Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Carp Maiden (Guangdong)

Years ago, in the port of Jiazi, Lufeng, the province of Guangdong, there lived a kindly, hard-working fisherman, a widower, who lived alone with his seventeen year old daughter. She was a very clever, filial girl who brought much joy to her father and helped him by fishing with him, side-by-side. The fisherman loved his daughter so much, and she loved him equally as well.

All would have been well in this neighborhood of close knit fishing families if it hadn't been for the local feudal ruler, the overlord, who stopped at nothing to squeeze every coin he could out of those who lived in his territory much like the way a meat eater sucks the last drop of marrow from a bone. Never one to forgo the smallest debt, he had the bereaved fisherman continue to pay compounded interest on a small loan stemming from the year the fisherman had lost his wife. Regularly did the fisherman pay both installments on the principal as well as high interest, but no matter how much he paid, he still owed the overlord a debt. With every payment given to the landlord, the fisherman felt he was right back where he had started.

Now, on a morning when the storm clouds were overhead and the sea was slowly becoming angry, the overlord was around again, but this time he was asking for something other than money.

"You know that you still owe me a lot," said the overlord, "and I'm tired of receiving pittances from you every month. I want the balance . . ."

"The balance? Surely you don't mean . . . How could I possibly . . . ?"

"Let me finish. I want the balance in three days. Find some way--any way--to repay me the balance in three days' time, or else I'll take your daughter as payment." The overlord turned and looked at the billowing waves. He then turned back to the fisherman. "You owe me a great deal of money. I suggest you don't tarry here on land but get out there and catch some fish! See if you can bring in a catch as great as three days' worth of fishing. Ha, ha! Now that would repay the debt quite well."

"Catch fish, with the sea the way it is, with a storm coming?"

"I don't know, old man. Maybe you'll be lucky today . . . "

The overlord left. The speechless old fisherman watched him leave. Holding back his tears, he prepared his fishing gear and left with his daughter for the sea, on this day of all days, when only the foolhardy ventured out on the water.

While on the rolling ocean, he spiritlessly went about his fishing chores. His daughter noticed something was not right and asked him about it.

He broke down and told her the local ruler's demand.

"To return to shore or to stay here--both mean death!" he cried.

No sooner had he finished his anguished cry than the wind stopped blowing and the waves ceased roiling. From out of the sea shot a brilliant ruby-red shaft of light. From out of this light, something appeared and was heading towards them. A golden carp was swimming their way. It stopped swimming and turned into a beautiful maiden who then walked right up to the old fisherman and his daughter in their boat.

"Do not worry. I will help you," she said.

"But . . . But how?" asked the astonished fisherman.

"Just spread your net once more. I'll take care of the rest," she replied.

The carp maiden then drove huge schools of fish right into the net. The net that day was bursting with fish!

"I hope this helps. Come back again tomorrow for more fish," said the carp maiden. She returned to her carp form and slid beneath the waves.

The next morning, bright and early, the fisherman and his daughter were out on the sea, their net unfurled. Once again the carp maiden appeared and drove an even bigger school of fish into their net.

The fisherman and his daughter returned to port. After selling their two days' bounties of fish, they had enough money to pay well over half the debt owed to the overlord. Now all he needed would be one more day of the carp maiden's help, and then he'd be able to repay the overlord in full with plenty of profit left over!

When asked by the fishmonger how just he and his daughter could bring in so many fish while other fishermen were finding it nearly impossible to catch one-third that number, the old fisherman told how the carp maiden appeared at sea and drove the fish into the net.

Well, that was a mistake! The fishmonger told a customer and the customer told his friend and his friend told someone else . . . Before the day was over, the overlord had heard the news, and he was not happy. He didn't want the fisherman to be able to repay his debt; he really wanted instead to keep the man's daughter!

Early the next morning, the overlord released his falcon with the order to find the carp maiden and to stop her from helping the fisherman and his daughter.

The keen-eyed falcon spotted the golden carp. It swooped down right over the golden carp and said, "If you are planning to help the fisherman and his daughter catch more fish today, you'd better not. If you do, my razor-sharp beak will rip you to shreds! Farewell for now . . . You've been warned . . ."

The golden carp--the carp maiden--was both deeply angered and afraid. She sank below the sea.

Soon the fisherman and his daughter arrived in their fishing boat. They sailed up and down, looking for the carp maiden, but she was nowhere to be found. They waited and waited for her, but she didn't appear.

"Carp Maiden, Carp Maiden, come to us, please!" they cried.

After no response, the pair became very nervous. This was the third day, the day they had expected to bring in the final big catch of fish. What if the carp maiden didn't appear? How would the fisherman be able to pay off the overlord and to stop him from taking his daughter away?

"Carp Maiden, where are you?"

"I'm over here!"

The fisherman and his daughter turned and looked. The telltale red shaft of light appeared, and then, from out of that light, came a large golden carp, which then turned into the beautiful maiden.

"This may be the last time I can help you," she said. "I've been threatened by your overlord with death if I help you one more time. Anyway, I am here, so let's get to work. Get your net ready for the fish I send your way."

She submerged herself. Shortly after a huge school of fish entered the fisherman's web.

Her work done, she came to the surface as the golden carp and was swimming out to the middle of the ocean when suddenly, from seemingly out of nowhere, the overlord's falcon swooped down from the sky and ripped into her with his talons and beak. The falcon had witnessed the carp maiden help the fisherman and his daughter. All along, this evil bird had been lying atop a rock jutting out of the ocean, flattening his body against the rock to appear to be part of it.

The fisherman and his daughter watched from afar, powerless to stop the falcon.

They returned to port with heavy hearts. They sold the final catch of fish, and now the fisherman had enough to pay back the local master. But at what a price--the loss of the carp maiden who had valiantly helped them, even though she knew very well doing so would likely cost her her life.

So the local ruler was handed all the money that was owed to him. What could he do? What excuse could he come up with now to keep the girl? The fisherman had now presented the remainder of the debt with interest. The overlord frowned and took the money. The fisherman had saved his beloved daughter from a life of misery and slavery.

The father and daughter had not forgotten the sacrifice of the carp maiden. Not far from the shore, among the ocean outcrops that included the one the falcon had hidden itself on and nearby the spot where the carp maiden had lost her life, was a particular rock that very much looked like a large shimmering golden carp. In fact it even had a surface that resembled fish scales. The fisherman and his daughter decided that by this rock they would forever more memorialize the carp maiden by lighting incense and praying for her spirit.

The overlord's sleepless eye, the falcon, saw this and reported back to the overlord.

"The carp maiden's back!" he said.

The overlord was incensed. He wanted to destroy the carp maiden once and for all. He commandeered a small vessel and, followed by his trusty falcon, went over to this rock. He leaned over closely to the rock and took out a large hammer.

"Nice disguise," he said. "Let's see how much of a rock you really are!"

He then brought down the hammer upon the surface of the rock with all his might. The top of the rock shattered, and the "scales" turned into deadly arrow-like shards. One pierced and then split the overlord's head like a melon, while another "scale" drilled a nice-sized hole right through the falcon. Both falcon and master pitched forward into the deep sea.

What's left of what later became known as "Carp Maiden Rock" can still be seen jutting from the ocean today.


from Jia Zhi & Jian Sunbing, eds.
Zhongguo minjian gushixuan, pp. 183-185

It would be difficult to overstate the prominence of the carp in Chinese iconography. Determination, bravery, doggedness, prowess, manliness, perseverance--all these are qualities that have come to be associated with the carp. (To the above list, the Japanese would add "stoicism." The carp, once finally caught and placed upon the cutting board, supposedly no longer resists, suggesting to the rest of us the proper to die, by being dispassionate and manly.) The carp's ability to swim up rapids endeared it to generations of students who sought inspiration to pass their examinations.

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