Thursday, August 29, 2013

Hedgehog Girl (Han)

There once was a small household, just three mouths to feed--a  young man, his young wife, and his little brother--all fed by the hard labor of the husband.

Now one day, the wife said to her husband, "Your young brother has more or less already grown up. It's high time that he takes a wife. We can give him half of what we have, such as it is. Otherwise, one way or another, we'll need to be rid of him!"

Her husband wasn't ready for this. He shook his head.

"No?" She ran to pick up a carving knife and held it above her bosom. "No? Then if you don't take care of him, let me end my life right here and now!"

The husband found himself over a barrel; he instantly agreed to her demands.

Early the next day, the husband--the older brother--presented his younger brother with a set of brand-new clothes.

"Change into the new clothes," he said to his kid brother. "I'm taking you out today to . . . to see the world."

The pair went out. Together, they crossed the high mountain and walked and walked until they came to a gully. Here, the older brother came to a complete stop. With tears in his eyes, he turned to his younger brother.

"Didi, here we need to say our goodbyes."

"What? Brother, you don't want me?" the younger lad asked.

The older brother explained the whole situation to him and then handed to him two strings of coins, worth two thousand in cash, roughly half of the older brother and Sister's-in-law fortune, such as it was.

"Take this money for your travel expenses," he said. "Take care crossing the gully and be safe! Farewell!"

The brothers parted, both in tears. The younger brother then began his journey into the unknown. He walked on alone as day turned to night. He stopped when he came to a thatched hut. He looked in the window and saw what appeared to be a hunter. He asked the hunter if he could spend the night, and the older man, seeing how the poor boy was all alone in the world, welcomed him as his guest.

While staying with the hunter, the boy noticed a hedgehog tethered to a pillar. The creature kept its gaze on the boy.

"Master," asked the boy, "why do you have a hedgehog tied up to this pillar?"

"I'm going to skin it and eat the meat" was the reply.

"But Master, look how sad the hedgehog is! Let it go!"

"'Let it go!'? After a backbreaking day of hunting, I'm going to let it go? No, I'm not. Its pelt's going to pay for sorghum wine."

"Master, I'll buy the hedgehog from you! I have the money." He took out his two strings of coins. "See?"

The hunter took the boy's money and said, "The hedgehog's all yours!" He untied the tether and handed the untied end to the boy.

The boy led the hedgehog away from the hunter's hut. When the hut was no longer in view, he untied the noose around its neck, saying, "All right, now run for your life far away from here! If you get caught again, I won't be able to buy back your freedom!"

The hedgehog seemed to nod as if it understood, and then, with a little peep, it headed off for some thick tall brush, into which it disappeared.

The boy stood there, looking at the spot where he had last seen the hedgehog when he noticed something big rustling within the tall grasses and weeds. To his amazement, from out of the brush stepped a maiden who couldn't be more than eighteen years of age. She was carrying a thick blanket decorated with flower motifs.

She approached the astounded young man and said, "My benefactor, you are here alone without any shelter. Allow me to present you with this blanket to keep you warm!"

He saw that she was utterly gorgeous, with her small mouth, big eyes and egg-shaped face.

"Miss, you are truly one of the goodhearted on this earth! Thank you."

They sat down in a comfortable place and chatted.

"Do you have a home somewhere?" the maiden, Hedgehog Girl, asked.

"Yes, I do."

"Then, if you have a home of your own, what are you doing in this forsaken place?"

"My parents are no longer around, so I lived with my brother and his wife. My sister-in-law wanted to be rid of me, so I am here!"

"Do you miss home?" she asked.

"I miss my brother, but I dare not go back."

"Don't worry. I'll carry you back to your home myself. One thing, however; you must agree that we become husband and wife."

"All right," he said.

That night they took vows to each other as husband and wife.

Early the next morning, the young woman said, "My husband, take the blanket and cover my back with it. Climb upon my back, clutch tightly and keep your eyes tightly closed until I tell you to open them."

The young man did as he was told and they were off, with the wind blowing sou! sou! sou! past his ears.

Eventually, the young man felt his feet touch the ground.

"Open your eyes!" said his wife.

He opened his eyes to behold the outskirts of his home village.

"Now, my husband, do not be in a hurry to return to your brother's home. Let's find a nice place for ourselves for the time being."

The young man agreed and led his bride to the wineshop owned by Er Daye, Second Uncle.

"Boy!" cried Er Daye, rubbing his eyes. "I can't believe it's you! I feared you were no more!"

"No, it is I, Uncle, and I've brought my wife."

"Er Daye," said Hedgehog Girl, kneeling before Second Uncle, "we plan to stay in this village and would like to purchase a plot of land to build a house. Can you help us?"

Er Daye clapped his hands and said, "Leave it up to me!"

The next day, Er Daye met with his nephew and Hedgehog Girl and said, "Listen, north of the village there's forty mu of land for sale. The owner won't sell it for anything under four hundred ounces of silver. I don't know if you two have that kind of money."

Without waiting for her husband to speak, Hedgehog Girl said, "Er Daye, we'll take it. Four hundred ounces of silver is a cheap price."

From out of her blanket, she produced five hundred ounces of silver in the form of a single ingot. She instructed her husband to purchase the land and use the left over money to host a dinner party for all concerned in the land matter.

That night Hedgehog Girl and her husband visited their land on the northern outskirts of town. There, she took out a hairpin and with it drew upon the dirt the floor plan of a house. As she withdrew her hairpin, the young husband heard a deep rumble. Now, standing before him was a grand house with a blue-green glazed tile roof!

"Come," she said. "Let's go inside."

Inside, the young husband found their new house furnished with everything they could ever need--precious jewels that shone with nearly blinding brightness and  a granary fully stocked with millet, wheat and beans. And out in the back--a stable with nineteen horses!

And there the two of them made their home and lived happily and quietly.

Three years quickly passed.

One morning Hedgehog Girl said to her husband, "We've spent a fair amount of time together, but we still haven't had a child. I think you need to take another wife."

Her husband wouldn't have that. "It doesn't matter whether we have children or not. You're better than anything in this world for me."

"You don't understand. I won't be able to be with you for the rest of our lifetimes."

She then reminded him how she was the hedgehog transformed into a human woman to repay him for his kindness. He understood but was very reluctant to marry someone else. He went to Er Daye for advice.

"Well, my nephew," the old man said, "the world is full of lovely women, but if you want my suggestion, you'll head for Hangzhou and Suzhou and find a good young woman in one of those two places!"

The young man did as his uncle had suggested, and took a river boat down south to those towns. He looked all around both cities and must have seen thousands of young women but not one to equal the beauty and grace of his wife, Hedgehog Girl.

He was wandering around the shores of West Lake when he happened to see an exceptionally beautiful young woman on a balcony of a mansion. They locked eyes for a moment before she modestly looked away. He turned around and headed for a nearby shop to inquire about the girl and her family. It turned out that the shopkeeper knew the family, and he agreed to go to the mansion and ask on behalf of the young man for that girl's hand in marriage. The shopkeeper returned to the shop shortly after.

"That young lady," said the shopkeeper, "is the only daughter of a very wealthy local man, Merchant Wang. He will agree to let you marry his daughter on only one condition."

"And what is the condition?" asked the young man.

"If you send to him seven wagons full of silver, you may marry the girl!"

The young man heard these details, nodded and returned to his home.

"Well?" asked Hedgehog Girl.

"Well, I found someone all right, but her father demands seven wagons laden with silver in payment for her to become my wife."

"Is that all?" asked Hedgehog Girl. "It's done."

Sure enough, outside waiting for him were the wagons loaded with radiant silver, magnificent horses and sturdy drivers. He left Hedgehog Girl once more and led his caravan down to West Lake, not stopping until he and the caravan had arrived.

Outside the mansion, he called for Merchant Wang. Wang descended the stairs and came out the front door. The silver gleaming in the sunlight dazzled him, forcing him to shade his eyes.

"Come in! Come in!" said Merchant Wang. "Your future wife is upstairs!"

The young man then led his new bride back home, where she was warmly welcomed by Hedgehog Girl.

Early the next morning, the newlyweds rose to see Hedgehog Girl, but she was nowhere to be found.
Indeed, the young husband never saw his first wife and first love ever again.

It is said the next year, the second bride gave birth to a boy and a girl, fulfilling Hedgehog Girl's wish for her husband.

from "Ciwei nu" by Zhang Chunxian in Qianqi baiguaide minjian gushi, pp. 288-291. For complete citation see 2/21/13. 

One mu 亩 is approximately a sixth of an acre. Hangzhou and Suzhou are reputed to have some of the most beautiful women in China. Famed West Lake is by Hangzhou. The girl's "small mouth," "big eyes," and, most important, her "egg-shaped face" are all classical Chinese ideals of beauty.

Apparently, Hedgehog Girl only manifests herself in animal form briefly when she is purchased and taken back out to the wilds. It is hinted that she is animal form when her husband rides her back and closes his eyes. No mention of the older brother or sister-in-law is made after the younger brother takes leave of his sibling in the mountains. Hedgehog Girl and her husband live in the same village, yet the narrative never mentions if they ever encounter the husband's family. Another odd detail--or omission--is how the young man is able to lead a caravan of silver without falling prey to bandits. Shall we assume that the wagon drivers also double as well-armed guards? 

This is one of many stories in the Supernatural Wife cycle of folktales. The usual shapeshifting animal is the fox or tiger; here, it is the very modest hedgehog. This makes sense, as often the lowliest of the lowly, the otherwise despised--such as a one-legged dog or a snake--possess incredible powers, reminding us not to underestimate who or what is in our midst and not to be arrogant or vain. "Hedgehog Girl" is a touching tale of love, devotion, gratitude and selflessness.  Like many stories in the cycle, it ends with a permanent separation of the lovers, with the tacit  understanding that their being together could have never lasted, as such unions contravene nature. We can go "back to nature," but only to a certain point, even in most examples of folk literature. 

Motifs: B310, "Acquisition of helpful animal"; B312.4, "Helpful animal purchased"; B360, "Animal grateful for rescue from death"; cB542, "Animal carries man through air to safety"; B650, "Marriage to animal (hedgehog) in human form"; *D1051, "Magic cloth (blanket)"; and D1599, "Magic object produces house." 

A very close but ultimately unsuitable motif is B641.5, "Marriage to person in hedgehog form."

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