Friday, April 8, 2022

Ghost Maiden (Hmong)

 Over in A'xiubangning, there was once a huge field, where every year around New Year's Day and several days after the Tiaohua (or "Flower Jumping or Hopping") Festival would be held. Young Hmong men and women would flock there to attend the festival, take walks in the moonlight, and perhaps find the love of their lives there. 

Ruo'gai Sinilu was one of the young men who arrived to take part in this year's festival. A well-regarded, handsome youth and someone who was proficient at playing the lusheng, or bamboo flute, Ruo'gai was hoping to find his future wife on one of the upcoming evenings at the festival.  

On the opening day of the festival, Ruo'gai was there, all dressed up in his finery, playing the flute as he had never played it before. The sweet sounds of his melodious flute went up the mountains and down into the valleys. No one who heard his music mistook it for anyone else's; all felt that this young man was destined for something great. 

The beautiful spirit Niya Sigugashedi had also heard the sounds of Ruo'gai's bamboo, and unbeknownst to Ruo'gai, she had been in love with him for a number of years. At other festivals, smitten by his good looks, she had walked side by side with him as he performed and danced, and he had never been any the wiser since Niya Sigugashedi had always remained invisible.  

And now here he was again--playing the flute while dancing with high steps. 

Niya decided she would appear to him in human form and flirt and play with him a bit. If he liked her, she would commit to remaining in human form and, if possible, marry him. 

So, Ruo'gai played and danced, and then spied coming towards him a most lovely young lady, maybe seventeen or eighteen years old, her loop earrings jingling, her silver necklaces shimmering in the dusk. 

A goddess . . . ? thought Ruo'gai. 

The beautiful girl walked right up to him, smiling, and said, "Ruo'gai Siniliu! Nice to meet you!"

Ruo'gai had fallen in love with her immediately before he had a chance to respond. 

"Hello . . . Whose household are you from? And how did you know my name?" 

"Hahaha! Ruo'gai, the well-known flutist and dancer? Are you joking? Even ghosts know your name."

"Then, young lady, you must be a ghost!"

"Ruo'gai," she responded with a smile, "in any case, you're not a ghost, and I'm no longer a living being. I'm Niya Sigugashedi, and I'm here to be together with you."

Niya Sigugashedi, the beautiful ghost of Hmong legend! he thought. He reached out for her hand, but she suddenly vanished into thin air. "Niya, Niya, where did you go?" he cried. 

He played his flute, hoping its sounds would reach Niya, wherever she was. 

Then, from the air itself, came the sound of someone making music with a leaf, the sound of a mu'ye, and, in the euphonious voice of a young woman, it said, "Ruo'gai, I'm at Dao'yue'ning, waiting for you! Come to me whether you love me or not!"

Ruo'gai instantly headed for Dao'yue'ning. Once there, he looked all over for Niya but could find no trace of her. 

Yes, he thought, it must indeed be a ghost with whom I'm in love. 

Playing the flute, he sang, "Niya! Niya! Where are you?"  

Once again came the squeaky, high-pitched sound of mu'ye music, with a voice saying, "Ruo'gai! I'm by the Great Sea, waiting for you! Come to me whether you love me or not!"

After some time, Ruo'gai finally arrived at the Great Sea. Across the water, on the other shore, was Niya, apparently washing something. Her image in the shimmering water entranced him. 

"Ruo'gai," she said, "you'll need to cross this water to come here. Here, come on over by walking on this cloth as a bridge." 

She unfurled the roll of cloth, which then instantly turned into a stone bridge that ended right where Ruo'gai stood. 

"Come on!" she said. "It's safe!"

Ruo'gai walked on the bridge and thus crossed over to be by the side of Niya. 

"Let's become husband and wife," said Ruo'gai. 

"I've loved you for a long time," said Niya, "and I'll gladly return to the world of the living just to be with you! Now, I'll need to let my father and mother know about our plans. There might be some trouble with them, but you'll need to meet them. Are you ready to go with me so that I can introduce you to them?"

"Let's go!" said Ruo'gai. 

Niya took Ruo'gai deep into a long, dark cave. Along the corridors of the caves were mounds of bones, and on the walls hung human legs. Ruo'gai felt the hair on his neck rise with alarm and his teeth chatter as he proceeded deep into the cave. 

Finally, they arrived at a chamber, and inside were Niya's parents, two old ghosts. The mother and father knew that this must be the man their daughter had fallen in love with and would wed. They also sensed that he was not wealthy but rather somewhat impoverished. They were deeply incensed that their daughter would love such a man, but they still put on a good show and feigned delight. 

"Ah, Niya," said the father, "you've brought our son-in-law to be! We'll prepare your accommodations for tonight in the annex. Tomorrow shall be the big day with a special wedding banquet!"

"Thank you, Father and Mother!" said Niya, but she knew something was amiss. The giveaway was her parents' having them stay in the annex instead of one of the bedrooms. 

Ruo'gai felt very happy about meeting the parents and believed they liked him. 

Afterward, when they had left the presence of her parents, Niya turned to Ruo'gai and said, "Don't be so happy. You're marked for death."

Ruo'gai, who had been very pleased with his future parents-in-law, asked, "What do you mean? 'Marked for death' by whom? Your parents? They were very sweet and I enjoyed meeting them."

"You're too trusting. The main dish for the big dinner tomorrow shall be you!"

"We'll need to flee from this place," said Ruo'gai. 

"Yes," said Niya, "we shall, but first wait here for a moment while I return home to collect a few items that I'll need."

Soon she returned with the following objects: three horse spoons, three chopsticks, and three spirit nets. The horse spoons would be talismans the ghosts found to be noxious and tabooed, something they would deeply fear; the chopsticks would be for obstructing the movements of ghosts; and the spirit nets would be for permanently entrapping the ghosts. 

In the middle of the night, "when no chickens were clucking or dogs were barking," as they say, the pair fled into the darkness. Their escape did not go unnoticed. The little ghosts guarding the area reported this back to Niya's parents, who ordered the ghosts to capture the pair. 

Niya had anticipated all this. Of course, no mortal could possibly move as swiftly as a ghost, so Niya threw a horse spoon behind them as they ran along the path, forcing the alarmed ghosts to take a very wide detour to catch up to them. Niya was aware of this and tossed another horse spoon behind them. This again greatly deterred the pursuing ghosts, allowing Niya and Ruo'gai to escape farther along the path. When she sensed the ghosts had once again become close to catching up, she threw down the final horse spoon. 

Niya and Ruo'gai proceeded on while the ghosts had yet again to find a long way around the horse spoon. 

Soon enough it became apparent that the ghosts were once again close to catching up. Niya took one of the chopsticks and tossed it behind them. Immediately, a lush virtual forest of asparagus stalks appeared between Niya and Ruo'gai on one side and the ghosts on the other. Now, if there's one thing that ghosts just love, it's asparagus. The ghosts stopped in their tracks, collected all the asparagus they could carry, and took the asparagus stalks back to their home. 

Niya and Ruo'gai continued on, and soon it was time to discard another chopstick, leading to the sprouting of another asparagus "forest." This again sidetracked the ever-approaching ghosts, forcing them to pick as many stalks of asparagus as they could carry away. Niya was eventually forced later to throw down the last chopstick. 

They continued and then realized the very speedy ghosts were not far behind them. This time Niya threw down all three spirit nets. This very act and the result of seeing three such nets facing them terrified the ghosts so much that they feared to continue their pursuit of Niya and Ruo'gai. The ghosts halted in their tracks. They turned around in great fear and fled back to from where they had come. 

Niya and Ruo'gai reached the land of the living, and she re-entered life as a human. They married and both worked hard to build good lives for themselves and the children they had planned to have. Not long after, they indeed had children. Ruo'gai plowed the land and grew crops, while Niya spun and wove cloth. They lived good lives until, as it is said, "they grew old and white-haired."


Guizhou minjiangushi 贵州民间故事 [Folktales of Guizhou]; pp. 97-101. (See 3/31/22 for citation.)

Here's a YouTube video of the Hmong Tiaohua Festival: 苗族千人同跳芦笙舞过“跳花节” / Hop Flower Festival of Miao People in Guizhou, China - YouTube 

I had some difficulty with the Chinese transcriptions of Hmong names (Ruo'gaisinilu 若改司尼陆 and Niyasigugashedi 尼亚司谷尕社笛), and so for better or worse I mainly kept the first two characters for their names. In any case, a note following the story indicates that Niyasigugashedi is a legendary Hmong ghost renowned for her great beauty. There was no mention of Ruo'gai's parents in the tale. 

This supernatural spouse folktale, unlike many others, has a happy ending. The "Great Sea" is not specified. It seems to suggest that Ruo'gai journeyed all the way to the shores of the South China Sea, though this "Great Sea" might very well be a large inland lake. The obstacle flight (i.e., the escape methods by which Niya and Ruo'gai evade the pursuing ghosts) reveals to us that ghosts have a deep, enduring love for asparagus. The spirit nets remind me of Native American spirit catchers. 

Mu'ye 木叶 music is created by one's blowing upon a single sturdy leaf, and it seems to be used, among other purposes, to convey messages of love and affection. 

Motifs: D672, "Obstacle flight"; D1258.1, "Bridge made by magic"; D1980, "Magic invisibility"; cE322.1, "Dead wife returns and bears children for husband"; E384, "Ghost summoned by music"; E425, "Revenant as woman"; E461, "Flight of revenant with living person"; E470, "Intimate relations of dead and living"; E474, "Cohabitation of dead and living";  E480, "Abode of the dead"; E599.5, "Ghost travels swiftly"; F842, "Extraordinary bridge"; R200, "Escape(s) and pursuit(s)"; T91.3, "Love of mortal and supernatural person"; T97, "Father (and Mother) opposed to daughter's marriage"; T111, "Marriage of mortal and supernatural being." 

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