The woman wailed, “I am Niu Pu-yi’s wife. You have taken my husband’s name, you must have murdered my husband! Don’t imagine you’re going to escape.”

Murder suit & other cases at the yamen

Excerpt, Chapter 24

Niu Pu was walking home. He had not gone far, when a neighbour accosted him. “Mr Niu!” he called. “Come over here a moment!” Having pulled him into a quiet alley, the neighbour went on: “Your wife is having a row with somebody!”

“With whom?”

“Just after you left, a sedan-chair arrived with a load of luggage, and your wife let in a woman. That woman swears she is your former wife and insists on seeing you. She and your wife are at it now hammer and tongs! Your wife wants you to go back at once.”

At this Niu felt as if plunged into icy water.

“This must be the work of that damned old Rat,” he thought. “He’s sent my first wife along to stir up trouble!”

There was nothing for it, though, but to pluck up courage and go back. When he stood outside the door listening, however, it wasn’t his first wife he heard carrying on inside, but somebody with a Chekiang accent. He knocked at the door and went in; and when he and the woman met, neither knew the other.

“Here is my husband!” cried Niu Pu’s wife. “Do you still claim him as yours?”

“You’re not Niu Pu-yi!” exclaimed Mrs Niu.

“I certainly am,” declared Niu Pu. “But I don’t know you, ma’am.”

“I am Niu Pu-yi’s wife. You have taken my husband’s name, you wretch, as an advertisement! You must have murdered my husband! Don’t imagine you’re going to escape.”

“There are plenty of people with the same name,” retorted Niu Pu. “How does that prove that I murdered your husband? This is fantastic!”

“You must have killed him! I went all the way to Wuhu to the Sweet Dew Temple and was told that he was at Antung. Impostor! Give me back my husband!”

Weeping and wailing, she told her nephew to seize Niu Pu, then mounted her chair and raised a great outcry all the way to the yamen. The magistrate was just leaving when she made her complaint, and he told her to send in a written charge. When this was received, runners summoned all those concerned and a notice was posted up of the time of the trial, which was to take place three days later at noon.

There were three cases that day, the first involving the murder of a man’s father, the plaintiff being a monk. This monk stated that he had been gathering firewood on the mountain when he noticed that one of the cows grazing there kept staring fixedly at him. Strangely moved, he went up to the cow, whereupon tears gushed from the beast’s eyes; and when he knelt down before it, the cow licked his head, its tears falling faster and faster. The monk realised that this must be his father whose soul had entered the body of a cow. He pleaded tearfully with the owner of the cow to give him the beast in order that he might keep it in the temple. Then, however, a neighbour had taken the cow away and killed it. The monk had now come to court with the man who had given him the cow as his witness.

When Magistrate Hsiang had heard the monk’s story, he questioned the neighbour. “Three or four days ago this monk led the cow over and sold it to me,” said the neighbour, “and I killed it. But yesterday the monk came back to claim that this cow was his father so I must pay him some more, because he had sold it too cheaply. When I wouldn’t give any more money, he started abusing me. I’ve heard say that the cow wasn’t his father at all. For years now this monk has shaved his head and put salt on it; and whenever he sees cattle grazing, he picks out the fattest cow and kneels before it, so that the cow licks his head. Any cow licking salt will shed tears. Then he declares that this cow is his father and goes crying to the owner to ask to have it given him; and when he gets it he sells it. He has done this many times. Now he is accusing me. I beg Your Honour to decide between us!”

The magistrate called the owner of the cow. “Did you really give him the cow for nothing?” he asked. “Yes. I didn’t ask for a single cent.”

“Transmigration has always been considered a mystery,” declared Magistrate Hsiang. “But this is simply incredible. Besides, if he really believed that the cow was his father, he ought not to have sold it. This bald-pate is a scoundrel!”

Having sentenced the monk to twenty strokes, he dismissed the case.

The second case involved a poison charge. The plaintiff, Hu Lai, was the dead man’s elder brother, and the defendant a Dr Chen An. Magistrate Hsiang called the plaintiff.

“How did he poison your brother?” he asked.

“My brother was ill, so I called in Dr Chen. But the day after the doctor gave him medicine, my brother had a fit and jumped into the water. He was drowned. Obviously he must have been poisoned!”

“Were you enemies?”


Magistrate Hsiang then called the doctor. “What medicine did you prescribe for Hu Lai’s brother?” he asked.

“He had caught a chill,” replied Dr Chen, “so I prescribed a medicine to make him sweat which included eight drachms of asarum. There was a relative there at the time – a squat, round-faced fellow – who said that three drachms of asarum would prove fatal. But that’s certainly not what the Pharmacopoeia says. Three or four days after this, his elder brother jumped into the river and was drowned; but how can he blame me for that? You can analyse the properties of all the four hundred herbs that exist, Your Honour, without finding one which will make people jump into the river! This is ridiculous! I am a professional man, and this slander is bad for my practice! I beg Your Honour to judge between us!”

“I have never heard such nonsense!” agreed Magistrate Hsiang. “A doctor is a servant of humanity. And when you have a sick man in the house, Hu Lai, you ought to look after him. Why did you let him get out and jump into the river? How can you blame that on the doctor? The idea of bringing such a case to court!” Thereupon he dismissed the case.

Mrs Niu was the plaintiff in the third case, and she accused Niu Pu of murdering her husband. When Magistrate Hsiang called on her, she told him how she had travelled from Chekiang to Wuhu and from Wuhu to Antung.

“Now he has taken my husband’s name,” she concluded. “If I don’t ask him what has become of my husband, whom can I ask?”

“That doesn’t follow,” replied the magistrate. “Do you know this woman, Mr Niu?”

“I know neither her nor her husband,” protested Niu Pu. “Yet she suddenly came to my home demanding her husband. It was a bolt from the blue!”

“Apparently Mr Niu here and your husband are both called Niu Pu-yi,” said Hsiang to Mrs Niu. “But there are many people in the world with the same name. Of course Mr Niu doesn’t know the whereabouts of your husband. You had better look for him elsewhere.”

Mrs Niu started sniffling and sobbing and insisted her husband must be avenged, until the magistrate lost patience with her.

“Very well,” he said. “I will send two runners to escort you back to Shaohsing. You can appeal to your own magistrate!”


Illustration page 266 The Scholars
The Scholars by Wu Ching-tzu

Translated by Yang Hsien-yi & Gladys Yang