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HÉ Xiāngū 何仙姑 = an immortal, known when a child as Orchid Fairy (Lánxiān 兰仙)
The Lady of Mystery (Xuánnǚ 玄女) = a powerful Daoist immortal or goddess, rumored to be the Mother of Heaven herself
LǏ of the Iron Crutch (LǏ Tiěguǎi 李铁拐 = an immortal (story 2)
ZHÀO Gāo 赵高 = an evil eunuch at the First Emperor’s court
ZHÀO-the-Ne’er-Do-Well = his disreputable nephew
A temple keeper
It is told by people who know many things that over two thousand years ago a virtuous family named HÉ 何 lived at the foot of Golden Mountain 金山. (There are many places with this name, so nobody knows quite where this really was.)
In time Lady Hé gave birth to a beautiful baby, whom they named Orchid Fairy (Lánxiān 兰仙). The name Orchid made sense because she was a beautiful baby. The name Fairy made sense, not only because of her beauty, but because she was able to talk as soon as she was born and, like a fairy, she refused to eat meat or fish.
When Orchid Fairy turned seven, suddenly the Daoist Lady of Mystery (Xuánnǚ 玄女, whom some people believe to be a diguise of the Mother of Heaven herself) took human form and appeared to Orchid Fairy and her parents, and told her it was her destiny to study the Way.
Orchid Fairy’s parents were ardent believers in all things religious, and they were quite pleased to learn of their little daughter’s glorious mission in life. The trouble was that people who seek the Way sooner or later leave their families and head to mountains full of immortals, good and bad spirits, and, of course, hungry tigers. Fortunately they do not do that at age seven, so the problem could be put off for a time, and the older Hés carefully forgot all about it.
When some ten or more years had passed, Orchid Fairy had reached the age when it was time for every girl's parents to find her a husband. That was a bit awkward, since they were already very old —over forty, in fact. People over forty begin to get weak in the knees and funny in the head and need daughters or daughters-in-law to keep track of them. But Orchid Fairy was their only child.
Orchid Fairy had a long talk with them. She told them that she didn’t want to marry anybody, but that she would still leave home anyway, for she planned to head into the mountains to wander about and the seek the Way. They did not take it well.
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Suddenly who should appear but an immortal named Lǐ of the Iron Crutch (LǏ Tiěguǎi 李铁拐), whom we already met in story 2. Despite his hideous appearance, Lǐ of the Iron Crutch was able to radiate great warmth and excellent breeding, and he was permitted to stay with the family for some weeks. During that time he could not persuade Orchid Fairy's parents of anything, but he persuaded Orchid Fairy herself that wandering into the mountains on her own was a bad idea; she needed a proper teacher, and he knew how she could find one.
That evening she went to her parents’ bedroom and told them goodbye. Before they could say a word, the entry to a huge cave opened in the wall of the room —the cave was actually the magical sleeve of Lǐ of the Iron Crutch— and their daughter vanished into it just before it disappeared and the wall became a wall once again.
She emerged somewhere on Mount Héng 衡山 in Húnán 湖南 province, where she was met by the Lady of Mystery herself, who undertook to teach her about the Way. She was an excellent student, and not much more than a hundred years later she had already learned to fly and to change to many different forms. Then her teacher gave her an important assignment:
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“The First Emperor of Qín (Qín Shǐ Huángdì 秦始皇帝) is an offensive bully who is oppressing the people,” she told Orchid Fairy. “Your brother immortals Lǐ of the Iron Crutch and Zhāng Guǒ lǎo have already headed down to try to intervene. Now you must join them in Xiányáng 咸阳, the capital. You will assume the form of a beautiful woman and the name Hé Xiāngū 何仙姑 (‘Immortal Maid Hé’).”
So down she went, landing with a bump in front of a beautiful new temple just outside the palace called the Hermitage of Emptiness (Qīngxū Guàn 清虚观), which had been erected so that the emperor would have a convenient place to ask Heaven’s blessings for his various devious plans.
She marched up the path and told the ancient Daoist temple keeper that she was moving in. This was a very bad idea, said the temple keeper.
"This place was closely watched by a thuggish princeling of the powerful Zhào 赵 clan," he explained. "He comes with his band of bullies and abducts any beautiful maid who stops here to pray."
(There were many princes and princelings at court named Zhào, since that was the emperor's surname and that surname of the Great Eunuch as well. This particular Princeling Zhào was a nephew of the evil Great Eunuch ZHÀO Gāo 赵高, famous in every later generation for being even more evil that the previous generation had ever suspected. We will call this particular princeling “Zhào-the-Ne’er-Do-Well” because that is what he was.)
“Surely,” said the Daoist, “Zhào-the-Ne’er-Do-Well will come and abduct you.”
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However Hé Xiāngū had not studied the Way for over a century at the feet of the Lady of Mystery only to be intimidated by a ne’er-do-well, even one protected by a connection with the imperial court. Very soon —some people say the very same day— Hé Xiāngū was startled to hear sneering and giggling, and a band of elegantly dressed but very badly behaved young men rushed in and began to tease her and to grab at parts of her that should never be grabbed at. In their midst, outrageously dressed in imperial yellow, stood Zhào-the-Ne’er-Do-Well, who sneered and told her she was going to be added to his harem.
Hé Xiāngū stood calmly and recited a spell. Suddenly the band of badly behaved young men froze in their tracks, unable to move. Zhào-the-Ne’er-Do-Well was not frozen. Instead his mind began to grow fuzzy, and very soon he was unable to speak except to utter nonsense. In terror he rushed back to the palace, where it was clear to everyone that he was a victim of sorcery, and the Great Eunuch himself accompanied the soldiers to the Hermitage of Emptiness.
Hé Xiāngū was accused of the very serious crime of Ensorcelling a Palace Worthy. The evil Great Eunuch Zhào smiled happily but hideously as he imagined the dire punishments that he might amusingly inflict upon her.
As a Daoist she of course carried a fly whisk with her at all times, for a fly whisk can be used not merely to keep flies away, but also to do magic. Suddenly she flicked her whisk and transformed herself into a perfect copy of his nephew Zhào-the-Ne’er-Do-Well. Then she made another copy, and another, and another, until the room was full of boorishly sneering and squabbling Zhào-the-Ne’er-Do-Wells, all interchangeably disagreeable.
The evil Great Eunuch Zhào had never much liked his nephew —no one did— and a whole room full of them was far more than he could stand. Falling to his knees, but not knowing which Zhào-the-Ne’er-Do-Well was actually the magician he needed to address, he wept and wailed and begged most pathetically because his suffering was very real.
Flicking her whisk once more, Hé Xiāngū instantly made all of the extra Zhào-the-Ne’er-Do-Wells disappear, and she herself was once again a beautiful woman, with the Great Eunuch groveling and sniveling at her feet. The real Zhào-the-Ne’er-Do-Well was cowering in a corner speaking gibberish. Pointing at him she told him to become a lump of mud and to stay that way until he could behave properly. With that, she turned and walked out.
Since Zhào-the-Ne’er-Do-Well was very bad, he would never be able to behave properly, and he was destined to remain a lump of mud forever. The evil Great Eunuch Zhào Gāo was glad to be rid of him, of course, but he was even happier that he himself, although also very bad, had been spared … this time.
Many more were the good works of Hé Xiāngū to help suffering humanity. But now it is time for you to go to the main story,
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Sources: The main story of Hé Xiāngū derives from a whole range of sources, all of which treat of her rather differently, making it difficult to create a unified version. This retelling contrasts with the main story in many ways and is included to help show the range of variation. It is here retold mainly from:
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Go to main story,