Arc One: An Old Friend in the World of Mortals
Wen-ge told me that he is someone who cannot fully die. Every time he closes his eyes, a few years will pass, and one day he will crawl out from the Gate of Oblivion1 again.
On the day of the Qingming festival2 in 1921, in the municipality of Tianjin, I remembered that it was raining very heavily. He came out from the Gate of Oblivion for the eleventh time, covered in blood. When I rushed over to meet him, I truly could not resist, and I asked him a question.
I said, Why go through such trouble? You’ve already departed anyway, why must you always come back to life? Is there someone who you cannot let go?
He was as hard to get along with as the rumors said, and he completely ignored me and turned to walk away. After a long pause, he finally looked over and asked if I had anything to eat.
I only realized later after I looked through some old books. This school of cultivation called panguan3 requires one to be entirely cleansed and purified, impartial and unbiased; cultivating a path that is unobstructed, unhindered, and unchained by karmic fetters. The question I asked that day was indeed as if I were daydreaming and had read too many folk stories.
This year, during Guyu4, I personally saw him off once again. I burned two basins of paper money and lit seven sticks of incense. His appearance hadn’t changed, and he looked the same as he did that year I went to pick him up.
Three of the white plum trees have bloomed at the back of the mountain. I do not know how many years he will be able to sleep soundly this time.
April 25, 1995, a heavy downpour
Shen Qiao, in Xi’an
“What?” The taxi driver subconsciously raised his voice.
This year, on Qingming, there was another heavy downpour in Ningzhou. By the time the taxi made it out of Jiangjun Mountain, the sky was already dark. For the nth time, the traffic broadcast warned, “The road is slippery on rainy days, be careful when driving,” but the driver couldn’t help but glance at the people sitting in the backseat.
He had picked up two strange customers, one old and one young.
The little boy was very thin. At the most, he was six or seven years old, but he was wearing an excessively large T-shirt. He seemed to have taken a tumble somewhere, as he was soaked from head to toe, half from the rain and half from mud. Before he got in the car, the taxi driver had pulled out a big towel and given it to him, but the boy hadn’t even thanked him.
Accurately speaking, the boy hadn’t said a single thing at all until that abrupt line just then. His voice was low and cold without any hint of childishness, truly unlike the voice that someone his age should have.
The driver suspected that he had misheard something, so he couldn’t resist asking again, “Kiddo, were you saying something?”
The kid was silent and only watched him. His eyes were reflected in the rearview mirror, big and dark.
The driver added, “The radio was too loud just now, Uncle couldn’t hear clearly. I only caught a ‘twenty-five’ or ‘five years’ or something like that.”
The kid continued to remain silent.
The driver forced a laugh. “Kiddo?”
Someone had probably pulled the plug on this kid.
The old man sitting next to the child finally couldn’t keep watching, and he smiled and said, “He was answering me.”
The driver felt even more concerned after he heard that. “Did you say something just then as well? There seems to be something a little wrong with my ears ever since I went up the mountain.”
“No.” The old man turned the aged ring on his index finger, the withered pad of his finger stroking the characters for “Shen Qiao” engraved on the ring. He said, “I didn’t say anything just now, it was something I had asked previously.”
The driver let out an “oh.”
What he didn’t know was how long ago this “previously” was referring to, or else he probably wouldn’t be able to say “oh” anymore.
There were many rumors about the region surrounding Jiangjun Mountain, and usually, nobody was willing to go there. The only reason he had gone was because business had been bad lately, so when the request came through DiDi, he had accepted it automatically before instantly regretting it.
There weren’t any street lights in this area; only the reflective strips on the protective railings glowed with faint fluorescence. It really was raining very hard, and the shadows of the trees on both sides of the road twisted and swayed like unkempt, slanted hair.
Sometimes, when he shot an abrupt glance in the rearview mirror, he felt as if the two people sitting in the back had faces as pale as paper.
While the driver chanted to himself, It’s just your imagination, it’s just your imagination, he still couldn’t help but feel a bit unsettled. He had no choice but to alleviate it through casual conversation, but as a result, the more he tried to soothe himself, the more panicked he felt…
He asked the old man in the backseat, “With such rotten weather, why did you two come out to the mountain? It’s very hard to call a cab here.”
The old man had an amiable appearance, and he looked at the boy sitting next to him before saying, “It is hard, but there was no other way. I had to come pick him up.”
The driver: “…Oh.”
He didn’t dare ask why a child would be waiting in the mountains for someone to come get him, so he could only say, “This rain is truly heavy, and the temperature has been dropping recently. Is the kid cold, wearing so little? Should I turn on the heater?”
The old man continued to smile, and he shook his head. “He won’t be cold.”
The driver: “…Oh.”
“Won’t be cold” must mean the same thing as “isn’t cold.” But even as he thought that, he had already started sweating.
He awkwardly rubbed his hand against his pants before he shot another glance in the rearview mirror. Feigning sincerity, he said, “Sir, this child of yours looks quite adorable, you can tell from one glance that he’ll grow up handsome. His skin is also pale—”
So pale that it was nearly ashen.
“—how old is he? He should be starting school soon, right?”
The sullenly silent little kid in the backseat finally couldn’t take it anymore, and he lifted his head up. He stared at the driver through the rearview mirror for a few seconds before his stomach rumbled.
A trail of water dripped down from the jet-black ends of his hair. He licked the corner of his chapped lips and said, “Drive faster, I’m hungry.”
His voice sounded remarkably similar to a young man’s, cold and low.
The driver made some unknown connection and quivered. From that moment on, he didn’t say another word.
In the end, nobody knew how the car got to Minghua District. In any case, a trip that ordinarily took forty-five minutes only ended up taking less than half an hour this time.
Minghua District was the villa region that Ningzhou had started developing the earliest. At the time, it was in great demand because an amusement park and a wetland park were going to be built next to it. Unexpectedly, the amusement park was suddenly abandoned after three years of construction, and the wetland park also ran out of funding. Minghua District suffered alongside them, going from something that everyone was fighting for to something that nobody wanted.
It was truly expensive, and it was also truly desolate.
The neighborhood districts most commonly used the north entrance, but the old man told the driver to stop at the west gate, and he got out of the car first.
In the driver’s seat, the taxi driver already couldn’t take it anymore. If he was a tiny bit calmer, stuck his head out, and took a few glances, he would’ve realized that this old man’s movements were very strange. There seemed to be a pause between every action, and his elbows were always lifted very high, as if he could only move because he was being suspended from something.
The old man stiffly propped the umbrella against his shoulder, freeing his hands so that he could fish out a thin slip of silver leaf and ignite it.
The silver leaf instantly shriveled up and turned into thin flecks of ash, sparks blooming out. An outline of two characters could vaguely be seen—Wen Shi.
Only then did the old man beckon towards the person in the car. “This gate is passable now.”
When Wen Shi got out of the car, he no longer had the stature of a child anymore. He looked just like a teenager, fifteen or sixteen years old. The clothes that were originally way too loose now fit him much better, and only the pants were still too long.
He didn’t care, and he reached out to take the umbrella from the old man. The black umbrella tilted to the side, blocking the cold rain that slanted over. He jerked his chin at the old man and said, “I don’t know the way anymore, I’ll follow after you.”
This was his twelfth time returning from the Gate of Oblivion. Every time, he needed someone to lead the way for him.
Shen Qiao had welcomed him twice. The first time, Shen Qiao was only eighteen years old and had been wearing a silk mandarin collar jacket, a crisp skullcap hat on his head. The moment they met, he called him “Wen-ge” before asking him a rookie question.
This time around, Shen Qiao looked like his grandfather, and it wasn’t appropriate to call him “Wen-ge” anymore in front of strangers. If they weren’t careful, it would be easy to scare someone to death.
However, even though they were being careful, that driver was still given quite a scare.
When they passed through the gate, the sound of a suona5 came from the neighborhood’s northeast corner.
As the proverbs said, there was no one that the suona couldn’t blow away. The taxi driver grew clear-headed because of those two notes, and with a rumble of the accelerator, his car flashed into a streak of light in the rain and disappeared in the blink of an eye.
Only then did Wen Shi retract his gaze and lick his lips again. In the span of a few minutes, he had grown quite a bit taller once more, and the crumpled folds of his trousers at his ankles completely straightened out. He already had the appearance of a young man.
“You’re really hungry?” Shen Qiao asked.
“What do you think?”
“What a pity.” The old man gave a faint sigh.
“You’ll have to find something to eat on your own this time.”
Wen Shi followed him around a garden, walking towards the east on a side path. Before he could ask Shen Qiao why, he heard the clamoring din of the suona, gongs, and drums.
The rain didn’t lighten, and the moisture in the air was extremely heavy, but he could still smell the fine scent of incense and burnt joss paper. Normal people wouldn’t be able to distinguish it, but Wen Shi could. This smell was very familiar to him; it was the Shen family’s.
“I brought a child back to take over.” Shen Qiao glanced at the villa in front of them and said, “I raised him myself, and he’s more or less like me when I first started. He’s eighteen this year, and he’s pretty good in all respects, except that he’s a bit of a coward.”
Wen Shi: “…”
He couldn’t help himself. “You brought a coward back to do this kind of thing?”
Shen Qiao also couldn’t help himself. “How could I have known he would be such a coward when I was raising him?”
Wen Shi: “Then you’re really something else.”
Shen Qiao: “You’re flattering me.”
Wen Shi: “…”
It’s just because Shen Qiao is too old now and can’t fight well, Wen Shi thought with a sour face.
Shen Qiao glanced at the villa again. When he saw a teenager dressed in mourning clothes walk out of the entrance, he finally set his mind at ease.
He gave an old-fashioned bow, with his hands clasped, to Wen Shi. “Wen-ge, it is Shen Qiao’s fortune to have known you for so many years. I must go now, please be well.”
He thought a bit before adding, “Free yourself of worldly worries soon.”
After he finished talking, his stooped, aged body collapsed downwards. That white-haired old man had already completely vanished, and the only thing remaining on the ground were the clothes that he had just been wearing. A few slender white plum blossom branches peeked out from within the clothing, and white cotton thread was tied around the ends of the branches. It was swiftly soaked by the rain.
With the resounding note of the suona, the wild tree no longer knew of spring.
Wen Shi felt a momentary flash of panic, and he suddenly realized that he really had slept for many, many years this time…
He held the umbrella and blocked the slanting rain for that clump of cotton thread and plum branches before he bent over and gathered up the clothing. He then stood there silently for quite some time, and he only looked up when he heard footsteps come to a stop near him—
The teenager dressed in mourning clothes had come over. Judging from his age, he was presumably the successor that Shen Qiao had mentioned.
Wen Shi didn’t really have a good personality, and after so many years, he still didn’t like to acknowledge strangers. Holding the clothes, he lowered his eyes and looked at the youth standing there, who was nearly an entire head shorter than him. Just like that, he cold-shouldered him and stubbornly refused to speak, while also giving him the nickname “shortie” in his mind.
The shortie halted in front of him, and they stared awkwardly at each other for some time before the teenager finally realized that if he didn’t say something, they would be standing there till tomorrow.
“I know who you are,” the shortie said.
“Grandpa said that once I take over in the future, we’ll have to live together,” the shortie said again.
“But I have no money.”
When Wen Shi heard that, he finally had a relatively bigger reaction. He was a bit shocked.
In the past, he had indeed left behind many good items for Shen Qiao. Of course, those good items weren’t what normal people considered to be good, such as precious metals, stones, and antiques. Rather, they were some other special items, things that were only distributed among their circle.
Just like how silver leaf and joss paper were for spiritual officials and incense and offerings were for immortals, merits and spiritual items were for those passing judgment in the mortal realm. The variety was endless, ranging from spiritual energy received from immortal shrines and Buddhist temples to demonic energy collected from evil spirits and monsters. Some were tangible, some were intangible. It wasn’t something that could be explained in a short amount of time.
In short, Wen Shi had collected quite a lot of stuff after all these births and deaths, and he had given it all to Shen Qiao. If someone chose any random item and went to exchange it at a specialized place, they could live a wealthy life. So how did he have no money???
“Impossible.” Wen Shi finally said something longer. “Did Shen Qiao not tell you about the items I left behind?”
“He did tell me, the basement’s full of them. They were stored in different containers and organized very neatly.” The shortie was silent for a few seconds. “But now they’re all empty.”
“What does that mean?”
The shortie was quiet for a moment before he said, “Because there are no more people in this branch anymore.”
Actually, even now he still didn’t really understand just what kind of work he had taken over. The only thing he knew was that Shen Qiao had raised him, so he agreed to everything that Shen Qiao had asked him to do.
In order to increase his understanding, he would always flip through the ancient books in their home. There was a paragraph in one book that said: All beings are impermanent, all beings experience suffering, hence all living things are filled with attachments; occasionally a magnanimous cleansed individual will pass by, thusly referred to as panguan.
It basically said that everyone suffered and had too many worries. To some extent, everyone had things they resented, hated, envied, and so on. From afar, it would appear as if filthy mist was wrapped around their body, and if too much accumulated, it was easy for the balance of right and wrong to tip over.
Panguan were the people who were asked to clear away that right and wrong. Of course, to do so they must also be completely cleansed and purified themselves, entirely clean.
Shen Qiao always told him that he was entirely clean, but besides being clean, the teenager couldn’t do anything else, so there was no way for him to get on the name register, nor was there any way for him to continue this branch.
The so-called panguan had originated from the founder and had been passed down from him. There were quite a few practitioners, and as time went on, the line had split into many different sect branches. Some were closely related and some were distant, but slowly they all had nothing to do with each other anymore.
Your family’s disciples and grand-disciples couldn’t be considered as someone else’s.
As a result…
“Once Grandpa left, this branch ended.” The shortie hung his head, appearing extremely dejected.
There was an old saying that went, “when the person leaves, the cup of tea cools.” It was reflected most evidently when it came to spiritual officials, immortals, and panguan. Once the branch ended, that line would be sealed off, and all the spiritual items and familial property that you collected would vanish without a trace too.
Wen Shi digested the implications of his words, and immediately after his head started to ache.
The shortie had no ability to read the atmosphere at all. After being dejected, he even asked a question, “Then do you have any other money?”
Wen Shi’s face was cold. “No.”
He had already died quite a few times, like hell he’d have any money.
“That’s what I thought too.” The shortie sighed. “In that case, our lives will likely be a little difficult in the future.”
When Wen Shi heard that, he was a bit irritated.
Anything else would be easy to deal with, but having no money made him anxious, and there was a tiny part of him that didn’t want to live anymore.
The shortie probably sensed his mood, and he hesitated for a moment before he added, “Er… in order to lessen the pressure a teensy bit, I listed the two empty rooms online.”
As someone who had been dead for a very long time, Wen Shi didn’t understand what “listing online” meant, so he gave an “en?” to express his doubt.
The shortie shook his phone and explained, “Put up for rent.”
The author has something to say:
Repeat after me: Wen Shi is the shou. The shortie is not the gong~
(press the “^” to go back to your spot in the chapter!)
- 无相门. Thought about leaving it as Wuxiang Gate, but I thought it’d be easier to remember if I translated it. It literally means ‘soulless/formless gate,’ but for reasons explained later in the novel, I’ll be translating it as Gate of Oblivion ^
- Tomb-Sweeping Day (day to honor ancestors) ^
- Panguan (判官): Literally meaning “judge of the underworld,” but in this novel, panguan refers to the people who help souls that have trouble passing on due to lingering attachments. I’ll be leaving it in pinyin because there really isn’t a good English equivalent. See the PG page for a more in-depth explanation ^
- The part of the solar calendar referring to the end of April/early May ^
- Chinese double-reeded horn with a shrill and penetrating sound. Typically used in festivals, military marches, wedding and funeral processions ^
Yan: Welcome to my newest translation! I’ve been following Panguan for ages on jjwxc, and today Mu Su Li finally finished the main story, so I wanted to post the first chapter in honor of that. Panguan truly has a special place in my heart, and I’m super excited to be translating it. For now, updates will be once a week on Saturdays, because I’m about to enter hell month at work, so I’m only posting what I’ve already translated :’)
Please check out the Panguan page if you haven’t already done so – the raws and NU page are linked there, as well as some fanart and my tl;dr summary of PG if you’re interested in learning more about the plot. It’s going to be a long ride, but I hope that everyone will enjoy this story as much as I have!
We also have a discord now if you want to chat or get update notifications ^^