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September 2004

The tale of the two sisters

Once upon a time there was a noble family that had fallen upon hard times. All of the remaining hopes of the family rested with their two daughters who might, if all went well, marry to advantage. Their father, however, had no great hopes. The elder daughter was quite plain, albeit she was quite acute of wit. The younger was a great beauty but only possessed of ordinary intelligence. There was little money for a dowry, so the daughters were fated to marry such men as their charms could attract.

Their father tried hard to find a husband for the elder daughter. It was difficult; there would be no dowry, and men value appearance more intellect in a woman. At length he found her a husband who, however, was of modest means, unhandsome appearance, and uncertain character.

Although their circumstances were diminished they were a noble family, and the daughters had been raised with high standards. She did not feel that she could marry such a man, and she pled with her father to find her a better.

Alas, he replied that this was the best that he could do; no better man could be found. He went on to say she must either marry this one or renounce marriage entirely, for he could not search for a husband for her sister until she had been properly disposed of.

She replied in turn that she could not, would not marry the man her father had chosen. Beyond that she knew not what to do. She was not yet ready to renounce all hope of husband and family.

Her father was greatly disheartened by this, but he loved his daughters and could not force her into marriage with a man she would not willingly wed, so he began anew to search for a husband for her.

Not long after it chanced that the younger daughter caught the eye of a young noble, the heir to a great fortune. He came to her father and asked for her hand in marriage. Her father explained that there was a difficulty – she was not properly eligible, for her elder sister was not yet married.

The young noble was smitten by the younger daughter’s beauty and truly desired to marry her. He asked to meet the elder daughter that he might thereby gain some insight into her mind and thus know how to proceed. When they met he was as struck by her wit and intelligence as by her sister’s beauty.

As it chances, they all lived in a land where a man of high station could take more than one wife. Thus it was that he suggested to the father that he marry both. The father was much relieved by this solution to his problems and agreed. At first the sisters were reluctant to do this; however they were quickly brought to see the advantages of place and position. More than that, the two sisters were very close and loved each other. This way, they thought, they need never be separated from each other.

A great wedding was held for the marriage of the young noble and the two sisters. The elder sister, being senior to her sister, was married to him first, and became his first wife with all of the duties and privileges there unto. The younger sister became his second wife, bound by tradition and law to treat her elder sister as her superior.

The elder daughter, being first wife, was treated with honor by her new husband. She sat at his side at official dinners. He consulted her regularly on the management of his estate. He gave unto her hands the management of household affairs. However his time, his affection, and his bed were given to the younger daughter.

At first the elder daughter was happy, enjoying the privileges and ease of life that adhere to those happily possessed of bounteous wealth, place, and position. In time, however, she came to resent her situation. Her son, were she to bear one, would be heir, but when would she get much chance to conceive. Her husband, once fair in her eyes, grew ugly to her as she dwelt on his coldness to her.

She began to use her wit as a weapon with which to hurt her sister and her husband. Her sister replied in kind, albeit without acuteness of wit, and the two sisters became estranged. Her husband, being a man of honor, did not cease to yield to her those honors and privileges that were due her position. Beyond that he spoke to her not at all, save in the coldest of terms when duty demanded. All grew worse as affairs froze in congealed hate and anger, each party being unhappy in their own way, and none knowing how to set things right.

This unhappiness came to a rude end when the elder sister was found poisoned, apparently by her own hand. Rumor quickly spoke, however, saying that this was no suicide. Suicide or no, the husband’s position was such that no official enquiry was ever likely to be made.

The younger sister was stricken with grief for the loss of her beloved sister and shame for the many harsh words she had addressed to her. Worse still, she listened to rumor, that ever lying adder, and suspected that her husband may have arranged the demise of a tedious and quarrelsome wife. She taxed him with her suspicions. He denied everything, but his wordings aroused her greatest apprehensions. Unable to live with her shame, her sister’s death, and her suspicions of her husband, she too poisoned herself.

The young noble, innocent of all crimes save that greatest of all, selfishness, was both grief stricken by their loss, and embittered by their treatment of him. He became a recluse, drawing within himself, and abandoning the joys of the world. In all his later years be became as a prisoner, bounded about by walls of bitterness of his own making.

This story is annotated in the White Crane Analects where it is taken as source material for comments on the relationship of proper behaviour and the harmonious life. In part the analects remark:
How did this tragedy come about? It came about because none did their duty as they ought to have done.

The elder daughter ought to have married the husband her parents chose for her; none of this would have come about if shed. She might not have been as happy as she could have been in a happier world, but she would not have been dead by her own hand, and she would have had her chance to be a mother.

The father ought to have insisted that she marry the man he chose for her. His weakness and softness before her demands were no blessing for her. He was too greedy and too reticent to do his proper duty when she married the young noble. It was his part to ensure that his daughters were treated properly,

The elder daughter ought to have used her wit to find a way to make things better, instead of using it as a whip to wound others.

The younger sister ought to have replied to her sisters taunts with love and not pique. She ought to have been more concerned with her sister’s happiness, and not just with her own pleasure. Above all she should have trusted her husband and not disbelieved him without good cause.

Lastly, the husband was at fault. Husbands have great duties towards their wives. It is not enough to treat them with honor. He owes them of his body, of his affection, and of his thought and care. A man who takes two wives has twice the duties, nay more than twice, for it is also his part to ensure that his two wives are in a good relationship to each other.

He married twice because it was the easy and convenient thing to do. He dealt with one wife as a paper wife and the other as a real wife because that suited his pleasure. Always good natured, he was thoughtless of others, thinking of himself and not others. That were a great crime for he had a great duty.

So it goes. When people follow the way and do their duty all goes well and life is pleasant. When people follow their own thoughts and ignore their duty, unpleasantness ensues. Small sins may evoke large tragedy, for there is no justice for the unjust.

Some consider the author of the White Crane Analects to be a pompous old twit.

This page was last updated September 1, 2004.
Copyright © 2004 by Richard Harter

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September 2004