This is another story of wronged lovers, a Chinese fairy tale taken from the 1974 reprint of Ruth Manning-Sanders’ A Book of Charms and Changelings. A wealthy man with a beautiful daughter called Chien-Nang employs his nephew Wang-Chou to do his accounts and is horrified when the cousins fall in love. Not because they are related, that wasn’t so unusual in the past, but because he’s got another, richer man in mind. So he sends his nephew off to the river to take a boat and find work elsewhere, the key word in this sentence being ELSEWHERE.
Wang-Chou sails all day. At nightfall, he draws in to the shore and lies staring at the stars, thinking about the girl he’s left behind. Then suddenly there are footsteps close behind him and Chien-Nang herself jumps barefoot into the boat. “I must come with you!” she exclaims. “I will come with you! I love no one but you; I will wed no one but you!” So they sail away together to a new city and a new life. Wang-Chou becomes a scribe, not the most glamorous of occupations and not very well paid, but they’re together and they’re married and for five years they are very happy.
Then Chien-Nang’s conscience begins to nag at her. She wants to see her father to find out whether he’s forgiven her elopement, and Wang-Chou agrees, but when they reach her former home he insists she remain in the boat until he’s sure her father isn’t angry. He certainly doesn’t expect to be seized the moment he comes in his uncle’s sight and hugged like a lifeline. It’s a promising start, though! Wang-Chou explains that he and Chien-Nang are married, that they’re happy, that she’s waiting on the river and wants to see her father again. Which is news to him, because as far as her father is concerned, she is lying close to death in her bed, too heartsick to live. The two men look at each other and each basically thinks, oh dear, he’s lost the plot.
“Nephew,” Chien-Nang’s father says at last, “whomsoever you married, it was not my daughter. And whoever is in the boat it is not Chien-Nang…See now, I will order my servants to carry her down here into the garden.” Wang-Chou responds by hurrying back to the river to fetch his wife. When the servants go to carry their patient from her bed, though, they find a laughing girl brimming over with health. She runs from the house just as the girl in the boat runs into the garden and the two leap into each other’s arms, melting together into one whole. This is how Manning-Sanders sums it up: “Which was the real Chien-Nang, and which the changeling? The wise men of China argued about that for a long, long time. But let them argue as they would, they could not decide. And if Chien-Nang herself knew, she never told them.”
To which I say, she knew all right. I’m guessing the real girl was the one who ran off, got married and had a nice life as opposed to the deathbed invalid, but maybe they were both real. Either way, she knew what she wanted and came up with the perfect way to make that happen. I love that she keeps her secret! If I knew how to split myself into clones, I don’t think I’d tell anyone either.