Draft:Tu Shih-Niang Sinks Her Jewel Box in Anger

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Tu Shih-Niang Sinks the Jewel Box in Anger is a Chinese story originally written by Ching-Shih T'ung-Yen. The version in which I will be summarizing and analyzing is the translated version by Richard M.W. Ho. This vernacular story was originally written during the Ming Dynasty. The story features stories in the beginning, middle and end, that serve as period checkpoints where the narrator speaks straight to the audience about what is happening in each scene. The story offers a new type of female character prior to those seen in traditional Chinese vernacular stories thus far. While the female lead is first introduced to the reader as a courtesan, she later breaks the mold of a greedy, lust-filled woman. Tu Shih-Niang Sinks the Jewel Box in Anger is an entertaining story that has a sense of justice as well as offering a didactic message.

The story begins with an introduction to the man Li Chia a native of the Chekiang Province. Although he was unable to pass his prefectural examinations, under new laws he purchased a place in the imperial academy. It was during his time here in the capital that he met Tu Shih-Niang, a courtesan in the nearby pleasure quarters. It was love at first sight for him, and after Tu-Shih Niang saw his pure intentions she too fell deeply in love with Li Chia. Over a year later, Li decided he would purchase Tu Shih-Niang from the Madam of the pleasure house that he could marry her. Shih-Niang, being the bold woman that she is, convinces her madam to sell her. Madam of the house gives the condition that Li can buy her for three hundred taels of silver but it must be delivered in ten days time. After being turned down by all his relatives for money, Shih-Niang offers to put up half the amount with her own money. His dear friend Liu so moved by their love, offered Li the other 150 taels. After being spoiled in farewell gifts, including a small jewelry box, from Shih-Niang's "sisters," they set off for Hangchow area, where they intend to stay until Li can make peace with his father. Li is aware of his father's disapproval of Li's affection for a courtesan and hopes to ease him into the idea. As they travel, Shih-Niang continues to give Li money and Li continues to spend it on clothes and other items. Their boat finally reaches Kua-Chou harbor when a man by the name Sun Fu saw her beauty from the boat over. Sun Fu then devised a plan to get to know Li and con Li into selling Shih-Niang to him. As he tricked Li, he made Li believe that selling Shih-Niang was in everyone's best interest. When Li tells Shih-Niang of the barter, she calmly goes and retrieves her jewelry box. She then beckons for Sun Fu to meet them as well. She opened each drawer of the box revealing a copious amount of fine jewelry and other valuables. She then tossed every last expensive item into the waters below. A spectacle gathered at the shore and watched as she began reprimanding the men. She scolds Sun Fu for tricking her precious lover into selling her and threatens to haunt him in the next life. She then shifts her anger to Li and is furious with him abandoning her. She then clasps onto the casket and throws herself into the dangerous waters below. The watchers from the shore yell in disapproval at the two men remaining on the boat. The sadness overwhelmed Li so much that he eventually lost all his senses. Sun Fu fell ill with fright and would see Shih-Niang haunting his bedside every night; eventually, he died. Now Liu, the man who had lent Li the 150 taels, one day found a casket floating along the river. When he opened it he found an obscene amount of jewels. He was now a very wealthy man.

Now that you understand the story, let us unpack it a little bit. A point of interest in the short story is the obvious gender reversal between Li Chia and Tu Shih-Niang. Shih-Niang consistently breaks the stereotypes of women, especially women courtesans, in ancient Chinese stories. Typically many ancient Chinese stories depict women that are frivolous with money, having affairs, and are timid. Shih-Niang breaks this persona entirely as she is described as the rock in the relationship. She is eloquent with words, as she was able to persuade her Madam to allow her to be purchased. She is careful with money and is never seen spending on luxurious items. Also, she never once looked at another man. It was this loyalty to Li that was the cause of her heartbreak when it was not enough to win his confidence and trust in the end. She was so loyal that instead of leaving him for another man, she committed suicide so that neither her ex-lover or intended buyer, Sun Fu, or any other man could have her. As for Li Chia's character, he behaves much more feminine than other male characters in other ancient Chinese stories. First, he is frequently shown crying. Typically this would be an action likely associated with a female character. Secondly, he is extremely fickle. He is easily persuaded by Liu in the beginning when Liu initially tells Li to doubt that Shih-Niang's motives in wanting to be purchased are valid. Ultimately it is his fickleness that costs him Shih-Niang when he is convinced to sell her to Sun Fu. Lastly, in the dynamic between Shih-Niang and himself, Shih-Niang seems to dominate the relationship. Li is frequently seeking the counsel from Shih-Niang as well as allowing Shih-Niang to do the financial planning. Both modern and pre-modern stereotypes would typically associate financial responsibility with the male in the relationship. However, in the relationship between Li Chia and Tu Shih-Niang, the stereotypes seem to be the opposite.

Another theme throughout the story is the sense of justice served at the end. While one may say, "How can it be considered justice when Tu Shih-Niang is innocent yet dies?" However, if you consider that Shih-Niang is the person serving the justice, not the narrator, then this claim could hold true. We discussed how Li's fickleness is what led to the breakup between Li and Shih-Niang. If you take it a step further an argument could be made that had Li had a stronger mind, a mind that is less easily persuaded, then perhaps Shih-Niang and he would still be together. Therefore, it seems ironic that the sense of justice served to him, in the end, is that he loses his mind altogether. The exact words used to describe Li's ending fate were, "eventually he took leave of his senses, never to recover them for the rest of his life." (159). For a man to be convinced to sell his lover by the words of a stranger, perhaps he never had any sense to begin with. As for Sun Fu, Shih-Niang paid the justice she promised, she haunted him until the end of his days. Finally, on a positive note of justice, we see the justice served to Liu. Even though Li did not turn out to be the man Shih-Niang hoped he would be, she was still grateful to Liu for giving them the money they needed to have a chance at happiness. She repaid him back even more that she lent him, and her ghost thanked him for his past generosity.

A final theme goes one step deeper as we discuss what the narrator seems to identify as morally wrong and right. One tool he uses to do this are the common people coming to the shore to commentate on the two men's discretions. At first, it describes how they wept for Shih-Niang, and then once she threw herself over-board it says, "the onlookers gnashed their teeth in rage." (159). As the story draws to an end the narrator uses a description of how later generations feelings towards the story as another way to show who the narrator feels was in the wrong and why. Later generations are described as "condemning Sun for his wickedness in his plot to obtain a beautiful girl for a thousand taels of silver." (160). This illustrates how highly regarded the bonds of love are, as to disrupt them is enough to condemn ones wickedness. Even though Li and Shih-Niang are not married, this shows how disgraceful it is to meddle in other peoples relationships. The narrator goes on to address how "Li was no less a common fool to have failed to appreciate Shih-Niang's heart." (160). The reader now sees that it is just as shameful to have love and not appreciate it. Those who do not understand their lovers worth, in turn cause their own unworthiness of the love. Finally, the narrator concludes by commending Shih-Niang on her loyalty claiming she is an extraordinary woman. The narrator also adds that it is a shame she "wasted her affection on Li Chia." (160). The concluding paragraph of the tale is enough to tell the readers all they need to know about what the narrator views as right and wrong. It ties the end up nicely with a bow, not forcing the reader to guess on anything.