There once were an old farm couple who had never had been blessed with any children. Though happy with each other, they were very lonely, not having the laughter and shouting of children to brighten up their days.
Now this old man had a farm field into which he put a lot of effort and, despite all his hard work, was only able to grow a rather large winter melon one particular season.
He lugged the winter melon back home.
"What's this?" asked his wife. "One winter melon? Are you joking?"
"This is our harvest! This is the yield this year! And on this we'll need to get by!" he answered.
Just then, the old couple were ready to fall over in a faint, for the winter melon started speaking to them!
"Don't worry! Make me your son and you can 'get by' on me!" it said.
"You are a winter melon!" the old people cried. "How can you be our son?"
"And why not? You planted me, and that makes me your son! Just call me Winter Melon Boy."
And so it was . . . Winter Melon Boy quickly grew from a melon into a strapping young man who single-handedly took over all the planting, hoeing, watering and harvesting on the small farm. From that day on, the old couple never had to fear starvation ever again; day and night they, thanks to their son Winter Melon Boy, had plenty to eat.
They had three good years, the two old folks and Winter Melon Boy, and then war came . . .
It was a war that touched every corner of the empire, turning everything upside down, destroying much, leaving crying fathers and mothers behind to watch as their young sons were dragged away.
The emperor sent, along with all the soldiers and generals, a mandarin to choose young men for the army. This mandarin arrived at the doorway of the old couple's home and insisted that Winter Melon Boy become a soldier of the emperor.
"Please, sir," the old father begged the mandarin, "don't take our son away from us!" Then he thought of something. "He's not even a real boy! He's just a winter melon!"
"I don't care if he's a winter melon or a pumpkin!" said the mandarin. "He's going right into the lineup of all those other young men you see over there, straight to the camp to learn to be a
soldier! If you don't like it, there's only one thing you can do."
"What, sir? Please tell me."
The mandarin's eyes danced as he smiled. "Cough up some money."
"How . . . How much?"
"Enough to pave the road from the door of your cottage all the way to the gates of the emperor's palace with gold. That's how much!"
The old man fell against the threshold of his doorway; his wife had to come to support him.
"Why," said the old man, "I've never even seen a gold coin, let alone possess one!"
The mandarin smiled. "Then, old man, you have your work cut out for you. Until then, your son needs to come along and . . . "
The mandarin's words were interrupted by Winter Melon Boy, who had climbed out a side window to confront the man who wanted to take him away from his mother and father.
"I can come up with all that gold!"
"Oh, is that so?" asked the mandarin, smiling and shaking his head. "All right. I'll tell you what. I'll be generous. I'll give you two full days to come up with the gold. After two days, if you haven't paved the road from here to the palace with gold coins, I'm coming back for you, and I won't be in such a pleasant mood!"
"That's fine," replied Winter Melon Boy. "Two days' time is all I need."
"Very well, boy. Just make sure I can walk on gold nuggets or coins all the way to His Imperial Majesty's palace gate, or it won't go well for you and your parents!"
The mandarin left, driving a chained line of young men to the camp for training.
As soon as the mandarin had left, the old father and mother turned to Winter Melon Boy.
"How are you going to come up with all that gold?" they asked. "We're in a fix now! You heard him! If you don't produce that gold, we're all in for it!"
"Don't worry," Winter Melon Boy said. "I can come up with the gold. Trust me."
"And how will you gather up so much gold in such a short time?" his father asked.
"Here's what you and Mother have to do. Quickly find a three-legged female dog, one red fish, and one white fish."
"What?!" the old people cried.
"Where on earth are we going to find such odd things?" his mother asked.
"In an odd world," replied Winter Melon Boy, "you shall find odd things. One of you search by the riverbanks, while the other go up to the mountains."
Well, the mother and father went off on their separate quests. That very evening, they both returned, one with a three-legged female dog and the other, with one red fish and one white fish.
Winter Melon Boy immediately went to work. He fried up the two fishes and fed them to the three-legged dog. He then went to a bamboo tree and sliced off a thin but sturdy section.
"Now what?" asked the father.
"This is what you do," said Winter Melon Boy. "Tomorrow you and the dog set out on the road to the palace. As soon as you close our front door, start to whip the dog with the bamboo switch. Do so every so often. You shall then walk on gold all the way to the gates of the palace."
And that's what the father did. As soon as he and the dog left the hut, he began to whip the dog's backside. Each time the dog was whipped, it would stop and relieve itself. The old man looked. What he saw drop onto the road was not dog dirt; no, it was a small nugget of gold, one at a time!
So the old man continued to the palace gates with the dog, whipping it every so often so that by the time he and the dog had arrived at the gates, a road of gold nuggets stretched all the way back to the old man's hut!
The emperor had received word that an old man and a dog had practically paved an entire road of gold to the gates of the palace. He came out to look for himself.
"You and your dog accomplished this? Is that true?" asked the emperor.
"Yes, Your Highness. Your mandarin who was in my village gathering young men up for your army told me that if I paved a path of gold from my humble home to your palace you would exempt my son from the army."
"I see . . . I hereby declare your son to be so exempt!" Then, turning to his guards, the emperor barked an order. "I want every bit of gold picked up, collected and taken to my storehouse! Do so immediately!"
"Immediately, Your Highness!" the guards replied in unison. And so thousands of men with huge sacks picked up each piece of gold and put in their sacks. They then brought all the sacks to keep in the emperor's storehouse.
The old man, his spirits much lightened, returned home with the dog to tell his wife and son the good news--Winter Melon Boy would not have to go off to fight the emperor's war! The three returned to their farming and lived in happiness and peace.
A few years later, a horrible stench wafted through the whole imperial palace. No one could escape smelling this odor; all who did felt like gagging and heaving, and many did the latter. The emperor ordered all guards and imperial chamberlains to scour the palace to locate the source of the smell. One man finally did trace the odor--to the emperor's storehouse. The emperor, his face covered, hesitantly approached his storehouse, unlocked the doors and threw them open. Inside, all the sacks were still there. However, what had once been the sacks of gold, were now sacks of . . . nothing . . . but . . . coiled . . . stinky . . . fly-covered . . . dog dirt.
The emperor was beside himself with rage. He ordered all available men to search for the Winter Melon Boy and his parents. The emperor's men scoured the countryside, mountains and forest, but no trace of the three was ever found.
(1) Li Yingqiu, ed. Miaozu minjian gushi (Hmong folktales). pp. 311-315; (2) Jia Zhi & Sun Jianbing, eds. Zhongguo minjian gushixuan (A selection of Chinese folktales). Volume I. pp. 318-320.
The story is reminiscent of motif F743.5, the Japanese "Momotaro," the boy who sprang out from a peach. (The Japanese have a number of versions, including "Konbitaro," the boy made from bodily dirt! See Ancient Tales in Modern Japan: An Anthology of Japanese Folk Tales, edited by Fanny Hagin Mayer. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1984, pp. 3-6). The title of the version collected by Jia & Sun translates as "Eastern Melon Boy," with "eastern" and "winter" both having the pronunciation of "dong1." Motifs: B101.1.3, "Dog with droppings of gold"; D1716.2, "The magic power of the lame."