Monday, July 3, 2017

The Jade Mirror (Atayal)

There once were two sisters who lived all on their own. They had to be on their own, for their parents had passed away, and there was no one else to look out for them.

The older sister, Ya'ge, had not much going for her. True, she was not a great beauty who had to apply lots of makeup to keep up appearance, but that was not the problem. No, the real issue was her true ugliness--her narcissism, laziness and great temper--lay well beneath the skin and ran all the way to the bone.

The younger sister, Wuyang, was a complete contrast to her sister. She was pleasant to behold and as pretty inside. Unlike her older sister, she was a cheerful hard worker.

One day the two of them were at home. Wuyang was busy weaving fabric while Ya'ge was busy, busy in love with her image in a polished jade mirror.

"Wuyang," asked Ya'ge, turning away from the mirror, "am I not pretty? Come and tell me!"

"Oh, Ya'ge, please," said Wuyang. "Must you spend all day looking into the mirror? All the time you've spent so far could have gone toward planting crops or doing something useful! I'd appreciate some help! I can't do everything by myself."

Ya'ge had apparently not heard a thing.

"Ya'ge! You should do something to help out in case there's an emergency, instead of sitting around all day looking into the mirror. If we end up starving, will it matter then how pretty you are?"

"Huh! What kind of mean, nasty, big-mouthed sister are you? I'll spend time looking in the mirror all I like, thank you."

"Ya'ge, come on! If we keep ourselves busy doing something good, something useful, we'll be happier, healthier, won't we? We also won't starve if there's a--"

"Wuyang, didn't I just suggest to you to mind your own business?"

Wuyang was now sorry she had made Ya'ge cross.

"Big Sister," she said, "don't be mad. Can't we just be happy and enjoy each other's company?"

"I think perhaps not. No, I've been thinking about us for a while now. I have decided I don't want to be with a rude big mouth like you anymore. We need to split up."

"Ya'ge, don't joke that way. You can't be serious. Please forgive me for opening my big mouth when I shouldn't have. Go ahead and scold me. I deserve it."

"Scold you? Scold you? How dare I? Why, you're Little Miss Perfect--beautiful, skilled, well-mannered, not an ugly clod like me!" 

"Ya'ge, I've never even said anything like that--"

Ya'ge shot Wuyang a withering stare. Wuyang had weathered Ya'ge's moodiness all her life, but this time she sensed Ya'ge was serious about their splitting up. She began to cry and plead with her older sister.

"Big Sister, please forgive me. We've been together since Father and Mother left. We've been through good times and bad times! Don't let something stupid I said--"

"Stop! Say no more! That's it! I've made up my mind, so this is it for us!"

And so it was.

Stubborn Ya'ge had, as they say, "a heart and guts made of iron." So what could these two young women who shared a single-room hut do to split up? They simply went their own ways, each taking care of herself and not acknowledging the presence of the other. In truth, only one of the pair really did anything to take care of herself, while the other spent most of her time doing what she loved to do best, studying herself in the mirror. Other than that, she scrounged around to feed herself.

One day, when Ya'ge was by herself, scrutinizing herself from every angle in the mirror, she heard a voice say, "You're ugly!"

"What? Who said that?" She looked around.

"Yes, you're ugly!" It was the mirror speaking to her. "Ugly, ugly, ugly, ugly, ugly! Ugly as disease! Ugly as a stench! Ugly as a nightmare!"

Ya'ge was dumbstruck. Was this all a dream? She stared at the mirror.

"Ahh, stop it!" cried the mirror. "Stop looking at me! It hurts! You're as ugly as a cockroach! You're hideous, but your sister is pretty, pretty, pretty!"

"You stupid bewitched mirror!" said Ya'ge, grabbing the mirror off the wall, preparing to smash it upon the floor. "Be gone--"

"Ya'ge, stop! What are you doing?" Wuyang had just returned from the vegetable patch. "The mirror belonged to our parents! You can't break it!"

"Oh, can't I? Shut up and mind your own business!" She raised the mirror over her head.

"Ugly, ugly, ugly!" said the mirror. "Ugly heart! Ugly eyes! Ugly temper! Did I already say, 'Ugly heart'? Wuyang is pretty, pretty, pretty! Pretty heart! Pretty eyes! Pretty--"

Ya'ge slammed the mirror onto the floor, shattering it into eight large pieces and silencing the voice.

"Ya'ge . . . Big Sister . . . how could you?"

Wuyang's tears flowed onto the floor as she knelt down to pick up the eight chunks. She then carried the pieces away and placed them under her pillow She remembered the day her father had brought this round, smooth jade stone home, having found it while hunting on a mountain ridge, seeing it lying upon a larger white jade rock. Wuyang remembered how she herself had further polished it to such a sheen that it could be used as a good usable mirror. How sad she was to see it had been broken into pieces. Every day she would come home from her chores and look at the remnants of the mirror. Then the tears would once again flow . . .

Many days and nights passed.

One evening, while Ya'ge was sleeping and snoring away, Wuyang sat on her bed, unable to sleep, upset about the loss of her parents, her poor relations with her sister, and the destruction of the only belonging left from her parents, the jade mirror. She heard a strange sound and saw a brilliant white light bleeding out from beneath her pillow.

She lifted the pillow--the broken pieces of jade had somehow reformed themselves into a mirror, an intact, unbroken mirror. From the mirror now came rays of rainbow lights, filling the small hut, dancing on the walls, gradually forming themselves into a tight circle around Wuyang, making the already lovely young woman look radiant and beautiful.

With her trembling hands, Wuyang took the mirror and held it close to her bosom.

"Wuyang, don't be sad," said the mirror. "Continue to work hard. You'll have a meaningful, happy life. Good people like those who work hard, and those who work hard are rewarded in more ways than one. I like you and shall remain with you always. Would you like me to stay?"

"Oh, Mirror, yes, yes! I like you too, so please stay with me forever!"

That night, Wuyang enjoyed the deepest, sweetest sleep she had ever experienced.

Ya'ge, meanwhile, slept on.

From that day on, even though Wuyang always left the mirror under her pillow, the mirror would somehow show up wherever she was doing her chores--whether up in the mountains collecting firewood, planting crops in the patch, drawing water from the stream. Whenever Wuyang encountered danger, the mirror would be there right by her side, warding off any threat to Wuyang, protecting her every minute of the day and night. Once, for instance, the mirror suddenly appeared as she was gathering firewood. "Wuyang, drop what you have and leave now! A hungry black bear is just around the bend! Come this way!" On more than one occasion, the mirror thus saved Wuyang's life.

In the evening Wuyang could do her weaving with light supplied from the mirror. Gone was the need for candles or lanterns, for the mirror could illuminate the hut as brightly as the afternoon sun rays coming in through the window.

Ya'ge remained unaware of all this--sleeping day and night without a care in the world. The two sisters usually didn't meet, for Wuyang was an early riser and would return later at night. Anyway, Ya'ge would always be sound asleep. The mirror continued to dislike Ya'ge and would always hide itself from her, never allowing Ya'ge to know of its presence or magical powers. Wuyang chose to remain mum about it.

With the mirror's help and protection, Wuyang prospered. She was able to plant and harvest crops, gather and sell more firewood, and weave more fabric to sell. She built up a growing income. She became known far and wide as a good catch, and many eligible young men, prodded by their own parents and matchmakers, lined up to ask her for her hand in marriage.

"Mirror, whom do I choose?" she asked. "There are so many nice young men, and I'm swamped with offers. Please help me."

"Wuyang, choose Minglai," said the mirror. "He works hard, hunts, fishes, tends to his father's fields without complaint. He's honest and has a good heart. He shall love you and be considerate to you. He shall bring you great fortune. Let the choice be Minglai!"

So Wuyang indeed chose Minglai and they wed. Everyone in the nearby village helped the newlywed couple by constructing a home for them. In time, Wuyang gave birth to her first child. Wuyang now had a family again.

Everything was no so rosy for Ya'ge, however. You might say she slept her life away. When the time came that she wanted to get married too, there was, unfortunately, no one for her. She continued to sleep and sleep. If she worked half a day, she would then sleep for two full days. She also ate badly and neglected her health. Local people shunned her, regarding her as lazy, unproductive. Her life ended early, and she died all alone in her hut.

The Atayal people place a high value on those who work hard to better themselves and those around them. Thus, this story has been told from one generation to another and will continue to be told.

Cai Tiemin, ed. 高山族民间故事选. [Selection of folktales from the Taiwanese indigenous peoples]. Shanghai: Shanghai Wenyi Chubanshe, 1987; pp. 73-77. 

This story shall be the first in a series of stories from the indigenous tribes of Taiwan. 

The Austronesian Atayal live in north-central and eastern Taiwan. 

What can a mirror do in folk literature? It may reflect the soul. It can tell the truth that dares not be spoken. It can also reveal the ugliness of narcissistic preoccupation with the self when no other person can. Here, the mirror to which Ya'ge retreats to delude herself turns on her, now emitting a harsh parental voice seemingly from beyond the grave, rather cruelly censuring her when her slothfulness and love for herself have become unbearable. Parental authority dies hard if it indeed can die at all, and here it is the inner chatter of the strict, relentless introjected parental voice,  or superego itself, that cannot be stilled. 

This story, like "Cinderella," deals with sibling rivalry, besides the mirror-gazing dangers of narcissism found in "Snow White." There are no animal helpers or fairy godmothers in this story; instead, there is the talking jade mirror to stand in for the parent or parents missing in Wuyang's life. The parents may be gone, but the presumed competition for their favor, perhaps for the father's love, lives on, though it would appear that the lazy Ya'ge has long given up her part in the struggle. Bruno Bettelheim, writing about "Cinderella" in The Uses of Enchantment, suggests that such rivalry stems not so much from the often customary dislike two siblings may have for each other but rather from the knowledge of one child that a parent favors the more industrious, more pleasing child (238). The sibling enmity is compounded by the fact that the parent is no longer physically around but the memory of his/her favoritism and the psychically generated voice that embodies it remain, in this case, lodged in a rock, a symbol of that which is tied to the earth. 

Motifs: D1163, "Magic mirror"; D1311.2, "Mirror answers questions"; Q5, "Laziness punished; industry rewarded." 

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