Shay, a man of over thirty, was serving as a section chief in the magistrate’s office of Chincheng in Szechuen… One autumn Shay became severely ill. He ran a high fever and his family consulted many doctors in vain. On the seventh day he lost consciousness and lay in that state for days. His friends and family almost gave him up for dead. At first he was thirsty and he was in a comatose state and could not take anything. He slept on and on until the twentieth day, when he suddenly yawned and sat up.
“How long have I been asleep?” he asked his wife.
“About three weeks.”
“Yes, I suppose it must have been that long. Go and see colleagues and tell them that I have recovered. Find out if they are eating minced carp at this minute. If so, they must leave their dinner at once. I have something to talk to them about. And bring the servant Chang at the office. I want him, too.”
A servant was sent to the magistrate’s office. He found that he staff was indeed having a midday dinner, and it was a dish of steaming hot, minced carp. The servant gave them the message and the man came over to Shay’s house accordingly, happy to learn that their friend had recovered.
“Did you people send the servant Chang to buy fish?” Shay asked.
“Yes, we did.”
He turned to Chang and said to him:
“You found the big carp hidden away in a small pool, covered by reeds… When you entered the office building, the clerk of the tax bureau was sitting on the east of the door, and the sub-altern was sitting on the west, playing chess. Correct? Then you went up the hall, and you saw Magistrate Tsou and Vice-Magistrate Lei playing cards, and Pei was watching them, munching on a pear… You took the fish to the kitchen and the cook, Wang Shihliang, killed it for dinner. Is not this exactly what happened?”
They questioned Chang and checked with one another and found that every detail was correct. Greatly puzzled, they asked Shay how he knew all this and this is the story that he told to his friends:
When I fell ill, I had a burning fever, as you all know. Overcome by the unbearable heat, I feel unconscious, but the feeling of hot fever remained inside, and I wondered to myself how I could find relief. I thought of taking a walk along the delightful river bank, and took a cane and went out. The air was perceptibly cooler as soon as I got outside the city, and I immediately felt better. I saw the hot air rising from the roofs of the houses and was glad that I had left them behind me. Besides, I was thirsty and only wanted to get near the water. I struck out toward the foothills where the East Lake joins the river.
I arrived at the lake, pausing on the bank under a willow tree. The blue water looked extremely inviting. A gentle breeze blew over its surface and crease the water like fish scales, so that I could visibly follow the movement and direction of the breeze over the lake. All was quiet and peaceful. Suddenly I thought I would like to have a bath. I used to swim as a boy, but for a long time I had not had a swim in the lake. I took off my clothing and plunged in, and felt a delightful sensation as the water closed around me… I dived below the water several times, feeling an immense relief. All I can remember was saying myself, “I pity Pei and Lei and Tsu and all my friends, sweltering in their offices all day. I wish I could become a fish for a while and have no more to do with stamps and seals, signatures and documents. How happy I would be if I could turn into a fish and swim for days and nights, with the water, and nothing but water, around me.”
“That is easy to arrange, I believe,” said a fish coming up at my feet. “You can become a fish for life like me, if you want to. Shall I arrange it for you?”
“I shall very much appreciate it, if you will be so kind. By the way, my name is Shay Wei, section chief at the city. Tell your people that I would be glad to exchange places with any one of them. Just allow me to swim and swim and swim!”
The fish left and soon came back with a man whose head was like a fish. This fish-headed man came with a retinue of a dozen assorted fish and read an order from the River God. It went as follows:
…Section Chief Shay Wei has great depth of mind and is seeking relief and solace in a life of freedom. Dissatisfied and weary of the round of official duties, he yearns for the cool depths of blue lakes and rivers, for the freedom and unlimited time for the sports of our water kingdom. His wish to become a member of the scaly tribe is hereby granted. He shall be made a brown carp and assigned to the East Lake as his regular abode… May you conduct yourself wisely and honorably, in a manner worthy of the tribe of which you have the privilege to become a new member. Be a good fish!
As I listened to the order, I found I had been transformed into a fish, and my body was covered with beautiful, shining scales. Delighted with the transformation, I swam gracefully and with perfect ease rising to the surface and diving to the bottom at will with the slightest movement of my fins. I sailed down to the river, and explored every nook and cranny on the shore and all the streams and tributaries, but I always returned to the lake at night.
However, one day I was terribly hungry and unable to find food. I saw Chao Kao, a fisherman, dropping his line and waiting to catch me. The worm looked very tempting and my gills literally watered. I knew perfectly well that it was a horrible thing which I used to dread even touch, but I felt it was just what I needed, and could not imagine anything more delightful to my palate. Then I remembered the words of caution and turned away from it, and with great self control, swam away.
But terrific hunger was gnawing inside my stomach, and I could not stand it any longer. I said to myself, “I know the fisherman, Chao Kao, and he knows me. He would not dare to kill me. If I am caught, I will ask him to bring me back to the office.”
I went back to gobble up the worm and was caught, of course. I struggled and fought, but the fisherman pulled at me and my lower lip was bleeding, so I gave up. When he was about to haul me up, I cried, “Chao Kao, Chao Kao, hear me! I am Shay Wei, the Section Chief. You would be punished for this!”
Chao Kao did not hear me, and put a string through my jaw and put me away in a pool covered with reeds.
I lay there, waiting. Soon, as if in answer to my prayer, Chang from our office came. . . He found me and took me out of the pool, and I was dangling by the string, quite helpless.
“Chang, how dare you? I am your employer. I am Section Chief Shay, only temporarily disguised as a fish. Come, kowtow to me!”
But Chang did not hear me, either, or chose to ignore me. I shouted at the top of my voice, and cursed and flapped back and forth, but all to no avail.
When I entered the gate, I saw the clerks playing chess near the door, and I shouted to them, telling them who I was. Again I was ignored. One of the clerks exclaimed, “My, what a beauty! He must weigh three and a half pounds.” Imagine my mortification!
…“Take him to the cook” –I think it was Pei who said that—“and ask the cook to make a nice dished of minced carp, with onions and mushrooms and a dash of wine.”
“Wait a minute, my dear colleagues,” I said to you all. “Listen to me, It is all a mistake, I am Shay. You ought to know me. You cannot kill me. How can you be so cruel?” I protested and protested.
I saw it was useless, for you were all deaf. I looked at you with my imploring eyes and opened my mouth and begged for mercy.
“Onions and mushrooms and a dash of wine! How these heartless rascals could turn against their friend just like that!” I thought to myself. But there was nothing I could do.
Chang then took me to the kitchen. The cook opened his eyes wide when he saw me. His face gleamed as he sharpened his knife and laid it on the kitchen table.
“Wang Shihliang! You are my cook. Do not kill me! I beg you.”
Wang Shihliang took me firmly by the waist. I saw the white flash of the knife about to descend over my head. Whack! It came down, and in that instant, I woke up.
Shay’s friends listened to the story, greatly touched by it, and all the more astonished at what he told them because every detail was true and exact. Some said that they had seen the fish’s mouth move, but no one heard a single sound. Thereafter, Shay recovered completely, and his friends never ate carp again for the rest of their lives.