When there is a great peace
Under the gold cup of the sun
Joy reaches its flowering.
In the twentieth year of the period Wan-li, there came, among the thousands of students who gathered at Peking for the examinations, a certain Li, whose first name was Chia and his surname Ch’ien-hsi, or “Purified-a-thousand times.” His family were from Shao-hsing fu in Chekiang; his father was Judge of the province of Kang-su; and Li himself was the eldest of three brothers. He had studied in the village school from childhood and, not having yet attained to literary rank, had come, according to custom, to present himself for examination at Peking. While in that city, he consorted, before his springtide, with the young libertines, the “willow twigs” of his country; and, in order to gain experience, frequented the theatres and music-halls. Thus he became acquainted with a famous singing girl called Tu, whose first name was Mei, or “Elegance.” As she was the tenth of her family, she was known at the theatre as Shih-niang, “The Tenth daughter.” A delicate seduction diffused from her: her body was all grace and perfume. The twin arches of her brows held the black which is blue of distant mountains, and her eyes were as deep and bright as autumn lakes. Her face had the glory of the lotus, and her lips the glory of cherries. By what blunder of the gods had this piece of flawless jade fallen in the windy dust, among the flowers beneath the willow? When she was thirteen years old, Shih-niang had already “broken her claws.” Now she was nineteen, and it would not be possible to enumerate the young Lords and Princes whose hearts she had besotted, whose thoughts she had set in a turmoil, whose family treasures she had swallowed without compunction. In the theatres, they had composed an epigram about her:
When Tu Shih-niang comes to a banquet
The guests drink a thousand great cups
Instead of a single small one.
When Tu Mei appears upon the stage
The actresses look like devils.
It must be said that never, in the young passions of his life, had Li Chia experienced the pain of beauty; but, when he saw Shih-niang, emotion was awakened in him, and the feelings of a flowering willow filled his breast. He himself was gifted with rare beauty, and a sweet and gentle nature. He spent his money recklessly, with an unbridled zeal for bestowing gifts. For this reason he held a double attraction for Shih-niang, who considered that falsehood and avarice were opposed to rectitude, and had also by this time made up her mind to return to a life of honor. She appreciated Li Chia’s gentleness and generosity, and was drawn toward him. But he was afraid of his father and did not dare to marry her at once, as she wished. Their love was not, on that account, any the less tender. In the joys of dawn and the pleasures of twilight they kept together as do husband and wife, and in their vows they compared their love with the Ocean or with the Mountain, recognizing no other vital motive. In truth: