Chapter 17

Zhang Ying Makes Rain in Boping County
While Zuo Chu Joins Battle at a Wulong Altar

Every spring and fall the sprouts are planted yet again
In every county folks look to the sun and hope for rain.

If you would be Prime Minister of our entire land
Please spread it well so drought and famine don't get out of hand!

As the story goes so far, Zhang Ying had heard that a Daoist nun in Boping County was making rain from her own pulpit, and shot over there in a puff of smoke. No sooner had he entered the wall of the county seat than he spotted a proclamation hanging in the gateway with an old man sitting silently on a stool beside it. A lot of people were passing through but not many were going to the trouble to stand on their toes to read it. Zhang Ying walked right up and read aloud:

"To whom it may concern:

The Boping County Magistrate Seeks Prayers for Rain

A serious drought has been underway in this county for some time. Fields are dry and barren, and our prayers and sacrifices for rain have gone unanswered. Should anyone of any rank or occupation passing through the county know a rain charm to relieve our people's misery, please come forth, for the county awaits your prayers. There is a reward of a thousand strings of cash awaiting on the day that it rains. Please give this your most serious consideration.

Posted on the ( ) day, fourth month, third year of the Tiansheng Reign."

Zhang Ying then politely clasped his hands together and turned toward the old man. "How long has this fine county of yours been without rain?

"There hasn't been a drop of rain since the eleventh month of last year," said the man; "that makes six straight months I reckon!"

"I've heard there's a Daoist nun out there somewhere who they say can make rain. Can it be? And where is she?"

The old man stretched out his knuckles, reared his head and curled out his lips to speak in the local brogue. "Ten thousand people trekked off to be where she was!" he answered.

Zhang laughed. "And where exactly was that?"

"The old nun's surname is Xi, meaning 'slave'. She's over fifty and she calls herself "Fairy Goddess". She had about ten disciples altogether, men and women. The women were called "Fairy Nuns" and the men "Fairy Ministers". To hear her tell it she's from that new Thousand Gorges Regional Commandery down Guizhou way and she can order down rain and wind at will." The man paused, for it was to be a long story.

"When they first posted this notice the magistrate and his men didn't take her too seriously. She set out about ten li from the north gate, selected a site on a high bluff and set up a rainmaking pulpit she called the Wulong Altar. Then they made five dragons cause that's what Wulong means, green, yellow, red, white and black and set each facing in the right direction alongside it. Next she demanded that the county magistrate bring the safe containing all the reward money, the thousand strings of cash they'd collected from everyone and put it on the altar. One after another he went along with her. She was supposedly practicing some kind of lunar lodge craft, and she demanded that each locality report the ages of their pregnant wives. Then she claimed to reckon their fates and proclaimed one to be 'Mother of the Demon of Drought', accusing her of carrying this demon in her belly. Without giving any chance to explain or protest she ordered the woman to be brought before the altar. She sat on top of it and directed those followers of hers to blow horns and beat drums, and then she recited charms while spewing out water from her mouth and nose. And then while they had the poor woman all confused they stripped her bare naked and layed her down on a wooden door, soaking each of her hands and feet and her hair in five bowls of water. Next, one of the "Fairy Ministers" with his hair all wild faced the deadly north and stood and with his right foot on her big belly while leaning on a sword, and recited some kind of mumbo-jumbo. Then her other followers, boys and girls both, and some others carrying flags and beating tiles, danced and chanted wildly. Looking up at the savage scene the young woman was nearly unconscious, scared half to death and exposed to that scorching sun without a cloud in the sky or a bit of shade. At day's end they finally left the ritual ground, and she told them the Dragon King hadn't been home and that she would pray again for rain the next day. She then ordered the magistrate to pay out three strings of cash to the pregnant woman's husband in compensation and ordered her to go back home. Next morning she determined that yet another pregnant woman was a 'Mother of Drought' and ordered her brought to submit before the altar. But by now the crowds of local farmers were enraged. Three or four hundred had gathered by then and rose up as one, throwing bricks and heaving tiles and roaring like thunder in their righteous anger, killing all of her disciples. That Sorceress Xi was terrified, and she switched clothes with a dead follower before running away. The magistrate didn't pursue her, but ordered this plaque hung up at every gate instead. I'm the village chief here, and I'm guarding the proclamation and watching out for troublemakers."

"So," laughed Zhang Ying heartily, "that's what happened! Well, I've got my own bag of tricks, and it's just child's play for me to set up an altar and make rain for you!" And so having spoken he reached up and put his free hand on the plaque but the old man stood up and pulled it away.

"You're talking awfully big, son. Do you mean to claim this for real? Just hold it with the big talk and small results, the unfinished projects...why don't you take a lesson from that so-called Fairy Goddess climbing up one side of the altar and running for her life down the other?"

"How much rain do you want? Enough to shock you out of your wits or just amaze you a bit?"

"We only need thirty inches of rain, why, that'll do!"

Zhang laughed heartily. "If I command the rivers and oceans to empty it'll happen in a few hours' time. There's nothing at all to the small amount that you need!"

The old man then offered his stool to someone else and led Zhang Ying down the road to the county seat. The farmers noticed their village chief escorting a Daoist into town and happily concluded that it was certainly in connection with that call for rainmakers, all of them coming for a look. Now, Boping County had now been without rain for six months, a severe drought. Just imagine:

The dried up rivers in their courses yielded dust and sand
While in the fields there were only cracks upon the land.

The trees were scorched and withered to a brownish dried-out hue
And what remained in wells was just a muddy residue.

Overhead the flaming sun peered down from in the sky
Like the will of angry Heaven looking through a fiery eye.

The yellow dust just billows up and swirls around and round
While blades of grass just bow their heads and lay upon the ground.

Some folks tried getting water with their money or their gold
It only led to fighting when no water could be sold.

It's customary when we welcome friends to pour some tea
But nowadays no water flows out from the pot to see.

In olden times did Han Wudi make prayer to the sky
And earlier had Yin Shang sacrificed when it was dry.

With throats as dry as tinder do the people wait their fates
While deep inside a well a fearsome dragon hibernates.

This county naturally had its share of temples staffed with bonzes and wizards who prayed for rain according to their faiths and crafts, reading the sutras, sacrificing and offering charms. County Magistrate Chun Yuhou went early every morning to the Temple of the City Moat to burn joss and pray for Heaven's help, all to no avail. And the people had a little jingle about it:

Morning and night he goes to pray
And yet another flaming day.

Morning and night he goes to plead
And not a drop for those in need.

Our magistrate may have no plan
But we can only trust the man.

On this particular day he had finished his prayers and morning services were over. On returning to rest in his quarters he was suddenly aroused by loud shouts and wild drumming in the County Hall. Forgetting his crown in haste and clad in his ordinary gown he came running out of the rear annex. "A Daoist from far away has just arrived with one of the rainmaking proclamations!" announced a guard. "The people are massing in the streets behind him."

The magistrate turned to the village chief and ordered him and all the other people to wait outside. Then he invited the Daoist alone into his quarters for a meeting. Zhang Ying went boldly forward holding that basket of thorns in his left hand and his tortoise shell fan in his right. Formally greeting the magistrate he set down the basket, bowed and kowtowed, and the official hastily returned the formalities.

"What's your full name and title and whereabouts are you from?" asked the magistrate.

"Surname's Zhang, first name's Ying for Oriole. I'm also called Chongxiao Chushi, the Skysoarer. I'd just arrived here in Shandong by sea when I came across the call for rainmakers and came to offer my services."

"You wouldn't by any chance be practicing that 'lunar lodge' craft, would you?" asked the magistrate.

"Not lunar lodge, but sun dimming craft. How can you make it rain without first dimming the sun?"

Both men laughed. "There's a rain altar erected outside the north gate if that'll be all right for you."

"If you've already got an altar I'll be able to get right to work."

"In roughly how many days will the rain arrive?"

"The sooner I mount the altar the sooner it'll rain!"

The magistrate recalled the ugliness that arose out of that Daoist Nun's groteque rituals and was skeptical. "You seem awfully sure of yourself, professor...I still don't quite understand what craft you're using. I'd like you to explain and prepare everything carefully in advance."

I really don't need any special preparations or equipment," said Zhang. "Just have every Buddhist and Daoist in every temple of the county come forth and sanctify the altar, and then just wait."

"So, it's as easy as that!" said the magistrate. "I'll be glad to order it done right away and arrange for you to spend the night at the Temple of the City Moat, and first thing tomorrow morning you'll be able to mount that altar of ours."

"As your excellency orders. There's only one little thing. Even a simple public inn is all right for me to spend the night. I'm just afraid my presence in the Temple of the City Moat might disturb their prayers and get them all upset."

"Of course there are inns." Although the magistrate so answered, he was reluctant to allow this and Zhang knew it.

"I arrived early this morning on an empty stomach so I'd like some quick food and wine."

"Of course we can provide wine," answered the magistrate. "But the food is strictly vegetarian."

"I'm accustomed to having fresh meat with my wine and monks' food simply doesn't suit me, your excellency."

"To tell the truth," explained the magistrate, meat has been forbidden for over three months now while we've been praying for rain. I'm eating only vegetables myself, and I'm afraid your insistance on having fresh meat is really unreasonable."

Zhang Ying laughed. "Your ban on slaughtering has been taken very lightly, excellency. As folks have always said:

'When people don't respect the bans that they are told they must
The government looks stupid and the people good and just.'

If your excellency doesn't believe this is the case now, well, just east of these offices at number thirteen the Lyu family just this morning slaughtered a seventy pound full grown hog. And then their neighbor Sun Kongmu bought fifteen pounds of its pork for his son's first birthday banquet. It's in the pans being cooked right now. And west of here Gu's wineshop slaughtered and sold a lamb this morning, and they've still got a pair of its hooves, cooked up all dressed in spices and bamboo and on display atop a fine bucket of rice. If you go there and remind them that they don't have any special permission from the authorities they'll offer you a price you won't refuse."

"I can't believe such things are happening!" said the magistrate. He then instructed the servant in charge of provisions for that day to go and buy five pounds of pork and a pair of lamb's feet from the places that Zhang had mentioned. A short time later he returned with his hands full.

"At first both of them tried denying it but they were were caught dead to rights and for awhile it looked like I'd frightened them speechless. Then they nervously went in back and came out with the goods, handed them over and didn't dare take any money for them."

The magistrate looked at Zhang in amazement. "What kind of maths did you use to reckon that, professor?"

"It just came to me, that's all."

The magistrate then realized that this gentleman was no ordinary soul and he looked on him with real respect. In a little while the servants had warmed and brought in five five or six liters of wine, twenty wheat buns, the pork and and the lamb's hooves and lined them all up on the table.

"I can't thank you enough," said Zhang Ying, hands clasped together in appreciation. Then by bowlfuls and great hunks did he make quick work of devouring it all, and in a very short while three empty plates and a dry winepot were all that remained of the feast.

"Sorry I was so selfish," he finally said. Then he went on to the Temple where he had yet another meal, causing those present to gasp in surprise. "I've never seen anyone eat like that!" remarked one. "What a bottomless gut he's got!"

Suddenly a clever and cute pagegirl stood up behind the magistrate. "What else would such a big mouth be attached to?" she chimed in.

"Your own mouth isn't exactly small either!" answered Zhang, pointing at her. The girl's little button of a red mouth then involuntarily spread grotesquely wide from ear to ear, opening round and wide as a laquered scarlet bowl. Unable to close it or speak, she burst into tears.

Now, this young women was only fifteen years of age, still with bangs over her eyebrows, so very pure and bright and the magistrate's favorite page. Having seen something very strange happening to her and knowing that her broadside against Zhang was the cause, he hurriedly bowed and apologized. "I'm sorry master but the poor child's only fifteen and doesn't have any sense!"

"It didn't really bother me" answered Zhang.

"This kid's always making weird faces!"

"You mean like she's doing now?" asked Zhang, and when the magistrate turned to look he saw her smiling as happily and pleasantly as before.

The a county clerk standing by spoke in a whisper. "Smoke and mirrors!" he hissed.

Zhang Ying heard it but was unruffled. "What's that clerk's name?" he asked the magistrate.

"Why, it's Lu, Lu Mao in fact."

"Good for you, County Clerk Lu!" Zhang replied as Lu nervously slipped away.

The magistrate then had Zhang Ying escorted to a public inn, with instructions that food and drink be provided morning and night. And as they parted for the night he also arranged with Zhang for the two to rise early the next morning and go together to worship at the rain altar. "My staff had better accompany you in person," he added.

Now, earlier that day he had ordered the bonzes and wizards in every temple to prepare to go forth and sanctify the wulong rain altar, By the drumming of the fifth watch at three o'clock the next morning they all began arriving at the altar to await the arrival of Wizard Zhang and welcome him as ordered. He also instructed his staff to be at their posts before dawn, and sent an officially designated horse to the inn for Zhang's use in the morning. That night found Boping County really bustling with activity.

Next morning at daybreak the magistrate left the county hall and was just mounting his palanquin when he spotted Zhang Ying, tortoise shell fan in his right hand and thorn basket in his left swaggering toward him most officiously. His eye's met Zhang's. "It's an honor sir, as usual" he the magistrate.

"I'm here as promised for the walk to the altar."

"But it's a journey of ten li so I sent a horse to the inn for you. Didn't it arrive?"

"Oh, the horse got there all right but I can walk the way."

"Have you had breakfast yet?" enquired the magistrate.

"Yes, I have."

"Well then, why don't you set out first and I'll follow on."

"I don't know where the rain altar is so I'd like to trouble that clerk Lu of yours to show me the way.

The magistrate then ordered Lu Mao to do a good job guiding Zhang Ying.

Now, County Clerk Lu followed the magistrate's orders and went with Zhang, giving constant assistance. But suddenly Zhang Ying disappeared, and he stopped momentarily in fright. Reckoning that Zhang couldn't have fallen behind he then ran ahead and found the gentleman twenty or thirty paces in front.

"It's still OK," thought the guide. "But what if he's only a wandering monk who talked big and is now cutting out when the time comes to deliver, no doubt with some excuse or other for me. Or what if he really doesn't know the way and gets himself lost and the magistrate arrives first, making me look incompetent?"

And so forward he lunged, trying to overtake the fellow. He saw the professor only walking on slowly in the lead while he, strangely, was found that all his strength was insufficient for him to catch up. Stranger yet, whether he ran faster or only walked the gap remained the same twenty or thirty paces. Eventually he ran himself out of breath and started panting.

"Slow down a bit, professor!" shouted the clerk, "I can't catch up to you!"

"Hah hah," laughed Zhang, "a poor wizard walks a bit too fast and you can't stay in front to guide the looks as though I'll have to go up to Heaven and make rain without you!" Now that clerk ran as if for his life but still saw that he was not closing the gap. And here's a poem:

Far in front and out of sight he shrinks both time and space
And even slowing down he still can keep the lead apace.

With tongue all parched the clerk now only labors on in vain
Teased along till sweat pours from his body like the rain.

The clerk was now truly sweating up a storm and trying to catch his breath. "Look, I can see that you've got miraculous powers," he managed to shout; "you've already worn me out!"

"What's so miraculous about 'smoke and mirrors'?" answered Zhang Ying.

Only then did the clerk realize that this had all been the result of his gaff the previous night. He fell at once to his knees and kowtowed in apology. Zhang Ying stopped, turned and clasped his hands in forgiveness, and just as quickly as twin magnets on a plate reversed places with him, once again following the clerk's lead.

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