Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1088
Ts’ai Jung, a young scholar and native of Ch’en-liu. Recently married to a local girl, he is summoned to appear in Lo-yang to take the imperial examinations for the doctorate, or chin-shih degree. He goes, leaving his wife and elderly parents under the watchful eye of a neighbor, Grandfather Chang. In acquiring the degree, he ranks first, a superb feat. As a result, the emperor orders him to marry the prime minister’s daughter and to take residence at the official’s house. Unable to return to his first wife and to his parents, he remains ignorant that their area has fallen victim to famine. His first wife makes heroic efforts to care for her husband’s parents until they eventually die of age and their sufferings. She then finds her husband and his second wife in Lo-yang, and she joins them in a happy trio. The fictional character of Ts’ai Jung was modeled on the historical scholar-official Ts’ai Yung, who as a youth was distinguished for his devotion to his parents and his love of study.
Chao Wu-niang, Ts’ai Jung’s first wife. A native of Ch’en-liu, she is a beauty as well as a woman of the highest character. She is also the most important character in the drama and its real protagonist. Strong-minded and relatively independent, she is perfectly obedient to the Confucian rules for her behavior and has a filial heart. When her husband is far away from home for a number of years and famine strikes her area, she overcomes severe adversity to feed and minister to her aged in-laws. Before her husband left for the capital, she did not hesitate to remonstrate respectfully when she thought him wrong. She is not afraid to break the Confucian rules under certain circumstances to keep her in-laws alive. When they die, she buries them, although she requires financial help. Afterward, she journeys unchaperoned the many miles to the capital to find her husband. When she learns that he has taken a second wife, that does not faze her; she happily joins them to form a trio. The emperor commends them for their filial conduct.
Chang Ta-kung, a neighbor of the Ts’ai family in Ch’en-liu. After Father Ts’ai urges his son to seek a government career through the imperial examinations at Lo-yang, Chang agrees with the old man that the best form of filial piety is to bring fame and fortune to one’s parents through success in the examinations and an official career. He tries to persuade young Ts’ai to do as his father wishes and promises to take care of the family while Ts’ai is absent. During the famine, Wu-niang does everything in her power to help her in-laws; however, after she obtains official grain for Ts’ai’s parents, it is stolen from her. Chang intervenes and offers the family half of the grain he had obtained. When Mother Ts’ai dies, Chang pays her funeral expenses. When Father Ts’ai dies, Wu-niang again has no money. She cuts her hair and goes into the street to sell it. When she can find no buyer, Chang pays the father’s funeral expenses. He is an exemplary good neighbor.
Father Ts’ai and
Mother Ts’ai, middle-class parents of modest means who have educated a brilliant son for an official career. When he is summoned to the capital to compete in the imperial examinations, he has the opportunity to become a chin-shih and thus be qualified to become a government official. Although he thinks that his filial piety requires him to give up such an ambition to remain in the presence of his aged parents, he finds that Father Ts’ai has a completely different idea. The son complies with his father’s wishes. In the absence of their son, the Ts’ais as well as Wu-niang suffer so terribly that their views change. Mother Ts’ai blames her husband for sending their son away to satisfy his own ambition. He, in turn, is disillusioned to the extent that when he becomes terminally ill, he bequeaths his staff to Chang Ta-kung and requests him to beat his son should he return home. Even Wu-niang questions the ethics of her husband’s decision.
Mr. Niu, the prime minister (Shou-hsiang) of the realm and second father-in-law to Ts’ai Jung. Niu is proud of his wealth and power. He is also arrogant, straitlaced, autocratic, and bullheaded. Knowing that Niu’s daughter has declared to her father that she will not marry any man other than a first winner in the imperial examinations, the emperor suggests that Niu marry his daughter to Ts’ai. The minister sends a matchmaker to negotiate the marriage with the young man. He declines the offer on the grounds that he is already married. The minister is enraged at Ts’ai’s “impudence.” Ts’ai responds by petitioning the emperor to allow him to decline the marriage and to resign his civil service position. His petition is denied. He is ordered to prepare for the wedding and to live with his new wife in her father’s household.
Mistress Niu (Niu Hsiao-chieh)
Mistress Niu (Niu Hsiao-chieh), the prime minister’s daughter, who becomes Ts’ai’s second wife. She is a lover of nature’s beauty and is romantically inclined. Highly disciplined, she is morally correct and is strict with the servants, but she is not lacking in sympathy with those who are less fortunate. She truly loves Ts’ai and is upset at Ts’ai’s distress and depression. When she discovers her husband’s secret, she chastises him for deserting his parents and wife. She proposes that they go together to visit his family in Ch’en-liu. When the prime minister learns what they propose to do, he is furious that they would use their time to help such poor and humble people. He soon realizes that his outburst was wrong. He decides to have the Ts’ai family brought to the capital and sends a messenger to Ch’en-liu to fetch them. Ts’ai’s parents are dead by then, and Wu-niang has arrived at Lo-yang and become Mistress Niu’s maid. When Mistress Niu learns that her maid is actually her husband’s first wife, she realizes that he had too much integrity to divorce her. Eventually, the three live in harmony.
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