Friday, June 22, 2007

The Legend of Wangfu Rock (Guangdong)

Along the coast to the southeast of the city of Guangzhou is a place called Wangfu Rock, which sits above the Yangcheng Pass and which overlooks the river. "Wangfu" means "keeping a vigil for the husband"; it got its name from this little story.

She was a pretty young bride from Xikangding Village. All we know was her maiden name had been Ho. Her husband's name is lost to history.

Just before the bride was to move away to her husband's household, her mother told her: "My good daughter, please listen carefully to me. Soon you will be leaving for your husband's. I know his mother well. She is a bad-tempered woman, but if you are obedient and patient, everything will be all right. Treat her as you have treated me, your own mother, and you will have no cause to worry."

She nodded her head and was then gone, borne away to her husband's home.

In her new home, she tried to be a very good daughter-in-law. She willingly helped out with all the chores and was very respectful towards her mother-in-law. Word of her spread throughout the village. Whenever she walked through the market, the men and women she passed by would say to each other: "Now there goes a wonderful wife. Lucky is the man who married her!"

She lived happily enough, and her mother-in-law was not particularly mean. In time the daughter-in-law bore a little girl.

However, when there are good times, bad times are sure to follow. Soon a drought hit the land, and the village fields lay fallow in the dry heat. With no crops, there was, of course, neither food nor income.

"There is something I must do," the husband told his young wife one morning. "I have a cousin over in Guangxi Province, and he is a great merchant. He has sent letter after letter asking me to go and join him in his business. I am afraid that for the sake of you and my family and child I must go to him and try to make some money."

"Go and have a safe journey," she answered, "and don't worry about us. I will watch over Mother and the little one. While you are away, I shall be as a rock, waiting for you to return."

The husband then left the next morning.

The wife returned to her duties, but with her husband away, her mother-in-law was now free to let her true colors show, becoming even more spiteful and crueler than the young wife's own mother had imagined. Nothing the young wife did satisfied her. The older woman constantly "picked the West and rejected the East," as they say. The mother-in-law would ask for steamed rice and then demand rice gruel. When the food supplies dwindled to the point where there was no more rice, the young wife dug up edible roots for her mother-in-law while she herself just drank well water to keep her stomach full. Instead of thanks, she was beaten with a stick, and perhaps, worst of all, viciously slandered in front of the neighbors, accused of being lazy and spoiled.

Finally, the mother-in-law turned to her and said, "Ungrateful, ignorant wench! If you find the going too tough here, you know where the door is!"

Unable to take any more of this abuse, the young wife bundled her few belongings up, took her little girl by the hand and left without really knowing where she was headed. She thought of her husband and decided to head for the Yangcheng Pass, where, she had heard, one could clearly spot the river traffic to and from Guangxi. She built a bamboo lean-to overlooking the pass for her daughter and herself, and there she would beg for food only when "one hundred per cent hungry until thirty per cent full." Passers-by who gave her and her child food or money would also often give her a few hand-me-down clothes. And this is how she lived for a long time, watching and waiting for her husband to come down the river.

Whenever a large barge or some other boat came down the river, the woman would cry out: "Is my husband back? Is my husband back?" All day long she would call. Her tears would roll down the cliff and disturb the water while her voice echoed and boomed down the canyon walls, stirring up the water even more, causing whirlpools.

Soon, river captains and pilots feared encountering her lest their boats be overturned. "He's not here! He's not here!" they'd cry in panic at the first sight of the woman in rags who was holding a child on the ledge overlooking the river. "Please have mercy and stop!" they'd also cry. "Maybe he's on the next barge!"

When she finally saw that her husband would not be on any of the following boats, barges or sampans and indeed would not likely ever be returning, she then began roaring day and night until she no longer had any voice left.

One day she and her child then froze like petrified wood, eventually turning into one big rock, Wangfu Rock. Even then, however, from afar, those on river boats could still hear the distant call, now more like moaning, "Is my husband back? Is my husband back?" Once again, the water would roil from both invisible tears and very real echoes.

To prevent any mishaps, the captains, navigators, and pilots would still reply just before approaching the pass: "He's not here! He's probably on the next boat!"

People began gathering at the rock, burning incense and scattering money for the dead. Wangfu Rock remains a place of solemnity to this day.

Notes

Guan & Wei ,
Guangdong minjian gushixuan; p. 238-232.

There is more than one such rock formation connected to similar legends in Guangdong. This writer is more familiar with Amah Rock in Hong Kong's New Territories. Amah Rock can be seen from the main highway, and it too has its origins attributed to a woman and child transformed into stone while awaiting the arrival of a man. These rocks are apparently centers of fertility worship where young couples, at least in the past, burned incense in their hopes of having children (V. R. Burkhardt, 124). Motifs: A974, "Rocks from transformation of people to stone"; K2110.1., "Calumniated wife"; S51, "Cruel mother-in-law."

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