At the end of the Ming dynasty, huge bands of peasant rebels led by Li Zicheng and others roamed the land, attacking towns and displacing many people from their homes. In 1644 AD they finally attacked and took the capital, ending the Ming dynasty.
Jin Dayong was the son of an old family of the central province. He was betrothed to the daughter of Imperial Prefect You, a girl named Gengniang, who was beautiful and wise. The love between them was deep and sincere.
In the chaos caused by the roving rebels, their households were scattered. Jin took his family to flee south. On the way they met a young man who was also escaping with his wife. He himself said he was Wang Eighteen of Guangling and he was happy to lead the way for them. Delighted, Jin fell in line with him.
When they reached the river, Gengniang secretly told Jin, “Don’t share the same boat as the young man. He has repeatedly looked at me with shifty eyes and changing looks. His heart is unpredictable.”
Jin promised, but Wang assiduously searched for a large boat and moved Jin’s luggage for him with painstaking attention, so Jin couldn’t bear to refuse him. Also, when he thought how Wang had a young wife with him, it seemed unlikely he would have other intentions.
Wang’s wife shared a cabin with Gengniang and her manner was very warm and gentle. Wang sat at the head of the barge talking freely with the oarsman, seemingly very familiar and friendly with him. Before long, the sun sank and the distance of the river lengthened till it was a boundless expanse with no distinction between north and south. Looking all around at the remote dangers, Jin experienced growing doubt.
After a short while, a bright moon began to rise and he saw reeds wherever he gazed. Having moored, Wang invited Jin and his father out on deck to relax, and then seized the chance to push Jin into the water. Jin’s elderly father, seeing this, was about to shout, but the boatman pounded him with a punt-pole and he was drowned too.
Hearing the noise, Jin’s mother came out to look, but she was also knocked into the water. Only then did Wang cry for help. When the mother went out, Gengniang had been behind her and had already caught a vague glimpse. Upon hearing that the whole family had drowned, she wasn’t alarmed but merely said in tears, “With both my parents-in-law gone, where can I turn now?”
Entering, Wang urged, “Don’t worry, Miss. You can go with me to Jinling. My home has fields and houses more then enough to provide for you and keep you free from worry.”
Gengniang controlled her tears and said, “In that case, my wishes are satisfied.”
Overjoyed, Wang attended to her eagerly. Since it was evening, he wanted to make love, but she made the excuse that she was menstruating, so he went to sleep with his wife. The first watch was finished when husband and wife began yelling over each other, for some unknown reason. The wife could be heard saying, “For what you’ve done, I fear a thunderbolt will smash your skull!”
Wang then struck his wife and she cried out, “So let me die! I’m really not willing to be the wife of a murderer!”
Roaring with rage, Wang dragged her out. Then the sound of a splash could be heard, followed by shouts that his wife had drowned.
Soon they reached Jinling and Wang led Gengniang to his home, where they went into the hall to greet his aged mother. His mother was astonished that it wasn’t the former wife. Wang said, “She fell in the water and died. This is my new wife.”
Returning to the bedroom, Wang again wanted to violate her. Gengniang smiled and said, “As a thirty-something man, don’t you know the ways of behaving yet? Newlyweds must share a cup of some weak wine first. Your home is well-off, so it shouldn’t be hard. How could it be proper to face each other sober?”
Pleased, Wang provided some wine for them to drink. Gengniang grasped the goblet and toasted him earnestly. Wang gradually grew drunk and declined to drink more. Gengniang held up a large bowl, using all her charm to encourage him. Unable to resist, Wang again drank it up. Thereupon, deeply drunk, he stripped naked and urged her to bed.
Gengniang cleared away the utensils and lamp and excused herself to urinate; leaving the room, she went back in with a knife and in the darkness felt for Wang’s throat with her hand. Wang still clutched her arm, making intimate noises. Gengniang cut him forcefully, but he didn’t die and got up, howling. Again she wielded the knife and finally he perished.
The aged mother seemed to have heard something and hurried over to ask. Gengniang also killed her. Wang’s younger brother, Nineteen, sensed this. Gengniang knew she couldn’t escape and swiftly cut her own throat, but the blade was blunt and couldn’t penetrate, so she opened the door and fled.
Nineteen pursued her, but she had already thrown herself into the pond. He called out to the residents and they pulled her out, but she was already dead, though still as beautiful as if alive. Together inspecting Wang’s body, they saw a letter upon the window sill. Opening it for a look, they found Gengniang’s detailed description of the injustice suffered.
Everyone considered her heroic and planned to raise funds for a memorial. At sunrise, thousands of people gathered to look at her; seeing her face, they all paid homage to her. By the end of the day, a hundred silver pieces had been garnered and thereupon she was buried in the southern outskirts. Some do-gooders provided a pearl tiara and gown for her and plentiful burial goods.
Earlier, at the time of Jin’s drowning, he had floated upon a plank and avoided death. Approaching dawn, he reached Huaishang and was rescued by a small boat. The boat was specially set up for saving people from drowning by a wealthy old man named Yin. When Jin had revived, he called on Yin to express his thanks. The old man was very generous to him, asking him to stay and teach his son. As Jin had no news of his family, he wanted to go and search for them, so he was undecided.
Presently it was announced, “An old man and woman have been dredged up dead.” Jin suspected it was his father and mother, and when he rushed to check it was indeed so. Yin sourced some coffin wood on his behalf. Just as Jin was grieving, it was again announced, “A drowned woman has been saved. She says Mr. Jin is her husband.”
Surprised, Jin wiped away his tears and went out to find the woman already there – it wasn’t Gengniang at all, but actually Eighteen’s wife. Turning to Jin in floods of tears, she asked him not to abandon her. Jin said, “With my heart already in turmoil, how could I consort with others?”
The woman was even more miserable. Having enquired about the incident, Yin happily considered it heavenly recompense and urged Jin to take her as his wife. Jin declined as he was in mourning and furthermore, as he was going to take revenge, feared dragging down one so delicate. The woman said, “From what you say, suppose Gengniang were still here, would you forgo your mourning and revenge?”
Yin considered her words wise and asked to take her in for the time being on his behalf, so Jin agreed.
At the burial of his parents, the woman dressed in hempen garments and wept, as if mourning her own parents-in-law. After the burial, Jin hid a knife on his person and took an alms bowl, planning to hurry to Guangling, but the woman stopped him, saying, “My family name is Tang and my grandfather lived in Jinling, in the same place as that jackal. When he said before he was from Guangling, that was a lie. What’s more, half of the river pirates are his associates. If you can’t get revenge, you’ll just be courting disaster.”
Jin hesitated, not knowing what plan to make. Suddenly news of a revenge killing by a woman permeated the rivers and canals, with the names being fully revealed. Hearing this, Jin was at once happy but even sadder. Dismissing Tang, he said, “Luckily I haven’t sullied you. With a heroic wife like that, how could I bear to betray her and marry again?”
As Tang had already given her word, she wasn’t willing to abandon him, but wished to take the role of concubine-maid.
At that time there was a Lieutenant General Yuan, an old acquaintance of Yin, who happened to be setting off for the west and passed by Yin. Seeing Jin, he was greatly taken with him and invited him to be his assistant. In no time, the roving rebel bands attacked the capital and Yuan achieved great merit. Due to his involvement in the operations, Jin was commended for his service and returned home decorated as a junior officer. He and Tang finally completed their nuptial ceremony.
Several days later, he took her to visit Jinling, planning to attend to Gengniang’s tomb. Passing briefly through Zhenjiang, they wanted to climb Jinshan Island. As their boat floated mid-stream, a sloop suddenly passed by and within it were an old lady and a young woman. Oddly the young woman was very like Gengniang. As the boat sped past, the woman peered at Jin from her window and her expression was even more alike. Amazed but not daring to inquire too closely, Jin hurriedly called out, “See the flock of ducks flying to the sky!”
Hearing this, the young woman also called out, “The greedy lapdog wants to eat the cat’s raw fish!” This was a private joke from former times in the bedroom.
Astounded, Jin rowed back to approach her and it really was Gengniang. A servant helped her onto the boat, where they embraced each other and wept sorrowfully, their sadness touching other travellers.
Tang paid her respects to Gengniang as concubine to wife. Gengniang wondered why and so Jin explained in detail the reason. Gengniang took her hand and said, “Our one talk in the same boat I have never forgotten. I didn’t imagine we would become one family. For burying my parents-in-law on my behalf, I must thank you most. Why should we stand on ceremony with each other?” And so, as according to age Tang was one year younger than Gengniang, she took her as younger sister.
Prior to this, Gengniang had been buried for how long she herself didn’t know, when suddenly someone called out, “Gengniang, your husband is not dead. You can still be reunited.” Then it was as if she was awoken from a dream. Feeling around, on all sides she was walled in, and so she realised that she had died and been buried. She only felt closed in, but not any pain.
Some young scoundrels, having noticed the richness of her burial goods, opened up her grave and broke open the coffin. Just as they were about to plunder it, they saw that Gengniang was still alive and stared at each other in terror. Fearing that they would harm her, Gengniang said, “Thankfully you have come and let me see the light of day. The hairpins and pearl earrings on my head, you can take them all away. If you wish to sell me as a nun, you can get a bit more value. I won’t reveal anything.”
The robbers kowtowed and said, “Miss, you are a martyr for your chastity. Gods and men all admire you. We are nobodies who because we have no way out of poverty have done this heartless deed. If you just won’t reveal anything, we’re lucky. How could we dare sell you as a nun?”
Gengniang said, “I myself am happy to do that.”
Again one robber said, “Madame Geng of Zhenjiang is widowed and childless. If she met you, Miss, she must be delighted.”
Gengniang thanked him. Taking off her pearl ornaments, she handed them all over to the robbers. The robbers didn’t dare to take them, but she insisted on it, so they all bowed and accepted. Then they carried her away to the home of Madame Geng and claimed that her ship had got lost in a gale. Madame Geng, from a great family, was an elderly widow living on her own. Seeing Gengniang, she was overjoyed and took her as her own child. The two of them happened to be returning home from Jinshan.
Gengniang described all these past incidents. So Jin boarded the boat to pay his respects to Madame Geng and she treated him as if he were her son-in-law. She invited him to her home, where he stayed for several days before returning home. After that they came and went without limit.
The Cryptohistorian says: Before the great changes, the wanton survived while the virtuous died. The survivors split our eye sockets and the dead wiped away our tears. As for talking and laughing without alarm and killing her enemy with her own hand, among all the heroic men through the ages, how many can equal that?