Friday, January 11, 2008

The Ginseng Boy (Manchu)

There were once a man and woman who, with their only child, lived at the foot of a mountain. The boy was nicknamed Mogutou, or "Mushroom head," after his haircut.

When little Mogutou started spending the whole day playing outside and coming home late, his parents became alarmed.

One day he got up early without either washing his face or eating his porridge and was out the door when his mother stopped him.

"Where are you off to?" she asked.

"I'm going out to play!"

"Going out to play? And with whom? There are no children around here for many li," said his mother. "Stay home or else a hungry wolf might drag you away."

"But I have a friend, a little boy with a red cap."

The mother's ears perked up, and she called the father in and told him what little Mogutou had said.

The father and mother looked at each other, and then the mother said to her son, "Listen, Mogutou, here's what we want you to do. We shall give you a needle with some red thread. While you are playing with your friend, stick the needle into his red cap without letting him know you are doing so. You mustn't tell him now. We're going to play a little joke on him."

Mogutou agreed and went out to play, and his parents secretly followed him, the father carrying a spade. They then hid behind some bushes and waited and waited. Before long, a stout little boy in a red cap showed up and started playing with Mogutou. When the boy wasn't looking, Mogutou took out the needle with very long red thread and stuck it into the boy's red cap. As dusk approached, the boys parted company, each heading home. The parents then followed the red thread from the needle in the little boy's cap. The thread led the parents to the base of a huge tree. Both parents then dug up the area that the thread entered and uncovered a gigantic ginseng root. And there in its "cap" was the needle! The two grabbed the ginseng root and ran home with it.

The next morning Mogutou got up early to play. He found his parents standing over a huge pot on the stove. They were busily pouring water into the pot.

When Mogutou asked what was in the pot, his father replied, "Come and take a look." He then removed the cover. Mogutou gasped when he saw his friend, the little ginseng boy, in the pot of water.

"Your mother and I are going to cook and eat him!" laughed the father. "Then we shall be immortal. "

Mogutou began to weep at the thought that he had helped t his parents capture the ginseng boy. He stood by the doorway, head lowered, crying silently.

The mother and father put some kindling under the pot and lit it. Stirring the water and waiting for it to boil, both had the same thought.

Now, if I eat the whole ginseng root, thought the father, why, I'll become years younger. I'll be able to find a younger wife and not need to be with this ancient shriveled-up shrew!

If I eat the whole ginseng root, thought the mother, I'll turn into the most beautiful and eligible maiden around. I won't need to pay attention to this stupid, old drooling dead ghost!

"My sweet wife, " smiled the husband, "go and fetch my dear parents-in-law. There's enough here for everyone."

"Thank you, my beloved husband," replied the wife, with a smile no less oily than her husband's. "I'll only go if you go too and ask your honorable parents to come and share!"

Well, the pair inched their way towards the door, hoping one might be dumb enough to go first and leave behind all of the ginseng behind for the other. Both then went outside, the husband slowly heading west and the wife, east. Both kept looking over their shoulders to make sure the other didn't bolt inside and try to devour the ginseng boy alone.

Sniffling, Mogutou decided to rescue his friend. When both of his parents were out of sight, he dashed in the house and put out the fire. Just then, he heard his parents shouting at each other outside. They had returned.

"Well, what are you doing back here?" yelled the wife. "Where are those parents of yours?"

"I came back because I was afraid we had forgotten to put a lid on the pot. We don't want a cat dragging away our ginseng root, do we? What are you doing back here without your old ma-, uh, without your parents?"

"Oh, I came back to make sure the window was closed," answered the wife.

Just then their son appeared in the doorway with the ginseng boy.

"Let's go!" shouted Mogutou to his friend. "Run for your life!"

The two parents looked at each other, their mouths agape, but then the father recovered himself and grabbed a nearby piece of firewood for use as a club.

"Quickly! Stop them, you old fool!" he cried to his wife!

Mogutou and the ginseng boy then darted between the man and woman. The father swung the piece of wood but narrowly missed the ginseng boy. Instead he ended up hitting his own wife, who fell backwards with a huge bump on her head.

"Oh! You're a dead man!" she cried, sitting upon the ground, rubbing her poor throbbing head. "Wait till I get my hands on your skinny neck!"

"You-you d-dumb egg!" the husband argued back. "Why didn't you g-get out of the way? Who told you to put your stupid head so close to the club?"

The husband and wife stood outside, screaming at each other. And what of little Mogutou and his friend, the ginseng boy? They both ran into the forest and were never seen again.

(from The Wonderful Treasure Horse)


Wu, p. 368-370

The ginseng is a root widely prized for its properties as a medicine and as a tonic. Andrew Kimmens writes that tales of ginseng roots personified as human beings occur in Jilin province (Kimmens 1-2). Kimmens also retells "The Ginseng Treasures," a variant tale in which an evil uncle tries to force his nephew into capturing a ginseng root in the form of a girl (11-18). Motif: D431.6, "Plant transformed to a person."

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