The first of two tales about the Chinese Weaver Goddess, Zhinu. Zhinu is the daughter of the master of Heaven, the Jade Emperor. As the Weaver Goddess, she either weaves her father’s royal robes out of the clouds, or else weaves the clouds and the rainbows themselves (it seems to vary, depending on what you read). Her mother, the Celestial Queen Mother, created the Silver River (the Milky Way).
The Tale of Dong Yong
In the time of the Han dynasty, there lived a young man name Dong Yong. His mother had died when he was just a baby, and he lived with his father, a poor farmer who spent every penny he had to care for and educate his son. When Dong Yong was nineteen, his father died, leaving Dong Yong so penniless that he could not afford to pay for his father’s burial rites, or for his tombstone.
Well, this wouldn’t do. Dong Yong gave up his studies and sold himself into indentured servitude, at a price high enough to give his father a proper funeral and a fine tombstone. Dong Yong knew that he would have to serve his master many long years to repay the debt, but he regretted it not at all. It was the least he could do for his father.
After the funeral, Dong Yong packed up his meagre belongings and made his way to his master’s house. On the way, he met a beautiful young woman. She told him that her mother had died, and her father had remarried. Her new stepmother wanted to marry her off against her will, and so she ran away. Dong Yong suggested she marry him instead — since neither had family, they could care for each other in a world full of strangers. The girl agreed.When they arrived at Dong Yong’s master’s house, the master was surprised to see two people when he had expected only one.
“Who are you?” he asked the young woman.
“I am Yong’s wife,” she said.
“And what can you do?” the master asked.
“I can weave,” the girl said.
“Hmph. Well, let me see what you can do.”
And the master ordered a loom to be brought to Dong Yong’s quarters.
And so their new life began. Dong Yong arose early in the morning to labor in the master’s fields, and his wife sat down at the loom. Quicker than you might imagine, she had finished a beautiful bolt of double-threaded silk cloth, shimmering and opalescent, like the sky and the clouds at sunset. She presented it to their master.
The master was astounded. He’d never seen silk fabric like it in his life. It was so finely made that if he were to sell it, the price could easily redeem Dong Yong’s debt. But the master was careful not to let on.
“Not a bad effort,” he said carelessly. “Perhaps we can use it to wrap bundles.”
“I hope that my poor efforts can help pay off my husband’s debt,” Dong Yong’s wife said.
“Oh, you’d have to weave much more than this to pay off that much money,” the master replied.
“Oh…. say, three hundred bolts. Yes, three hundred bolts, and then Dong Yong will be free.”
The woman bowed low to her master, and returned to her loom.
Every day she produced yet another bolt of her stunning silk, and in less than a year she paid off Dong Yong’s debt. Not long after Dong Yong’s manumission, she and Dong Yong had a child, a beautiful baby boy. Dong Yong’s wife continued to weave, and Dong Yong sold the cloth at the market. They were able to buy a house and some land, and put by some savings, too. Dong Yong and his wife were very happy together.
But one day, soon after the baby had been weaned, Dong Yong’s wife turned to him.
“Alas, it’s time for me to leave,” she told him. “I am Zhinu, the Jade Emperor’s daughter. My father, the master of Heaven, saw your devotion to your father and sent me to be your wife and help you in your troubles. Now you are free and well-off, and you have a son. My work is done. Farewell.”
Zhinu gave her husband a hug and a kiss, then went back up to heaven.
Dong Yong was heartbroken — he had loved his wife — but caring for his son brought him some consolation. With his savings, he was able to return to his scholarly life, and eventually rose to the rank of doctor and gained an official post in the court. Some say he even married his former master’s daughter, Saijin. His son, Dong Zhongshu, became a famous scholar and philosopher.
So we can trust that he lived happily ever after.
I discovered this tale via Lafcadio Hearn’s early collection, Some Chinese Ghosts. Hearn attributes the story (he calls it “The Legend of Tchi-Niu”) to the Book of Rewards and Punishments, a Taoist tract by Lao-Tzu, the father of philosophical Taoism. I think this isn’t strictly true. Hearn used Stanislas Julien’s 1835 French translation, whose full title is (roughly) The Book of Rewards and Punishments; Accompanied by four hundred legends, anecdotes and stories, which make known the doctrines, beliefs and customs of the Taoist sect. The tale of Dong Yong and Zhinu is one of those “four hundred legends, anecdotes and stories;” other translations of The Book of Rewards and Punishments (into English, at least) include only Lao-Tzu’s pithy sayings that form the book proper.
The anecdote itself is a parable illustrating the virtue (and rewards) of filial piety, and it’s quite short. According to this site, the Dong Yong legend first appeared in Liu Xiang‘s Biography of Dutiful Sons (though it’s not clear this work actually exists), as well as in Gan Bao‘s Soushenji (In Search of the Supernatural), from the 4th century CE.
I used only a few details from Hearn’s version in my retelling, as “The Legend of Tchi-Niu” is mostly his own creation, based on the brief sketch from Julien, and Hearn’s other reading (He mentions Giles’ translation of “The Supernatural Wife,” from Pu Songling’s late 17th century Strange Tales from A Chinese Studio. It’s a completely different story, though a good one.). Instead, I went directly to Julien, as well as to two other early short versions of the tale: Parable #6 from The Twenty-four Examples of Filial Piety, and one from Fayuan Zhulin.
I also took details from other versions discussed in the text Filial Piety and Its Divine Rewards, by Wilt Idema, and details from this version of “Dong Yong and the Seventh Fairy.” This last source is interesting because it’s halfway between the original parables, and the other famous Zhinu story, “The Weaver Maid and the Cowherd” (of which more, next post). Not surprisingly, these two tales have merged somewhat over the centuries. And of course, I added some embellishments of my own (including some from this Punjabi tale).
Zhinu has another mortal husband: Niu Ling, the cowherd. I will tell you about him next. Stay tuned….
- Hearn, Lafcadio. “The Legend of Tchi-Niu,” Some Chinese Ghosts, 1887.
- Idema, Wilt L. Filial Piety and Its Divine Rewards, Hackett Publishing, 2009.
- Guo Jujing. “Entering Servitude To Pay For Father’s Funeral: Dong Yong” (Parable Six), The Twenty-Four Paragons of Filial Piety [Ershishi Xiao]. Translator unknown.
- Koshoibekova, Nargiz. “The Legend of Dong Yong and the Seventh Fairy,” The World of Chinese online, April 3, 2015.
- Lao-Tzu and Stanislas Julien (Translator). “Le bonheur et les emplois l’accompagnent,” from Le Livre Des Récompenses Et Des Peines; accompagné de quatre cents légendes, anecdotes et histoires, qui font connaître les doctrines, les croyances et les mœurs de la secte des Tao-sse, 1835. In French. PDF here. English translation of Julien’s version (The Book of Rewards and Punishments only, not the anecdotes and stories) here.
Stamp from People’s Republic of China depicting a scene from the Story of Dong Yong (2002). Source
Illustration for “The Legend of Tchi-Niu” from Tales Out of the East, Lafcadio Hearn, 1952. Illustrator – Jeanyee Wong. Source