Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Ah Xiang and His Pet Snake (Guangdong)

There once lived a boy named Ah Xiang. He had no brothers or sisters and lived with his widowed mother. To put rice in their bowls, Ah Xiang's mother worked long hours as a seamstress as her husband had left not so much as a cent. Life was not easy, though Ah Xiang never lacked clothes or food, thanks to the efforts and sacrifices of his mother.

Though he was poor, Ah Xiang was still able to attend the local mengguan, the village school.

On the way to school one morning, he spied a cute little green snake and put it in his pocket. Later, in his classroom, he put the snake in his calligraphy pen drawer before the master entered. All of Ah Xiang's friends were in on the secret and all kept silent. At lunch time, when he had to return home to eat, he took the snake home and secretly gave it some leftovers. He did this everyday--taking the snake to school, bringing it home, and feeding it scraps. Eventually Ah Xiang had to leave school in order to work in the fields. By this time the snake had grown considerably larger, as large as the boy himself! Moreover, Ah Xiang's mother, who doted on her only child, let him keep his pet in their hut. Since it ate only unwanted leftovers, what could be the harm?

Now one day, the mother, who was pretty along in her years, suddenly came down with a pain in her liver. The pain became worse and worse until she was no longer able to work and was confined to bed. All Ah Xiang could do was to sit by his mother's bedside and pray.

A wandering monk happened to pass through the village, and learning of the poor woman's illness from neighbors, showed up at Ah Xiang's doorstep.

Having looked at the mother, he said to Ah Xiang, "Your mother needs to swallow slices of a large serpent's liver, and then she will be fine." He noticed Ah Xiang's pet snake in the corner and added, "Well now, that serpent's liver will more than do."

Ah Xiang thanked the holy man, who then left. He looked at his beloved pet, which by now was gargantuan. He sighed and shrugged his shoulders. He took a knife and sat down beside the snake's large head.

He said to the snake, "Friend, I have raised you from the time you were just a tiny snake. I need your help now. Please forgive me for what I must do. Please open wide so that I may crawl in and cut off slices of your liver."

The snake obediently opened its jaws, and Ah Xiang crawled in. He made it down to the liver, which, not surprisingly, was quite large.

Hmm, he thought to himself, Mother couldn't possibly eat all of this. I'll just cut off enough for her to eat in one mouthful.

He proceeded to slice off a thumb-sized piece of liver. The snake didn't seem to mind.

Ah Xiang exited the snake and had his mother chew and swallow the portion he had cut off. Within a day, she was completely well. As for the snake, it didn't seem to be any the worse.

A few days later, Ah Xiang started thinking, What if Mother takes a turn for the worse? A little more liver couldn't hurt her just in case. Also, what if the snake suddenly dies? Would I still be able to use the liver? If I couldn't, would I ever again be able to find such a huge snake? No. I'd better take all the liver I possibly can now. I can always dry it.

He took a knife and again asked the snake to open its jaws. It did and he climbed in and once again made his way down to the liver.

He started slicing away. Three thumb-sized pieces of liver dropped off the snake, and still Ah Xiang continued to cut.

Hmm, thought Ah Xiang, so far, so good. Maybe just a bit more.

By the sixth or seventh slice, the snake started to hiss, shudder, shake and roll. It gasped and rolled all over the hut. It then clamped its jaws shut, never to open them again. What of Ah Xiang? He slowly perished in the bosom of his beloved pet snake. And his mother never did get the rest of that liver!


Wang Shizhen
, p. 156-158

Two translated versions of this story also appear in Wolfram Eberhard's Folktales of China (116-122; 230-231). Though classified as a traditionally "noxious creature" (along with the centipede, gecko, toad and scorpion), the snake is reportedly worshipped in some temples in Singapore and Guangdong (Ong Hean-Tatt, Chinese Animal Symbolisms [sic], 88-90). In ancient times, river snakes were worshipped; moreover, snakes, Eberhard writes, were also believed capable of bestowing pearls or other fabulous gifts to humans (A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, 268). The second of Eberhard's two versions has the boy, now grown to be an imperial chancellor (xiang), swallowed by the snake and suffocated when he seeks one pearl too many (122-123). The present Cantonese story has somewhat evolved so that the main character is a boy now named the rather improbable "Ah Xiang," or "Elephant." Motifs: B192, "Magic animal killed"; D1015.4, "Magic liver of animal"; Q272, "Avarice punished."

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