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Du Shiniang

During the reign of Emperor Wan Li of the Song Dynasty, the capital assumed an appearance of peace and prosperity. Business of brothels was brisk. The Yicui Yuan Brothel did the best because of its star courtesan Du Shiniang.

The daughter of a Ming off icial, Du Shiniang’s real name was Du Wei. Only after her father had trouble with the court and died in jail was Du Wei sold to a family who resold her into the Yicui Yuan. A born beauty who bore the mark of an eminent family, well versed in music and dancing, she soon became the most favorite courtesan.

As a courtesan, Du Shiniang never showed any affection until a young man named Li Jia plunged himself into her life.

Li Jia was a visiting student from Zhejiang. His father, a high-ranking and influential Ming official, sent him here in the hope that he would study well enough to be able to pass the national exam and be an official himself. A year had passed, Li Jia felt a bit lonely and bored. One day he wandered to Yicui Yuan and met Du Shiniang. A tragic romance between the two ensued.
Du Shiniang had all along been looking for a man that she could rely on so that they could form a family. She knew that she could not live as a courtesan all her life. For, as her age advanced, she would eventually be discarded by her customers and her Madam. Li Jia, apparently well-groomed and tongue-tight was the one she had been dreaming for. Li Jia in turn was captivated by Du Shiniang’s beauty. They started to live together in the brothel like husband and wife.
Having learned of his son’s consortion with a courtesan. Li Jia’s father ordered his son to return home. When he refused, his father angrily disowned him, thus cutting off the source of his income.

As his funds dwindled, the madam of Yicui Yuan tried to turn him out. When Du Shiniang intervened, the madam challenged her to pay herself out of the brothel so that she could be Li Jia’s wife.

“Are you sure?”

“I am not lying.” Madam knew the poor Li Jia could by no means find the money.

“How much do you want?”

“I would have asked for three to five thousand tael of silver. Well for him I guess I can only expect three hundred. However, there is a catch: he must pay in cash at the end of three days.” As the madam left, the couple hugged each other closely, happy at the thought that in three days they would be free.

With great difficulty, Li Jia managed to get the money from friends, who were very reluctant as Li Jia’s father had told them what the funds would be used for.

With much reluctance and as much regret, the madam saw the two out of Yicui Yuan. Du Shiniang and Li Jia chatted and laughed all the way to the pier where Li Jia rented a boat and waited for departure the next morning. They made a pledge of undying love. Du Shiniang could not help humming a happy tune on the boat.

On another boat nearby was a wealthy playboy named Sun Fu. Du Shiniang’s pleasant voice caught his attention. When he pulled his boat over and took a peep, his eyes popped and jaw dropped. He had never seen such a beauty in his life. He wanted her for himself.

His chance came when it began to snow and all boats had to delayed their departure. Sun Fu managed to invite Li Jia to a pub onshore. There after he had a few shots, Li Jia told Sun Fu everything about Du Shiniang and expressed worries over his father’s opposition to the relationship. Seeing the opportunity, Sun Fu put on an appearance of a bosom friend and egged on:

“Can't you see that you have no alternative. You can neither take her to your father nor can you leave her alone behind as she might revert to her old life style. Youhave no money to start your life here.”

“So what can I do?”

“Sold her to me. With the money, you can tell your father that all what he had heard was a rumor.”

“Let me talk it over with her before I let you know about my decision.”

Du Shiniang was happily expecting Li Jia back to the boat. When he came, he broke the news to her to her utter disbelief! All her hope for a decent life was dashed! "Fine. If you think that is O.K. with you," with that, she remained silent. It was a sleepless and speechless night.

The next morning, she carefully did her hair and makeup. When Li Jia turned her over to Sun Fu for a thousand tael of silver, she did not say a word. Slowly she opened up a chest, the only belongings she had. In it was jewelry worth over ten thousand tael of gold! It was her accumulation all the years in Yicui Yuan. She had not told Li Jia about how much she was worth just to see if he loved her as what she was. Now that he traded her for a fraction of what she had, she saw no use in all the wealth. One by one she threw the jewelry into the river. Regretful for his own follie, Li Jia threw himself at the foot of Du Shiniang for forgiveness.

Du Shiniang pushed him back emotionlessly. Pointing at Sun Fu, she began, “Our hard-earned union is ruined in your hands. Though I can’t mete out my punishment in life, I will see you in the heavenly court when I die.”

With tears in her eyes, she looked into Li Jia’s, “I hid my wealth in the suitcase just to see if you loved me truly. I meant to use it when we start our family. How you disappointed me! Only a few coaxing words and you sold me to someone you don’t even know! Do you still remember our pledges! I am sorry that you cannot tell from right and wrong. Everyone here is a witness: it is you who betrayed me, and not the other way round. My grief has no end in this life, so I will settle the account with you in the next.” So saying, she hurled her self into the river.

This story reflects a theme used by Chinese romantic authors for centuries -- the self-sacrificing love of a woman for a man whose family and position from which she must be excluded. Dumas used the themes of this story to create Camille and Verdi La Traviata.

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