Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Plague God Comes to Longdong (Han)

This story supposedly took place long ago, during the Warring States Era (475-221 B.C.).

It all started when the Jade Emperor sent a plague god down to the Longdong region in what is now Gansu Province.

Shanhe Zhai was, at the time, the most prosperous, bustling town in the area; it was also, sadly, a place largely inhabited by people who would be found wanting in ethics and simple decency. The people of Shanhe Zhai engaged in all kinds of evil behavior, including thievery and outright banditry and immorality.

Sickened by all the sinfulness he had witnessed, a local scholar launched a petition to the Jade Emperor for that god's intervention. Taking notice of the petition, the Jade Emperor decided to send one of the plague gods incognito down to the region to investigate the situation.  If the level of wickedness warranted it,  the plague god could spread a limited pestilence to end all the iniquity but only after all the innocents, the children, would be given pouches to wear to identify them as guiltless and thus exempt from being infected by the coming plague.

The plague god, disguised as a scholar in white robes, arrived in a cloud, mistakenly landing in the wrong area, somewhere other than Shanhe Zhai. He then traveled through neighboring villages, observing the residents. In more than one village, he overheard the local children singing the same ditty:

Heaven is blind,
The gods' powers are blind,
Ghosts are blind on the road,
People's hearts are blind. 
Before long, heaven will fall!

The plague god was incensed. "I had heard the adults here were evil, but even the children here are just as bad! Singing about gods' being blind and calling for heaven's downfall! Indeed!"

He considered the options and then decided to unleash three types of plague from the tube he carried in his sleeve: spring plague, hot-weather plague, and fall-flat-upon-the-ground plague. Surely, he thought, unleashing these plagues would be an acceptable way of carrying out the Jade Emperor's orders!

Before long, within half an hour, the three kinds of plague had done their job--no one in the immediate area where the plagues had been released was left alive. Good, innocent, bad--all had succumbed.

Thinking his job done, the plague god climbed aboard a cloud and returned to the realm of the Jade Emperor, strutting into the chamber to give his report.

The reception he was to receive was not anticipated. The Jade Emperor, fuming, knowing this plague god had harmed the innocent, ripped away from the plague god his plague tube. Then, he ordered his guards to behead the plague god.

The Jade Emperor next hurriedly dispatched the longevity god down to the afflicted area. This god worked hard to restore life to all the innocent children, women, and men who had fallen to all the pestilence the plague god had unleashed. However, since the revived had been exposed to such an onslaught of disease, there could be no guarantee that any of them would remain immune to whatever germs or viruses were still lurking on the land. So, the longevity god supplied each of those whom he had brought back to life with a "purgative" small pouch and a "longevity lock" to wear which would then allow the wearer to escape a recurrence of the plague.

As a result of all this, the good, decent folk of the Shanhe Zhai and Longdong areas were spared the ravages of the plague. Now, the local children had a new song to sing about the living and those deservedly punished:

The plague spreads death with a blind heart,
But peace now reigns below heaven.
And with the pouch that drives away pestilence,
Children will all live long lives.
The hearts of the blind are truly blind,
And those afflicted shall die.
Those who are now dead have no way to be saved,
so the god of the dead shall pursue them. 

From those days forward, on the fifth of May on the lunar calendar, adults give children pouches that contain the following ingredients which are used in traditional Chinese medicine and which dispel disease: xionghuang (雄黄 realgar, a sulfide mineral), cangshu (苍术 atractylodes lancea), xixing (细幸 asarum, wild ginger), baizhi (白芷 angelica dahurica, or white iris), dingxiang (丁香 cloves), and gansong (甘松nardostachys jatamansi), as well as other natural items. They also give children the "longevity lock" (长寿琐), actually a medallion with very short metal chains hanging from it; wearing this is believed to allow the children to live long lives. 

五月五日为啥戴荷包 [Why people carry pouches on May 5th] in 静宁民间神话传说故事 [Folk Myths and Legends From Jingning], Wang Zhisan, ed.; Beijing:, 2014 [Kindle Paperwhite]

Coincidentally or not, the above custom of wearing pouches and medallions overlaps with the Dragon Boat Festival. 

The original plague god [瘟神]was supposed to be the spirit of the legendary Emperor Zhuanxu's [颛顼] infant son, who, like his brothers, had died at birth. Each one then became a ghost. There are now five plague gods, one for each season along with one that is designated the "manager." Each one wears a robe of a different color: red, blue-green, black, white, and yellow; each carries a different item in his hand: a ladle, a jar, a leather belt and sword, a fan, a hammer, and a kettle. (See 中华鬼神 [Chinese supernatural beings] by Li Shaolin; Neimengu Chubanshe, 2006; Kindle Paperwhite.)

The Jade Emperor [玉皇 or 玉皇大帝] is the Daoist/Chinese folk religion anthropomorphization of heaven itself (This is according to the dean of Chinese mythology research, Yuan Ke; see his entry for [玉皇] in his Dictionary of Chinese Myths and Legends [中國神話傳說詞]). The story doesn't go into specifics about the Jade Emperor's having the plague god "executed." Is it hyperbole (e.g., "Wow, did you hear what Mom said to me last night? She just about killed me."), or is it meant to be literal? We don't know; the story doesn't say.  In any case, tradition holds that there are five plague gods, not four.  

The long white-bearded longevity god or longevity star [寿神 or 寿星] appears very jolly and is very conspicuous with his extremely tall, bald head. 

Motifs: cC941.4, "Plague for breaking tabu"; D1389.15, "Magic herbs (incense) protect from plague"; E50, "Resuscitation by magic"; E121.1, "Resuscitation by a god"; F493, "Spirit of plague"; Q200, "Deeds punished"; Q395, "Disrespect punished"; Q421, "Punishment: beheading"; Q552.10, "Plague as punishment."

Thursday, March 19, 2020

"Killing Ghosts": Four Short Stories From Ancient China

1. "This Place Isn't Big Enough for the Both of Us"

Ji Kang was in his room plucking away at his zither one night when a ghost suddenly appeared.

Its face was tiny, so Ji Kang didn't pay it any attention. Moments later its face and whole body instantly grew, and with the black robe it was wearing, the ghost kept blocking the light from Ji's lamp, interfering with his playing of the zither.

Ji quietly extinguished his lamp, sighed, and said, "What a pity. I guess I'll need to fight this chimei over the light."

The ghost heard this and was immediately dissolved into blood and water.

2. "I'll See You and Raise You"

Over in Yangxi (a county in Guangdong Province), there was once a pavilion. In this pavilion, on the top floor, lived Song Daxian, who, one midnight, was playing around with the zither, strumming around, just as Ji Kang in the previous story had been doing. All of a sudden, a ghost with a fearsome rictus smile appeared. Of ghosts, it could be said this one was particularly hideous.

Song Daxian, however,  paid it no mind and kept playing his zither. The ghost then abruptly left or, rather, disappeared.

The ghost momentarily reappeared, this time clutching the head of a man. The ghost then tossed the head in Song's direction as Song Daxian continued to play the zither.

Song Daxian stopped plucking the zither, looked down at the head, and happily exclaimed, "Great! I can use this as a pillow!"

Once again the ghost departed, this time for a longer period, before finally reappearing. The ghost then grabbed Song's arm, and they began to struggle. Song Daxian got the upper hand, grabbed the ghost's waist and thereupon crushed it, killing the ghost.

After that, there were no further appearances of ghosts in the pavilion.

3. "I'm Just a Fella, a Fella With an Umbrella"

There was once a peddler named San Yi, and he was out late one New Year's Eve, hawking firecrackers on a street when a ghost with a huge head the size of a water basin decided to plague him, actually hoping to frighten San Yi to death.

Now this San Yi was no fool; he could think quickly on his feet. So, he unfolded the umbrella he carried and covered his head and shoulders with it to protect himself from the ghost. He also twirled the umbrella around and around without stopping.

Fed up that it couldn't unnerve San Yi, the ghost let out a bloodcurdling shriek. Unfazed, San Yi merely shrieked back in response, drowning out the ghost's noise. The ghost then bent over, and when it stood up again, it now towered over San Yi. San Yi took off his sandals and tossed them up into the air, higher than the ghost's head, juggling the sandals, making them fly by his face like shooting stars. Now livid,  the ghost grew long bared his long fangs and shot out his long tongue. San Yi, lit a firecracker and threw it at the ghost, letting it explode in front of the ghost's face.

This shook the ghost up. Knowing it had been bested, the ghost admitted to San Yi that he, San Yi, had won the contest. The ghost then adopted a respectful posture and formally asked San Yi to become San Yi's pupil.

San Yi smiled and produced a section of hollowed-out bamboo, which, unbeknownst to the ghost, was loaded with firecrackers.

"So, you want me to be your master?" asked San Yi.

"Yes, yes!" said the ghost.

"Then, do this, my pupil. Take this bamboo and bite down on it."

"All right!"

The ghost did so, not realizing the long fuse had already been lit.

The firecrackers in the bamboo went off, blowing the ghost to pieces, causing it to turn into a small river of black water.

4. "Something-for-Brains"

There was a thin, wispy black ghost that would often annoyingly reappear in the house of Wang Yao, in Shanxi.

What made this ghost so irritating was its habits of suddenly launching into singing that bordered on howling, mimicking human voices, and, most infuriating of all, tossing excrement into the midst of a dinner party.

The Wangs had tried just about everything to rid themselves of this noxious spirit, all to no avail. They had also called in a Daoist priest who could supposedly capture such a ghost; that too failed.

One evening, while Wang Yao was eating dinner, feces was suddenly flung into Wang's soup bowl.

That was the last straw. However, Wang Yao was inspired to apply a different tack. Instead of becoming angry, he simply said aloud, "Whew. I can take dung suddenly appearing in my food. I don't mind that. I'm just afraid next time gold coins will land in my food!"

That did it.

The very next evening gold and silver coins rained down on the Wangs as they ate. This continued for a total of ten nights.

And then it all stopped.

Apparently, without access to any more gold and silver coins, the ghost moved on to somewhere else, never to plague the Wang household again!

from Ghost Stories [鬼故事] Vol.1, compiled by Sima Paguang 司馬怕光; Kindle Paperwhite. 

The rather cheeky story titles are mine, of course. The second and fourth stories can apparently be found in  Record of Searching for the Gods[搜神记] by Gan Bao (?-336 A.D). The first story comes from The Annals of Ghosts [靈鬼志] by someone surnamed Xun who lived during the Eastern Jin Dynasty (A.D. 266-420)In any case, these four stories can be found in basically the same Chinese retelling all over the internet. 

These are four stories about the "laying" or exorcism of ghosts, though the first three stories deal with the outright killing of ghosts, largely bending the Western concept of what a ghost is. "Ghost" in Chinese (鬼) is an umbrella term that includes revenants, noxious spirits, demons, and such. One thing that seems worldwide is the notion that the hostile dead are tremendously gullible. 

"Chimei" (魑魅) is a type of goblin or evil spirit. 

Motifs: D2176.3, "Evil spirit exorcised"; E281, "Ghost haunts house"; E293, "Ghost frightens people"; E402.1.1.3, "Ghost cries and screams"; E402.1.1.4, "Ghost sings"; E446, "Ghost killed and thus finally laid"; E454, "Ghost is laid by giving it a never-ending or impossible task"; S139., "Heads brandished to intimidate foe."

Thursday, August 1, 2019

What to Do and What Not to Do During the Month of Ghosts

It's been a while since I posted anything because I've been busy with a writing project. However, I'd like to share with you a neat short article on the taboos related to the Seventh Month of the Lunar Calendar, the Month of Ghosts:

10 terrifying taboos to dodge during Taiwan&#... | Taiwan News

Monday, April 15, 2019

"Thank you, Brothers . . . " -- Another Taiwanese Urban Legend From the Cold War

Many thanks to my good friend Tina for relating this story to me. She had heard it from others and had not read it in a book, making this an FOAF (friend of a friend) story or, in other words, an urban legend. 

This story takes place during the rule of President Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi, 1887-1975), specifically during the crucial Battle of Kinmen in October 1949, one of the last actions of the Chinese Civil War.

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) had landed on Guningtou (Kuningtou), one of the small islands off the coast of China and which were and still are held by Taiwan. The battle was bitter and fierce. A victory for the PLA would have meant a huge psychological blow to the Kuomintang (KMT) government on Taiwan and paved the way for the eventual landing of PLA troops on Taiwan itself. The soldiers of the Republic of China (ROC) army keenly understood the stakes involved and fought to preserve every inch of Guningtou.

At one point in the battle, on a stretch of beach, the tanks of ROC army were used to roll over and crush the PLA soldiers. This in fact happened, and many ROC soldiers who found themselves engaged in hand-to-hand combat with PLA soldiers were also inadvertently run over and killed. How many ROC soldiers died this way? All we know is that there were many.

By the end of October, the battle was over. The PLA force had been defeated, with most either killed or captured.

The ROC army then set up observation stations along the beach on Guningtou manned by soldiers who remained on watch twenty-four hours a day.

Then, something happened . . .

ROC soldiers stationed on the beach began to request transfers; some tried to avoid going to the beach stations; others deserted.

What was going on?

A high-ranking officer interviewed some of these soldiers, and they all said the same thing: Ghosts haunted the beach at twilight. The officer thought this was a load of nonsense and went himself to the beach to see if there was any substance to these stories. He stood on a ridge overlooking the beach. After sundown, he witnessed whisps of luminous smoke gradually form themselves into human shapes, the shapes of men whose bodies had been twisted into unnatural postures, whose smokey limbs appeared to be maimed or ripped off, whose heads had been decapitated.

The officer reported this to his superiors, who, in turn, reported back to the KMT government. The report reached the desk of President Chiang himself.

Given the large number of men who were refusing to be assigned guard duty along the beach, President Chiang decided to fly to Kinmen and then take a boat to Guningtou. He needed to have a look just in case something was really taking place on the beach. He, along with his bodyguard detail, would see for himself what was going on. All those involved knew what this meant: If no ghosts materialized in front of Chiang, those being held for desertion, dereliction of duty, and spreading rumors of ghosts--all serious charges in wartime--would be summarily executed.

President Chiang and his entourage arrived and found a vantage point above the beach to observe. The sun finally set but no ghosts had yet appeared. The president continued to watch and to scan the beach. Minute after minute ticked by, with the beach still empty of any kind of human presence.

And then wisps of luminous smoke slowly materialized, hundreds of them. They finally took the forms of damaged, broken bodies seen earlier by other soldiers. The forms began to gather and verge on the area where President Chiang sat. They lined up in formation, facing the man who in their lifetimes had been their leader, and who was now observing them from above the beach. Those that still possessed what had once been in their lifetimes their arms saluted President Chiang.

President Chiang stood up and said, "Thank you, Brothers, for your hard work and your ultimate sacrifice. I am pleased to tell you that the fighting is over. Rest easy."

Chiang Kai-shek finished speaking and left with his men, shortly afterward returning to Taiwan.

The ghosts were never seen again. The soldiers that had been arrested and were slated to be executed were spared.

For another urban legend of that era, see the posting for 6/19/11. 

Motifs: E330, "Location haunted by non-malevolent dead"; E334.5, "Ghost(s) of soldier(s) haunt battlefield"; E421.3, "Luminous ghosts"; E421.5, "Ghosts seen by two or more people; they corroborate the appearances"; 422.1.1, "Headless (ghosts)"; E451, "Ghosts rest when certain thing happens"; E587, "Ghosts walk at certain times."

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Mouse's Wedding Night--Two Versions (Han)

The upcoming Chinese New Year will be the Year of the Pig. However, very much associated with the new year is a fable known all over China and Taiwan, and it concerns an evening several days into the new year when two mice (or rats) have a grand wedding ceremony. As huge as China is, it isn't surprising that there is more than one version.

Happy New Year!

(1) A Version From Foshan, Guangdong Province

It was the seventeenth evening of the New Year, and there was no moon out. The mice were busy, all making feverish preparations, for two of them were to be married this night. This is, in fact, the night every year the mice are supposed to marry, and it is a gala night of festivities that would normally attract the attention of any cat.

And what of the cat?

Every year special precautions--dangerous undertakings for the mice involved--have to be made to take care of the cat. On this evening, all the mice join together to make sure the night's event can go off without a hitch, to make sure the cat doesn't take advantage of a bunch of mice gathered conveniently together in one spot.

So this is what the mice do. Being mice, they employ their natural talents to steal, in this case, several fresh fishes, along with an opened bottle of rice wine. Then, some other mice conspire to lead the cat to the fishes and the bottle of alcohol. How do they do so, you may ask? They leave a lucky red envelope on a path the cat is sure to take. The envelope will typically have the following words written by the mouse bride: "In celebration of the mice's wedding, three choice fishes and a bottle of rice wine for you, Brother Cat." Just beyond the red envelope sit the fishes and bottle of rice wine, an invitation for the cat to eat to its heart's content.

A mouse spy observes the cat as it begins to eat the fishes. The spy then reports back: "The cat has begun to scarf down the fishes!"

The spy returns to observe the cat drink the rice wine. As is usually the case, after the cat eats up its favorite food, it caps it off by drinking just half a bottle of rice wine, enough to plunge the cat into a nice drunken stupor.

As soon as this brother mouse spy is sure he can approach the cat and stroke its whiskers, the spy returns to the gathering of mice to announce: "The cat's drunk!"

The mice hear this and all laugh for joy and relief! Happiest of all is the bride, for she knows that on this very night she can indeed be married.

The festivities can commence!

With drums banging, gongs booming, and firecrackers exploding, the groom and his procession--a long, snaky line of kinsmen--arrive to pick up the bride.

As for the cat, if the feline is still awake, the mice know the cat will be half inebriated, still too drunk to chase mice, and more interested in munching any morsels of fish that might have been overlooked.

(2) A Version From Taiwan 

A mouse father and mother once had a daughter on whom they absolutely doted. They wanted only the best for their daughter, and as she grew to early maturity, they began to consider possible matches for their her.

"Only the best for our little girl!" the father said. "No ordinary mouse will do! We must find only the strongest, bravest, greatest future husband for her, mouse or not."

"Yes, yes," said the mother, "but, who?"

"I have it! The sun! Who or what is greater than the sun? Who is bigger and stronger than the sun?"

The wife agreed, so the couple went out to the field to call out to the sun.

"Mr. Sun!" said the father. "You are the greatest in the world! Therefore, we'd like you to be our daughter's husband!"

The sun frowned and began to sweat. "Well, thank you very much for your high opinion of me and your wanting me to marry your daughter. In all honesty, though, I'm certainly not the greatest and have to decline the honor!"

"But why?" asked the father.

"Because the cloud is greater than I am! If the cloud comes out, he can totally cover me up and you won't even see me!"

The father and mother looked at each other and nodded. They agreed that what the sun had said made sense. So, off they went to seek the cloud.

Finding the cloud, the father looked up and said, "Mr. Cloud! We've heard that you are the greatest in the world! It is for that reason we would like to ask you to marry our daughter!"

The cloud winced and said, "I thank you for the honor, but I cannot help you!"

"Why not?"

"I'm simply not the greatest! The wind is greater than I am. Every time he blows upon me, I disappear. You'd better ask him!"

Disappointed, the father and mother thanked the cloud and went in search of the wind. Finding the wind, the husband said, "Mr. Wind! We've been told you are the greatest in the world! Would you kindly marry our daughter?'

Hearing this, the wind, annoyed at the cloud for involving him in someone else's problem, responded, "Thank you for looking up to me with such regard. I am not, though, the greatest in the world."

"Who would that be, Mr. Wind?"

"Naturally, that would be none other than the wall!" said the wind. "Why, as soon as I hit the wall, my power crumbles! Thanks for your offer, but you'd be better off asking the wall."

The father and mother, now even more disappointed and fretful that they would ever find the perfect mate for their daughter, went to speak to the wall.

"Mr. Wall," said the father, "you're the greatest of all, and we need your help as parents!"

"Please tell me what's on your mind," he said kindly.

"We're at the end of our wits trying to find the perfect suitor for our daughter! We've asked the sun, the cloud, and the wind, with each telling us he is not the greatest. Now, the wind has told us to come to you. Only the greatest man will do for our daughter. Mr. Wall, would you please consent to marry our daughter?"

The wall was silent for a moment and then said, "It's funny you should think I'm the greatest! There's actually something greater than I."

"Oh, no," groaned the father, anticipating another quest to ask someone else. "Who?"

The wall laughed. "Don't you know that I fear most of all you mice? You mice are the greatest! You can burrow into me, causing me to crack here and split there until I am in danger of totally collapsing! No, no, I'm not the greatest. How could I be if I remain in total fear of you! How could I ever be the greatest if you could completely wreck me, leaving me in pieces?"

The father and mother laughed and hugged each other. They now realized the truth, thanks to their search and the words of the wall. They themselves--mice--were the greatest, the strongest. They put up posters announcing a competition for a mouse groom. The day of the competition would be the third day of the new year.

On the day of the competition, male mice from far and wide came to the area to vie for the position of suitor. However, it began to rain, and the rain caused a flood which washed out the bridge, stranding all but ten mice contestants on the other side of the river.

The competiton proceeded with the ten contestants. Eventually, the mouse parents were able to select a sturdy, dependable mouse as groom for their beloved daughter!

The pair wed and remained devoted to each other for all their days.

Chen Qinghao and Wang Qiugui, eds., 廣東民間故事集: 中國民間故事全集, 3. [A collection of folktales from Guangdong: the complete collection of folktales from China, vol.3]; Taipei: Yuanliu, 1989; pp. 100-102; 老鼠嫁女(民间传说)_百度百科老鼠嫁女的故事内容是什么?有着什么寓意?老鼠娶亲 - 睡前故事 - 5岁儿童故事 - 贝瓦故事民間故事:老鼠娶親 | 歲時禮俗 | 民俗文化百問百答 | 大紀元(5) 08老鼠娶親 - YouTube

The first version comes from Chen and Wang. The Taiwanese version is from the above YouTube link.
Interestingly, the Taiwanese version very closely parallels the details of the third Chinese joke from the 12/25/18 posting.

The Chinese language doesn't distinguish very precisely between "mouse" and "rat." Both are referred to as laoshu, [老鼠]. However, an informant from Northwestern China, one of my students, said that in his locality, rats were further distinguished as haozi [耗子] (i.e., "consumer," "waster," "one that gobbles up,"), though this too can indicate "mouse" as well as "rat."

Some areas (e.g., Foshan) hold that the seventeenth evening of the Lunar Calendar is the wedding night of the mice, while the tradition in other areas, such as Taiwan, have it as the third evening. Whichever evening it is, we are all supposed to hit the sack early so as to let the mice prepare and carry out the ceremony without interference or peeping from us humans. In addition, as V. R. Burkhardt suggests (Chinese Creeds and Customs, Vol. 2; Taipei, Dunhuang, pp. 43-44; 1977), offerings are left out as a plea or bribe to prevent mice/rats from depleting the family's larder for the rest of the year.  In Akira Kurosawa's 1990 film Dreams, there is a section titled "Sunshine Through the Rain," which is about the Japanese folk belief that foxes have their weddings and wedding processions in the forest on rainy but concurrently sunny days. All this is depicted through the eyes of a boy who sneaks off to the forest to see this phenomenon for himself. He thus breaks a taboo and is spanked by his mom and forced to write a letter of apology to the foxes to prevent future bad luck, just as some Chinese families might leave food out as a bribe to avoid trouble from mice/rats. My daughter's classmate, a young woman from South Africa, told me that in her native land such "sunshowers" indicated that the monkeys were having their wedding party in the forest. 

Still other versions of the second tale have the bride's parents coming to the conclusion that the best, strongest candidate for groom would be the cat himself. The cat very willingly accedes to the request, with the story concluding in a predictably much less than happy ending for the mice. 

Motifs: B280, "Animal weddings"; B281.2, "Wedding of mouse"; B299.3, "Animals (cat) discover liquor and get intoxicated"; C300, "Looking tabu"; C316, "Tabu: Looking at certain animal"; H310, "Suitor tests"; H331, "Suitor contests: Bride offered as a prize"; T132, "Preparation for a wedding"; 
cT133.3, "Drummer beats drum before bride on way to wedding."

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Snake Boy (Tsou/Zou)

Long, long ago, a woodcutter was up in the mountain forests when he heard a very heartbreaking, plaintive cry, the cry of a very small child in danger or in pain.

Who in the world is crying up here? he thought. Whose baby would be up here alone?

He tracked from where the cries were coming, and they led to a clearing. There sat a bawling infant, and coiled around this infant was a huge snake, the long forked tongue of which was licking the crying baby's head.

The woodcutter had seen many strange things in the forest, but what he saw now made him absolutely shudder. He took a deep breath and carefully stepped over to within arms' reach of the infant. He slowly and ever so carefully bent down and lifted the child from the coiled snake.

Holding the child firmly with one arm, the woodcutter used his free arm to shoo away the snake. The snake then slithered off into the forest.

The woodcutter carried the child to his home.

Once home, the woodcutter tried feeding him rice porridge, but the child wasn't interested or hungry. The woodcutter tried feeding him many other things but to no avail. Finally, the small child ate a plantain, and so the woodcutter decided to feed him just plantains, the only food he seemed to enjoy. The woodcutter discovered his little guest also liked yams, so the woodcutter added them to the diet.

And so, having been adopted by the woodcutter, the child lived on plantains, bananas, and yams and grew into a strong, husky youth named "Snake Boy."

Snake Boy, when he came of age, would accompany the adult men and the boys into the forests to hunt.

One day he and a bunch of boys went out to hunt deer. He was the only one that afternoon to come back with something. So, he was able to catch a deer? you might ask. No, he came back with three deer--one under each arm and one draped over his shoulders.

And then there was the head-hunting expedition, or what used to be called "grass mowing." Again, the local boys came back without nary a single head. Snake Boy, however, came back with a real warrior's load--the heads of two enemies.

Snake Boy was not merely a great hunter and warrior. He was also a mature and dependable member of his village and demonstrated such qualities by watching over and guiding the younger boys.

Thus, Snake Boy earned the love and respect of all the people--young and old--in his community.

One day, Snake Boy and his friends were curing some meat jerky on a bamboo frame. From not too far off came the sound of a person approaching and calling out a greeting. Yet, no one could be seen.

"What do you make of that?" asked one of the boys. "Some invisible person is out there!"

"'Invisible person'? Invisible spirit!" said another.

"A demon!" said still another.

To show they were not afraid, all except Snake Boy laughed, the laughter of those trying to make a brave front. Snake Boy cocked his head and seemed to be trying to figure out what the voice was saying. He finally turned to his companions, and with a sad look, he said, "It's my mother . . . "

"Your mother? What do you mean?" someone in the group asked.

"Yes, my mother. She allowed me to grow up here with all of you for all these years, to be your friend, brother, companion . . . It's my mother calling me . . . My time here is up, and now I must go. How I hate to leave!"

Snake Boy broke down in tears. As he cried, a huge snake crawled from the bushes over to the bamboo frame. The boys looked at the snake, and the serpent looked right back at them. Then, right before their eyes, Snake Boy immediately changed into a snake. His astonished friends jumped back as they witnessed  Snake Boy and his snake mother burrow into the soft earth and disappear.

He was gone, just like that! The boys who had loved and accepted Snake Boy as their very own brother were devastated. One, then another and another took out nose flutes and played some songs to express their sorrow and to comfort themselves.

One day not long after, another strange incident occurred. The same village boys were out playing their nose flutes when suddenly they noticed they were now surrounded by dozens of snakes on all sides, slithering around, whipping out their long pink tongues.

The boys were petrified at first. Then, one of the boys had a suggestion: attack the biggest snake, the one that seemed to be the leader. So, the boys hit the lead snake with their nose flutes, and the huge snake reacted by rearing up and emitting from its mouth long flames which made the boys retreat and which seared and then ignited the grass. All of the snakes there but one had no way to retreat and were thus burned up. Only one snake, a blue-green one, escaped with a burned tail.

The boys survived this encounter, having escaped. They returned to find that the dead snakes had deposited many eggs in and around the area, and these eggs later hatched. The whole region was soon crawling with snakes, and to this day it still is.

Lin Daosheng, Vol. 1 (for complete citation, see 3/1/18)

The Zou (or Tsou or Cou) are, like all of Taiwan's other indigenous peoples, Austronesians. They live in Chiayi, around Alishan and in other areas in central and southern Taiwan.

This tale touches upon headhunting, though it is not the tale I had promised a couple of tales back that will enlarge upon the once widespread custom of headhunting. (That forthcoming story is a legend from pre-World War Two Taiwan.) A few words on headhunting, however. It was a custom found amongst all if not most of the tribes. It evolved as a means of protecting community territory and became a coming-of-age ceremony by which a young man could prove his worth to his community and enable himself to obtain a wife after having demonstrated his prowess in taking a head. Again, though, the legend I plan to present next year will focus on headhunting and discuss this practice in more detail. 

This story strongly reminds us of the difficulty in overcoming nature--wild nature or even one's own human nature. Snake Boy was essentially a "fish out of water" and, as such, was destined sooner or later to return to his one real home, regardless of his attachment to his friends. This is a common theme in indigenous Taiwanese myths and legends, that we are guests in the company of the wild and its denizens and vice-versa, even if these supernatural friends/spouses might appear in human form from time to time. And they, when they are with us, will never and can never tarry for very long among us forever. Furthermore, we might have expected the boys of the village, Snake Boy's childhood and adolescent friends, to have been more accepting of snakes in their presence. After all, one of the snakes they struggled against might have been their good friend, Snake Boy. But no, their fear of snakes still (probably unconsciously) triggered them to respond with violence against the snakes that appear before them, overriding any thought that their best friend was now a snake. 

I hesitate fully to identify Snake Boy as a "culture hero" in that his single possible contribution to the world and human race--the proliferation of snakes--is only arguably creditable to him. 

Motifs: cA511.2.1, "Abandonment of culture hero at birth"; cA526.2, "Culture hero as mighty hunter"; cA526.7, "Culture hero performs remarkable feats of strength and skill"; cB635.3.1, "Culture hero licked by deer (snake) mother"; D191, "Transformation: man to serpent"; D391, "Transformation: serpent to person"; T542, "Birth of human being from an egg (of a snake)."

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Three Jokes From China

Merry Christmas!

1. "Thank Goodness"

There once was a fellow who was both poor and not very bright. To make ends meet, he once hired himself to the family of a man who was scheduled to be repeatedly beaten by a bamboo staff at the local yamen. This hiree agreed to stand in for the man sentenced to a beating. 

The family of the man sentenced first paid the hiree, the replacement for the beating, a nice sum of cash. 

With the cash on his person, the hiree entered the yamen, prepared to take his licks. However, before the beating commenced, he gave the yamen jailer entrusted to beat him all the cash, with the instructions to "go lightly" on him, and the jailer did so obligingly. 

Having now been beaten and now penniless, the man left the yamen and headed for the home of the family that had hired him in the first place. To their surprise, he got on his knees before them, kowtowing, repeating, "Thank you! Thank you! I'm so grateful to you!"

"Hold on!" said the startled head of the house. "What's this all about?"

"I'm a thousand percent grateful to you!" cried the beaten man. 

"How so?"

"Well," he replied, "if it hadn't been for the money you had given me, I'd have been beaten to death!"

2. "A Serious Tiger Match"

Out on the street, a man hard of hearing once heard the cry of a tofu seller hawking fresh tofu: "Doufu!" This gentleman, however, misheard the cry as "Douhu!" ("fight between tigers" or "a tiger match, " like a modern bullfight). 

He rubbed his hands together in delight and thought, "Hot diggity! A tiger fight! I've got to see this!" He turned around to the passers-by and cried out, "Hey, everybody? Did you not hear? There's a match between a man and a tiger or maybe one between two tigers!"

"Wow! Where?" asked someone.

"Show us where!" cried someone else. 

Just then a seller of hot steamed plain buns appeared, shouting, "Mantou!"

The hard-of-hearing fellow heard this as "To the south!" (nantou).

"Come on, everyone!" he said. "It must be this way, just south of here. He proceeded to lead a small gaggle of similarly bored people looking for excitement on a path headed south. 

On and on they walked until they reached the end of the path, a dead end in town where nothing was going on.

"Hey!" said one of the group. "Where's this tiger fight?"

"Yeah," said another, "there's nothing down here."

Not far away, a man was hawking garlic cloves: "Dasuan luo!"

The man with the hearing problems heard this as "Break it up!" or "Dismissed!"

"Oh, forget about it, everybody!" he said. "Looks like some killjoy already stopped the show and sent everyone away!"

3. "Tiger or Pussycat? Decide at Your Own Risk"

A rather vain, imperious county magistrate had taken up painting and had just completed a painting of a tiger, of which he was very proud. He hung it up in his office and called in a yamen runner to look at the painting.

"Well," said the magistrate, "what do you think?"

This runner, notorious for being a shameless toady, exclaimed, "Beautiful! For the life of me, Master, I swear this painting of a tiger is so lifelike that the animal looks ready to pounce off the paper!"

The magistrate, overjoyed, gave the runner ten silver coins, telling him, "Here, my good man!"

The next day, he called in another runner.

"What do you think of this painting?" he asked the runner.

"Oh . . . it's only a cat . . ." was the reply. 

"A cat? Just a cat?" roared the magistrate with anger. "Who do you think you are?!" He then stepped to the doorway and cried, "Send another runner in here at once!" And when a runner appeared on the double, the magistrate pointned to the runner already in his office and said, "See that man? Give him forty strokes with a bamboo rod!"

By now the word had gotten out that any runner who wanted to avoid trouble would have to speak very diplomatically with the magistrate if asked about his painting of a tiger. 

A third runner, one who refused to flatter but one who also desperately did not want to be beaten, was called in for his opinion on the now infamous painting. 

"So, what do you think of the painting you see hanging here?" asked the magistrate.

"I'm too afraid to say, Master," the runner replied. 

"Afraid? Afraid of what?" asked the magistrate. 

"Everyone is afraid of something, Master. I'm afraid of you."

"Oh, really now? What do you suppose I am afraid of, young man?"

"Well, Master," replied the runner, "you would be afraid of His Imperial Majesty."

"Very well. What would His Imperial Majesty be afraid of, then?"

"His Imperial Majesty would fear Heaven."

"And what would Heaven be afraid of?"

"Heaven would be afraid of a cloud."

"And what would a cloud fear?"

"A cloud would fear the wind."

"Uh huh. What would the wind fear?"

"The wind would fear a wall."

"Oh? And a wall? What would a wall be afraid of?"

"A wall would be afraid of a mouse for all the damage it could do."

"Aha. So what would a mouse then be afraid of?"

"Well, Master, a mouse would most certainly be afraid of what you painted in that picture."

The magistrate was left thunderstruck.


傳統笑話 [Traditional Jokes], Folk Humor and Joke Collection Team, eds.; N.p.: Green Apple Data Center; N.d. [Kindle Paperwhite]