Zuo Ci, styled Yuanfang, was a Taoist who held the Taoist name Master Black Horn. He studied the occult arts at Emei Mountain, where he one day found a special book of three volumes. From this book he learned a number of mystic arts.
In the tenth month of the twenty-first year of Rebuilt Tranquility (AD 216) (1), during the winter, construction of the King of Wei’s new palace was completed, and furnishing began. Men were sent all over realm in search of exotic flowers and fruit to plant in the royal garden. One of Cao Cao’s messengers went south to meet with Sun Quan and, when received, presented a letter requesting authorization to gather oranges in Wenzhou. His request was granted, and the messenger proceeded Wenzhou. Wishing to show his respect for the King of Wei, Sun Quan also had forty loads of fine fruits picked from trees in his own city, and had them delivered to Cao Cao.
1: History places the origin of these events in the winter of AD 210.
On the way, the porters grew tired, and stopped to rest at the foot of a tree on a hill. There they were approached by an elderly man, blind of one eye and crippled in one leg, who wore a white rattan headdress and an informal gray Taoist robe. He saluted the bearers and stayed to talk.
“Your burden is heavy, O Porters. Might this old Taoist lend you a shoulder? What do you say?”
Naturally they were pleased enough, and the amiable wayfarer bore each load another five li further. When they resumed their burdens, they noticed that fruits seemed much lighter than before, and became quite suspicious.
Just before he was planning to leave, the mysterious priest addressed the officer in charge of the shipment, “I am an old friend from the same village as the Prince of Wei. My name is Zuo Ci, styled Yuanfang, and my Taoist name is Master Black Horn. I am an old acquaintance of the King of Wei, having come from his native village. When you get to the end of your journey, you must say that I have been inquiring after him.” After shaking down his sleeves, the priest was gone.
In due course the orange bearers reached the new Palace and presented the fruit to Cao Cao. But when he cut it open he found that the fruit was empty, with no pulp beneath the rind (2). Astonished at this finding, Cao Cao questioned the officer, who recounted his meeting with Zuo Ci, leaving Cao Cao in disbelief.
2: Moss Roberts: Mao suggests that this was a reminder of the empty box that Cao Cao had sent to Xun Wenruo [Yu] as a suggestion that he take his own life.
Just then the warden of the gate sent word that a certain Taoist monk named Zuo Ci was at the gate, and wished to see the king.
“Send him in,” said Cao Cao.
“He is the man we met along the way!” confirmed the officer upon seeing Zuo Ci enter the hall.
Cao Cao looked upon the guest, becoming angry, and demanded, “What manner of sorcery have you been exercising on my beautiful fruit?”
“How ridiculous!” retorted Zuo Ci before taking an orange himself and cutting it open, showing the succulent flesh inside to his host.
Cao Cao cut open another orange himself, but found it to be empty just as the previous fruit had been, causing him to grow even more perplexed. He bade his visitor be seated. Zuo Ci took his seat and requested wine and food, which Cao Cao had provided to him. The Daoist ate ravenously, consuming a whole sheep, and drank in proportion. Yet he showed no sign of intoxication, nor did he become full.
“By what magic are you here?” said Cao Cao, still stunned.
“I am but a poor Taoist,” came the reply. “I went into Jialing in Shu, and on Emei Mountain (3), studied the way for thirty long years. One day I heard my name called from out the rocky wall of my cell. I looked, but could see nothing. The next day it happened again, and this continued for many more. Then, suddenly, a peal of thunder split the stone wall, and inside I saw a sacred book in three volumes called Concealing Method, Text of Heaven—the first volume named ‘Concealing Heaven’, the second ‘Concealing Earth’, and the third ‘Concealing Man’. From the first I learned how to ascend the clouds astride the wind, to sail up into the great void itself; from the second to pass through mountains and rock; and from the third to move freely through the realm, changing my form, or how to take the head of an enemy with a flying dagger or sword. You, O Prince, have reached the pinnacle of glory. Why not withdraw now and, like me, become a disciple of the Tao? We can travel to Emei Mountain together, and I can bequeath my books to you.”
3: Emei Mountain was well known as a place which occult arts were studied.
“I have often times considered such a course, having reached the pinnacle of my success, but what can I do?” replied Cao Cao. “There would be no one to maintain the government. (4)”
4: Moss Roberts: Zuo Ci is referring to the dun jia, “evading stems” or “stems (and branches) to avoid.” A discussion of the subject and a translation of Zuo Ci’s biography may be found in Kenneth J. Dewoskin, Doctors, Diviners, and Magicians of Ancient China (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).
Zuo Ci says, “Your Highness has reached the highest ministerial office” to suggest that Cao Cao retire. Cao Cao’s original statement, “As prime minister, I have gone as high as an imperial servant can go,” was made to explain why he could not retire. The statement was made in Jian’an 15 (AD 210). See Pei Songzhi’s excerpt from the Wei Wu gushi, SGZ, pp. 32–33. On that occasion Cao Cao also argued that his protection of the Han emperor Xian prevented others from unlawfully declaring themselves emperor or king.
Mao: “At the Bronze Bird Tower Cao Cao once told his officials that he would have relinquished his powers but for fear of harm. By following Zuo Ci he could have had his wish.”
Zuo Ci smiled. “What of Liu Bei of the Riverlands is a scion of the imperial house; could he not replace you? If you do not, this poor priest may have to send one of his flying swords after your head one day!”
“You are one of Liu Bei’s agents!” cried Cao Cao, enraged. “Seize him!”
His servants did so, but Zuo Ci only launged, continuing to do so as they dragged him down to the dungeons where he was beat cruelly. Even though they struck him with all their might, he rested comfortably as if asleep and completely oblivious to the attacks.
When he learned of this, it only enraged Cao Cao that much more. He ordered that a cangue affixed tightly to Zuo Ci’s neck and wrists, and had him imprisoned under close guard. Later, the guards witnessed the collar and chains simply falling from their prisoner’s neck and wrists while he lay fast asleep, not harmed in the least.
Zuo Ci was kept in prison for a week without food or water, but when the guards came to check up on him they found him sitting upright on the ground, his cheeks holding a healthy rosy glow.
This was reported to Cao Cao, who had the prisoner brought in.
“I can go for decades without food or drink!” the prisoner proclaimed, “Yet I can consume a thousand sheep in a single day!”
Cao Cao, baffled, could think of nothing more to do.
That day there was a great banquet at the new Palace, and guests arrived in droves. While the banquet was in progress, wine cups passing freely, Zuo Ci appeared before them without warning. He wore wooden clogs on his feet. All heads turned in his direction and not a few were afraid; others wondered.
Standing before the great assembly, Zuo Ci said, “O Great Prince, today you have gathered here a glorious company of guests, and many delicacies at your table table! You have rare and beautiful objects from all parts of the world! Is there anything lacking? No matter what it might be, name it, and I will bring it to you.”
“Then I want a dragon’s liver to make stew,” replied Cao Cao suspiciously. “Can you manage that?”
“Where’s the difficulty?” replied Zuo Ci.
With a brush and ink Zuo Ci immediately sketched a dragon on one of the banquet hall walls. Then he flicked his sleeve over it, and the dragon’s belly opened. From therein Zuo Ci withdrew the liver, streaming with fresh blood.
“You had the liver hidden in your sleeve!” cried Cao Cao contemptuously.
“Then there shall be another test,” replied Zuo Ci calmly. “It is far into winter and every plant outside is dead. Name a fine and rare flower, any flower, and I will gladly provide it to you.”
“I want a peony,” said Cao Cao plainly.
“Easy,” came the reply.
At this request they brought out a flowerpot, which was placed in full view of the guests. Zuo Ci then poured some water into it, and in moments a peony sprang up with two full blooms. All the guests were astonished, and asked the guest to be seated, providing him with wine and foot. The cook sent out for minced fish.
“For mincing only fine perch from the River Song will do,” said Zuo Ci.
“How can we fish five hundred miles away?” asked Cao Cao skeptically.
“It is not difficult,” responded Zuo Ci. “I need only a fishing pole.”
After being given a fishing pole, Zuo Ci dropped a line into the pond below the hall. First he fished out one, but in short order the count was up to two-dozen large healthy perch. He placed them in the palace hall.
“Those fish were in my pond all along,” replied Cao Cao.
“O Prince,” retorted Zuo Ci with a smile, “do you hope to deceive me? All perch have two gills, except for River Song perch, which have two pairs. This is their unique feature.” The officials verified Zuo Ci’s claim (5).
5: Moss Roberts: Mao: “Su Dongpo [in his “Second Red Cliffs Rhapsody”] mentions catching one. Can the sight of the fish remind Cao Cao of the events at Red Cliffs?”
The guests crowded to get a glimpse of the captured perch, and sure enough, each fish had four gills.
“You’ll need purple sprout ginger to poach these fish,” explained Zuo Ci.
“Can you produce that as well?” asked Cao Cao.
“Easy enough,” answered Zuo Ci. He had a gold basin brought out and covered it with his sleeve after filling it with water. In but a few moments the basin was filled with ginger. He then presented it to Cao Cao, who took it into his hands.
To his surprise, Cao Cao found a book inside titled The New Writings of Mengde, and upon inspection found every word he glimpsed inside to be perfectly accurate (6). He was perplexed.
6: Earlier (in Chapter 60 of Romance of the Three Kingdoms) this title, supposedly an original title by Cao Cao, was presented to Zhang Song, a Shu official, as proof of Cao Cao’s knowledge. Zhang Song denounced the work as plagiarism and recited the contents, saying it was well known even among children in Shu. Cao Cao denied the claim, but later had the book burned. This is why it would be a surprise to see it reappearing in Zuo Ci’s golden basin.
Zuo Ci then took a jade cup from the table and filled it with choice wine, offering it to Cao Cao. “Drink this wine, and you will live a thousand years!” he claimed.
“You drink first,” replied the ever-suspicious Cao Cao.
Zuo Ci removed a Jade hairpin from his cap and divided the contents of the cup with a single stroke, drinking half then offering the remaining contents to Cao Cao, who scoffed at him. Zuo Ci then threw the cup into the air, where it transformed into a white turtledove and flew away. The guests watched in awe, and Zuo Ci vanished from sight. Moments later the gate warden reported that the sage had left the palace.
“This kind of black sorcerer should be put to death, or he will prove to be a blight,” reasoned Cao Cao. He turned to Xu Chu. “Take three hundred armored soliders and make him our prisoner!”
Xu Chu took the men and raced to the city gate. There he found Zuo Ci in wooden sandals sauntering along ahead, though no matter how hard they tried they could not seem to overtake him.
The chase continued into some nearby hills where Xu Chu found a young shepherd driving a flock of sheep. When he looked, he saw Zuo Ci walking among them. He shot an arrow at the Taoist, but Zuo Ci simply vanished. Xu Chu then ordered that the entire flock be slaughtered before returning to the palace, and his soldiers complied.
The young shepherd watched in horror as his sheep were executed to the last one, then fell to his in tears.
“Do not worry,” came a voice behind him, “place the heads against the bodies of your sheep, and they shall return to life!”
When the boy turned he saw that it was actually a disembodies sheep’s head that was speaking to him. He was filled with terror, and turned to run.
“Do not run!” a voice called from behind him again, “I will return your sheep to life!” The boy chanced a glance behind him, and saw that all of his sheep were indeed alive again, the unusual sage now visible. Before he could question him though, Zuo Ci shook his sleeves and was carried away with the wind in a matter of moments.
The shepherded boy then went home and told his mater of the marvels he had seen. Fearing Cao Cao, and the circumstances, the master quickly reported to Cao Cao and explained everything he had been told. Cao Cao had sketches of the Taoist prepared, and sent them all around the city, demanding his arrest.
Within three days three or four hundred people had been arrested and were waiting outside the palace, each blind in one eye, lame in a leg, and wearing a rattan headdress with a loose gray flowing robe and wooden cogs—each answering to the description of the missing Taoist.
Cao Cao had the mass of captured prisoners sprinkled with sheep and pig blood to exorcise the black sorcery (7), then marched them to the training field south of the city. With five hundred soldiers, he then surrounded them and had them executed to a man. As each head was removed, a trail of blue vapor rose from the severed limbs gathering in the sky to form the real Zuo Ci, who hailed Cao Cao from a crane in the sky, which he rode like a horse.
7: The sheep and pigs’ blood is seen as a way of dispelling evil magic. It is also used, in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, to cancel the Yellow Turban Zhang Bao’s illusionary magic.
He sat on his back, clapping his hands, and laughed. “The rats of earth follow the golden tiger,” he changed gleefully, “the villain is shortly doomed! (8)”
8: Moss Roberts: The TS (p. 661) has “jade rat” rather [than] “earth rat”. Presumably, the “golden tiger” is a tower by that name that Cao Cao had built in the seventh month of Jian’an 18 (AD 213). Mao sees this as an omen of Cao Cao’s death in the first month of the zi (rat) year (see chap. 78).
Cao Cao, enraged, ordered his commanders to shoot, but then a great wind blew up, bringing stones to flight and stinging eyes with sand, preventing anyone from shooting. Then, amidst the confusion, the disembodies corpses stood up, each with their head in their hands, and raced toward Cao Cao as if to strike him down. The officials and officers covered their eyes and collapsed in disbelief, too frightened to help one another.
The power of a bold man will overturn a state,
The art of a necromancer also produces wonders.
The sight of the corpses coming to life once again, heads in hand, and charging toward him, combined with the other events of the day and the storm, was simply too much for Cao Cao, and he collapsed unconscious. At that moment the wind stopped, the corpses vanished, and Cao Cao had to be rushed to the palace.
Cao Cao fell very ill, and nobody could find a cure for him. He would later meet Guan Lu the diviner, and would eventually recover from the trials visited upon him. He never saw Zuo Ci again.
A poet celebrated the episode of Zuo Ci’s powerful arts:
He studied his magical books,
He was learned in mystical lore,
And with magical fleetness of footHe could travel the wide world over.
The magical arts that he knew,
He employed in an earnest essayTo reform the bad heart of Cao Cao.
But in vain; Cao Cao held on his way.
Copyright © 2005 James Peirce
Based on the novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong
Sources: Romance of the Three Kingdoms Brewitt-Taylor and Moss Roberts