Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1136
Ts’ai Jung has been married for only two months when the local government recommends him as a candidate for the Imperial Examination. His father insists that the young scholar make the trip to the capital for the examination, as it will give him an opportunity to distinguish himself and bring honor to his family. Ts’ai himself would rather stay home and fulfill his duties as a son, but, fearing that his unwillingness to leave his parents, who are infirm with age, will be interpreted as selfish love for his wife, Ts’ai reluctantly departs. Before he goes, he entrusts his family to the care of his neighbor Chang, an old man.
Ts’ai easily wins first place in the examination, and the emperor takes such a fancy to the young scholar that he orders him to be married to the daughter of Mr. Niu, the prime minister. The imperial order comes as a happy solution to the prime minister; he has a problem in his daughter, who has sworn never to marry unless the man is a genius who has passed first in the Imperial Examination. Here, at last, is a young man who meets the requirement; consequently, no one pays attention to Ts’ai’s protestations that he already has a wife and that his only ambition is to serve his parents. He is married a second time, against his wishes, and further restrictions are imposed on his freedom when he is ordered to live in the prime minister’s house.
Ts’ai’s second wife is as intelligent and sympathetic as she is beautiful, and she can see that her husband is unhappy in his new surroundings. He loves her, but he is also homesick. He has no knowledge that Ch’en-liu, his home district, has been stricken with famine, nor does he know what a strain it is for his first wife, Chao Wu-niang, to support his parents during this terrible time. She sells her clothes and jewels to save the aged couple from starvation, while she herself lives on chaff. Their neighbor Chang also shares with them whatever rice he has.
No word comes from Ts’ai. When Ts’ai’s mother succumbs to sorrow, hunger, and disease, Chang lends the family the money to buy a coffin. When Ts’ai’s father dies a short time later, Chao Wu-niang does not want to trouble the kind neighbor for another loan, so she cuts off her long hair and tries to get a little money from its sale. Before she can find a buyer, however, Chang discovers what she is doing and buys another coffin for her. Because she cannot hire a gravedigger, she tries to dig a grave with her own hands. At last she falls asleep from fatigue, her fingers bleeding from her hard labor. While she sleeps, spirits come to finish the grave for her. Then, carrying a pi-pa (an instrument like a guitar) and a portrait of Ts’ai’s deceased parents that she has made, which she exhibits while begging for alms, she sets out for the capital in search of her husband.
Ts’ai has never for a moment forgotten his parents and first wife. He is duped when a swindler arrives with invented news from his family. Relieved to hear that they are all well and safe, Ts’ai asks the same man to deliver a letter to his parents, together with gold and pearls. The villain takes the valuables and disappears.
After a long period of anxious waiting, Ts’ai decides to go and see for himself how his family is faring. He has the wholehearted support of his second wife, who intends to go with him to perform daughterly duties for his parents. The prime minister refuses to grant them permission to go, however; he wants to keep his daughter and son-in-law close to him. His daughter keeps pestering him with supplications, and he finally agrees to send a servant to Ch’en-liu to bring Ts’ai’s parents and first wife to the capital, where they will live in his house as guests.
One day, Chao Wu-niang comes upon a temple where a special ceremony is being celebrated. She has arrived in the capital, but she does not wish to see her husband until she is sure that he has not hardened his heart against her. She plays the pi-pa and sings a song about the virtue of filial piety, but the pilgrims and worshipers at the temple are not as generous in giving alms as she had expected. After she hangs up the portrait and begins to say prayers for her husband’s deceased parents, Ts’ai appears to pray for his parents, whom he believes to be on their way to the capital. Chao Wu-niang immediately leaves the temple. Ts’ai fails to see her, but he finds the portrait and takes it home with him.
The prime minister’s daughter, in anticipation of the arrival of her parents-in-law, is looking for an intelligent woman to serve as a maid for the old couple. Chao Wu-niang applies for the position and wins the sympathy of the young mistress with her story of suffering and the purpose of her journey to the capital. Chao Wu-niang uses an anagram for her husband’s name, but the other woman cannot fail to see who the unfortunate woman really is. She immediately addresses Chao Wu-niang as sister, and together the two devise a stratagem to test Ts’ai’s heart.
The portrait that Chao Wu-niang left in the temple is now hanging in Ts’ai’s study. On the back of the picture is a poem that Chao Wu-niang has written, in which she criticizes, in a loving tone, her husband’s conduct. Ts’ai has not looked carefully at the picture, nor does he know that a servant has hung it up. Now, returning from his office, he sees it again. The two faces in the picture bear a strange resemblance to his parents, but he is puzzled by their emaciated and ragged looks. Then he discovers the poem, apparently a satire at his expense. His first reaction is anger. He asks his wife whether she has any knowledge of the person who ventured into his study and scribbled an unjust attack on him. Chao Wu-niang is summoned, and the whole story is told.
The prime minister is finally won over, and Ts’ai takes his two wives to Ch’en-liu to worship at his parents’ graves. All three are honored by the emperor as examples of virtuous conduct. The happiest man on the scene is the neighbor Chang, who derives more satisfaction from the reunion of Ts’ai’s family than he does from the material rewards he now receives.
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