There was once a farmer who married a woman, but after giving birth to their first child, the woman died. The farmer then later remarried another woman, who then gave birth to another daughter. Shortly after all this, the farmer himself died. The second wife was now left with her stepdaughter, whom she simply called Da Jie, or "Big Sister"; her own daughter, whom she called Xia Mei (or, "younger sister with the pitted face" due to her early encounter with chicken pox); and the small farm, with its few cows, pigs and chickens. Unfortunately, this was no loving stepmother; she abused Da Jie and heaped scorn upon her, while showering Xia Mei with love and affection. Da Jie lived in constant fear of her stepmother's fists and pine switches, as if the older woman's heart-slashing, hope-crushing tongue weren't enough with which to deal.
One day the mother called the two girls and said to them, "It's high time the two of you did more chores around the house. Go to the back, and you shall find some bundles of raw hemp. Divide the hemp evenly between you, and make sure you have all the hemp threaded into ropes before nightfall or there'll be trouble, for sure!"
The two girls then went behind the house, scooped up the bundles of hemp, sat far apart from each other, and busily started working on their tasks.
Da Jie saw that it would be impossible to finish the job before dark. Since she feared her stepmother's anger, she began to cry as she pulled and twisted the hemp. The more she worked, the more she fretted, for she could see the sun going down. When she was about one-third done with her work, a cow, the one named Milk Maid, ambled over to her. It lowered its head and proceeded to eat up all the hemp--raw and newly made rope alike--right before the astonished girl's eyes!
"No, Milk Maid! No!" she cried. "I'm done for now!"
The cow did nothing but merely look at Da Jie with her big dull brown eyes. Da Jie, tired from threading hemp, lay down on the ground with her head on her arms and soon fell asleep. Milk Maid then burped and opened her mouth. Then out came a long, tight length of rope which coiled itself neatly on the ground in front of the sleeping girl. Da Jie awoke a moment later and rubbed her eyes in disbelief when she saw the neat and fresh rope. As for the cow, it now walked over to Xia Mei's side.
Xia Mei, who was in no real danger of being beaten or even scolded, saw an opportunity to get out of her work. She gathered all her raw and coiled hemp into a pile and pretended to cry. As Milk Maid drew near, Xia Mei cried even louder. Then, when the cow started munching on her hemp, she pretended to fall asleep. She had planned to keep her eyes closed for a few minutes longer but had to open them right away because of a terrible stench. She sat up with a start: before her was not a nice coil of rope like Da Jie's. No! Instead, before her was a huge pile of stinky cow patties over which swarmed circling and madly buzzing flies!
"Ma!" Xia Mei cried, running to her mother. "Oh, Ma!" She then told her mother about what Milk Maid had done.
"Aiyo, that diry old cow!" said the mother. "Don't worry. On the fifteenth of the month, I'll have the cow butchered."
Da Jie overheard this and ran to the cow.
"Milk Maid! Poor Milk Maid! Stepmother is going to have you killed on the fifteenth of the month!" she wept while hugging the cow.
"Ha! Let her go ahead and do so, the stupid woman!" said the cow. Da Jie nearly fainted when she heard the cow speak. "Don't worry," continued Milk Maid. "Let her and Xia Mei eat all the meat up, but you, Da Jie, must gather up all my bones in a chest and then bury the chest in the garden. Do you understand, child?"
Da Jie nodded. Milk Maid winked an eye and then left to eat some grass.
Well, the fifteenth of the month came, and, sure enough, the stepmother had poor Milk Maid slaughtered and cut up. That night, the stepmother and the two daughters sat around their wooden table and ate dinner. While Xia Mei and her mother gorged themselves on seldom eaten beef, Da Jie ate only rice and some vegetables.
When all the bones had been picked clean, Da Jie quietly gathered up the bones into a chest.
"What are you doing with those bones?" asked Xia Mei.
"Never mind her," responded her mother. "Finish your soup. Let her concern herself with those bones!"
Da Jie remembered what Milk Maid had said. She took the tub of bones out to the garden, and there, under the bright moonlight, she buried the bones.
One year later it was the day of the temple festival. Da Jie's stepmother and Xia Mei were preparing to leave home for the temple when Da Jie asked if she could go too.
"Of course you can," the older woman answered, "but you must do some things first. You must carry this basket over to the well, fill it with water and then wash the floor of the house."
The stepmother then handed Da Jie a bamboo basket that was naturally full of holes.
"Then," the stepmother continued, "shell each one of those peas in that other basket over there in the corner. Once all that's done, you may go to the festival."
The stepmother and her daughter then laughed and left the house.
Just as Da Jie was leaving to go to the well, a sparrow flew in through the window.
"Let me help you," said the bird, which then used many of its feathers to fill in the numerous gaps in the basket. Da Jie then needed to make only one visit to the well.
The sparrow next used its tiny body and wings to help dry the washed floor. And then, using its beak, the bird had the peas shelled in no time at all.
Da Jie was now done with the chores, but she could still not leave the house. She didn't have any proper clothes to wear to the temple fair and market. Her neighbors had nothing to lend her. What could she sell or trade to earn money so that she could buy something presentable to wear? She thought of the chest of bones buried in the backyard. Perhaps she could sell the chest. Maybe someone might even want the bones.
Out of desperation, she dug up the chest of cow bones only to discover a parcel encased in burlap lying in the chest. After unwrapping the burlap, she discovered a beautiful set of female clothes along with gold and silver ornaments like earrings and bracelets and rings. She quickly put on the dress, the earrings, rings and bracelets and headed for the temple fair.
An ocean of people had thronged the road leading to the temple. The road itself was lined on both sides with food stalls and hawkers selling charms and toys of all kinds. The stepmother and Xia Mei were there too. In fact, they walked up one side of the street while Da Jie walked down the opposite.
"Look, Mother!" said Xia Mei. "Look at that lovely girl across the street."
"Over there, by the stick rice cake stall. Doesn't she look a little like Da Jie?"
"Nonsense! She looks nothing like her at all. Where would Da Jie get such clothes or gold bracelets? That girl over there must be the daughter of some rich merchant or mandarin. Come on. Let's get something to eat."
The two women walked farther away from Da Jie.
Actually, thought the stepmother, that elegant young woman does resemble Da Jie, but--no, she couldn't be!
Try as hard as she could, the stepmother was unable to put that girl out of her mind. When the stepmother arrived home, Da Jie was sweeping the front porch. The stepmother went next door and asked her neighbor if, by chance, Da Jie had come to borrow any clothing or ornaments.
"Yes, she was here," the woman next door said, "but we had no clothes to lend her, let alone gold or silver!"
At last the stepmother could forget about the beautiful girl she and her daughter had seen at the temple.
Now after Da Jie had seen the fair, she left for home. In her haste to get home, one of her gold rings fell onto the street. A handsome young scholar saw the ring fall onto the ground. He quickly snatched it up and called for his servant.
"Follow that young woman," he told the servant, "and see where she lives. Then tomorrow go and tell her that I believe I have her ring and that she is welcome to come to our home to try it on to make sure it is hers."
The next day the servant relayed the message to Da Jie. Da Jie then approached her stepmother and asked permission if she could go and retrieve her ring.
Instead of asking Da Jie if she had indeed been to the fair, the stepmother thought to herself, Hmm . . . a scholar with a servant is here to request Da Jie's presence. I smell marriage. If I play my cards right, maybe there will be some money in it for me.
"Go along, my dear," smiled the stepmother.
Soon Da Jie came face-to-face with the scholar. He was smitten by her beauty that existed with or without the fancy clothes and ornaments. When she easily slipped on the ring, the scholar asked for her hand in marriage. Da Jie thought about how her stepmother despised her and how much she wanted to be free of her. She replied yes to the scholar.
In a short time, Da Jie and the scholar were wed, and now she lived in his house. The stepmother, in turn, received a handsome payment for her agreement to the marriage.
A few days after Da Jie had left the farm for good, a sedan chair and pair of porters showed up outside the scholar's house.
"Your stepmother would like you to return home for a visit," one of the porters told Da Jie.
Da Jie didn't want to go at all, but her husband told her, "You probably should go, for she is your stepmother. Just go for a few days and then come back right away."
Da Jie sighed and climbed into the sedan chair because, after all, a custom is a custom.
When Da Jie arrived at her old home, her stepmother and Xia Mei fawned all over her, running their hands over her silk gowns and lightly brushing her gold earrings with their hands. Entwining their arms in hers, they led her inside. They entreated her to take off her expensive new clothes and put on some of her old clothes.
"Go and put these on, Da Jie," said the stepmother. "They are more comfortable!"
Da Jie, not wishing to cause any trouble, did as the stepmother had asked. Then, the three of them sat and chatted. The stepmother and Xia Mei asked her all about her married life, especially details about the scholar.
After a while, Xia Mei took Da Jie by the hand and said, "Come with me to the well. Just a few days ago, we bought a huge carp, and I want to show it to you."
Xia Mei then led Da Jie over to the well and told her to take a look inside. As Da Jie leaned over to look down into the well, Xia Mei pushed her. For good measure, she took a flagstone and dropped it onto Da Jie, now at the bottom of the well. Poor Da Jie! Her spirit turned into a sparrow and flew out from the well.
A few days later, Xia Mei then took a bath and, with her mother's help, donned Da Jie's clothes. The stepmother hired some porters and had Xia Mei sent to the scholar's house. At night, when the scholar had finished with his studies, he came into the bedroom to retire.
As he lay down to sleep, he asked Xia Mei, who was lying by his side, "What happened to your face?"
"Oh, my face . . . ," she replied. "When I returned home, my little sister suddenly came down with chicken pox, uh, again. She gave it to me, and you can see what happened."
The next morning, while the scholar was busily pursuing his education in his study room, Xia Mei walked in.
"I'd like some money to go shopping," she said.
"Here's the key to my safe. Go and take what you need," he said.
"The safe? Where is it?"
"You know where my safe is. You've seen it before. What's wrong with you?"
"Oh, please be patient with me! After being sick with the chicken pox, I've discovered that I've become a little forgetful!" she cried.
"Of course! Forgive me!" he said and got up to show her where his safe was.
Shortly afterward, the scholar went out, saddled his horse, and rode out to the countryside for some fresh air. Following him was the sparrow, the same sparrow that was really Da Jie's spirit.
"Let the sparrow tell the man who trusts others so
That Xia Mei has replaced me, his true wife!
Is it really possible he still does not know?"
The scholar looked up at the sparrow circling his head and said, "If you are really my wife, come and land upon my chest."
The sparrow then promptly flew down to his chest and nestled itself within his robe!
"Take me with you and put me into a gold cage! Take me with you and put me into a gold cage!" cried the sparrow.
"Very well," said the scholar, turning his horse around and heading home.
Once home, the scholar placed the sparrow into a cage that he suspended from an open window. Later in the afternoon, Xia Mei went by the window to brush her hair.
The bird then began to sing:
"Let the sparrow tell the man who trusts others so
That Xia Mei has replaced me, his true wife!
Is it really possible he still does not know?"
Enraged, Xia Mei reached into the cage and crushed the bird. She then threw its body into the garden, where before long, a sturdy bamboo tree grew. There, the scholar would sit once the weather became a bit warmer. He soon noticed something odd; no matter how hot it was, he would always feel a cool breeze under this bamboo tree and nowhere else. Whenever Xia Mei sat there, however, a bamboo shoot would always manage to scrape her scalp. Irritated, she had the bamboo stalks chopped down, split down the middle, and made into a bed. The scholar discovered that whenever he took a nap outside on this bamboo bed, even if it was in the midst of a raging summer heat, he felt just as cool as he would have had he slept in a hammock up in the mountains. If Xia Mei lay down for a nap, though, she felt arrows enter throughout her body. That was enough for Xia Mei; she had the bamboo bed burned and discarded along the road. The very next morning, an old woman discovered the scorched bamboo bed, found it still had some use, and dragged it back to her own hut.
That night, when the old woman had returned to her hut, she discovered several dishes of steaming food upon her table. She was surprised, of course, but was glad she didn't have to cook after being outside all day and ate the food. The very next night, the same thing happened again: some person or invisible hand had prepared a full dinner for her. She ate it up while thinking up a way to surprise whoever this unseen person was.
On the third night, she deliberately came home early and peered through the window of her hut to see a shade, a shadow of a lovely young woman, busily cooking a variety of foods.
"Maiden!" cried the old lady, bursting into her hut. "Who are you?"
"Don't call me 'maiden'!" the young woman said. "Please quickly give me a pair of chopsticks for my bones!"
The old woman did as she was asked.
"Now quickly find me a bowl for my stomach!"
The old woman found a bowl in her cupboard and gave it to the young woman.
"I need some bamboo skin for my skull."
The old lady went outside, chopped down some bamboo stalks, removed the skins, and gave them to the young woman. The shade immediately turned into the beautiful and real flesh-and-blood woman, Da Jie.
"There!" she said, adjusting her skin a bit. "I am whole once more. I shall never be a bamboo bed again!"
With that, she asked the old lady to let her stay in the small house, and the old lady agreed. She then became the daughter that the old woman had never had.
One morning, Da Jie turned to the old woman and said, "Mother, let me tell you something. I know how to embroider things for you to sell. I can help you fetch a little money."
The old woman agreed and went to the market and bought the materials. Da Jie then went to work and embroidered a lovely picture of a dragon and a phoenix. The old woman took it to market and displayed it. The picture caught the attention of the scholar who--lo and behold--bought the picture.
Something about the picture looked familiar to him, so he asked the old woman about the artist.
"Oh, her own story is so amazing you wouldn't believe it," the old woman said. "I found this sweet girl in my house one day, originally the spirit of a burned up bamboo bed--"
"What? a burned up bamboo bed? Take me to see her."
The old woman did just that. As she opened the door to her hut, the scholar came face-to-face with his own true bride, Da Jie. Of course he recognized immediately that he had been duped.
The scholar went to the yamen and had a warrant issued for arrest of Xia Mei and her mother. The mother was spared because of her age, but Xia Mei was swiftly put to death. The mother then had to live the rest of her years in deep shame and with unbearable grief and regret.
from Jiang Tao, "Quanzhou minjian chuanshuo," in Zhongguo chuanji: minjian gushi, pp. 133-138.
This story has a lot of similarities to "Lord Snake" above with elements from "Cinderella" thrown in for good measure. The stepmother's immorality is punctuated by her butchering of the cow, an unthinkable act for members of most southeastern Chinese farming families. The quick assignment of harsh justice at the conclusion of this story is reminiscent of the swift punishment meted out to miscreants at the end of some European folktales, especially those from the Brothers Grimm. In addition, once again, in true European folktale form, characters, here the scholar, act with total ignorance; specifically, the scholar is unable to recognize Xia Mei as an impostor. Motif: E607, "Bones of the dead return in another form."