Many centuries ago, there was a girl in China who was extremely clever, brave, and agile—but there was no way of knowing this from her beginnings.

As a baby, she was found in a basket in King Ta Lang’s garden in Shen Su.

For years, King Ta Lang’s palace had been childless. Finally a hoped-for son was born, and then soon afterward the baby girl was found in the royal gardens. Who was she? Where had she come from? Who had left her there on the royal grounds? Why?

King Ta Lang sent for his court diviners, who brought their crystal balls, sand trays, magic charts, and other such aids to the palace. After much pondering, they decided that the baby girl was the daughter of the rain god, who had sent her to eventually become the wife of the newborn prince. They advised King Ta Lang to name his son Tou Meng (meaning “Give Thanks”), and the baby girl Chai Mi (meaning “Enables Us to Live”).

The king followed their directions about naming both babies and immediately had them engaged by royal decree.

Prince Tou Meng and Princess Chai Mi grew up the very best of friends. They had great fun playing ball and other games, climbing trees, riding donkeys, flying kites, dancing, shooting arrows in archery contests, and swimming in the Lan River. Although Chai Mi was really better at everything than Tou Meng, she always let him win by a small margin.

There was at court one man whom she did not fool about her superior skills—the king’s Chief General, who watched her progress through narrow, jealous eyes. Chai Mi, he thought, was too smart and athletic. Someday she might be a threat to his power. So he plotted against her and bided his time. …

Prince Tou Meng and Chai Mi grew up, and one day when she was in the River Lan swimming alone, Chai Mi found a roll of parchment. She took it to King Ta Lang, who unrolled and read it. He was stunned to discover that it was a secret plan to attack Shen Su!

The king mustered his army and hastily led them off to try to intercept the enemy. There were many tears, not only by Chai Mi and the women, children, and few old men who had to stay behind, but also by the sky, which rained steadily, flooding the Lan River, overflowing its banks, and washing away all its boats, piers, and bridges.

A few days after the army had gone, the defenseless stay-at-homes had a shocking surprise: The fierce enemy army appeared on the opposite bank of the swollen river, ready to attack as soon as the flood subsided and they could cross! The women, children, and old men had nothing to protect them except the raging river whose tide could fall as quickly as it had risen.

Chai Mi had a daring plan. She put the women to work.

Meanwhile, the enemy chieftain had a scheme of his own. A powerful man, he swam across the river, carrying a long rope that he tied to a willow stump. Then he ordered his soldiers to use the rope to help them across. They could carry only a light bow and arrows, but five hundred men thus armed would make short work of conquering their easy prey.

But instead of cringing, weeping women, they found a thousand soldiers marching in glistening armor, wearing hideous false faces (as was the custom in Far Eastern warfare in those days)! The soldiers carried sharp chang chiang (long, heavy spears), and their leader wore the king’s gold armor. Following them marched a thousand archers.

The attacking enemy realized they didn’t have a chance—their flimsy arrows could not dent the armor of the Shen Su defenders, they were hopelessly outnumbered, and they couldn’t retreat because only the raging river was behind them! They surrendered to a fierce-talking old man who took their arms and ordered the enemy troops still across the river to throw their weapons into the river.

The would-be attackers obeyed the old man, who followed orders given by the leader dressed in the king’s golden armor—Princess Chai Mi. During the surrender and the throwing-away of weapons, the Shen Su defenders clanged their spears against the river rocks and boulders as if furious at being deprived of a battle. Their tough enemies never realized that they were surrendering to an army of girls and women!

King Ta Lang and his army were crossing the Lan River in his swan-shape sampan on their way back to Shen Su, when he learned of Chai Mi’s clever and courageous trick. As he was wondering how to reward her, the Chief General finally saw a way to destroy the girl he feared, and said, “Your Majesty seems to have forgotten the law of your honorable ancestors!”

“What law?”

“The Law of Liu Ti that says no woman may put on the king’s garments. Whoever dares to do so must lose her head by the sword! Chai Mi has put on Your Majesty’s armor—she must die!” He handed King Ta Lang a death warrant to sign.

No one knows if the king really would have signed it, because at that moment the waters of the Lan River surged angrily and swallowed the royal sampan. King Ta Lang and his Chief General were never seen or heard of again. Chai Mi was soon married to Tou Meng, and together they ruled Shen Su for many happy years.

Illustrated by Don Weller