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)."

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