Thursday, February 15, 2018

Some Chinese Proverbs & Metaphors About Dogs

Happy New Year, the Year of the Dog! Below are some Chinese proverbs about dogs. Many of them are not complimentary, as the word "dog" can be an epithet (e.g., 狗头, "dog head, " a disreputable person, lackey, etc., and 狗腿子, "dog legs," also a lackey). A few, however, especially for those of us, very much including me, who love dogs, reflect exactly why we cherish dogs. The list below is far from being complete; it only represents a few of the many proverbs and folk sayings about dogs.

狗嘴吐不出象牙 Don't expect ivory to be spat out from the mouth of a dog. (Nothing from a disreputable source can ever be good; also, don't "expect blood from a stone." Chinese also say not "to look up a tree for a fish." Similarly, Japanese say not "to look for oysters [or clams] in a field.")

狗咬狗  Dog bites dog. (In the West, we might comment on "a dog-eat-dog world." The saying also has connations of there being "no honor among thieves.")

狗头军师  A dog-headed military advisor. (Said of incompetents who, ironically, love doling out advice.)

狗胆包天  A dog's bravery subsuming heaven itself. (Said of those who are overly brave and rash, such as "fools who rush in where angels are afraid to tread.")

狗惜鼻 A dog placing all of its confidence in its nose. (Said of those who are easily shaken, discouraged after a setback.)

怕狗无出门, 亲家你也来  To be afraid that the dog hasn't gone out yet when you and the [entire] family show up. (This Taiwanese saying hints at when the unthinkable or least desired outcome occurs.)

狗食落, 独肝腹内知 When a dog drops/misses its meal, the dog knows it in its gut. (To know something is true in your heart; the heart doesn't lie. [Actually, it does but you get the idea.])

狗咬人不露齿 A dog that bites doesn't bare its fangs. (Said of those quiet, unassuming individuals who turn out to be surprisingly formidable, dangerous, vicious, etc. Chinese also urge each other to "beware of silent dogs" for the same reason.)

狗咬狼, 两怕 A dog bites a wolf and both are afraid. (Said of two foes who bluster and huff at each other and when finally coming to blows discover both regret everything that led up to the fight. It suggests regretting starting something that has to be finished one way or another.)

狗上瓦坑, 有条路 The dog's on top of the tiles of the earthworks; so, there is a way (out). ("Where there's a will, there's a way." Also, an auspicious beginning suggests success.) 

狗无嫌主人穷 A dog is not ashamed of its master's poverty. (Dogs love us unconditionally. It's not a surprise why of all the animal species they remain the closest to us.)

Guan Meifen, ed. 台灣諺語集成 [Integrated Taiwanese Proverbs]; Tainan: Wenguo Shuju, 2002.
Wang Yongxing, ed. 俗言語智慧精華:閩南版 [The Essence of Wisdom From Popular Proverbs: Minnan (i.e., Taiwanese) Edition]; New Taipei: Junjia Wenhua Shiye, 2012. Shang Yingshi, ed. 中國人的俗話 [Popular Sayings of the Chinese People]; Taipei: Changchunshu Shufang, 1979. Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Institute of Linguistics, ed. 现代汉语词典[A Dictionary of Modern Chinese]; Beijing: Shangwu, 1997. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Tattooed Face (Taiwan; Atayal)

Long ago, over by what is now called Dabajian Mountain (straddling Hsin-chu and Miao-li Counties) there once was a huge boulder.

One day, with an earsplitting report, this boulder split into two halves. Out from the two halves came a very young man and a very young lady--a brother and a sister.

They were the only humans around; there was no one else. So they made a home for themselves and lived together harmoniously. They both had attributes that complemented their relationship. The young man was strong and hardworking, while the young woman was quick-witted and lively.

Then they reached the age when couples would later marry.

The sister was sad, knowing something was lacking in her life. She thought, I want to be with someone just as the beasts of the woods and of the skies, in the same way, find themselves together. I want to have babies of my own as they do, but what can I do? My brother is the only one of his kind around. 

She knew her brother would refuse to be in a couple's relationship with her in this manner, so she thought and thought and finally came up with a plan. When she saw him, she said, "Brother, you know you ought to find yourself someone with whom you can be a couple."

"Don't I know it!" he said sighing. "Tell me where I can find such a person."

"I'll tell you exactly where. There's a person with bodily details like mine who lives inside the hollow of the boulder at the foot of the mountain!"

"What? Is that possible? Well, take me to see her, then! Let's not waste any time!"

The sister smiled. "There's no need to hurry. I've already spoken to her and set it up for you so that she can be with you together. Tomorrow you can go to her yourself. Now, let me tell you what she looks like . . ."

The next day the young man went to the boulder at the foot of the mountain. Sure enough, there was a young lady living in a very large crevice. She greeted the young man with a big smile and a warm welcome. This young woman had black designs on her face, lines and geometric shapes that ran across her cheeks.

The young man didn't care about the black lines on her face; he fell in love with her and became what would later be called her "husband." In time, they had many babies together.

Of course, the young man's bride was none other than his own sister who had burnt sticks and applied the charcoal to her face as a disguise. That is why from that day on Atayal women, before marrying, would always have their cheeks actually tattooed.

Lin Daosheng, Vol. 2; pp. 26-28. See the bibliographic citation for 7/14/17.

The Atayal myth presupposes that the brother, at least consciously, didn't know that his own sister was underneath those black geometric designs. Like many myths involving the incestuous origins of humankind, this story deals in a very sober and prosaic manner with just what needed to be done to populate the world. 

Myths of brother-sister incest that result in the spawning of the human species are a worldwide phenomenon (see A.W. Johnson & D. Price-Williams; Oedipus Ubiquitous: The Family Complex in World Literature; Stanford University Press, 1996; 62). In some myths, the relationship is mother-son, with the mother's application of charcoal upon her face for her disguise (M. S. Day; The Many Meanings of Myth; University Press of America, 1984; 225). Myths from throughout Asia and the Pacific follow a similar pattern of the first couple, sometimes a brother and a sister, emanating from bamboo joints, a gourd, a rock, separate eggs, or from an egg (the man) and from a rock (the woman). From Taiwan alone come twenty-eight versions of the primal pair leaving a rock  to live as husband and wife and, later, to spread humanity (Ho Ting-jui; A Comparative Study of Myths and Legends of Formosan Aborigines; 2 vols.; Diss. Indiana University, 1967; 56-59; 62; 65; 69). 

Perhaps the motif of the rock spawning the first pair is a legacy of animist rock worship in which prominent boulders with suggestive shapes were believed to be endowed with procreative powers. More than one location in Southeastern China, for example, is known as "Waiting/Longing for the Husband Rock [望夫石], where local customs hold that a rock formation that resembles a woman holding a baby is actually a woman and an infant who were transformed into stone while waiting on a bluff overlooking the river for the first glimpse of a man who was destined never to return. Such spots, for instance, one in Guangdong Province and one nearby in Hong Kong's New Territories, are believed by some to be ancient centers of this rock-worshipping cult. The prevalence of such rock-worshipping sites on the Chinese mainland as well as in the Pacific suggests that Taiwan is in the middle of what was once a single cultural region (B. Riftin; 74; 82 [See the notes in the posting for 5/20/10]).

Motifs: A1273.1, "Incestuous first parents"; A1465.1, "Origing of tattooing"; A1595, "Origin of tattooing"; K1377, "Incestuous marriage arranged by trick"; T415, "Brother-sister incest"; cT415.5, "Brother-sister marriage."

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Wife From the Depths (Taiwan; Saisiyat)

For my friend, Gavin Whyte

A young hunter, an orphan, once went out to do a day's hunting. He came home alone, of course, to his hut in the village, tired and hungry. He was amazed to discover a fine hot meal awaiting him on his table.

The neighbors must have done this for me, he thought.

The next night, the night after that, and the night after that--for many nights in a row, actually--he would come home to find a wonderful hot dinner waiting just for him.

Before, he had just simply accepted that the first few of these mysterious meals had been the acts of kindness of his neighbors who all lived in a small village. Now, though, he was totally bewildered because the meals kept appearing nightly, seemingly out of nowhere, and no one in the village claimed to know anything about them.

So, one day he did this: he made sure his friends were hiding in the tall grass near his hut to spy on whoever it was who was coming over to his home and cooking the delicious meals. The young hunter then left to do that day's worth of hunting while the friends watched the hut.

He returned early that evening to discover his friends had surrounded a lovely but embarrassed young woman who insisted on keeping her head lowered. She had been observed entering the hut and leaving it once that night's dinner had been set on the table. Now she was enclosed in a circle of the young hunter and his friends, refusing to speak.

When one of the hunter's friends went over to the tall grass to urinate and did so rather openly, the young woman couldn't help but laugh. She began to talk but didn't reveal much about herself. That was of no consequence,  for whenever the young hunter and the maiden looked at each other, love shone in their eyes. The eyes spoke what the heart didn't say.

So, shortly afterward they became husband and wife.

Now that they had been married, one of the hunter's friends brought them a wedding cake. The hunter sliced a piece and gave it to his bride. Much to his surprise, she took it and carried it to the riverbank.
Before his very eyes, she took a mighty leap right into the river itself. The husband screamed for his wife in terror. He ran up to the bank and looked at the spot where she had jumped. She could still be seen below the water. She rose up to the surface.

"My home is in the river," she said. "Come on in and meet my mother."

The hunter was frightened and didn't dare jump in, no matter how much his wife beckoned to him. Finally, a middle-aged woman who bore a resemblance to his wife stuck her head out of the water right next to the young woman. She then waved hello and likewise beckoned him to jump in.

The hunter took in a deep breath, said some silent prayers, and dived in.

He soon found himself in the river abode of his wife. It was a regal mansion deep below the surface. The hunter discovered no reason to return to the surface, so he stayed below with his wife and parents-in-law. In time, the young married couple had a baby. A month after that happy event and the hunter began to pine for his old life back on the earth's surface. So he said goodbye to his wife, his child, and his parents-in-law.

He returned to his village and his hut. What's more, he then took another wife, what Han Taiwanese people today would call a "little wife."

Now one day the wife from the river came to the surface with their son to search for her husband. She returned to the hut, where she found the second wife. The two wives faced each other; soon they began to squabble about who was better, who was prettier, who was nicer, who was a better cook, and so on. Both defended their appearances and qualities to the other without either feeling that she had come off worse.

Then the quarrel took a new direction.

"All right," said the second wife, "we'll settle this. Let's see who has the nicer clothes. Bring out all your clothes, if you dare! Whoever has the nicer wardrobe shall be the winner. The loser leaves the village and leaves the man behind."

The first wife agreed and left for her river home to fetch her clothing. She returned and hung her clothes up for all to see. She needed at least ten bamboo poles on which to hang her richly made clothes fit for the goddess she was. The second wife, however, had enough clothing to accommodate only one pole. They weren't particularly impressive clothes, either. The first wife, the wife from the depths of the river, had clearly bested the second wife and had thus won the contest.

The second wife, "the little wife," was enraged. Refusing to give in, she rushed out the hut and came back in shortly after, this time, with a jar of ink. She then poured ink all over some of the first wife's clothes.

"Now, you," said the second wife, "get out of here and never come back! Do you hear me?"

The first wife was enraged beyond belief. If he really wants this shrew, he can have her! she thought. She and their son left and returned to the depths of the river.

She later returned to her husband's hut with the small son. Right before the husband's eyes, she took their son and tore him into two living halves.

"Now, husband of mine, here is your half of our son; I shall keep the other half," she said. "I shall return in two years to see how the other half is, whether he is thriving or not. We'll then see who is the better wife and mother."

With that, she and her half of the son were gone.

Now the hunter and his second wife were responsible for taking care of their half of the son. Barely a day later, while under the hunter and second wife's care, the half-son decayed and died.

Two years passed. The first wife and her half of the son returned to the hunter's hut. Her half of the boy was now a healthy and whole young lad. The hunter, now alone, saw clearly who had been the superior wife and mother.

The hunter told his first wife how sorry he was, that he was no longer with the second wife, and that he wanted her, the first wife, back. However, she would have no part of it; she was no longer interested. She and the boy returned to their home in the river.

How the hunter had begged her not to leave! But leave she did.

The hunter never saw either his first wife or his son ever again.

Taiwanese Folktales [台湾民间故事], Shi Cuifeng, ed. N.P.: Hebei Shaonian Ertong Chubanshe, 1987; pp. 210-213. 

The Saisiyat territory is a small wedge between Taoka and Atayal lands in northern central Taiwan in a section of Miaoli and Hsinchu counties. 

Damiana L. Eugenio relates a similar myth from the Ifugao of the Philippines. In this Ifugao version, a poor man, too impoverished to even clothe himself, is pitied by a goddess from the sky, not from the river, as in our story. The young man takes her home to meet his mother before they are wed. Once married, they conceive a child. The goddess, subjected to intense dislike and suspicion by the small-minded villagers, wishes to return to her sky home with their son, but the husband, terrified of heights, refuses to leave, despite all assurances that she would protect him in the ascent. He still refuses and she splits their son, not down the middle but crosswise at the waist, leaving the top half for her husband. She returns to the sky with her half of their son, with the expectations that her husband's half of the child should do well under his care. When she returns to the earth for a visit, she is shocked her husband's half of the child has withered and died. Various parts of the dead child, then, through the goddess's magic, become animals: the head becomes an owl; the nose, a mollusk; the excrement, a type of bird, etc. (Philippine Folk Literature: The Myths; Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1993; pp. 33-37). Missing from the Ifugao story are the motifs of a second wife and the husband's being an orphan.

Might the literal splitting of the child be a figurative reflection of just what could result from such a miraculous, supernatural, but ultimately unstable marriage that really should have never been allowed? The end result of such a union is an incomplete child yearning for complete development, coming, as he does, from two basically incompatible parents or parts. In folktales, it takes two totally dedicated and involved parents, not one, to raise successfully a "whole" child (Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment; New York: Knopf, 1976, p. 70). Not coincidentally, in the Taiwanese tale, the mortal half of the split child perishes, while the immortal half thrives. 

This story, like many preceding it and many to follow, comes from a cycle of tales popular in East Asia and around the world: the supernatural wife/animal bride, in which a shapeshifting animal becomes a bride. Here, it is a river goddess. Other tales like this include "The Swan Maiden" and "The Snail Shell Girl."  In the case of goddess brides, the essence of these tales is as follows: a poor man is pitied by the gods and rewarded for his industriousness, filial piety, honesty, etc., with a princess/goddess from the other realm, usually from the sky or from below the water. They marry. In time he is either persecuted by an evil, corrupt local authority who covets such a beautiful, marvelous wife, or he simply loses his wife for violating a taboo. Ancient Han Chinese versions include one particular tale that goes by different names: "The Snail Shell Girl," "The Snail Wife," "The Waif of White Water, " and so on. (See my postings for 3/19/08 and 7/8/10.) The Greek folktale "The Animal Wife" (Stith Thompson, One Hundred Favorite Folktales; Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1974; pp. 143-146) closely parallels Chinese versions. 

Whether she is an exquisite goddess from the river, ocean, or sky; an enticing representation of elusive, wild animal nature; or, a beautiful incarnation of death itself (e.g., Yuki Onna; see any edition of Lafcadio Hearn's Kwaidan for the tale "Yuki Onna," or the haunting and stunning 1964 movie version of Kwaidan from director Masaki  Kobayashi), the supernatural wife is foolish to take a chance on love with a mortal man. Perhaps she represents a human longing in supernatural form for an impossible life, for the world that once was, an epoch of innocence, a time when animals could speak to humans, a connection lost forever. (For more discussion on this, see Boria Sax's The Serpent and the Swan: The Animal Bride in Folklore and Literature; Blacksburg, Va.: McDonald & Woodward, 1998.) These stories frequently end tragically and are reminders of the permanent gap between idealized nature and us humans. 

Motifs: C31, "Taboo: offending the supernatural wife"; F525, "Person with half a body"; F725.3, "Submarine castle (palace)"; *T299.3, "Separating couple divide child upon separation"; cT589.2, "Boy cut in two; each half becomes a boy." 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Song Qiong Returns (Han)

Long, long ago, when traveling from village to village, let alone across a province, was difficult and dangerous, there lived a man named Song Qiong. He was an unmarried man all alone in the world, his parents having passed on some time earlier. Life in his village was hard as his crops had failed. So, he decided to do what for many was the unthinkable--to leave his native village and journey beyond the Shanhai Pass, where the easternmost section of the Great Wall meets the ocean, to the land beyond.

So, along with a companion, he left his home, exited the Pass, and journeyed farther still to a place he would remain in for a period time. In this new village, he worked very hard for a number of years by the sweat of his brow, and scrimped and saved until he had amassed a small fortune, 500 hundred silver coins. Now in his early fifties, he decided to return to his native village, like many, maybe even most, sojourners.

And so he, now alone, set off for his own village, a place he had not seen for years. The cold wintry weather did not deter him as he trudged through the increasing snow covering the ground. On and on he plodded through the falling snow that would not let up.

He had trekked for more than a couple of weeks and was now up in the mountains when he discovered he just could not go any farther. The snow had become a blizzard that enveloped the mountains, blocking the path. Not only that but his two legs were killing him. There was a village up ahead; he would stay there and wait out the storm as he regained the strength in his legs.

He entered the village, made inquiries, and located a vacant room he could rent. In time, he got to know the people of the village, and they got to know him. He was there long enough for everyone to know him because the weather had remained icy, prohibiting foot travel out of the area. By and by they came to see he was of good, honest character and learned he had never married. Before long, the villagers introduced him to a local widow, a Mrs. Ma, who was in her forties and already had four grown children. All in all, the villagers considered them a good match because their respective ages were not very far apart and because Mrs. Ma and her children, though far from wealthy, lived comfortably and always ate well. Perhaps most of all, Song Qiong was a downright decent fellow, a good man to marry.

And so they married, and Song Qiong no longer needed to fret about returning to the village of his birth.

Around a year after the wedding, Song Qiong was struck down with a heavy illness that left him bedridden on the kang, the brick oven the top of which served as a warm bed in this extreme Northern climate.

It had been no secret to Mrs. Ma that Song Qiong possessed 500 silver coins. It now occurred to Mrs. Ma that Song Qiong didn't need to get better. She planned to poison him and take his silver coins for herself.

Mrs. Ma poisoned the food in Song's bowl. The unwitting Song Qiong ate the meal and soon died. Within three days, he had been hastily dressed in a cheap, flimsy coffin and, in the midst of a snowstorm, carted off to a desolate, frozen hill where the unlamented dead were dumped. There, Song's coffin was likewise dumped in an icy snowbank and hastily covered up by the abundant snow.

The harsh winter finally gave way to a warm spring, and, with that, the snow and ice over and around Song's coffin finally melted.

A farmhand who had been hired for the harvest was passing the hill and saw Song's coffin out in the open. He heard a gudong, stopped in his tracks, and looked at the coffin. The lid slowly creaked open, and out from the coffin leaped Song Qiong, who strode over to the farmhand, blocking his path.

"Are . . .  are . . . you . . . a . . . p-p-person?" asked the farmhand.

"No. I'm a ghost," replied Song Qiong.

"W-w-what do you w-w-want?"

"Do me a kindness. Take me to the village. To the home of the Widow Ma."

The farmhand wasn't about to argue with a ghost as Song Qiong's ghost climbed up onto the man's back for a piggyback ride into town. The ghost climbed down off the man's back once he was in front of Widow Ma's front door. The farmhand didn't tarry for a second and ran for his life away from there.

The ghost pushed the door open and entered.

It so happened that Mrs. Ma and her four sons were all crowded around the table, eating lunch. They looked up when they heard the door open and shut. The five were thunderstruck to see who was standing before them.

Slowly, her bones rattling with fear, Mrs. Ma raised herself from her chair. "Y-you're s-supposed to b-be dead, aren't you?"

The ghost laughed a cold snicker from the grave. "When there's been a great wrong, there'll be a corpse," he said, "and there'll be a culprit. A great wrong demands redress, and I'm here to collect. Now, give me my 500 silver coins and a full year's wage for all the work I've done."

Mrs. Ma knew the ghost had her over a barrel. Her face collapsed with sorrow as she went to retrieve the money that the ghost had demanded. The ghost of Song Qiong took the coins, including the year's wages, bundled them up, and left the Ma house.

The ghost next headed for the crossroads. By the intersection stood a wine shop. The ghost entered the shop and spoke to the owner.

"Boss, do this for me. I'll pay you for setting up ten tables of fine wines and delicacies so that for the next ten days any and all travelers coming by this spot may refresh themselves and eat free of charge. I will be seated at one of the tables to welcome anyone who comes by."

The ghost paid the owner a deposit for the order, and the owner, receiving the payment, snapped his fingers for his shop clerk to set up the tables of food and wine immediately. Each table, according to the ghost's order, would have ten dishes, a large bowl of soup, and a selection of wines.

For the next ten days, the ghost sat and wined and dined all who came his way. He made sure to inform them of Mrs. Ma's treachery so that the news of her evil spread through the nine provinces and one hundred eight counties.

As the saying goes, "Ten told one hundred, and one hundred told a thousand." In time, the news reached the local magistrate in the yamen. He promptly sent yamen guards to arrest all five members of the Ma family, including Mrs. Ma.

By this time, the ten days had passed, and all the money the ghost had taken from Mrs. Ma had been spent on food and wine. The ghost of Song Qiong, no longer needed to entertain travelers at the crossroads, lingered around Mrs. Ma's house and took satisfaction at seeing each of the Mas, one by one, led out of the house to be delivered to the yamen to await certain punishment.

His vengeance achieved, the ghost left the area, and this time "died" somewhere for sure.

Ghost Stories [鬼故事], Xu Hualong, ed. Shanghai: Shanghai Wenhua Chubanshe, 2017; pp. 50-52. 

The ghost of Song Qiong is lifelike and three-dimensional enough to resemble a living person. This is no legless, semi-transparent apparition. Furthermore, the story implies the ghost roams and interacts with people day and night. The ghostly manifestation appears to be caused by the violation of an obscure funerary taboo: burial in a cavity packed with snow and ice. There are many Chinese funerary taboos, and some vary according to location (e.g., Northeast China, Taiwan) and ethnicity (e.g., Han majority and minority peoples such as the Muslim Hui, Mongols, etc.); however, I have not been able to find it listed in various compendiums of Chinese taboos. However, in any case, burial of a murder victim in a cheap coffin dumped into an icy, snowy ditch would be obviously terribly disrespectful, just begging for vengeful haunting. 

The story also hints at how in ancient times the area outside the Shanhai Pass, where the Great Wall meets the sea, was regarded as far beyond the pale of civilization. 

The ghost's busy activity of hosting a ten-day banquet seems to be a rare motif. Also interesting is his needing a man to carry him to Mrs. Ma's house when he seems otherwise perfectly mobile. Also noteworthy is Mrs. Ma, somewhat impoverished, has all that money on hand when the ghost demands it. 

Motifs: E230, "Return from the dead to inflict punishment"; E231, "Return from the dead to reveal murder"; cE235, "Return from the dead to punish indignities to corpse or ghost"; E236.8, "Ghost seeks repayment of stolen money"; cE238, "Dinner with the dead"; E420, "Appearance of revenant."

Friday, August 4, 2017

The God Who Loved a Girl (Taiwan; Amis)

The god Yileke was a carefree deity that roamed the Ninth Heaven.

One day during a jaunt across the sky, his foot dispersed a wispy cloud, revealing to him the land below. And what did he see? He beheld the people in rags as they stood by the dry riverbeds and parched fields of wilted stalks of grain. There the people stood, earnestly bowing under heaven, making offerings so that the earth could become fertile and alive again.

He heard their prayers:

Cloudless skies, 
No rain coming forth . . .
Let's all rise
To make our efforts have some worth!
Up the mountain path we wend
So the rains may finally return
And this time of need can once and for all finally end!

This entreating touched Yileke's heart, for he was a compassionate god. He decided to help the people. He transformed himself into a handsome youth and descended into the world of people.

Yileke brought a huge wooden top. He spun it once, and the farm fields were leveled and furrowed. He spun it twice, and crystal pure water flowed from the earth, irrigating the farm fields. In almost the twinkling of an eye, he had transformed the Amis people's landscape into a welcoming, fertile garden.

That very autumn, the Amis gathered a huge harvest. All men and women, young and old, now had beautiful multi-colored clothes to wear. All celebrated their harvest by dancing around the many bonfires that had been lit in each community.

It was at one of these bonfire dances that Yileke first saw the girl who would later kidnap his very heart. She was dancing around the fire with flowers in her hair, wearing a skirt of many colors. She dazzled his eyes. He decided to introduce himself, so, following the Amis custom, he plucked a fresh betel nut from a tree and tossed it into the basket she was carrying on her back. The maiden saw this. She ambled over to a plantain tree and beneath its branches sang:

The harvest grains have been moved into the granary, 
But the fruit of love is also ready to be collected. 
Oh, Silver Moon, 
Be my matchmaker!

Yileke walked over to her, this mortal girl who had enchanted him so, took her hand, and danced with her, around and around. The villagers laughed and applauded. They wished Yileke and the maiden happy, long lives together . . . 

They became husband and wife.

They were now together night and day, but gods and mortals cannot be together for very long.

So there came the day when Yileke had to return to the Ninth Heaven alone, for his mortal wife could not rise into the sky and beyond the clouds with him. How her heart was broken!

"I shall do this," said Yileke. "I'll turn myself into a heavenly ladder. Once you climb to the top, we can be together again. Once you are up there with me, you shall be able to stay. No one will be able to separate us, and we can live up there forever! What do you say?"

"I say, 'Yes!'' was her reply.

"Now, there's one very important thing, " he added. "Please listen carefully."

"What is that?"

"If you should make an audible sound while climbing the ladder," said Yileke, "the whole ladder will dissolve into nothingness. Don't make the slightest sound, not even a sigh. Do you understand that you have to keep totally silent?" She nodded. "Do you still wish to climb up the ladder to be with me?"

"Create that ladder and I shall come up!" she said.

So, Yileke, the good, dutiful son-in-law he was, said farewell to his father-in-law and the elders of the village. He then ascended into the heavens on a cloud and out of sight. Once he was back in his realm, however, he turned himself into a gleaming ladder of white jade that stretched down from the sky.

Wearing the dress that she had worn when Yileke first laid eyes upon her, the young wife packed some fragrant glutinous rice cakes wrapped in plantain leaves--a little taste of home--and started climbing up the ladder for her journey into the sky, towards the stars, and, ultimately, into the arms of her lover, Yileke.

So up and up she climbed, every second thinking about being reunited with her husband and lover. But how high the heavens are! The climbing became a little rough, and she chewed her lips to control any sound that might escape from them.

Higher and higher she went, passing birds and clouds alike. She started to believe she could see Yileke above her, beckoning to her. She looked below; her sisters and other family members continued to wave farewell. She felt her heart being pulled in two different directions. She now couldn't bear to part with her father and sisters, yet she couldn't stand the idea of not having Yileke in her life. Her heart and mind were churning together, each wanting something different.

And then it happened . . . She did something so naturally human--she let go a gentle sigh.

The white jade ladder instantly disappeared like smoke in the air.

"Yileke . . . !" she screamed once as she plummeted all the way back down to earth.

Yileke hastily and desperately recomposed himself to rescue his wife, but it was too late.

The god was inconsolable; his very spirit was crushed. He blamed himself for what had happened to his wife. He crouched down over the spot where his wife had fallen and cried an entire river, which emptied into a bottomless pool. This pool then became the resting spot for his wife's remains.

The god Yileke turned into a rainbow. Since that day long ago, he still sits silently halfway up in the sky, with one of his rainbow legs on the land, hoping that his young wife might still somehow climb up from her resting place to be with him.

Cai Tiemin, pp. 16-19. (See 7/3/17 for full citation.)

The Ninth Heaven is regarded in ancient Han Chinese mythology as the highest realm of the gods. The same term was used in this story, suggesting an Amis' borrowing of a Han term to describe or express a local concept, perhaps suggestive of syncretism. The motif of a ladder to heaven is relatively rare in indigenous Taiwanese mythology (see Boris Riftin, p. 127, in 從神話到鬼話, or From Myths to Ghost Stories). More common, however, is the motif of the male culture hero the bringer of grains often a god, marrying a mortal girl whom he has to leave behind to return to the world above (Ho Tingjui, 111-112; see 7/6/12 for full citation). We know from many worldwide examples of mortal-immortal marriage stories that such marriages are doomed. In this present story, the inevitable violation of the taboo safeguards the normal order by ending the supernatural marriage. This reminds us yet again that some things are never meant to be and that there will always be some built-in "fly in the ointment," or safeguards to stop them. 

The story mentions the betel nut (or areca nut; in Mandarin, binlang [檳榔]; Taiwanese/Minnan, pin-nng), a seed, not an actual nut, that is chewed throughout much of Southeast Asia for its property as a stimulant. Many Han Taiwanese truck drivers or cab drivers claim chewing betel nut keeps them warm during the frequent damp, cold winter, though it is certainly chewed during the rest of the year as well. The practice of chewing betel nut spread from the indigenous population to the Han Taiwanese and is widespread on the island. Jan Knappert relates how the Indonesian word for "betel nut," pinang, is synonymous with the term "marriage proposal" and how in much of Southeast Asia betel nuts have come to be identified with courtship and matchmaking. (See Knappert's Pacific Mythology: An Encylopedia of Myth and Legend; London: Diamond Books, 1995; "Betel," p. 30.) That Penang, Malaysia is apparently named after the areca nut attests to the seed's prominence in the area. 

Motifs: A651.1.1.6, "Nine heavens"; A666, "Ladder to heaven"; C715.2, "Taboo: making noise (sigh) on way to other world"; C920, "Death for breaking taboo"; F52, "Ladder to upper world"; F152.1.1, "Rainbow as bridge to other world"; T91.3.3, "God enamored of mortal"; T111.1, "Marriage of mortal and god"; V59, "Prayers answered." 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Uncle Bird (Taiwan; Paiwan)

There once were two young brothers, orphans. They had no family in this world, and so they kept to themselves.

One day, as they were playing together out in a field, an old man in the area, Waluwalun, called out to them: "Hey, boys! Come over here. I noticed you two are all alone. Let me teach you how to work and to take care of yourselves!"

The boys looked at each other; true, they had no family, no one wanted to care for them, so they nodded and off they went to live with Waluwalun.

The next morning, Waluwalun said, "All right, boys. Ready for the first lesson? Today you're going off to the forest to cut down some branches so that we can make clubs. So, off with you!" He then stayed home to make rope.

Soon the brothers came home with branches.

"Uncle!" one of the two cried. "There are many people out working on the land!"

"Never mind that," Waluwalun said. "Now I need you to go out and gather some animal bones."

The boys picked up a bamboo basket and went off to gather bones.

Soon they returned with a basket full of animal bones.

"Uncle!" one of them cried. "How are these?"

"You don't have enough yet. Better go back out and gather more."

"Why do you keep braiding rope, Uncle?"

"Never you mind. Now go out and get some more bones."

By and by, the boys returned with more animal bones.

"All right," said Waluwalun, "here's what we shall do. We'll take the clubs, bones, rope, and these cucumber seeds out to our field."

So off the three of them went. Once they got to the field, the old man had the boys stick one club in each corner of the field and then had them use the rope to cordon the area off, wrapping the rope around each club. They now stood in the center of a large rectangular plot of land. He told them to bury the animal bones in the soil. He next had them gather stones to build some low stone walls, next to which they planted the cucumber seeds.

"That's it for today, boys! Now let's go home."

And so they went home.

A few days later, Waluwalun said, "Go out to our field and take a look at it. Let me know if everything seems fine."

The boys rushed out and soon came back, one beaming and the other, less so.


"Uncle! The seeds have sprouted!" one brother said.

"Yes, but Uncle," the other brother said, "the millet others planted is now ready to harvest . . ."

"Ahh, no doubt but don't worry about it," the old man said.

The next day, Waluwalun taught the two brothers how to catch and skin a boar, not an easy task for an adult, let alone a child.

Once the boar had been skinned, Waluwalun told them, "Well, you've been so concerned about what others were doing, with their breaking up the land, their millet sprouting and such. Why don't you two take a little stroll with the boar's heart and feet. Let all the others take a gander at what you have done!"

The boys liked that idea, so they did precisely that.

Little did they know that the reaction they would receive would not be the one they had expected.

They passed a gaggle of villagers, who, instead of being amazed at the boar's heart and feet, started jeering the boys, laughing and pointing at them.

"Ha ha!" one of the village rabble laughed. "That 'uncle' of yours! Don't you know he's just a bird?"

"What did you just say?" asked one of the brothers.

"That old man who takes care of you is . . . is . . . a bird!" said one of the rabble.

"Chirp! Chirp! Tweet! Tweet! The old man's only a bird in human form!" laughed another.

The brothers were surprised, shocked, embarrassed. They quickly ran home.

"Uncle! Uncle!" one of the two cried. "The villagers all say you're just a bird, a bird in human form!"

Waluwalun shrugged his shoulders. "And what of it? Do you care what others think? Does it matter to you?"

"Well . . . no, I guess it doesn't . . ."

"Fine, then. Let's not hear any more of it."

The boys said nothing more about it and ran outside. Once again they encountered people from the village who laughed at them.

"Having a bird for an uncle! Can you believe it?"

"I wonder if he has them sleep in some nest in that hut!"

On and on the rabble, some of whom were doubled over, laughing until tears fell from their eyes, ridiculed the two brothers. The two brothers ran back home again. They found Waluwalun in the back of the hut, cooking something. Once again, they told the old man what others from the village had said.

'They kept saying you're a bird!" said one.

"Yes! They kept laughing at us and said that we slept in a nest!" said the other.

"Enough!" said Waluwalun. "Enough! I don't need to hear this anymore! I can leave this place." Next, with a loud gua gua, he turned into an actual bird right before their very eyes. Flapping his wings, he said one last thing in the language of people: "Pigs to feed and grain seeds to plant--I don't need to worry about such things anymore! They're all your chores now! Good bye and good luck!"

He then flew away from the back of his hut where, just moments before, he had been standing as a human, and now, never to be seen again.

Lin Daosheng, Vol. 2; pp. 97-100. See the bibliographic citation for 7/4/17. 

Paiwan tribal land takes up most of Taiwan's southern peninsula.

This story shows a theme we can see in indigenous Taiwanese folklore: transformation or metamorphosis into an animal through mimicry, sheer frustration or rage without restoration to human form at the conclusion of the narrative. For example, in one tale a lazy man turns into a monkey simply by attaching an artificial tale  to his own bottom (Lin Daosheng, Vol. 1, p. 24). In another example, an angry child becomes an eagle by attaching feathers to his body to punish his mother who had given him chore after chore while reneging on a promise to allow him some leisure time (Lin Daosheng, Vol. 1, pp. 25-26). Why a bird, though? What animal better symbolizes a longing to be free, unshackled than a bird? ("Hope is a thing with feathers," wrote American poet Emily Dickinson.) This longing to be free is one of the three reasons Boris Riftin posits for the abundance of transformation-into-bird tales. The other two reasons are, respectively, the many opportunities to observe birds in tropical and semi-tropical locations as opposed to catching glimpses of the stealthier forest predators, and the popular belief that one's soul becomes a bird upon death (Riftin, 從神話鬼話, 1999; pp. 310-311). Moreover, what other animal possibly better reconciles earth and heaven than a bird which navigates both realms (see Hans Dieckmann, Twice-Told Tales: The Psychological Use of Fairy Tales; Boris Matthews, trans.; Wilmette, Ill.: Chiron, 1986; p. 38)? Similar tales of transformation into birds and other forest creatures can be found in the folk literature of Filipino tribal peoples (See Mable Cook Cole, Philippine Folk Tales; N.p.: Forgotten Books, 2007; Damiana Eugenio,  Philippine Folk Literature: The Myths; Quezon City: University of the Philipines Press, 1993). 

The themes of minding one's own business and being grateful for what one has are difficult to miss in this story!

Motifs: B211.3, "Speaking bird"; D159, "Transformation: man to bird"; cQ281.1, "Ungrateful children punished." 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Price of Being Beautiful (Taiwan; Puyuma)

Note: This is a rather grim tale probably not suitable for younger kids. The Brothers Grimm (no pun intended) would have probably approved of it, as would have Alfred Hitchcock.

In Lu Family Village, there once lived an exceedingly beautiful maiden--lovelier than peonies or jade--and her name was Jun. While all the young lads in the village practically lined up to ask her hand in marriage, the rest of the village girls resented her from the deep pits of their stomachs. Jun thus found herself constantly the target of spiteful rumors and innuendos.

The ringleader of the malicious girls, Paishim, feigned friendship for Jun and invited her to go swimming--just the two of them.

"Just we two, Paishim?" asked Jun.

"That's right, you and me and not the rest! Well, are you up to it?"

"Yes, let's go!"

Jun and Paishim went to the river bank, where they both took off their clothes. They both then jumped into the river and began swimming. When Jun took in some water and began coughing, Paishim, swimming next to her, ignored her distress. At the worst moment of the crisis, Paishim simply swam back to the river bank as Jun thrashed about and began to sink.

Paishim climbed back onto land. With Jun's having disappeared from sight, Paishim donned Jun's clothes, buried her own, and headed to Jun's hut.

In the darkness of the night and interior of the poorly lit hut, Jun's parents thought their daughter had returned home for their evening meal.

Hmm, why, when my daughter normally eats like a sparrow, thought the mother, is she now eating like a starving hound? 

How strange, thought the father. Jun's voice is usually as soft as twinkling chimes. Why does her voice now sound like a blade sawing through a log?

The mother and then the father leaned in and took a closer look at the one who claimed to be their daughter. They then both turned to each other with stern expressions and nodded to each other as Paishim continued to eat away as if there were no tomorrow.

The parents had instantly thought the same things: She's an impostor, an evil shapeshifter from the forest who's taken our daughter's form and clothing, probably after having murdered her. And now here she is, before us, wearing our Jun's clothes. Letting her live would unleash ten thousand disasters upon our heads and those of other villagers . . . She must die!

The mother and father again exchanged looks and realized they had come to the same conclusion.

With grave determination, the parents set about doing the task. They arose and slowly approached the unsuspecting Paishim, still eating . . .

"What is it?" she asked. "What's wrong . . . ?"

While this was going on, Jun, instead of floating dead in the river, was drying off in a farmer's house, having been rescued by this passing farmer from a nearby settlement across the river.

"May I at least return home, along with you, to my parents to let them know I am all right?" she asked him.

"No, I already told you. I rescued you, and so you belong to me!"



She tried telling him how she missed her parents and how worried they must be about her not returning home. All the urging and begging she did turned out to be futile; the farmer demanded that she belong to him.

So there Jun stayed, a guarded prisoner in the farmer's house, with no apparent way to escape and return to her parents and her own home. She spent every waking moment thinking of ways to flee from her captor. If only there was a way . . .

One day, in frustration, she took the bamboo comb she was using and flung it out the window. A small plant grew from the patch of ground where it had landed. This plant, in time, grew into a great tree with mighty branches. In several years' time, the branches reached all the way across the river.

When she was alone for a few moments one day, Jun opened the window, climbed up the tree, and walked on the branches over the river back to her village and to her home. There, she found both her parents on the verge of death, both continuing to mourn the daughter they believed had surely been murdered and nearly replaced by a deadly forest shapeshifter. How joyful they now were to see Jun need not be detailed but only imagined! They had their daughter back, their spirits revived, and here the story ends.

Shi Cuifeng, ed. 台湾民间故事. [Taiwan folktales]. N.p.: Hebei Shaonian Ertong Chubanshe, 2005; pp. 245-246.

Much of this story seems like an urban legend; much, however, especially with the clueless characters like Paishim, who thinks she can impersonate Jun and the robotic parents who don't immediately grasp they have an impostor in their midst, reads like a folktale. 

The concept of forest/mountain shapeshifters still exists among both the indigenous Taiwanese and the Han Chinese Taiwanese. 

The Puyuma, or Binan, live on the southeast side of Taiwan, just above the peninsula. 

Motifs: D1072.1, "Magic comb"; cF1071.1, "Crossing the river with the help of a fig tree whose branches reach the opposite bank"' K1931, "Impostor abandons or kills companion and usurps his (her) place": cK1931.1, "Impostor throws hero overboard into sea (river)"; Q261, "Treachery punished"; Q262, "Impostor punished."