What’s Inside Counts

Zheng Jian, Contributor, Dora Li, Contributing Translator

During the Ming Dynasty, Yu Liangchen and his peers created a community where members were not allowed to kill, visit prostitutes, curse, or talk behind other people’s backs. They had to do good deeds for others. Liangchen ran this community for many years.                                      

Liangchen took the Imperial Examinations seven times, but he never passed. He and his wife had nine children—five boys and four girls. Unfortunately, four of the five boys died early, as did three of the four girls. The surviving boy was very smart and had two birthmarks on the sole of his left foot. The couple doted on him and loved him dearly. When the boy was six years old, he disappeared after playing outside. Liangchen’s wife frequently wept over the loss of her children and became blind. In addition, his family now lived in poverty. In his leisure time, Liangchen wondered why he was punished with such horrible fate when he had never committed any wrongdoing.                             

It was New Year’s Eve, but Liangchen, now 47 years old, had almost no one at home to celebrate with. He heard a knock at the door as he was sitting with his blind wife. When he opened the door, he saw a white-haired old man wearing a scarf around his head. Liangchen invited the guest inside. He introduced himself as Zhang, explaining that he came from far away to visit because he knew that Liangchen’s family was feeling low.

Liangchen noticed that the old man’s dress and manner of speaking was not that of an ordinary human, so he treated the guest with deep respect. He told the guest that he studied hard and did good deeds his entire life, but he still had a horrible life: He couldn’t pass the Imperial Examinations, his children passed away early, and he still lived in poverty.                                                 

“I have known about your family for a long time,” revealed the guest. “You have too many evil thoughts; you pursue fame and complain too much, and you dishonored the Jade Emperor. I’m afraid that even more punishment awaits you.”                                            

Stunned, Liangchen asked, “I know that a person’s good and evil deeds are all recorded in detail. I vowed to do good for others and controlled my behavior. How have I been pursuing fame?”

“You say you don’t kill, but your kitchen constantly cooks crabs and lobsters. You say you watch your words, but you are always sarcastic, angering many Gods and spirits. You say you don’t use prostitutes, but your heart moves when you see beautiful women. It’s only that you have no predestined connection with those women that nothing bad has happened,” answered the old man.                                                  

“It’s even worse that you claim you are dedicated to doing good deeds. The Jade Emperor sent a messenger to check your records, and you have not done one single good deed in many years. On the contrary, your thoughts are filled with greed, lust, and jealousy. You elevate yourself through belittling others. You want revenge whenever you think of the past. With a mind this malicious, you can’t escape disaster. How dare you pray for blessings?” continued the guest.                                                     

“Master, you know all about me. You must be an immortal! Please save me!” cried a panic-stricken Liangchen.                                                         

The old man advised, “I hope you can abandon greed, lust, jealousy, and various desires. Do not pursue fame and self-interest. If you can do this, you will definitely be rewarded with goodness.” Then he disappeared.                                                

The next day was the first day of the Chinese New Year. Liangchen prayed to Heaven and swore to change. He was determined to eliminate all improper thoughts and gave himself a Taoist name: “Empty Thought.” From then on, he paid attention to each thought and action, as if the Gods were watching. He would see to it that all his deeds, big and small, effectively benefited others. Whenever he had the chance, he told people about the principles of karmic retribution. Gradually, he was able to maintain a still mind while still doing kind deeds.                                                    

At age 50, Liangchen was hired to tutor the son of Zhang Juzheng, the Prime Minister of Emperor Wanli of the Ming Dynasty. Liangchen and his family moved to the capital, and he passed the Imperial Examinations the following year.                                                 

When Liangchen went to visit the eunuch Yang Gong and met his five adopted sons, one of them—a 16-year-old—looked familiar to Liangchen. Through talking to the boy, Liangchen learned that he was born in Jiangyou but was separated from his family when he accidently boarded a grain boat as a child.                                                         

Liangchen asked the boy to take off his left shoe. When he saw two birthmarks on the sole, Liangchen excitedly exclaimed, “You’re my son!”                                                  

The shocked eunuch was happy for them and immediately sent the boy to Liangchen’s residence. Liangchen rushed to tell his wife the good news. She cried so bitterly that her eyes bled. The son held his mom’s face with his hands and kissed her eyes. Suddenly, her vision returned. Liangchen was overcome with both grief and joy. He no longer wanted to be a high-ranking official and requested to return to Jiangling, his hometown. Zhang Juzheng admired Liangchen’s moral character. After approving Liangchen’s application to go home, he sent him a generous gift.                                                     

Back home, Yu Liangchen worked even harder to benefit others. His son married and had seven children, who carried on their grandfather’s tradition. Influenced by them, people truly believed that karmic retribution is real.


1 comment

I am a classically-trained musician who lives in the Albuquerque area, This story moved me to the point of tears, considering the morally-abject nature of much that surrounds us in this “modern” age. I should like to set it to original music as a cantata…Something early-Classical in style, a modest continuo based orchestration in keeping with the clarity of the story…

Charles Clayton July 01, 2023

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