Stories from Ancient China: The Danger of Lust

The people in ancient China believed that among all transgressions that prevented one from becoming virtuous, lust was the worst. Many stories were written warning of the danger of lust, as illustrated in the following two stories.

This first tells the story of a scholar who almost lost his chance for career advancement because of his failure to guard himself against lust [1]. The second, from You Yang Za Zu [2], is about Xu Xun, one of the famous deities in Daoist religion. As the only disciple to pass the test of lust, Xu was selected to help his master to slay the snake demon.

A Scholar and His Mission

In ancient China, a man’s success was measured largely in terms of his ability to pass different levels of official examinations. The more exams he passed, the higher the position in the government he would be given.

There was a scholar in Shandong named Lin Changkang. He had passed the first-level exam early in his life but still could not pass the second-level exam by the age of 40. One day, in despair, he thought about giving up his career. Suddenly he heard a voice next to him say, “Please do not be discouraged!”

Terrified, Lin asked, “Who’s there?”

“I am a ghost. I have been following you for the past few years,” the voice answered.

Lin asked the ghost to show himself. At first, the ghost refused. After Lin repeatedly asked him, the ghost said, “I can show myself, but please do not be frightened when you see me.” Lin agreed.

The ghost appeared and knelt in front of him, covered in blood. “I am a peasant. A man surnamed Zhang from Ye County murdered me and left my body under the stone mill outside the East Gate. You, sir, will become the magistrate of Ye County in the future. That’s why I have been following and serving you secretly in hopes that you will see that justice is done in my case.”

The ghost also told Lin which year he would pass the second-level exam and which year he would pass the imperial exam. Then the ghost disappeared. When the time came, as the ghost had foretold, Lin passed the second-level exam. However, he did not pass the next level at the time the ghost had predicted.

“When it comes to fame and fortune, how can a ghost know all!” he sighed.

“It is your misconduct, not my fault, that I told you wrong!” came the voice of the ghost from out of nowhere. “You had illicit sex with a widow on a certain day. No one else in this world knew it, but it was recorded in the netherworld. You are already forgiven, but now you have to wait two more years to pass the imperial exam.”

Lin was shocked to learn that all of one’s deeds were recorded. Regretting his behavior, he became virtuous from then on and was especially careful when it came to lust. Two years later, he passed the imperial exam and was appointed the magistrate of Ye County.

Once he arrived at his post, he went out to patrol the city. He saw a stone mill outside the East Gate, just as the ghost had described it to him. He ordered the stone to be removed and a corpse was discovered underneath it. Lin summoned and interrogated Zhang, whom the ghost had named. Zhang admitted the killing and was punished accordingly.

The Daoist Who Slew the Snake Demon

It is said that Xu Xun was a disciple of Wu Meng, a famous Daoist master in the Jin Dynasty (266–420 A.D.). Once accompanied by over a hundred disciples, Wu headed to Jiangdong to get rid of snake demons in the area.

As they reached a place named Gao’an, Wu ordered his disciples to prepare 100 pounds of charcoal sticks of equal length and leave them on the alter.

At night, the charcoal sticks turned into young women in white dresses. They went up to Wu’s disciples and tried to seduce them.

The next morning, Wu inspected his disciples and found that only Xu’s clothes did not have any black marks. Trusting that Xu was virtuous and capable, Wu brought him to the place where a huge snake demon haunted people. When it showed up, Xu took up a sword and killed the monster. Xu later became one of the most revered deities in the Daoist religion.


[1] This story is from Censored by Confucius: Ghost Stories by Yuan Mei (1716 – 1798 A.D.)

[2] You Yang Za Zu is an encyclopedia written by Duan Chengshi during Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D)

Chinese version available