Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Watching, Waiting, Yearning Cloud (Bai)

This story happened ages ago, when the Nanzhao dynasty was in charge of Dali, in what is now Yunnan Province.

There once was a young woodcutter in those parts. He was not only a woodcutter but a skilled magician as well. He could turn himself into different small creatures, such as a tiny mouse or a bird. He could also transform himself into a very handsome gentleman. Here is what he did: he turned himself into a mouse and, slowly and steadily, pecked a hole, made a tunnel and thus dug his way into the king's palace. Once there, he transformed himself into a splendidly handsome man and introduced himself to the king's lonely, reclusive but very lovely daughter. Before long, they fell in love with each other and couldn't bear to part.

They wished to marry each other but how? One was a princess; the other, a humble woodcutter, albeit a skilled magician but a woodcutter nonetheless.

Such a marriage didn't happen, couldn't happen, there or anywhere else in those days. The princess knew if her father should ever find out she was in love with a woodcutter that would be the end of him and, probably, her too.

"We will never be together in this life," said the princess.

"No! Never say that!" said the woodcutter. "Don't worry. I have a plan to take you out of the palace."

He had the princess climb onto his back. He then stepped to the windowsill, opened the window and stepped out into the air. He flew upwards with the princess on his back, skipping across the sky to the most remote part of Cang Mountain, where no one lived, to a cave on the side of a cliff.

When the king discovered his daughter missing, he was beside himself with worry. He had all available soldiers search the mountains and forests for her, but not a trace of her was found.

Meanwhile, the princess and the woodcutter were trying to make the best of it living in the empty cave. A cave is no substitute for the warm quarters of a princess, and so no matter how much wood the woodcutter chopped to build a fireplace, the princess found she couldn't keep warm. Before they had been in the cave very long, she had already become ill. She sat in the cave, with a smoky fire roaring day and night, coughing and shivering; her hands, icy to the touch.

The woodcutter looked at the princess with sadness; his magic was of no use here. He had to act quickly.

"If only I could get you clothing that could keep you warm!" he said to her.

"There is such clothing. My father has a robe, the Robe of Jewels, that will keep anyone warm no matter how cold it is inside or out."

"Tell me where it is! I will return to the palace and get it for you!"

"It is hidden in a cabinet in the room of his favorite wife," she said, and then she told him where this room was in the palace.

The woodcutter turned himself into a blackbird and flew back to the palace. He found an open window, flew in, and, when no one was about, turned himself back into a man. He dodged guards and hid from servants before finally finding the room of the king's favorite wife. Luckily, no one was there. The Robe of Jewels was in the cabinet the princess had mentioned. The woodcutter grabbed the robe, turned back into a bird, and, with the robe in his beak, flew back to the princess.

A guard saw the bird flying away with a robe in its beak. He told the commandant of the guards, who then told the King, who was sitting in his throne room. Next to the king was Lo Quan, a fearsome and formidable sorcerer and monk who now worked for the king.

"Check upstairs in the room where you keep the Robe of Jewels, Your Majesty," said Lo Quan.

The king and some of his men rushed upstairs to his favorite wife's quarters. Sure enough, the cabinet drawer that kept the Robe of Jewels was open and the robe itself was missing.

The king returned to his throne room, ashen faced, livid.

"I have something to show you, Your Majesty," said Lo Quan, handing the king a cup of water. "Please look in, if you would."

The king looked into the cup; he could clearly see the image of a blackbird flying with the Robe of Jewels in its beak. He handed the cup back to Lo Quan.

"That is no bird. That is a man who can transform himself into a bird and no doubt other creatures," said Lo Quan. "I think, Your Majesty, you and I now both know what happened to the princess. This bird-man abducted her. I will be more than happy to handle this matter. Do you wish him dead or alive? Captured alive, he might lead us to the princess."

The king lowered his head and thought for a moment. He then looked up and said, "I want him dead. Someone like that is much too dangerous to be left alive."

"Very well. I shall take care of it this very moment," said Lo Quan. He took the cup of water that still showed the image of a blackbird in flight with a robe in its beak. He pointed at the image with his forefinger. Immediately the blackbird turned into a stone donkey and dropped from the sky, crashing down into the waters of Lake Erhai, never to stir again.

The princess continued to wait for the woodcutter who would never be coming back. She waited everyday and all through the night. If he doesn't come in the daytime, she told herself, he'll surely be here by night! If not today, it will be tomorrow! She told herself such things over and over as her body became colder and colder and as a raging fever finally took complete control.

Just a few days later, she died alone in the cave.

In life she had watched and waited, watched and waited. Her spirit now turned into a cloud.

In time, this cloud was supposed to form over Lake Erhai sometime during the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. Then, from the depths of the lake would emerge a stone donkey, bellowing, ruffling the smooth waters of the lake. Upon seeing the cloud floating above, the stone donkey would cry no more and sink back down to from where it had come.

When this Cloud of Yearning is out over the lake, local people never take their boats out to fish or to ferry passengers. They believe that it is a dangerous time and fear their boats will capsize. The lake is left alone for the two lovers who still cannot be together.


from volume two of Zhongguo minjian gushixuan (A selection of Chinese folktales), Jia Zhi & Sun Jianbing, eds., pp. 361-363.

For me, this story represents something new: my first published translation of a folktale from outside Han Southeast China and Taiwan and the region of those who speak Altaic-Tungusic languages. The story comes from the Bai minority of Yunnan, who are primarily Buddhist but who have also preserved some animist beliefs.

I had to make some modifications to the story in order to flesh it out. Like many Chinese-language folktales, it comes in a very terse, telegram-like form with interesting sections left unexplained. For example, the original never explains who first witnessed the woodcutter's flight from the palace with the king's robe. According to the story, Lo Quan, a Han Chinese-sounding name, is not only a sorcerer but also a Buddhist monk. I hesitated about keeping his identity as a monk, believing that the collectors of this particular story might have been demonstrating some anti-religious prejudice that was current in the immediate post-Cultural Revolution period, when this story was published. However, later research indicated that this is a very old story and previous collections also identify Lo Quan as a monk (Yuan Ke, et al., Zhongguo shenhua chuanshuo cidian, 367). We can bear in mind this story, like the Manchu "Nudan the Shaman" (posted 1/20/08), might represent the inevitable struggle between two competing religious systems--the Indo-Chinese Buddhism and the native Bai animism/shamanism that occurred when a larger, more powerful culture imposed itself on the other and not be merely crude anti-religious propaganda. Thus, this story might well be an historical artifact. In Zhongguo minjian wenyi cidian, Guan Yanru et al. also see this story as a wistful longing for the now vanished open and relaxed courtship and marriage standards of a minority people (415).

A much less tragic story with a similar theme--the creation of a natural phenomenon stemming from the separation of star-crossed lovers, "The Cowherd and the Weaving Maid," can be found in the posting from 6/23/07, "Two Taiwanese Opera Stories." The story also bears some similarity to a somber story about a woman who, while waiting and longing for her husband to return, a husband who would never return, was transformed to a rock: "The Legend of Wangfu Rock," posted on 6/22/07. Both this story and the Bai story have the Chinese phrase wangfu ("watching [and waiting] for the husband") in their respective titles.

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