Chinese Folktales

2. The Beggar and the Princess

ONCE upon a time there was a proud ruler who had a daughter. But the daughter was a child of ill fortune. When the time came for her to marry she ordered all her suitors to assemble before her father’s castle. She was to throw a red silken ball among them and whoever caught it would become her husband. Many princes and counts assembled before the castle. Yet among them there was also a beggar. And the princess saw that small dragons were crawling into his ears and emerging through his nose; for he was a child of good fortune. So she threw the ball to the beggar and he caught it.

Angrily her father demanded: ‘Why did you throw the ball into the beggar’s hands?’

‘He is a child of good fortune,’ said the princess. ‘I want to marry him, and then perhaps I shall share in his good fortune.’

But the father would not hear of it, and when she stood firm he drove her from the castle in anger. So the princess had to go off with the beggar. She lived with him in his small hut and had to gather herbs and roots and cook them herself so they should have something to eat. Often they both went hungry.

One day her husband said to her: ‘l shall go out and seek my fortune. When I have found it I will return for you.’ The princess said: ‘Yes,’ and he left. He was away for eighteen years. And the princess lived in want and sorrow, for her father remained hard and unyielding. If her mother had not secretly sent her money and food she might well have died of hunger during that long period.

The beggar, however, made his fortune and eventually became emperor. He returned and stood before his wife. But she no longer recognized him. She only knew that he was the emperor.

He asked her how she was.

‘Why do you ask me how I am?’ she replied. ‘Surely I am much too lowly for you.’

‘Who then is your husband?’

‘My husband was a beggar. He left to seek his fortune, eighteen years have passed now and he has still not returned. ‘

‘And what have you been doing all this long time?’

‘l have been waiting for his return.’

‘Have you no wish to take another husband since he has stayed away so long?’

‘No, I shall remain his Wife unto death.’

When the emperor saw how faithful his wife was he revealed himself to her, had her arrayed in fine garments and took her with him to his imperial castle. There they then lived in splendour and joy.

After a few days the emperor said to his Wife: ‘We spend each day feasting, just as though it were the New Year.’

‘And why should we not spend our time feasting,’ the woman replied, ‘now that we are emperor and empress?’

But the woman was a child of ill fortune after all. When she had been empress for eighteen days she fell and died. But the man lived for many more years.

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