THE RIVER OF SORROWS
A Chinese Story
translated by George
Along the path leading to the city
of All-virtues, in the obscure night,
a poor coolie, grumbling under a heavy
load of salt, was trudging on as fast as he
"I shall never get there before the hour
of the Rat, and my wife will say again;
'Wang The-tenth has drunk too many cups
of wine.' She does not know the weight
of that stuff!"
As he was thus thinking, two men suddenly
jumped from either side of the road
and held him by the arms.
"What do you want?" cried the poor
man. "I am only an unhappy carrier,
and my load is only salt, very common
"We don't want your salt, and you had
better throw it down. We are sent from
the Regions below and we want you to
come down with us."
"Am I dead already?" asked The-tenth.
"I did not know. I must tell my
wife. Can't you come again to-morrow
"Impossible to wait. You must come
immediately. But I don't think you are
dead. It is only to work for a few days
"This is rather strange," replied The-tenth.
"With all the people who have died
since the world has been the world you still
want living men? We don't go and ask
you to do our work, do we?"
While thus arguing, he felt himself suffocated
by a heavy smell and lost consciousness.
When he awoke, he was on the bank of a
fairly large river. Hundreds of men were
standing in the water; some of them
carried baskets; others, with spades and
different utensils, were dragging out what
they could from the bottom. Soldiers with
heavy sticks struck those who stopped
even for a second.
On the bank several men were standing,
and a number of others came from time to
time. A magistrate was sitting behind a
big red table, turning over the pages of a
book. At last, he called "Wang The-tenth."
"Wang The-tenth!" repeated the soldiers.
And they threw the poor man down
in a kneeling position in front of the magistrate,
who looked on the book and said:
"You have been an undutiful son; do
you remember the day when you told your
father he was a fool?"
Then speaking to the soldiers, he said:
"To the river!"
The guards pushed the man, gave him a
basket, and ordered him to help in the cleaning
of the river.
The water was red and thick; its stench
was abominable; the bodies of the workmen
were all red, and The-tenth discovered it
was blood. He looked at the first basket
he took to the bank; it was only putrid
flesh and broken bones.
Thus he worked day by day without
stopping. When he was not going fast
enough, the guards struck him with their
sticks, and their sticks were bones. In
the deep places he had to put his head into
the water and felt the filthy stuff fill his
nostrils and mouth.
Among the workers he recognised many
people he used to know. A great number
died and were carried away by the stream.
At last two guards called his name, helped
him to the bank, and suddenly he found
himself again on the path leading to the
city of All-virtues.
Now, on the night when The-tenth was
taken away, his wife waited for him.
Troubled not to see him, she started as
soon as the sun beamed, and looked for
him on the road. She soon found his body
lying unconscious. Trying in vain to revive
him, she thought him dead, and wept
Not being strong enough to bring home
his body, she came back to town in order
to ask the help of her family. In the afternoon,
clad in the white dress of mourning,
and accompanied by her four brothers, she
What was her astonishment and fear
when, approaching the place where she
had found the body, she saw her husband
walking towards her. He was all covered
with blood, and the stench was so strong
that everybody pinched his nose.
When he had explained what had happened,
they all returned to the village.
The-tenth knelt reverently before his ancestors'
tablet, offered butter and rice, and
This very day he asked a Taoist priest
what was the river he had worked in.
The priest explained to him it was called
the River-of-sorrows. It took its source
in the outer world in every tear that was
shed. The people that killed themselves
out of despair were floated down its stream
to the kingdom of shadows.
Sometimes the sorrows on earth were so
great that people killed themselves by
thousands and did not shed any tears; the
blood then was too thick to wash away the
decayed remains, and the river-bed had to
be cleaned lest it should overflow and drown
the whole world. Living men alone were
employed in this work, for only living men
can cure living men's sorrows.