Qing Shan County is located in the Yunling Mountains, with Immortal Mountain behind it and facing the Great River. It used to be a place with pleasant weather, but it hasn’t rained for three years. Now the river has dried up, the ground has cracked, and there is no harvest of grains. Even the grass has withered, and the tree bark has been stripped bare.
In a corner of Dongcheng Lane in Qing Shan County, there is a small inconspicuous shop. Above the shop’s front hangs a sign that says “Bao Family Grain Shop”. A young girl with an abacus around her neck sits behind the counter. She looks to be around twelve or thirteen years old, thin and sharp-chinned, with wrists so thin that only a layer of skin covers the bones. The only thing that stands out are her pair of shiny black eyes. Her gaze is fixed on the four characters “benevolence, kindness, virtue, and morality” on the wall. Her eyes sparkle like stars in the sky, and her lips move slightly, emitting a string of soft sounds: “White Flour, buns, mantou, youtiao, soy milk, zongzi, sticky rice cake, noodles…”
The girl’s surname is Bao, and she is the only daughter of the owner of this small grain shop. They rely on running this small shop to make a living. Although Qing Shan County is known for its beautiful scenery and abundant rainfall, and is even called the land of fish and rice, their grain shop is not wealthy, but they have enough to eat and wear. The girl used to be chubby, with a round face, dimples, and crescent-shaped eyes that resembled the big white buns from the neighboring bun shop. Because of her plump appearance, the neighbors didn’t call her by her auspicious name Gu meaning “abundant harvest”, but gave her a nickname – Baozi.
Now she looks nothing like a baozi, but rather resembles the opposite of her given name – Bao Gu. She was as thin as a dried up Bao Gu grain. So the neighbors started calling her by her given name again.
“Bao Gu, is there still water in your well?”
“Bao Gu, do you still have buns for sale?”
“Bao Gu, do you really not have any White Flour left?”
“Bao Gu, can you go to your grain storage and see if there are any grains left in the corners and cracks?”
Three-Year Drought, not even a blade of grass is sprouting in the fields. For three whole years, there has been no harvest. Even the county’s granaries are empty. She is not a fairy on Immortal Mountain who can conjure up food. Where would there be any surplus grains? If her family still had grains, she wouldn’t have gone from being a chubby Baozi to a thin Bao Gu.
At the beginning of the year, her father passed away after a serious illness. There was only a bowl of rice left in the rice jar at home, and she used that bowl of rice to bury her father. After that, she used an iron shovel to pry open the bricks and platforms in the house that were used for weighing and selling grains. She dug out a lot of moldy and worm-infested grains from the cracks and under the platforms.
Late at night, she secretly cooked porridge on a small stove in the back kitchen. She went from eating two bowls of rice per meal to one bowl of porridge per day. The moldy old grains helped her get through the first three months of the year. She thought that if there were grains leaking from the cracks in the bricks, maybe there were more in the granary. She couldn’t move the stone slabs on the ground by herself, so she asked her neighbor, Aunt Zhou, who had taken care of her in the past, to help. They pried open the stone slabs with cracks and mouse holes in the granary and dug out seven or eight catties of grains. She gave half to Aunt Zhou’s family and kept the other half for herself. With four catties of mixed grains, she could survive by drinking one bowl of porridge per day.
It’s strange to say that Qing Shan County, with Immortal Mountain behind it and facing the Cloud and Water River, is a legendary feng shui treasure place. From the time it was still part of the Great Xia Dynasty until now, more than three thousand years have passed, and there was no record of a continuous three-year drought in the ancient books.
Last year, the Taoist priests from Qingyun Temple outside the city observed the celestial phenomena and said, “There is a demon in the south, two or three feet tall, bare-bodied, with eyes on top of their head, walking as fast as the wind. They are called the Drought Demon, and wherever they go, there is a severe drought and the land turns red for a thousand miles.” They believed that this was caused by the Drought Demon, so they organized people to kill the Drought Demon. They dug many graves and burned many bodies, but it still didn’t rain.
The County Magistrate invited sorcerers multiple times to perform rain-making spells, but still no rain fell.
Bao Gu also heard that the County Magistrate sent people to search for the immortals who practiced in the Yunling Mountains, but the Yunling Mountains were covered in mist and filled with wild beasts. The immortals’ whereabouts were elusive, and there was no trace to be found.
Bao Gu’s only feeling now is hunger! Her mind is filled with thoughts of White Flour buns, big baozi, steamed dumplings, wontons, and noodles!
She has already finished the last half bowl of mixed grain porridge at home, and now her stomach is empty. She has already emptied the cracks in the bricks and the floor in her house. She can’t conjure up even half a grain of food anymore. Bao Gu’s face, which has become as small as a palm and indistinguishable from a Bao Gu grain, is wrinkled like a baozi!
How can Bao Gu, who has been raised in the granary since she was a child, chubby and nicknamed “baozi”, tolerate starving to death at home? She waited until after the hottest time of the day, around noon, and then prepared to go out to find food.
This is the first time Bao Gu has stepped out of her house since the drought and since she buried her father. Because her family still had grains before, and there were too many beggars outside, she was afraid of encountering people begging from her. Now that she has become a beggar herself, she naturally doesn’t have to worry about others begging from her.
Before leaving, Bao Gu tidied up a bit. She found a stick for making fire as a cane, brought the small pot she used to cook porridge, and even carried some firewood on her back. She planned to find food and then find a place where no one was around to set up a stove and cook. It was unrealistic to bring the food back home to cook, as there were too many people on the street and everyone was too familiar with each other. If she found something to eat and hungry neighbors came to beg, she would feel embarrassed not to give them any.
Bao Gu carried a basket of firewood on her back, held a stick for making fire in her left hand, and carried the pot for cooking porridge in her right hand as she stepped out of her house.
Going out to beg is always an undignified thing to do. Bao Gu shamefully lowered her head and hurriedly passed through the street where she lived. She turned onto the main street and saw a man wearing black cloth shoes and a sky-blue robe walking with his head down. Bao Gu didn’t have the courage to lift her head to see who it was. She lowered her head and brought the pot of sand to the person in front of her, mumbling, “Please, please, I haven’t eaten anything for three days, I’m starving to death…”
A weak voice sounded from above her head, “Bao Gu, do I look like I have food?”
Bao Gu found the voice very familiar. She raised her head and saw Sun Aiqing, who was so thin and hungry that only skin and bones were left, standing in front of her. He looked like a bundle of firewood and a big monkey. His cracked lips trembled, as if asking, “Bao Gu, do you have any food?” Bao Gu silently bypassed Sun Aiqing and continued walking forward.
At first, when Bao Gu saw someone, she would ask, “Please, please, do you have any food? I haven’t eaten anything for three days, I’m starving to death.” Later, it was shortened to “Do you have any food?” The weather was dry, lacking water, and she was thirsty. She met many acquaintances, and when they met, they would all show the bowl in their hands and ask with anticipation in their eyes, “Do you have any food?” Bao Gu felt a little embarrassed. Everyone was begging with a bowl, but she was begging with a pot.
Everyone Bao Gu encountered on this journey was thin and hungry, some were so weak that they could only crawl on the ground like monkeys. Compared to them, Bao Gu, who carried firewood, held a fire stick, and carried a pot, was the fattest and most well-fed.
She arrived at the entrance of the Government Office and saw many people who were so hungry that they were no longer human lying under the eaves of the Government Office. The yamen runners pulled carts and threw those who were already dead and only had a bone left onto the carts and pulled them out of the city.
A familiar voice sounded, “Bao Gu!”
Bao Gu heard Aunt Zhou’s voice and quickly turned her head in the direction of the voice, but she saw the hungry people around her looking around with shining eyes. Many people had already seen Bao Gu, who was carrying a pot, carrying firewood, and holding a burning stick. The sound of swallowing saliva spread, and several people even crawled towards Bao Gu.
Aunt Zhou, who was in her forties, used to be very fat before the drought. Her height could accommodate two people. Now she was as thin as a little chicken, and her feet trembled as she walked. She saw Bao Gu being surrounded by people and hurriedly rushed over, shouting at the hungry people like chasing chickens, “Go away!” Then she asked Bao Gu, “Bao Gu, what are you doing here?” Seeing that someone was about to grab her and seemed to want to find food from her, she quickly said, “Don’t come over, there is no Bao Gu here, this girl’s name is Bao Gu!” She pulled Bao Gu towards the Stone Monkey at the entrance of the Government Office and asked her son to move over, saying, “Come, sit here. Are you… ” She looked around and lowered her voice, saying, “Are you also running out of food?”
Bao Gu said, “I’m not running out of food. I don’t have any food at all. I cooked the last bit of grains into porridge this morning.”
Aunt Zhou sighed heavily, tears in her eyes, and looked at the sunny sky above her head, choked up, “Oh, God, do you still give people a way to live? It’s a disaster!” She asked Bao Gu again without giving up, “Is it true that your family can’t find a single grain of food?”
Bao Gu looked at Aunt Zhou pitifully.
Aunt Zhou said, “I heard that many wealthy families have run out of food. Even the County Magistrate is running out of food. His wife sold her jewelry and went thousands of miles away. Three carts were robbed on the way, and only two carts were protected by the County Magistrate’s son and brought back. I heard from San Ya that the County Magistrate’s wife will start distributing porridge every evening from today. I thought you still had some food left, sigh, I didn’t expect you to run out of food too. Oh, God, there’s really no way to live! But don’t worry, my San Ya became a maid in the County Magistrate’s mansion and followed the wife. When she comes out to distribute porridge, she can give it to us first. You sit next to me, you will definitely get some porridge.” She patted Aunt Zhou’s hand and said, “Thanks to your four catties of miscellaneous grains, sigh.”
Listening to Aunt Zhou’s nagging, Bao Gu also sighed and looked up to see when this lifeless God would bring a cloud of rain. As soon as she raised her head, she saw a shadow moving in the sky. She thought she was seeing things and quickly rubbed her eyes, only to find that there really was a group of shadows moving. Bao Gu quickly shouted, “Aunt Zhou, Aunt Zhou, there’s a bird up there, quickly call Big Brother Zhou to shoot it down!” She looked around but didn’t see Big Brother Zhou. She thought that even if she called Big Brother Zhou, the bird would have flown away. She couldn’t help but sigh heavily.
Bao Gu watched the bird fly away, but didn’t expect the bird to turn around and dive towards the Government Office. Yes, it was diving, at a very fast speed. The originally fist-sized shadow quickly grew larger, and she could gradually see the colorful light shining on its body. Bao Gu was startled and thought, “Could this be the divine bird from Immortal Mountain? Ah, if only this immortal bird could understand human language and report to the immortals on Immortal Mountain.”
While she was thinking, the immortal bird flew closer and it was obvious that it was about to land near her.
Bao Gu became excited and stood up, shouting loudly, “Look, it’s a divine bird! Divine bird, the divine bird of the immortals on Immortal Mountain, divine–” She was choked off in the middle of her words. Because the “divine bird” was already very close, she clearly saw the “divine bird” wearing a beautiful long dress, with fluttering sleeves, and stepping on a treasure sword emitting colorful light. Bao Gu shivered inwardly and thought to herself, “Oh no, I made a mistake, this is not a divine bird, this is an immortal! And it’s a Female Immortal!”
The hungry people around her all knelt down and kowtowed.
“Oh, Immortal being—”
“I beg you, Female Immortal, please bring rain to save me…”
Bao Gu saw the Female Immortal, who was stepping on the Flowing Radiance Sword, flying down from the sky and landing just above her head, slightly higher than the entrance of the Government Office. The Female Immortal was covered in light and shadows, so Bao Gu couldn’t see her appearance clearly. She could only see a pair of bright beautiful eyes staring at her. Then she heard a sentence, “Hmph! You’re a bird, your whole family are birds!” After that, the Female Immortal who was stepping on the Flowing Radiance Sword flew into the Government Office.