Righteousness, or “yì,” is second of five cardinal Chinese virtues—the others being benevolence, courtesy, wisdom, and faith—first taught by Confucius and passed down in the centuries since.
Incorporating such concepts as justice and loyalty, “yì” builds upon its preceding virtue, that of “rén,” or benevolence. While “rén” can be used to describe the most pure altruism sought by the Confucian gentleman, “yì” can be understood as its real-life practice.
“Yì” often manifests itself in the face of adversity, when the powers-that-be have misused their might and forsaken upright ways.
In the following folktale, a travelling scholar comes across a village “protected” by a lustful and powerful demon. Our vigilante must first enlighten the locals about the tyrant’s depraved nature—only having conquered fear and self-interest can they unite to cast out the beast.
The Black General
The 18-year-old Yue Jia (pronounced approximately as “Yweh Jyah”) was a student from western China on his way to Beijing to take the imperial exams. To escape the scorching July heat, this courageous and well-built young man took to the road early every morning, rested in the afternoon, and rode late into the night, taking naps wherever he could find shelter.
The day Yue Jia made it to the province of Shanxi, he found himself lost deep in a forest. Undeterred, he rode on, hopeful that some locals might offer him directions.
Night fell, and Yue Jia continued. Finally, he saw a distant light, and, through no small effort, arrived at a vast mansion. Dismounted, he found no signs of life, and decided to enter the court of the stately residence. Upon discovering an elaborate sacrificial altar with several large burning red candles, he was startled to hear the sobbing of an unseen woman.
“Who’s crying?” he asked. No answer except continued sobs.
Drawing a knife, Yue Jia ventured into the dark halls. Finally a response came from the eastern corner of the mansion.
“I am a daughter of the Hu clan,” the woman said. “This is the county temple. Enshrined here is the the Black General, who brings both fortune and misery, for every year he desires a young virgin as his bride. I was imprisoned here by men of the county, who purchased me from my greedy father. Tonight I shall be wed to the General. Who are you?”
Yue Jia heard the maiden’s story, and was furious.
“I am Yue Jia, a student on my way to take the imperial exams. I came across this place by chance, but as a man who has learned the ways of saint and sage, I must do the righteous thing. Either I rescue you from this evil, or perish in the act.”
Touched, the girl said, “how noble a man you are! I will serve you for the rest of my life if you save me.”
Yue Jia responded that he desired nothing of her, only to eliminate the demon to which she was about to be sacrificed. He commanded her to remain hidden, then made his way to the entrance of the temple, where he awaited the General.
Enter the General
With a heavy gust and the blowing of sand, a horse-drawn wagon appeared, manned by two servants. Entering the building, one of them found Yue Jia seated in the middle of the hall, and regarded him carefully.
“So it’s you, the honorable minister,” the servants spoke, much to the scholar’s confusion.
Both men left, and a third, more more powerful voice announced: “The General did not know the honorable minister was here. Please forgive my rudeness.”
The demon appeared, a huge figure clad in crimson armor and an iron helmet. Ignoring his dark complexion, bulging nose and ears, and beady eyes adorning his hideous, fleshy head, Yue Jia contemplated his words. So he was to become a minister!
“It is an honor to meet the General. I am Yue Jia, a native of the west.” The scholar stood respectfully and bowed.
The General dismissed this and laughed, saying, “the minister need not be so humble, but what brings you here?”
“I heard it’s the General’s wedding day, and have come to congratulate you in person,” Yue said. Pleased, the General ordered his servants to bring the food he had prepared in the wagon, and the two sat down to eat.
Yue Jia hatched a plan. “Has the General had candied deer meat before?” Speaking, he produced the treat from his sack.
“It’s hard to come by such a delicacy in these wretched parts,” the General said. “It will go well with the liquor.” With his knife, Yue Jia sliced the meat thinly, and the General’s mouth began to water.
Anxiously, the demon reached for the bowl, but in one swipe the scholar had cut off the General’s hand. A deep scream shook the temple as black blood poured from the wound. The candles went out as the shrieking demon fled the scene. Yue Jia was about to give chase but remembered that the girl was still trapped in the temple.
Purging the Beast
Yue Jia freed the girl from the ropes that bound her, and she immediately requested that he take her as his wife. The scholar, already married, politely turned down the offer.
Soon afterward when dawn broke, a group of sobbing villagers arrived, hoisting a coffin intended for the girl. At first surprised to find her alive and unbound, they became angry and frightened when Yue Jia told them of his deeds.
“The Black General has protected this country from disaster, and we’ve worshiped him as a deity since time immemorial,” the locals complained. “Now you, a wandering stranger, have dared to injure him. Should he seek revenge, what will become of us? We must kill you to appease the General and earn his forgiveness.”
“This so-called deity is a sinful beast condemned by heaven and earth,” Yue Jia declared. “That such a demon would even be worshiped and so many innocent girls sacrificed to it shows that the people in this county have forgotten righteous principles.”
The locals fell silent.
“A deity,” Yue Jia continued, “is supposed to fulfill Heaven’s mandate, just like the officials sent by the emperor to govern the provinces. Should the officials oppress and exploit the people, would not the sovereign dispatch troops to restore justice? That I have appeared here to purge the sins of the hooved beast is the will of heaven.”
Awakened to the truth, the villagers accepted Yue Jia’s leadership and pursued the Black General by following the trail of blood from his wound. The demon had holed himself up in a deep grotto, but the villagers gathered dry timber and smoked him out. The beast staggered out of the lair and collapsed. Left behind was no deity, but the carcass of a black hog.
Inside the grotto, the villagers and Yue Jia uncovered piles of human bones—remains of the General’s sacrificial victims.
As Yue Jia prepared to leave, the grateful locals wanted to reward him for his service, but he declined. The girl he had saved from the temple, all but disowned by her father when he sold her for sacrifice, begged the scholar to take her with him. Yue Jia finally accepted her as a concubine, and she lived with him and his family for many decades.
When Yue Jia arrived in Beijing and passed the imperial exams, he understood the meaning of the General’s earlier courtesy towards him. In accordance with the heavenly arrangements, which even a demon dared not deny, Yue Jia became a powerful minister.