Throughout the ages, Chinese legends have been passed down from generation to generation and, at times, these stories have taken on a life of their own as new events would happen and characters would appear. Yet, each of these stories taught the same principle the original legend wanted to impart.
The legend of Liu Yi delivering a letter for the dragon princess has grown in popularity since it was first heard in ancient China. All the stories agree that the story originated during the Tang Dynasty, in the Zhenyuan period (785-805).
I will retell the story I remember best from all the different versions I have heard at one time or another.
A Far-Off Cry
Young scholar Liu Yi from China’s Hubei Province, located near the Yangtze River and north of Dongting Lake, was on his way to Beijing to take the annual imperial examination for a civil servant position. Passing this examination was required for anyone who wished to serve the emperor and help to govern the country.
On his way he passed the Jinghe River, which runs along the foot of Kongton Mountain in the eastern part of Gansu Province. Walking along the riverbank on a cold winter day, Liu felt the cold north wind pushing him along. He felt that he was a lonely wanderer in what seemed to be a desolate desert.
Moving along, with the cold northern wind as his only companion, he couldn’t believe that another human being was somewhere in this desolate landscape. But, it was as if he heard someone crying in the far off distance and so he decided to look for the source of what sadness had befallen the stranger.
When drawing closer to the sound he saw a young woman, shivering with cold, in the middle of a flock of sheep. Holding a whip in her hand, waiting to defend herself, and with a face bathed in tears, she continued to make the sound of someone crying sadly.
The Sad Shepherdess
Liu Yi, feeling pity, approached her and asked, “Young lady, you are standing in ice and snow, with not a single grass blade anywhere for the sheep to eat.” She did not respond, but cried even more sadly. This made Liu Yi’s heart go out to her and he asked again, “Young lady, can you tell me what ails you? Is there anything I can do to help?”
It took quite a lot of coaxing for him to hear about the source of her sadness. She told him that she was the third daughter of the Dong Ting Lake dragon king and the third princess in the Dong Ting Lake palace. Her father had married her off to the youngest son, the last of 10 princes, of the Jinghe River dragon king.
She continued the story of her sorrow, and of what was not known when her father married her off to Jinghe. She said with a little fear in her eyes that it was not generally known that Jinghe dragons were ruthless, cruel, unfeeling, and obstinate. Her husband bore all these traits and treated her badly.
Besides, he only thought of himself and neglected a prince’s duty to the local people. The people needed water to tend the fields so they could bring in a decent crop. But, he would not let it rain, and refused to look at the drought and disaster the locals suffered.
This young princess had been brought up to treat one’s subjects well. So, she tried hard to have him change and do what was right, let it rain as needed and also provide good weather. She asked him to have the people live in peace and happiness.
Read more about the meaning of The Year of the Dragon!
Her husband refused to listen and was very angered by her suggestion. His parents sided with him and were as upset as their son at her benevolent suggestions. In anger, they took her magical instrument that allowed her to stay in touch with her family and banished her from the palace. They made her a shepherdess and made her tend a flock of sheep.
The flock of sheep was something other than sheep. They were magical instruments and soldiers that were used to make rain, thunder and lightning. But when tending this magical flock she felt she was being tortured mentally and physically. To make her situation even more painful, she was not able to let her family know of her plight.
Taking a Message
At hearing this, Liu Yi could not help but feel anger because another being was mistreated for wanting to do what was right and good.
He asked her, “How can I help you escape this misery?”
The Princess answered with deep thanks in her heart, “You are a righteous man. I would be greatly indebted and very grateful if you would help me. You would become my benefactor.”
She continued after looking at him, “You need to deliver a letter from me to my parents. But, that would be out of the way and delay your journey to Beijing, so you can take the exam. You may not have enough time to deliver my letter and I don’t feel comfortable with you going out of the way for me.”
There was no doubt in Liu’s mind that he would help her. He said, “How can a true man neglect another’s suffering for personal gain? I’m willing to postpone the exam to another time.”
The princess tore off a piece from her clothes, bit her middle finger and wrote a note with the bloody finger.
The note said, “Father: Your third daughter is living in misery, belittled and treated badly. She might die at any moment because of the circumstances she has to live under. Please come and rescue your daughter as soon as possible.”
Continued: The Rescue of the Dragon Princess, Part II of III