Nie Feng, the Marshal of Weibo, had a daughter, aged just ten and known as Yinniang. Suddenly one day she was stolen away by a beggar; her father and mother did not know where she had gone, and could only weep in grief and sigh as they thought of her. After five years, a nun suddenly escorted Yinniang back, telling Feng: “Her education has been completed.”
After this speech, the nun could no longer be found, and, both shocked and excited, mother and father asked about these studies, and Yinniang said: “I was taken to a rocky cave, given a pill of medicine to take, and then ordered to take up a precious sword. They taught me through practice of the art of stabbing. One year later, I was stabbing apes and monkeys like a flying insect, stabbing tigers and leopards like nothing at all. After three years, I gradually grew able to soar upwards and stab hawks and falcons. After four years, I was taken to the capital; whenever they pointed out a person, they would tot up their life’s sins and transgressions, and when they said ‘Bring me their head!’ I should answer and arrive with the head. From that day I went to the capital and took heads, placing them in a big sack and returning, when they used a medicine to make them disappear like water. After five years they suddenly said: ‘The grand official such-and-such has already built up a long list of crimes, duping the emperor and deceiving the populace, injuring and killing the loyal and virtuous; he has already caused extreme harm to the realm! This night we bring his head.’
Yinniang received her instructions and set off, hiding on the roofbeam of the great official’s chamber, and after a while returning grasping his head, at which the nun said furiously, ‘How can you be so late?’ Yinniang bowed again, and (explained that) she had seen before her a loveable child playing; she waited before making the stroke. The nun shouted at her: ‘Having met such people, first cut them off from those they love, then finish them.’ Yinniang bowed again in thanks, and the nun said: ‘Your technique is now complete, you may return.’ Then I got to come back.” Her father and mother were quite astounded when they heard this, but feared that they might never reclaim her, and dared not control her actions.
Afterwards, when this was laid out as an explanation, the case of Commander Deng was especially strange. Ah! I have heard of generations of such swashbuckling swords, but despite their gentle female natures she could wield a blade and take the heads of the evil. If this is not a matter of magical techniques, what else can it be? The superior man’s answer is: “That which Yinniang studied could not have been taught by a normal person; such a student must be both clever and skilled in such magic. To decide to take the heads from those of vile conduct wherever they exist, that is the orthodoxy of a single school. Alas! Those occupying high positions and amassing great wealth, doing evil without remorse and attracting the ire of others, they should certainly fear Yinniang’s action. The nun warned me, saying: ‘First cut them off from those they love, and then finish them.’ When the evil live childless in the world, they should fear the poison they leave flowing behind them; this is truly terrifying.”
Anon., Huhai xinwen yijian xuzhi, 前2.90-91 (Tale 155):
Yuan Haowen 元好問, Chang Zhenguo 常振國 (ed), Xu Yijian zhi 續夷堅志 (Continued Records of the Listener), and Anon., Jin Xin 金心 (ed.), Huhai xinwen yijian xuzhi 湖海新聞夷堅續志 (Continuation of Records of the Listener with New Items from the Lakes and Seas) (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1986).
This is a transmission of a distinct version of a well-known tale, treated rather differently in the Taiping guangji:
Nie Yinniang 聶隱娘
Nie Yinniang lived during the Tang Zhenyuan era (785-805), and was the daughter of Nie Feng, Marshal of Weibo. When she was ten sui, a nun came begging for food at Feng’s residence, and on seeing Yinniang was delighted by her, and said: “I would ask the guard commander  and beg to take this girl away to train.” Feng was very angry, and rebuked the nun. The nun said: “No matter what strongbox the general may lock her up in, she will be stolen away.” When night came, Yinniang did indeed go missing. Feng was terribly shocked, ordering people to search and hunt, but not even a shadow or a whisper was ever found. Her father and mother always thought of her, but could only cry vain tears.
Five years later, the nun brought Yinniang back. She informed Feng: “Her education is now complete; you may take her back.” The nun was suddenly nowhere to be seen. The household was at once consumed with sadness and joy. When asked what she had learned, she said: “To start with, reading sutras and reciting incantations. Nothing else.” Feng didn’t believe this, and questioned her earnestly. Yinniang said: “If I tell the truth I fear you won’t believe it. What should I do?” Feng said: “Nevertheless, tell the truth.”
She said: “When Yinniang was first taken by the nun, we travelled I don’t know how many li. Dawn came. We arrived at a huge cave in a deep hollow, dozens of paces across, without human inhabitants but with many apes and monkeys, and grown about with pine and creepers. There were already two girls there, also about ten sui, and both very clever, elegant, beautiful and able go without eating. They could soar and run up and down the cliffs like a monkey climbing a tree, without the slightest trip or stumble. The nun gave me a pellet of medicine. I was also ordered to take up a precious sword. It was about two chi (c. 66cm) long, sharp enough to slice a hair, and pursue the two girls; I gradually felt my body grow as light as the wind. When one year had passed, I could prick the apes and gibbons, and in a hundred attempts I would not miss even once. Later I pricked tigers and leopards, and could take their heads and bring them back. After three years I could fly, pricking the falcons and hawks, never missing even one. The sword blade had gradually worn down to five cun (c. 16cm). When I flew to take the birds, they remained quite unaware. After four years, the two girls stayed behind in the cave, and I was taken to the capital, I don’t know exactly where. A person would be pointed out, his crimes numbered one by one, and say: ‘prick him for me and bring his head, without letting anyone know. Settle your gall, it will be as easy as taking the birds.’ I had a horn-handled blade, three cun wide. So I cut people down in the city in broad daylight, and nobody could tell. I put the heads in a sack and returned to my superior’s residence, where they were a special medicine turned them to water. After five years, I was told: ‘Such-and-such is a criminal minister, killing such a number of people without reason. Tonight you should enter his chamber and bring his head. I cracked his doorframe with my dagger, faced no obstacles, and lay on a crossbeam. When night came I returned with his head. The nun said, furious: ‘Why do you come so late?’ Your servant said: ‘I saw him playing with a loveable child, and had not the heart to kill it.’ The nun rebuked me: ‘First cut them off from those they love, then finish them.’ Your servant bowed in gratitude. The nun said: ‘I will open the back of your head to hide your dagger. No harm will come to you. When needed you can draw it out.’ She then said: ‘Your technique is now complete. You should return home.’ Then she escorted me back. She said that only after twenty years will we see one another again.”
As Feng heard this he became quite terrified, and when night fell she disappeared without trace, appearing again with the dawn. Feng did not dare to question this, and therefore could no longer love her as deeply as he once had. It happened that a young mirror-polisher came to their gate, and his daughter said: “This man should be my husband.” When she told her father, he did not dare object, so married them. This husband, though able to polish mirrors, had no other abilities, so her father supplied them generously with food and clothing, setting up a home for them outside his residence. Some years later, her father died. The Commander of Wei knew something of her  marvels, so provided gold and cloth as one of his retinue. Things continued like this for several more years.
During the Yuanhe era (806-21), the Commander of Wei came into conflict with Liu Changyi, Military Commissioner for Chenxu, and sent Yinniang to collect his head. So the woman set out for Xu. Liu had abilities in numerology, and already knew of her coming. He summoned an officer of his guard, and ordered him to arrive north of the walls at dawn, and await a husband and wife on a white and a black donkey. As they reached the gate, a magpie would call in front of the husband, who would take up a catapult, shoot, and miss. The wife would then pluck up the catapult, and shoot the magpie dead with a single pellet. Bowing, he should say that Liu wished to see them and that he had been sent to receive them after their travels. The officer followed these orders, and greeted them. Yinniang and her husband said: “Governor Liu must truly be a divine; how else could he identify us? We wish to meet Lord Liu.” Liu received them. Yinniang and her husband bowed and said: “We should bear ten thousand deaths for opposing the Governor.” Liu said: “Not at all. We all serve our masters; that is the way of things. Wei and Xu are no longer so different; we wish you to stay here, and not feel any suspicion.” Yinniang thanked him: “The Governor lacks a retinue; we wish to reside here and join it, serving the gentleman’s divine wisdom.” She knew therefore that the Commander of Wei could not reach Liu. Liu asked what she needed, and she replied: “Just two hundred cash per day will suffice.” He accepted this request. The two donkeys suddenly vanished, and although Liu sent people to search for them, none could work out where they had gone. Afterwards, two paper donkeys, one white and one black, were found hidden in a cloth bag.
More than a month had passed when she reported to Liu: “They do not yet know that we are remaining here, and so will certainly send others to carry on the task. Tonight I request to cut off some of my hair and leave it before the Commander of Wei’s pillow, to announce that I will not be returning.” Liu permitted this. At the fourth watch (1-3am), she returned, and said: “The message is delivered, but the next night he will certainly send Spirit Boy to kill your servant, and to take the head from his rebellious subordinate. I will do my utmost to kill him; please do not be alarmed.” Liu was tolerant and magnanimous, and showed no sign of fear. That night, they lit the candles, and, after midnight, he saw two banners, one red and one white, fluttering and flying and trading blows above and across the four corners of his bed. After a long time of this he saw a person tumble, as if from thin air, his head detached from his body. Yinniang emerged too, saying: “Spirit Boy is dead.” She dragged the corpse into the hall, and used medicine to transform it into water; not even a hair remained. Yinniang then said: “The next night he will certainly send Cunning Hands Empty Boy to take over. Empty Boy’s skills are such that no human can see his actions, and no spirit can follow his tracks; he is able to join the void and enter the darkness; he is skilled in dissolving form and extinguishing shadow. Yinniang’s skills do not even touch the edge of his; here we rely on the Governor’s fortune. Nonetheless, wrap your neck in jade from Khotan, and bind your body in bedclothes. Yinniang will transform into a tiny midge, hiding inside your intestines, waiting and listening. There is no other way.” Liu did as she said. When the third watch (11pm-1am) came, his eyes were closed but he was not yet asleep, so he heard a clattering around his neck; the sound was loud and clear. Yinniang then leapt from Liu’s mouth, and congratulated him, saying: “The governor is not to worry. This one is like a prize falcon; if one stoop misses, he flies far away, ashamed at having missed. He will not return for a second, and will be a thousand li from here.” Looking at the jade afterwards, he found a dagger mark of several  fen in depth. After this Liu treated her ever more generously.
From the eighth year of the Yuanhe era (813CE), Liu left Xu to go to court, and Yinniang said: “I leave this place to seek exceptional people among the peaks and rivers, but I beg you give a modest living to my husband.” Liu arranged this, and afterwards she vanished, nobody knows where to. When Liu died at his post, Yinniang saddled her donkey and went to the capital, weeping over his coffin before departing. During the Kaicheng era (836-41), Changyi’s son Zong was appointed governor of Lingzhou, and was travelling through Shu on the cliff roads when he encountered Yinniang, looking just as she had used to, very pleased to see him, and riding on her white donkey. She addressed him: “The gentleman faces a great catastrophe, and is not suited to remaining here.” She brought out a grain of medicine, and ordered him to take it. She said: “You must leave office urgently, within a year; only them will you escape this misfortune. My medicine’s effect only offers protection for one year.” Not entirely convinced, Zong gave her coloured silks. Yinniang would not accept anything, but drank heavily with him, and then departed. After a year, Zong had not quit his post, and he indeed died in Lingzhou. After that, none saw Yinniang again.
Taken from the Chuanqi 傳奇.
Another translation of this story is found at Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang (trans), Tang Dynasty Stories (Beijing: Panda Books, 1986), pp. 112-17, under the title ‘The General’s Daughter’. A version of the Taiping guangji telling, focussing, if anything, even more strongly on the latter half of the narrative, was filmed by the Taiwanese director Hou Xiaoxian 侯孝賢 as The Assassin (Cike Nie Yinniang 刺客聶隱娘, 2015), winning him the Best Director Award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. On this film, see:
See also Altenburger, Roland, The Sword or the Needle: The Female Knight-errant (xia) in Traditional Chinese Narrative, Worlds of East Asia, XV (Bern: Peter Lang, 2009) for a thorough discussion of Nie Yinniang’s representation and framing.
 Li Fang 李昉, et al., Taiping guangji 太平廣記 (Extensive Gleanings from the Period of Great Harmony), 10 vols (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1961), iv, 194.1456-59:
聶隱娘者，唐貞元中，魏博大將聶鋒之女也。年方十歲，有尼乞食于鋒舍，見隱娘悅之。云：「問押衙  乞取此女教。」鋒大怒，叱尼。尼曰：「任押衙鐵櫃中盛，亦須偷去矣。」及夜，果失隱娘所向。鋒大驚駭，令人搜尋，曾無影響。父母每思之，相對涕泣而已。後五年，尼送隱娘歸。告鋒曰：「教已成矣，子却領取。」尼歘亦不見。一家悲喜。問其所學，曰：「初但讀經念呪。餘無他也。」鋒不信，懇詰。隱娘曰：「真說又恐不信，如何。」鋒曰：「但真說之。」曰：「隱娘初被尼挈，不知行幾里。及明。至大石穴之嵌空數十步，寂無居人，猿狖極多，松蘿益邃。已有二女，亦各十歲，皆聰明婉麗不食。能於峭壁上飛走，若捷猱登木，無有蹶失。尼與我藥一粒。兼令長執寶劒一口。長二尺許，鋒利，吹毛令剸，逐二女攀緣，漸覺身輕如風。一年後，刺猿狖。百無一失。後刺虎豹，皆決其首而歸。三年後能飛，使刺鷹隼，無不中。劒之刃漸減五寸。飛禽遇之，不知其來也。至四年，留二女守穴，挈我於都市，不知何處也。指其人者，一一數其過曰：為我刺其首來，無使知覺。定其膽，若飛鳥之容易也。受以羊角匕首，刀廣三寸。遂白日刺其人於都市，人莫能見。以首入囊，返主人舍，以藥化之為水。五年，又曰：某大僚有罪，無故害人若干。夜可入其室，決其首來。又攜匕首入室，度其門隙，無有障礙，伏之梁上。至瞑，持得其首而歸。尼大怒曰：何太晚如是。某云：見前人戲弄一兒可愛，未忍便下手。尼叱曰：己後遇此輩。先斷其所愛，然後決之。某拜謝。尼曰：吾為汝開腦後藏匕首，而無所傷。用即抽之，曰：汝術已成，可歸家。遂送還。云後二十年，方可一見。」鋒聞語甚懼，後遇夜即失蹤，及明而返。鋒已不敢詰之，因茲亦不甚憐愛。忽值磨鏡少年及門，女曰：「此人可與我為夫。」白父，父不敢不從，遂嫁之。其夫但能淬鏡。餘無他能。父乃給衣食甚豐，外室而居。數年後，父卒。魏帥稍知其  異，遂以金帛署為左右吏。如此又數年。至元和間，魏帥與陳許節度使劉昌裔不協，使隱娘賊其首。引娘辭帥之許。劉能神筭，已知其來。召衙將，令來日早至城北，候一丈夫一女子，各跨白黑衛。至門，遇有鵲前噪夫，夫以弓彈之，不中，妻奪夫彈，一丸而斃鵲者。揖之云：吾欲相見，故遠相祗迎也。衙將受約束，遇之。隱娘夫妻曰：「劉僕射果神人，不然者，何以洞吾也，願見劉公。」劉勞之。隱娘夫妻拜曰：「合負僕射萬死。」劉曰：「不然，各親其主，人之常事。魏今與許何異，顧請留此，勿相疑也。」隱娘謝曰：「僕射左右無人，願舍彼而就此，服公神明也。」知魏帥之不及劉。劉問其所須，曰：「每日只要錢二百文足矣。」乃依所請。忽不見二衛所之，劉使人尋之。不知所向。後潛收布囊中，見二紙衛，一黑一白。後月餘。白劉曰：「彼未知住，必使人繼至。今宵請剪髮，繫之以紅綃，送于魏帥枕前。以表不廻。」劉聽之。至四更却返曰：「送其信了，後夜必使精精兒來殺某，及賊僕射之首。此時亦萬計殺之，乞不憂耳。」劉豁達大度，亦無畏色。是夜明燭，半宵之後，果有二幡子一紅一白。飄飄然如相擊于牀四隅。良久。見一人自（「自」字原闕，據明鈔本補。）空而踣，身首異處。隱娘亦出曰：「精精兒已斃。」拽出于堂之下，以藥化為水，毛髮不存矣。隱娘曰：「後夜當使妙手空空兒繼至。空空兒之神術，人莫能窺其用，鬼莫得躡其蹤。能從空虛之入冥，善無形而滅影。」隱娘之藝，故不能造其境，此即繫僕射之福耳。但以于闐玉周其頸，擁以衾，隱娘當化為蠛蠓，潛入僕射腸中聽伺。其餘無逃避處。劉如言。至三更，瞑目未熟。果聞項上鏗然。聲甚厲。隱娘自劉口中躍出。賀曰：「僕射無患矣。」此人如俊鶻，一搏不中，即翩然遠逝，耻其不中。纔未逾一更，已千里矣。後視其玉，果有匕首劃處，痕逾數  分。自此劉轉厚禮之。自元和八年，劉自許入覲，隱娘不願從焉。云：「自此尋山水，訪至人，但乞一虛給與其夫。」劉如約。後漸不知所之。及劉薨于統軍，隱娘亦鞭驢而一至京師，柩前慟哭而去。開成年，昌裔子縱除陵州刺史，至蜀棧道，遇隱娘，貌若當時，甚喜相見，依前跨白衛如故。語縱曰：「郎君大災，不合適此。」出藥一粒，令縱吞之。云來年火急拋官歸洛，方脫此禍。吾藥力只保一年患耳。縱亦不甚信，遺其繒綵，隱娘一無所受，但沉醉而去。後一年，縱不休官，果卒于陵州。自此無復有人見隱娘矣。出《傳奇》