Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Bride of Sir Gentleman Snake -- Part Two (Hmong)

You can believe that Ah Yi was not too pleased with the prospect of having to lug her future husband in a basket into the house! Still, she did so.

That very day the two daughters were married. The next day, the daughters, now brides, said their goodbyes to their father as they headed off to the homes of their respective grooms.

On her way to the snake's home, with her husband, the snake, by her side, Ah Yi passed into the heart of the forest, where the sunlight was weakest and thinnest.

Where, O where, is he taking me? she wondered. How am I ever going to be able to survive out here in this place?

At about this time, the snake suddenly spoke to her and said, "You go on ahead. I've something to do. I'll catch up to you."

"'Go on ahead'? 'Go on ahead' where? I have no clue where we are! Let me wait here by the path for you."

"Very well."

The snake then left the path and entered into the thick forest. Moments later, a very handsome young man emerged, startling Ah Yi.

"Come," he said. "Let's continue."

"I don't know you! Who are you?"

The youth laughed and replied, "Ah Yi, I'm your husband, the snake!"

Ah Yi just stared at him.

"All right," he continued. "I can see you don't believe me. Just a moment . . ."

He dug into his bag slung over his shoulder and brought out a very long snakeskin.

"See? Now do you believe me? I just shed this skin."

Ah Yi was speechless. What could she say? She didn't need or want to say anything, for she was absolutely, deliriously happy! So arm-in-arm, she and her handsome husband made it to his house.

A year flew by, and the bride of Sir Gentleman Snake had now become a proud, loving mother!

What of Ah Yang and her monkey husband?

The past year had not been so kind to her. She and her husband, not having a true home of their own, had to roam from place to place for shelter. If this weren't bad enough, both had resorted to thievery. On the third of February, they stole stalks of wheat; on the sixth of June, they dragged away others' millet when no one was looking; then, on the ninth of September, they made off with some farmer's ears of rice. By the twelfth of November, they had found themselves a cave in the highlands and, there, they began to eat their ill-gotten victuals.

And that's how they lived.

Two years had now passed.

One day at the marketplace, Ah Yang overheard some woman talking about Ah Yi and her husband, Sir Gentleman Snake, and how wonderful, doting, considerate and handsome a husband he actually was. Not only that but her now two children were both healthy and beautiful. The four of them were at currently visiting Ah Yi's father . . .

Ah Yang heard all this good and well. She then made a decision: she would abandon that useless monkey of a husband and return to her father's home. There she could see for herself this gorgeous husband of Ah Yi's who could change himself from snake to man, who provided so well for his wife and who was the father of two handsome boys.

And so, instead of heading back to the monkey's cave to live that hardscrabble, miserable life, she returned to her childhood home.

Yes, it was all true, Ah Yang discovered upon reaching her father's home. The snake was no longer a snake but a truly beautiful specimen of man and a loving husband and wonderful father to boot.

How lucky that Ah Yi is! I should've had this man for a husband, Ah Yang thought. All this is so unfair. After all, I'm the older sister.

Then and there Ah Yang's mind began to work feverishly some evil plan . . .

"Welcome home, my older daughter!" Ah Yang's father had said.

"Thank you, Father," Ah Yang replied. "It's good to be home. I've missed you . . . and Ah Yi."

Hmm, thought the father. Something's wrong here. Don't know what it is, but something's definitely wrong. I've got to help Ah Yi and help her watch out for whatever may come.

Ten days later, Ah Yi, her husband and children were prepared to return to their own home. Very early that morning, the father, holding two empty bamboo baskets, approached his two daughters.

"Girls, my cucumber crop this year was really bountiful," he said. "I'm going to need your help."
He handed a basket to Ah Yi. To Ah Yang, he then held out a basket which he knew to have a hole, saying, "Now you two go out to the garden and pick the cucumbers until your baskets are full. Let's see who has the fuller basket!"

The two went out in the early morning light to pick cucumbers. Each worked quickly and energetically to fill her basket; however, no matter how hard Ah Yang worked and sweated, she just couldn't fill her basket to the brim.

Ah Yi returned to the house while Ah Yang still labored to fill her basket. The father took her basket and handed her sticky-rice cakes for her and her husband's breakfast.

"Hurry up and eat!" he said. "No need to wait for Ah Yang. You've got a long road ahead of you and need to leave soon, so eat! Eat!"

Ah Yi thought this was odd, but she and Sir Gentleman Snake did as they were told. They ate the sticky-rice cakes, picked up their children, said goodbye to Ah Yi's father and headed back on the road to their home.

Ah Yi and her family were long gone by the time Ah Yang and her basket finally stumbled into the house.

What had taken her so long? While outside, she heard the crows warbling:

"Gua, gua,
Line it with small twigs!
Gua, gua!"

Ah Yang looked at her basket. She poured the cucumbers onto the ground, picked up small twigs and leaves, and lined the bottom of the basket with them, covering up the hole. She then picked up the cucumbers on the ground and walked back to the garden, where she was able to pick even more. Soon, her basket was overflowing with cucumbers.

Looking around the house, Ah Yang asked her father, "Where's Ah Yi?"

"Maybe in her room, combing her hair!"

Ah Yang ran to Ah Yi's room, took a peek, and came running back to her father.

"No, Father, she's not there."

"Well, maybe she went back out to the garden to pick more cucumbers!"

Ah Yang then headed out the door and back to the garden and immediately returned.

"No, Father, she's not there either!"

"Well, then, perhaps she and her husband and children stopped by Uncle's to say hello."

Ah Yang practically flew out the door and ran to her uncle's place. Soon after, she returned. She headed into the kitchen and saw the bamboo steamer on the table. She lifted the still-warm lid and saw it was empty inside. She put two and two together: her sister and family had already eaten and left.

Meanwhile, Ah Yi and family had followed the path from her father's village until they arrived at the edge of the river. There, they decided to take a rest.

While they sat by the river, a crow flew by and landed on a branch of a nearby juniper tree. Sir Gentleman Snake saw this and said to Ah Yi, "A nice meal for us is about to arrive. Wait right here while I fetch it!"

He grabbed his bow and quiver of arrows and approached the tree. The crow immediately flew off and landed onto the branch of a tree farther away. Again, Sir Gentleman Snake headed towards that tree with stealth. Yet again, the crow flew off, landing somewhere else, and, yet again, Sir Gentleman Snake headed off furtively in pursuit. This went on and on until Sir Gentleman Snake disappeared into the dark forest.

There, by the river, Ah Yi, her two boys strapped to her back, waited, without any sign of her husband's return.

Little did she know that she and her boys were not alone! On the same path that led to the river was Ah Yang. Hiding, she observed her sister from afar. Now that Ah Yi's husband was out of the picture, she got up and made her way to her sister and nephews.

"Ah Yi, my little Ah Yi!" cried Ah Yang. "I've caught up with you! You and your husband leaving like that without as much as a 'goodbye'!"

"Come and sit with us as we wait for my husband," said Ah Yi. "He's gone off to hunt for our next meal."

"Ah Yi, let me take your two boys from you so you can give your poor back a rest!"

"Oh, thank you!"

Ah Yi stood up and let Ah Yang hold the two boys, both of whom immediately began to cry.

"Poor babies!" said Ah Yang. "It must be this tunic I'm wearing that bothers them. Let's not make them cry. Take your tunic off and trade it for mine."

"Oh, all right . . ."

She did so and they traded tunics, wearing each other's; however, the two babies continued to cry even more than before.

"I've got it!" said Ah Yang. "It's this old skirt of mine. Surely that must be it. Let's hurry and trade skirts!"

"If you think so . . ."

"I do, so hurry up!"

Both took off their own skirts and wore each other's, but the babies continued to cry even more loudly without stopping.

"I know what it is now!" said Ah Yang. "It's my bare legs! They're not covered by leggings as yours are! Take your leggings off and let me wrap them around my legs! That should do the trick."

"Very well . . ."

Ah Yi unwrapped her leggings and gave them to Ah Yang, who wrapped them around her legs. She now had on Ah Yi's tunic, skirt and leggings, and still the upset babes roared without any indication of tiring themselves out.


from Miaozu minjian gushi, Li Yingqiu, comp.; pp. 123-128.

The dates listed in the story, at least the first two, seem to correspond with actual Hmong holidays and celebrations as observed in China on the Chinese lunar calendar. (See Zhongguo minzu jie'ri dachuan [Compendium of Holidays of the Peoples of China], Gao Zhanxiang, comp. Beijing: Zhishi Chubanshe, 1993; pp. 442-501.)

February 3rd: a holiday for the Hmong of Taijiang County, Guizhou Province, called simply in Chinese, "February 3rd." Villagers wear their finery;young men and women sing romantic songs to each other. Those of the opposite sex not yet acquainted with each other will sing the "Inquiring Song," which asks one's name and location of home village.

June 6th: Guizhou's Song Festival on June 6th apparently began to commemorate Hmong resistance to Qing exploitation and the execution of Fu Meilou, a heroic Hmong youth who sought to shoot symbolic arrows at the Qing emperor in Beijing. Usually set in a bucolic location, the festival includes much singing of romantic and nostalgic songs as well as singing competitions. Young men and women will sing romantic lyrics in response to each other. Also on this date is Racing Day, in which Hmong and members of other minorities race horses. Finally, there is Grain Day. On this day, offerings are made to the Great God of the Five Grains. Many will slaughter some chickens, prepare rice wine and invite friends over for a feast.

September 9th: No holidays or festivals are specifically listed for September 9th; however, two movable events appear on the lunar calendar during the first two weeks of the ninth month in Guizhou. One is the harvest festival called, among other names, "Rice Stalk Harrowing Day," a day in which friends exchange gifts of sticky rice cakes and chicken. Another occurring sometime in this period is "Bullfighting Day," a day which includes sheng (reed) flute performances, singing and dueling bulls.

November 12th: According to Dr. Kou Yang, the Hmong of Hunan and Guizhou provinces celebrate their new year in November, presumably after the major harvesting. (See page 4 of the following link: www.hmongstudies.org/KYangHSJ8.pdf). Is November 12th thus a fixed date for New Year's? Possibly not; perhaps this date in the story is simply evocative of this festive, joyous, family-centered time of the year, emphasizing the degradation and deprivation Ah Yang encounters while married to her monkey husband. 

I'd be very grateful if those readers who know more about the venerable Hmong culture than I do, especially Americans of Hmong descent, can correct me if I am inaccurate about any of the above dates and their significance to the Hmong people!  

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Bride of Sir Gentleman Snake -- Part One (Hmong)

Years and years ago, there was an old man, a widower, who lived with his two daughters. The older daughter was called Ah Yang and the younger one, Ah Yi.

Very early one day, the old man, a woodcutter by trade, went up to the mountains. He spied many fine fir and pine trees. He put down his lunchbox and got set to work. Time went quickly, as it does for us when we age. Soon it was already noon. The old man had only cut down four trees. He took his hulu gourd, sat down on a stump, and drank some water.

He looked at the four small trees he had felled and sighed.

"Four small trees," he said aloud to himself, "that's it! Just four puny trees . . . And I'm not getting any younger! Today four trees--how many this time next year or even in the next few months? I wish a strong young man could help me out. I'd marry off one of my daughters to him! Oh, well . . . "

He prepared a small camp fire and sat back when he heard a voice.

"Grandpa! What did you say just now?"

He looked up. A small magpie was fluttering its wings above him.

"Nothing, Magpie, nothing. I'm just tired . . ."

"No, Grandpa. You certainly said something, something interesting, an oath or vow."

"All right, you heard me. I offered to let a healthy strong young man who can help me in my work marry one of my daughters. What of it?"

"Ah, yes! I knew I had heard correctly! I shall be the one to help you!"

The weary old man was too tired to be annoyed so he softly chuckled.

"Oh, Magpie, you're tiny and have no arms or hands. How in the world could you chop down trees?"

"No, problem, I can do it! Fasten the ax to my tail."

"What . . . ?"

"Just do it!"

The old man sighed again, got up and tied the ax to the bird's tail.

Well, the magpie flew up to the trees and whirled around the tree trunks without chopping down a single tree! All it managed to do was to lose the ax somewhere on the ground and strip its own tail of all its feathers.

The old man looked at the magpie, flying lamely now with its bare behind, shook his head, and thought, That was mighty dumb! That old magpie surely made a great fool of itself and me too for my even bothering to listen!"

The embarrassed magpie flew off; the old man got up to look for his ax.

The next morning at dawn, the old man was once again up on the mountain.

He chopped and chopped, wiped his brow and moaned, "Aii, what will it take for me to find a strapping young man to take over for me and to wed one of my daughters!"

He heard some rustling in the bushes and then a voice ask, "Grandpa, what did you just say?"

He looked in the direction of the voice. Just beyond some bushes was a large rock. Upon it were a snake and a monkey.

"I said nothing," the old man replied.

"No, no, you distinctly said something," said the snake.

"We both heard you," said the monkey.

"All right, so you heard what I said. What of it?"

"We can help you!"

The old man first looked at the snake.

"A monkey has hands and feet which can grab pretty well," he said. "Even a magpie has two feet. How in the world could you possibly cut anything down, Snake?"

"Tie your ax to my tail and you shall see!" replied the snake.

"Very well," said the old man, tying his ax to the snake's tail. Then, turning to the monkey, he said, "I brought two axes today. I suppose you'd like to cut down a tree as well?"

"Yes, and you don't need to tie the ax to me!" said the monkey.

"All right, Snake and Monkey, hop to it . . ."

The two animals set off to cut trees!

The snake slithered by the base of each tree and with a swish of his tail, he cut down each tree, big, small and in between. Soon, a large part of the dense forest lay broadly open due to the snake's quick and skilled efforts.

"Unbelievable!" cried the old man. "Simply unbelievable!"

He turned to see what the monkey had done; the monkey had wielded the ax as long as, if not longer than, the snake and had not yet felled one tree, though not from lack of effort. He just about collapsed, drenched with sweat.

No results, thought the old man, but he certainly tried, poor fellow. No shame there. You have to respect one who tries hard.

The old man gave the two animals the boxed lunch that Ah Yi that morning had packed for him.

"Boys," said the old man, "eat up. You're both coming home with me."

The snake and the monkey followed the old man home.

Outside the front gate, the old man said, "Boys, wait here. I'll tell my two girls to come out and greet you."

He walked into his house and what did he find? His two daughters engaged in a quarrel! The hardworking Ah Yi was trying to get her lazy older sister Ah Yang to do some work around the house, such as cleaning and setting the bowls and chopsticks for dinner. Ah Yang, though, didn't feel like helping.

"Girls, girls!" said the old man. "Stop arguing! We have guests outside. Do you want them to laugh at us?" The girls immediately became silent and looked at their father. "Good. Now listen to me. I've brought two suitors home, one for each of you. They're waiting outside for you now. We shall have a wedding today, girls! Now go outside and graciously invite them into our home."

"Very good, Father. You know the custom. I'm the older sister. My wishes come first!"

Ah Yi was angry but held her tongue as Ah Yang went out the door ahead of her.

The two girls went outside to the front gate and saw no one there, just a snake and a monkey looking at them, a sight not unusual in the forest.

"Father!" shouted Ah Yang from outside. "There's nobody here! All we see are only a monkey and snake. Are you going to tell us that they are our suitors?"

"Yes!" cried the father through the window. "They are the pair."

Ah Yang and Ah Yi looked at each other and shrugged. Ah Yang figured the monkey resembled a man more than the snake did, so she chose the monkey to be her husband.

"You get the snake!" Ah Yang snickered to Ah Yi as she, Ah Yang, led the monkey by the hand into the house.

"Well, then," said Ah Yi to the snake, "how am I supposed to bring you into the house?"

"Very simple, kind Maiden," said the snake. "Get a bamboo basket--I'm sure you have one. Let me crawl in and then carry the basket inside!"


from Miaozu minjian gushi (Hmong folktales), Li Yingqiu, comp. Taipei: Mutong chubanshe, 1978; pp. 117-122.

This is the Hmong version of the Southeastern Chinese/Taiwanese folktale "The Bride of Lord Snake." This version is significantly different from the Taiwanese one in my Amazon Kindle book Taiwan Folktales. Already, in this first of three parts, we have a glimpse into an old Hmong custom: the bride leading the groom into the bride's home.