Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Waif of White Water -- Possibly the Oldest Recorded Han Chinese Folktale

During the reign of Emperor An of the Jin Dynasty (396-419 A.D.), there lived an official named Xie Duan. When he was very young, he became orphaned after both parents had died. He had no relatives whatsoever, so all the neighbors pitched in to raise him and to guide him.

By the time he reached the age of eighteen, he was a very fine young man, honest and respectful to all and without any vices.

It was at this time he decided to leave the village of his birth and venture farther out into the world. His neighbors had been very much concerned about him and wanted to see him married to a nice young woman. Some had even conspired to introduce him to eligible young women, but, for whatever reason, most likely the lack of money, he remained unwed. And so he left the village to seek his fortunes elsewhere.

He ended up in another village where he worked farm fields.

One day while in the city, he picked up in the market a large river snail, the shell of which was as big as a three-sheng kettle. He found this to be a very curious object, and so he took it home and placed it in a tub of water under his window.

Every day Xie Duan got up early to work and came back late from the fields. And now lately he would come home to discover the same thing: his dining table would be set with several nice hot dishes and a soup. It was as if somebody lived with him, a wife, perhaps! Yet, no one else would be in the house when he returned home.

After this had happened on several occasions, he went to a neighbor to thank her for her kindness and thoughtfulness.

"Why are you thanking me?" asked the astonished neighbor. "I've never entered your hut while you were gone!"

What could Xie Duan do? He still suspected his neighbor--if not this one, perhaps another--was practicing an act of kindness. He still thanked her and left.

Again, for the next several nights, the same thing occurred--a delicious hot dinner awaiting him every night after he came home from work.

He went back to the woman he had thanked earlier. The nice young man he was--he must have been very embarrassed!

This time the woman laughed and said something very mysterious. "Xie Duan, stop teasing me with all your thanks! You know you are married and keep a wife inside your home! You have a wife, so why would I need to sneak into your home to cook you dinner every night?"

Now Xie Duan was completely mystified. Fine. He thanked the woman once more and went home. Now, what to do? He had a plan . . .

The next morning, he got up early with the crowing of the roosters. But then, he quietly returned home very early. He crept up to the fence around his home and peered over it, looking directly at his window.

He saw something that made the hair stand on his head: a very young and pretty woman rose from the tub and lit the oven.

Xie Duan rushed into his hut, startling the young woman. He looked into the tub; the snail shell was gone.

"Miss," asked Xie Duan, "from where do you come, and why do you prepare a dinner for me nightly?"

The young woman was clearly nonplussed, probably as much as Xie Duan. She gazed longingly for the tub of water under the windowsill, as if she wished she could escape into the water inside that tub. However, she couldn't.

"I am from the river, the White Water. The God of Heaven took pity on you for having to live all alone while being such a polite, decent and modest person. So I have been sent here to you to cook for you. I was to stay here with you for ten years to take care of all your meals. Ten years from now, you will be prosperous enough to have a wife. I would then be able to leave you. You were not supposed to see me, but now you have come in and seen who I really am.

"So now I must leave. You have seen me in my true form, and because of that I cannot remain here. Take heart, though. Your life will be better in the years to come. Though I must leave, I shall leave behind the empty snail shell. You may dry it and use it as a grain container and as a keepsake.

"Farewell . . ."

"Please stay," Xie Duan said.

The girl just shook her head.

She then stepped outside the hut and vanished into the wind.

Xie Duan created for her a small shrine in his home, where on each holy day, he would pray and provide incense and offerings for her.

Throughout the years, he improved his standard of living and, in time, became affluent. He was then able to afford a very nice bride and was thus married. Later, Xie Duan became county magistrate of Changyun County.

Eventually the little shrine to the Waif of White Water became a temple consecrated to her!


from Lingyi: guaitan (The Occult: Chats on Strange Things), Xiao Zhiguai, ed. Beijing: Xin Shijie, 2006; pp. 29-30. Originally from Gan Bao's Soushen ji.

For another variant of this story ("The River Snail Shell Girl") and background discussion of this story's position as being perhaps the oldest Han Chinese folktale, see 3/19/08.

One sheng is approximately one liter.

Compared to "The River Snail Shell Girl," this story is relatively spare with specifics. The province in which "Changyun County" is located is unidentified. However, a Baishui ("White Water") River exists in Southeastern Fujian, the setting for "The Snail Shell Girl." As in many folktales, the hero unwittingly violates a taboo, causing him to lose something, in this case the services of the Waif, when he observes her activities in his home. (Motif: F302.6., "Fairy mistress leaves man when he breaks tabu.") However, in general, he is rewarded. (D855.5., "Magic reward for good deeds.")

The Taoist "God of Heaven" is not to be confused with the Judaeo-Christian God, though the same name
Shangdi is used by both Chinese Christians and Taoists for their respective deities. This Taoist god is actually one of the Three Emperors, legendary rulers later deified. He is often associated with the legendary emperor and culture hero, the sage Fuxi, the revealer of the Bagua (Pa-kua) and first instructor to show the people how to cook with fire and to catch fish with nets. The other two members of the threesome are the god-emperors Shennong and Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor. I cannot speak with authority about mainland China, but there are still temples dedicated to Fuxi on Taiwan today.

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