It is said that on Yellow Bear Mountain in Fujian Province there once lived a family of three--a grandfather and his two grandchildren. The oldest child, a boy named Zhang Gen, spent his days plowing and hunting with his grandfather. An adopted girl, Mei Zai, helped out with chores at home, as was the custom. When the grandfather reached the age of seventy-one, he came down with a sickness from which he did not recover. Zhang Gen took over all the farming and hunting duties while Mei Zai cared for the grandfather.
Before she died, Zhang Gen's mother had adopted Mei Zai with the hope that the orphaned girl would one day marry Zhang Gen, as was also the custom. And so, to comfort Grandfather, Zhang Gen and Mei Zai promised the old man that they would wed at the beginning of the next year.
However, it is said that "heaven has unpredictable winds and clouds, and humans have misfortunes on New Year's Eve," and it was on this particular New Year's Eve that the water buffalo demon appeared on Yellow Bear Mountain. The water buffalo demon had the horned head of a water buffalo and the body of a man. As if his fearsome appearance weren't enough, the water buffalo demon was also a master of black magic. Wherever he went in the human world, floods and fires followed.
Not long after New Year's Day, this monster saw Zhang Gen leave home to go hunting and Mei Zai standing in the doorway, bidding him farewell. He then walked up to the door after Mei Zai had closed it and rapped loudly. She opened the door a crack to behold this hideous creature.
"Marry me, and you shall have all the gold you could possibly want for the rest of your life!" he said, pushing the door farther open.
The frightened young woman grabbed her broom and pushed the water buffalo demon away before slamming the door shut.
Not used to being rebuffed, the demon then sought out Zhang Gen.
"Let me have Mei Zai, and you shall then have all the grain you can eat, all the silk you can wear, and all the gold and silver you can carry," he told the young hunter.
Enraged, Zhang Gen chased the demon away with his hoe.
Turning his head as he fled, the water buffalo demon said, "You've got three days to think over my offer. If the answer is no, you'll all die!"
Three days came and passed without incident, so once again, Zhang Gen went up the mountain, this time to do some woodcutting. While he was chopping away, he smelled smoke and noticed a huge pillar of black smoke rising downhill. He rushed down the mountain with his axe, encountering more and more dense smoke and, soon, flames. Hacking a clearing for himself, he made it out of the forest only to see his cottage totally enveloped in flames. His beloved Mei Zai and Grandfather had been inside and had not been able to make it out alive.
With fire of his own in his eyes now, Zhang Gen grabbed his axe and sought out the being responsible, the water buffalo demon. He darted back into the smoking forest. He ran and tumbled through the burning embers until his own clothes had been seared and torn and, now, smoking. He found the water buffalo demon by the village pond, refreshing himself.
Zhang Gen crept up behind the demon and cut him in half lengthwise. The two halves of the water buffalo demon fell upon the ground, and the demon stirred no more.
All the blood the demon lost that day stained the soil, and this explains why the soil of Yellow Bear Mountain is red to this day.
As strange as all these things were, an even stranger thing then happened: half of the water buffalo demon turned into a stone in the shape of a water buffalo, while the other half eventually decayed into bones and then dust. So well versed in magic had been the demon that its soul came back time and time again to plague the people of the mountain with floods and fires. Years later, after Zhang Gen was no longer around, a mysterious three-legged deer appeared on the mountain. Whenever the demon's spirit was about to start a fire or unleash a flood, the deer would emit a piercing shriek that could alert the entire village and allow everyone to move to safety. The people of the mountain were sure that Heaven had taken pity on them and then sent them the spirit of Zhang Gen in the form of the deer to protect them from the soul of the evil water buffalo demon.
Chen & Wang, p. 462-466
The odious and malevolent creature of this grim story is not the beloved family water buffalo of southeastern Chinese farming families. The minotaur-like creature here embodies other qualities of the buffalo or ox--raw male power and energy--making it resemble the legendary creatures of Western folktales and mythology. The demon in this story could even be an embodiment of the relentless, brutal and impersonal power of nature with which farmers all over the world must contend. Motifs: B23.1, "Minotaur"; B184.4, "Magic deer"; and E162.5, "Reincarnation as deer."