Painted Skin 畫皮 is perhaps the best known story from one of the greatest works of classical Chinese literature, Liao Zhai Zhi YI 聊齋誌異, 17th century China's answer to the X-files. You can read more about it at Wikipedia
or feel free to ask me any questions you may have (I wrote my MA thesis on it and like to think of myself as sort of an expert). This is a translation I made because why not. Instead of the pedantic strategy used by most Sinologists of trying to stick closely with the original text (and inevitably ruining the fun of the story), I embellished a lot of details, particularly descriptions of people's emotional states, to make it a more interesting read in English. My goal was to make the first "for-fun" translation. Prominent scholars like Giles, Minford, and Mair have their own academically-oriented translations you can check out. The Chinese text can be found here.
I've split this into two parts because it's so darned long. Here's the first half. It's unpolished, so think of it as a rough draft. I may update it a little bit. PS I thought of a new title: "China's First Heart Transplant"
-----------------------------------------------------------------Painted Skin; or the Monster in the Study
She was walking alone on the outskirts of Taiyuan when Mr. Wang spotted her. The girl, no more than 16 by the looks of her but already a remarkable beauty, struggled along the dirt road as her tiny feet labored to support a small but shapely frame weighed down by a bag filled with her earthly possessions.
“What is it that could bring a young lady like yourself to venture out all alone before dawn’s light?” He was already enamored as he tried, and failed, to make eye contact through the slow dawn.
She kept walking. “No traveler chancing across my path can solve what troubles me. Do not burden yourself with my woes.”
“I implore you, please tell me your problems. If only I can be of the slightest help, I vow I will not refuse.”
The girl stopped and met his gaze. “My parents’ greed…” she began, dejected. “They sold me to a lustful old rich man, but it was his furiously jealous wife who I could bear no longer. Every morning brought new insults and every evening promised new beatings.”
“Where will you head now?”
“I’m not heading anywhere,” she said flatly. "I’m on the run."
Motivated by compassion -- or perhaps passion -- Wang extended an enthusiastic invitation to his home. The girl offered a timid but engaging smile at his kind offer and took off with Wang, who hoisted her belongings onto his shoulder as he took the lead. By the time they had arrived, the sun was being held firmly in the sky. But the girl noticed an unusual silence in the place for the early hour.
“Sir, have you no family?” she asked.
“This is but my study,” he chuckled as he admired her youthful radiance in the morning light.
“It is a fine place for me. If, perhaps, you could… find some use for me here,” she offered, “I ask only that you keep my presence a secret and tell not a soul.”
Wang agreed eagerly and proceeded to bed her just as eagerly.
In secrecy the girl stayed for several days without a single person learning of her presence – that is, until Wang could resist no longer and let his wife, Ms. Chen, in on the secret. Chen worried – not because her husband had taken a concubine, for this was the norm in those days, but because the girl had made it clear she belonged to a rich and powerful patron – and she pleaded with her husband to send the runaway back where she came from lest trouble arise. Wang would hear none of it.
And so Wang found himself quite occupied for several days, after which he took a break from the busy activities of his home to wander through the local market. It was there that he crossed paths with a holyman who stopped in his tracks upon making eye contact.
“What have you gotten yourself involved in?” the Daoist inquired urgently, but the scholar dismissed the question with a simple “nothing.”
“Sir,” the Daoist insisted, “you must know that an aura of wicked enchantment consumes you!” But Wang would hear none of it.
The Daoist tired of their exchange and took his leave, but it was his parting remark made to nobody in particular that caught Wang’s attention: “How strange that there are those in this world who stare death in the face and are none the wiser!”
Wang wondered at the phrase. His mind began racing as he tried to identify any possible threat to his wellbeing before it finally settled on the only big change in his life recently: the arrival of the girl. But she was an elegant beauty, certainly not some hellish ghoul out to claim his soul, and he rationalized the Daoist’s strange ravings as the words of a con man seeking to cheat a meal out of an unsuspecting sap. His ability to thoroughly snuff out his misgivings was nothing short of enviable.
He casually made his way toward home -- and the young girl’s bed -- unconcerned by the encounter, but his ambition was interrupted by a barred door. He began to wonder as he headed around and over a half-wall to try the door from the bedroom, but it too was locked. The man just barely managed to keep his nervous, heavy footsteps quiet as he approached the last remaining entrance to the study: the window. His oblivious nature had left him entirely unprepared for the scene that met his eyes.
A twisted creature defiled the sanctity of the place of learning, busying itself with something as it leaned over the bed where Wang and his beautiful consort had made love for days on end. Skin of sickly green leather drooped down its skeletal face to a mouth lined with jagged fangs sharp as sawblades. Its boney hand held a paintbrush with unsettling elegance as it went to work touching up the details of its grotesque masterpiece: an emptied human skin draped across the bed like a rug.
The man spied with frozen terror as the monster set aside the brush and in a single swift and practiced motion slid the skin to a snug fit over its skeletal frame like any ordinary gown. In an instant, the green beast had retreated to its dark place hidden underneath the skin of the young girl.
Wang had finally seen well more than enough to know that he should be afraid as he crawled away on all fours to avoid being spotted.
The Daoist whose advice Wang spurned not hours earlier was reluctant to slay the monster in the study.
"We can chase it away," he said after Wang had tracked him down outside the city. "But this creature has endured its fair share of hardships as well. It has found a replacement and is now so close to being reborn into this world; I cannot bring myself to do it harm at this point."
Instead of a weapon, he handed Wang a brush of fine animal hairs on a long wooden handle, the kind that ascetics use to ward off flies in favor of killing the pests, and instructed him to hang it on his bedroom door. He instructed Wang to find him next within the gates of Qingdi Temple and headed off on his way.
Returning home, Wang took care to stay as far away from the study as possible and bunkered down in his bedroom instead, affixing the flyswatter as he had been told. There he and his wife hid in an uneventfulyl dull unease until after dinner, the time of the first watch.
A rustling sound, faint but steady, cut through the silence. Wang was too scared to move and nominated his wife to investigate. Through a crack in the door, Chen saw the girl who had seemed an innocent victim just a day before cutting through the dark with a determination in her eyes. She -- no, it -- stopped just inches from the entrance to their sanctum, grinding its teeth as it stared for some time at the lone brush, all that stood between the hellish ghoul and the vulnerable couple on the other side. In a sudden flurry, it angrily turned away.
Wang and Chen were still holding their breath when the beast-in-beauty’s clothing returned in a rage.
"Some Daoist priest thinks he can scare me away with this brush? I'm not giving up this piece of meat now that I've sunk my teeth into it!"
The demon crushed the warning to pieces in one hand as its other burst through the door. Within seconds it clawed its way arm first across the floor, up the bed, and straight into Wang's chest. One swift motion carved the man’s still-beating heart from his open chest as Chen shuddered in a convulsive dread that climaxed with a scream before settling into a numb dismay.
A dim candle rushed in at the tip of a maidservant’s arm, sending dancing waves of light flickering over the cleaved-opened corpse, now gushing blood from its cavity into a sloppy mess that trailed from the bed down to the floor.
The monster had disappeared without a trace.
(To be continued)