The Injustice of Dou E

Dou E was  wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. (Image :
Dou E was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. (Image : Public Domain CC 0 1.0

Dou E Yuan, commonly translated as The Injustice of Dou E, is the masterpiece of Guan Hanqing, a playwright during the Yuan Dynasty (A.D. 1271-1368 ). The full Chinese title of the play is Gan Tiang Dong Di Dou E Yuan, which translates to The Injustice of Dou E That Touched Heaven and Earth.

This story was about Dou E, a young woman from Chuzhou, who was wrongly convicted of crimes by a corrupt court official and sentenced to death. Dou E Yuan was a traditional Chinese drama that was staged in about 86 Chinese operas. Today, the phrase “snowing in June” is still widely used among Chinese speakers as a metaphor for the miscarriage of justice.

Dou E lost her mother when she was a child. Her father, Dou Tianzhang, was a poor scholar. In order to raise money for his journey to the capital to sit for the imperial examination, he was forced to borrow 5 gold pieces from a widow, Cai Po. After one year, the debt of the 5 gold pieces escalated to 10. Dou Tianzhang was unable to repay the debt and was and forced to sell his daughter to the Cai family as a child bride. After Dou E grew up, she married into the Cai family. Dou E’s husband died two years after their marriage, leaving behind Dou E and her mother-in-law to depend on each other.

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After one year, the debt of the 5 gold pieces escalated to 10. (Image: Flickr / CC0 2.0)

One day, Dou E and her mother-in-law were bullied by an unscrupulous physician and by coincidence were saved by the hooligan Zhang Lu’er and his father. Zhang offered to “protect” them and moved into their house against their will. Zhang tried to force Dou E to marry him, but she refused.

One day, Cai Po fell ill and Dou E prepared soup for her mother-in-law. Zhang Lu’er plotted to murder Cai Po by putting poison in the soup so that when the mother-in-law died, he could force Dou E to marry him. However, Cai Po vomited and did not drink the soup. Zhang’s father unknowingly drank the soup instead and died from poisoning. Zhang then framed Dou E for murdering his father.

Dou E was arrested and brought before the prefecture governor, who was bribed by Zhang. She was subject to cruel tortures to force her to confess to the crime. The kind-hearted Dou E did not want her mother-in-law to be implicated, so she admitted to the murder and was sentenced to death by beheading.

In the sixth lunar month (midsummer), Dou E was brought to the execution ground. Before the execution, Dou E wanted a white chain to be hung onto the flagpole. Dou E swore that if she was innocent and after she died, her blood would not drip onto the ground but instead splash on to the white chain on the flagpole. This would be followed by heavy snowfall in midsummer and three feet of snow would cover her body. Chuzhou would also experience a drought for three years.

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Chuzhou would also experience a drought for three years. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

After the knife fell, not even a drop of blood spilled on the ground, but instead splashed onto the white chain on the flagpole. Dark clouds covered the sky and there was snowfall followed by drought in Chuzhou for three years.

Years later, Dou E’s father, Dou Tianzhang, became a government official after passing his imperial examination. He was assigned to Chuzhou to check on the situation. On his arrival at Chuzhou, he found that there had not been a drop of rain in the past three years, and he suspected there must be some case of grievances. One night, while he was going through Dou E’s case, Dou E’s soul appeared before her father. She told his father about her grievances. Dou Tianzhang ordered a reinvestigation of the case and the truth finally came to light. Dou E was posthumously proclaimed innocent. Zhang Lu’er was given the death penalty and the prefecture governor was dismissed from his post.

For hundreds of years, the Chinese people still remember Dou E’s story. They admire the traditional drama, which reveals the important moral concept of good and evil, grievances and oath

Translated by Chua BC

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