|The Morrison Collection|
This is a short, single act play belonging to the Cantonese Opera (Yueju 粵劇) tradition, that would have been performed before the main play. It comprises a single fascicle of four pages, published by the Shengxing Tang 盛興堂 publishing house, which is bound with a number of other miscellaneous works into a volume labelled "Pamphlets" (SOAS callmark RM c.500.y.2). See Catalogue of the Morrison Collection of Chinese Books p.262 for details.
The play has a very simple plot concerning the bestowal of heavenly gifts on worthy personages, and as such would have been intended as an auspicious piece to be performed at birthday celebrations and other such festivities.
A Northern Drama (zaju 雜劇) play of this name, no longer extent but probably dating from the late Ming, is known. Short, auspicious plays on the same theme, and bearing the same or similar title (e.g. Da Cifu 大賜福), are found in the repertoires of many regional operatic forms (e.g. 京劇、川劇、滇劇、粵劇、漢劇、桂劇、秦腔、同州梆子、河北梆子).
The "Official of Heaven" 天官, is one of three Daoist divinities, known as the "three official divinities" 三官神, that bestow good fortune on mankind :
The origins of "three official divinities" lie in Daoist practise during the late Han dynasty, when sick people would pray to the "officials" of heaven, earth and water to alleviate their illness. Later these deities became associated with their respective festival dates, and were given their respective powers. Certainly by the Song dynasty the Official of Heaven was revered as a bestower of good fortune who come to earth on the Lantern Festival, as is evidenced by Wu Zimu 吳自牧, who notes : "The Festival of the First Eve on the 15th day of the first month is the birthday of the Official of Heaven who bestows good fortune" 正月十五日元夕節，乃上元天官賜福之辰 (See Mengliang Lu 夢粱錄).
One popular legend that explains the birth and life history of the three deities is summarised below :
Long long ago on Yuanzhou Island 元洲 in the middle of the Northern Sea 北海 there was a cave, and in that cave there was a fairy bone that had been left over from the creation of the Primordial God 元始天尊. After many years of exposure to the sky, the earth and the water, the bone took on human form.
One day a fisherman passed by, and mistaking the metamorphosed bone for an abandoned baby, took it home, and raised it as his own child. The boy, who the fisherman named Chen Chun 陳椿, grew up to be a strong and handsome young man.
When Chen Chun went fishing with his father, his visage appeared in the mirror of the third daughter of the Dragon King of the Northern Sea, and she fell in love with him. She eloped with Chen Chun, and soon became pregnant. When the Dragon King found out, he sent out his soldiers to bring the lovers before him for punishment. After his daughter had given birth to boy triplets, the eldest born on the 15th day of the first lunar month 正月十五, the middle one born on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month 七月十五, and the youngest born on the 15th day of the tenth lunar month 十月十五, the Dragon King imprisoned Chen Chun and his daughter under a great rock under the sea. The three boys were brought up by their aunts.
The three boys grew up to be headstrong and impulsive. One day the boys secretly left the Dragon palace, and flying on clouds travelled over the land of men. There they see many people prostrated before the Temple of the Dragon King, praying for rain to relieve the drought that had stricken the land. Taking pity on the people, the boys use their magical powers to summon the rain clouds and pour down rain upon the parched earth.
When the three boys return to the Dragon Palace the Dragon King angrily imprisons them with their parents as punishment for making rain without permission from Heaven. The magical powers of the boys grows day by day, and after three years they are strong enough to overturn the great stone that imprisons them, churning up the Northern Sea and destroying the Dragon Palace.
The Dragon King, scared for his life, flees to Heaven to ask for help from the Jade Emperor. When the Jade Emperor discovers that the three boys are the flesh and blood of the Primordial God, he decides that rather than fighting them the best solution would be to persuade them to accept positions with. The eldest son is made the Official of Heaven with responsibility for bestowing good fortune (上元一品天官賜福紫微大帝); the middle son is made the Official of the Earth with responsibility for pardoning sins (中元二品地官赦罪清虛大帝); and the youngest son is made the Official of the Waters with responsibility for alleviating hardships (下元三品水官解厄洞陰大帝). However, the Jade Emperor decrees that they must only carry out their official duties on one day a year, that of their respective birthdays; and for the rest of the year they should live with their parents on Yuanzhou Island.
In another version of this legend, during the Tang dynasty a seeker of immortality called Chen Zichen 陳子春 who is gathering herbs on the edge of the Eastern Sea, encounters the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, who marries his three daughters top him. Each of the daugters give birth to a son, and when they grow up they become the three officials of heaven, earth and water.
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