Friday, December 28, 2012

The Tough Man & The Rooster's Eggs -- Two Chinese-Language Tales From Russia (Dungan Hui)

(1) The Tough Man

Some folks were amazed to see a woman leading a donkey, atop which was her husband.

"Aiya," some local menfolk said, "we might be afraid of our own wives, but not that man! Come on! Let's catch up to them and talk to him!"

The wags then ran after the short procession and stopped right in front of the woman.  Before they could say anything, they noticed the man on the donkey was crying.

"Aiya," he cried, addressing the people before him, "my wife hit my leg, and now I can't walk!"

"Aiya," one of the group said, "he's afraid of his wife! Let's leave . . ."

Dungan minjian gushi chuanshuo ji [A collection of Dungan folktales and legends], Li Fuqing [Boris Riftin], ed. Shanghai: Shanghai Wenyi Chubanshe, 2011; pp. 196-197. 

The Dungan people are Hui (Chinese Muslims) who live across the border from the far west of China in neighboring Russia, Kazakhstan, and other former states of the USSR. Some Dungan may also be partially of Kazakh or Kirghiz descent. The Dungan, like their Hui cousins in China, are Sunni and preserve many Chinese customs. Their ancestors left China in the late 19th century due to economic and probably political conditions. Their form of Mandarin preserves many archaisms; for example, instead of "president," they tend to say "emperor." 

Professor Boris Riftin, the Russian academic who compiled the volume of Dungan tales from which the preceding and the following tales come, is a giant in the world of Chinese folklore research. I would venture to say that he is the preeminent non-Chinese expert on Chinese myths, folktales, and legends today. He has done research in China and in the past decade was a visiting professor at a university on Taiwan. Unfortunately, little if any of his work has been translated into English. His first exposure to the world of Chinese folklore was in the early 1950's, when he happened to encounter members of the Dungan community in the former Soviet Union. 

The browbeaten husband, as witnessed in Laurel and Hardy two-reelers and  Fawlty Towers, is a staple of comedy. This very brief humorous anecdote from a bygone era about a husband who from afar puts on a good front is reminiscent of the Chinese joke about the milquetoast husband who one day while being scolded suddenly develops some backbone and talks back to his combative wife about how, once a man makes up his mind, he will do what he wants to do. His wife then becomes furious and chases the husband to the bedroom, where he takes refuge under the bed. When ordered to come out from under the bed, he shouts: "No! I'm staying right here! When a man makes up his mind, he sticks to it and no one can make him change it!" This is what Taiwanese today might label as "the mouse's bravery." 

(2) The Rooster's Eggs

A local yamen tyrant turned to his yamen runner one day and said, "I feel like having a couple of rooster's eggs. I'll give you three days to come up with them. If, by the third day, you don't bring me any, I'll put you to death."

The runner was dismissed and left. On the way home, he thought, Where in the world would I ever be able to find such a thing as a rooster's egg? 

While at home, he neither ate, nor drank tea, nor spoke a word.

"What's bothering you? Why do you look so gloomy?" asked his wife.

"Aiya, I'll tell you why. The Laoye (i.e., "old grandfather," or local mandarin) has just ordered me to bring him two rooster's eggs in three days' time."

"Don't let it worry you," his wife replied. "On the third day, I shall go to the yamen and see the Laoye. Let me handle this."

The third day arrived, and the wife showed up at the yamen instead of her husband, the runner.

"What are you doing here?" asked the Laoye. "Where's your man?"

"Oh, Laoye, he couldn't be here today!" she replied.

"And why not?"

"He's giving birth to a baby!"

"What?! You shameless woman, saying such a thing! Who's ever seen a man giving birth to a baby?"

"Who, Laoye, has ever seen a rooster lay eggs?"

The mandarin didn't say another word!

Dungan minjian gushi chuanshuo ji, Li Fuqing, ed. ; p. 198.

For a tale with a similar theme, see the Sino-Korean tale from 1/7/08. A yamen was the local government house or office in imperial China, the seat of the mandarin's power. 

Motifs: H919.4, "Impossible task assigned by (official);  J1191, "Reductio ad absurdum."

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