Dou Duanyun, a young maiden from Chuzhou (present-day Huai’an District, Huai’an, Jiangsu), is sold to the Cai family as a child bride because her father, Dou Tianzhang, owed people a lot of money and could not repay his debts. She is renamed ‘Dou E’（窦娥）.
“DOU E Yuan,” or “The Injustice to Dou E,” is a popular Chinese drama written by Guan Hanqing (1225-1302). Often called China’s Shakespeare, Guan has been widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest playwrights for centuries.
Little is known of Guan’s family background, except that he was born and lived in Dadu (today’s Beijing), capital of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), founded by the Mongol leader Kublai Khan.
Although the new rulers had adopted many customs from the earlier Chinese dynasties ruled by the Han people, they suspended the imperial civil service examinations for as long as 80 years.
The imperial examination was based on the Confucian concept that “the pursuit of knowledge is superior to all other walks of life” and was first introduced in AD 605 during the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618) as a means for the imperial rulers to select administrative officials.
It became widely considered by intellectuals as the only path that would lead them to social status, wealth and fame.
But during Guan’s time, with the suspension of the imperial civil service examinations, the social status of intellectuals was downgraded to the same level as beggars and prostitutes.
So, as a scholar, Guan saw no future in trying to pursue a career in officialdom, and instead he spent a lot of his time at low-class venues.
According to rare and sketchy records, Guan was a witty, knowledgeable and humorous man, plus a versatile artist. He was deeply versed in poetry, music, dancing, chess and hunting. He called himself “the leader of all hobos in the world” and described himself as “a hard copper bean that can never be crushed.”
At one time, Guan worked as a doctor in the imperial hospital. However, he was not interested in medicine; instead the reluctant medic was very enthusiastic about play writing.
Guan wrote about 65 plays and most of them are about the lives, passions and sufferings of the ordinary people. And all his plays are written in the vernacular Chinese of the time.
Today, 18 of his plays are extant and some still performed. Among them, “The Injustice to Dou E” – arguably the best of Guan’s works – remains the most popular. The story goes like this:
Many years previously, Dou E was sold by her father, a poor scholar, to a family as a child bride. Her father used the proceeds to pay to travel to the capital to sit the imperial civil service examination.
Dou E’s husband died two years after their formal marriage and the young widow had to live with her mother-in-law.
Around this time, a no-good type called Mule Zhang and his father appeared. He wanted to marry the young widow, but she refused. Slighted by this rejection, Mule Zhang decided to poison Dou E’s mother-in-law and force the widow to marry him. However, in the attempt, Mule Zhang fatally poisoned his own father by mistake.
Mule Zhang accused the young widow of murdering his father and Dou E was later wrongly convicted of the crime by corrupt officials.
Before her execution, Dou E swore that three abnormal phenomena would occur to prove her innocence: first, blood would rain down from the sky; second, it would snow in June; and third, where she was executed would be hit by a three-year drought.
These three predictions came to pass after Dou E was executed.
Later, Dou E appeared in her father’s dreams to tell her story. Her father, by then already a middle-ranking government official, eventually brought the corrupt court official and Mule Zhang to justice and had his daughter vindicated.
Even today, the phrase “snowing in June” is still widely used among Chinese speakers as a metaphor for a miscarriage of justice.