Just outside the walls of a Chinese city there lived a young woodcutter named T’ang and his old mother, a woman of seventy. They were very poor and had a tiny one-room shanty, built of mud and grass, which they rented from a neighbour. Every day young T’ang rose bright and early and went up on the mountain near their house. There he spent the day cutting firewood to sell in the city near by. In the evening he would return home, take the wood to market, sell it, and bring back food for his mother and himself. Now, though these two people were poor, they were very happy, for the young man loved his mother dearly, and the old woman thought there was no one like her son in all the world. Their friends, however, felt sorry for them and said, “What a pity we have no grasshoppers here, so that the T’angs could have some food from heaven!”
One day young T’ang got up before daylight and started for the hills, carrying his axe on his shoulder. He bade his mother good-bye, telling her that he would be back early with a heavier load of wood than usual, for the morrow would be a holiday and they must eat good food. All day long Widow T’ang waited patiently, saying to herself over and over as she went about her simple work, “The good boy, the good boy, how he loves his old mother!”
In the afternoon she began watching for his return—but in vain. The sun was sinking lower and lower in the west, but still he did not come. At last the old woman was frightened. “My poor son!” she muttered. “Something has happened to him.” Straining her feeble eyes, she looked along the mountain path. Nothing was to be seen there but a flock of sheep following the shepherd. “Woe is me!” moaned the woman. “My boy! my boy!” She took her crutch from its corner and limped off to a neighbour’s house to tell him of her trouble and beg him to go and look for the missing boy.
Now this neighbour was kind-hearted, and willing to help old Mother T’ang, for he felt very sorry for her. “There are many wild beasts in the mountains,” he said, shaking his head as he walked away with her, thinking to prepare the frightened woman for the worst, “and I fear that your son has been carried off by one of them.” Widow T’ang gave a scream of horror and sank upon the ground. Her friend walked slowly up the mountain path, looking carefully for signs of a struggle. At last when he had gone half way up the slope he came to a little pile of torn clothing spattered with blood. The woodman’s axe was lying by the side of the path, also his carrying pole and some rope. There could be no mistake: after making a brave fight, the poor youth had been carried off by a tiger.
Gathering up the torn garments, the man went sadly down the hill. He dreaded seeing the poor mother and telling her that her only boy was indeed gone for ever. At the foot of the mountain he found her still lying on the ground. When she looked up and saw what he was carrying, with a cry of despair she fainted away. She did not need to be told what had happened.
Friends bore her into the little house and gave her food, but they could not comfort her. “Alas!” she cried, “of what use is it to live? He was my only boy. Who will take care of me in my old age? Why have the gods treated me in this cruel way?”
She wept, tore her hair, and beat her chest, until people said she had gone mad. The longer she mourned, the more violent she became.
The next day, however, much to the surprise of her neighbours, she set out for the city, making her way along slowly by means of her crutch. It was a pitiful sight to see her, so old, so feeble, and so lonely. Every one was sorry for her and pointed her out, saying, “See! the poor old soul has no one to help her!”
In the city she asked her way to the public hall. When she found the place she knelt at the front gate, calling out loudly and telling of her ill-fortune. Just at this moment the mandarin, or city judge, walked into the court room to try any cases which might be brought before him. He heard the old woman weeping and wailing outside, and bade one of the servants let her enter and tell him of her wrongs.
Now this was just what the Widow T’ang had come for. Calming herself, she hobbled into the great hall of trial.
“What is the matter, old woman? Why do you raise such an uproar in front of my yamen? Speak up quickly and tell me of your trouble.”
“I am old and feeble,” she began; “lame and almost blind. I have no money and no way of earning money. I have not one relative now in all the empire. I depended on my only son for a living. Every day he climbed the mountain, for he was a woodcutter, and every evening he came back home, bringing enough money for our food. But yesterday he went and did not return. A mountain tiger carried him off and ate him, and now, alas! there seems to be no help for it—I must die of hunger. My bleeding heart cries out for justice. I have come into this hall to-day, to beg your worship to see that the slayer of my son is punished. Surely the law says that none may shed blood without giving his own blood in payment.”
“But, woman, are you mad?” cried the mandarin, laughing loudly. “Did you not say it was a tiger that killed your son? How can a tiger be brought to justice? Of a truth, you must have lost your senses.”
The judge’s questions were of no avail. The Widow T’ang kept up her clamour. She would not be turned away until she had gained her purpose. The hall echoed with the noise of her howling. The mandarin could stand it no longer. “Hold! woman,” he cried, “stop your shrieking. I will do what you ask. Only go home and wait until I summon you to court. The slayer of your son shall be caught and punished.”
The judge was, of course, only trying to get rid of the demented mother, thinking that if she were only once out of his sight, he could give orders not to let her into the hall again. The old woman, however, was too sharp for him. She saw through his plan and became more stubborn than ever.
“No, I cannot go,” she answered, “until I have seen you sign the order for that tiger to be caught and brought into this judgment hall.”
Now, as the judge was not really a bad man, he decided to humour the old woman in her strange plea. Turning to the assistants in the court room he asked which of them would be willing to go in search of the tiger. One of these men, named Li-neng, had been leaning against the wall, half asleep. He had been drinking heavily and so had not heard what had been going on in the room. One of his friends gave him a poke in the ribs just as the judge asked for volunteers.
Thinking the judge had called him by name, he stepped forward, knelt on the floor, saying, “I, Li-neng, can go and do the will of your worship.”
“Very well, you will do,” answered the judge. “Here is your order. Go forth and do your duty.” So saying, he handed the warrant to Li-neng. “Now, old woman, are you satisfied?” he continued.
“Quite satisfied, your worship,” she replied.
“Then go home and wait there until I send for you.”
Mumbling a few words of thanks, the unhappy mother left the building.
When Li-neng went outside the court room, his friends crowded round him. “Drunken sot!” they laughed; “do you know what you have done?”
Li-neng shook his head. “Just a little business for the mandarin, isn’t it? Quite easy.”
“Call it easy, if you like. What! man, arrest a tiger, a man-eating tiger and bring him to the city! Better go and say good-bye to your father and mother. They will never see you again.”
Li-neng slept off his drunkenness, and then saw that his friends were right. He had been very foolish. But surely the judge had meant the whole thing only as a joke! No such order had ever been written before! It was plain that the judge had hit on this plan simply to get rid of the wailing old woman. Li-neng took the warrant back to the judgment hall and told the mandarin that the tiger could not be found.
But the judge was in no mood for joking. “Can’t be found? And why not? You agreed to arrest this tiger. Why is it that to-day you try to get out of your promise? I can by no means permit this, for I have given my word to satisfy the old woman in her cry for justice.”
Li-neng knelt and knocked his head on the floor. “I was drunk,” he cried, “when I gave my promise. I knew not what you were asking. I can catch a man, but not a tiger. I know nothing of such matters. Still, if you wish it, I can go into the hills and hire hunters to help me.”
“Very well, it makes no difference how you catch him, as long as you bring him into court. If you fail in your duty, there is nothing left but to beat you until you succeed. I give you five days.”
During the next few days Li-neng left no stone unturned in trying to find the guilty tiger. The best hunters in the country were employed. Night and day they searched the hills, hiding in mountain caves, watching and waiting, but finding nothing. It was all very trying for Li-neng, since he now feared the heavy hands of the judge more than the claws of the tiger. On the fifth day he had to report his failure. He received a thorough beating, fifty blows on the back. But that was not the worst of it. During the next six weeks, try as he would, he could find no traces of the missing animal. At the end of each five days, he got another beating for his pains. The poor fellow was in despair. Another month of such treatment would lay him on his deathbed. This he knew very well, and yet he had little hope. His friends shook their heads when they saw him. “He is drawing near the wood,” they said to each other, meaning that he would soon be in his coffin. “Why don’t you flee the country?” they asked him. “Follow the tiger’s example. You see he has escaped completely. The judge would make no effort to catch you if you should go across the border into the next province.”
Li-neng shook his head on hearing this advice. He had no desire to leave his family for ever, and he felt sure of being caught and put to death if he should try to run away.
One day after all the hunters had given up the search in disgust and gone back to their homes in the valley, Li-neng entered a mountain temple to pray. The tears rained down his cheeks as he knelt before the great fierce-looking idol. “Alas! I am a dead man!” he moaned between his prayers; “a dead man, for now there is no hope. Would that I had never touched a drop of wine!”
Just then he heard a slight rustling near by. Looking up, he saw a huge tiger standing at the temple gate. But Li-neng was no longer afraid of tigers. He knew there was only one way to save himself. “Ah,” he said, looking the great cat straight in the eye, “you have come to eat me, have you? Well, I fear you would find my flesh a trifle tough, since I have been beaten with four hundred blows during these six weeks. You are the same fellow that carried off the woodman last month, aren’t you? This woodman was an only son, the sole support of an old mother. Now this poor woman has reported you to the mandarin, who, in turn, has had a warrant drawn up for your arrest. I have been sent out to find you and lead you to trial. For some reason or other you have acted the coward, and remained in hiding. This has been the cause of my beating. Now I don’t want to suffer any longer as a result of your murder. You must come with me to the city and answer the charge of killing the woodman.”
All the time Li-neng was speaking, the tiger listened closely. When the man was silent, the animal made no effort to escape, but, on the contrary, seemed willing and ready to be captured. He bent his head forward and let Li-neng slip a strong chain over it. Then he followed the man quietly down the mountain, through the crowded streets of the city, into the court room. All along the way there was great excitement. “The man-slaying tiger has been caught,” shouted the people. “He is being led to trial.”
The crowd followed Li-neng into the hall of justice. When the judge walked in, every one became as quiet as the grave. All were filled with wonder at the strange sight of a tiger being called before a judge.
The great animal did not seem to be afraid of those who were watching so curiously. He sat down in front of the mandarin, for all the world like a huge cat. The judge rapped on the table as a signal that all was ready for the trial.
“Tiger,” said he, turning toward the prisoner, “did you eat the woodman whom you are charged with killing?”
The tiger gravely nodded his head.
“Yes, he killed my boy!” screamed the aged mother. “Kill him! Give him the death that he deserves!”
“A life for a life is the law of the land,” continued the judge, paying no attention to the forlorn mother, but looking the accused directly in the eye. “Did you not know it? You have robbed a helpless old woman of her only son. There are no relatives to support her. She is crying for vengeance. You must be punished for your crime. The law must be enforced. However, I am not a cruel judge. If you can promise to take the place of this widow’s son and support the woman in her old age, I am quite willing to spare you from a disgraceful death. What say you, will you accept my offer?”
The tiger gravely nodded his head.
The gaping people craned their necks to see what would happen, and once more they were surprised to see the savage beast nod his head in silent agreement.
“Very well, then, you are free to return to your mountain home; only, of course, you must remember your promise.”
The chains were taken from the tiger’s neck, and the great animal walked silently out of the yamen, down the street, and through the gate opening towards his beloved mountain cave.
Once more the old woman was very angry. As she hobbled from the room, she cast sour glances at the judge, muttering over and over again, “Who ever heard of a tiger taking the place of a son? A pretty game this is, to catch the brute, and then to set him free.” There was nothing for her to do, however, but to return home, for the judge had given strict orders that on no account was she to appear before him again.
Almost broken-hearted she entered her desolate hovel at the foot of the mountain. Her neighbours shook their heads as they saw her. “She cannot live long,” they said. “She has the look of death on her wrinkled face. Poor soul! she has nothing to live for, nothing to keep her from starving.”
But they were mistaken. Next morning when the old woman went outside to get a breath of fresh air she found a newly killed deer in front of her door. Her tiger-son had begun to keep his promise, for she could see the marks of his claws on the dead animal’s body. She took the carcass into the house and dressed it for the market. On the city streets next day she had no trouble in selling the flesh and skin for a handsome sum of money. All had heard of the tiger’s first gift, and no one was anxious to drive a close bargain.
Laden with food, the happy woman went home rejoicing, with money enough to keep her for many a day. A week later the tiger came to her door with a roll of cloth and some money in his mouth. He dropped these new gifts at her feet and ran away without even waiting for her thank-you. The Widow T’ang now saw that the judge had acted wisely. She stopped grieving for her dead son and began to love in his stead the handsome animal that had come to take his place so willingly.
The tiger grew much attached to his foster mother and often purred contentedly outside her door, waiting for her to come and stroke his soft fur. He no longer had the old desire to kill. The sight of blood was not nearly so tempting as it had been in his younger days. Year after year he brought the weekly offerings to his mistress until she was as well provided for as any other widow in the country.
At last in the course of nature the good old soul died. Kind friends laid her away in her last resting place at the foot of the great mountain. There was money enough left out of what she had saved to put up a handsome tombstone, on which this story was written just as you have read it here. The faithful tiger mourned long for his dear mistress. He lay on her grave, wailing like a child that had lost its mother. Long he listened for the voice he had loved so well, long he searched the mountain-slopes, returning each night to the empty cottage, but all in vain. She whom he loved was gone for ever.
One night he vanished from the mountain, and from that day to this no one in that province has ever seen him. Some who know this story say that he died of grief in a secret cave which he had long used as a hiding-place. Others add, with a wise shrug of the shoulders, that, like Shanwang, he was taken to the Western Heaven, there to be rewarded for his deeds of virtue and to live as a fairy for ever afterwards.