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!  



  2. Hi, Karen
    it should be there . . . Check 12/18/11, the third & final part. Thanks for your interest!
    Best wishes,
    Fred Lobb