An Ancient Chinese Story: Arrogance Ruins a Chance at Immortality

August 13, 2019 Updated: August 20, 2019

During the Tang Dynasty, a man named Zheng Youxuan lived in Chang’an City. Zheng’s family had status as nobility, while the family of his neighbor, Lu Qiushi, was poor and of a lower social class.

Zheng studied together with Lu’s son. Arrogant about his own family background, Zheng often talked to Lu’s son in a condescending tone. He said to Lu’s son one day, “Your father is not in the same social class as my family, yet we study with the same teacher. Although I don’t say anything, don’t you feel ashamed?”

Lu’s son felt horrible upon hearing this, and a few years later he fell ill and died.

As a ‘Friend’

Several years after that, Zheng passed the imperial examinations and became an administrator in Tangan County. He befriended a 20-year-old man named Qiu Sheng. The two young men saw each other every day and often traveled together.

Qiu’s father was a successful businessman whose properties numbered in the tens of thousands, and Qiu did not hesitate to share his wealth with Zheng. He often gave Zheng money and anything else Zheng might need.

However, Qiu was not from a noble family. Because of their class difference, Zheng frequently treated Qiu impolitely, despite Qiu’s generosity and kindness toward him.

One day, Zheng held a dinner party and invited all of his friends except Qiu. During the party, someone faulted Zheng for this, asking him why Qiu wasn’t invited even though they were so close and ate together every day.

Zheng felt guilty and immediately invited Qiu to the party.

After Qiu arrived, Zheng gave him a large cup of wine and asked him to drink it all. When Qiu replied that he could not drink the entire cup, Zheng became angry and berated him.

“You are merely a man from the streets, knowing only the awl and knife. Why don’t you shed your lowly status and live like a noble? You should consider yourself lucky to be in my company, yet you dare refuse to drink the wine I offer?” Zheng said.

So saying, Zheng got up and left the party.

Qiu, feeling insulted, lowered his head and also left. Soon afterward, he resigned from his official post, shut his door, and refused to see or communicate with anyone. Within a few months, he died.

“Lofty Hermitage in Cloudy Mountains,” ink on paper by Fang Fanghu, 14th-century Chinese, Honolulu Academy of Arts. (Public Domain)
“Lofty Hermitage in Cloudy Mountains,” 14th century, by Fang Fanghu. Ink on paper, Honolulu Academy of Arts. (Public Domain)

Admiring Immortals

In the following year, Zheng was dismissed from his post and took up residence in the Mengyang County Temple. There, he heard that the famous Taoist Wu, a virtuous cultivator of the Tao, lived on Shumen Mountain, so he went on horseback to the mountain to seek discipleship with him.

Taoist Wu told him, “Since you admire immortals, you should live in the mountains and not be deceived by the human world.”

Zheng was delighted and said: “You have truly obtained the Tao. May I please be your messenger?”

The Taoist agreed and allowed Zheng to stay. After 15 years, however, Zheng became less diligent.

“If you are not determined in cultivation, then you are just wasting your time on the mountain,” Taoist Wu told Zheng.

Zheng thus left the mountain and spent his days aimlessly in Mengyang County for a long time before making his way back to Chang’an City.

The Truth Revealed

On his journey to Chang’an, Zheng passed through Bao City. There, he stayed at an inn where he met a handsome boy who looked about 12 years old. Zheng talked with the boy and found him to be very intelligent and eloquent.

During the conversation, the boy asked Zheng, “We have been friends for a long time—do you still remember me?”

“No, I don’t,” Zheng replied.

“I was once the son of Lu Qiushi in Chang’an,” the boy said. “We studied together. Because you thought my family was poor and lowly, you looked down on me.”

The boy continued: “Later, I was born into the Qiu family and became your friend. I gave you all the money and things you needed. You didn’t thank me but instead berated me as a man from the streets. Why were you so arrogant?”

Shocked, Zheng bowed and apologized. “Those were indeed my sins. You must be a saint. If not, how can you know the happenings from two previous lives?” Zheng said.

“I am a true Taoist from Taiqing Heaven,” replied the boy. “Because you had a fated connection with Taoism, the gods sent me to the human world to be your friend and to teach you the skills for becoming an immortal in the future. But you were too arrogant and did not get the chance to learn those skills. What a pity!”

After these words, the boy vanished.

Zheng suddenly understood all of those past events, but it was too late. He hated himself and felt immense shame. In the end, he died of sadness and regret.

Translated by Dora Li into English, this story is reprinted with permission from the book “Treasured Tales of China,” Vol. 1, available on Amazon.

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