Thursday, July 12, 2007

In a Bowl of Rice (Guangdong)

In the home of a wealthy merchant lived a very wicked young woman, the merchant's third daughter, San Xiaojie. Among her servants was a woman named Mama Lai who had worked for the family for years. She was a hard worker, and everyone generally liked her and paid no attention to San Xiaojie's spiteful stories about her.

One evening, San Xiaojie discovered Mama Lai wrapping up some of the leftover rice just before returning to her own home.

"Stop. Stop. Just what are you doing?" asked San Xiaojie.

"I'm just taking what wasn't eaten home with me to give to my aunt. Your father always lets me do so."

"Oh . . . " said San Xiaojie, watching Mama Lai leave. "Very well, then."

The next night, San Xiaojie asked Mama Lai to do a quick chore just as the servant woman had finished wrapping her aunt's leftover rice.

"Go out to the storehouse. Make sure that you covered the jars of sugar. I believe you were the last one out there."

"Yes, of course, San Xiaojie."

As soon as Mama Lai left, San Xiaojie opened the package of rice and then scattered upon it chicken droppings she had picked up and saved earlier in the day. She then carefully rewrapped the rice. Mama Lai returned a few minutes later and took the package of rice topped with chicken droppings home with her.

Once at home, Mama Lai poured the rice and its unsavory additions into a bowl for her aunt.

"Here, Auntie," she said, putting a pair of chopsticks into the older woman's hands, "have your dinner."

After one mouthful, however, the older woman violently spat out the food.

"What are you trying to do?" the aunt cried. "Are you trying to poison me after all the years I took care of you, now that I finally need you?"

"I don't . . . I don't understand, Auntie . . . "

"You are feeding me chicken dirt!"

Mama Lai looked at the rice and saw that it indeed was heavily laced with chicken droppings. She tearfully took the bowl down to the river to rinse it. Brushing away her tears, she took the bowl of rice and was about to plunge it into the water.

"Hey! What are you doing?"

She looked up and saw what appeared to be a Taoist priest. She told him what had happened and that she and her aunt were so poor that she couldn't bear to throw away even this bowl of polluted rice.

"Don't rinse that way," he said. "Allow me, please."

He gently took the bowl of rice from Mama Lai's hand and dipped it into the water. When it came out, it was full of gleaming, puffy rice.

"What? Rice?" she asked. "Can it be eaten?"

"Take it home and reheat it in your skillet," said the man. "See how good it is."

Mama Lai thanked the holy man and hurried home with the rice.

Just as she was ready to pour the rice into her skillet, she discovered that each grain of rice had turned into a pearl!

Mama Lai just about fainted.

"Auntie," she said, "we're rich!"

Early the next morning, Mama Lai went to San Xiaojie's home to tender her resignation. When San Xiaojie asked her how she could afford to quit, Mama Lai told her the whole story of how chicken droppings had somehow gotten mixed up in her rice and how a kindly old Taoist priest had rinsed the rice for her, rice which later turned into pearls! And with that, Mama Lai was gone.

If she can get pearls, thought San Xiaojie, I can get pearls too!

She quickly went out to the chicken coop and scooped up a bowl of chicken droppings. She then poured the contents onto a bowl of rice and waited for nightfall. At night, she took the polluted bowl of rice to the river and slowly extended the bowl toward the dark river water.

"Hold it!" cried a voice. "What are you doing?"

She looked up. Sure enough, it was an old Taoist priest.

Feigning despair, San Xiaojie said, "Oh, I'm going to rinse out this bowl of rice! My poor old mother was eating rice, and somehow chicken droppings got mixed in . . ."

"Say no more. Allow me, if you will," he said, taking the bowl from her hand and dipping it into the river. He handed back to her a bowl of fluffy white rice. "Take it home and then reheat it in a skillet."

She thanked the priest and fled back home. She feverishly searched for a skillet. Having found one, she hurriedly dumped the rice into the skillet, expecting pearls to tumble out of the bowl, but, no, only rice was there.

Hmm, she thought, that's odd. Where are the pearls?

She looked closely. It was rice, all right, but it smelled positively delicious. Her family members were there too, and they all smelled the rice.

"Fragrant rice!" said her brother. "Let me have some!"

"Oh, very well!" she said at last.

Everyone sat down at the table, and each person nibbled on his and her small portion of rice. Soon something odd began to happen.

"I feel strange," said San Xiaojie. "Oh! What's this! Look at my hands!"

Her hands, even between the knuckles, started sprouting thick brown hair, as did the hands of everyone else at the dinner table. Soon she and everyone there had long dark hair covering not only their arms but also their legs and much of their faces.

"No! No! Nooo! Hoo! Hooo! Ahh! Ahh! Ahh!" as each cried, discovering his and her own tail.

Alas, the whole family had turned into a bunch of smelly, hairy jabbering monkeys!

Guangzhou minjian gushi, Jiang Tao, ed.;  148-149.

There are many stories about monkeys and apes, some highlighting their cunning and mischievousness and others, their hideousness and depravity. The best known monkey in Chinese literature remains the headstrong but heroic Sun Wukong of the epic fantasy Xiyu Ji, or Journey to the West, by Wu Cheng'en of the Ming dynasty. The great scholar Arthur Waley's much beloved translation, Dear Monkey, remains very popular to this day. Motif: Q551.3.24, "Punishment: Transformation into monkey."

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