A Story From: China
Read Time: ["10 to 15mins"]
For Ages: 8 to 10yrs., 12 to 14yrs.
THE ROYAL WEDDING ceremony was over and at last the princess was alone with her bridegroom. Her red silk veil was so thick that during the wedding ceremony, she could hardly make out the shadows of her bridegroom and the guests. Now she could see only the shadow of her husband, pacing back and forth by the window. Was he truly as handsome as her sisters and her brother – the emperor – had said?
Tradition called for him to raise her veil now and to offer the first toast. Yet he continued to pace. She cleared her throat. He turned around and sighed. Then the shadow that was her husband came toward her and gently raised her veil. Indeed, his face was handsome! She smiled and glanced at the wine glasses in front of them. “A toast?” she said.
“Let us toast to a story,” said he.
“What do you mean?” She frowned slightly. Their tradition was that the first toast should be to their future happiness.
“First, a story, is that all right?”
“All right, I suppose.” She worried: was her husband going to be odd their entire married life?
“Once upon a time,'” he began, “there was a high official who, above all else, wanted a son. In fact, he warned his wife that if she had a daughter, she would have to take her own life. You can imagine how troubled she felt while she was pregnant, not knowing whether she was carrying a gateway to her future happiness, or a gateway to her immediate doom. More troubled still was she when she delivered a baby daughter. She felt she had no choice but to write to her husband in the capital city and to tell him that they could rejoice for they had a newborn son. She dressed the baby as a boy and insisted on being the one to bathe him. As he grew, he showed exceptional abilities in school and as a leader.
“When he was 18 and the lad was summoned by his father to the capital city to take the imperial examinations, he excelled above all others. Almost too well, worried the mother, who came up with one excuse after another to refuse the offers that poured in from matchmakers. As he became yet more prominently recognized for his achievements, offers were delivered to her home from high officials on behalf of their daughters, and those invitations were more difficult to politely turn down. At last, the emperor himself issued a decree that his daughter would be wed to this promising youth. An imperial decree was nothing to be refused. And so the wedding took place, and a grand affair it was. So tell me, my dear, if you were that princess, what would you do if your new husband confessed that he was in fact a woman?”
“Well, let’s see,” she said, humoring her husband’s story. “Certainly it wasn’t the husband’s fault that she – I suppose we’d say ‘she’ – was raised as a boy and ended up married to a princess. Any princess well brought up would forgive her.”
“Do you give your word as a princess that that is what you would do?”
“Without a doubt! Now, this was a charming story but perhaps could we move on with the wedding toast?”
“Princess, look at me! I am that daughter! I am a woman!”
“What?” She stood up. “You’re joking!”
“I wish I were,” said the husband solemnly. “I…”
“How dare you! How dare you humiliate me this way!”
“But you said you would forgive me!”
“I said no such thing! That was a story! This is real life!” She steeled herself to full height and pointed her finger. “Surely you must know that impersonating a male in the royal court is punishable by death! I will have you executed for causing such disgrace.”
“You gave your word as a princess.”
She stopped short. “Well that was…I mean…oh, I suppose.”
Then she threw her arms in the air with a short laugh. “Why me?” she sighed. “Everyone said my wedding night would be a night to remember. But this?” A moment later she gasped. “Oh, no!”
“What is it?”
“It’s my brother, the emperor. He’ll never understand! After that wedding he hosted today? And tomorrow morning we’re expected to appear at court and receive the royal visitors.”
“I know. What can we do?”
“There’s only one way out I can think of. Perhaps if I told him the same story as you told me and got him to agree to forgive someone in your position, then he’d have to forgive you.”
“Princess, yes, thank you.”
And so the next day the royal couple was received in court with honors. The emperor proudly displayed them as his newlywed sister and new son-in-law.
“If it may please the court,” said the princess.
“What is it, my dear?” said her brother, the emperor.
“I recently heard an amusing story. May I share it with you?”
“Why not?” said the emperor, thinking her newfound joy in marriage must making her giddy, but why not humor the bride?
And so the princess told the tale. “And if you were that princess’ father,” she said at the end, “what would you do?”
With all eyes watching, the emperor said in a deep, commanding tone, “One who is raised to be a great ruler, as I am, knows how to show mercy and forgiveness when someone who is charged with a crime is not truly at fault. Justice is what sets apart the finest rulers from the unenlightened ones. In your story, my dear sister, the ‘husband,’ such as it is, would be released from the marriage, forgiven, and adopted by the emperor as a royal sister.”
“My most fair and merciful brother,” said the princess, “then forgive my husband, because he – or she – is the one in the story. How could any of us have known that she was raised as a male?”
The royal court gasped. Some ladies in waiting fainted. The emperor’s face turned red and he pointed with his scepter. “I will not be made a fool of in my own court! How dare this one disgrace the royal family!” As the court guards shackled the hapless “husband” and started to drag her out, the princess cried, “But dear brother, we all look to you to be the fine ruler you described in the story.”
“A story has nothing to do with it!” he blustered. Then seeing the alarmed expressions on the face of his devoted sister and her unlucky husband, as well as the confused looks on his court attendants, he changed his tone. “I…I was just showing you…you and the court, I mean…how an unenlightened ruler would behave…yes. I had no intention of actually executing your husband, that is, the innocent young woman. In fact, I have every intention to forgive this infraction.” The court applauded the admirable display of justice and mercy by their ruler, and he beamed with pride.
So the marriage was annulled and the former husband adopted as a royal sister. It wasn’t long before they were both married to high officials in a double wedding ceremony, complete with all the royal fineries.
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A Chinese folktale retold by Elaine L. Lindy. ©2006. All rights reserved.