Friday, July 6, 2012

The Princess Who Married a Dog -- a Taiwanese Aboriginal Myth From Mainland China

for my friend Rick Matz, who's more than once given me much appreciated encouragement

It's been said that the Bunun people originally came from the Chinese mainland. 

Ages ago, a Chinese emperor had a very beautiful daughter. This princess, however, one day came down with a horrible skin disease: her entire body was covered by huge oozing, itchy red boils. These painful and ugly sores tormented the poor princess day and night. She stayed in her room, and at night she tossed and turned, unable to sleep. All day and night long, her cries pricked at the hearts of her parents, the emperor and empress, who by this time had called on every doctor and shaman in the land to help their daughter--all to no avail. 

The emperor and empress cried too, knowing they were unable to help their daughter and seeing her condition grow worse and worse. 

"Enough of this!" cried the emperor. "I shall find a way to cure our daughter!"

This is what he did: he ordered proclamations put along all the roads. Each proclamation read: "Anyone, be he beggar or otherwise, who can cure the Princess of her skin ailment shall have her hand in marriage."

The emperor and empress then waited for someone, anyone, who could come to the palace and cure their daughter. 

A whole month went by, and not one person came to the palace gates with a proposed cure. Where were all these doctors, healers, shamans and herbal masters? Were they afraid to show up? Nobody had an answer. The emperor and empress felt as despondent as ever.

Finally, someone or, rather, something showed up--a stray dog with a torn-off proclamation in its mouth appeared at the gates. One guard was of the mind to kill the dog on the spot, while another felt the dog should be led into the palace. Then, the emperor could decide what to do with it. 

The second guard prevailed, and he brought the dog past the gates and into the palace. Once inside, however, the dog bolted from the guard and scampered down the hallway until it reached the princess's room. It hopped onto her bed and began licking her all over, especially her boils. 

When the licking had stopped, the boils had all disappeared . . .

The guard then summoned the emperor, who was, of course, amazed.

The dog was given shelter in the palace for the night.

The next day, the emperor went to his daughter and said, "What this dog did is amazing, but we need to get rid of it."

The dog was right by the princess, and its eyes glowered at the emperor.

"Ah, Dog," said the emperor, "you performed a great service. Please don't misunderstand. It's just that you are not a human. If you can in the next thirty days turn yourself into a young man, you may marry the princess."

The dog immediately scrambled out the palace and headed for the mountains. The emperor ordered some guards to follow the dog, which they did, after going up the mountain and passing through a forest. They observed the dog enter a cave. The guards then made camp and took turns watching to see if the dog left the cave.

On the morning of the twenty eighth day, they spotted a figure leave the entrance of the cave. It had the full figure of a man--the arms, legs and trunk. However, it still had the head of a dog. The dog had become a dog-man, nearly the full man required by the emperor to marry the princess.

The dog-man spotted the guards watching him and shouted, "Why are you spying on me? I still have two more days left, so leave this place!"

The dog-man charged towards the guards, who were shocked and frightened. The guards then fled down the mountain.

The guards returned two days later and crept towards the cave. They poked around a bit but no one--neither man nor beast--was around.

Meanwhile, at the palace, the emperor had just concluded an assembly of his subjects. Everyone in the audience was filing out of the assembly room. One young man, however, appeared to be in a deep sleep in his chair. The palace servants tried rousing him but on he slept. A guard was called, and he rushed over to wake up this young man. The guard succeeded in awakening the fellow, who immediately leaped out of his chair and ran out of the assembly room and down the hall to the princess's room.

The guard entered and found the young man and the princess in a loving embrace. Don't ask how or why, but the princess knew this young man had once been the dog that had licked her skin free of boils. The guard
could not, of course, slay someone the princess was embracing, so he summoned the emperor.

"So, you're finally a man now, Dog," said the emperor. "Very well. You may, as I promised, marry my daughter, only you both will need to leave immediately and never ever return to this place!"

The emperor gave his daughter some time to pack her belongings. Then, the princess and her husband fled the palace. Not far behind them were guards who were given the order to murder the young man.

The princess and her husband, evading the guards, made it to the coast, where they took a small boat and, just the two of them, crossed the Straits all the way to Taiwan itself. They landed at what is now called Lugang (Lu-kang), "Deer Harbor." There, they settled down and had many children. These children then became the first Bunun people, the ancestors of those on Taiwan today.


from Li Fuqing [Boris Riftin], Cong shenhua dao guihua: Taiwan yuanzhumin shenhua gushi bijiao yanjiu.  [From myths to ghost stories: a comparative study of Taiwanese aboriginal myths]. Taipei, Zhenxing, 1999; pp. 322-324. 

The Bunun live primarily on the southern half of Taiwan.

Our best friend in the animal kingdom is as linked to us in world folklore as in real life like a shadow. Hence, we can read stories from all around the world about canine ancestors, as in the story above, or canine stand-ins for us like Old Man Coyote of North America. No one should take stories about a canine ancestor to be denigrating. Some of these animals represented honored totem-like figures. For example, the Mongols of centuries past would tell the story of either the yellow dog-man or sometimes the blue wolf that somehow impregnated Alan Qo'a/Alan or Alan Gua, the female ancestor of the fearsome Genghis Khan. Other Mongol tribes claim descent from camels, bulls, and lions. (See "The Importance of Animals in the Religion of the Turks and Mongols: Tribal Myths and Hunting Rituals" by Jean-Paul Roux in Asian Mythologies, Yves Bonnefoy, comp. & Wendy Doniger, trans.; Chicago: University of Chicago, pp. 325-326.)  

The above myth was told to sinologist and Chinese folklore specialist Boris Riftin by a seventy five year old Bunun man, Quan Shaoren. Stories of marriages between princesses and dogs and the subsequent founding of new races are not limited to Taiwan. In his Myths of the Dog-Man, David Gordon White discusses European folktales from Germany, Ireland, Russia and other nations about princesses marrying dogs with the subsequent founding of new races. In addition, he writes about the ancient Germanic Lombards, who supposedly had among their warriors dog-headed soldiers. The very symbol of the Lombards was an image of a dog. (See Myths of the Dog-Man by David Gordon White; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991; p. 61.)

Other than this story from the Bunun, at least two other aboriginal tribes on Taiwan, according to  Ho Ting-jui,  have similar stories: the Sedeq and the Ketagalan. Still other Asian groups with stories of dog ancestors include the Li tribe of Hainan, some Hmong groups, the Vietnamese Yao, and the Manipur of India. (See A Comparative Study of Myths and Legends of Formosan Aborigines, 2 Vols. by Ho Ting-Jui; Ph.D. dissertation; Indiana University, 1967; pp. 75-78.) 

Motifs: A522.1.1, "Dog as culture hero"; A1611, "Origin of particular tribe(s); B421, "Helpful dog"; 
cB601.2, "Marriage to a dog"; cB631, "Human offspring from marriage to animal"; S247, "Daughter unwittingly promised to dog rescuer"; T68, "Princess offered as a prize." 


  1. More evidence for how wonderful dogs are.

    1. I couldn't agree more, Rick. I just happened to come across this one while doing research. Stay well!