The Magic Lotus Lantern
(Bǎo Lián Dēng 宝莲灯)

Dramatis Personae

Third Holy Mother (Sān Shèngmǔ 三圣母) = a beautiful goddess

LIÚ Yànchāng 刘彦昌 = a young scholar moved by her beauty

LIÚ Chénxiāng 刘沉香 = their son

Second Lad God (Èrláng Shén 二郎神) = her prudish brother

WÁNG Guìyīng 王桂英 = a woman willing to marry Liú, complete with the baby

LIÚ Qiū’ér 刘秋儿 = the son of Liú and Wáng

QÍN Guānbǎo 秦官保 = a neighborhood brat

In ancient times, on the slopes of Mt. Huá (Huá shān 华山) in Shǎnxī 陕西 province, there was a temple to a goddess named Third Holy Mother (Sān Shèngmǔ 三圣母). This goddess was the owner of a magic Lotus Lantern (Bǎolián Dēng 宝莲灯) , by the light of which all monsters could be kept at bay and all evil defeated. Fortunately she did not need to use it very often, since the temple was in a remote location where monsters rarely bothered to intrude and evil seldom penetrated.

One day it was visited by a young scholar named LIÚ Yànchāng 刘彦昌, who was much taken with the beauty of her statue, and wrote a poem on the wall expressing his longing for her and his sadness that she was not flesh and blood like himself. And slowly he left the temple, deeply wishing that the statue had been a human being.

The goddess, moved by his sincerity (and his good looks), came down from her place and shadowed him, filled with desire, but knowing that a goddess can not marry a human being, no matter how sincere (or handsome) he may be.

Suddenly he was attacked by a tiger, and as he was about to be eaten, the goddess manifested herself. Using her magic Lotus Lantern, she frightened away the tiger. She looked exactly like her beautiful statue, and once she had shown herself, there was no way that young Liú could fail to recognize her. One thing led to another, and that was how they came to be wed. After a few months of wedded bliss, it was time for Liú Yànchāng to go to the capital to take a civil service examination. (In stories of this kind he is destined to win first place.) But he had to leave Third Holy Mother by herself for a time, since she was pregnant and not able to travel easily. He promised to return as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, their union had became known to the goddess’ older brother, Second Lad God (Èrláng Shén 二郎神), he found the match quite inappropriate for a goddess and resolved to put an end to it.

Since Liú had headed off to take the civil service exam, Third Holy Mother was alone when Second Lad God attacked. In their struggle, Second Lad God’s magical and vicious dog managed to capture the Lotus Lantern, and without it Third Mother was no match for her brother. He carried off Third Mother and imprisoned her under the mountain in a nasty place called the Black Cloud Cavern (Hēiyún Dòng 黑云洞) and set charms that would not let Third Mother and Liú Yànchāng find each other.

Imprisoned under the mountain, Third Mother soon gave birth to a son, LIÚ Chénxiāng 刘沉香, whom she feared Second Lad God would take from her. Fortunately, when one is deep in the earth, one is in the lair of the Land God (Tǔdì Gōng 土地公), who is an kind of elderly local policeman and therefore, of course, benevolent, at least to people who generally mind their Ps and Qs.

In despair, Third Mother wrote a short note in her own blood, pinned it to her baby’s blanket, and passed little Chénxiāng to the Land God, who agreed to convey the child to its father. (Some people say it is superstitious to believe in so many gods, so they replace the Land God with a serving girl when they tell the story.)

Liú Yànchāng returned in triumph from taking the imperial examination, and even with orders to become the inspector-general (xúnfǔ 巡抚) in the great city of Yángzhōu 扬州. But arriving at the temple, buoyed by his great good news and eager to meet his new child, he found it in ruins. As he stood in horror and disbelief, he heard an infant crying. Attached to the little boy’s swaddling clothes was a note from Third Mother telling him what had happened. Liú was devastated. Sadly he picked up the child.

Naturally Liú Yànchāng instantly loved the baby, but, being male, had no idea at all how to raise him.

On the road as he left the ruined temple, he ran into a young woman named WÁNG Guìyīng 王桂英 and her mother. Wáng Guìyīng looked much like Third Mother. She felt sorry for the baby having no mother, and she liked Liú, whom she found very sincere (and handsome), so they were immediately married and she began taking care of little Chénxiāng. (In China it was quite all right for a man to have more than one wife, especially if he was rich. Today people are less certain that it is all right, but some rich men still do it, although they are careful where they talk about it.)

Second Lad God, somehow discovering that his sister had given birth to a baby and had even succeeded in slipping it out to Liú, summoned supernatural soldiers to attack Liú and seize the child. But Third Holy Mother, learning of this, persuaded the Land God —some say the serving girl— to steal back the magic Lotus Lantern and secretly convey it to Liú so that he was able to defeat the supernatural army.

Later Wáng Guìyīng herself also gave birth to a boy, named Qiū’ér 秋儿. The two children, Chénxiāng and Qiū’ér, were fast friends and good brothers, but were sometimes mocked by other children, including a spoiled brat and general bully named QÍN Guānbǎo 秦官保.

In an encounter one day, little Chénxiāng, who, having a goddess for a mother had superhuman strength in emergencies, struck and killed the Qín brat. (Even today it is considered infelicitous to name your boy Guānbǎo.)

The Qín brat probably had it coming to him, but his death awakened the wrath of the powerful Qín clan, which came to demand the death of someone from the Liú household. Qiū’ér and Chénxiāng, ever loyal to each other, each claimed to have struck the lethal blow, and Wáng and Liú were unable to extract the truth from them.

Wáng should have defended Qiū’ér, the son she herself bore, but she could not bear the thought of possibly falsely accusing Chénxiāng, the stepson she had raised. Her dilemma could not be solved by surrendering the child who was actually guilty, since she didn’t know which he was. (In stage presentations, this makes an excellent mad scene.)

In the end it was the innocent Qiū’ér who was dragged off to his death by the Qín clan.

Eventually, when Chénxiāng had grown into a strong young man, he stumbled across the “blood letter” that his mother had written from Black Cloud Cave, and Lady Wáng conceded to him that his natural mother was a goddess imprisoned under the mountain, and that, having grown to adulthood, it was his duty to save her.

Filled with indignation and filial piety, and carrying the magic Lotus Lantern given to him by his father, he said goodbye to his parents, and went off to apprentice himself to the Great Immortal of the Thunderbolts (Pīlì Dàxiān 霹雳大仙) in order to learn the necessary martial arts. When he had done so, he returned with the Lotus lantern, defeated Second Lad in an epic battle, and liberated Third Holy Mother, from her mountain prison. So everyone lived happily ever after —except of course for Qiū’ér, who was still dead.

(Some modern retellings leave Qiū’ér out of the story in order to avoid having him end up dead. But is it better to end up dead or never to have entered the story at all? Nobody seems to have asked him.)