair, he took Lien home to his house.

Lien was well pleased to find that his new son’s house was evidently the dwelling of a prosperous merchant. On entering, the young man led him to the seat of honour; and, after performing the four reverences which Chinese etiquette demands from a son to a father, begged to inquire his name and history. But Lien was a genuine Chinaman, and accordingly gave a very patchy and muddy, or, in plain English, a very false account of himself. The young man, in return, and speaking truthfully, said that his name was Yaou, and he was the son of one Kwe, formerly a rice-merchant in the city of Hwo-Kwang. He had lost his parents when young, and, consequently, began the world early in life as an apprentice to a travelling silk-dealer. Having acquired a knowledge of the business, and a peculiar skill in estimating the value of different qualities of silk, his master frequently entrusted him with small ventures and commissions; so, by care and industry, he was soon enabled to set up for himself; and now, though only twenty-two years of age, he was one of the leading silk-brokers in Hwan-Shing.

Lien was highly gratified to find that he had obtained so promising a son; but, with the characteristic cunning of his race, he determined to learn more about Yaou, before he disclosed his real name, great wealth, and high position in society. Day by day, however, the silk-broker’s excellent disposition and energetic business habits became more apparent, and Lien was almost tempted to reveal his true history when, all at once, news arrived that the rebel army was in full march towards Hwan-Shing, with the intention of sacking, if not totally destroying, the doomed city. Yaou, on hearing this alarming intelligence, asked Lien’s advice as to how they should act. Lien advised that Yaou should sell off all his goods as soon as possible, and, with the proceeds concealed on their persons, the two should travel about, disguised as beggars, until tranquillity should be restored. To this Yaou warmly replied, that the hardships and fatigue of such a mode of action would seriously injure, or perhaps kill, so aged a man as Lien; and that, for his own part, he would rather remain in the city, and endeavour to compound with the rebels, even if he lost all his property, than allow his venerable father to suffer such privations. This melted Lien’s heart. He acknowledged that he was a wealthy gentleman, and declared that Yaou should be his heir. Their plan was soon arranged. That very day Yaou sold all his goods, and the two embarked in a passage-boat, their destination being Lien’s house.

When the boat had started, and the adopted father and son had once more, after the hurry of their departure, an opportunity of quiet converse together, Lien asked the other how it was that he had never married. Yaou replied that he had intended to marry a certain lady, but now of course he must be entirely ruled by his respected parent’s wishes. Lien rejoined that if the rank and fortune of the lady were suitable, he could have no possible objections. Yaou then told him that the lady’s name was Faw-wang, and she was the daughter of his old master, the silk-merchant; that they had long loved each other, but on account of his youth and want of fortune her parents would not allow their marriage to take place. After some further conversation on the matter, it was agreed that, as there was a landing-place, at which the boat stopped to take in and discharge passengers, close by where Faw-wang lived, Yaou should take the opportunity to run up to see her; and if she were still unmarried, and willing to come with him, he was to bring her to the boat, and they would all go home to Lien’s house merrily together. But, on reaching the landing-place, the other passengers, alarmed by reports of the proximity and dreadful atrocities of the rebels, would not allow the boat to stop any longer time than was merely necessary to land such travellers as wished. To the expostulations of Lien, who spoke of his son’s particular business, the passengers turned a deaf ear, exclaiming that time pressed, and every one had his own business to do; that the traveller never knew whether life or death, preservation or destruction, depended on the rate he travelled; and they concluded by observing:

“When we took our passage we made no bargain about waiting for you.”

This last was decisive.

So as nothing better could be done, under the circumstances, Lien, who in his capacity of father, carried the joint purse, gave Yaou one hundred ounces of gold, with which he jumped on shore to arrange the marriage; while the old gentleman proceeded homewards, in the boat, to prepare a grand festival for the reception of the bride and bridegroom. But scarcely had the boat again started, when Lien, with great vexation, recollected the very patchy and muddy account he had given of himself to his adopted son; and, also, that though he had since acknowledged his wealth and position in society, he had never told Yaou his real name and place of residence. His natural shrewdness, however, did him good service in this dilemma. When the boat reached its destination, he caused a number of placards to be printed and posted, in various conspicuous positions, on the roads most likely to be travelled by his adopted son, and these placards, couched in ambiguous language, so as to be understood by Yaou alone, were intended to inform him respecting his adopted father’s real name and address. Having accomplished this, Lien proceeded on his homeward journey.

Yaou, as soon as he had landed, hurried off on the wings of expectation to the dwelling of the silk-dealer; but, to his consternation, soon found that it had been burned by the rebels; and, on making further inquiries, learned that all the family had been murdered, with the exception of the fair Faw-wang, whom the rebels had carried off in captivity. Sorrowfully enough, then, Yaou turned his steps towards his adopted father’s house, as he thought; but, in reality, in quite another direction, according to the false statement made by Lien.

After travelling a day’s journey, he came to the bank of a river, where a large crowd was assem- bled. On asking what caused the assemblage of so many persons in that particular spot, he was told that a party of the rebels were then and there holding a hong, or market, to dispose of their plunder and prisoners. Thinking that Faw-wang might probably be among the captives, Yaou entered the market, but soon discovered that the rebels were keen dealers. For, apprehending that if their female captives’ faces were seen, the purchasers would invariably select the youngest and best looking; the rebels placed a sack over the head of each prisoner, drawing it down as far as the hands, and sold the whole for one price all round.

As there was no help for it, Yaou purchased one that seemed to him the youngest and most likely looking of the captives; but, to the great and vociferous amusement of the by-standers, when the sack was taken off her head, she proved to be a venerable matron, between fifty and sixty years of age. Still, as the appearance of the old lady was respectable, and her countenance betokened an amiable disposition, Yaou did not altogether repent of his bargain. Taking into consideration that he had purchased a wealthy father for only ten dollars, he thought that possibly this bargain might turn out a good one also. Moreover, recollecting that Lien had positively declared that he had no relatives, Yaou considered that the respect-able-looking old lady might make a capital wife for his adopted father. Accordingly, he asked her if she had a son, and being answered in the negative, he proposed to adopt her as his mother. She agreeing, he immediately performed the four reverences to her, and the other ceremonies of adoption. The old lady, then, to show her gratitude drew Yaou to one side, and informed him that among the captives still unsold there was a maiden as beauteous as the day.

“It may be so, mother,” he replied, “but how am I to find her. I cannot see through a sack.”

“Listen,” rejoined the old lady, “the damsel of whom I speak has an implement of jade-stone—from which, I heard her say, nothing but death should part her—this she has concealed in one of the sleeves of her dress. Go, then, among the captives, use your eyes discreetly, and probably you may discover some indications of this jade implement.”

Yaou went, and soon perceived the end of the jade-stone peeping out, as it were, at the place where the sack was tied round one of the captive’s wrists. Nay, more, he recognised it to be a jade silk-measure that he had himself given to Faw-wang in former and happier days. He, at once, purchased the captive, and sure enough, when the sack was taken from her head, she proved to be Faw-wang herself, to the great delight and happiness of them both.

Accompanied by his bride and adopted mother, Yaou again set off with the intention of proceeding to Lien’s house; but, as before, and from the same reason, going in quite a contrary direction. After travelling a short distance, however, he espied one of the placards that had been put up by Lien, which, from its ambiguous wording, being utterly unable to comprehend, brought him to a stand-still. His adopted mother, perceiving he was in a dilemma, then said:

“Why should my son travel farther, if he be uncertain of his way? My house is but a short distance from this place, let us go thither for the present.”

Yaou agreed to this proposition, and they all embarked in a boat, which soon took them to a wide lake—so wide that the shades of the evening closed round the party, ere they had crossed it. At last, as the boat neared the opposite bank, Yaou was surprised to hear the voice of Lien cry out from the shore:

“Is that my son Yaou’s boat?”

But he was still more astonished when he immediately afterwards heard his adopted mother exclaim:

“That is my dear husband’s voice!”

For the old lady that Yaou had so fortunately purchased was no other than Lien’s wife, who had been carried off by the rebels, previous to the old gentleman’s return home.

After the first happy greetings and hurried explanations on the bank of the lake, Lien led the way to his house; and, having ushered Yaou and Faw-wang into the little apartment, with the many lucky corners, gave them formal possession of it, for their own use. On entering the room Yaou was struck with surprise; his eyes eagerly glanced over the windows, doors, tables, seats, bed, and bed-hangings.

“How strange!” he exclaimed. “I have frequently dreamt of a room, exactly resembling this; everything here is quite familiar to me. Am 1 awake, or do I still dream! I remember, too, that in my dreams I have frequently gone to a recess, concealed by that very curtain at the foot of the bed, and taken from thence a box of toys—a little porcelain horse, a hammer, a ball, and other things, such as children play with.”

Lien, too much agitated to speak, drew back the curtain, disclosing the recess and the box of toys, which were immediately recognised by Yaou.

“Of a surety, then,” said Lien, “you cannot be any other than my own son, who, escaping the calamity of the tiger, was picked up by a kidnapper, and sold to some childless family.”

But Yaou strongly insisted that such could not be the case; for no one had ever told him that he was not the son of Kwe, the rice-merchant, in the city of Hwo-Kwang. Then Faw-wang, who had not previously spoken, said to her husband:

“Everybody in our town well knew that you were not the son of Kwe, the rice-merchant, though nobody liked to tell you so to your face. When you first proposed marriage to me, my parents, seeing you were an industrious and well-disposed young man, would gladly have consented if you had been the true offspring of Kwe’s house, and not a mere purchased brat. That was the true reason why they would not permit our marriage to be solemnised. And now, when you have heard all this, how can you doubt that you are the son of this worthy couple?—that this is the very room in which you were born?”

For some minutes not one of the party could speak. At last, Lien, with an effort, breaking the silence, said:

“We need not long remain in doubt upon this matter. There is a certain means of identification, by a peculiar mark my child had upon his body.”

On examination, the mark was found upon Yaou, and then Lien said:

“This day the Imperial Heaven and Queen-like Earth, taking compassion on our collected virtue, have brought us all together to complete our imperfect circle.”

Then all, with one accord, having bowed and thanked Heaven and Earth, Lien summoned the servants, and ordered them to make preparations for a grand feast. Four pigs and four sheep were killed in honour of the gods, and to furnish a repast for all the neighbours; before whom Lien acknowledged Yaou to be his legitimate son and heir, who, consequently, took from that time his original name of Sea-lou, or the Little-chamber, though he is still more generally known over all the great celestial, central, flowery empire as The Lost Child.

William Pinkerton.