This play is adapted from the traditional Confucian teaching San Zi Jing, also called The Three-Character Classic, which is used to teach young children about Chinese history and ethics.
This is the story of Dou Yan Shan, who lived during the Five Dynasties Period (A.D. 907-960). He comes from a wealthy family, but is something of a rascal and is still unmarried and childless in his thirties. In ancient China, men usually married in their early twenties. Dou Yan Shan bullies villagers and does many unpleasant things. He also has a reputation for cheating. When fellow villagers borrow grain from him, for example, he manipulates the scales, and those who borrow from him end up paying more than they should. One night in a dream, Dou Yan Shan sees his deceased father, who tells him that he needs to thoroughly atone for his misdeeds and turn over a new leaf — otherwise, he will not only miss his opportunity to have children, but will soon die. The dream frightens Dou Yan Shan and, when he awakes, he makes up his mind to start a new life. He decides he will no longer do anything lacking in virtue. Neighbours find it strange, but are happy to see that Dou Yan Shan has finally grasped the ephemeral and valuable nature of existence, and that he sees the error of his ways after an early life of wrongdoing and wasting his family's fortune.
Dou Yan Shan establishes a private school in his home: a practice which was widespread among wealthy families in Ancient China. He invites a famed teacher to his school, and also accepts less-fortunate students, waiving their fees. His wife gives birth to five sons in succession, and Dou Yan Shan begins devoting his energies to raising his own children. He spends time on their physical education, but also pays great attention to their studies and to their characters. He also teaches by example. Under his influence, his five sons all become famous scholars and serve as high-ranking government officials, achieving fame and redeeming his parents' good name. People call them the Five Dragons of the Dou Family.
Dou Yan Shan does many philanthropic things throughout his life. He helps with the funeral expenses of those too poor to bury their family members, he helps couples without the money to marry, and he lends money to those needing cash for their small businesses. He thus earns a good reputation among those in need, and the number of those receiving his help is limitless.
In order to accomplish this, Dou Yan Shan lives a frugal life. He wastes nothing and recycles water, clothes and tools as much as possible. Each year, he recalculates his family's essential living expenses, based on his previous year's budget, and constantly looks to save pennies to help those in need. He pays particular attention to education, including that of his sons. As long as a poor youth is ambitious and wants to learn, Dou Yan Shan will pay for the boy's tuition and living expenses, regardless of background.
During the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279), the famous scholar Fan Wengong recorded these facts about Dou Yan Shan and used the account as instruction for his family and descendants. Fan Wengong also exhorts his descendants to disseminate the teachings from generation to generation.