(Continued from the May issue)


Old Weng accompanied Shen and Ruth down the hill; when they reached his house he invited them in and his wife brought tea. He closed the shutters and turned on a lamp. The old paper could not be exposed to direct sunlight. It was yellowed round the edges as if soaked in weak tea, and the rows of words continued on in a steady beat for sheet after sheet, with occasionally a correction or an insertion from the margin, like someone pacing out the unforeseen way of their life.

There in the safety of Old Weng’s home they leafed through the pages of the manuscript while Old Weng summarized the contents.

‘You see, the singing girl did come back to Yun. That much is true. Han escaped from her cruel husband and went looking for her friend, but she came too late. She found only the trappings of Yun’s funeral and the monk’s warning that she must return to this world of dust in a future life to make amends for betraying Yun’s helpless devotion. It’s just as the Hangzhou dealer’s forgeries say. Perhaps their author had heard something, some hearsay passed down from mouth to mouth. The forgery may not have been completely without merit, young Shen. Those chapters, written according to the taste of a later time, are yours too, acquired at such cost. You must go back to Situ and reclaim them.

‘But from that point on, the story goes quite a different way,’ said Old Weng. ‘The singing girl refused to leave the monks’ company. She took upon herself the task of tending Yun’s grave, which was part of the monks’ duty. She changed her life to one of sacrifice, dedicating herself to the way of the Buddha. Day and night she made devotions to Guanyin, Goddess of Compassion, begging for Yun’s life to be restored. Of course, all this was quite unknown to Shen Fu. Perhaps it was an idle dream, or behaviour of hysterical madness; nevertheless the monks found a place for Han and humoured her. She shaved her hair, wore the humble robes of a nun, went barefoot and ate her simple meals from a plain wooden bowl. She sang her songs for Yun’s spirit to hear and at night she would shiver in bed, as if turned to ice, knowing that Yun’s restless spirit would not leave her alone.

‘The continuation of Shen Fu’s account has lodged safely here at Yellow Corktree Temple all this time,’ said Old Weng. He bowed his head. He was weary, as if the task of his life­time had been brought to completion by passing the responsibility over to young Shen. He was tired now and asked to be left alone. So they made their farewells.

On the way back to Shanghai Shen and Ruth read the pages, the columns of lively and elegant calligraphy, poring over the words as they had on their first night together. Shen did not notice, as he peered at Shen Fu’s wrinkled script, that Ruth was short of breath in the chilly air on the top deck of the boat.


She was a little dizzy, a little feverish. She felt like a dinghy that is tugged loose from its mooring by a nagging breeze and carried away, blown to an unknown destination on a distant shore.

I travelled the country as an assistant to my boss, carrying out petty administrative duties and all the time grieving for my lost wife and lamenting the vanished happiness of the past. Most of all I dreaded returning home where Yun should have been waiting for me, but in the end, my business done, I had no choice.

The day came when I walked through the gate into the courtyard of our old home. I was just about to enter the door of the house when Yun came out to greet me, just as a wife greets her husband, with kisses on my face and her hands on my chest, so I could feel at once that she was flesh and blood. This was no hallucination or ghost. But when I tried to ask her, she silenced me.

‘I thought you were–‘ I queried, not daring to say the word. She protested that it had all been a misunderstanding. I knew I had sat beside Yun’ s corpse. I had crawled on my hands and knees in the mud over her grave. Was that all a dream? But I was so happy to have her back that I questioned no more.

So we lived on, just like an ordinary couple. I never asked her where she had been or how she had cme back. She gave no indication that she was not the same as the other creatures of this world. I would travel, sometimes far and wide as I took different posts, and when I did so I always thought of my dear wife, sometimes seeing her in the beauties of nature, sometimes seeing her in the faces of other beauties I met–I have a roving eye and I confess I was not always faithful–but then I would return home and there she would be, warm and witty, with her things about her, live growing things and old decaying things, new discoveries, funny new ideas. Sometimes, when no one was looking, we would go out together at sunset or by the light of the full moon–that was when Yun liked to disguise herself as a man to deflect attention–and visit temples and pavilions in places that overlooked the world.

For many years we lived passionately together in this manner, finding so many ways to express our love for each other, as if every moment was a gift, a joyous surprise snatched from borrowed time.

Then one day our excursions brought us here, to Tianzhou, to pay a visit to the famous Yellow Corktree Temple. By this time Han had moved away from the place where Yun’ s body had been buried. She had taken her nun’s vows and lived in retreat from the world. For some time she lived in distant mountains, before returning to live obscurely as a temple servant, continuing her selfless devotion to the Goddess Mother Guanyin.

It was in the same hall where the image of Guanyin stands today that we saw the skinny barefoot nun robed in brown, her bowed head fuzzy as a peach, leaning on her straw broom as she swept the stones, her eyes downcast. She must have observed us from behind. On an impulse Yun turned, as if to brush away a mosquito that was buzzing round her neck, and in that moment she met Han’s gaze. Han knew then that her faith had been answered. Quietly she looked down and resumed sweeping the floor. She needed no more than that instant of recognition.


That night Yun and I slept in the little inn by the temple gate. We made love, united as ever. I did not know it would be for the last time. In the morning, when I woke from sleep, she was gone.

I sought her through all the world after that, travelling in wider and wider orbits, the length and breadth of the land, but I never saw her again. Sometimes—often–I was tricked by an illusion. The happiness when Yun first returned was a secret between the two of us, so now I did not broadcast my grief in continuing on without her. It was private. I had no explanation for her sudden disappearance. I kept it all inside until, many years later, when I was revisiting the places where we had gone together, I came back to Tianzhou and the temple here.

The nun was gone, long gone, no one knew where, but before she left she had told her story, by way of confession, to her teacher. She told of her attachment to a young gentleman and his brilliant wife, and their attachment to her beyond all bounds, and her betrayal of those feelings, which brought about the sudden death of the woman who loved her and broke the gentleman’s heart. From that time on she had devoted herself to the Buddha’s teachings in order to make amends. One day, here in this temple, she discovered that divine compassion had re­united the man and his wife as a loving couple in this world, the woman who also visited her at night in her dreams and made her freeze in the embrace of a body of ice.

As the eyes of the two women met in the hall that was devoted to Guanyin, where she used to sweep the stones, the missing element of heat returned to them both. It sparked between them a powerful current. The thread of restless craving that bound them was still unbroken. The Goddess Mother had honoured that attachment too. But now the time was up. That same night the wife left her husband’s bed and returned again to the spirit world.

The teller looked at me as he concluded his story. The same man had been Han’s confessor. He looked at me and saw, perhaps, a weary middle-aged visitor, a seeming failure in this life. He idly asked if I had any response to his tale, probably wondering whether I believed it or not. I simply replied, ‘I am that man. I am Shen Fu.’

It only remained for me to write down the record of my life. When I came to the latter part, however, I decided to keep it secret, as I had kept secret Yun’s return for fear of ridicule and for fear of being accused of loving a ghost. I knew how real she was, how warm and flowing her blood.

I do not write this part of my life for the entertainment of my friends, as I wrote about my early married life and my financial worries and my aesthetic theories and my travels and adventures. I write exclusively for the annals of the temple, my own partial account of a wonder brought about through the boundless compassion of the bodhisattva in defiance of death. Here in the temple my story will lodge.


The river, catching the lights of the moving clouds, was like a billowing length of grey silk. Boats plied back and forth, sometimes a bird whirled overhead, colours flashed here and there, on a billboard, a wall, a gold temple roof. Shen and Ruth sat like sacks of rice on the top deck, reading the manuscript. They ate ice-cream. Ruth pointed out to Shen the withered lotus stalks, like broken umbrellas, in the mud ponds along the way. They were as serene as fisher-folk who have hauled in their catch.

The embroidered shoes were proof of a double destiny. And more than the knowledge they accumulated from the earlier lives of Shen Fu and Yun was the familiarity they felt with each other, the intimacy of feeling, the meaning of a glance, the touch of skin, the reverberation of presence with memory. In this they seemed to merge into one, so that Shen might feel sensations that Yun had felt and Ruth feel what Shen Fu had known. Such complexity could lead to confusion–it has done so, time and again–but here, as the riverboat chugged towards Shanghai, it was understood, it was entirely harmonious.