The Dragon King's Daughter
The treasure trove of Chinese folklore was compiled as oral traditions, stories being passed down from generation to generation within each of China's fifty-six nationalities.
The “Dragon King’s Daughter” is one of many Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907) stories. It was widely told in China, and has been restructured in various forms in different times and regional areas. For example, in Yuan drama, we can find two plays based on the same story, both of which have been favorites in China since the Yuan dynasty (1260-1368).
The story describes two levels of the world—human and nonhuman. It shows that a female’s life is no better in the nonhuman world than in the human. Reflecting traditional social prejudices, many Chinese folktales appear to devalue women’s status in society. Women suffered greatly under the traditional way of life. Although a woman was destined by fate to be either good or bad, her life was usually determined by her unknown future husband and family. Yet, the story also expresses a strong belief in sharing the benefits of human morality, justice, and dignity.
Liu Yi meets the wretched shepherdess
In the seventh century, a young scholar named Liu Yi lived in the valley of the Xiang River. One year he failed to pass the annual examination for an official appointment, which was given in the capital city. Returning home, he decided to make a detour and visit a friend who was staying at Jingyang at the time. Some time after he set off, his horse was startled by a hare dashing across the road; it burst into such a frantic gallop that he could not restrain it until it had run over two miles.
Finally, he controlled the horse, but then his attention was caught by another sight. Not far away, by the roadside, stood a girl surrounded by a flock of sheep. Although she was extraordinarily pretty, she had finely knitted, arched eyebrows and sadly soiled clothes. It seemed she was anticipating someone’s arrival.
Liu approached the girl and asked, “Why are you in such a sad condition?” The girl forced a smile of gratitude and, unable to control her tears, sorrowfully replied: “I am a miserable creature. It is very kind of you to ask me, and I have no reason to keep my deep sorrow to myself. I am the youngest daughter of my family. My father is the dragon king in Dong Ting Lake. Following my parent’s arrangements, I was married to the second son of the dragon chief of the Jing River. But my husband is only devoted to his own pleasure and behaves worse and worse with each day. I asked his parents for help, but instead, they sent me here to work as a shepherdess. …” Her grief choked off her words, and she started sobbing uncontrollably.
"Dong Ting Lake lies far beyond the horizon," she resumed. “It is so far away that I have no means to send a message to my parents. My heart is broken and I have worn out my eyes by watching the way home day and night. Yet, no one knows my misery or gives me any comfort. Sir, you are heading to the south: I hope that where you are going is not far from Dong Ting Lake. Would you please kindly carry a message to my parents for me?”
“I am a righteous man,” replied Liu Yi, “and my blood is boiling at your story. It would be no trouble at all for me to bring a message to your parents. But the lake seems deep and bottomless, and I am a land walker. How can I deliver the message? Could you please give me some advice?”
“I can never thank you enough,” the girl said, her tears rolling down her face. “If ever I receive one word of reply, I shall do all I can to repay you, even at the cost of my life. To enter the lake is as easy as to enter your capital city. But I don’t think it would be proper to tell you the secret of reaching my parents before you give me your most solemn promise.”
“I promise under oath to heaven,” declared Liu Yi.
Satisfied, the girl explained. “To the south of the lake, there is a village. There you will find a sacred orange tree at the lakeside. Take off your belt and put on this one that I give you. Then knock three times on the tree trunk. Somebody will come at your signal. Follow him and there will be no problem.
“I have told you this secret from the bottom of my heart and entrusted my message to you. Please tell my parents all that you have heard. Whatever happens, never fail me!”
Liu Yi promised to follow her directions, and the girl took a written message out of her sleeve pocket, and presented it to him with a woman’s bow, while looking southward and weeping sadly.
After putting the written message in his wallet, Liu Yi hesitated a little. “May I ask why you graze sheep? Do dragons eat animal meat also?”
“No,” she replied. “They are rainmakers in the shape of sheep.”
“What kind of rainmakers are they?” asked Liu Yi.
With a charming smile, the girl replied, “Lightning, thunder, and the like. …”
Examining the sheep carefully, Liu Yi noticed their unearthly characteristics. Although they seemed ordinary at first glance, he noticed that they held their heads high and grazed in an unusual manner.
“Now, young lady,” said Liu, “I am going to serve as your courier; I hope that you will remember me after you return to your home in the lake.”
“Absolutely!” she exclaimed. “You will be one of my dear relatives.”
Having bid adieu to the girl, Liu Yi set off for the south. After about one hundred yards he glanced backward, but neither the girl nor the sheep remained in view.
The palace of the dragon king
In the evening he reached Jingyang and visited his friend. It took him more than a month to finally return home, where he rested briefly before setting off for Dong Ting Lake. There he found the orange tree at the special spot. As the girl had instructed him, he changed his belt and knocked three times on the tree trunk. In a moment, a warrior came out of the water, bowed to him, and asked, “May I ask what business brought you here?”
The water parted at the warrior’s command to reveal a pathway leading to the bottom of the lake. “Close your eyes, please!” said the warrior as he led Liu Yi down to the road. “We will be there soon.”
Liu did so and followed him down. Soon they arrived at a grand palace with many towers and pavilions, thousands of gates and doors, marbled arches, and exotic trees and plants, as well as countless decorations and treasures. Liu Yi felt clearly that he had entered another world. Hesitating at the gate of a great hall, Liu Yi asked, “What place is this?”
“The palace of the Divine Void,” replied his guide.
Looking about him, Liu saw that he was surrounded by things he had never seen in the real world. The whole unearthly environment gave an impression of fantasy and unfathomable depth that defied exaggeration.
After waiting for a long time at the gate, Liu Yi asked, “Please tell me where the lord of Dong Ting is.”
"His Majesty is in the Pavilion of Dark Pearl," replied the warrior. “He is talking with the priest of the sun about the fire cannon, and is just about to finish.”
“What is the fire cannon?” Liu was curious.
“Our Majesty is a dragon,” the warrior said, “so water is his magic weapon. He can flood valleys and mountains with one drop of water. However, the priest is a human being and fire is his weapon. He can turn a palace into a burning hell with a torch. Because the properties of their weapons differ, they negate each other. They are discussing how they can reach a compromise and harmonize with each other, in order to establish a fair control over the human world.”
As they finished talking, the palace gate was opened. A man clad in a purple robe and holding a jasper scepter, entered, surrounded by a gathering mist.
“This is our king,” the warrior whispered to Liu Yi, then stepped forward to report Liu’s arrival.
“Yes,” Liu Yi answered, bowing most politely to the king. The dragon king greeted him in return and offered him a seat.
“Our kingdom of water is deep and dark, and my knowledge of your world is quite limited,” the dragon king said. “What reason brought you here from such a distance, sir?”
“I am a resident of the same district as Your Masjesty,” Liu Yi answered politely. “I grew up in the south, but had my education in the northwest. After my failure in this year’s official examination, I took the road to Jingyang by the Jing River.
“There I met your daughter, who was grazing sheep on the pasture, without any protection from the rain and wind. She was a great pity to behold. I asked her how she had come to be in such a pitiful condition and she told me that her husband’s cruelty and the neglect of her parents-in-law had led to her degradation. She entreated me to bring a message to you, and this I promised to do. That is why I have come here to visit Your Majesty.” Then he presented the girl’s written message to the dragon king.
After reading the message, the king covered his face with both hands and wept. “I have been like a man both blind and deaf,” he grieved. “Though I am her aged father, I had no idea of her sufferings away from home, whereas you, a stranger, volunteered to come to her rescue. So long as I live, your kindness shall never be forgotten.”
The king called over a palace eunuch and gave him the message, with an order to tell the story to the ladies in the inner palace. Soon, wailing was heard from within. In alarm, the king ordered his men, “Be quick. Stop the ladies from making so much noise, otherwise the prince of Qian Tang will become greatly upset.”
“May I know who this prince is?” Liu Yi asked.
“My younger brother,” replied the dragon king. “He used to be the prince of Qian Tang but now he has retired.”
“Why should the story be kept secret from him?”
Panic-stricken, Liu Yi fell off his chair at the terrible sight. The king helped him up and reassured him. “Have no fear! Have no fear, please! Everything is all right.” Recovering, Liu Yi asked to leave.
“Please wait a moment,” said the king. “My brother only appears like that when he is angry. When he returns he will be totally different. ”
After a while waves of soft clouds, borne on a gentle breeze, drifted through the palace. Thousands of brightly dressed girls, wearing glittering jewels and gowns of the finest satin silk, filed in. Among them was a girl of exceptional beauty—with finely arched eyebrows. As she drew near, Liu Yi recognized that she was the same girl who had asked him to convey her message.
The dragon king was very happy. “Here comes the wretched shepherdess from the Jing River,” he said to Liu Yi. Walking with the group was a vigorous man, full of spirit, holding a jasper scepter. It was the dragon prince of Qian Tang.
“My unhappy niece was nearly ruined by that blackguard,” the prince said to Liu. “It was very kind of you to bring her message from such distance. If it were not for your strong sense of justice, she would have been sacrificed to that wretched life forever. Our gratitude is beyond words.”
Liu Yi bowed and thanked the prince for his words. Then the prince told the king and his court the story of what had happened.
“I reached the Jing River in one hour, fought there for one hour more, and returned here in another. On my way back I flew up to Heaven to report to the Jade Emperor. He approved of the justice that I had meted out and pardoned me for my past faults as well.”
“How many were killed in the fight?” the dragon king asked.
The dragon king’s face turned pale and deeply unhappy. “It is true that the villain was insufferable,” he said. “Nevertheless, you have gone too far. Be grateful that the Jade Emperor pardoned you because of the great injustice that you righted. Otherwise, I could say nothing in your favor. Do please behave yourself from now on.” The prince listened politely and bowed to the king.
Celebrations in the palace
Liu Yi spent the night in the Hall of Frozen Light and feasted at the Emerald Palace on the next day. The whole royal family gathered, and dances and music were performed. When the performances were over, the dragon king stood up and sang:
Endless the earth and blue the sky,
In turn, the prince rose up, bowed to the king and the royal family, and then sang:
Life and death are decided by fate,
After the prince had finished his song, the dragon king and the prince together offered one more cup of wine to Liu Yi. He drank it and thanked them for their toast. Then Liu Yi sang:
A blossom suffering in the rain,
Loud applause greeted his song.
The dragon king presented Liu Yi with a rhinoceros-horn casket inlaid with jasper, a key to part the waves in the lake. The prince then presented an amber dish bearing pearls that shone at night. Liu Yi accepted the gifts gratefully. Maids of honor piled silks and jewels around him until they were heaped up. Surrounded by such good company and enjoyable entertainment, Liu Yi passed a memorable day. Sated at last with wine and pleasure, he retired to the Hall of Frozen Light.
The next day he was invited to feast at the Pavilion of Limpid Light by the prince of Qian Tang. After offering him heated wine, the prince became insolent and said: “A hard rock can be broken but not bent, and a brave man can be killed but not be shamed. I would like to make a proposal. If you agree, everything will be all right between us. If not, let us perish together. How is that?”
“May I hear your proposal first?” said the surprised Liu Yi.
“As you know,” said the prince, “that blackguard lord of the Jing River’s unfortunate widow is our sovereign’s daughter. She is a very well educated, excellent girl, well cherished by all her kinsfolk.
But she was unlucky enough to have fallen into the hands of that scoundrel. She has suffered a great deal. But that is now in the past. She owes you so much that we would be pleased to entrust her to you as your wife. Then we who love her will be able to rest at ease. Do you not agree with the proverb that says: ‘A man of good will would not leave a deed of merit unfinished.’”
For a moment Liu Yi looked around, then laughed loudly. “I would never have expected that the prince of Qian Tang would have such an unhealthy idea. I have heard that when you flew across the nine continents your anger could make fire mountains quake; and I have seen you fight for your niece in such an incomparably brave manner. You dared to risk death to do justice and would give your life for those you love. Those are the characteristics of true greatness. Yet, at this very moment, you are trying to coerce me into doing what you wish, in defiance of all honor. I can hardly believe it.”
Hesitating a little, Liu Yi continued, “Suppose we two had met on a seething sea or in dark mountains, the mist and rain around your body, your fins and beard flying. Had you threatened me with death, then I would have taken you merely for a beast and not counted it against you. But now, dressed in human garb, talking of manners, and showing a deep understanding of human relationships and ways of life, you seemed to have a finer sense of right and wrong than many gallants on the earth, not to mention any beast in the jungle or creature of the deep.
“Yet you are trying to force your will upon me by your strength and temper, while pretending to be drunk. Well, your anger is nothing to me even though I am smaller than any one of your scales. I do hope that you will change your mind.”
At the end of Liu Yi’s words, the prince humbly apologized. “Your reprimand is quite correct, my manners were poor despite my palace upbringing. I beg your pardon for my meaningless and offensive remarks. Please do not let this ruin our friendship.”
That evening, they feasted together again, as merry as ever, and became great friends.
One more day passed. The next day the queen held another party for Liu Yi in the Hall of Hidden Light. The queen said to him, “My daughter owes you so much that we can never thank you enough. It is a great pity that we have to say goodbye so soon.”
The queen then told the princess to thank him. The princess turned to Liu Yi in deep sorrow and asked, “Shall we meet again someday?” Liu Yi suddenly felt deep regret that he had rejected the proposal offered by the prince. In that moment they shared feelings of regret. The party ended and the palace was filled with sighs as Liu Yi bowed farewell.
Liu Yi’s marriage to the dragon king’s daughter
Liu Yi first went to Yangzhou, the largest city on the Yangtze River. He sold a small portion of what he had been given at the palace and became a multimillionaire.
A year later, he married his first wife, but she soon died. A second wife also died within a matter of months. Growing more and more unhappy, Liu Yi moved to Nanjing, another big city on the Yangtze River.
Now in his late twenties, he could hardly live with his loneliness. One day a matchmaker came and told him of a girl from Fengyang County who was named Lu. Lu Hao, her father, had been the magistrate of Ching-Liu and was now a noted Taoist master. The girl had been married into the Chang family who lived on the Jing River, but unfortunately her husband had passed away not long ago. Her mother was trying to find her a good husband. She is young, very pretty, and very smart. Was he interested? Liu Yi agreed to the match and, on a beautiful day, he and the girl were married. The magnificence of the wedding and the abundance of gifts impressed all the people in Nanjing.
One day, shortly after their first child was born, Liu’s wife invited all their relatives to the house. In front of all the guests she asked Liu Yi, with a charming smile, “Don’t you remember that we have met before?”
Sensing something, Liu Yi replied, “I once carried a message for a dragon king’s daughter. I will never forget it.”
“I am the daughter of the dragon king,” his wife declared. “Wretched and abused by my former husband, I was rescued by you, and I swore to repay your kindness. But unfortunately, when my uncle so untactful proposed marriage between us, you refused. Later, my parents wanted me to be the bride of another god’s son, but I made an excuse to stop it. In truth, I would rather die than love somebody other than you.
“My parents came to know my intention and decided to help me. However, they could do nothing since you married two other girls. Not until you came here to live alone did my family feel that the match was possible. Now it has turned out just right, I will be happy all my life and live without regret. I know that I am hardly good enough to keep your love, so I am relying on your fondness for your first child.”
Surprised, Liu Yi said, “We are destined by fate. When I first saw you by the river, you were such a pitiful sight that it made my heart bleed. All that I thought of at that time was to deliver your message as soon as I could, so that you would escape your miserable situation. The manner of your uncle’s proposition annoyed me: I might be persuaded, but not bullied. My rejection was motivated by a sense of honor and justice. But, when the time came to leave, the regret in your eyes made me feel very sorry that I had rejected his offer.
“Once I left the lake, the daily routine of my life kept me too busy to convey my affection and gratitude to you. Even though I presumed you to be a human being from the Lu family, you constantly reminded me of my original feelings for the dragon king’s daughter. From now on, I shall be confused no more and love you forever.”
Deeply moved, his wife replied in tears, “It is not human beings alone that know gratitude. Your great kindness will be repaid. A dragon’s life lasts for ten thousand years, and I will share my years of life with you. We can roam on the land and rest in the sea. Please trust me.”
“It had never occurred to me that you could lure me with immortality,” Liu laughed.
And so they lived on the coast of the south sea for forty years. Their wealth and perennial youth amazed everyone who knew them. But, during the Kai Yuan period (A.D. 713-741) of the Tang Dynasty, the emperor became determined to discover the secret of longevity. He sent his men far and wide in search of alchemists, and Liu Yi and his wife could no longer live in peace. Finally, they went back to the lake, and no one has seen them since.