The Wife’s Pillow
Zuo Zongtang came from a poor family and could not afford a decent marriage when he was 20, an age at which most men already had a wife and kids. He married Yiduan of the Zhou family, a renowned and rich family in Xiangtan ( a town in Hunan Province, middle south China). Miss Zhou Yiduan received a good education from her mother and was known to be a talented poet, as well as beautiful Lady. In a traditional Chinese marriage, the wife will leave her parents’ family and join her husband’s; however, because of the conspicuous gap between Zuo’s and his wife’s families, Zuo had to leave his family and became a member of Zhou family.
As a married man Zuo tried to earn his official rank and riches through passing the Keju (the imperial examination system). Unfortunately, he failed to pass the metropolitan examination (the national class). After that he had to earn a living by teaching. Later he worked as a private tutor of a governor’s son for eight years. During these years being a teacher, Zuo left his beloved wife at home to travel from one place to another, feeling increasingly depressed at his unfulfilled expectations.
Yiduan knew well about her husband’s pain and loneliness. She was worried that Zuo would feel hopeless and give up, or that he might end up visiting prostitutes or using drugs. In one of their few meetings in 1835, before Zuo went to the imperial capital to take the metropolitan exam once again, Yiduan made a pillow for him and embroidered on it a pattern of “a Fishing Village in the Afterglow.” It took Yiduan three days and three nights to finish the work. In the pattern there was a fishing boat fastened beside the willow, and across the fogged green river the tree-covered mountains could be seen in the distance. The wife also embroidered one of her own poems beside the pattern:
Fastened in emerald mist are the boat and his net. This is the evening scene of home, my lord.
Do know in the hazy dreams I wait for you;
And do let this landscape touch your heart’s chord. “My lord,” Yiduan said gently, “whenever you see the pillow in your journey, please think of me. It will represent my love and accompany you to all the faraway places you go.”
Zuo took the pillow with him in his travels. On every lonely night in the unfamiliar land, during moments of nostalgia and insomnia, he touched the pillow, silently read Yiduan’s affectionate poem, and felt that she was right there with him. Thus within the cuddling warmth his fretful mind was soothed, and he fell into a peaceful sleep.
Sadly, Zuo failed to pass the metropolitan exam in 1835 for the second time, and then in 1838 for the third time. The man was plunged into the depths of despair. He swore that he would forget his ambition and think no more than being a peasant. Desperately, he burned his collection of books, and also threw the pillow into the fire. Yiduan saw this and ordered the servants to rescue the books. She put herself in danger by getting the pillow out of the fire. The pillow was partly burnt, and Yiduan burst into tears.
“You did this to break
my heart,” she said to her husband, “but I still have faith in you. You will be somebody one day.”
With his wife’s comfort and encouragement, Zuo regained confidence. He then concentrated on practical studies such as politics, agriculture, hydrology, military strategies, and western sciences. Whenever he became inactive, he saw the pillow (already mended anew by Yiduan) and felt refreshed.
An opportunity finally emerged. In 1852, the troops of the “Taiping Rebellion” besieged Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province. Under such crisis, the governor of Hunan, Zhang Liangji, asked Zuo to lead the army in the city. Zuo did his best all day and all night to arrange the defense. After three months of siege the city wall still stood; and the rebellion force retreated to the north.
That was the beginning of Zuo’s brilliant career. Thereafter he led the imperial army to defeat the Taiping Rebellion, and then the “Nian Rebellion.” He re-conquered the lost land of Xinjiang. He was also a leading figure in “the Westernization Movement.” His official rank reached the first class when he became “The Grand Secretary of Dongge” at the age of 61. He had real power in the empire.
In 1870, when Zuo was commanding a campaign, he received a message that said Yiduan had passed away at home. The mighty general shed bitter tears in anguish. He held his wife’s pillow in arms and said,
“The wailing bird is separated from his mate. Only this pillow will accompany me in the rest of my days.”
(From Folk Legends, Issue 12, 2016. Translated: Wang Xiaoke.)
（摘自《民间传奇故事》 2016 年第 12期）