Monday, May 27, 2013

The Wisdom of a Poor Maiden (Russia - Dungan)

There once was a young Emperor, and when he became of age, he naturally desired a mate. He looked far and wide for an Empress but, alas, could not find a single young woman with whom to share his life and the throne.

One day, on his travels through his land, the young Emperor spied a very fetching and clean, young but also extremely poor maiden.

He fell in love with her at first sight! It was she he wanted an no one else. And so, as was the custom in those days, the Emperor--yes, even the Emperor--had to dispatch a matchmaker to negotiate the marriage. 

The parents of the maiden readily agreed to the match, but the young woman herself refused. 

"Why, my dear?" asked the matchmaker. "He is the Emperor himself! No one is mightier than he in our land! No one else possesses all that he has!"

"Emperor or not," replied the maiden, "I want a husband who has a skill, not just one with mere power. Today, he is the Emperor, but tomorrow? Is tomorrow promised to anyone? Emperors rise; they also fall. For this reason, I will not marry someone unless he has a skill."

The matchmaker returned to the palace and reported on the maiden's response. The Emperor was at first livid, but after some reflection he came to the conclusion that the maiden's words had merit. Yes, he was the mighty Emperor who could, at the snap of his fingers, muster a great army or order any delicacy under the sun for his personal enjoyment. But what could he actually do, create, accomplish, build? Nothing. And yes, today he was indeed the Emperor, but would he always remain so? What would tomorrow have in store for him?

The Emperor had a master weaver summoned to the palace.

"Can you teach me the art of weaving a rug?" he asked the weaver.

"Yes, Your Highness, I can."

The Emperor placed himself under this weaver's tutelage and thereafter, night after night, he learned to weave carpets. Two months later, he had accomplished his goal: to learn a skill; he could now weave a decent-looking but albeit simple carpet with flowery motifs. Not only that but he took this very carpet he had woven and presented it to the young lady he desired to marry.

Delighted that the Emperor had indeed learned a skill, the maiden immediately accepted his proposal to marry her.

Thus, the maiden from the poor household married the Emperor and became the Empress.

Not long after that, the Emperor donned peasant clothing as he was wont to do and left the palace to tour his land incognito, hoping to hear sincere words spoken by subjects not intimidated by being in the Emperor's presence.

He had traveled far and wide and one day came to a dumpling house to rest and to eat. The proprietor greeted the Emperor and led him into a dining room where he, the Emperor, sat down alone. The proprietor noted the chubby appearance of his well-fed guest and had some rough men come in and seize the Emperor, whom they had assumed was just a fat peasant. And why did they do this? The owner of this dumpling house made and sold dumplings made of human flesh.

The took the Emperor down to the cellar.

"What's the meaning of this?" cried the Emperor.

"Here we sell dumplings from human meat," one of the thugs replied. "You stumbled upon us, and so we'll make dumplings out of you! Now, in you go!"

They threw the Emperor in and locked the door.

The Emperor had to do some quick thinking. He called for one of his captors.

"What do you want?"

"Bring the owner down here!"

"What for?"

"Never mind! Just bring him down here. It shall be worth his while, and  you won't regret it!"

The owner came down.

"All right, so what is it?"

"Listen," said the Emperor, "my flesh made into dumplings wouldn't be worth the cost of even just one lamb. I am a master weaver, and I could weave a carpet for you the value of which could fetch a hundred lambs. Why, as they say, 'Be greedy for the small and thus lose the large?'"

The owner thought it over. The offer made sense, so he had his men escort the Emperor into yet another room where they soon supplied the Emperor with everything he would need to weave--a loom, fine wool thread, dyes, and so on.

The Emperor went ahead and started weaving. Soon, he had woven a flowery carpet.

"Now," said the Emperor to the restaurant owner and his thugs, "take this to the Imperial Palace. I know the the Emperor himself loves this style of carpet and will pay dearly to own it."

"The Emperor?"

"Yes, the Emperor!" said the real Emperor passing himself off as a carpet weaver. "Imagine the riches that will soon be flowing through your hands!"

Three months had already passed since the Emperor had disappeared, and so the Empress had now taken the reins and managed the Empire.

The Emperor had now been gone for three months. He had just vanished in the minds of his subjects. In his place reigned the Empress, who had guards scour the land looking for her husband. Heartbroken, she sat in the throne room and waited day after day for any report that might bring a glimmer of hope . . .

"Your Majesty," a servant announced one day, "a man is here wishing to show you a carpet."

"A carpet . . . Very well," she responded unfeelingly, "show him in . . ."

A man bearing the flowery carpet was ushered in before the Empress.

"Your Majesty," said the man, one of the dumpling shop's confederates, "it would be my greatest honor if you would behold this very fine carpet!"

"Very well," said the Empress with a sigh, "let me take a look."

She took a look and saw immediately it was a spitting image of the carpet her husband had woven for her before their marriage. She looked and then thought: Aha, my husband is likely being held by ruffians and has sent me this carpet as a message . . . She smiled at the man and said no more. She had the man richly rewarded and sent him on his way.

Before the thug had left the palace with his riches, the Empress had already ordered one of her most cunning guards to tail him. The guard followed him back to the dumpling house, noted the location and immediately returned to the palace.

The Empress had three hundred heavily armed guards sent to the address. The guards surrounded the shop so tightly that "not even a rooster could crow." The guards arrested everyone within the place and searched the premises from roof to cellar floor. In time, the located the Emperor locked in a room with his loom. The guards freed their monarch and had him identify one-by-one each criminal involved, including the owner.

The freed Emperor led the party, including the secured ruffians, back home. The owner and his underlings were placed in a dungeon. The next morning, the Emperor had each one put to death.

And thus this fortunate ending was made all possible by the wisdom of a poor maiden who had insisted her man, Emperor or not, learn a trade!

from Donggan minjian gushi chuanshuo ji, Boris Riftin [Li Fuqing], ed.; pp. 185-187. Full citation at 12/28/12. 

The Dungans (or Donggans) are Hui people, Mandarin-speaking Chinese Muslims, who reside in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and other Central Asian nations, their ancestors having left China during the late Qing Dynasty. As I mentioned elsewhere (See 12/28/12), they speak and write a quaint, very colloquial Chinese. To those from China and Taiwan, Dungan Chinese might read as very choppy, perhaps even staccato in some texts, but no less intelligible than the written vernacular elsewhere in the Chinese world.

The present story is a version of "The Shah Weaves a Rug"--a folktale with Persian and Armenian cognates. (For the former, see Anita Stern's version in World Folktales, McGraw-Hill, 2001. This folktale emphasizes the impoverished state of the maiden destined to be empress and her innate sense of wisdom as well as if to suggest that the former is compensated by the latter. 

Motifs: P31, "(King) learns a trade"; P51, "Noble person saves self from difficulties by knowledge of a trade"; cL143.1, "Poor girl chosen rather than the rich." 

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