The Tale of a Virtuous Couple Navigating Love, Rebellion, and Fortune in Ancient China
In Teng County, there was a man named Zhao Wang. Both he and his wife were devout Buddhists, abstaining from meat and fish, and were regarded as virtuous people by the villagers. The Zhao family was quite wealthy. Zhao Wang had a daughter named Xiao Er, who was exceptionally intelligent and beautiful, and he doted on her dearly. When Xiao Er was six years old, Zhao Wang sent her and her older brother Chang Chun to study under a teacher. They studied for five years, and Xiao Er had already mastered the Five Classics. Xiao Er had a classmate named Ding, with the courtesy name Zi Mo, who was three years older than her. He was exceptionally talented in literature and had a charming personality, and he and Xiao Er fell deeply in love. Ding privately shared his wish with his mother, who sent a marriage proposal to the Zhao family. However, Zhao Wang was determined to marry Xiao Er into a wealthy family and refused the proposal.
Shortly after, Zhao Wang was influenced by the White Lotus Sect and participated in their secret activities. During the Tianqi era, the leader of the White Lotus Sect, Xu Hongru, rebelled against the imperial court, and the entire Zhao family joined him as rebels. Due to her knowledge and virtuous conduct, Xiao Er excelled in various mystical arts, such as paper-cutting for soldiers and bean scattering for horses. She quickly mastered these techniques. Among Xu Hongru’s six female disciples, Xiao Er was the most outstanding and learned all of Xu Hongru’s secret arts. Zhao Wang also gained favor with Xu Hongru due to Xiao Er’s abilities and was given important responsibilities.
At this time, Ding Sheng was already eighteen years old and was studying at the county school. He never talked about marriage because he couldn’t forget Xiao Er. Finally, one day, he secretly left home and joined Xu Hongru’s group. When Xiao Er saw Ding Sheng, she was very happy and treated him with great respect, far beyond the usual courtesy. Xiao Er, as Xu Hongru’s favorite disciple, managed military affairs and was busy day and night. She rarely saw her parents. Ding Sheng met Xiao Er every night, and each time, he would send away the nearby servants and soldiers, and they often talked late into the night.
One time, Ding Sheng asked Xiao Er, “Do you know my true intentions for coming here?” Xiao Er replied, “I don’t know.” Ding Sheng said, “I didn’t come here to align myself with the White Lotus Sect for glory and success. I came here for you. The White Lotus Sect is ultimately a deviant and doomed path. Haven’t you thought about this? You can escape with me; my sincerity will never let you down.” Xiao Er felt lost for a moment and, after thinking for a while, as if awakening from a dream, she said, “It’s unjust to sneak away from my parents. Please allow me to bid them farewell in person.”
So, the two of them approached Zhao Wang and his wife, explaining the pros and cons. However, Zhao Wang remained unrepentant, saying, “Our master is a divine person; can he be wrong?” Realizing that further persuasion was futile, Xiao Er tied her maiden hair into a woman’s bun and made two paper kites. She and Ding Sheng each rode on one, and the two paper kites solemnly spread their wings, flying side by side like lovebirds as they soared into the distance. By dawn, they had reached the territory of Laiwu County. Xiao Er pinched the neck of the paper kite, and it immediately folded its wings and landed on the ground. Xiao Er put away the paper kites and took out two paper donkeys. The two of them rode the donkeys to a remote mountainous area, pretending to be fleeing from the turmoil, and rented a house to stay in.
Because they had hurriedly left home, their belongings were meager, and they found themselves short of daily necessities. Ding Sheng was particularly worried. He went to the neighbors to borrow some food, but no one was willing to lend him even a bit. However, Xiao Er had no trace of worry on her face. She pawned her golden hairpin and earrings for emergencies. Then the two of them stayed indoors, playing riddles, reminiscing about the books they had read in the past, and comparing their knowledge, with the loser receiving a gentle two-fingered tap on the wrist as a playful punishment. Their neighbor to the west was surnamed Weng, a hero of the greenwood. One day, Weng returned from a raid. Xiao Er said, “The ‘Book of Changes’ says that wealth can be obtained through neighbors. What do we have to worry about? Let’s borrow a thousand taels of silver from him for now. Would he refuse to lend it to me?” Ding Sheng felt that this was an extremely difficult task. Xiao Er said, “I’ll make him willingly deliver the money.” So, Xiao Er cut a piece of paper into the shape of a magistrate and buried it underground, covering it with a chicken coop. Then she sat with Ding Sheng on the bed, brewed a pot of aged wine, and played a drinking game based on the “Book of Rites.” They would randomly mention a section of the book, a page number, and a person’s name, and then they would flip through the book together. If the mentioned person’s page had radical characters related to food, water, or wine, they had to drink; if they encountered something related to wine, they had to drink double. Before long, Xiao Er happened to flip to the “Wine Man” in the “Book of Rites – Heavenly Officials,” and Ding Sheng grabbed a large cup and urged Xiao Er to drink quickly. Xiao Er then prayed, “If we can borrow the silver, you should flip to a character with the ‘drink’ radical.” It was Ding Sheng’s turn, and he casually flipped to the “Turtle Man” in the “Book of Rites – Heavenly Officials.” Xiao Er joyfully laughed and said, “The matter is settled!” She then filled the cup with wine and urged Ding Sheng to drink it down. Ding Sheng resisted, and Xiao Er said, “Turtles belong to the aquatic category; you should drink the wine as a turtle drinks water.” While they were joking and playing the drinking game, they suddenly heard a noise from the chicken coop on the ground. Xiao Er stood up and said, “It’s here.” They opened the chicken coop and found a cloth bag filled with silver coins, almost overflowing. Ding Sheng couldn’t help but be both surprised and delighted.
Later, the Weng family’s wet nurse brought her child to their home to play and quietly said to them, “The other day, when the master had just returned home and was sitting with the lamp lit, suddenly, a large crack appeared in the floor of the house. It was so deep that you couldn’t see the bottom. A magistrate walked out from inside and said, ‘I am a judicial officer from the underworld. Lord Tai Shan wants to gather officials from the netherworld and compile a record of robberies. He needs a thousand silver lamps, each weighing ten taels. If you donate a hundred silver lamps, your sins will be forgiven.’ The master was terrified and immediately lit incense to pray and offer worship. He gave a thousand taels of silver. Only then did the magistrate slowly return to the underworld, and the crack in the ground gradually closed.” Xiao Er and her husband listened to this narrative and deliberately expressed astonishment, pretending to be surprised. From that moment on, the husband and wife gradually acquired land, cattle, horses, and servants. They even built their own residence.
In the village, a few idle ruffians saw how wealthy they had become and gathered some troublemakers. They climbed over the wall and entered the courtyard, intending to rob them. Ding Sheng and Xiao Er had just woken up from their sleep, and they saw torches illuminating the surroundings, with the house full of bandits. Two of them rushed and seized Ding Sheng, while another attempted to touch Xiao Er’s chest. Xiao Er, bare-chested, leaped up, folded her fingers, and sternly shouted, “Stop, stop!” Immediately, all thirteen bandits were frozen in place, sticking their tongues out, standing like puppets. Only then did Xiao Er put on her clothes, get out of bed, and call her family. She tied up the bandits one by one and forced them to reveal the specific reason for their attempted robbery.
Then, Xiao Er admonished them, saying, “We came from afar to live quietly in this remote mountain valley, hoping for your support. We never expected you to stoop to such unscrupulous and unjust deeds! Hardships and difficulties are things people often face. If you were short of money, you could have asked openly. Am I the kind of miser who only cares about getting rich and wouldn’t help at all? Based on your cruel and unscrupulous actions, we should have put an end to all of you. However, I have some compassion left, so I’ll let you go for now. If you dare to repeat such acts in the future, I will show no mercy.” The bandits bowed and thanked her, fleeing in haste.
Not long after, Xu Hongru’s forces were defeated, and he was captured by government troops. Xiao Er’s parents and siblings were all executed. Ding Sheng used a large sum of money to ransom Xiao Er’s brother, Zhao Changchun’s young son. The child was only three years old, and Ding Sheng and Xiao Er treated him as their own, changing his surname to Ding and naming him Chengchou. Consequently, the people in the village gradually came to know that the Ding family was related to the White Lotus Sect.
During that time, a locust plague ravaged the crops in the region. Xiao Er placed hundreds of paper kites in her own fields, scaring the locusts away, preventing them from entering her fields. As a result, Xiao Er’s crops were spared from the locust infestation. The villagers were extremely jealous and collectively reported them to the authorities, accusing them of being remnants of Xu Hongru’s followers. The county magistrate, lusting after the Ding family’s wealth, considered it a rich opportunity and had Ding Sheng arrested. Ding Sheng managed to avoid death by bribing the county magistrate with a hefty sum.
Xiao Er said, “Our wealth has been acquired through questionable means, and some loss is only fair. However, this place is treacherous, a den of snakes and scorpions, and it’s not safe to stay here for long.” So, they sold their property at a low price and left the area, relocating to the west of Yidu County.
Xiao Er was clever and skilled at accumulating wealth, even more shrewd in her business dealings than most men. She once owned a glassware factory and personally trained every worker she hired. The chess pieces and lamps produced by her factory had unique and innovative designs that outshone those of other factories. As a result, her products always sold quickly at high prices. After a few years, the Ding family’s wealth skyrocketed, making them the richest in the region.
Xiao Er managed her servants and staff with strict discipline, leaving no room for idleness among her hundreds of employees. During her leisure time, she often enjoyed tea and played chess with Ding Sheng or read books and historical texts for entertainment. Every five days, she meticulously reviewed the finances and the work performance of her maids and servants. Xiao Er personally calculated and Ding Sheng helped with bookkeeping. Diligent individuals received rewards, while lazy ones faced whipping or kneeling as punishment.
On nights when they took a break, the couple would prepare food and invite their maids and servants, entertaining them with folk songs and revelry. Xiao Er had a keen eye for detail, seemingly aided by divine intervention, as no one dared to deceive her. She rewarded her staff generously, surpassing their labor and efforts, ensuring that everything ran smoothly. In the village with over two hundred households, Xiao Er provided capital to the poor families, helping them find their own livelihoods, effectively eradicating idleness.
One year, during a severe drought, Xiao Er had the villagers set up an altar in the wilderness. She arrived at night and, at the altar, imitated the movements and incantations of the legendary Great Yu, resulting in a downpour that nourished the farmlands within a five-mile radius. From that moment, people revered her as if she were a deity. Xiao Er never concealed her face with a veil when she went out, and everyone in the village, young and old, had seen her. Some young men would secretly discuss her extraordinary beauty, but when they met her in person, they behaved respectfully and didn’t dare to look directly at her.
Every autumn, Xiao Er would financially support the village boys who couldn’t work in the fields to collect wild vegetables like bitter herbs and thistles. She did this for twenty years, accumulating so many wild vegetables that they filled all the rooms in her house. People would privately jest about her eccentric actions.
Not long after, Shandong experienced a severe famine, and food became scarce, leading to cannibalism. It was then that Xiao Er used her stored wild vegetables, mixed them with grain, and distributed them to the starving people. She saved the lives of the residents of several nearby villages, preventing the need for them to flee their homes in search of food.
The chronicler of strange tales said: Xiao Er’s actions were truly endowed with divine power from above, beyond the capabilities of ordinary mortals. However, without Ding Sheng’s guidance and enlightenment, it’s likely that Xiao Er would have met the same fate as her associates – execution. This illustrates that in this world, there are certainly many exceptionally talented individuals who go astray and meet unfortunate ends. How can we be sure that among the six disciples who received education under Xu Hongru, there weren’t others with remarkable talents? It’s just regrettable that they didn’t have the chance to encounter Ding Sheng!