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by Michelle Tocher

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The Rejected Princess


“The Rejected Princess” is a treasure from Chinesiche Volksmärchen, collected and edited by Richard Wilhelm, no. 55 (Jena:Diederichs, 1919)

In the time of the Tung Dynasty there was a man called Liu I, who failed his doctoral exams. So he went home. He rode for six or seven miles when suddenly a bird rose out of a field. His horse shied and ran ten miles before he was able to stop it. And there before him he saw a woman herding sheep on the slope of a mountain. She was absolutely beautiful, but her face showed great sorrow.

He asked her what was the matter. She began to cry and said, “Luck has left me. As you are so kind to ask me. I’ll tell you. I’m the youngest daughter of the Dragon King of the Dungting Lake, and I was married to the second son of the Dragon King of Ging Chou. My husband was very frivolous and had an affair with an evil maid, and so he pushed me out of the house. I complained to my parents-inlaw, but they had such a blind love for their son that they did nothing for me, and they even sent me out now to herd the sheep.”

The woman began to cry again, and continued, “The Dungting Lake is very far from here, but I’ve heard that on your way back home, you will be passing there. Could you give a letter to my father? Or can you not do it?” Liu I said, “Your words have touched me deeply, and if I had wings I would fly away with you. I’ll certainly take your letter to your father, but the Dungting Lake is very big. How can I find him there?”

She said, “On the south shore of the sea is an orange tree. The people call it the sacrificial tree. When you get there, you must take off your girdle and swing it three times toward the orange tree, and then someone will appear who will guide you. Tell my father in what great despair I am.”

She took out a letter from her clothes and gave it to Liu I. Then she bowed before him and looked toward the East, and Liu I began to cry. He took the letter, and as he was leaving he asked her, “I don’t know why you should herd sheep. Do the gods also kill sheep?”

“These are not ordinary sheep,” the woman said. “They are rain servants.”

“What are rain servants?”

“They are thunder rams,” said the woman.

When he looked at them more closely, Liu I saw that the animals were indeed very proud and beautiful, quite different from ordinary sheep. He then turned to leave, but added, “If ever you come back happily to the Dungting Lake, you must then not treat me as a stranger.”

The woman said, “How could I treat you as a stranger? You shall be my best friend.”

And so they parted.

After a month. Liu I came to the Dungting Lake, and he found the orange tree and did everything he was instructed to do. As soon as he had, a warrior came out of the sea and asked, “Where do you come from?”

Liu I said, “I have an important message for the king.”

The warrior gave him a sign, and also made a sign over the water, and a firm road came out of the lake. He led Liu I in, and there he found the dragon castle with its thousand entrances. Marvelous flowers and strange herbs were growing around it.

The warrior asked Liu I to wait on one side of the great hall. Liu I asked, “What is this place?”

“This is the ghost hall,” the warrior answered. Liu I looked around and saw all the most precious gems and treasures of the human world. There were columns of jasper and seats of coral and curtains of crystal. And there was a strange smell in the room that seemed to blend into the darkness.

Liu I had to wait a long time for the king. The warrior told him that his majesty was standing on the coral tower with the sun priest. They were discussing the Holy Book of the Fire, and he would soon be back.

Liu I asked. “What is this Holy Book of the Fire?”

The warrior answered, “Our majesty is a dragon. The dragons are great through the power of water. With one wave they can cover mountains and valley. The priest is a human being. The priests are great through the power of fire. With one candle they can burn down the greatest palaces. Fire and water fight each other because they have a different essence. Therefore our majesty is now talking with the priest to find a way for fire and water to complement each other.”

Then a man appeared in a purple robe, and the warrior said, “This is my lord.”

Liu I bowed before him, and the Dragon King said, “Aren’t you a living human being? Why do you come here?”

Liu I gave his name and said, “I was in the capital and I failed my exams. And when I passed the Ging Chou River, I saw your beloved daughter herding sheep in the wilderness. The wind blew through her hair and the rain made her wet. I could see her sorrow. She told me her husband had rejected her, and she wept. She gave me a letter for you. That’s why I’ve come.”

He gave the letter to the king who read it and sighed. “This is all my fault. I gave her a bad husband. I wanted to marry my daughter early, and now I have brought her into distress. I am very grateful to you.” He began to cry, and everyone in the vicinity also cried. And after a while, even inside the palace one could hear a loud crying.

The king became frightened and said to one of his servants, “Go in and tell them they shouldn’t cry so loudly, because Tsian Tang might hear.”

“Who is Tsian Tang?” asked Liu I.

“That’s my beloved brother,” said the Dragon King. “He was once the ruler of the Tsian Tang River, but now he’s deposed.”

“Why shouldn’t he hear the crying?”

“He’s so wild that I’m afraid there could be a great catastrophe if he did, just like the flood he caused many years ago. At that time, my brother was annoyed with the Emperor of Heaven, so he sent a flood that covered the five big mountains and lasted nine years. The master became angry with him, and since then he has been chained to a pillar in my palace.”

But even as the king was telling this tale, they heard a terrifying noise that tore the heavens apart. The earth quaked, the whole palace shook and a red dragon appeared. The dragon was a thousand feet long, with burning eyes and a blood-red tongue, blood-red skin and a fiery beard. He was dragging behind him the column to which he was chained. Lightning and thunder surrounded his body. Snow, rain and hail whirled around him. Then, with a clap of thunder, he shot up to heaven.

Liu I fell on the floor from fright, but the king helped him up and said, “Don’t be afraid. My brother in his rage has gone to Ging Chou, and we will soon have good news.” And so he arranged a dinner party, good weather returned, and they had a marvelous time.

Suddenly, a young man with a purple robe and a high hat came in. He had a sword in his hand. He looked very male and heroic, and behind him was a girl of great beauty. As soon as Liu I saw her, he knew it was the dragon princess he had met on his way. She was very well received, and presented the young man with her, saying, “This is Tsian Tang, my uncle.” [In other words, the wild dragon that had ascended to heaven had turned into this young man who now had brought his niece back to the Dragon King’s palace.]

The king asked him, “Have you destroyed the horrible dragon who betrayed my daughter?”

“Oh, yes!”

“How many have you killed?”

“Six hundred thousand.”

“Have you destroyed any fields?”

“Eight hundred miles far!”

“And where is the evil husband?”

“I’ve eaten him up.”

The king said, “No one should be made to bear what my daughter’s frivolous husband has done, but you have been a bit too brutal with him. You must not do such a thing again.”

Tsian Tang promised.

That evening in the castle they had a marvelous dinner party together, with much wonderful entertainment and a grand menu. They gave Liu I many beautiful presents of pearls and coral and jade, and they also gave him a lot to drink. Liu I was the center of attention at the party and he accepted the gifts graciously. He felt very happy and grateful to all. When the meal was finished, he slept in the castle of the frozen splendor.

The next day they had another meal, but Tsian Tang was still a bit drunk and so he was rather careless about his manners. He said to Liu I, “The princess of the Dungting Lake is very beautiful. She has been rejected by her husband, so her marriage is now dissolved. She should have another husband. It would be to your advantage to marry her. If you don’t want her, then you may go, but if we meet each other again, I will not speak to you and I will pretend I don’t even know you.”

Liu I was furious about the arrogant way in which Tsian Tang spoke to him. The blood went to his head and he said, “I brought the princess’s letter here because I was sorry for her, not to get any advantage for myself! To kill the husband and then take the woman away is something no decent man would do. I’m an ordinary man, but I’d rather die than act according to your remarks.”

Tsian Tang got up and apologized humbly, and even the Dragon King begged Liu to pardon this tactlessness. After, they didn’t speak any more about marriage. 

The next day, when Liu I was to depart, the queen of the Dungting Lake gave him another meal. And the queen said to him, “My daughter is deeply grateful to you but now we will have no chance to pay you back. We are very sorry you are leaving.” Then she ordered the princess to thank Liu I. She said. “Will we never see each other again?” And she began to cry.

Liu I had been angry and had resisted Tsian Tang, but when he saw the beautiful princess crying before him, he became terribly sorry. Nonetheless, he pulled himself together and went away.

When he arrived in his home land, the treasures he had received at the castle made him far richer than any of his neighbors, even after he had sold or spent most of them. Twice he married, and twice his wife died after a short time.

So now he lived alone in the capital. He was still looking for a third wife, so a marriage broker told him that in the North there lived a widow with a beautiful daughter. “Her father was a Taoist,” he said, but the father had disappeared into the clouds without returning. They were living in great poverty, and the girl was very beautiful. Liu I was happy. The marriage was arranged. But on the evening of the wedding, when the bride took away her veil, he discovered that she looked a lot like the dragon princess. He asked her if she was the dragon princess, but she only smiled and said nothing.

After a year she had a son. On the day after the birth, she said to her husband, “Now I will tell you how it is. I am the princess of the Dungting Lake. When you refused my uncle’s offer and went away, I became sick with longing for you and nearly died. My parents wanted to call you, but they were afraid you would be shocked about having children with a dragon princess. So my parents clothed me as a human girl and arranged for me to be married to you. Until now, I didn’t dare to tell you, but now that I have given you a son, I hope you will transfer the love you have for him also to his mother.”

Liu I came back as from a deep trance, and he was deeply happy. They loved each other from then on. But one day his wife said. “If you want to live with me always, we cannot continue to live in the human world. We dragons live to be ten thousand years old, and it is fitting that you should become as old as I. So please come back with me to the Dungting Lake.”

Ten years passed, and no one knew where Liu I had disappeared. But by chance, one of his cousins went to the Dungting Lake, and suddenly a blue mountain came out of the water. The fishermen in their boats said, “But in this place there are no mountains. That must be a water demon.” While they were discussing this and looking around, a ship came to them from the mountain, and from its bow the crew lowered a little boat into the water. On both sides of the boat stood fairies. In the middle of the boat was a man. It was Liu I. He waved to his cousin to come into the boat. As soon as the cousin stepped into the boat it changed back into a mountain, and on the mountain was a beautiful castle, and in the castle was Liu I, surrounded by musicians and beautiful colors. They greeted each other, and Liu I said to his cousin, “We are only a minute apart in age, but already you have gray hair.” The cousin said, “You are a blessed god, but I have a mortal body. That’s my fate.”

Liu I then gave his cousin fifty pills and said, “Each pill will prolong your life for a year. When those years are over, come and stay no longer in the dust of earthly life which is only despair and sorrow.” Then he sent him back across the lake and disappeared. The cousin retired into the world, but after fifty years, when he had eaten all the pills, he too disappeared and was never seen again.