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.

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