Long, long ago in ancient times, there was a girl who lived with just her father and her horse far out in the countryside. This girl was alone with her horse a lot while her dad was out of the area working.
So, it was just this very young woman and her horse to watch over the house and to pass the time together. She doted on her horse and made sure the horse was well fed every day.
The girl missed her father a lot, so one day, feeling bored and a little cheeky, she said to the horse, "Tell you what. If you go and fetch my father for me, I shall marry you!"
Like an arrow, the horse slipped out of its reins and took off, leaving the girl behind in the dust, watching, stunned. Off the horse galloped until it was out of sight. It didn't stop until it found the father at work some distance from home.
Why, this is our horse! he thought. What in the world has happened to bring him here? I need to leave and return home . . .
He got up on the horse and immediately road back home, worried something was amiss with his daughter. The father returned home soon enough and saw that nothing was out of order. His daughter didn't reveal her careless oath to the horse and just let on she had no clue why the horse had behaved that way. The father was perplexed but dropped the matter.
After the father's return, the horse began to act very strangely. Normally, the horse would eat hay with relish; now, however, the horse refused to eat. What's more, every time the girl appeared, the horse would neigh and kick up its hoofs as if possessed.
The father witnessed this and knew there was more to the story than he had been told.
"All right," he told his daughter, "I want the truth. Why is your horse acting like this?"
"I told him I'd marry him if he would bring you back home . . . It was just a joke . . ."
"Daughter, how could you have done something like this?" The father was livid. "No one should ever make an oath like that, joking or not! You have caused great shame to our family! For the time being, you are not to leave the house until I say otherwise!"
The father then grabbed his bow and quiver of arrows and stepped outside to the horse stall. He shot the unfortunate horse with an arrow, skinned it, and hung the horsehide to dry outside.
The father was once again hired to work away from home.
On this day, the girl was outside, playing with several other neighboring girls. In the midst of a game, the girl spied the horsehide still hanging on a hook. She walked over to it and gave it a good kick.
"Well, look at you!" she then said. "Just a farm animal, a working animal, that's all! You thought you were going to get married, but now look at you! Just a dead animal's hide drying, twisting in the wind! So much for your stupid dreams!"
And then, with a great whoosh, the hide lifted off from the hook, enveloped the girl from head to foot and flew off with her into the sky and across the horizon.
The neighborhood girls, frozen with fright, pulled themselves together and ran off to find the girl's father. They finally located him at another home a little distance away.
The father then ran off on a frantic search for his daughter. He scoured the surrounding areas, all to no avail. He didn't give up, though, and finally located something a few days later in the forest, growing on a tree--a giant cocoon that covered what looked like an animal hide. It was the same horsehide all right, and it was simply huge, the biggest cocoon ever, totally encased in silky strands.
In time, women of the area gently removed the cocoon from the branch and brought it to the ground, where they would feed it and watch over it.
The tree on which the cocoon originally grew became known as the sangshu [桑树], what we call the mulberry tree.
Azoth Translation and Editing Team, eds.., 經典中國童話 [Classic Chinese Fairy Tales]; Taipei: Azoth Books, 2012; pp. 48-49; 蚕女 - 维基百科，自由的百科全书; 蚕神姑娘_民间故事_中国历史故事网
The earliest version of this story is from Records of the Search for the Gods [搜神記] by Gan Bao (fl. 315-336 A.D.). For an excellent academic analysis of this story, including a different variant of this tale and its psychoanalytical significance, see a1075.pdf by Professor Alan Miller.
The version translated and adapted above reveals the cruelty of the girl just before her abduction by the horsehide.
Azoth titled this story as "The Horsehide Maiden" [馬皮姑娘] rather than the more traditional title by which this story is known, the title I used for this translated and adapted version. Other versions are titled "The Horsehead Girl" [馬頭女], alluding to the ideal shape of a silk cocoon--a soft long body with a "head" faintly resembling that of a horse, also alluding to the eventual disposition of the girl in the story herself.
The Chinese name for "Mulberry" is a play on words: "Mulberry," sang [桑], versus "mourning" [喪], also pronounced sang. Both are pronounced with the first tone. The idea is perhaps conflating plant protein from the mulberry leaves and excreted by larvae with the process of mourning to signify the daughter's transition and her inability to be seen again. Various commentators on this story suggest the cult of the Horsehide Maiden eventually led to the spawning of the silk industry.
Motifs: A2811, "Origin of silk"; cB611.3, "Horse paramour"; cC16, "Tabu: Offending animal husband"; D264, "Transformation of man (woman) to skein of silk; cS215.1, "Girl promises herself to animal suitor."