Friday, August 3, 2007

The Bird Khan (Mongol & Manchu)

In a far off place, there lived a herder and his three daughters.

Now one day the oldest daughter was out minding several cows as they grazed. She yawned, stretched and lay down to grab a few winks. When she woke up, not one cow was to be seen. She jumped up with a start and set out to look for them. She had gone up and down every single hill for miles around when she came to a forest. She walked among the densely packed pines and saw a magnificent palace standing in a clearing.

She entered the building, and though upset at having lost her cows, she marveled at the ornate interior with its marble floors, rich carpets and golden furniture. The whole palace sat eerily quiet. No one was stirring inside, or so the oldest daughter thought.

"Is there no one here?" she said aloud, more to herself. "I wonder if anyone saw where my cows went!"

"If you marry me, I shall tell you where you cows went!"

Startled, the girl looked around and asked, "Who said that?"

"I did."

She looked up and saw a bird perched upon a rafter.

"You can speak?"

"You have ears, maiden. You can hear."

For a moment, she said nothing. Then, sneering, she replied, "Marry you, a bird? What if you turn out to be a demon? No, thank you!"

She then turned, walked straight out of the palace and headed home, no longer concerned about the missing cows.

The next day the second daughter went to the palace to look for the cows. She too encountered the bird.

"Marry me!" said the bird. "I'll show you where those cows are."

"Ha! Me, marry a bird?" she laughed coldly. "That's very funny."

She too then turned around, walked out of the palace and went home.

The very next day, the youngest daughter was in the area and decided to look in and near the palace for the missing cows. While inside the palace's great hall, she too was accosted by the bird.

"Marry me!" it said. "I can lead you to the missing cows."

"I am afraid I can't marry you," she replied. "Our people have our own wedding customs."

"Ah, away with your wedding customs! Marry me and I'll lead you to the cows. What's more, I'll give you everything you see here. The entire palace shall be yours. What do you say, maiden?"

The youngest daughter thought for a moment and replied, "Well, if I must, I must. Very well, then."

They were married. Her father got his cows back, and she received everything that had been promised to her by the bird.

On their first evening as husband and wife, they entered the sleeping chamber where the bird immediately changed into a man. However, owing to the lack of light, the youngest daughter, now the bride, was unable to see her husband's face.

"Only in the evening, as soon as it is sundown, may I become a man again," he explained to her, "and as soon as day breaks, I return to being a bird. As Khan of this region, I convene a great assembly of subjects on the fifteenth of every month, and at that time, I can also appear in the day as a man to my people."

And so this is how the two newlyweds lived: the Khan was a bird in the day, and only in the dark safety of his bedchamber did he become a man. Never, though, did his wife even catch a glimpse of his face.

The fifteenth of the month came, and a huge number of subjects gathered just to see their Khan. The wife of the Khan also came to the gathering and awaited his arrival, not having a clue to his appearance. A good number of people also turned to look at the young woman who, like them, was waiting to see the Khan. She then saw an incredibly handsome young horseman on a gray steed in the midst of the crowd. He was very attractive, and the wife of the Bird Khan fell in love with him. Apparently forgetting about waiting to see the Khan, her own husband, she abruptly left after the handsome young stranger rode away. Try as she might, she could not put him out of her mind.

That very night in the dark chamber, the Khan asked his wife to tell him all about her day at the assembly.

When she had told him all about the excitement of being in the great surging crowd, he asked her, "Did you see anyone beautiful there?"

"As for women, I suppose I was beautiful enough, as there were many who were looking at me," she said. "As for men, there was one truly beautiful man, mounted on a fine gray horse."

With that, they spoke no more and went to sleep.

One month later, it was again the fifteenth. The young wife again attended the assembly, hoping once again to get a glimpse or more of the handsome young horseman. Once again, there he was, riding proudly and nobly through a path made just for him. She pressed forward to get a closer look and was now just a few feet from him. He, however, did not pay her any mind and rode out of the assembly. The young wife, her excitement for the day over, also departed.

Days passed and she could still not get him out of mind. She sought out a sorceress. Perhaps such a woman could cast a spell on the handsome horseman and make him love her as much as she loved him.

"I love that magnificent horseman with all my heart!" she confessed to the sorceress. "I love him, yet I am married to another man. What am I to do?"

"Love him? the man on the horse?" exclaimed the sorceress. "Why, that man is our Khan! How can you dare be in love with him?"

The young woman gasped and told the sorceress that the Khan was indeed her husband. She then asked the sorceress to tell her how to help her husband remain a man both day and night instead of his having to live half his life as a bird.

"Here's what you must do," said the sorceress. "Prepare some incense. Burn the incense when he enters the chamber. When he takes off his feathers and wings, burn all of them immediately. He will then not be able to become a bird again."

That very night the young woman burned incense in the chamber. Her husband, the Khan, came in and took off his feathers and wings. His wife immediately grabbed them and burnt them to complete ashes.

"What have you done?" screamed the Khan. "Oh, you foolish, foolish woman, what have you done?"

The wife was stunned; she had been expecting a different reaction.

"You have doomed me! Long ago I was fated to fight against demons, and as long as I could turn into a bird, they could never hurt me. Now you have changed all that. Now I must go out and do battle with them.

"Listen very carefully," he continued. "I must now entrust my soul to you. You must sit in the doorway of our chamber and keep guard for seven days and seven nights. During this time, you must not fall asleep for even a second, for if you do, the demons shall succeed in snatching my soul. Now take care . . . my soul will reside in the chamber under your watchful eyes . . ."

The Khan then vanished into the air.

For six days and nights, the young wife kept guard. All had been going well. Then on the evening of the seventh night, she closed her eyes but for a second or two! She awoke to find the wispy spirit of her husband floating before her.

"You just lost my soul to the demons," he sadly said. "I will now have to become their slave. Farewell . . ."

And he was gone.

The wife then dashed out to look for her husband. For years she explored every valley and mountain peak, looking for the Khan. Then, while leaving one mountain top, she thought she had heard something, perhaps an echo. She listened carefully and realized it was coming from the south. She was exhausted, cold and hungry but forced herself to go on. As the sound became more and more distinct, she knew the sound was coming from another mountain she hadn't yet climbed. She dragged herself up to the mountain top, where she could now hear the sound very clearly, the sound of her husband's voice. She then saw him; he was carrying a back-breaking amount of wooden poles.

She immediately ran over to him.

"My husband, my Khan!" she cried. "What are they doing to you?"

"They are forcing me to build a fence," he answered.

"What can I do to save you?" she asked.

"Go back and seek the one who had told you to burn my wings and feathers," he replied. "She shall know. Now be off before the demons approach and do worse harm to you than what they are doing to me!"

So the young woman went down the mountain and all the way back to her land. There, the sorceress told her to get the skin of a bird, which she did.

The sorceress cast a spell over it and returned it to her, saying, "Now take it back to our Khan at once and tell him to put it on!"

She then immediately set out again for the Far South. She climbed the mountain where she had just last spoken to her husband. And there he was, in the frost and biting, howling wind, still building a fence for his captors, the demons.

"Quick!" she called to him. "Put this on now!" She tossed him the tiny bird-skin suit.

He put it on, and the bird skin then magically stretched to cover him entirely. Once again, he was a bird! He then flew off, with his wife not far behind on foot.

From then on, they lived out the rest of their days as they had before. The Khan, however, had to remain a bird during the day, for he was never able to defeat the demons in his lifetime.

(from The Wonderful Treasure Horse)


Wang, p. 284-287; Li Yonghai, p. 37-39

One of the most widespread tales is the that of the animal husband/bridegroom, in which a maiden marries a man who must remain a beast, or monster for all of the day or night. Classified as AT 425A, B and C, variations of this tale include the Russian "The Feather of Finist, the Bright Falcon" (Afanas'ev, 580-588) and the Uzbek-Jewish "The Ten Serpents" (Noy, 161-165). Perhaps the best known version is the French "Beauty and the Beast." Originally, this tale was a variant of a story from the Indian cycle of stories, The King and the Corpse, in which a king carries around nightly a speaking corpse that tells a different story each night. In Li 's translation of stories from Manchu, this story, "The Bird Husband" ("Niao zhangfu") is the seventh in the cycle. Motifs: C32.1, "Taboo against supernatural husband"; D150, "Transformation: man to bird"; L162, "Lowly heroine marries prince."


  1. Fascinating story. It's similar to the Appalachian story Whitebear, in which the husband is a bear/man.

    Your site is a true gift to those of us who love to read and tell stories.

    Thank you for your work.

  2. thx this is such a great story you truly are amazing!! keep up the great work, like one says;
    the one who passes on a story,
    is to get all glory.
    stay amazing!!! thanks! :-)

    1. Daisy D
      I hope you see this. Thanks so much for your very kind words, and I hope you often revisit.
      Sorry for the belated reply!
      Fred Lobb