The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks

by Katherine Paterson

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The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks Summary

The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks is a book by Katherine Paterson that retells a Japanese folktale about beauty and kindness.

  • Two ducks, a drake and his wife, live together near a pond.
  • The drake is captured by the lord of the district, who wants to show off the drake’s brilliant feathers.
  • Yasuko, a maid, frees the drake. Shozo, a steward, takes the blame, and the lord sentences them to death.
  • Imperial messengers, who are implied to be the ducks, rescue Shozo and Yasuko, who have fallen in love. The couple lives happily in the woods for many years.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks by Katherine Paterson is a retelling of a popular Japanese folktale. The story begins by introducing two mated ducks. The female duck has soft, earth-toned plumage, and her drake husband has magnificent and colorful plumage. They live happily in the wild together near a pond. When the drake goes to the pond for food, he is spotted by the lord of the district, a cruel and greedy man who seeks to possess all beautiful things for himself. The lord decides he wants to capture the drake to show off the drake’s beauty.

The lord’s steward, Shozo, tries to discourage the lord from doing so. “The drake is a wild spirit,” he says. “Surely he will die in captivity.” The lord angrily dismisses Shozo, whom he despises because Shozo is missing an eye, which the lord believes makes him ugly to look at. The reader learns that Shozo was once a mighty samurai but lost his eye in battle.

The lord instructs his men to set a path of acorns to tempt the drake, and the drake is caught in a net and carried back to the lord’s manor. There, the lord has a feast to show off the drake’s plumage. Miserable, the drake thinks about his wife, abandoned and sitting on her eggs back by the pond.

During the following days, the drake’s brilliant plumage becomes dull with sorrow. He refuses to eat, not tempted by even the most delicious dishes. Yasuko, a kitchen maid, understands that the drake is grieving for his mate. As the drake grows sicker, the lord becomes angry at his bird’s fading beauty. Shozo suggests that the lord should let the drake go, as his captivity is the cause of his illness, but this suggestion only angers the lord. He refuses to release the drake and instead has the drake’s cage hidden from sight.

Yasuko determines to save the drake’s life. One night, she sneaks over to the cage, opens it, and carries the sickly drake to the edge of the woods. The drake turns and appears to bow to her before he disappears into the night.

By midmorning, news of the drake’s disappearance reaches the lord. Furious, he summons Shozo, suspecting him of having stolen the drake. Because Shozo often dreamed of freeing the drake, he does not protest his innocence. The lord has Shozo stripped and beaten, and Shozo is forced to attend to the most grueling tasks at the manor. Yasuko begs Shozo to allow her to confess, but Shozo won’t allow it; he thinks there is no reason they should both be punished for a single crime. Over time, Shozo and Yasuko fall in love, and word of this reaches the lord.

The lord then accuses Shozo and Yasuko of conspiring to steal the drake. He sentences them both to death by drowning and has his men prepare to march the couple to the pond. As they are leaving, two mysterious and finely dressed messengers arrive at the manor. They claim they have been sent by the emperor himself. “His divine majesty has had a vision of the merciful Buddha,” they explain. Capital punishment has been abolished, and anyone sentenced to death must now be sent instead to the imperial court.

The lord is angry, but he knows he is powerless against the will of the emperor. He commands his men to march Yasuko and Shozo to the capitol. It is a five-day walk, and Yasuko and Shozo grow exhausted on their journey. When the group stops to rest, the guards are secretly frightened of...

(This entire section contains 885 words.)

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the dark woods. In the dead of night, they abandon Shozo and Yasuko there. The two become lost in the woods and are tired, hungry, and afraid.

Yasuko expresses regret at her actions, which she says have led the two of them there, but Shozo disagrees. “It is not foolish to show compassion for a fellow creature,” he tells her. Because their hands are bound behind their backs, Yasuko and Shozo cannot hold hands. Instead, they stand close together with their shoulders touching.

Just then, Yasuko and Shozo hear a rustling sound in the dark. A voice tells them, “We are the imperial messengers.” The messengers have been looking for the couple. Shozo and Yasuko cannot see anything in the dark, but they follow the lead of the messengers through the woods by the sounds of their fine rustling clothes. The messengers lead Yasuko and Shozo to a hut in a clearing, untie the couple, and give them water for a bath and clean clothes to wear. Then they present Yasuko and Shozo with a feast. The two eat heartily and fall asleep.

The next morning, breakfast has been prepared, but the messengers are gone. Outside the hut, Yasuko and Shozo find the duck couple. The ducks appear to bow to Shozo and Yasuko before flying away. Though it is not stated in the story, it seems that the ducks are the imperial messengers who saved Shozo and Yasuko.

Shozo and Yasuko have children together and continue to live in the hut for many happy years. Sometimes the children cause trouble, but as the narrator says, “Trouble can always be borne when it is shared.”