Saturday, May 24, 2014

Two Animal Fables From the Jing People (Guangxi)

(1) The Dragon King of the Sea Holds a Meeting

Long ago there was a time when the whales and the sharks ruled the oceans and ate up the rest of the aquatic life without any qualms. The rest--the fish, the rays, the octopuses, and so on--couldn't do a thing about it because they were unarmed and unprotected. They had no means to fight back, to defend their young and their own lives. It became very clear that it would be only a matter of time before the whales and the sharks would gobble down every other living thing in the sea.

None of this was lost on the Dragon King. He hurriedly called a meeting of all the weaker, defenseless sea creatures.

"I hereby grant each of you the means of defense," the King told the gathering.

The thornback ray, due to its soft shell and body, was given a virtual whip for a tail that would ward off any enemy. The lobster already had two pairs of four shelled legs but was then allowed pincers on the front pair. Any foe attacking it would be pinched and caught in its vises. The king crab already had some formidable spiny defenses, but it was also saddled with poor eyesight. So it was then granted a pair of scissors-like pincers for its front legs. The octopus had no such protection--its body was and still is squashy. Thus, the octopus was given eight arms with which to beat off attacks and to run away swiftly when it needed to escape. Then there was the ray, and its body was soft, spongy like many of the rest. It was then equipped with an electrical system installed in its spine, electrifying its tail, making it able to ward off any attacker. From then on it became known as the electric ray.

The carp showed up to the assembly late, enraging the Dragon King.

"There's nothing for you since you decided to show up so late!" said the King. "Nothing but . . . this!"

He then slapped the carp so hard that he left its mouth twisted, as it has been to this very day.

So, that is how virtually all the residents of the sea were provided self-defensive weaponry and armor, all but the carp, which was left with a permanent wry mouth!


I am happy to share this story with you because it is a bit of elusive folklore from the Jing, a rare story from an ethnic group that doesn't have many published stories available for folklore enthusiasts. Turning to the Internet, I've been able to find these two fables. 

The Jing people are apparently descendants of Vietnamese migrants who entered China. They primarily live in Guangxi Province. (See Gin people - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia) They still speak a dialect of Vietnamese that may remain intelligible to many people from Vietnam or other members of the Vietnamese diaspora. Below are some YouTube music videos that show young women of the Jing minority wearing the ao dai and playing traditional instruments:

[远方的家 720HD] 边疆行 (02) 海防京族三岛 1/3 - YouTube

【风华国乐 720HD】蓝色梦岛 / 京族独弦琴民乐 - YouTube

【天之蓝 720HD】簪蒲树 / 京族哈妹组合 京族民歌 - YouTube

This short fable is a pourquoi story, explaining the origin of certain sea animal attributes. The dragon king frequently appears in folktales and myths. Dragon kings belong to watery domains and may be related to the Hindu naga serpents. 

Motifs: A139.3, "Dragon god"; cA1459.1, "Acquisition of weapons";  A2461, "Animal's means of defense"; A2531, "Why animal is harmless (defenseless)"; B11.12.5, "The dragon-king"; B223, "Kingdom of fishes"; B248, "King of dragons." 

(2) The White Eel and the Long-Necked Crane

One day a white eel was swimming along, looking for something to eat when a long-necked crane standing on the river embankment saw him approach.

The crane stretched his neck a bit to grab the eel, but--snap! The sharp-eyed and quick-moving eel dodged the crane's beaks and instead bit onto the crane's beak, clamping down on it, preventing the crane from doing anything.

So there they were, one in the river and one on land, both wriggling, neither going anywhere. Needless to say, the eel couldn't exactly let go with the beak of such a  formidable foe locked between his own jaws.

The weather turned warm, and then both creatures commenced quarreling, as best as they could, that is, with both of their jaws locked down.

"Say, old brother, you want to live?" asked the crane. "If you do, you'd better let go of my beak now!"

"Oh, I want to live all right!" replied the eel. "Where do you get off trying to eat me? And you think I'm so stupid as to let you go? Huh! There's no way I'm letting you go!"

"So you're not letting me go?"

"No, I'm not!"

The long-necked crane could see that he was getting nowhere by trying to intimidate the eel, so he came up with a different gambit.

"Say, eel, it's not that I'm afraid of you, but think about this: If some fisherman or hunter came upon you right now, you'd be unable to escape."

"You think so? I could submerge myself and burrow myself into the mud on the floor of the river and hide there."

"So you say. I myself could just instantly fly off to the sky and right into the clouds!"

There they were, arguing back and forth about each one's merits and how he--the crane or the eel--would boldly do this or amazingly do that. And so on and on they went . . . until a fisherman did actually show up and--whoop! He scooped them both up in his bamboo basket. Off he went with both long-necked crane and white eel inside the basket.

Only now did the eel let go of the crane and did the crane refrain from trying to eat the eel. They continued their argument.

"Are you happy now?" cried the crane. "If only you had listened to me and let me go!"

"And if you hadn't tried to eat me," replied the eel, "we wouldn't be in this situation!"

"Why didn't you swim to the bottom of the river and hide in the mud? Huh?"

"And why didn't you fly up to the sky and hide in the clouds?"

And so they argued and argued until . . .  they couldn't anymore.

海白鳝和长颈鹤 - 中国民族宗教网

This is the Jing version of a fable based on the very famous Han Chinese proverb 鹬蚌相争,鱼夫得利 (i.e., "In a struggle between a sandpiper and clam, it's the fisherman who walks away with the upper hand"). In the fable that inspired the proverb, a sandpiper attempting to eat a clam gets its beak caught between the edges of the clam's top and bottom shells. While they wrangle, a fisherman comes along and snatches both of them up. A similar Korean proverb is "While the whales wrestle, the shrimp get their backs broken." The Korean proverb bemoans the fate of smaller nations that get in between more powerful warring neighbors (e.g., Russia vs. Japan or China vs. Japan). The Chinese proverb and Jing fable, however, urge quarreling neighbors or countries to unite to in order to resist larger, more formidable dangers or powers. Americans, for example, might interpret this as "United we stand; divided we fall!"

This tale is classified as 160A* ("The Pike Caught by the Fox," or "The Snipe Caught by the Mussel") in A Type Index of Chinese Folktales by Nai-tung Ting (FF Communications No. 223, Helsinki, 1978), pp. 36-37.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Little Old Man Who Sold Sticky Rice Dumplings (Taiwan)

From out of nowhere, a stranger, a little old man arrived in a village one day. He had a full head of snowy white hair, and his ruddy cheeks made him look vigorous.

He noted both the nearby mountain and the north-south path that ran by the village and decided this place was to his liking, that he would remain here and do some business. And so he rented a cottage near the foothill of the mountain. Underneath a phoenix (or flame) tree, he set up a stand to sell tangyuan, sweet sticky rice dumplings.

His dumplings were not those small marble-sized glutinous dumplings; no, his were large, plump, and delicious--fragrant and sweet. Moreover, they were sold at a very reasonable price. Soon, everyone in the neighborhood had heard of the old man's sticky rice dumplings stand and flocked over.

He began to do a brisk business.

One day a bunch of customers as usual showed up at the stand and began placing orders for his rice dumplings. One of the customers, a local farmer, noticed the old man had now set up a sign in front of his stand.

"Hey, Boss," said the farmer, "what do those characters on your sign say?"

"Well," replied the old man, "one copper coin will buy you a big dumpling."

"All right. I already know that. What does the rest of the sign say?"

"The rest says that if you pay three copper coins, you may eat until you kut ("slip," "slide," "drop")!"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means, my friend, for three copper coins, you can eat as many sticky rice dumplings as you like until you are full."

"Wa!" cried the growing throng, overhearing what the old man had said to the farmer.

"Hey," said one, "I'll pay three coins to eat all the dumplings I can!"

"Sure, so will I! Who wouldn't, with dumplings this tasty?" said another.

They each scrounged for three copper coins in their pockets, satchels and coin purses. Each one thrust forward three copper coins upon his palm.

"All right, everyone! All the dumplings you can eat coming right up!" cried the old man. Soon, the crowd of farmers, laborers, passersby and others were scarfing down fragrant, sweet sticky rice dumplings.

Well, as they say, "ten told a hundred and a hundred told a thousand." Before long, everyone from the village and outlying areas headed for the sticky rice dumpling stall under the flame tree. The crowd grew day by day, swamping the area with hungry men, women and children ready to shell out three copper coins for the chance to eat their fill of sticky rice dumplings.

As for the little old man, he worked from morning until night without rest, providing all paying customers with as many dumplings as they could eat. On and on he worked, without taking any breaks or time off. Some local ladies began to talk about him.

Li Saosao said, "With only three copper coins and then eating until you kut, I'm afraid the old gent will go bankrupt! He'll have to shut down the stand!"

"That's right!" said Great-auntie Wang. "The point of doing business is to make a profit. How long can he manage to do what he's doing?"

"Aiya," said Auntie Zhang, "who knows if he's even on the up and up or not! Maybe he's planning to go bankrupt. Maybe he's got something up his sleeve . . ."

"That's right! Who knows?" Li Saosao and Great-auntie Wang said, turning to each other and nodding.

"Listen," continued Auntie Zhang, "has anyone ever seen him at the marketplace buying rice or sugar? Has anyone ever seen him making the sticky rice dumplings? Does any of us even know from where he gets his dumplings?"

And on and on they talked . . .

Seemingly in the blink of an eye, a whole year passed since the little old man had first come to town. In the past year, not one customer opted to buy the sticky rice dumplings one by one; no, all gleefully chose to eat as much as they could for three copper coins.

Now, one day a little girl carrying a bowl approached the little old man at his stand.

"Ah Gong," she said, "I'd like to buy a dumpling."

"Oh? Just one, child? Don't you know that for three copper coins you can as many dumplings as you like?"

"I know," said the little girl. "I have more than three coins, but I just want one sticky rice dumpling. That's all!"

"Hmm . . ." said the old man. "Isn't that remarkable? Very well, child, hold out your bowl . . ."

He scooped up a big dumpling with his ladle and put it into her bowl. The little girl ate it while it was still good and warm. Then she scampered home.

Once the little girl reached home, something happened--her stomach grew and grew, not unlike that of a woman who is with child.

"Ma, come quickly!" she cried. "Look at my stomach!"

Her stomach was as big as a leather ball. The mother shrieked and then the father came.

"What happened to your stomach?" asked the father. "What did you eat?"

"A sticky rice dumpling . . . from the old man under the flame tree!"

Her parents were shocked, but then the shock turned to white fury. With their daughter in hand, they marched off to the old man's stall to confront him.

The old man saw them approach from far away. He was unconcerned; he even had a slight smile upon his face.

When he saw the angry faces of the parents, with their blue veins standing out on their heads and smoke practically bellowing from their noses and ears, the little old man chuckled and said, "You know I've been here a full year now, and every single person who comes to me plunks downs three copper coins to eat his or her fill of my dumplings--every person that is but your daughter. Your daughter's the only one to insist on eating just one dumpling instead of gorging herself as everyone else has.

"And so," he continued, "I wish to reward her for not being a glutton but rather for being moderate. I gave her a 'Pearl From the Great Ocean.' Why are you so upset?"

"'Pearl From the Great Ocean' or not, look what happened to her stomach!" said the girl's father. "How dare you harm our child, making her stomach bloat up like a huge balloon!"

"Not a problem, not a problem!" said the old man, who then lifted his hand to the sky, mumbled some words to himself, and then assumed a posture of prayer. He stepped behind the girl, and then he gave her a slap on the back.


The little girl spat out what was indeed a large "Pearl From the Great Ocean." Her stomach then shrank to its original size. The pearl itself was round and shiny, and as it spun on the ground, it gave off a striking effulgence.

"That pearl," said the old man, addressing the little girl, "is your reward for not being gluttonous."

By now a large crowd had gathered around the flame tree.

"Exactly who are you, old man?" asked someone. "And how can you make a pearl appear?"

The old man laughed and said, "I guess I can tell you. I came here to examine the hearts and minds of the people here. Never did I suspect just how much all of you are so lacking in moderation, self-control, frugality! All those sticky rice dumplings all of you so joyfully ate to  your stomach's content? Why, all of those dumplings were made from dirt I took away from the foot of that great mountain over there! If you don't believe me, go take a look."

Some villagers then rushed away to the foot of the mountain. There, they found a large pile of earth, much of which consisted of tiny little balls of rolled dirt the size of sticky rice dumplings awaiting boiling.

When those men returned and told their neighbors, friends and family members gathered what they had found, the throng turned ugly. Countless pairs of glaring eyes turned towards the little old man, as many coughed and tried to vomit up the "dumplings" they had just moments before consumed like starving wolves.

"Who are you?" asked those gathered. "Why did you do something so disgustingly immoral as to feed us dirt? We're going to let you have it . . ."

The little old man chuckled, and then, before everyone's eyes, he floated up into the sky and out of sight.

Originally, the little old man was no mere human; he was, instead, an immortal.

Jiang Rulin & Guo Fengjuan. 台灣民間故事 [Taiwanese folktales]. Taipei: Liangguang, 1987; pp. 4-15. 

This anthology seems geared towards students of grammar school age. The flame, or phoenix, tree, the Delonix regia, apparently originates in Madagascar, and, according to various sources on the Internet, didn't arrive on Taiwan until relatively recently, the late 1890's. Tangyuan (湯圓) on Taiwan commonly have a sweet red bean paste filling and are often enjoyed around the New Year. Kut (滑)means "to slip." 

Motifs: A171.0.2, "God (immortal) ascends to heaven"; D452.4, "Transformation: earth (dirt) to another object; D855, "Magic (pearl) acquired as reward"; cK1811.2, "Deity (immortal) disguised as old man visits mortals"; cQ277, "Covetousness punished"; Q552.3.5, "Punishment for greed (gluttony)."