Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Porcelain Lion (Guangdong)

There was once a skilled potter who was poor at managing his money and ended up working for a skinflint of a man in that man's large pottery shop.

Now one day this potter scooped up some rather unusual-looking clay from a nearby field, carried it over to the shop, and sculpted it into the shape of a lion. He applied glaze and fired it in the shop kiln. The result was a very realistic porcelain lion. However, while taking it out of the kiln, he touched a very hot place on the lion and dropped it on the shop floor, chipping off its left ear. The shop owner saw what had happened.

"You idiot!" he screamed. "You ruined a piece of merchandise. That comes out of your pay!"

At the end of the day, the potter took the slightly damaged porcelain lion home with him instead of his daily wage. He told his wife all about it and smiled, holding up the porcelain lion he had made.

"You fool! Is this lion going to buy us rice?" she asked, infuriated at what she thought to be her husband's stupidity. She then grabbed the lion from his hands and flung it out the window, where it landed nose first in some soft soil.

A year passed, and the lion still remained outside the potter's hut, partially buried in the dirt, unwanted and ignored.

One day the potter didn't feel well and asked his wife to go to the shop and tell his boss that he wouldn't be in for the day, which she did. His boss would have none of it, though. He was short on workers that day, so he went to the man's home and ordered the poor man to go to the shop. The potter sighed, dressed and headed out the door.

Just as the two men were on their way to the shop, a very wealthy man in a sedan chair arrived and ordered his men to halt in front of the potter's house. He motioned to the potter and his boss to stop as his men lowered his chair.

"Which one of you lives here?" he asked. When the potter replied that it was his home, the wealthy stranger then said, "Well, then, it is you who owns that lion sticking out of the ground. Is that not so?"

"Yes, sir," answered the potter. "I own that lion, but why do you ask?"

"Sell it to me!" he cried, startling both the potter and the shop owner, with the latter's eyes dancing and twinkling now that money was discussed.

The shop owner smiled his oiliest smile and said, "Sir, please come with me to my shop. I have a wide selection of porcelain lions and elephants to choose from. Why, look at this lion. It's been lying in the mud and--"

"No, I'm not interested. I want only that lion."

"Very well," said the potter, digging the lion out from the dirt. "It's yours for fifty ounces of silver but under one condition."

"Very well. What's your condition?"

"Tell me why you must have this porcelain lion."

"All right, " said the stranger. "Seeing as how we have a bargain, I guess there's no harm in telling you. That lion is not made of ordinary clay. It is made from a meteorite."

"Meteorite!" scoffed the owner. "How do you know?"

The stranger leaned forward and looked at the shop owner with his odd, glaring eyes. He gave the shop owner a grim smile. "Believe me," he said. "I know," and the shop owner could see that he indeed did. "I have been searching for an animal made out of such clay for a long time, " he continued, "and now at last I have found one. Such a porcelain creature has mighty powers. For one thing, if I perform a certain spell, the lion has the ability to locate any object anywhere in the world."

The shop owner suddenly grabbed the lion from the potter and snapped, "Give me that! You're nothing but a liar and a thief. That figurine came from my own shop! It has my stamp on it!"

The two men proceeded to struggle for the lion.

"Hey!" cried the potter. "You let me keep the lion instead of giving me my wages that day! It's mine!"

Both men huffed and snorted while wrangling with the porcelain lion in front of the stranger, who was growing quite weary.

"Sir," grunted the shop owner, "kindly give me a hand here and help me get this lion away from this shameless liar and thief! The lion's yours for forty ounces of silver!"

The stranger snapped his fingers, and his two burly servants immediately snatched the lion away from the potter's arms. For good measure, the shop owner and the two servants pitched the potter headfirst into the dirt and left him there. The four of them, with the stranger clutching the porcelain lion, then left together.

Now far away from the potter's hut, the shop owner asked the stranger, "Tell me, can you really find something like lost treasure with this lion?"

"Indeed, I can."

"Would you perhaps let me see how the lion can find things?" asked the shop owner. "Would you let me see as you try him out?"

The wealthy stranger sighed and said, "What exactly did you have in mind? Did you happen to lose something?"

"No, not I, but the Song Emperor did! One of the Song Emperor's ships foundered off the coast not far from here, and the ship sank with his imperial seal aboard."

"The imperial seal? Finding it would make one fabulously wealthy," said the stranger. "Do you have an idea where the ship went down?"

"I can show you if you agree to split the imperial reward with me," the shop owner replied.

The stranger agreed. The two men headed for the seashore, where just the two of them rented a large rowboat and headed out into the bay. Soon the buildings lining the shore looked like tiny blocks.

"This is probably the spot," said the shop owner.

The stranger set the porcelain lion at the bow of the boat and chanted:

"Precious lion,
Precious lion,
Enter the sea,
And recover the Song Emperor's seal for me!"

The two men then watched the porcelain lion. It shuddered. Then its ceramic fur bristled. It next snorted and snarled. The lion stood up on its hind legs and dove into the sea. The stranger and shop owner looked at each other, smiled and waited.

Before long, a small whirlpool appeared near the small boat. The porcelain lion's head popped out of the swirling water, the Song Emperor's seal in its mouth. The two men rubbed their hands with delight when the lion hopped back aboard with the seal.

"We're rich! We're rich!" they both shouted. "We're going to be rich!"

The lion, meanwhile, now cold, wet and uncomfortable, began shaking the salt water off its fur. As it did so, the ocean suddenly became violent. The sea rocked the boat as a tiger would a monkey on its back. Another whirlpool grew and grew and then sucked the boat and its three occupants down into its funnel. The stranger and the shop owner were, of course, never seen again, and as for the porcelain lion, it still rests undisturbed on the floor of the sea to this very day, awaiting the next treasure hunter who might want to use its services.

Notes

Chen & Chen,
Hanjiang gushilin, p. 180-183

Comets and shooting or falling stars, to the ancient people of China, were awesome and potent phenomena to behold. The ancient Chinese believed that for the creation of every new star in heavens, a child was born on earth; likewise, for every meteor observed, someone on earth was slated to die (Zheng, 25). The lion, an animal introduced to China as a gift to an emperor, was adopted by Buddhism as a guardian of Buddhist law. Thus, stone lions can be seen outside temples (Ong, 235-236; Williams, 253-254). Motifs: B562.1, "Animal shows man treasure"; D1620.2.4, "Automatic statue of lion"; and Q467 , "Punishment by drowning."

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Bamboo Grove of the Loyal Dog (Guangdong)

There were once two brothers, Zhang Lan and Zhang Qin, who lived with their elderly parents on a farm. When both parents died, they then had to split up the family farm between themselves.

The elder brother, Lan, took the best and most expensive things for himself. He grabbed the house, the ox, the chickens and most of the land. All the younger brother Qin received was a shack, the little bit of land his brother didn't want, and the dog.

Lan clearly got the better of the bargain, but he was lazy and foolish. He spent most of his days and nights drinking rice wine and eating his own chickens. When the ox refused to go along with his bullying, he killed the poor creature and ate it. Now he was in a fix. He had no beast to pull his plow and nearly no chickens, hence, no eggs, to speak of. He decided to pay Qin a visit.

Qin, it turned out, was himself struggling to survive on his portion of land, but he was still able to make ends meet. Not only that, he was earning a small profit. Ingenious and hardworking, he had gotten his loyal dog to pull the plow for him. Though his land was hard, he had enough food to eat and to take to the market.

"Little Brother," said Lan, "let me borrow the dog for a few days."

"Very well," said Qin, "but take good care of him!"

What could he do or say? Lan was, after all, his older brother.

Zhang Lan took the dog back to his farm and hitched his plow to the dog. Scream and yell as Lan might, the dog would pay him no mind and not pull the plow. He then beat the dog, but it still would not listen to him. Enraged, he then picked up a club and killed Qin's dog. He then dumped the dead dog in front of Qin's shack, cursing his brother.

"Your stupid dog decided to die just when I needed him most!" snarled Lan, stomping away.

Qin tearfully picked up his dead dog and buried it in a spot on the edge of his garden. In time many shafts of sturdy bamboo sprouted from the dog's grave, forming a small grove, and Qin would rest in its shade.

One particularly hot day, Qin was resting by the grave when he felt a plunk on his head and then another and another. He looked down and saw upon the ground several gold coins which had fallen on his head. More and more coins poured out from the tops of the bamboo stalks. The entire grave was soon littered with gold coins. Qin scooped them up and took them inside. With the money he was then able to buy a larger and better piece of land. He also had a nice farm house built on his new land.

Qin's newly found wealth didn't escape the attention of his brother Lan, of course. He again paid Qin a visit, and the ever-honest Qin told his brother all about the bamboo at his dog's grave and how it continued to yield gold coins even as they spoke.

That evening Lan crept over to the grave and clumsily pulled out the bamboo stalks, hoping to carry them home and get some gold of his own. As he tried to bundle the stalks, foul-smelling dog dirt sprayed out from the top and covered him head to foot. Lan turned purple and gritted his teeth in anger. He broke each stalk over his knee and stormed off his brother's land.

Qin found the broken stalks of bamboo the next day. He was angry and sad, but what was done was done. He gathered up the broken bamboo and fashioned the broken stalks into a sturdy basket. He then discovered that whenever he turned the basket over, a basket full of gold coins would fall out.

Before long Lan heard about the basket, and relying on his brother's kindness and mercy, he was able to borrow it. As soon as Qin had handed him the basket, Lan hurriedly turned the empty basket upside down. He heard loud hisses. Upon the ground were many hideous three-horned snakes, wriggling and writhing before him.

Lan was absolutely scared out of his wits and fled screaming. Once home, he jumped into his bed and stayed there, shivering and feverish. After a few days, he was well again, and from then on, he thought twice before ever trying to take advantage of his younger brother again.

Notes

Guan & Wei, p.284-285

A common theme found in from folktales around the world is the kind and generous brother and the cruel and greedy brother. In written Chinese, "Lan" and "Qin" mean, respectively, "lazy" and "industrious." Variant of AT 834, "The Poor Brother's Treasure," and AT 834A, "The Pot of Gold and the Pot of Scorpions." Motifs: B580, "Animal helps human to wealth"; Q42, "Generosity rewarded"; Q51, "Kindness to animals rewarded"; Q200, "Evil deeds punished"; and Q272, "Avarice punished."

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."

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Immortal's Daughter (Fujian)

Very long ago, somewhere by the Min River in Fujian Province, there was once an island, and on top of a mountain on this island lived a nameless immortal and his daughter, Dingxiang. Because the river was deep and wide and because there were no bridges or ferries, the island and the mountain were completely inaccessible to people. The two people who lived there neither saw nor sought any other human company.

Now one day Dingxiang went to wash clothes by the riverbank. While doing her chores, she suddenly noticed a youth standing on the far shore, staring at her. The young man had nice enough features, and Dingxiang couldn't help blushing at all the attention she was receiving. She quickly finished doing her laundry, bundled the clothes up, and left.

The next day Dingxiang returned to the same spot to do some more washing. Once again, she spied the same young man looking at her, and once again she finished washing in a huff and hurried home.

On the third day, Dingxiang went back to the same riverbank, this time to wash a roll of silk. There, across the river, was once again the same young man, staring at her. Curiosity had now gotten the better of her, so she decided to find out what he was doing over there.

"Excuse me!" she called out. "Why do you stand on the riverbank every day?"

"I would like the great immortal who is rumored to live on your island to accept me as a pupil!" was his reply.

"Then why on earth don't you just come over? Standing around and gaping at me won't help you!"

"Well, I would come over," he replied, "but there seems to be a mighty river between us. How am I supposed to cross it without a boat or bridge?"

"I will help you," said Dingxiang.

"You will! I will be very grateful! I will thank you for--"

"Who wants your thanks!" she said. "Stand back a few paces. I shall provide a bridge for you to walk on."

Having spoken, Dingxiang took the roll in her two hands and unraveled it, allowing it to unwind all the way across the Min River until it stopped at the young man's feet. It now formed a sturdy, safe bridge.

The young man could not believe his eyes. Without waiting to thank Dingxiang, he walked across the silk bridge to the island. When the two young people came face to face with each other at close range, they both blushed and remained silent for a few minutes.

Finally the young man spoke. "What's your name? Where do you live?"

"My name is Dingxiang, and I am the daughter of the man you seek. I live here. And who are you?"

"My name is Chen Lang. I come from farther south."

As before, the two were now uncomfortably silent.

Then Dingxiang said, "You have trampled mud on my silk, so you must let me wash it. My father and I live in a house of glazed tile on the mountain. Go up the path and you shall find him there."

Chen Lang located the house of glazed tile and respectfully approached the immortal, who was sitting outside the house, smoking his pipe. He told the older man of his desire to be accepted as a pupil. The immortal decided to test Chen Lang's abilities.

"Early tomorrow after breakfast," said the immortal, "go to the ridge and gather two bundles of grass reeds. Carry the bundles on the bamboo pole resting against my house."

The next morning Dingxiang encountered Chen Lang. With her father out of earshot, she asked him, "What does my father want you to do?"

"Nothing special. He just wants me to take his bamboo pole to gather two bundles of reeds."

"Take care!" whispered Dingxiang. "When you take hold of the pole, make sure you grab it by the third joint from the top or bottom. If you fail to do this, it will turn into a viper and bite you to death in a flash. Furthermore, after you have gathered the reeds into bundles, take the bamboo pole and poke each bundle through its center until the bamboo pole goes out the other side. If you don't do this, both bundles will turn into hungry tigers which will devour you on the spot!"

Chen Lang took note of Dingxiang's warning and went on his way. He went to the other side of the house, where he found the bamboo pole leaning against the wall. He then picked it up by holding it at the third joint. He went to the mountain ridge and collected reeds, which he next divided into two bundles. He then promptly pierced the center of each bundle until the pole exited the other side, all the while mindful to handle the pole at its third joint.

Having accomplished his task, he returned to the house of glazed tile and presented the bundles to the immortal, who was surprised enough but didn't say anything else other than, "Thank you. That will be all for today."

The young whelp has overcome my magic on his own! he thought. I'll fix him.

The next day the immortal had a different assignment for Chen Lang.

"Here is one sheng of sesame seeds. Go up the mountain and plant each seed before noon!" the immortal ordered.

Nothing to it! thought Chen Lang.

He went to a broad spot near the mountaintop and proceeded to plant each seed. He finished way before noon, but now he was already famished. He saw one seed remaining in the seed basket and ate it. He took his hoe, shouldered it and went back down the mountain to the immortal's house.

On his way down, he heard someone crying, "Chen Lang! Chen Lang!" He turned and saw Dingxiang hurrying towards him.

"What did my father have you do today?" she asked.

"Nothing but plant sesame seeds."

"Well," she said, "he will next ask you to gather up each and every one and return all of them to him."

Exasperated, Chen Lang replied, "I just finished planting all of them! How am I supposed to bring each one back?"

Dingxiang laughed and said, "Don't worry. I shall help you."

They both went up to the spot where the seeds lay buried. Dingxiang took Chen Lang's straw hat and lay it on the ground. Standing over the hat, she chanted:

"Little seed, big seed,
Without feet, just like a ball!
Come back, come back
One and all!"

Chen Lang peered inside his hat and, sure enough, the previously planted seeds were in a neat pile. Chen Lang was ready to jump for joy, but then he remembered something.

"These aren't all the seeds. One is missing," he said.

"How could one be missing?"

"I was hungry and ate one," said Chen Lang.

"I don't know what we're going to do now," said Dingxiang. "Father will surely demand that each seed be accounted for." Then, looking down on the ground, Dingxiang saw a column of ants. "I have an idea!" she said.

Dingxiang picked up an ant, placed it in a scarf in her hand, and gently wrapped the ant up in the scarf. Then she chanted:

"Sesame ant,
Ant sesame,
When I open my scarf,
A sesame seed you shall be!"

She then produced a sesame seed from the scarf and added it to the other seeds. The pair then returned to the immortal's house.

"Have all the seeds been planted?" asked the immortal.

"All of them were planted before noon."

"Well, then," said the immortal, "I now want you to retrieve each one of them!"

Chen Lang then stuck out his arm and opened up his fist, displaying the original number of sesame seeds.

"Are these not the seeds?" asked Chen Lang. "Each one is here. Please count them."

The immortal was dumbfounded but tried not to show it.

Young upstart! he thought. He has some power; otherwise, how could he have recovered each seed? Just as a mountaintop cannot keep two tigers, I cannot allow another man of power to be upon my island . . .

On the third day, the immortal told Chen Lang, "Today you are to go to the bamboo grove. I shall hide myself there, and you must find me."

After breakfast, Chen Lang was on his way to the island's bamboo grove when he met Dingxiang.

"What is your task today?" she asked.

"I have to find your father within the bamboo grove," he replied.

"Do you know how to find him?"

"All I know is your father is very crafty," answered Chen Lang. "How do you think I should go about it?"

"This is what you must do," said Dingxiang. "Go from the east side of the grove toward the west. In the first row of stalks, find the thirteenth joint of the thirteenth bamboo stalk from the eastern side. Near the the thirteenth joint will be an insect hole. My father will be in that hole."

"And then?"

"And then," replied Dingxiang, "cover the hole with your thumb so that he can't escape. Then, he will have to grant your every request."

Chen Lang hurried down to the bamboo grove. Starting from the east, he counted to the thirteenth bamboo stalk of the first row. As Dingxiang had said, an insect hole was nearby the thirteenth joint. Chen Lang then pressed his thumb over the small opening.

"I've got you now, Master!" he cried.

"Well, done, my son. I yield. Now let me out," said a tiny voice as squeaky as a fiddle from inside the hole.

"Master," said Chen Lang, "I have some requests that must be met before I can let you go."

"Let me hear them, then."

"First, allow me to take Dingxiang as my wife. Second, in the next three years, you are to teach me all your magical arts. Third, you are not to interfere with me or to harm me. And if Dingxiang consents to leave with me, you are not to interfere with her, either."

"Three requests? I count more than three, Chen Lang," said the immortal, now gnashing his teeth.

"Three or more, those are the requests, Master."

The immortal had no choice but to agree, though the demands were galling. Once he had said yes to all requests, Chen Lang let him out.

From that day on, the immortal tutored Chen Lang in the skills of the immortals for a period of three years. Not long after, Chen Lang and Dingxiang were wed.

One day, Dingxiang pulled Chen Lang aside.

"Listen, my husband," she said, "we cannot stay here forever. My father may have agreed to all your demands three years ago, but that doesn't mean he plans to keep his word forever. We must leave this island before he can stop us. We will leave tomorrow morning. We will tell him that we are going on a picnic. Then, we'll leave!"

The next morning, they told the immortal that they were going off on a picnic. Once they reached the riverbank, Chen Lang took a leaf from a banyan tree and tossed it into the river, where it turned into a boat. Chen Lang and Dingxiang entered the boat, crossed the river, settled on a piece of distant and deserted land, and started a new and satisfying life for themselves.

As for the immortal, he became enraged when he found out that the young couple had escaped. Climbing to the top of the mountain, he pounded the earth with his dragon-headed staff 7,700 times. The mountain then slowly sank into the depths of the Min River until it was completely out of sight. To this day, no one has been able to locate it.

Notes

Zhih Nong,
p. 31-41.

South of the Min River (the Minnan district), is the region of Fujian from which the ancestors of the majority of Hokkien-speaking people of Taiwan, the native Taiwanese, came. (They are not to be confused with the original inhabitants of Taiwan, the aboriginal tribal peoples, or shandiren, the so-called "mountain people.") Motifs: D1258, "Magic bridge"; F482, "Extraordinary bridge"; F944.3, "Island sinks into the sea"; H310, "Suitor tests"; H335.0.1, "Bride helps suitor perform his tasks"; T97, "Father opposed to daughter's marriage."


Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Three Jewels (Fujian)

(1) The Journey Begins

In a rocky hamlet by the Nine Dragons River there lived an old widower who had four children: Ah Ri, the older son; Ah Yue, the older daughter; Ah Xing, the younger son; and Ah Wan, the younger daughter.

One day, when the father knew his end was near, he called his four children to his bedside.

"Listen closely, for I haven't much time left," he wheezed. "I'm afraid that though I've spent a lifetime working, I don't have much to leave to you except for a dream that came to me just a short while ago . . ."

The four children stood around and listened closely to their dying father.

"In my dream," the father continued, "it seems someone said to me, 'If you want to help your village, you must get the three jewels which are buried on East Mountain. Only the toughest person who is unafraid of hardship can find these jewels and obtain the fortune.'

"Well, my children, it's too late for me but not for you. You have the power to go out there together and to find . . . those . . . three jewels . . ."

With that, he closed his eyes and breathed no more.

After their father had been buried, the oldest child, Ah Ri, called a family meeting.

"We all heard what Father said. We must go out and get those three jewels, whatever they are," said Ah Ri.

"Let's go out and open up that mountain!" said Ah Yue.

"I'm the strongest of the four. Whatever hard work needs to be done, I'll do it," said Ah Xing.

"Brute strength is wonderful but may not be enough," said Ah Wan. "We might also need patience and wisdom to find the three jewels. In any case, patience, wisdom, strength or not, how could I ever climb a mountain with the rest of you? I'm too fat. Let me stay behind to watch over our home."

"No, you can't stay behind," said Ah Xing. "You're only fifteen. What if you run into a bandit, a hungry wolf or even a tiger? No, you can't stay home alone. We must all go together."

That settled that. The next day, the foursome, loaded with food and other supplies, set off for East Mountain.

Though they trekked for days and days, the mountain seemed no closer than before. At night, they huddled together for warmth as they slept. Soon came days and nights of hunger when all the dried food was gone. Everyone had to rely on wild berries and spring water. Then the four came to a three-way split in the road.

At this point, Ah Wan could no longer walk and refused to be carried. So everyone decided to leave her in a nearby cave and proceed. But what were they to do? The road split into three paths; a path up the mountain and two around it.

"Let's do this," said Ah Ri. "I'll take the middle road, while you, Ah Yue, take the south road. You, Ah Xing, take the north road. In three days, we'll meet back here to look on Ah Wan."

And so, after leaving Ah Wan enough berries and fruit to eat for three days, the other three headed off to the three different directions the next morning.

(2) The Tale of Ah Ri

Ah Ri walked from morning until late at night without so much as a short rest. By nightfall he had reached a hilly area, and here the road suddenly and mysteriously ended. With all his might, he tried to locate the road again but couldn't. While looking for the road, he heard a moan. He followed the moaning and groaning and soon came across an old white-bearded man pinned beneath a boulder.

"Who are you, old Grandfather?" asked Ah Ri.

"I'll tell you," the old man sighed. "When I was younger, I was a woodsman. In this very spot, I once insulted the god of the mountain. Ah, I don't even remember what I had said, but anyway, I offended him in some manner. So, he then let this rock roll down upon me and said that if no one rescued me in one hundred years, I would die."

"How long have you been here, then?"

"Ninety-nine years, three hundred sixty-four days."

"Aiyo!" cried Ah Ri. "Then let me get this rock off you right away!"

Try as he might, Ah Ri could not roll the boulder off the old man. He pushed and pulled the boulder, but it still would not budge. He then found a fist-sized rock nearby and picked it up. He attacked the boulder with this smaller rock in his hand, hacking away with it all through the night until the great boulder finally cracked and splintered into smaller rocks. By the time the first rays of the morning loomed over the horizon, Ah Ri was able to pull a now much smaller and slimmer boulder off the old man with his bruised and bloodied hands.

All rocks--big and little--had now been cleared away, but where was the old man? All Ah Ri found underneath the dirt and rocks was a shiny hoe. And beneath the it was a flat stone with an inscription which stated: "Behold the Golden Hoe. It is a gift to you. Take it and use it."

The Golden Hoe, thought Ah Ri. The legendary hoe of every gardener's and farmer's dreams!

Indeed it was. With this hoe, Ah Ri could create a road by merely tapping the ground. All rocks, boulders, logs, swamps, and rivers would be tossed away like pebbles for the new road that could be laid in any direction. He took the hoe and headed back to his younger sister and, eventually, a reunion with his brother and other sister.

(3) The Tale of Ah Yue

Ah Yue too had started out walking furiously all day and way into the evening when the south road she was on suddenly ended at the swamp lands. While looking for a path around the swamps, she heard moaning coming from a nearby area. Looking closer, she saw many fishes and shrimp bobbing on the surface of the murky water. Looking closer still, she saw a large carp swim up to her.

"This had once been a deep lake," said the carp, weeping as it spoke, "and the water had been pristine. Then one day a monstrous toad came and sat over the spring which was the source of our water, blocking all the water. Now the lake is as you see it--muddy, foul, poisonous for us all."

"Then I shall go to the spring and remove the toad for you!" said Ah Yue.

"It is not so easy. You need to cross the swamp, and there is no road or bridge. You'll need to cross over on a bamboo pole you'll find in that direction," said the carp, pointing the direction with its nose. "Take care not to fall in!"

She soon spotted the bamboo pole suspended over the bog. On the other side of this very long pole, atop a large hill, sat the toad, as big as a small house. Ah Yue started to slide across the pole on her stomach. She herself was hungry and tired, but she continued across the pole, determined to help the sick and dying creatures of the lake. She continued inching along the pole.

When she was very close to the other side, the toad opened its mouth, whipped out its long tongue and scooped up Ah Yue before swallowing her. While in the creature's mouth, quick-thinking Ah Yue took out her short knife, and just as the toad was about to swallow her for good, she cut away, making a hole in what was the monstrous toad's throat. The toad spat her out, and she dashed to safety. The huge toad thrashed about in agony and rolled down the hill to its final resting spot somewhere in the swamp that it itself had created.

Ah Yue climbed to the top of the hill where the toad had been sitting. There she found a metal pot in the shape of a squatting toad. On the pot was an inscription: "The Free-Flowing Pot." She opened its lid, and immediately clear, cool fresh water bubbled up and then flowed out of the pot, cleansing all that lay in its path and ending up in the stagnant lake of sick and dying fish and shrimp. Soon the lake was once again free of that which had been strangling it. Her job done there, Ah Yue turned around to leave.

"Take the pot with you!" cried the carp. "Our lake has been restored to us; we're all right now. You need the pot to restore other places. Take it!"

And so, thanking the carp and closing the lid of the pot, Ah Yue picked the pot back up, crossed back over the bamboo pole, and headed back on the path that had brought her to this formerly sad place.

(4) The Tale of Ah Xing

And what of Ah Xing? Like his older brother and sister, he had stayed on his chosen road--the northern road--all day and way into the night without rest. He soon passed a grass hut. Outside, a very old lady was watering an old stick and what appeared under the moonlight to be stringy weeds.

"Grandma, why are you watering these dead things?" he asked.

"Aii," she shook her head and sighed, "you just don't know what I've been through. When I was young, my father had me engaged to an old man, and I refused to go along with it. He then punished me, cursed me, by making me water these weeds and this stick until flowers bloomed upon them. So all day and night, I am out here waiting, waiting, waiting to see something, anything, bloom, but it never does."

"If you water them for ninety-nine years, they'll never bloom!"

"Ninety-nine years? I'm destined to do this for one hundred years! I've got two more days to go, but I don't believe anything will come of it."

"Please let me help you," said Ah Xing.

Though he was exhausted and hungry, he got to work. He took the bucket from her withered, gnarled hands and started watering the stick and the weeds.

"Aren't you needed elsewhere?" she asked. "You were in such a hurry when you were on the road."

"Don't worry, Grandma," Ah Xing said. "There is always time to help another person."

For the next two days, he tended to this pitiful garden, sleeping in the little hut at night.

Brother and Sister must have succeeded or perished by now, he thought. Here I am, trying to accomplish the impossible. Well, I might as well finish what I have started and help this poor old woman, as I promised to do.

Exactly two days passed.

On the morning of the third day, Ah Xing got up early to water the stick and weeds. Looking closely, he saw that the stick was now sprouting little buds, and there was fruit growing on what had been mere weeds. Before his eyes, flowers bloomed on the other former weeds.

He called for the old woman to come out. She did so, bent down and retrieved a fist full of seeds from the blooming flowers. She handed him the seeds, saying, "These are for you and your village. You've already tarried here long enough. Your brother and sisters are waiting for you at the crossroads. Now quickly, be on your way!"

Ah Xing was astounded that she knew about his brother and sisters. He thanked her and, with his seeds, he headed back on the road. When he turned around to wave goodbye, the old woman, her hut and her garden were gone.

(5) Home Again

Back home the two brothers and two sisters cultivated the land with the magic seeds, using the Golden Hoe. The free-flowing pot irrigated their garden and provided unlimited pure spring water for all. In time the seeds produced nourishing, delicious oranges that people for many miles around enjoyed. They say that this orange grove is in Huafeng Village, Hua'an County, Fujian Province, and that it still produces wonderful oranges even to this day.

Notes

from Chen & Wang, p
p. 455-461.

In China, there are two different metaphorical and metaphysical interpretations for "three jewels" or "three treasures" (Mandarin: sanbao), either or both of which may be of interest and related to this story. In Taoism, the Three Treasures are mercy, frugality, and selflessness. In Buddhism, they are the Buddha, the (Buddhist) Law, and the Sangha (the Buddhist community of monks) (Chen Yixiao). Both interpretations are , thus, descriptions of the proper religious life. Toads, not surprisingly, are associated with wells and water. It is said that the severed leg of a toad can, upon scratching the dirt, cause spring water to flow from that spot (Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, 292). Another tale tells how the hero Liu Hai lured a poisonous toad out of a well (Ong Hean-Tatt, 256). I strongly suspect that the present folktale, if it ever was a true folktale, has been severely revised to include contemporary ecological motifs and concerns that are more in keeping with modern didactic children's literature. The irony that Ah Wan's siblings think that she would be safe in a cave but not in her own home might humor the reader. Motif: J154, "Wise words of a dying father."

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Cuckoo (Guangdong)

There were once two sisters-in-law whose family members had all been lost in a flood. Now all they had in the world was each other. When the two women found themselves alone in the world, they decided to live together, which they did in harmony. The older of the pair, Sou Sou, was talented at embroidery, and with the help of the younger woman, Gu Zai, she opened up a small embroidery shop. Together they made a tidy little sum.

Now Sou Sou could depict just about anything on silk; lions, phoenixes, dragons, pines, storks, "the one hundred children at play"--nothing was too hard for her skilled hands and fine needles. There was one thing, however, that eluded her--the arbutus, or Chinese strawberry, a very rare and beautiful flower that briefly blooms before dropping all of its petals. She had never been able to embroider a Chinese strawberry mainly because she had never seen one. Sou Sou had only heard what the flower looks like.

One day Sou Sou heard from a neighbor that that a few Chinese strawberry flowers were in bloom on the nearby hills, so, leaving Gu Zai in charge of the shop, she set off to find the Chinese strawberry and to study it closely. Perhaps she could add this rarely seen flower to her collection of patterns.

Sou Sou had hiked and climbed the hills for a good part of the afternoon before she found an unusually pretty flower she supposed was a Chinese strawberry. By now, darkness had overtaken her. Even worse, a hungry tiger was lurking in the brush nearby. It sensed Sou Sou's presence and headed toward her. The tiger pounced upon the poor woman, killed her, and dragged her away.

Night had finally come, and Sou Sou had still not returned to the shop. Worried, Gu Zai closed up the store and headed in the direction Sou Sou had gone, lantern in her hand. Up in the hills and off the path, Gu Zai found shreds of clothing by a small patch of Chinese strawberries. She immediately feared the worst.

"Sou hu?" she called. "Sou Sou, where are you?" Over and over she cried, "Sou hu? Sou hu?" as she searched.

She soon came to a pile of bones and more shreds of clothing. Gu Zai recognized a ribbon which Sou Sou had worn in her hair. She now realized the truth, that her beloved Sou Sou had been eaten by a tiger.

Gu Zai knelt before the bones and cried, "Sou hu!" way into the morning until her heart broke, silencing her. Her spirit, though, then changed into the cuckoo, which still cries sou hu, sou hu
day and night whenever the pink and red flowers of the Chinese strawberry are in bloom.

Notes

(1) Chen Di
, p. 68-70; (2) Guan Han & Wei Gan, p. 282-283.

The mournful, plaintive cries of the cuckoo have given rise to many folktales, legends and myths. One old Chinese legend tells us that a king of the ancient land of Shu became a cuckoo upon death. In poetry and art, the cuckoo is associated with the fifth month of the lunar calendar, coming near the end of spring, the worldwide season of rebirth, which is in keeping with the themes of resurrection and transformation in this myth. Motifs: A1193, "Creation of cuckoo"; D150, "Transformation of woman to bird."



Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Ah Xiang and His Pet Snake (Guangdong)

There once lived a boy named Ah Xiang. He had no brothers or sisters and lived with his widowed mother. To put rice in their bowls, Ah Xiang's mother worked long hours as a seamstress as her husband had left not so much as a cent. Life was not easy, though Ah Xiang never lacked clothes or food, thanks to the efforts and sacrifices of his mother.

Though he was poor, Ah Xiang was still able to attend the local mengguan, the village school.

On the way to school one morning, he spied a cute little green snake and put it in his pocket. Later, in his classroom, he put the snake in his calligraphy pen drawer before the master entered. All of Ah Xiang's friends were in on the secret and all kept silent. At lunch time, when he had to return home to eat, he took the snake home and secretly gave it some leftovers. He did this everyday--taking the snake to school, bringing it home, and feeding it scraps. Eventually Ah Xiang had to leave school in order to work in the fields. By this time the snake had grown considerably larger, as large as the boy himself! Moreover, Ah Xiang's mother, who doted on her only child, let him keep his pet in their hut. Since it ate only unwanted leftovers, what could be the harm?

Now one day, the mother, who was pretty along in her years, suddenly came down with a pain in her liver. The pain became worse and worse until she was no longer able to work and was confined to bed. All Ah Xiang could do was to sit by his mother's bedside and pray.

A wandering monk happened to pass through the village, and learning of the poor woman's illness from neighbors, showed up at Ah Xiang's doorstep.

Having looked at the mother, he said to Ah Xiang, "Your mother needs to swallow slices of a large serpent's liver, and then she will be fine." He noticed Ah Xiang's pet snake in the corner and added, "Well now, that serpent's liver will more than do."

Ah Xiang thanked the holy man, who then left. He looked at his beloved pet, which by now was gargantuan. He sighed and shrugged his shoulders. He took a knife and sat down beside the snake's large head.

He said to the snake, "Friend, I have raised you from the time you were just a tiny snake. I need your help now. Please forgive me for what I must do. Please open wide so that I may crawl in and cut off slices of your liver."

The snake obediently opened its jaws, and Ah Xiang crawled in. He made it down to the liver, which, not surprisingly, was quite large.

Hmm, he thought to himself, Mother couldn't possibly eat all of this. I'll just cut off enough for her to eat in one mouthful.

He proceeded to slice off a thumb-sized piece of liver. The snake didn't seem to mind.

Ah Xiang exited the snake and had his mother chew and swallow the portion he had cut off. Within a day, she was completely well. As for the snake, it didn't seem to be any the worse.

A few days later, Ah Xiang started thinking, What if Mother takes a turn for the worse? A little more liver couldn't hurt her just in case. Also, what if the snake suddenly dies? Would I still be able to use the liver? If I couldn't, would I ever again be able to find such a huge snake? No. I'd better take all the liver I possibly can now. I can always dry it.

He took a knife and again asked the snake to open its jaws. It did and he climbed in and once again made his way down to the liver.

He started slicing away. Three thumb-sized pieces of liver dropped off the snake, and still Ah Xiang continued to cut.

Hmm, thought Ah Xiang, so far, so good. Maybe just a bit more.

By the sixth or seventh slice, the snake started to hiss, shudder, shake and roll. It gasped and rolled all over the hut. It then clamped its jaws shut, never to open them again. What of Ah Xiang? He slowly perished in the bosom of his beloved pet snake. And his mother never did get the rest of that liver!

Notes

Wang Shizhen
, p. 156-158

Two translated versions of this story also appear in Wolfram Eberhard's Folktales of China (116-122; 230-231). Though classified as a traditionally "noxious creature" (along with the centipede, gecko, toad and scorpion), the snake is reportedly worshipped in some temples in Singapore and Guangdong (Ong Hean-Tatt, Chinese Animal Symbolisms [sic], 88-90). In ancient times, river snakes were worshipped; moreover, snakes, Eberhard writes, were also believed capable of bestowing pearls or other fabulous gifts to humans (A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, 268). The second of Eberhard's two versions has the boy, now grown to be an imperial chancellor (xiang), swallowed by the snake and suffocated when he seeks one pearl too many (122-123). The present Cantonese story has somewhat evolved so that the main character is a boy now named the rather improbable "Ah Xiang," or "Elephant." Motifs: B192, "Magic animal killed"; D1015.4, "Magic liver of animal"; Q272, "Avarice punished."