Dou E was born into a poor family. When she was three, her mother died. Because of difficulties in his life, her father, a scholar, had to sell her as a child bride at the age of seven to Aunt Cai in order to pay for his travel expenses to the place where the imperial examination was held. Aunt Cai was a widow who lived with her eight-year-old son. Ten years later, when Dou E was seventeen years old, she was married to Cai’s son, but bad luck followed her and soon her husband died. As a widow, Dou E continued to live with her mother-in-law, Aunt Cai.
Aunt Cai lived on the interest she received from lending money from her late husband’s property. One day Aunt Cai tried to collect a debt from Doctor Lu. Doctor Lu had no money to pay his debt but tried to strangle Aun Cai. By chance, Donkey Zhang and his father appeared on the scene and rescued her. Aun Cai invited her rescuers to her home.
These “bad eggs” want to grab Cai’s property by compelling the two widows to marry them. Dou E resolutely refuses, because the period of mourning after her husband’s death has not yet ended.
In order to force Dou E to marry him, Donkey Zhang plots to poison Aunt Cai. But by accident the poisoned food goes to Zhang’s father, who dies. Donkey Zhang frames a lawsuit against Dou E accusing her of poisoning his father.
Donkey Zhang bribes the Prefect, who uses torture to force Dou E to confess. Dou E does not confess a crime she has not committed. Only when the corrupt Prefect is about to torture Aunt Cai does Dou E confess. Because of filial piety she confesses a crime she has not committed and saves her old mother-in-law from suffering torture. Dou E is sentenced to death.
Before Dou E is executed she is allowed to speak out. She denies her guilt and makes three prophecies. If she is innocent of the crimes she has been sentenced for, not a drop of her blood shall fall on the ground; three feet of snow during this hottest season of the year shall cover her unjustly executed body; and the area shall endure a severe drought lasting three years. Dou E is executed and her prophecies come true.
Three years later Dou E’s father arrives as an Imperial Censor to investigate the local administration. Dou E’s unquiet soul has been waiting for the injustice to be redressed. She recognizes her father and in the middle of the night reveals herself to him in the form of a ghost. Dou E describes her sufferings and the injustice she has encountered. The father explains how he has also suffered from being separated from his daughter. The father promises to redress the injustice and to take care of Aunt Cai. When the cock crows for the second time, Dou E’s soul vanishes and finds peace.