Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Old Coffin Maker -- the Vanishing Hitchhiker in Old China (Han)

The following purports to be an old village legend from China:

There once was a coffin maker in town, Old Cui. Owing to his reputation of being upright and possessing a good disposition, he did well and lived a comfortable life as the majority of villagers turned to him for his skills when it was their time of need.

There came a time when there was an increase in deaths in the town. Old Cui had mixed feelings about this; on one hand, he relished doing more business; on the other hand, he was distressed that among the departed were those he had known for many years.

This one particular night, he was staying late at the shop, working on coffins. He decided to call it a night and head home early for the first time in many nights. He was hungry and didn't want to keep his wife waiting and waiting for him to get home.

So off into the night he went, heading north from the village to his home near the mountains, the moon helping to light the way. There was an old saying he was no doubt aware of--"Thieves are out on bright moonlit nights"--so he picked up his step. He was alone on the road, all the more reason for him to hasten.

Up ahead on the lonely road, he spotted a dark silhouette in the near distance--a person.

He puffed up his chest and continued towards the person. Maybe a traveling companion till I get home, he thought to comfort himself.

He soon saw that the figure was no other than a young woman sitting on a rock, seemingly resting one of her feet. He could see that she wearing a short red jacket and flowery pants.

"Young woman, what are you doing here? Shouldn't you be at home?" he asked.

"Oh, Master Cui," she replied, "I was just on my way home from doing some chores for my elder brother's wife when I sprained my ankle. I can't go on. I'm going to rest here until it's daylight. Maybe my ankle will be better by then."

"No, no, that won't do," said Old Cui. Bending over a bit, he said, "Here, hop onto my back. I'll take you home," intending to carry her home, piggyback.

The girl gladly got onto his back, and told Old Cui where she lived.

As they continued into the night, they chatted about this and that. Old Cui noted that the girl didn't seem very heavy. As he continued walking with her on his back, though, she seemed to get heavier and heavier by the moment.

Soon, poor Old Cui was gnashing his teeth in discomfort, thinking, What would my friends say if they saw how difficult it is for me to carry this mere girl? Why, they'd laugh their heads off . . . 

So, he put her increasing heaviness out of his mind and pushed on.

Soon, the lights of the girl's home came into view.

Whew . . . finally . . . thought Old Cui.

Balancing the girl on his back with one hand, he knocked on the door of his house with the other hand.

Before long, a woman opened the door. She gaped at Old Cui and said, "What in the world do you think you're doing?"

"What . . . What do you mean?" asked Old Cui.

"Are you that bored with life? What do you mean by carrying coffin planks to my house?"

"Madam, please! I've escorted this young woman to your home because she had twisted--"

"At midnight you're going to persist with this utter nonsense? Take a look for yourself what you have been carrying around!"

He squatted down and let the weight fall from his back. Sure enough, two heavy coffin planks fell to the ground. Old Cui was now bathed in cold sweat. The only thing he could do was recount from beginning to end what had happened.

The woman helped Old Cui carry the planks to the garden. She then went inside to get some incense, funeral money, and food. Then, she placed the food, money and incense on the planks, lighting the incense. There, they both prayed . . .

The next day, Old Cui and some assistants returned to the same area. They discovered not far from the home was a neglected tomb missing a tombstone. The tomb itself had apparently been broken into, and the coffin lid was missing. Inside the rotted remains of the coffin lay a decayed, maggot-infested body. The frayed, torn red jacket was unmistakable, though . . .

Old Cui had the tomb reconstructed, providing the remains of the girl a brand-new coffin and tombstone. The tombstone read: "The Goddess in Red."

It is said that later, even after Old Cui's son had made a name for himself and had become a mandarin, the whole family would still pay a visit to the young woman's grave once a year.

99 of the Rural Citizen's Most Worthwhile Supernatural Stories to Read [农民朋友最值得一读的99个神鬼故事]; Huang He, ed. Nanchang: Jiangxi Jiaoyou Chubanshe, 2011; pp. 79-81. 

This above book with the very odd title contains 99 ancient and "modern" ghost stories. This particular story does not mention the province where the story took place or even the year. 

It does share some motifs in common with the Vanishing Hitchhiker: a kind older man picks up (here, literally) a stranded girl old enough at least to be his daughter, taking her to a destination, upon which she has mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind some telltale trace of herself. Interestingly, the girl knows Old Cui's name, a detail that doesn't appear in the familiar American version of the story. Perhaps this is not so strange. Old Cui may have been one in a long line of coffin makers in that town, something a ghost might know. 

The Vanishing Hitchhiker has a motif number all to itself: E332.3.3.1, including the motifs of riding in a car, leaving behind drops of rainwater, and the revelation that the ghost is one of a girl who had been killed in a car accident and has been trying to return home at least yearly. Otherwise, we also have the following motifs:*E262, "Ghost rides a man's back"; E332, "Non-malevolent road ghost(s)"; E332.2, "Person meets ghost on the road"; and cE332.3, "Ghost on road asks traveler for a ride." The latter is modified because it is the old man who offers the ride to the girl without her asking.

One of my students, I wish I could remember who that was to credit him or her, said that the Western subtext of this tale, E332.3.3.1, reflects the longing for that which cannot be regained, at least not in this life, for that which is now sadly gone forever. It seems to me the Chinese version reflects instead the need to be remembered and appreciated, the need to be venerated. In folklore and popular belief, the ancestors certainly remind their descendants in less than gentle ways whenever they feel forgotten or neglected. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Riding the Elevator--Some Boyhood Reminiscences of Tainan, Taiwan, in the 1920's & 1930's

It's been a while since I posted anything. In any case, I'm back from a trip to a place I love, Taiwan, with something to share, some memories of life in Taiwan during the Japanese occupation (1895-1945), provided by my beloved father-in-law, Mr. Fang of Tainan. To me, he is and will always be BaBa, which is also what my wife and my brothers-in-law call him.

Now 90 years young, BaBa sat down with me a week ago to have tea. I asked him some questions in Mandarin about his childhood. My wife translated my words into Taiwanese, and BaBa happily recalled some favorite memories of a simpler time.

(1) Riding the Elevator
BaBa told me he used to walk two hours from the Tainan countryside to the city of Tainan to ride the elevator of the five-story Hayashi Department Store (林百貨), then the tallest building in Tainan and the only one with an elevator. He couldn't ride the elevator for free; he had to pay the lowest denomination of coin, something like a US penny, for each ride. All this probably occurred after the store opened in 1932. With glee in his eyes, BaBa told me the store still exists. Sure enough, I visited the newly refurbished and reopened store the very next day. If you find yourself in Tainan, you might visit the Hayashi Department Store and use your imagination to visualize a young farm boy entranced by the modern technological advancement of the elevator. (

(2) The Medicine Show & Other Forms of Entertainment
Back in the countryside of Tainan County, there wasn't much in the way of entertainment. Cloth puppet shows and outdoor storytelling were discouraged by the Japanese authorities as such entertainment wasn't deemed Japanese enough. Medicine shows were tolerated, however. A company would present some individuals singing for just a few minutes, followed by sales pitches for whatever the company sold. A crowd would always gather to hear the singing. Another permitted diversion was Japanese movies shown outdoors on big makeshift screens.

(3) Favorite Childhood Games
BaBa and friends loved spinning tops, perhaps those of the large Chinese variety. They also enjoyed hide-and-seek, swimming and splashing each other with water in the river, and staging sword fights with homemade wooden swords.

(4) Japanese Cops & the Gamblers
BaBa remembers a local Japanese policeman with a fierce reputation. He used to instill fear by going on his rounds with a metal nightstick, which would make a clanging sound. The mere sound of that nightstick would send gamblers and hoodlums fleeing in all directions. This policeman would head out into farm fields, somehow alerted to the location of clandestine gambling sessions. The gamblers would be so frightened that they would take off, leaving behind all their money. The policeman would then scoop up all the money for himself and leave the scene. Not only gamblers and local thugs would run at the sound of the nightstick. BaBa recalls a tang-ki (乩童), a medium who would commune with the dead for those who needed to placate displeased spirits, and this medium once went into a trance, mumbling, muttering, shaking, rolling his eyes and so on. (Bear in mind that this would certainly be an occupation frowned on by the Japanese.) But when he heard the clank, clank, clank of the nightstick, he stood straight up, opened his eyes, and, trance or no trance, rushed off in the opposite direction of the approaching policeman. (The best book I know of in English on these mediums is David K. Jordan's Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors: Folk Religion in a Taiwanese Village.)

(5) The Exploits of the Criminal Ong Sa Zai
Ong Sa Zai (Wang Sancai 王三财, or "Three Treasures Wang") was a local hoodlum in Tainan City and County. Among his various crimes was poaching. He would rustle local cattle, butcher the animals and sell the meat. One one occasion remembered by BaBa, Ong had butchered someone's cow or bull, swaddled the meat up as if he were carrying a child, and hired a rickshaw man to take him into Tainan City to sell the meat on a street corner. As soon as he alighted from the rickshaw, though, he was immediately approached by a policeman. (BaBa didn't specify if the policeman was a Taiwanese or a Japanese.) Suspicious, the policeman began aggressively questioning Ong. All of a sudden, Ong hit the cop with both right and left crosses, flooring him. Ong then took off and disappeared down one of the many alleys that exist in Tainan. When the policeman came to, he discovered the rickshaw man was dutifully standing by. Then, despite the rickshaw man's protests, the policeman arrested the innocent man as an accessory to a crime. On another occasion, after the Japanese period had ended, Ong made it known he was supporting one of the two candidates for mayor of Tainan. The other candidate, incensed,  got wind of this and sent several thugs of his own to pay Ong a little visit in the hotel Ong had made his home. Ong, with the second sight for survival many people like him seem to possess, somehow found out he was in store for a major beating or worse. Before the thugs reached his doorstep, Ong had wrapped himself up in a thick quilt or two, burst out the door past the astounded hoodlums, and rolled himself down the long, hard stairway, all the way to the first floor, whereupon he discarded the quilts and disappeared into the night, to live again for yet another day. BaBa relates that Ong Sa Zai ended up living to a ripe old age.

BaBa, may you live well and be healthy and happy for many, many more years to come!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Righteous Tiger (Han)

Final posting for 2014. Once again, Happy New Year!

The events you are about to read occurred during the reign of Ming Emperor Hong Zhucong (A.D. 1521-1566), in Xiaoyi County in what is now Shanxi Province.

A woodcutter once set out to do a day's work. While way up in the mountains, he slipped and fell into a deep valley, losing consciousness.

When he came to, he discovered he had landed, of all places, into the midst of a tiger's den. Right by his side were two tiger cubs, crying to be fed. The woodcutter raised his head and surveyed his plight : He was indeed in a deep valley surrounded by high walls of rock and stone. There was no chance of his getting out of there.

He sighed and prepared for what was certain to be a brutal death.

Around what he reckoned to be noon, an adult tiger showed up, dragging a deer carcass. The tiger ripped into the carcass and tossed the cubs some meat. The tiger then turned to the woodcutter and did the same for him--throwing him a chunk of deer meat.

The woodcutter was still frightened out of mind but took stock of the situation. He still expected a swift, violent death, but he was also very, very hungry. So, he took the raw meat that had been offered and, like an animal himself, he wolfed the meat down in the presence of the tiger and cubs.

Once the cubs and woodcutter had been fed, the tiger quickly climbed its way out of the canyon and disappeared. It returned that evening with more fresh meat for the cubs and the woodcutter.

The woodcutter noted that the tiger had so far not harmed one hair of his head.

Time passed on, and the woodcutter one day discovered he had been living with the tigers for a month or so. During this time, he had gotten fatter and become more comfortable among the predator felines. In time, he played and roared with them.

The day came for the cubs to venture out of their lair with the adult tiger. The big tiger allowed one cub to climb onto its back and picked the other up with its massive jaws. The tiger approached the woodcutter, and the woodcutter understood this to mean he, the woodcutter, was to ride along with the cubs.

The woodcutter knelt before the tiger and said, "Please, Highness, don't pick me up and carry me along this way! It would surely mean my death!"

The tiger looked at him and then, with his two cubs, leaped out of the lair. By and by the tiger returned, this time without the cubs. The tiger knelt before the woodcutter and allowed the man to climb onto its back, which the woodcutter did without hesitation. The woodcutter hugged the tiger's neck for dear life. The tiger let out a roar and headed for the side of the cliff, which it very smoothly scaled. The tiger shortly reached the forest, still carrying the woodcutter on its back. Once in the forest, the tiger let the woodcutter down.

"Kind Highness," said  the woodcutter, kneeling, "I'll never forget you for the rest of my life! I'm afraid I've been away from my world too long and no longer know where I am. Could you please take me to the nearest road so I can find myself back to town?"

The tiger obliged him, nodded its head, and then deposited him by a road.

With tears in his eyes, the woodcutter said, "Highness, there's no way I can ever adequately repay you for all you've done for me. I shall return to my home. I will purchase and raise a hog. Two months from today at noon, go to the courier station outside the West Gate. I'll have a juicy hog waiting for you!"

The tiger seemed to understand, nodded its head, and departed.

Two months later from that day, the tiger showed up at the West Gate but far too early. It looked around for the woodcutter, didn't find him, and proceeded into the town proper. A huge uproar ensued, with townspeople screaming and fleeing in all directions. The county magistrate called out armed guards who succeeded in trapping the tiger alive. The guards then transported the subdued tiger to the magistrate's office so the magistrate could decide what to do with the animal.

The woodcutter heard the news about what had happened. He rushed to the magistrate's office, ran up to the tiger, and there, in front of all the astonished witnesses, knelt before the tiger, hugging it. There, in the silent chamber, all beheld the tiger's face flowing with tears.

"Highness . . ." said the woodcutter. "You came too early! Oh, how could that have been a good idea . . . "

The county magistrate was amazed at what he had just seen and asked the woodcutter to explain all this.
Then, having heard the woodcutter's story, the county magistrate said, "This is a righteous tiger! How could I ever punish it?"

He ordered the tiger released to the thunderous cheers of all present.

The tiger was then allowed to accompany the woodcutter to the West Gate, where the woodcutter had a butchered hog delivered to the tiger. The tiger devoured the hog with gusto. Then, when there was nothing left of the hog, the tiger tarried, reluctant to leave. It finally left, turning its head back to look at the woodcutter each time it took several steps. Finally, the tiger was gone.

Everyone there was moved beyond speech.

from 魅影之匣 [A Box of Beguiling Shadows], Chen Peng, ed.; pp. 34-35.  (See 6/29/14 for full citation.)

This is one version of a beloved fable of a friendship between a human and what should have been a mortal enemy--a tiger. This version doesn't not identify the sex of the tiger or explain whether the man and tiger ever saw each other again. 

Another more famous version of the "Righteous Tiger"concept is "The Noble Tiger," classified by folklore scholar Professor Nai-tung Ting as tale *156D in A Type Index of Chinese Folktales (FF Communications No. 223, Helsinki, 1978). In that particular legend, a tiger kills an old woman's only son. She sues the tiger in court, resulting in a subpeona being issued against the tiger. An inebriated court officer (who else?) goes to the forest and serves the summons to the tiger. The tiger then volunteers to go to court, and later, to make up for what he had done, he attends to the old woman until her death by supplying her with food. 

The original author was Wang Shizhen (1634-1711) of the Qing Dynasty. This tale comes from his anthology 池北偶谈 [Unexpected Tales From North of the Pond].

Motifs: A511.2.2.2., "Hero (man) cared for by tiger"; B.431.3, "Helpful tiger"; B.557.10, "Tiger carries person."

Monday, December 22, 2014

Two Fables From Southwest China

Before we get to the tales . . . Merry Christmas & Happy New Year to all!

(1) The Tiger That Was Too Competitive for His Own Good  (Wa)

A rather ignorant tiger finally left his stomping grounds and  encountered a little bird singing and dancing to her heart's content on a branch.

"You spindly legged homely thing," said the tiger, "what are you? And that dance of yours, what is it? Never mind. Let's see you match your abilities with mine. Are you willing?"

"Tiger," said the bird, "do you think you ought to go around insulting others? Fine. Let's go to that vine over there on that tree and see which one of us can dance upon it!"

"Ha!" snorted the tiger. "Nothing to it. Let's go!"

They did so.

The bird alighted onto the vine and danced as well as she would have on solid ground.

She then flew from the vine. "Your turn, Tiger."

The tiger studied the loose vine. He climbed the tree, approached the vine from a sturdy branch, and, when he was unable to grasp anything substantial, he fell to the ground below. Pudong! He landed on some rocks and roared with pain and anger. He slunk away.

He came upon rice paddies. There, he spied a shrew sunning himself on the ridges between paddies.

"Ho!" the tiger roared with laughter. "Can such a creature as you truly exist! Why, look at you! You haven't legs or feet to speak of!"

"Who are you to mock others?" asked the indignant shrew. "If you are so fast and agile, let's have a contest. Not far from here are people. Suppose you and I each run a gauntlet through a crowd of humans. Let's see who can get through unscathed. What do you say?"

"Terrific! Let's do it!" said the tiger.

The pair crept on a location where a number of people were gathered.

Turning to the tiger, the shrew said, "I'll go first. Watch me."

Off he went!

"Hey, what is it?" cried someone.

"Don't know!" cried someone else.

"Let me grab it!" said another, squatting down to no avail.

The tiny shrew easily dodged all the hands, sandals and clubs and escaped without so much as a scratch or missing hair.

"All right, Tiger. Let's see you do that!"

"Ha, easy as a wink. Watch this."

The tiger ran into the crowd.

"Tiger! Tiger!" people screamed and opened up a way for the tiger to run through.

"Take this!" said a farmer with a hoe as he slammed it down onto the tiger's back.

"And this!" said another, whacking the tiger's rib cage with a cudgel.

The tiger was barely able to make it out alive.

"Ha ha! Weren't you the one laughing at my legs?" said the shrew. "What happened to your own four legs, my friend?"

The tiger, livid, would have eaten the shrew if the latter hadn't scurried away like lightning.

The tiger then ventured into a marshy area, and, there, by a large bog, he rested, nursing his wounds. That is when he spotted a snail.

"Oh, I swear by my mother that you are the ugliest creature I've ever seen!" cried the tiger, forgetting he had been down this road before. "Is it possible that in this world there could be anything as hideous as you? Why, look at yourself! You don't even have a mouth! And your legs--I thought I had seen creatures without legs before, but you truly don't have legs, feet, paws! What good are you? What use are you?

"Brother Tiger," said the snail, "may I offer you a challenge? Let's see which one of us can cross this quicksand. How about it?"

"I can do it easily. I've accepted your challenge, so go ahead."

"Very well," said the snail. "Allow me to go first."

The snail then gingerly crossed the quicksand to the other side.

Looks easy enough, thought the tiger, planning to make a mighty leap across.

The tiger launched himself over the quicksand but came down well before the other edge. His four paws then became mired in the quicksand. The more he struggled, of course, the more he sank. First, his legs, then his body, and then finally only his head was visible.

The snail moved up a rock to get a better view of where the tiger was, but when he looked the tiger was nowhere to be seen.

As it turned out, that particular tiger was never seen again anywhere else!

from 中国民间故事选.  [Selection of Chinese folktales, Vol. 1]. Jia Zhi & Sun Jianbing, eds. Beijing: Renmin Wenxue Chubanshe, 1980; pp. 454-455. 

The Wa people live on both sides of the Chinese-Burmese border. (See Wa people - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Motifs: J1706.1, "Stupid tiger"; J2353.1, "Foolish boasts bring trouble"; and W117, "Boastfulness." 

(2) Cat and Leopard  (Jingpo)

Long ago, Cat and Leopard were close kin; they were a family, as a matter of fact. Besides their different sizes, there was one other big difference between the two--Cat was much, much smarter than Leopard. Whatever poor Leopard couldn't do, Cat seemed able to do and much more.

One day Cat said to Leopard, "Humans have fire; they can cook their food until it is nice, toasty and tasty. I'm going to go to them and borrow some of this fire from them."

And he did so.

He visited the home of some friendly people, and they gave him a small burning torch to take home. While he was there, he noticed some they were cooking savory sticky rice. Did it ever smell good! Cat was worried that Leopard, waiting back home for supper, might be too hungry and impatient, so he rushed back with the fire without waiting to see how the sticky rice casserole turned out.

Cat made several trips back to get fire. On one trip, the kindhearted humans saw Cat staring at the freshly cooked sticky rice and offered him some, which he gladly ate.

That's it, thought Cat. People live in warm houses and cook such delicious food. Leopard and I should live with people from now on. 

Cat returned home and said to Leopard, "Look. People live well and can keep themselves warm. They always cook wonderful food, and they treat me very well. I want to live with them. I don't want to live the way you and I have been living."

"All that might well be true, but I'm not going to live with them," said Leopard. "Neither are you. You're staying here with me."

And that seemed to be that.

Cat was well aware that Leopard, as dumb as he was, could effortlessly overpower him with his sheer weight and power. Cat would have to resort to his wits to escape from Leopard in order to make a home with humans.

After some time had passed, Cat turned to Leopard and said, "You know, there's something I have failed to teach you!"

"What is it?"

"How to climb a tree! Let's go! C'mon!"

Cat indeed taught Leopard to climb trees. Not only that but he showed Leopard how to make it to the very top of a tree. He did not, though, show Leopard how to climb down.

"Bye!" said Cat, hopping down branch to branch until he was on the ground, scampering towards where the people lived.

Leopard was way up in the tree, terribly hungry and untaught as how to climb down. His stomach growling, Leopard decided to emulate Cat's movements, having watched his much smaller, lighter relative go from branch to branch. He tried the same and ending up crashing through the branches and landing, head first, with a huge thump on the ground, breaking his neck bones.

Cat ended up becoming a domesticated pet, the ancestor of the house cats we know and love today. As for Leopard, his neck bones broke, compressing his neck, making him unable to lift his head fully. If you ever see leopards in the wild or zoo today, you'll notice their necks are much the same as their ancestor's.

from Jia Sun, Vol. 1, p. 505. (See citation above.) 

Two other pourquoi tales may be found in the postings for 3/7/12 and 5/24/14. 

Like the Wa, the Jingpo reside in both China and Burma. (See Jingpo people - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Motifs: A1443, "Origin of domestic animals (cats)"; A2493.8, "Friendship of leopard and cat"; cA2528.1, "Origin of walk of leopard"; A2581, "Cat omits teaching tiger (leopard) all he knows"; B391, "Animal grateful for food"; and cB393, "Animals grateful for shelter." 

Friday, October 31, 2014

Some Chinese Proverbs and Lore About Foxes

Happy Halloween . . .

A proverb from the Tang Dynasty nicely sums up the sometimes contradictory attitude towards foxes and the way fox folklore intertwined with everyday life: "You can't have a village without the werefox" [无狐魅不成村]. A contemporary proverb states a similar message: "From Tang times onward, the common people have had to placate foxes" [唐初以来,百姓多事狐]. Both proverbs suggest the importance and depth of foxes within the human psyche, especially in Northern China. Below are more fox proverbs known largely throughout China:

1。 狐假虎威 The fox intimidates courtesy of the tiger. (Said of a coward who is only tough when 
       followed or backed up by his bodyguards or retinue or of a petty tyrant who stays in power only 
       because of his more powerful connections. The Chinese fable that inspired this proverb 
       tells how a  tiger was ready to eat a fox when the fox suddenly told the tiger that he, the fox, 
       was actually the king of beasts and that he could prove it. The tiger agreed to spare the fox so 
       that the fox could prove his point. The tiger was willing to follow the fox into an area full of 
       other animals. When all the animals saw the dreaded tiger following close behind the fox, they 
       all fled for their lives, convincing the tiger that, yes, the fox was indeed the "king.")

2。狐狸打不成,反惹一身臊 The fox not only failed in what he was trying to do but also ended up with
      his whole body stinking head to toe. (Said of a failed attempt at something that leads to even worse 

3。狐埋狐搰 A fox will keep digging up what it has just buried. (Said of those with misgivings  and 
      whose fears and suspicions sabotage their endeavors.) 

4。狐媚魇道 or 狐媚魇倒 The guile of a fox and the ability to entrance. (Said of an insidiously 
      captivating vixen using her charms to seduce and entrap.)

5。狐朋狗友 Dog and fox friends. (Describing ostensible friends who are actually bad influences; 
      so-called "friends" who get one in trouble; the supposed "pals" that might lead one to say, "With 
       friends like these, who needs enemies?")

6.  狐群狗党 A den of foxes and a faction of dogs. (Unsavory people who hang out together. "Birds
     of a feather flock together," Westerners say. A variation of #5 above.)

7。狐裘羔袖 A fox jacket with sleeves of lambskin. (Something overall good but with some 
      undesirable detail or feature; something or someone flawed."The fly in the ointment.")

8。狐死兔泣 The rabbit cried after learning the fox had died. (Sometimes also expressed as "The fox
      cried after learning the rabbit had died." At first glance, one might assume either expression 
      means "to shed crocodile tears." However, that would not be the case. Instead, it means "to 
      mourn the loss of a contemporary, peer, or friend.")

9。狐死首丘 A fox always dies with its headed pointed towards its mound (i.e., lair). (A metaphor of 
      patriotism: the desire to be reunited with one's beloved homeland.) 

10。狐疑不定 or any of the other variations: 狐疑不断, 狐疑不决, 狐疑犹豫 Because the fox has
        doubts, it is irresolute. (See #3  above. A comment on the fox's furtive and supposed overly 
        calculating nature that primarily seeks self-preservation. Such an attitude leads to an excess of 
        caution and may prevent the fox from furthering its aims and succeeding. Said of those who 
        would be sneaky and cunning but who cannot pull off their schemes due to a lack of 
        determination and courage. The antithesis would be, of course, the motto of the Special Air 
        Service: "He who dares, wins." Another saying that provides the inverse of  the above Chinese 
        proverbs would be "Fortune favors the bold," coined by Thucydides.)

11。狐狸尾巴 The tail of the fox. (It was believed that a werevixen would inadvertently reveal her 
        true identity if her tail accidentally appeared. Said of those who "show their true colors" 
        through their words or deeds.) 

12。狐狸看鸡,愈看愈稀 When the fox watches over the chickens, the flock grows smaller and
        smaller. (Akin to our saying "The fox guarding the hen house," suggesting that employing
        an unreliable person in an important position is asking for trouble.)

13。狐狸活到老,永远难变好 No matter how long a fox lives, it will never be up to any good.
        ("A leopard can't change its spots," we say.)

14。狐狸再狡猾,也洗不掉一身臊 No matter how cunning the fox is, it can never rid itself of its
        stench. (Similar in meaning to #11, 12, and 13 above. A fox can masquerade as something
        else, but it will reveal itself by its odor.) 

15。狐狸再狡猾,斗不过好猎手 No matter how cunning the fox is, it is no match for the wiliest
        hunter. ("No one stays on top forever," some say. This is what happens when someone 
        "meets his or her match.")

Chen Yantian, Zhou Kuijieh, and Lin Hong'en, eds. Practical Thesaurus. [實用近義詞詞典]. Hong Kong: Haifeng, 1991; 关于狐狸的谚语、俗语—经典用语大全关于狐狸的谚语_谚语_好词好句大全;豺狼当道,安问狐狸? - 口语/谚语 - 翻吧 - 英语点津 - 中国日报网站

The Practical Thesaurus above is actually a thesaurus of Chinese proverbs.

I personally find foxes to be endlessly fascinating, as did, I guess, storytellers of old from around the world, with all the various myths, legends and folktales about these crafty animals. For much of my life, the only live foxes I had ever seen were in zoos. Once, a few years ago while taking a walk in a nearby canyon, I came across a gray fox sitting by the side of the road, its eyes closed. It was breathing heavily without opening its mouth. The fox didn't attempt to flee; neither did it do the slightest bit of flinching; it was obviously in distress, probably dying. Naturally, I didn't get too close. I resumed my walk. The next day, it was not there. Several years have passed, and I still wonder about that fox and what became of it. Then, starting earlier this year, one or more gray foxes began appearing in my area, often at night. I still see them occasionally, bounding up and down the cul-de-sac with their fluffy upright tales. Late one night, taking my Maltese out to do his nightly business, I came across a gray fox sitting in the middle of the backyard, calmly observing us, seemingly without a care in the world. My dog, being a typical Maltese, began barking his head off. I had to put him back inside and shoo the intruder away. Such are my experiences with foxes. 

In traditional Chinese lore, foxes often cast a malevolent shadow but could also be the objects of veneration in older times, during the Tang Dynasty, at home-based shrines. They were and are major bewitching tricksters and shapeshifters. Tales of werevixens abound in Chinese and Japanese folktales. However, before we examine the deadlier aspects of foxes, let's first take a look at the major figures in the cult that was centered in Northern China, particularly around Beijing and Tianjin. There is the 狐仙, the  fox immortal, to use a literal translation, also known as 狐神, the fox spirit or god. In time people came to believe that foxes could take a human form and, if slighted, exact revenge. People thus began to propitiate the fox spirit. In areas of shamanic activity, fox idols were created. Hunters in these northern areas would pray to the fox god before hunting. The fox god could augur both good and evil. A saying popular in Ming and Qing times goes like this: "The South has many ghosts, while the North has many fox [spirits]" 南方多鬼,北方多狐 (See the entry for 狐仙 by Ma Guojun in The Dictionary of Chinese Folk Beliefs and Customs [中国民间信仰风俗辞典]; Wang Jinglin and Xu Tao, eds; pp. 376-377. The complete citation can be found at 12/24/13)

Finally, there is the famed nine-tailed fox 九尾狐, also the object of veneration and mentioned in the Classic of Mountains and Seas, written in different stages sometime between the Warring States Period (475 B.C. - 403 B.C.) and the onset of the Han Dynasty (c. 206 B.C.). The Classic describes the mountain-dwelling nine-tailed fox as having a cry like that of a baby and being able to feast on humans. Its appearance can herald either nationwide prosperity or death and destruction. (See Ma Guojun's article on 九尾狐 in The Dictionary of Chinese Folk Beliefs and Customs, p. 366). 

For classic stories of werefoxes and werevixens, I recommend Pu Songling's early Qing Dynasty anthology, Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio, also known by other titles, such as Strange Stories From Liaozhai and Strange Stories From the Liaozhai Studio. I particularly recommend Herbert A. Giles's translation and version. I am sure all the versions provide some good reading for Halloween. 

For other folktales and legends about foxes and werefoxes, please see the posts for 10/21/07, 10/1/09, 10/28/10, and 12/18/12. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Wang Zhi and the Rotted Ax Handle -- Three Versions of Missing Time in a Chinese Legend

Version 1

The following is the basic, core version of an old legend:

A woodcutter went up the mountain to cut some wood. While there, he saw two people--two old men, by some accounts, or two children--playing chess. He stands by, observing the game, assuming only minutes have gone by. He feels something strange. He holds up the ax he's been carrying; the handle has totally rotted away. The woodcutter heads back home only to discover that his family is no longer there, that at least one century has lapsed.

Version 2: Rotted Ax Handle Mountain (Henan)

Up on Rotted Axe Handle Mountain, one can see strange foliage not seen elsewhere; stranger still are the many petrified trees there that jut up from the mountainscape, resembling ivory tusks. Once a traveler finds him/herself on Rotted Axe Handle Mountain, he or she will have truly entered the realm of immortals . . .

It so happens that woodcutter Wang Zhi was up on the mountain one day when he beheld two very old men playing a game of chess while seated beneath a peach tree. The old men were white whiskered and had a ruddy glow to their faces.

Wang Zhi was not a wealthy or particularly cultivated individual, but he too certainly appreciated the fine game of chess. He stopped, stood by the chess board and watched the two old gentlemen. On and on he watched, oblivious of the time or his duties.

Something then fluttered onto the ground past him and then more of the same onto his person. He looked up. Peach petals were floating downwards, littering the ground. Then, before he even knew it, rich, succulent ripe peaches appeared on the branches.

Wang Zhi couldn't resist plucking a peach from the tree and biting into it. The flavor was incredibly sweet. After eating the peach, a change came over him, a sensation he had never had before. He felt suddenly enlightened, his mind cleared, and his body, completely comfortable.

Then, almost as soon as they had appeared, the peaches were gone and the stems they had been on, withered and yellowed. The ground was now covered with dried, yellowed leaves.

Once again, though, the whole process repeated itself, with new green leaves immediately appearing . . .

Here, the narrative ends.

Version 3: Watching an All-Consuming Chess Match (Hubei)

A farmer took a little trip up the mountain, and there he saw two old men--one with a long black beard and the other, with a long white beard--playing chess. The farmer, intrigued, watched them for a long while.

The black-bearded man then stopped playing and addressed the farmer.

"There's a serious drought going on right now, isn't there?" he asked the farmer.

"Yes, that is the case. I have only a dou of sesame seeds to plant . . . "

"Suppose, Farmer, that I can show you how to plant a whole field with that small amount of seeds and how to reap a huge harvest?"

The farmer had his suspicions that this black-bearded man knew what he was talking about, but he, the farmer, was game and watched and listened as the old man with the black beard showed him the procedure. The farmer thanked him and returned home to his drought-stricken village. He decided to plant the seeds in the manner shown to him by the strange man up on the mountain.

In time the farmer had a huge harvest of valuable, useful, versatile sesame plants!

Overjoyed, the farmer filled a  sack of sesame seeds to take up the mountain to the old men, especially the black-bearded one, as a thank-you gift. He hoisted the sack onto his mule and off he went back up the mountain.

From afar he spotted the pair--still playing chess.

He approached them and explained why he had come. The two old men, however, continued to play their game of chess. The farmer felt compelled to watch them play and watched them for only a few minutes. He then bid them farewell and turned around to head home.

His mule was missing . . . Had it headed back down the mountain without him? Ahh, the stubborn old cuss of an animal! He went back down the mountain to look for it.

And once he found himself back on level land, he discovered from those he had encountered that several hundred years had passed from his time . . .

Lin Jifu. 中国民间故事类型研究. [Research on the Types of Chinese Folktales]. Liu Shouhua, ed. Wuhan: Huazhong Shifan, 2002; pp. 179-190. 烂柯山_百度百科王质故乡——烂柯山的传说;
烂柯山 - Wikipedia

 The original source is perhaps "Wang Zhi and the Rotted Axe Handle" from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.). 

In more than one culture, we can find examples in folklore of time dilation, a situation in which an incredible amount of time passes by in what seems like a short period. Time, that universal concept of measurement, here distorts itself, allowing years to be experienced as what had been regarded as minutes. Typically, such stories from East Asia may follow a pattern. A woodcutter, for example, heads off into a different part of the forest, or a fisherman lands on an uncharted island. In either locale, the visitor encounters some beings--old men or children playing xiangqi (i.e., "elephant chess"  象棋, or Chinese chess) in the forest, or, in the case of a native Taiwanese tale, beautiful but hostile Amazon-like females on a small barren island. (The latter story is "The Island of Women," an Amis legend in an anthology I'm preparing for future publication.) After tarrying among the beings or entities for what appears to be a brief time, he returns home, sometimes after extremely arduous circumstances, only to find that a huge gap in time has inexplicably transpired, that his village is now unrecognizable, that everyone he had once known is now long dead. The time traveler may then discover himself withered, prematurely aged, ready to die.

The three versions not surprisingly differ to some degree. The Henan version doesn't mention whether the visitor to the mountain ever saw his family again. The chances are he most likely didn't. The Hubei version has the old black-bearded  man offer lifesaving aid to the farmer but doesn't warn him not to return. (The farmer should have probably known better.) The very terse, somewhat elliptical original Chinese version doesn't state whether the two chess players greeted or spoke to the farmer upon his return visit. In any case, the farmer apparently overstepped his bounds by daring to return to the abode of immortals who were busily playing chess, the game which is a metaphor or symbol for life itself. The farmer had already had tremendous luck by visiting the two immortals, receiving a gift, and going back and being able, presumably, to talk about it. To go back up again to locate them was a foolhardy idea just begging for trouble. 

We find also similar motifs in "Rip Van Winkle," the well-known Japanese fairy tale "Urashima Taro," the Irish "Tir na nOg," and the Celtic fairy/leprechaun lore of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England. Among the latter are stories of individuals who left the safety of their homes to investigate strange, alluring music and then come across fairy fiddlers and dancers. Upon returning home, they then encounter what is now the predictable result of their lingering among otherworldly beings. One way or another, there is often an unpleasant price to pay for being in the company of the otherworldly. The Japanese have legends of children abducted by "sky dogs," tengu [天狗], weird anthropoid beings with wings who live in the forested mountains. Upon returning, if they ever do come back, these children are not necessarily prematurely aged but instead "touched in the head" and never quite the same again. Today we still hear incredible stories of missing time from those who claim to have encountered odd beings inside or outside "spacecraft" or UFOs, our very own modern versions of rendezvous with bizarre entities. The widely discussed Barney and Betty Hill case from the 1960's is a good example. In any case, the bottom line seems to be that a date with residents from the unknown is fraught with danger--mainly, because the natural order as represented by time is violated--and thus best avoided. 

For similar tales of inexplicable events and entities that are said to be still occurring in the mountains of Taiwan, see the post for 12/24/13, "The Little Flying Swordsmen of the Mountain."

Motifs: cA163.1., "Gods play chess"; C712, "Staying too long in fairyland forbidden"; F377, "Supernatural lapse of time in fairyland"; F971, "Miraculous blossoming and bearing of fruit."

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Beggar and the Ghosts (Han)

One dark night, a young mendicant knocked on the door of a house.

"Yes?" asked the old woman caretaker who opened the door. "What do you want?"

"Would you have a spare room to put me up for the night?" asked the beggar.

"Normally we wouldn't mind and wouldn't turn you away, but you wouldn't want to spend the night here."

"Why not?"

"Because this place is haunted! Besides, the owner has recently died, and there's no one else here but me and a young lady lying ill in bed. Do you still wish to spend the night here?"

"Why not? I'm not afraid of ghosts," replied the beggar.

"All right . . . you've been warned. Suit yourself. Come in."

The beggar entered the house and was shown a spare bedroom.

"This will do nicely." He thanked the old woman and lay down to go to sleep.

Around midnight, the young beggar was woken up by voices. He got up to investigate. The voices were coming from the main hall. Instead of going over there, he opened the window and climbed up onto the roof, where he could easily look down and see the main hall.

And there they were.

From his vantage point, he spotted four ghosts, cavorting, raising a ruckus in the main hall.

He could see them, but apparently they did not notice him. Maybe he didn't see where he was stepping, or maybe he craned his neck too far to get a good look. In any case, he lost his footing and fell right off the roof.


He landed into a vat of lime powder, such as that which is used to prepare plaster or whitewash. He emerged bathed in white powder from head to foot. The ghosts looked at him and stepped back, afraid.

"Who . . . Who are . . . y-you?" one of the ghosts asked.

This young vagabond and beggar was quick-thinking, so he replied in a booming voice, "Who am I? Why,  I am the White Grandfather of Penglai Mountain! Now, each of  you . . . one at a time . . ."

The ghosts all together dropped to their knees and faced the beggar.

"Who or what are you?" the beggar asked the first ghost.

"I . . . I am the spirit of a cleaning cloth, Grandfather . . ."

"And you? Who or what are you?"

"T-The bamboo whisk b-brush, G-Grandfather . . ."

"And you?"

"The b-broom, Grandfather . . . "

"All right. And you over there?"

"The tortoise, Grandfather . . ."

"I see. Very well."

Morning finally came, and all was still in the house.

The beggar informed the old woman who watched over the house what had happened and how to rid the house of the ghosts.

"It's quite simple," he said. "Gather up the cleaning cloth, whisk brush, broom and tortoise shell." After she had done so, he added, "Now, take them outside and burn them!"

She did and the ghosts never returned again. What's more, the young lady bedridden by illness, the daughter of the late owner, completely recovered. The young beggar was asked to stay on, and before long he wed the house owner's daughter.

Gu Xijia. 中国民间故事类型研究 [Research in the types of Chinese folktales], Liu Shouhua, ed; Wuhan: Huazhong Shifan, 2002; pp. 288-299.

This is an ancient tale with a widespread distribution. It belongs to the Chinese classification of "Catching Ghosts in a Haunted House" 凶宅捉鬼. , and belongs to folktale type AT326E, which Chinese-American folklorist Nai-tung Ting labels "Fearless Man Defies Demons in the Haunted House" (Folklore Fellows Communication No. 223, A Type Index of Chinese Folktales, p. 58). Gu has reconstructed the ur-form of the tale presented above. Other variants with other settings exist. 

The story hints at the death of the owner and his daughter's debilitating sickness as being tied to the hauntings. This would be in keeping with traditional Chinese ghost lore. Penglai or Pengcai Mountain was reputed to be the abode of immortals in the middle of the sea. It is not clear as to whether an actual tortoise or just the shell is burnt. Of course, I hope it was the latter . . .

An interesting motif also found in Japanese folktales is the animation in the form of spirits of lifeless objects (e.g., broom, cloth, etc.). Professor Noriko T. Reider identifies such haunted or spirit-animated objects as  tsukumogami 付喪神, or to use her English translation, "tool specters." (Gu Xijia  just identifies the objects as jingguai 精怪,normally defined as "demons" but here differentiated from "ghosts" as former "animals, plants and other objects" now transformed into spirits [289].) The idea here is if a (normally) inanimate object could attain an old enough age, it would then become animated by a spirit now housed within it (see Noriko T. Reider,  Animating Objects: Tsukumogami ki and the Medieval Illustration of Shingon Truth. Asian Folklore Studies 64, p. 207. [2007]). For another story of tool specters, see "The Abandoned House," the first story in "Ghost Stories From Ancient China--Series Two," 5/04/09. 

Motifs: E265, "Meeting ghost causes sickness"; E265.3, "Meeting ghost causes death"; E281, "Ghosts haunt house"; E293, "Ghosts frighten people (deliberately); E431.13, "Corpse (objects) burned to prevent return; E432, "Ghosts deceived"; and E530ff, "Ghosts of objects."