There was once an impoverished herdsman who had a son named Tanjin. One day he summoned his son forward.
"It's high time you left the yurt," he said, "and learned a skill. Go out into the world and seek someone who can teach you something."
And so Tanjin left his father's tent. He was gone for four years. Upon his return, his father asked him, "And what skill have you learned? Perhaps you have mastered a trade! Tell me, son."
"Father," replied Tanjin, "I have learned to play the fiddle."
"The fiddle? The fiddle?" asked his father, snorting. "Why, young men your age know how to forge iron and rein horses, but you only know how to play the fiddle? What use is that?"
Tanjin thought carefully and answered, "Whoever listens to my fiddle playing shall feel relaxed and joyful."
"Fiddle playing is useless!" said his father. "Now get out and learn a proper trade!"
Once again Tanjin left his home. He wandered until he reached a great sea. He sat down on some rocks before the surf, sighed and took out his fiddle. He played a tune, and before long, a young woman rose out of the sea just a few feet in front of him. She was dressed in a rich white gown that shimmered like the very sea itself.
"I have been sent by my father to fetch you," she said. "My father loves the music you play on your fiddle."
Tanjin was completely charmed by this beautiful woman and unable to speak.
"I am the daughter of the Dragon King of the Sea," she said. "Please hurry. My father doesn't like to be kept waiting!"
The Princess took one of Tanjin's hands and told him to close his eyes. She then led him down the sea into her father's kingdom.
"Now open your eyes!" a deep voice thundered.
Tanjin opened his eyes and saw that he was in a magnificent crystal palace. In the center of the palace and seated on a green carpet was the King himself. Outside the palace were all the creatures of the sea.
The Princess led Tanjin up to her father and presented the young fiddler to him.
"Young man," said the King, "I enjoy your music immensely. Just go and play what you will."
Tanjin took up his fiddle and played a tune. Everyone present listened to Tanjin's music in rapture. One day turned into two, and two into three. Tanjin kept on playing.
Finally, the King exclaimed, "I could listen to this for one hundred years! Tanjin, you shall play for me for the rest of your life. I will give you your own palace and a mountain of jewels."
"Please let me go home," implored Tanjin. "I want neither a palace nor a mountain of jewels. I want to return to the land of my birth."
The king roared back, "No, I shall not let you go! You are going to play just for me!"
"No, please, Your Majesty!" cried Tanjin. "I must return to my home, to my own father!"
The King then laughed and said, "Look around you, young man. Who here could you lead you back? No one here would dare! I advise you to forget your father, your home, your land, your world. You are here now, and this is your new home. Furthermore, you shall play for me until the day you die. Now, good evening!"
With that, the King rose and departed. Tanjin was escorted to a chamber, and there, all alone, he played a mournful tune.
"Don't be sad! I'll help you," a voice whispered.
Tanjin looked up and saw the Princess herself standing before him.
"Close your eyes and take my hand. No matter what you do, don't open your eyes or let go. Now, be silent, and I shall lead you back to the surface."
So Tanjin went with the Princess, and when he was allowed to open his eyes again, he was already on the beach.
"You are free to go, Tanjin," said the Princess as she covered her eyes and sobbed.
"Why do you weep?" asked Tanjin.
The Princess replied, "I can't bear to part with you. I enjoy your music, and I want to listen to it everyday for as long as I live."
"Then stay with me and be my bride and live in my yurt," said Tanjin.
And they shortly afterwards became husband and wife. They traveled a day's journey from the sea to a great plain and settled among a field of yurts, finding a choice spot beside a well. Here they spent many happy days. They made their living through Tanjin's fiddle playing. Tanjin's melodies brightened the lives of all who lived nearby and comforted those who had had misfortunes. Whoever listened to Tanjin's music felt the need for very little else.
Now it so happened that the Great Khan and his troops were touring the plains. The Khan decided to go hunting, and while out in the field, he killed two quail.
"Take the quail over to one of those nearby yurts and have someone roast them for me," he told a retainer.
This retainer took the two birds to Tanjin's yurt and asked Tanjin's wife, the Princess, to place them on her fire. She agreed and placed them atop the stove and then attended to other things. The nobleman stared at Tanjin's wife and was overcome by her rare beauty. In fact, he let the quail burn to ashes because he could not take his eyes off the woman.
Seeing the pile of ashes, he threw his hands into the air and cried, "I'm finished!"
"Don't worry!" said the Princess. "We have two quail of our own. I will roast them for you, and you can take them to the Khan. He won't be any the wiser."
The Princess produced the two quail and roasted them. She then handed them to the grateful retainer. He thanked her and returned to the Khan's camp.
The retainer then presented the two quail to the Khan, who ate them but was somehow unable to finish them, though they were quite delicious. He then gave the leftovers to one thousand of his horsemen, who then gorged themselves all day on the flesh of these two small birds, and they as well were unable to finish their meal. The Khan knew something was not quite right. He summoned the retainer.
"How is it that neither I nor one thousand cavalrymen have been able to finish eating my two quail?" asked the Khan.
The noble retainer, his knees knocking together from fright, told the Khan the truth and about Tanjin's beautiful wife.
"Bring her husband to me," ordered the Khan.
The retainer then returned to Tanjin's yurt and told Tanjin that the Khan was waiting for him.
The Princess quickly ran up to Tanjin and whispered in her husband's ear: "The Khan will order you to give me up and to allow me to become his wife. Here's what you must do. Tell him he may not have me if he cannot locate you within the yurt on two occasions. And if he cannot locate you, he is to present to you one thousand fine horses."
Tanjin then went to the Khan's encampment and appeared before the Great Khan himself.
"Who are you?" growled the Khan.
"I am Tanjin, the husband of the woman you seek."
"Bring your wife to me. She shall live with me as my wife."
"Very well," replied Tanjin, "but you may have her on one condition. You must try to locate me twice within my yurt. If you do, she is gladly yours. If you are unable, you are to give me one thousand fine horses!"
"Why, you--!" The Khan then stopped and smiled. How hard could it be to find someone hiding in a yurt, of all places? And then, the beautiful woman would gladly go! "Very well. I agree. I shall be at your yurt shortly, so go quickly and hide!" he said.
Tanjin rushed back to his yurt. "The Khan's on his way!" he blurted. "Now what am I do do?"
The Princess motioned with her right hand, uttered a spell, and Tanjin was then transformed into a stick. She then poured some grain into a mortar and started stirring with the stick as the Khan barged in. He ransacked the yurt looking for Tanjin but could find neither head nor tail of him.
Finally he said, "All right, Tanjin, very good. I can't find you. Now listen: you are to try to find me. If you are unable to, I am the winner!" He then departed.
The Princess restored Tanjin to his human form. She said, "The Khan knows something about spells too. He'll change himself into something out of the ordinary, so look about carefully!"
Tanjin went outside and searched all over for the Khan. He saw a small tree beside the well and smiled to himself.
"Ho! What's this scrawny thing doing here? I'll chop it down for a whip handle!" he said.
"No! Don't chop me! Don't chop me! I am the Khan!" cried the tree, which then turned back into the Khan.
"I have won. Now let me have my thousand horses," said Tanjin.
"Not so fast, boy," said the Khan. "I still want one more chance to locate you within your yurt. Now get in there!"
Tanjin rushed back into his yurt, whereupon his wife turned him into a fly. When the Khan re-entered, Tanjin flew to the Khan's fur cap and nestled himself there. Once again, the Khan practically turned the yurt upside down looking for the Khan.
"All right! I cannot find you. Now, you must try to find me at the lake at sundown. If you can't, I am the winner," said the Khan, and he left the yurt.
Tanjin turned to his wife, who said, "At dusk, one hundred white sheep and black goat will be at the lake. The black goat will be the Khan."
Tanjin went down to the lake at dusk and located the black goat among the one hundred white sheep. He grabbed the goat by the horns and said, "I'm going to use your hide to make myself a nice pair of boots!"
"Let me go! Let me go!" cried the goat. "I am the Khan!" The goat then changed back into the Khan.
"Now please let me have my one thousand horses!" said Tanjin.
"No," replied the Khan, "not quite yet. We shall have a horse race here by the lake. Whoever has a horse that can run three days' distance in three hours shall be the winner. You've got twenty four hours. Now go and prepare a horse!"
Tanjin returned to his wife. "The Khan has one thousand fleet-footed horses to choose from," he said, "and we don't even have one. What shall I do now?"
"Let me go back to the sea, and then perhaps I can think clearly about what to do," said the Princess.
They returned traveled all day to return to the rocky shore where they had first met. As he had done before, Tanjin sat down on a rock and played a tune on his fiddle. The sea groaned and bubbled. From out of the foam popped the head of the Dragon King of the East Sea.
"Father! Give us a thousand-li horse!" implored the Princess.
"I shall give you a thousand-li horse," he said, "but first tell your husband to play the fiddle until the sun goes down!"
Tanjin played until dusk, and then from out of the sea came an eight-legged horse which then came to a halt beside Tanjin and the Princess. They rode the horse back to their yurt but were jostled all the way as the horse kept tripping over its own legs.
"How will this horse ever beat one of the Khan's stallions?" asked Tanjin. "An eight-legged horse! It can barely walk."
"Just manage to ride the horse to the lake and await the Khan tomorrow morning," the Princess replied.
The next morning Tanjin rode his horse over to the lake. Shortly afterwards the plain resonated from the hooves of the Khan's champion horse, a magnificent black stallion. Behind him were a thousand cavalrymen mounted on their own beautiful horses.
"Hmm...I think you would have been better off riding an old cow rather than this overgrown spider!" roared the Khan with laughter. His thousand men laughed in quick response. "Ride first, Tanjin!" he snickered. "If I'm lucky, I'll catch up!"
"No, Your Highness, you go first!" shouted Tanjin. "Don't worry about me, for I plan to catch up with you!"
The Khan then whipped his horse and galloped off, leaving behind a trail of dust. When the Khan was out of sight, Tanjin gave his horse a giddy-up and took off like a bolt of lightning. His thousand-li horse sliced through the air, mist and dust. Tanjin and his horse went all the way to the edge of the plain, near where the seashore begins, and back again to the lake. The Khan returned to the lake at noon, hours later.
"Now, Your Highness, may I please have my one thousand horses?" Tanjin asked the scarlet-faced Khan.
"No! When you make this lake boil and bubble, then and only then will I yield to you. If you are unable to do so by tomorrow, you must say goodbye to your wife," the Khan replied.
Tanjin returned to his yurt and told his wife all about the Khan's latest challenge.
She said, "Well, then, let us return again to the seashore."
So once again, they returned to the same rocky spot by the sea, and the Princess called upon her father, the Dragon King of the East Sea. As expected, the water once again bubbled and roiled and out popped the head of the King himself.
"Father! You are master over every ocean, sea, river, lake, and stream! Please help us once more!" the Princess pleaded.
"I'll grant your request if Tanjin plays for me," the King said.
Tanjin once again played his fiddle for the Dragon King of the Sea until sundown.
Once he had finished, the Princess said, "Now, Father, please enable my husband to boil a lake and allow him to enter the lake without being scalded!"
"Here are two pebbles," the King said. "Take them. When you get to the lake, Tanjin, toss in the white pebble. It will make the lake boil like water in a kettle. Place the black stone in your mouth under your tongue. As long as that black stone remains in place, you may enter the boiling lake without any harm whatsoever."
The next morning Tanjin met the Khan by the lake, which was surrounded by the mounted men of the Khan's cavalry.
"Now, Tanjin," said the Khan, "let's see you make this lake boil!"
With the black pebble already in his mouth, Tanjin tossed the white pebble into the water, which then shortly began to boil violently.
"Jump in, Tanjin, and I'll give you your one thousand horses right away!" said the Khan. "My men shall be my witnesses to my word!"
Tanjin shrugged his shoulders and jumped right in. He swam several laps and then floated contentedly on his back.
Tanjin smiled and motioned for the Khan to jump in and join him.
The Khan's mustache bristled. That upstart dog, he thought. How dare he... He also considered how dangerous it might be if he, the Khan, did not display some royal backbone in front of his men. Soldiers, after all, had been known to mutiny against much less than a timid khan challenged by a peasant boy.
"Men!" shouted the Khan. "Dismount your horses, strip off your armor, and jump in the lake after I do!"
The Khan then dove in and was followed by each one of his thousand men. The Khan and every single man except Tanjin had his flesh cooked right off his bones. Only Tanjin reached the shore alive.
Tanjin counted the Khan's horses. Not including the Khan's fine black stallion, Tanjin counted exactly one thousand horses. He mounted the black stallion and led the other horses back to the yurt.
From that day on, Tanjin and his wife led very pleasant lives; no one ever plagued them again, and Tanjin spent all his days playing fiddle for the one he loved.
(from The Wonderful Treasure Horse)
Mengu minjian gushixuan, p. 46-55.
A popular worldwide collection of tales involves a mortal man who marries a supernatural wife. He then must resort to strategem, with her help, to keep her or lose after violating a taboo. Similar tales are the Southeastern Han Chinese "The Snail Shell Woman," the Northern Han Chinese "The Lady in the Painting," the Manchu "Wild Goose Island," and the Japanese "Yuki Onna" (Hearn 49-53). The Dragon King of the Eastern Sea is a dragon deity associated with Buddhism and perhaps derived from the Hindu Nagas, which were originally serpents. The cults of sea dragons gained importance during the Tang and Song dynasties. By the Song dynasty, the dragon had already become the symbol of the Chinese emperor (Song 27-28; Frederic 276-279). Variant of AT 592A*, "The Musician and the Dragon King, and AT 592A*1, "The Magic Object that Dries (Boils) the Sea." Motif: D184.1.3, "Magic horse from the water world"; D615.1, "Transformation contest between magicians"; D812.7, "Magic object received from dragon king."