Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Cheeky Werefox Plays Matchmaker (Han & Hui)

Two hunters were after a fox and had chased the creature for a good ten li without letting up. The fox, exhausted by the chase, continued to run for its life. It ran around to the other side of a hill, giving the two hunters a momentary slip. There, by a path, the fox encountered an old gent collecting animal droppings and putting them in his dou, a long conical container made of woven reeds.

"Grandpa, Grandpa," begged the fox, "please save me! Not far behind me are two men who want to kill me for my pelt. Maybe my own life's but a drop in the bucket, but back home at my lair my cubs will starve to death without me! Do me the favor of hiding me and I promise I'll reward you!"

The old man looked at the fox and saw how desperate and pitiful it looked.

"All right, all right, Fox . . . " he said, emptying the dou of its stinky contents. "Now, climb in and hide inside the dou."

The fox immediately leaped inside. The old man then quickly scooped up the scat and put it back inside the dou and on top of the fox hiding inside the reed container.

Seconds later, the two hunters came along the path, stopping when they came to the old man.  The old man made himself look as nonchalant as possible.

"Good day, young fellows!"

"Old man, did you happen to see a fox come this way?" asked one of the hunters.

"Oh, yes," said the old man randomly pointing in a direction. "It went that way."

The pair then headed off in haste in the direction to which the old man had pointed.

When they were good and gone, the old man scooped out the ordure and said, "All right, Fox, come on out. You're safe. They're gone."

The fox climbed out, shook off any droppings clinging to its fur, and thanked the old manure collector, saying, "You'll be rewarded for this! You shall see!"

The fox then ran off towards the woods and was soon out of sight.

The old man returned to his cottage, which he shared with his eighteen year old son, who had been studying for his examinations in a local academy. His elderly father had saved and scrimped each coin to pay for his son's tuition.

Now, it so happened that the boy had been passing by the home of a local wealthy family on the way to school. He caught a glimpse of the young lady of the house, a staggeringly beautiful young woman of eighteen, the same age as he himself. He made a point of passing by the house every morning.

Then, one day it happened--from afar, he saw her smile and laugh. That did it. He was now totally smitten by her.  He contrived a way to meet her. They met, and she ended up liking him.

In any case,  he eventually realized nothing could ever come of it. She was of a totally different class from his--hers being the wealthy gentry. He was still bewitched by her, nevertheless, and nothing he did could shake off his thoughts of her, especially since he had really begun to know her and sensed that she liked him.

He started coming home and then, without studying or reviewing his lessons, just falling asleep on the kang, the brick oven the top of which serves as a heated surface for a bed on cold days and nights in the north of China.

His father noticed that day after day he now spent all his time on the kang. He thought his son must be ill, which to some extent he was.

After a few days of his son's moping around on the kang, the father said one evening, "Son, you've spent many years of deep studying, using much of your energy to do so. Now, for the past couple of days, you've been in bed, just lying around, doing absolutely nothing, not even cracking open a book. Are you sick or something?"

"No, Father, I'm not sick. I just don't feel like studying anymore."

"What? Son, since your mother left us, I've worked and worked to pay for your education and have had to be both a father and a mother since you were five years old. Now, you've grown into a young man, and you're telling me you no longer plan to study! I deserve to know a reason why."

"Very well, Father, " said the son, and he proceeded to tell his father of how he could not get his young woman friend from the wealthy family out of his mind.

"So, you see, Father, " he concluded, "It's no use trying to study. I can't concentrate. Night and day, I just can't think of anything else except her."

"Son, I can understand your heartache, but you can't simply toss out all your years of studying and preparations for a match that was never meant to be! Be realistic! Did you seriously expect the daughter of such prosperous parents could ever be your wife?"

"No, I thought so as well but couldn't bring myself to admit it, which is why I am in the state I am now. I'm looking at some dangerous days ahead . . ."

"What, Son?"

"Hey!" said a handsome young stranger, pushing open the door and standing in the doorway. "It's already night time. Isn't either one of you going to sleep? What's all this talk of sad things anyway?"

The old man, the father, turned around, and yelled, "Who do you think you are, coming in here? Whoever you are, what's any of this to you?"

"I heard everything. Your son is in love with a young woman with whom he can never marry, so he's lost the will to continue his studies. Well, in this matter, I can help."

"I don't know who you are, " said the father. "You aren't a friend; you aren't a relative; you aren't a neighbor. Why would you want to help my son?"

"Come, come," said the young man. "Your son needs help. How could I just stand around and observe and not help? Now, listen. Tomorrow, I will deliver to you 300 ounces of silver to assist you in this matter. I don't care if you don't repay me for even three years. Just take the silver."

The old man couldn't believe his ears. A stranger who has come out of nowhere and who has now overheard his son's plight will lend them 300 ounces of silver for the bride price!

With some suspicion, the father said, "If you do this for us, my son and I will be grateful to you for the rest of our lives as our benefactor."

The young stranger smiled and waved his hand. "Never mind such talk! The silver is but a scab off the skin to me. Use it so your boy can marry the girl of his dreams!" And then he left.

The young stranger kept his word. At the break of dawn, he arrived with the 300 ounces of silver

"Here it is, " he said. "Oh, by the way, allow me the honor of approaching the young lady's family to speak on your son's behalf as well as to deliver the bride price."

The father and his son were overjoyed and gave the young man their permission and blessings.

As it turned out, there was some wrangling in the negotiations, but the young stranger's mission was, in the end, successful. Both parties--the bride's family and the old man--next selected an auspicious date for the wedding to occur within the upcoming month.

And, so, the wedding took place without a hitch!

However, that's not the end of the story . . .

Soon came the night in which the bride and groom were to enter the wedding chamber for the first time. In came the bride, along with the groom, but then another bride, the exact twin of the other bride right down to her shoes, also entered.

"Who are you?" asked the first bride.

"Pardon me. I need to ask  who you are!" replied the second bride.

"I am the bride of this man!" said the first. "I rode in the bridal sedan chair, not you!"

"Oh no, you most certainly did not, Miss! That was I, wasn't it, Husband?" the second one asked the groom.

The groom felt he was losing his mind. Both brides looked alike; he couldn't tell who was who or who was the real bride.

The two women bickered and raised a ruckus until one of them said, "All right! She is the actual bride. I am but a fox." Turning to the groom, the false bride, the fox, said, "Your father saved my life when two hunters were after me for my fur. He hid in his manure sack and sent them off on a wild chase. He saved my life. In turn, I came up with the 300 ounces of silver and the matchmaking proposal so you could be married. I guess I saved your life!

"Anyway, as they say, 'One life saves another; goodness is repaid by goodness.' May you both have a wonderful, long life together!"

Ehhhh . . .

With a slight groan, she, the fox in disguise, was gone.

海原民间故事 [Folktales From Haiyuan], Wang Xinlin, ed.; Yinchuan, Ningxia: Yangguang Publishers, 2013 [Kindle Paperwhite].

Here, the werefox, or fox shapeshifter, performs a good deed. Perhaps the fox's wily nature appears at the end with the scene where the werefox impersonates the actual bride, suggesting that just as "a leopard cannot change its spots," a fox or werefox remains cunning or even duplicitous. Moreover, the fox, the sex of which is not identified in the story, proves itself to be a shapeshifter par excellence, first appearing in the guise of a young man and then, as the bride herself. 

This story is from Haiyuan, Ningxia, where a majority of residents are Hui people. For other Hui tales, see 12/28/12 and 5/27/13. However, Han people also live in Ningxia, so I'm hesitant to classify this as a purely Hui tale. 

This story is reminiscent of "Puss in Boots" (tale type 545B). Professor Ting Nai-tung indicates in his A Type Index of Chinese Folktales (Folklore Fellows Communication No. 223, Helsinki, 1978) that the animal helper in the Chinese versions of this particular tale type is usually either a fox or a rabbit (p. 96). 

Motifs: B300, "Helpful animal"; B350, "Grateful animal"; B435.1, "Helpful fox"; B582, "Animal helps person to success in love"; Q10, "Deeds rewarded."

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