Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Snail-Shell Girl (Fujian)

Near Fuzhou City, in the Min River delta, there is a small island formerly populated by fishing and farming families. Now long ago on this same island there lived a young farmer who was all alone in the world, his parents having died years before. His name was Xie Duan, and everyone regarded him as a great hard-working, decent, and loyal neighbor and friend, perfect as a future husband--perfect, except he had no money and, hence, no wife. Now early one evening, on his way back from the rice paddy, he spied by the road, right next to the riverbank, a particularly beautiful tianluo shell, a river snail shell, ending in a long, coiled sharp point. He picked this shell up and took it home, to his hut, and put the shell, containing the still-living creature, into a vat of water. The very next night, upon entering his hut, he discovered his hut had been cleanly swept and that a very fine, still hot meal was awaiting him on his table! A repayment for something I did and forgot all about? he asked himself. Well, he asked his closest neighbors to make sure, for he believed in "thanking those who dig wells," as the ancients said, to thank those who have been kind. No, they all said, we didn't sweep your hut or cook your dinner. Puzzled, he returned home and ate the very fine dinner, a rare treat. He put it all out of his mind as he went to sleep that night. The very next night, the same thing happened--someone unknown to him had cleaned the hut and prepared a hot meal for him. Again, everyone who lived nearby denied the good deed. Now the next night after all this, he came back from the paddy especially early. He crept up to his window, knelt down so he could barely look in, watched and waited. For a while--nothing. But what did he soon see? An exquisite, unbelievably beautiful young lady emerge from the river snail shell in the vat. She proceeded to sweep the hut. Then, she started preparing his dinner. "Miss! Miss!" cried Xie Duan, now standing in his own doorway. "Who are you? And here you are cooking and cleaning for me!" Well, Xie Duan had burst in so quickly that the girl had no chance to hide, so she told him the truth, that she was the tianluo creature itself transformed into a young woman, here to help him out of compassion for his loneliness. "May I stay?" she asked.

The answer was yes, she could stay if she didn't mind a life of never having much. Not only did she stay but she also became Xie Duan's wife. They then lived as a very happy couple, admired and envied by all their neighbors and friends.

It didn't take long for the local mandarin to hear about the beautiful snail shell girl. The local mandarin and landlord summoned Xie Duan to his manor.

"You owe me grain," he said and made up an extravagant amount that Xie Duan was supposed to give him. "If you don't pay me in three days' time, I shall take your wife as payment."

What could Xie Duan do? He couldn't possibly pay a ransom that large on such short notice. He brooded about it for three days and refused to tell his wife, though she asked him more than once. On the third day, shortly before the mandarin's men came to take his wife away, he finally told her.

She laughed and said, "Don't worry. Do this. Collect every bird feather you can and fashion them into a suit. Three nights from now, when the moon is full, appear outside the mandarin's front gate wearing the suit. Don't forget now."

The mandarin's men arrived, stormed in and took the snail shell girl away.

Xie Duan immediately set to work. He spent the next couple of days shooting at and netting all the birds he came across. Sparrows, gulls, ducks, storks--no bird was too big or too small to escape his interest. He collected a huge sack of feathers and then began to sew them into a suit big enough for himself to wear . . .

The third night, the night of the full moon, came.

The snail shell girl had been locked in the mandarin's bedroom. She had refused to speak to him and to allow him so much as to touch her. This bothered him, hurt him, for he had expected the young woman to be joyful and playful with all the possessions he had promised her, but no, she was not interested. He could take all the "cold rice and cold tea," as they say, but not her cold looks. He was desperate to turn things around, to make her like him, even just a little bit.

That night, the snail shell girl stood by the window, looking out. The mandarin sat on a nearby chair, holding his hands, waiting and hoping for a sign.

Then, suddenly, the snail shell girl began to giggle . . . then laugh.

The mandarin sat up and then left his chair to join the young woman by the window.

"Why do you laugh?" he asked.

Still laughing, she pointed out the window. "Look! Out there! By the gate! A man dressed all in feathers!" Tears flowed from her eyes.

The mandarin looked. Yes, out there by the gate was some fool dressed in feathers.

The mandarin fled the bedroom and rushed out the front door towards the gate.

"Say, you there, the man in feathers!" he cried to the stranger in the ridiculous suit. This man, was of course, none other than Xie Duan.

"Quickly, take that suit off!" said the mandarin, not recognizing the snail shell girl's husband. Xie Duan began to take the suit off. "Oh, and here's something for your trouble," said the mandarin, tossing some coins into the dirt.

The mandarin disrobed and put on the suit of feathers. He then rushed away, leaving his silken mandarin robes on the ground and leaving the unclothed Xie Duan behind to pick up the coins.

The mandarin rushed back into his house. He burst into his bedroom, throwing the door open and shouting to the young woman inside, "Ha! Take a look at me!"

Instead of laughing and clapping, the snail shell girl screamed. "Help! Guards! Intruder! Help me!"

The guards rushed in and, not recognizing their master, proceeded to beat him to an unrecognizable pulp. And that was the end of him!

Xie Duan and the snail shell girl were reunited that very night. They resumed their lives, and within a year, the young wife gave birth to a child.

And then things changed again . . .

While the young wife and mother was out drying clothes one day, black clouds suddenly gathered over the island. She looked up. From out of the clouds boomed a voice: "Prepare to return to the Star River!"

Originally the snail shell girl had escaped from the heavenly realm of the Jade Emperor and hadn't had the permission to enter the world of mortals. Now, having married Xie Duan and given birth to a child, having defeated the wicked mandarin, she was being ordered to return to her home far up in the stars, the place we call the Milky Way.

Now, from out of the clouds, the Jade Emperor's guards and a general himself were coming down to take her back by force.

Her husband had come home from the field and saw his wife being dragged away. He grabbed hold of her hand but could not hold on. Thrashing and twisting and turning, the snail shell girl was dragged up by one hand into the sky. Preferring death to leaving her husband, she managed to let go of a guard's hand and plummeted down, down into the Min River.

After that, the island she had briefly lived on became known as Luozhou, "River Snail Shell Prefecture," and the spot she had fallen into, Luonu Jiang, "the River of the River Snail Shell Girl." It is also said that a shrine honoring the river snail shell girl was built on the land upon which Xie Duan's house once stood.


from (1) Fujian chuanshuo miyu (Legends and riddles of Fujian) by Zhi Nong. (Taipei: The Orient Cultural Service, 1956.) pp. 54-57; (2) Fujian minjian chuanqi (Folk legends of Fujian) by Huang Rongcan. (Hong Kong: Luotuo, 1978.) pp. 85-87.

A classic legend from Fujian, found in many, if not most folktale anthologies of tales from this province. Zhi's version differs in the retribution meted out to the mandarin/landlord, having the river snail shell girl to transport magically the landlord's grain to Xie Duan, who, in turn, dutifully hands it back over to the landlord. That, of course, doesn't stop the landlord from taking the young woman by force. The story ends with her sending a heavenly conflagration down upon the landlord and the corrupt official with whom he is in cahoots, burning both to ashes. Her magical abilities are not as emphasized in Huang's version. Folktale readers should recognize this tale as a variant of the widespread AT 465A,B "Man Persecuted Because of his Wife," a common tale type in Chinese folklore. The "Star River" is, of course, the Milky Way.

6/4/10 Update: the oldest recorded Chinese folktale

A reader recently asked me what the oldest Han Chinese folktale is. Research conducted by Tan Xiandao suggests this tale--"The Snail Shell Girl--and its local variants may be the oldest recorded Chinese folktale. The earliest version is "Baishui su'niu," "The Waif of White Water," found in Jin dynasty (A.D. 265-420) Gan Bao's Soushenhouji (A later collection of rounded-up tales of deities). See Tan Xiandao's Zhongguo minjian tonghua yanjiu (Research in Chinese folk/fairy tales), Hong Kong: Shangwu, 1981, p.12.

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