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...
(The entire section is 1136 words.)