Saturday, February 25, 2023

Hai'ou and Baijuan (Xisha/Paracel Islands)

Hello, everyone. It's been a while, and I hope all are well. I have the pleasure of presenting a Chinese-language folktale from the Paracel or Xisha Islands (西沙群岛), which, according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, are 250 miles east of central Vietnam and 220 miles south of Hainan, China. It's a contested region of around 130 small islands currently under Chinese control, with China's governance disputed by claimants Vietnam and Taiwan.  In any case, I'm not going to delve into geopolitical details regarding the Paracel Islands. I might hesitantly suggest that the tale below might be the first English translation of a folktale from this region. I sincerely welcome any reader or researcher to correct me if I am mistaken. 

Long, long ago, on the East Island (perhaps Lincoln Island), there lived fishing a couple well into their fifties. They were missing something that would have made their lives perfect: children of their own. You might say as a couple they were very happy together, but there was no denying that they were also very lonely and longed for the company of at least one child to call their own. 

The reality was, though, they were past childbearing years, so they prepared themselves for a future without the joys of having a child or children. 

One morning the husband and wife set out in their boat to fish. They cast their net nine times without so much as one fish. Then, at noon, they decided to cast the net one more time before calling it a day. Just as they did, a big wave hit their prow, rocking the boat. The couple quickly hauled in the net, which, this time, had a telltale weight to it. 

Had they suddenly made a huge haul of fish? They hurriedly hauled the net back onto the boat and unraveled the net to see what they had landed. 

What did they see? 

A creature with the head of a fish and the armless body and legs of a woman, both covered with fish scales!

Before the dumbstruck husband and wife could speak, the creature said, "I'm a mermaid from the Southern Sea! I was out playing in the ocean when a malevolent dragon chased me, threatening to eat me. I swam from him as fast as I could and accidentally found myself in your net. Would you kindly help me return home? My mother is waiting for me back home right now!"

The mermaid then began to weep. 

"Of course we will help you!" said the wife. 

"Show us the way!" said the husband. 

The mermaid guided them to the area where she wished to be dropped off. 

Once she had reached the area and lowered herself back into the water, she turned to the couple and asked, "How can I ever repay your kindness? What would you like to have? Just tell me, and I will tell my mother. I guarantee we'll make you both very happy!"

"Well, since you asked," said the wife, "we are childless. What we want most in the world would be to have a boy and a girl as our children." 

The mermaid nodded and replied, "All right. Note this spot and be here tomorrow at noon. Bye for now!" 

And then she slid into the sea and was gone. 

The next day just before noon, the couple arrived at the designated spot. The mermaid promptly arrived to greet the couple, and she placed two very large eggs onto their boat close to the prow. 

While the husband and wife marveled at the huge eggs, the mermaid said, "Here are our gifts to show our deep gratitude to you both. My mother told me to tell you to keep these eggs hidden in the hold of the boat. Farewell!"

And with that, she was gone. 

The couple returned to the island, moored their boat,  and carefully placed the eggs in the hold. 

That night the couple lay on their bed in their hut and listened to the sound of thunder accompanied by lightning. After one particularly loud boom, they soon heard the unmistakable waa . . . waa of babies crying. They rushed over to the boat, and there, down in the hold, were a pair of newborns, a boy and a girl, hatched from the two eggs! 

With their long unfulfilled dream finally becoming reality, the overjoyed couple named the boy "Hai'ou," or "seagull," and the girl, "Baijuan," "white and graceful." 

Hai'ou grew up to be a very strong, able young man and superb fisherman, and as for Baijuan, she became a very lovely young woman and one who was very capable of steering the boat. Both of them, along with their attractiveness and other pleasing qualities and talents, became the talk of the settlement, filling many with some envy but also others with happiness for the couple who were able to have children at such a late stage in their lives. 

Eighteen years had now passed, and by this time the mother and father were no longer around. Hai'ou and Baijuan buried their remains on the island. The brother and sister took over their parents' occupation of fishing, with Hai'ou throwing out and pulling in the nets and Baijuan navigating the boat. They lived happy lives every day, even on those occasions when they would return to the island with an empty net. 

Now, lording over the islands was a tyrant called by all Yu Batian(渔霸天),  an obese bully whose girth and great fortune largely stemmed from his squeezing the money out of all islanders. In time Yu Batian caught a glimpse of Baijuan and decided right then and there to make her one of his wives. He sent one of his lackeys with gifts and a demand for Baijuan to marry Yu Batian the next day. 

None of this went over well with Baijuan and Hai'ou. Baijuan kicked the gifts into the sea, and Hai'ou roundly insulted Yu Batian. 

The tyrant's helper laughed and said, "Well, you can very well go ahead and kick the gifts into the water, but, mark my words, one way or another, my master is going to have you as next wife tomorrow. See you tomorrow!" 

He then left. 

Hai'ou and Baijuan, faced now with a threat they had never foreseen, both began to cry and shout in anguish until the tears just couldn't flow anymore and their throats had become raw with pain. It was now the evening, and suddenly they heard a woman's voice from outside address them. 

"There's something you can do!" said the voice. "Go into the hold of the ship where you'll still find the eggshells from which you had hatched. Carry the shells to the front of the boat, climb into the shells, and kneel down, and the shells will rebuild themselves into unbroken eggs with you inside!"

The brother and sister went outside and beheld the mermaid their parents had met so many years before. 

"Who are you?" asked Hai'ou and Baijuan.

"I am she who laid the eggs from whence you came," said the mermaid. "Now, act quickly!" 

The brother and sister watched her slip back into the sea. They then did exactly what she had said. Once they had placed the shells at the front of the boat, both climbed into the shells. The broken shells flew up and reformed themselves into smooth, unbroken eggs, all without the slightest crack, with Hai'ou in one shell and Baijuan in the other. 

The next day Yu Batian and his lackeys arrived at the hut where the brother and sister lived. 

"Find them both!" thundered the tyrant. 

His men searched the hut and scoured the grounds. They then climbed aboard the boat and scoured the small vessel.

One of the men called shouted to Yu Batian, "Master, they're nowhere to be found anywhere, not in the hut or on this boat, but there are two large eggs here right above the prow. Do you think it might be possible that they're somehow hiding inside these eggs?"

"Break those eggs open now!" screamed Yu Batian.

The men began hitting the eggs with clubs. Once the eggs began to crack, there was an earsplitting sound of thunder as fire and lightning burst out of the broken eggs, blasting everyone there, including Yu Batian, to smithereens. 

Hai'ou's spirit became a seagull, while Baijuan became the beloved white parrot that flies over the east island and that guides the boats of the fishing families, enabling them to avoid any trouble lurking at sea.  And the seagull? It always flies alongside the white parrot as a companion. You can still see them flying together to this very day!

from 民间故事:白鹦鸟和海鸥_腾讯新闻

The story follows a familiar course: a lovely supernatural woman appears; a local mandarin, king, despot, etc., decides to have her all to himself; supernatural aid is invoked; and the villain and his underlings meet a grisly end. 

The name "Yu Batian" might be translated as "Fisherman who lords over all."

I am not sure in primarily which dialect this story has been told; knowing this would perhaps lead us to the tales on which this one is based. 

The description of this particular mermaid was very interesting and perhaps, in my opinion, more startling than the way mermaids are usually depicted. 

Motifs: B81, "Mermaid"; B300, "Helpful animals"; B375, "Release of animal (mermaid) by hunter/fisher"; D150, "Transformation: Person to bird"; D493, "Spirit changes to animal (bird)"; E613, "Reincarnation as bird(s)"; F420.4.4, "Water spirits are grateful"; F815.0.2, "Helpful water spirits"; Q40, "Kindness rewarded";  Q210, "Crimes punished"; cQ552.1, "Death by thunderbolt as punishment"; T542, "Birth of human being from an egg"; cT548.1, "Child(ren) born in answer to prayer." 

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