Qingmei: A Tale of Love, Virtue, and Destiny

Explore the captivating story of Qingmei, a tale of love, virtue, and destiny, where a maid's unwavering commitment challenges societal norms.

Once upon a time in Nanjing, there lived a man named Cheng Sheng. He had a straightforward and unconventional personality, not bound by societal norms. One day, as Cheng Sheng returned home from an outing and loosened his belt, he felt that one end of his belt was heavy, as if something had fallen. When he looked in that direction, he saw nothing. However, as he turned around, a woman emerged from behind him. She ran her fingers through her hair, gave a faint smile, and was exceedingly beautiful.

Cheng Sheng suspected that the woman might be a ghost, but she said, “I am not a ghost; I am a fox.” Cheng Sheng replied, “As long as I can have a beautiful woman, I am not afraid of anything, not even ghosts, let alone a fox!” So, he became affectionate with her. Two years later, the fox woman gave birth to a daughter, whom they named Qingmei.

The fox woman often told Cheng Sheng, “Do not marry another woman; I will bear you a son.” Cheng Sheng believed her words and refrained from marrying. However, his relatives and friends mocked and ridiculed him. Cheng Sheng was eventually forced to change his mind and married Wang Shi from Hudong.

When the fox woman heard about this, she became furious. After feeding her daughter, she handed the child to Cheng Sheng and said, “This is your burden now; whether you raise her or kill her, it’s all up to you. Why should I be a wet nurse for someone else?” With that, she walked away and never returned.

Qingmei grew up to be very intelligent and exceptionally beautiful, resembling her mother greatly. Later, Cheng Sheng passed away, and Wang Shi remarried, leaving the Cheng family. Qingmei relied on her paternal uncle for her livelihood, but her uncle was a libertine with a bad character. He wanted to sell Qingmei and make some money for himself.

Coincidentally, there was a scholar named Wang who was waiting at home for an official position appointment from the Ministry of Personnel. When he heard about Qingmei’s intelligence, he used a large sum of money to buy her. He employed Qingmei to serve his daughter, Axi. Axi was fourteen years old and exceptionally beautiful, surpassing her contemporaries. She took a liking to Qingmei and they lived together.

Qingmei was also adept at reading people’s expressions and body language. With a single glance or a slight frown, she could understand their intentions. Therefore, the entire family grew fond of her.

In the town, there was a young man named Zhang Sheng, with the courtesy name Jieshou. He came from a humble background, without any property or land, and rented a house from Scholar Wang. Zhang Sheng was exceptionally filial, highly virtuous, meticulous in his conduct, and dedicated to his studies.

One day, Qingmei happened to visit Zhang Sheng’s home. She saw him sitting on a stone, eating a simple meal of bran porridge. She engaged in conversation with Zhang Sheng’s mother and noticed a pot of simmering pig’s trotters on the table. At that moment, Zhang Sheng’s father was bedridden, and Zhang Sheng went inside to assist him in relieving himself. Unfortunately, some urine accidentally stained Zhang Sheng’s clothes. Zhang’s father felt embarrassed when he realized this, and Zhang Sheng quickly rushed out to clean up, fearing his father’s knowledge of the mishap.

Qingmei was deeply impressed by Zhang Sheng’s actions. After returning home, she recounted what she had witnessed to Axi and said, “Our tenant is not an ordinary person. Miss, if you don’t want to settle for just any man, and if you want to find a husband who perfectly suits your wishes, it should be Zhang Sheng.”

Axi was worried that her father might disapprove of Zhang Sheng due to his poverty. Qingmei reassured her, saying, “It’s not about that; it depends on Miss’s decision. If you think it’s acceptable, I will secretly inform him and have him arrange a match through a matchmaker. Madame will surely want to discuss it with you, and you just need to say ‘yes’ when she asks. That will seal the deal.”

Axi was concerned about a lifetime of poverty and potential ridicule, but Qingmei said, “I believe in my ability to judge exceptional individuals, and I won’t be wrong.”

On the second day, Qingmei went to inform Zhang’s mother about their plan. Zhang’s mother was greatly surprised and had doubts about the idea. Qingmei explained, “Miss heard that the young master is a virtuous and good person. I intentionally tested her feelings before coming to discuss this. If we send a matchmaker, we can assist in the process, and it is likely to succeed. Even if she disagrees, it won’t harm the young master in any way.” Zhang’s mother agreed, saying, “I’ll follow your lead.” She then asked Hou Shi, the flower seller, to act as the matchmaker.

When Madam Wang heard about the Zhang family’s proposal, she found it amusing and told Scholar Wang, who also laughed heartily. They called Axi over and informed her about Hou Shi’s intentions. Before Axi could respond, Qingmei quickly praised Zhang Sheng and confidently predicted that he would become wealthy in the future. Madam Wang asked Axi, “This is a crucial moment in your life. If you are willing to endure hardships, I will agree to this marriage for you.” Axi lowered her head for a while, gazing at the wall, and replied, “Wealth and poverty are destined by fate. If it’s in your destiny to be poor, you won’t stay poor for long, and if it’s not, you’ll have wealth for a long time. Many noble offspring are destitute; it’s not uncommon. This matter should be decided by our parents.”

Initially, Scholar Wang had called Axi to discuss the matter for a bit of fun. However, after hearing Axi’s response, he became displeased and asked, “Do you want to marry Zhang Sheng?” Axi remained silent, and when he pressed further, she still did not respond. Scholar Wang, now angered, said, “You stubborn girl! You haven’t made any progress! You’re acting like you want to marry a beggar with a basket on his back; it’s truly embarrassing!” Axi’s face turned red, and she left in frustration, causing the matchmaker to flee as well.

When Qingmei realized that the matchmaking proposal had failed, she began to think about her own future. After a few days, she secretly visited Zhang Sheng at night while he was studying. Zhang Sheng was surprised and asked where she had come from. Qingmei hesitated as she replied, and Zhang Sheng sternly told her to leave. Tearfully, Qingmei said, “I come from an honorable family; I am not a woman who runs away. I simply thought you were a virtuous man, so I was willing to entrust myself to you.” Zhang Sheng responded, “You claim to love me and say I’m virtuous, but decent people don’t meet like this in the dark. Do you really think a virtuous person would do such a thing? It should start with proper courtship and end with marriage. Even a gentleman would consider this inappropriate. Besides, if the marriage doesn’t work out, how will we face others?”

Qingmei asked, “What if the marriage could work out? Would you be willing to accept me?” Zhang Sheng replied, “To marry a wife like you, what more could I wish for? But there are three unavoidable issues, so I cannot agree easily.” Qingmei inquired, “What are they?” Zhang Sheng explained, “First, you cannot decide for yourself, which is unavoidable. Second, even if you could decide, if my parents are not pleased, it’s still unavoidable. And third, even if my parents are pleased, your social status must be very high, and I am poor and unable to provide the necessary dowry, especially in this situation. Please leave quickly; being seen here under suspicious circumstances can lead to trouble, and rumors are dangerous.”

As Qingmei was about to leave, she urged, “If you are interested, let’s think of a solution together.” Zhang Sheng agreed to consider her proposal.

After Qingmei returned home, Axi asked where she had been, and Qingmei knelt down to confess that she had gone to meet Zhang Sheng. Axi was furious about the elopement and intended to punish her. Tearfully, Qingmei explained that she had not done anything improper, and she truthfully recounted the situation. Axi praised her, saying, “Refusing to compromise is virtuous; insisting on informing your parents is filial; not making hasty promises is trustworthy. Possessing these three virtues, you will surely receive blessings from heaven, and you don’t need to worry about your poverty.” She then asked, “What do you want to do?” Qingmei replied, “I want to marry him.” Axi chuckled and asked, “Can a foolish girl like you make that decision on your own?” Qingmei replied, “If not, I would rather die!” Axi said, “I will make sure you get your wish.” Qingmei kowtowed to express her gratitude.

A few days later, Qingmei said to Axi, “Were you joking the other day, or were you genuinely merciful? If you were merciful, I have some difficult secrets I need to share with you.” Axi inquired about the secrets, and Qingmei explained, “Zhang Sheng cannot afford the bride price, and I am unable to redeem myself. We must pay the full bride price, or it’s as good as not marrying.” Axi pondered for a while and said, “This is beyond my ability. Saying I will marry you may not be appropriate, and insisting on no bride price, my parents won’t agree, and I dare not say it.” Qingmei, with tears streaming down her face, begged Axi to have mercy on her and save her. After much contemplation, Axi said, “I have some private savings; I will definitely provide all the help I can.” Qingmei expressed her gratitude and secretly informed Zhang Sheng. Zhang’s mother was overjoyed and, with various borrowings, managed to gather a certain sum of money, which they saved, eagerly awaiting good news.

Coincidentally, Scholar Wang was appointed as the magistrate of Quwo County. Axi took advantage of this opportunity to suggest to her mother, “Qingmei is getting older, and now that Father is going to his new post, it might be a good idea to send her away.” Madam Wang had always considered Qingmei too clever and was afraid she might lead Axi astray. She had often thought about marrying Qingmei off but was worried that Axi would be unhappy. Now, hearing Axi’s suggestion, she was pleased.

Two days later, a servant’s wife came to convey the Zhang family’s proposal. Scholar Wang smiled and said, “He was only fit to marry a servant girl; he was too arrogant before! But selling her to a wealthy family as a concubine might fetch a price double what was originally offered.” Axi quickly stepped forward and said, “Qingmei has served me for a long time, and I can’t bear to sell her as a concubine to another family.” So, Scholar Wang conveyed the message to the Zhang family, and they agreed to the original bride price, marrying Qingmei to Zhang Sheng.

Upon entering the Zhang family, Qingmei was respectful to her parents-in-law, obedient, and even more diligent than Zhang Sheng in managing household affairs. She happily ate humble meals without complaint, endearing herself to the entire family. Qingmei also took up embroidery as a trade, selling her work quickly, with merchants waiting at her door to make purchases, fearing they might miss out. This earned her some money to support the family during tough times.

Qingmei also persuaded Zhang Sheng not to let household responsibilities hinder his studies, taking on all the household management herself. As the head of the family was going to his new post, Qingmei went to bid farewell to Axi. Axi, upon seeing Qingmei, cried and said, “You have found a suitable place to settle down; I truly cannot compare to you.” Qingmei replied, “Who gave this to me? How could I forget? But if you think you can’t compare to me, it will shorten my lifespan.” So, the two bid each other a tearful farewell.

Scholar Wang arrived in Shanxi, and six months later, his wife passed away. Her coffin was placed in a temple. Two years later, Scholar Wang was dismissed from his position due to bribery charges and fined a substantial amount, gradually falling into poverty where he couldn’t support himself. His servants scattered and fled. Around the same time, a plague broke out, and Scholar Wang also fell ill and passed away, leaving only an elderly maid to accompany Axi. Not long after, the elderly maid also passed away, leaving Axi even more alone and destitute.

A neighbor, an elderly lady, urged Axi to get married. Axi responded, “Anyone who can bury my parents, I will marry him.” The elderly lady pitied Axi and brought a dou of rice before leaving. Half a month later, the elderly lady returned and said, “I’ve tried my best, but it’s still difficult. Poor people can’t afford to bury your parents, and rich people look down on you because you come from a fallen family. There’s one more idea, but you might not agree.” Axi asked, “What’s the idea?” The elderly lady said, “There is a man named Li who is looking for a concubine. If he sees your appearance, even if he has to spend lavishly on your parents’ burial, he won’t mind the expense.” Axi burst into tears and said, “I come from a respected family, and now I have to become someone’s concubine?” The elderly lady didn’t say much and left.

Axi survived on one meal a day, barely making it by, waiting for someone to provide money for her parents’ burial. After half a year, Axi found it increasingly difficult to go on. One day, the elderly lady returned, and Axi tearfully said to her, “Life has been so difficult; I often think of ending it myself. I’ve survived this long only because of these two coffins. If I die, who will bury my parents? So, I think I should go along with what you suggested.” The elderly lady then brought Li to secretly observe Axi and was very satisfied with her. Immediately, Li provided the funds for the burial, and both coffins were laid to rest in the ground.

Afterward, Li used a carriage to pick up Axi and took her to meet the main wife. The main wife was always jealous and fierce. At first, Li didn’t dare to say that Axi was a concubine, only referring to her as a purchased servant. But when the main wife saw Axi, she flew into a rage and drove Axi away with a wooden stick, not allowing her to enter. Axi, disheveled and in tears, had no choice but to leave.

At this time, an old nun passed by and invited Axi to live with her. Axi was delighted and went along with the old nun. Upon arriving at the nunnery, Axi requested to become a nun by shaving her head, but the old nun disagreed, saying, “I can see that you haven’t been away from worldly life for long. The nunnery offers simple food and shelter, which should suffice for the time being. When the right time comes, you can leave on your own.”

Not long after, some ruffians from the town, drawn by Axi’s beauty, repeatedly came to the nunnery, making lewd remarks and causing disturbances that the old nun couldn’t prevent. Axi cried bitterly and even contemplated suicide. The old nun went to a certain government official at the Ministry of Personnel to request strict measures and a notice was posted to prohibit such behavior. The young ruffians gradually restrained themselves.

Later, someone in the middle of the night made holes in the nunnery’s walls. When the old nun discovered this, she shouted loudly, and the intruder eventually left. The old nun then reported the incident to the authorities, and the main culprit was apprehended and punished at the local government office. This gradually restored peace and tranquility.

Over a year later, a wealthy young nobleman passed by the nunnery and was captivated by Axi’s beauty. He insisted that the old nun convey his affection to Axi and offered a generous bribe. The old nun gently told him, “She comes from a prestigious family and is unwilling to become a concubine. Sir, please return for now, and I will provide you with an answer later.” After the nobleman left, Axi contemplated taking poison to end her life. That night, she dreamt of her father, who came to her in distress and said, “I didn’t fulfill your wishes, which has led to your current situation. It’s too late for regrets now. Just wait a very short while; don’t die. Your long-cherished wish will still come true.” Axi was filled with astonishment.

The next morning, after Axi had finished washing up, the old nun noticed her surprised expression and said, “I can see that your complexion has improved, and the threat from the nobleman’s unreasonable behavior is no longer a concern. Good fortune is on its way. Don’t forget about me.” Before she could finish speaking, they heard a knock at the door. Axi’s face changed, thinking it must be a servant from the nobleman’s household. The old nun opened the door and, indeed, it was as she had thought. The servant inquired about the progress of their request. The old nun cordially engaged in conversation with him and asked for a three-day extension. The servant conveyed the nobleman’s message, stating that if the matter couldn’t be resolved, the old nun should come personally with the reply.

The old nun respectfully complied, expressing regret, and sent the servant away. Axi was overwhelmed with sorrow and once again contemplated suicide, but the old nun persuaded her not to. Axi worried about the servant’s return in three days and her inability to respond. The old nun reassured her, saying, “With me here, I will bear the consequences, whether it’s life or death.”

The next day, just as the Shen hour began, torrential rain poured down suddenly. A commotion was heard as several people knocked on the door. Axi’s heart raced, sensing that something had happened, and she was both frightened and confused. Despite the rain, the old nun opened the temple’s gate and saw a sedan chair parked in front of it. Several maids assisted an elegant lady out of the sedan chair, followed by an imposing entourage. The carriages and horses were all luxurious. The old nun was astonished and asked who these visitors were. The reply came, “These are the family members of the official in charge, seeking shelter from the rain here.” The old nun led the lady and her entourage into the main hall, arranged chairs for them, and asked the lady to sit down. The other family members and women immediately went to the meditation rooms, each finding a place to rest.

After a while, the rain stopped, and the lady decided to visit the meditation rooms. The old nun escorted her there, and as soon as the lady saw Axi, she was greatly startled, her gaze fixed on Axi without blinking. Axi, in turn, scrutinized the lady closely. The lady was none other than Qingmei. Both of them cried uncontrollably, and Qingmei began to recount her journey. It turned out that Qingmei’s father had passed away, and after the mourning period, Zhang Sheng had continued to excel in the imperial examinations, eventually becoming an official. He had gone to serve in his new position and had now returned to bring his family. Axi exclaimed, “Seeing you today, the difference is like heaven and earth!” Qingmei smiled and said, “Fortunately, you didn’t marry anyone despite the setbacks. It seems that fate brought us together. If it weren’t for being delayed by this heavy rain, how could we have this unexpected reunion? There are divine forces at play here, beyond human control.”

Qingmei then took out precious clothing and jewelry, urging Axi to change into them. Axi hesitated and bowed her head, but the old nun joined Qingmei in convincing her. Axi was concerned about the legitimacy of living together with Qingmei, but Qingmei said, “In the past, we had established roles. How could I forget your great kindness? Think about Zhang Lang; he is not an unjust person!” She then insisted that Axi change into the new attire, bid farewell to the old nun, and left together with Qingmei.

After arriving at their new post, both Zhang’s mother and son were very happy. Axi knelt down and said, “Today, I have no face to meet Aunt anymore!” Zhang’s mother smiled and comforted her, and they began discussing an auspicious day for the wedding. Axi said, “As long as there is a place for me in the temple, I won’t follow Madame here. If you remember our past friendship, just give me a small thatched hut where I can place a mat, and I’ll be content.” Qingmei just smiled without saying a word.

On the day of the wedding, Qingmei arrived in her splendid attire, leaving Axi feeling quite awkward and uncertain. Soon, they heard the sound of drums and music, and Axi found herself unable to resist. Qingmei led the maids and forcibly helped Axi get dressed, escorting her outside. Axi saw Zhang Sheng, dressed in ceremonial attire, bowing to her, and she involuntarily returned the gesture. Then, Qingmei dragged Axi into the bridal chamber, saying, “I’ve been saving this spot for you for a long time.” She looked at Zhang Sheng and added, “Tonight, you can repay your debt of gratitude properly.” With that, she turned to leave, and Axi grabbed onto Qingmei’s clothing. Qingmei smiled and said, “Don’t detain me; this is something I can’t replace.” She gently freed Axi’s grip and left.

Qingmei served Axi with great respect, not daring to take the place of the legal wife in the marriage bed, while Axi always felt ashamed and uneasy. Zhang’s mother ordered them to address each other as “Madame,” but Qingmei continued to observe the etiquette of a concubine, never slacking. Three years later, when Zhang Sheng was passing by the temple on his way to the capital, he offered the old nun 500 taels of silver, but the old nun refused. Zhang Sheng insisted, so the old nun accepted 200 taels and used the money to build a temple for Guanyin Bodhisattva and erect a stele for Madame Wang. Later, Zhang Sheng was promoted to the position of a Privy Councillor. Cheng’s wife Qingmei gave birth to two sons and a daughter, while Wang’s wife Axi had four sons and a daughter. Zhang Sheng submitted a memorial to the throne, and both women were granted the title of “Madame.”

Yi Shi Shi said: “Heavenly beauties are originally meant to reward virtuous and talented individuals, but worldly nobles often keep them for the pampered sons of wealthy families. This is a conflict that the Creator must contend with. The circumstances have been strangely convoluted, with matchmakers going to great lengths, and Heaven itself having a profound purpose. Only Lady Qingmei recognized the hero in times of adversity, making a solemn vow to marry Zhang Sheng and even willing to die for it. On the other hand, those who were once dignified and virtuous have forsaken their talents for worldly pleasures, and their judgment has fallen below that of a maid. Why is this so?”















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