A traditional marriage ceremony in China as depicted in a detail from “Prosperous Suzhou” by Xu Yang, 1759. (Public Domain)
December 25, 2018 Updated: December 25, 2018
In the Tang Dynasty, there was a man named Zhang Gongyi. In his lifetime, he could bear anything that ordinary people found unbearable. He swore that he would endure 100 extraordinary acts of tolerance in his lifetime, and every day he made that his oath.
Thus, people called him Zhang Bairen, meaning literally “100 Tolerances” or “100 Acts of Tolerance.”
Zhang Bairen never argued with others when working with them. He disciplined himself strictly but was very generous toward others. Over many years, he had endured a total of 99 extraordinary acts of tolerance, and one more would realize his oath.
If a beggar wanted to attend your grandson’s wedding, would you let him? A detail from “Beggars and Street Characters,” 1516, by Zhou Chen. Cleveland Museum of Art. (Public Domain)
One day, Zhang Bairen’s grandson was getting married, and he invited many friends to come to the wedding ceremony. They prepared a rich banquet for the guests. When it was close to noontime, a beggar came. Zhang Bairen said to others, “Do not give him a hard time; give him some food. Just let him go after he finishes his meal.”
A servant said that the beggar wanted to come and sit with all the guests. Zhang Bairen felt that the request was rather strange, but he still accepted it.
Wearing a dirty, smelly monk’s robe, the beggar came to the room, walked up to Zhang Bairen, and said, “Thank you for your generosity. Today is your grandson’s wedding day, and I have especially come to congratulate him. But, I have another request, which is to have a meal with your most honored guests.”
Zhang Bairen hesitated a little while and then agreed. He introduced the beggar to the host of the ceremony, and then said to all, “Ladies and gentlemen, my grandson is getting married today. I would like to express my gratitude to all of you for coming to the wedding. This old man has just arrived and would like to sit together with us. Please be gracious and make a seat available for him.”
At this moment, the beggar said, “No. Not a seat with the common guests but with the guests of honor.”
Zhang Bairen said, “Why do you persist in sitting in a seat of honor? The seat I arranged for you is for important people too.”
Upon hearing this, the beggar said, “Are you a man with a big heart? How come you have such a strong desire to treat people differently? Fine dress does not represent fine character. Poor dress does not mean people are poor in character. Why don’t you think it over before acting too hastily?”
What the beggar said indeed touched Zhang Bairen’s heart. He thought that the beggar was right. “Since I swore that I would bear 100 unbearable things, why should such a small thing bother me?” he thought. Thus, he immediately apologized to the beggar, and then he turned to all the guests and said, “For my sake, please let the old man sit in a seat of honor and don’t worry about anything improper he might say.”
Everyone at the wedding agreed to let the beggar sit in a seat of honor.
After the banquet, all the guests left, but the beggar still sat there with no sign of leaving. Zhang Bairen walked over and asked him, “Grandpa, now I think you must have had enough to eat, and it is getting late; how about sleeping here tonight? Just sleep with the cooks in the kitchen. Okay?”
The beggar said, “No. Though I am a beggar, you should not let me sleep in the kitchen. You have to find a good place for me to sleep.”
“Okay, sure, you may sleep in our guest room,” Zhang Bairen replied.
Then, the beggar said, “No. I am not going to sleep in the guest room. I suspect the bride’s room would be the most comfortable place in your house, so I will sleep there. Ask your grandson to sleep somewhere else.”
The beggar’s statement shocked everyone, and Zhang Bairen was about to explode. He said, “Grandpa, I respect you because you are aged, and I have tried my best to meet your requests, but I cannot understand why you would make such a rude request!”
“I’m just going to be sleeping in there and have no other motive. Why are you so defensive? I must say that you are not qualified to have the name Zhang Bairen. Just change your name to Zhang Can’t-Bear-It Man,” replied the beggar.
Hearing what the beggar said, Zhang Bairen did not know what to do. After a little while, he said to the beggar, “That’s fine. I will let you sleep in the bride’s room, but I have to ask permission from both the groom and bride.”
Zhang Bairen talked to the whole family. The grandson said, “No. This is an insult! Absolutely not.”
Other family members all agreed that the beggar was asking for too much: “What if the news got out? Our name would be ruined!”
Zhang Bairen quickly tried to persuade everyone: “I can tell he is not like a normal beggar, and he is of such an old age. I don’t think he would do anything improper to the bride. Besides, he already swore that as long as he can sleep in the bride’s room, he will not do anything but sleep. I will arrange some guards to stand outside the room. If there is any sound in the room, Granddaughter-in-law, you just shout and all of us will go inside to save you.”
Granddaughter-in-law heard this. She thought what he said was reasonable: “Grandpa has been so magnanimous throughout his whole life that he is respected as one who has high character, and also he is very good at disciplining his family members. We, as grandchildren, should inherit these virtues. How about we agree to his request in order to fulfill his hundredth act of extraordinary tolerance?”
After a while, the whole family came to an agreement. Zhang Bairen went to the living room to ask the beggar to go to the bride’s room to rest. The beggar just gave a smile and followed Zhang Bairen to the bride’s room. As soon as he lay down, he fell asleep. It was very quiet the whole night. At daybreak, Zhang Bairen and others got together outside the bride’s room, waiting for him. The bride was already waiting for them inside the room. She opened the door and told them, “I was so scared last night, I did not sleep at all and sat up in my bed for the whole night. Fortunately, the beggar did not even turn over in his sleep.”
All of them looked at the bed and saw that the beggar was still sound asleep. Zhang Bairen called him several times, but he did not respond. Zhang Bairen reached out and removed the quilt. To his surprise, there was no beggar at all! Instead, there was a shining golden statue as large as a person. When he took a closer look, he saw that it looked like Venus Taibai and resembled the statue being worshiped in the local temple. There was also a couplet engraved on its body, saying:
–Working diligently, you’ll have no troubles in this life’s existence. There’s always harmony in the Hall of 100 Acts of Tolerance.
Finally, Zhang Bairen realized that the beggar was Venus Taibai, who had come to test him. Soon, news of the incident spread through the whole province and beyond. Everyone admired Zhang Bairen and at the same time felt the greatness of the Gods’ compassion. They understood that whatever people do in the world is recorded and certainly will be repaid in kind with good or evil. Zhang Bairen was even more respected by all, and his story reminded future generations that to bear anything that seems unbearable can bring them happiness forever.
Translated by Dora Li into English, this story is reprinted with permission from the book “Treasured Tales of China,” Vol. 1, available on Amazon.