Thursday, June 14, 2007

Cuckoo (Guangdong)

There were once two sisters-in-law whose family members had all been lost in a flood. Now all they had in the world was each other. When the two women found themselves alone in the world, they decided to live together, which they did in harmony. The older of the pair, Sou Sou, was talented at embroidery, and with the help of the younger woman, Gu Zai, she opened up a small embroidery shop. Together they made a tidy little sum.

Now Sou Sou could depict just about anything on silk; lions, phoenixes, dragons, pines, storks, "the one hundred children at play"--nothing was too hard for her skilled hands and fine needles. There was one thing, however, that eluded her--the arbutus, or Chinese strawberry, a very rare and beautiful flower that briefly blooms before dropping all of its petals. She had never been able to embroider a Chinese strawberry mainly because she had never seen one. Sou Sou had only heard what the flower looks like.

One day Sou Sou heard from a neighbor that that a few Chinese strawberry flowers were in bloom on the nearby hills, so, leaving Gu Zai in charge of the shop, she set off to find the Chinese strawberry and to study it closely. Perhaps she could add this rarely seen flower to her collection of patterns.

Sou Sou had hiked and climbed the hills for a good part of the afternoon before she found an unusually pretty flower she supposed was a Chinese strawberry. By now, darkness had overtaken her. Even worse, a hungry tiger was lurking in the brush nearby. It sensed Sou Sou's presence and headed toward her. The tiger pounced upon the poor woman, killed her, and dragged her away.

Night had finally come, and Sou Sou had still not returned to the shop. Worried, Gu Zai closed up the store and headed in the direction Sou Sou had gone, lantern in her hand. Up in the hills and off the path, Gu Zai found shreds of clothing by a small patch of Chinese strawberries. She immediately feared the worst.

"Sou hu?" she called. "Sou Sou, where are you?" Over and over she cried, "Sou hu? Sou hu?" as she searched.

She soon came to a pile of bones and more shreds of clothing. Gu Zai recognized a ribbon which Sou Sou had worn in her hair. She now realized the truth, that her beloved Sou Sou had been eaten by a tiger.

Gu Zai knelt before the bones and cried, "Sou hu!" way into the morning until her heart broke, silencing her. Her spirit, though, then changed into the cuckoo, which still cries sou hu, sou hu
day and night whenever the pink and red flowers of the Chinese strawberry are in bloom.


(1) Chen Di
, p. 68-70; (2) Guan Han & Wei Gan, p. 282-283.

The mournful, plaintive cries of the cuckoo have given rise to many folktales, legends and myths. One old Chinese legend tells us that a king of the ancient land of Shu became a cuckoo upon death. In poetry and art, the cuckoo is associated with the fifth month of the lunar calendar, coming near the end of spring, the worldwide season of rebirth, which is in keeping with the themes of resurrection and transformation in this myth. Motifs: A1193, "Creation of cuckoo"; D150, "Transformation of woman to bird."

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