In the Tang Dynasty of China, there was a book called “The Story of Li Wa.” The protagonist, Li Wa, was a fallen courtesan, while the male lead, Zheng Yuanhe, was a scholar from a high-ranking official’s family. The story revolves around Zheng Yuanhe, who encounters Li Wa, the courtesan, by chance while traveling to the capital for the imperial examination. He is eventually captivated by Li Wa’s beauty and gives up his once passionate pursuit of the civil service career. Subsequently, Zheng Yuanhe moves into Li Wa’s residence for a year, but after squandering all his wealth, he ends up destitute on the streets.
From then on, this young nobleman’s troubles begin. He is forced to pawn his valuable possessions and eventually falls gravely ill, abandoned to die in a desolate place called the “Xiong Si,” where funeral rites are conducted for people. However, Zheng Yuanhe receives excellent care while in the Xiong Si, and his condition gradually improves. As a result, he starts writing elegies for funerals held in the Xiong Si. It should be noted that the skills he acquired through his civil service studies were truly exceptional. In a mourning song competition in the city of Chang’an, his solo performance left all his competitors stunned, and eventually, all participants voluntarily withdrew from the competition. Zheng Yuanhe became renowned as the most famous elegy writer in Chang’an (the capital) and gained considerable wealth.
The fame of Zheng Yuanhe alarmed the people of Chang’an and also caught the attention of his father, the provincial governor of Changzhou. At that time, his father was on official business in the capital and became extremely angry upon witnessing his son singing mournful songs. He severely injured Zheng Yuanhe and left in a fit of rage. Just as Zheng Yuanhe was on the verge of succumbing to his injuries, Li Wa appeared before him once again. She had redeemed herself from the brothel and used her own savings to support Zheng Yuanhe. Several years later, Zheng Yuanhe returned to the imperial examination and achieved high honors. The story concludes with Zheng Yuanhe reconciling with his father, marrying Li Wa, who was bestowed the title of “Lady of Qian State,” and the couple bearing four children.
The significance of “The Story of Li Wa” lies in its portrayal of an essential characteristic of a prosperous era: the possibility for the poor and lowly to achieve wealth and status through hard work, while the wealthy and privileged can also fall into poverty and destitution through indulgence. Social mobility is depicted as a fluid movement between different levels of society. “The Story of Li Wa” merely recounts the transformation of a “rich and handsome” man who falls from grace due to moral decay and becomes a “loser,” only to regain his status as a “rich and handsome” man through personal struggle. It is a story of a “loser” woman who transforms into a “beautiful and wealthy” woman due to her exceptional character. The underlying message is that as long as one works hard, society will eventually recognize their efforts.
The first misfortune that befalls Zheng Yuanhe is due to his year-long indulgence in a decadent lifestyle, which ultimately leads to his downfall orchestrated by the brothel madam, turning him from a “rich and handsome” man into a “loser.” However, amidst his poverty and illness, Zheng Yuanhe’s talent for writing elegies allows him to earn an annual salary of “20,000 coins” at the Xiong Si—this was undoubtedly a top-tier salary at the time—thus transforming him once again into a “rich and handsome” man!
After Zheng Yuanhe’s second misfortune, he was saved by Li Wa. At that time, he had severed ties with his father, but through diligent studies, he managed to become a “Military Officer of Chengbu Prefecture” and even had friendships with officials below the rank of “Three Ministers”. Once again, he completed the transformation from a “loser” to a “rich and handsome” man.
As for the female protagonist, Li Wa, she was merely a courtesan, a genuine “loser” woman. However, in the story, Li Wa’s willingness to support the fallen Zheng Yuanhe and her virtuous conduct deeply moved his old-fashioned and stern provincial governor father. He personally persuaded Li Wa to stay as his daughter-in-law and arranged for the marriage with all the necessary rituals and protocols. In the end, news of Li Wa’s actions reached Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, and she was granted the title of “Lady of Qian State.” The genuine “loser” woman transformed into a legitimate “beautiful and wealthy” woman.
Perhaps, “The Story of Li Wa” will forever remain a legend. It is precisely because of this legend that the “Prosperous Era of the Kaiyuan reign” will be immortalized.