Life in Ancient China

Man vs Beast

Here's a famous, but grisly, story from one of the world's first novels a Chinese classic called Shui Hu Zhuan. It's about 800 years old. 

Wu Song is a burly adventurer with a big appetite and a hot temper. He often acts before he thinks and that lands him in trouble. As this story opens, he thinks he has killed someone and so he is on the run.

(Be warned: this story contains violence and alcoholism, neither of which I agree with.)  


Wu Song Fights the Tiger

...Wu Song tied up his bag, picked up his stick and set off on the road.

He arrived in Yanggu County after walking several days. At lunchtime, when he was hungry and thirsty, he came to a wine-shop. A banner flew out the front of the shop. It read, ‘Three cups and you won’t make the mountain.’

Wu Song went in, sat down and propped his stick against the wall.

‘Owner, bring me some wine!’ he called. Wu Song gulped down the wine brought by the shopkeeper. ‘That’s the spirit!’ He finished three bowls of wine, plus a kilo of sliced beef to go with it. Then he banged on the table for more.

‘Customer,' said the shopkeeper, 'You must have read the sign out the front. Nobody who drinks three cups of this stuff can get over the mountain ridge.’
‘I’m not drunk, so shut your rubbish!’ retorted Wu Song.

‘How am I going to pick up a tall man like you if you fall over?’ said the innkeeper.

‘If I need your help I’m not a real man!’ Wu Song said. ‘Now stop making me mad or I’ll bust up your shop.’

The shopkeeper decided he’d better bring more wine. Wu Song drank fifteen cups altogether, before heading out the door. The owner hurried after him to ask where he was going.

‘What do you want?’ said Wu Song. ‘I don’t owe you money.’

‘You’d better come back and read the official notice,’ said the shopkeeper.

‘What official notice?’ said Wu Song.

‘Recently, on the mountain ridge ahead of you, a great, slant-eyed, white-browed beast has been attacking people, late in the day,’ replied the shopkeeper. ‘This tiger has killed twenty or thirty strong men. The local government has sent hunters out to catch it. People are forbidden to go up the mountain except between the hours of nine and three, when they must go in groups. Now it’s nearly four o'clock. You'd better wait until tomorrow and join up with another twenty or thirty people if you want to cross the ridge safely.'

Wu Song laughed. 'I've been over that mountain at least ten times and I've never heard of this tiger. Stop talking piss! Even if there is a tiger, I'm not afraid. You're just trying to keep me here so you can murder me at midnight and take my money.'

'I'm trying to save you, out of the goodness of my heart,' said the owner. 'If you don't believe me, then please, go on your way.' Shaking his head, he went back into the shop.

Wu Song strode off towards the mountain. When he had gone a few miles, he came to the foot of the ridge. There he saw a large tree with a piece of bark scraped off, and on the white trunk were two lines of writing. Wu Song knew how to read a few characters, so he looked up and read:

'Due to recent injuries caused by a large tiger, travellers may only cross this mountain between the hours of nine and three, in groups. Please do not cause accidents to yourself!'

Wu Song laughed. 'That wine-shop owner is really cunning. He's put a sign up to frighten people back to his shop. What have I got to fear?'

By this time the sun was turning red and dropping behind the mountain. Wu Song kept heading upwards, still full of wine. He hadn't got far when he came to a broken-down temple. On the door was stuck a printed notice:

'Due to a large beast causing injury on this mountain, travellers may only cross in groups, between the hours of nine and three. Travellers may not go up the mountain alone, or at other times, for fear of injury or death.'

When he saw the printed notice, Wu Song was convinced there really was a tiger. He wanted to go back to the wineshop, but then he thought, 'If I return I will have to put up with the shopowner laughing at me and thinking I'm not man enough. I'll go on and see what happens.'

So off he went at a run, in high spirits, until he came to a deep and tangled forest. There he rested his stick against a large, dark rock and lay down for a sleep. A moment later he felt a rush of wind. Then he heard a thump in the trees and out jumped a slant-eyed, white-browed tiger.

Wu Song yelled. He rolled off the rock, grabbing his stick. The tiger was hungry. It pressed its paws into the ground then leapt upwards, falling on him from mid-air. Wu Song was so scared all the wine came out of him in a cold sweat. He dodged out of the way, behind the tiger. The tiger could not see behind itself, but it lashed out with its hindquarters. Wu Song ducked. The tiger roared - its roar shook the mountain like thunder. It lashed its tail like an iron rod. Wu Song ducked again. 
The tiger roared and turned to face Wu Song once more.

Whirling his stick in his hands, Wu Song brought it crashing down. Leaves and branches went flying. In his hurry, Wu Song had missed the tiger and hit only a dead tree. What's more, he'd broken his stick in two pieces and had only half a stick left in his hands. The tiger snarled, twisted around and sprang again. Wu Song jumped back ten paces; the tiger landed right in front of him, instead of on him. He threw his broken stick aside, and grabbed hold of the skin on the tiger's head, forcing it downwards.

The tiger struggled madly, but Wu Song didn't loosen his grip. He kicked the tiger in the face. The tiger began to howl. It dug a pit in the earth with its paws to escape him. Wu Song forced the tiger's head down. Holding the tiger with his left hand, he brought his right fist down on the tiger's head with all his strength, until blood flowed from the animal's ears, eyes, nose and mouth and it lay in a heap, like a velvet sack.

Wu Song tried to lift the dead animal with his bloody hands. He couldn't. 'It's dark,' he said to himself, 'and what if another beast jumped out at me? I'll come back and sort this out in the morning.' And on he went, out of the forest and down the other side of the ridge.

He hadn't gone far when suddenly two tigers appeared in the long grass.

'Oh no!' he groaned. 'I'm dead.' Then the two tigers stood up on their hind paws. Wu Song realised they were men draped in tiger skins, carrying pitchforks.

'Are you a man or a ghost?' they asked. 'Have you eaten leopard liver? Is that why you dare to wander here alone at nightfall?'

'What sort of people are you?' Wu Song retorted.

The men told him they were hunters, from the town on the far side of the mountain. They had tried everything to trap a tiger which had killed countless people.
Wu Song explained how he had killed the tiger himself. The men were struck dumb. They would hardly have believed him if it weren't for the blood all over him.

Together they helped Wu Song carry the tiger's body down the mountain to the town. Wu Song was hailed as a hero. A feast was held for him; he was given a reward of a thousand cash, and people came from all over the county to see Wu Song and his huge tiger.


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