Sunday, July 16, 2017

Uncle Bird (Taiwan -- Paiwan)

There once were two young brothers, orphans. They had no family in this world, and so they kept to themselves.

One day, as they were playing together out in a field, an old man in the area, Waluwalun, called out to them: "Hey, boys! Come over here. I noticed you two are all alone. Let me teach you how to work and to take care of yourselves!"

The boys looked at each other; true, they had no family, no one wanted to care for them, so they nodded and off they went to live with Waluwalun.

The next morning, Waluwalun said, "All right, boys. Ready for the first lesson? Today you're going off to the forest to cut down some branches so that we can make clubs. So, off with you!" He then stayed home to make rope.

Soon the brothers came home with branches.

"Uncle!" one of the two cried. "There are many people out working on the land!"

"Never mind that," Waluwalun said. "Now I need you to go out and gather some animal bones."

The boys picked up a bamboo basket and went off to gather bones.

Soon they returned with a basket full of animal bones.

"Uncle!" one of them cried. "How are these?"

"You don't have enough yet. Better go back out and gather more."

"Why do you keep braiding rope, Uncle?"

"Never you mind. Now go out and get some more bones."

By and by, the boys returned with more animal bones.

"All right," said Waluwalun, "here's what we shall do. We'll take the clubs, bones, rope, and these cucumber seeds out to our field."

So off the three of them went. Once they got to the field, the old man had the boys stick one club in each corner of the field and then had them use the rope to cordon the area off, wrapping the rope around each club. They now stood in the center of a large rectangular plot of land. He told them to bury the animal bones in the soil. He next had them gather stones to build some low stone walls, next to which they planted the cucumber seeds.

"That's it for today, boys! Now let's go home."

And so they went home.

A few days later, Waluwalun said, "Go out to our field and take a look at it. Let me know if everything seems fine."

The boys rushed out and soon came back, one beaming and the other, less so.


"Uncle! The seeds have sprouted!" one brother said.

"Yes, but Uncle," the other brother said, "the millet others planted is now ready to harvest . . ."

"Ahh, no doubt but don't worry about it," the old man said.

The next day, Waluwalun taught the two brothers how to catch and skin a boar, not an easy task for an adult, let alone a child.

Once the boar had been skinned, Waluwalun told them, "Well, you've been so concerned about what others were doing, with their breaking up the land, their millet sprouting and such. Why don't you two take a little stroll with the boar's heart and feet. Let all the others take a gander at what you have done!"

The boys liked that idea, so they did precisely that.

Little did they know that the reaction they would receive would not be the one they had expected.

They passed a gaggle of villagers, who, instead of being amazed at the boar's heart and feet, started jeering the boys, laughing and pointing at them.

"Ha ha!" one of the village rabble laughed. "That 'uncle' of yours! Don't you know he's just a bird?"

"What did you just say?" asked one of the brothers.

"That old man who takes care of you is . . . is . . . a bird!" said one of the rabble.

"Chirp! Chirp! Tweet! Tweet! The old man's only a bird in human form!" laughed another.

The brothers were surprised, shocked, embarrassed. They quickly ran home.

"Uncle! Uncle!" one of the two cried. "The villagers all say you're just a bird, a bird in human form!"

Waluwalun shrugged his shoulders. "And what of it? Do you care what others think? Does it matter to you?"

"Well . . . no, I guess it doesn't . . ."

"Fine, then. Let's not hear any more of it."

The boys said nothing more about it and ran outside. Once again they encountered people from the village who laughed at them.

"Having a bird for an uncle! Can you believe it?"

"I wonder if he has them sleep in some nest in that hut!"

On and on the rabble, some of whom were doubled over, laughing until tears fell from their eyes, ridiculed the two brothers. The two brothers ran back home again. They found Waluwalun in the back of the hut, cooking something. Once again, they told the old man what others from the village had said.

'They kept saying you're a bird!" said one.

"Yes! They kept laughing at us and said that we slept in a nest!" said the other.

"Enough!" said Waluwalun. "Enough! I don't need to hear this anymore! I can leave this place." Next, with a loud gua gua, he turned into an actual bird right before their very eyes. Flapping his wings, he said one last thing in the language of people: "Pigs to feed and grain seeds to plant--I don't need to worry about such things anymore! They're all your chores now! Good bye and good luck!"

He then flew away from the back of his hut where, just moments before, he had been standing as a human, and now, never to be seen again.

Lin Daosheng, Vol. 2; pp. 97-100. See the bibliographic citation for 7/4/17. 

Paiwan tribal land takes up most of Taiwan's southern peninsula.

This story shows a theme we can see in indigenous Taiwanese folklore: transformation or metamorphosis into an animal through mimicry, sheer frustration or rage without restoration to human form at the conclusion of the narrative. For example, in one tale a lazy man turns into a monkey simply by attaching an artificial tale  to his own bottom (Lin Daosheng, Vol. 1, p. 24). In another example, an angry child becomes an eagle by attaching feathers to his body to punish his mother who had given him chore after chore while reneging on a promise to allow him some leisure time (Lin Daosheng, Vol. 1, pp. 25-26). Why a bird, though? What animal better symbolizes a longing to be free, unshackled than a bird? ("Hope is a thing with feathers," wrote American poet Emily Dickinson.) This longing to be free is one of the three reasons Boris Riftin posits for the abundance of transformation-into-bird tales. The other two reasons are, respectively, the many opportunities to observe birds in tropical and semi-tropical locations as opposed to catching glimpses of the stealthier forest predators, and the popular belief that one's soul becomes a bird upon death (Riftin, 從神話鬼話, 1999; pp. 310-311). Moreover, what other animal possibly better reconciles earth and heaven than a bird which navigates both realms (see Hans Dieckmann, Twice-Told Tales: The Psychological Use of Fairy Tales; Boris Matthews, trans.; Wilmette, Ill.: Chiron, 1986; p. 38)? Similar tales of transformation into birds and other forest creatures can be found in the folk literature of Filipino tribal peoples (See Mable Cook Cole, Philippine Folk Tales; N.p.: Forgotten Books, 2007; Damiana Eugenio,  Philippine Folk Literature: The Myths; Quezon City: University of the Philipines Press, 1993). 

In their fascinating book Hopi Stories of Witchcraft, Shamanism, and Magic (Lincoln, Neb.and; London: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), Ekkehart Malotki and Ken Gary suggest some shamanistic motifs of Hopi tales that might also be universal. Among these is a transformation into an animal (e.g., bird), a motif found here as well as in other indigenous Taiwanese folktales and legends. 

The themes of minding one's own business and being grateful for what one has are difficult to miss in this story!

Motifs: B211.3, "Speaking bird"; D159, "Transformation: man to bird"; cQ281.1, "Ungrateful children punished." 

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