Friday, March 28, 2008

An Emperor Shows up for Supper (Fujian)

In Fujian Province, near Yongchun and Dehua, there is a deep gorge full of boulders and sharp rocks all the way to the bottom. Local people call it Matiao, or "the horse jumps."

Centuries ago in Fujian, an emperor found himself in grave danger during some sudden rebellion or mutiny. He had to flee all by himself on horseback with the enemy, also mounted, fast on his heels. He rode and rode nearly the life out of the horse before reaching this chasm. He stopped. Before him lay the gorge; behind him was the dust storm made by the men and horses after him, after his head!

To jump may save my life, he thought. To remain definitely means the end.

So he made the horse jump, and they both made it across. The enemy horseman were forced to cool their horses' hoofs on the other side as the emperor made his getaway. The emperor, however, didn't wait around to gloat; no, he continued to ride on through the woods without stopping.

On and on the emperor rode, not daring to stop. Soon, dusk was approaching. He was desperate now. If he and his horse didn't locate shelter for the night, how could they continue? Ahead was a spiral of smoke. Smoke from an oven or perhaps an outdoor cooking pit? He headed in the direction of the smoke and soon found himself on a desolate plain beyond the woods. The smoke? It had only been a wispy cloud and not from an oven at all. The emperor was disheartened.

Then, off in the distance, he saw it--a grass hut.

He rode over and dismounted just in front of the door. Someone was home--he had heard someone moving about inside. The emperor called out to the person inside, who turned out to be an old man living alone. The emperor identified himself as a merchant who had been chased to this place by bandits. Could he and his horse spend the night to eat and to rest?

Yes, was the answer. "Come on in and rest while I tend to your horse," said the old man.

The old man lived in utter poverty, the emperor noted, looking around the very sparse hut. There was absolutely nothing here with which to entertain a guest. Soon the old man came in and prepared supper.

"I don't have much rice, sir, but what I have I'll be glad to share it with you," he said to the emperor. "I was planning to have gruel for supper, along with some fish. I hope that will suit you."

"Yes, fine, whatever you have," said the emperor, passing himself off as a merchant.

Then came the time to eat. The emperor was presented with a small bowl of rice gruel and a meager fish on a small plate, the same things his elderly host provided for himself.

The emperor then started to eat. The rice gruel was simply delicious, and the fish was the best he had ever eaten. The emperor normally ate the choicest, the best meat and fish, but the meal he had just eaten here in this miserable hut was, hands down, the most splendid meal he had ever eaten.

"What do you call these dishes which I have just eaten?" he asked the old man. "Both dishes were delicious!"

"You found them 'delicious'?" The old man found this amusing. The food of poor people, people like me! he thought. Well, this stranger thinks they are delicious, so I'll come up with a couple of special names for them. " The rice gruel is called 'pearl gruel,' and the fish is 'phoenix-eye salmon.'"

"'Pearl gruel' and 'phoenix-eye salmon'! Wonderful names, wonderful food! I shall remember these two names," said the emperor.

He committed the names to memory and went to sleep. Early the next morning, he got upon his horse and was off again. If he made it back to the capital, he was determined to have the imperial chefs recreate these two dishes for him.

Somehow the emperor was able to make it back to the capital. A huge gourmet lunch was provided for him--the rarest and most delicious foods of the land, sea and air. He wasn't interested in these foods, though. Only one thing ran through his mind: Pearl gruel and phoenix-eye salmon!

He summoned his chefs and told them what he wanted. They had never heard of or had seen these two dishes; they hadn't the foggiest clue as to how to prepare them. The emperor explained a little bit and left it up to them. They couldn't very well refuse the emperor, so they retreated to the imperial kitchen and wracked their brains. One chef decided to cut up a shark's fin and from it form little fishballs for the "pearls." Another slaughtered a pigeon, removed its eyes and stuffed them with rare foodstuffs into some fish for the "phoenix-eye salmon."

The dishes were now ready; the emperor had them placed before them and began to eat. The chefs anxiously watched and waited for the emperor's reaction.

He took a bite of one dish and spat it out. He did the same for the other dish. "No," he said. "Neither of these is right. Go back and try again!"

So the imperial chefs once again returned to the kitchen to try to come up with pearl gruel and phoenix-eye salmon. Once again, though, the emperor rejected the two dishes.

"Go get the old man! Bring him to the capital!" said the emperor. "This is the only way I'll ever be able to eat those two delicacies again."

After a long search, the old man was finally located and escorted to the capital. He was brought before the emperor, the man he had previously known as a visiting merchant.

"Go with my chefs into the kitchen. Prepare pearl gruel and phoenix-eye salmon exactly the way you did for me when I stayed in your home. You'll find the chefs have everything you need. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Your Majesty."

Before long, the old man returned with two plates--pearl gruel and phoenix-eye salmon!

The emperor took bites from both plates.

"Ugh!" he cried, wrinkling his forehead and nose. "What is the meaning of this?" The gruel was too watery and salty, while the salmon was too bitter. "This is not fit for a human being!"

"But Your Imperial Highness, I cooked both of these the same way as I had when you ate with me last time."

"Is that true?" asked the emperor. "Are these really pearl gruel and phoenix-eye salmon?"

"Yes, the two foods before you here have been cooked exactly the same way as the foods you had eaten before," replied the old man. "There's not the slightest difference. The only difference is last time you were hungry and tired and you had just escaped losing your life. Of course these two simple things were delicious at the time! I guess anything, even what I cook, would be mouth-watering to someone who was starving and who had just cheated death!"

"Ah," the emperor said, "ha, ha, ha!" All he could do now was laugh.


(1) Fujian minjian chuanqi (Folk legends of Fujian) by Huang Rongcan. (Hong Kong: Luoto chubanshe, 1978.) pp. 59-61; (2) Fujian chuanshuo miyu (Legends and riddles of Fujian) by Zhi Nong. (Taipei: Orient Cultural Service, 1956.) pp. 118-120.

The longer Zhi version has the emperor become lost after wandering away from the city of Quanzhou and stumbling onto the cottage of an old couple named Cai (Tsai) just before nightfall. Also in this version, the emperor himself comes up with the names "pearl gruel" and "phoenix-eye salmon" and later summons Mrs. Cai to the capital to replicate her two tasty specialties. Motifs: K1812, "King in disguise"; K1812.1, "Incognito king helped by humble man."

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Defeating the Wolf Goblin by Strategy (Manchu)

Deep in a cave in a ravine lived an old wolf goblin, a malevolent shapeshifting creature.

Right across from this ravine lived an old man, a widower, and his four sons. Now this was a hardworking bunch, and through the efforts of their sweat and energy they were able to acquire a corral full of mules, a pen full of hogs, and a yard full of ducks and chickens.

This family of five men had high walls and a forbidding gate, but these were not enough to hide these animals from view or to discourage the wolf goblin who wanted them all for himself to eat.

What was stopping him from getting what he wanted? The front gate and the five men inside. The wolf goblin waited, bided his time, until one particularly very dark night . . .

On this black night, the wolf goblin, transformed into the likeness of an old man, came up to the front gate.

Kuang! Kuang! he knocked at the door.

"Yes?" came a voice from the other side. The oldest son stood behind the gate's door.

"Please let me in for the night. Before me, there's no village; behind me, no shop. I'm an old man without a place to spend the night."

"You need to be careful," the father whispered to his oldest son.

The oldest son climbed up the wall and peaked over the top of the gate's door. Below, in the moonlight, there was an old man all right, but what was that dangling behind him from his trousers? A long bushy tail!

He then knew that this was an evil being and kept the gate locked.

The next night the wolf goblin turned himself into an old woman and once again came up to the front gate.

Dang! Dang! he knocked.

"Yes?" asked a voice from behind the gate; this time it was the second oldest son.

"Master of the house, please let me in. I'm dying of thirst. Before me there's no village; behind me, no shop. Please let me in, or I'm afraid that this old woman will have had it."

"Exercise some caution here," whispered the father to his second oldest son.

Son number two crept over to a fissure in the wall and peered through. There was an old woman standing under the moonlight all right, but her eyes! They glowed like a pair of mung bean insects in the dim light.

He then knew that this was some malevolent creature and kept the gate locked.

The next night the wolf goblin changed himself into a lovely, charming young lady. Once again he approached the gate.

This time there was no knocking.

"Master of the house," he called in the most beguiling and feminine voice he had, "please let me in. I'm starving. Do you not have some food for me? Before me there's no village; behind me, no shop. Please help me! If you do not, I believe I shall die right here and now."

"One moment," said the third son.

"Be prudent, my son," whispered the father.

Son number three went inside the house and came out again with a berry tart upon a small dish. He headed towards a slot in the gate. "Stick your hand through here to get something to eat," he said.

The wolf goblin did so and snatched the tart but not before the son saw the thick black hair that sprouted from the wrist to the elbow. A maiden indeed!

The third son wisely kept the gate good and locked for the night.

Three nights in a row and no entry! This was too much for the wolf goblin, so he climbed upon the millstone outside the gate and screamed curses throughout the night at the family inside the house.

Son number four was livid and wanted to rush outside and confront the wolf goblin right then and there.

"Now is the time to be careful, my son!" said the father. "Curses cannot kill. Just wait it out."

Before dawn, exhausted from all the yelling, the wolf goblin dragged itself back to its cave.

The very next day at sundown, the father poured ice water upon the millstone.

Later in the night, the wolf goblin, this time in its true form, showed up. He planted himself on top of the millstone and proceeded again to curse the family inside, showering them with the vilest words imaginable.

For hours he did this. When he was hoarse, he decided to go home but discovered he couldn't--his bottom was frozen stuck to the millstone!

"All right, boys! Have at him!" cried the father.

From out of the front gate rushed the four sons, armed with axes and clubs. They set upon the wolf goblin, which desperately tried to escape but couldn't, and finished him off once and for all.


from Minjian gushi (Folktales), Lu Yao, ed. (Shijiazhuang, Hebei: Hebei shaonianertong chubanshe, 2005). p. 191.

I chose to drop a motif or detail from the Chinese original text in which the father prays to the god of the millstone ("the millstone king") for intercession. Malevolent, shapeshifting creatures abound in both Chinese and Japanese folklore, with the most common being were-foxes, were-tigers, and, here again, werewolves. For other folktales in which shapeshifters appear, see the posts for 6/8/07; 6/22/07; and 12/23/07.

The Story of Yishan Island (Fujian)

One day centuries ago, it is said that this happened.

Five fishing boats, each one with four fishermen aboard, sailed down the Min River, past the Min River estuary and out to sea. They had no sooner entered the deep sea when the weather suddenly grew ugly. Huge winds buffeted the boats, causing them to bob violently up and down like so many eggs in a large, shaking tub. Each man aboard the boats was a seasoned mariner, and each one also calculated his chances of surviving a sudden squall like this.

The chances did not look favorable.

Suddenly a voice rang out, heard on all the ships and by every fisherman despite the din of the storm.

"Head for Yishan Island! Head for Yishan Island!"

It was a distinctly feminine voice, yet no girl or woman was aboard any of the fishing boats.

"Girl," shouted a fisherman, "wherever you are, where's this Yishan Island?"

"You don't know? Then follow me! I'll lead you there!"

A young woman appeared on the surface of the sea. She walked on the water, calming it with every step she took, leaving a long, wide, peaceful wake behind her, a pathway, if you will, for the fishing boats to follow her, which they did.

In no time, they reached Yishan Island. The five boats, one after another, followed the young lady all the way into a natural harbor densely ringed with banyan trees.

With their boats now safely moored, the fishermen climbed down onto the sand. They looked everywhere for the young woman who had miraculously led them to safety on this unknown islet. They searched every corner until it was dark; however, she was nowhere to be found.

The fishermen trudged back to their boats to hunker down for the night. Who could sleep that night, though? Each man couldn't take his mind off the young lady, try as he might. Then, each man would later swear that he had heard that night a woman singing a soft tune that came like a gentle breeze. Nobody could tell from where this singing voice came or what it was saying, but somehow the men who heard it that night knew that it came from the daughter of a fishing family.

It would not be the only time this voice was heard singing and then calming the waves. A large black dragon living in the depths of the sea was behind the storms that raged along the coast and in the Taiwan Strait, causing so many fishermen and sailors to lose their lives. The young woman who walked on the waters, whose singing hushed the storms had lost her own father and two brothers to the violent seas whipped up by this dragon. To avenge her father and brothers and to protect all those who worked upon the sea, she jumped into the ocean to do battle with the dragon. For years now, they have both struggled, the girl and the dragon, neither winning the upper hand. That meant that violent storms would still suddenly erupt, as they certainly do now.

That night aboard those five fishing boats, the fishermen knelt towards the direction of the voice they heard and offered incense and their prayers of thanks. Then at midnight she appeared over the prows of their fishing boats.

"You need to sail back now. Head southeasterly. Leave now and you shall arrive home safely," she said.

The ships left the harbor and headed back.

"Miss, who are you?" the fishermen implored. "What is your name?"

But no answer came; the young woman had disappeared.

The five boats and the twenty men all made it back to port. They and others then began the search for Yishan Island; their plan, to erect a shrine to the young woman who dedicates herself to fishermen and sailors. None of those fishermen ever found Yishan Island, though some searched for a decade. No trace of such an island has ever been located.

Even long after, there are those who say that during the midst of a storm, a distinctly feminine voice can be heard, saying, "Head for Yishan Island . . ."


from Minjian wenxuejuan. (Folk literature archives.) Zhuo Zhonglin & Chen Huiping, eds. (Fuzhou: Haixia wenyi chubanshe, 1990). pp. 19-20.

This is one of many legends about the folk goddess Mazu (Matsu), a patron saint of all seafarers. She is a very popular deity on both sides of the Taiwan Straits. She was also once an actual person. The first mention of her occurred in the Song dynasty. In life she was named Lin Mo (or Lin Moniang--"Silent Maiden" Lin), born at Putian, Meizhou, Fujian Province. She was called "Silent" because, according to legend, she didn't utter a sound for a month after being born. Today, she is worshiped in many temples in Fujian, Guangdong and Taiwan and wherever the descendants of those from Southeastern China live. The former Portuguese colony of Macao is named for her, and it boasts a temple dating possibly from the fifteenth century, during the Ming dynasty. The island of Matsu north of Taiwan and under Taiwanese administration is also named for her. The most renowned Mazu temple on Taiwan is at Pei-kang (Beigang), a popular destination for pilgrims. The temple in her home town, Putian, remains a very important center of Mazu worship.

Update, 5/11/10: Isaac Julien's film anthology Ten Thousand Waves has been released. The film contains a chapter based on my translation of "The Story of Yishan Island" and features actress Maggie Cheung.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Snail-Shell Girl (Fujian)

Near Fuzhou City, in the Min River delta, there is a small island formerly populated by fishing and farming families. Now long ago on this same island there lived a young farmer who was all alone in the world, his parents having died years before. His name was Xie Duan, and everyone regarded him as a great hard-working, decent, and loyal neighbor and friend, perfect as a future husband--perfect, except he had no money and, hence, no wife. Now early one evening, on his way back from the rice paddy, he spied by the road, right next to the riverbank, a particularly beautiful tianluo shell, a river snail shell, ending in a long, coiled sharp point. He picked this shell up and took it home, to his hut, and put the shell, containing the still-living creature, into a vat of water. The very next night, upon entering his hut, he discovered his hut had been cleanly swept and that a very fine, still hot meal was awaiting him on his table! A repayment for something I did and forgot all about? he asked himself. Well, he asked his closest neighbors to make sure, for he believed in "thanking those who dig wells," as the ancients said, to thank those who have been kind. No, they all said, we didn't sweep your hut or cook your dinner. Puzzled, he returned home and ate the very fine dinner, a rare treat. He put it all out of his mind as he went to sleep that night. The very next night, the same thing happened--someone unknown to him had cleaned the hut and prepared a hot meal for him. Again, everyone who lived nearby denied the good deed. Now the next night after all this, he came back from the paddy especially early. He crept up to his window, knelt down so he could barely look in, watched and waited. For a while--nothing. But what did he soon see? An exquisite, unbelievably beautiful young lady emerge from the river snail shell in the vat. She proceeded to sweep the hut. Then, she started preparing his dinner. "Miss! Miss!" cried Xie Duan, now standing in his own doorway. "Who are you? And here you are cooking and cleaning for me!" Well, Xie Duan had burst in so quickly that the girl had no chance to hide, so she told him the truth, that she was the tianluo creature itself transformed into a young woman, here to help him out of compassion for his loneliness. "May I stay?" she asked.

The answer was yes, she could stay if she didn't mind a life of never having much. Not only did she stay but she also became Xie Duan's wife. They then lived as a very happy couple, admired and envied by all their neighbors and friends.

It didn't take long for the local mandarin to hear about the beautiful snail shell girl. The local mandarin and landlord summoned Xie Duan to his manor.

"You owe me grain," he said and made up an extravagant amount that Xie Duan was supposed to give him. "If you don't pay me in three days' time, I shall take your wife as payment."

What could Xie Duan do? He couldn't possibly pay a ransom that large on such short notice. He brooded about it for three days and refused to tell his wife, though she asked him more than once. On the third day, shortly before the mandarin's men came to take his wife away, he finally told her.

She laughed and said, "Don't worry. Do this. Collect every bird feather you can and fashion them into a suit. Three nights from now, when the moon is full, appear outside the mandarin's front gate wearing the suit. Don't forget now."

The mandarin's men arrived, stormed in and took the snail shell girl away.

Xie Duan immediately set to work. He spent the next couple of days shooting at and netting all the birds he came across. Sparrows, gulls, ducks, storks--no bird was too big or too small to escape his interest. He collected a huge sack of feathers and then began to sew them into a suit big enough for himself to wear . . .

The third night, the night of the full moon, came.

The snail shell girl had been locked in the mandarin's bedroom. She had refused to speak to him and to allow him so much as to touch her. This bothered him, hurt him, for he had expected the young woman to be joyful and playful with all the possessions he had promised her, but no, she was not interested. He could take all the "cold rice and cold tea," as they say, but not her cold looks. He was desperate to turn things around, to make her like him, even just a little bit.

That night, the snail shell girl stood by the window, looking out. The mandarin sat on a nearby chair, holding his hands, waiting and hoping for a sign.

Then, suddenly, the snail shell girl began to giggle . . . then laugh.

The mandarin sat up and then left his chair to join the young woman by the window.

"Why do you laugh?" he asked.

Still laughing, she pointed out the window. "Look! Out there! By the gate! A man dressed all in feathers!" Tears flowed from her eyes.

The mandarin looked. Yes, out there by the gate was some fool dressed in feathers.

The mandarin fled the bedroom and rushed out the front door towards the gate.

"Say, you there, the man in feathers!" he cried to the stranger in the ridiculous suit. This man, was of course, none other than Xie Duan.

"Quickly, take that suit off!" said the mandarin, not recognizing the snail shell girl's husband. Xie Duan began to take the suit off. "Oh, and here's something for your trouble," said the mandarin, tossing some coins into the dirt.

The mandarin disrobed and put on the suit of feathers. He then rushed away, leaving his silken mandarin robes on the ground and leaving the unclothed Xie Duan behind to pick up the coins.

The mandarin rushed back into his house. He burst into his bedroom, throwing the door open and shouting to the young woman inside, "Ha! Take a look at me!"

Instead of laughing and clapping, the snail shell girl screamed. "Help! Guards! Intruder! Help me!"

The guards rushed in and, not recognizing their master, proceeded to beat him to an unrecognizable pulp. And that was the end of him!

Xie Duan and the snail shell girl were reunited that very night. They resumed their lives, and within a year, the young wife gave birth to a child.

And then things changed again . . .

While the young wife and mother was out drying clothes one day, black clouds suddenly gathered over the island. She looked up. From out of the clouds boomed a voice: "Prepare to return to the Star River!"

Originally the snail shell girl had escaped from the heavenly realm of the Jade Emperor and hadn't had the permission to enter the world of mortals. Now, having married Xie Duan and given birth to a child, having defeated the wicked mandarin, she was being ordered to return to her home far up in the stars, the place we call the Milky Way.

Now, from out of the clouds, the Jade Emperor's guards and a general himself were coming down to take her back by force.

Her husband had come home from the field and saw his wife being dragged away. He grabbed hold of her hand but could not hold on. Thrashing and twisting and turning, the snail shell girl was dragged up by one hand into the sky. Preferring death to leaving her husband, she managed to let go of a guard's hand and plummeted down, down into the Min River.

After that, the island she had briefly lived on became known as Luozhou, "River Snail Shell Prefecture," and the spot she had fallen into, Luonu Jiang, "the River of the River Snail Shell Girl." It is also said that a shrine honoring the river snail shell girl was built on the land upon which Xie Duan's house once stood.


from (1) Fujian chuanshuo miyu (Legends and riddles of Fujian) by Zhi Nong. (Taipei: The Orient Cultural Service, 1956.) pp. 54-57; (2) Fujian minjian chuanqi (Folk legends of Fujian) by Huang Rongcan. (Hong Kong: Luotuo, 1978.) pp. 85-87.

A classic legend from Fujian, found in many, if not most folktale anthologies of tales from this province. Zhi's version differs in the retribution meted out to the mandarin/landlord, having the river snail shell girl to transport magically the landlord's grain to Xie Duan, who, in turn, dutifully hands it back over to the landlord. That, of course, doesn't stop the landlord from taking the young woman by force. The story ends with her sending a heavenly conflagration down upon the landlord and the corrupt official with whom he is in cahoots, burning both to ashes. Her magical abilities are not as emphasized in Huang's version. Folktale readers should recognize this tale as a variant of the widespread AT 465A,B "Man Persecuted Because of his Wife," a common tale type in Chinese folklore. The "Star River" is, of course, the Milky Way.

6/4/10 Update: the oldest recorded Chinese folktale

A reader recently asked me what the oldest Han Chinese folktale is. Research conducted by Tan Xiandao suggests this tale--"The Snail Shell Girl--and its local variants may be the oldest recorded Chinese folktale. The earliest version is "Baishui su'niu," "The Waif of White Water," found in Jin dynasty (A.D. 265-420) Gan Bao's Soushenhouji (A later collection of rounded-up tales of deities). See Tan Xiandao's Zhongguo minjian tonghua yanjiu (Research in Chinese folk/fairy tales), Hong Kong: Shangwu, 1981, p.12.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Sound of Water, the Crashing of the Waves (Manchu)

There was once an old fiddler whose music could soften the stoniest of hearts. He had a lovely daughter of sixteen named Muke, or "water." Her singing could make one look to the heavens and laugh or look below and silently weep. Her singing was that beautiful! Together, the old fiddler and his daughter traveled along Bohai Bay and performed for many families in fishing and herding villages.

In time the feudal magistrate of Bohai heard about this golden flower who could sing so beautifully and ordered her and her father to his manor. Once they were there, the magistrate fell madly in love with Muke just after laying his eyes upon her. He then had her father kicked out. All the fiddler could do now was to play his fiddle mournfully on the banks of the Mudan River and cry for his daughter locked up in the magistrate's manor.

The magistrate of Bohai now had Muke, but from that day on, all was not well for him. He could no longer have a full night's sleep. No sooner did he immediately fall asleep then he would be awakened by the sound of water from the small outside his window. At times the stream would sound like the mighty East China Sea itself, with its huge waves rising from the depths and crashing thunderously against ships and rocks. At other times, though, it sounded hauntingly like weeping. Then, at still other times, it resembled whispered laughing, snickering. Wherever he tried to sleep, he could not escape these sounds that seemed to come from outside but also from the confines of his skull. After countless nights of no sleep, the magistrate was very upset, his nerves frayed and raw.

Summoning Muke, the magistrate asked her, "Girl, since the day you stepped foot onto my property, I have not had one good night's sleep. I no longer feel like eating and cannot think straight. Why is that, you think? Tell me."

"Your Excellency," Muke answered, her eyes reddening, "it is because my father is thinking of me."

"Your father is thinking of you?" replied the magistrate. "How does that make the waters of the stream I used to love so much roar like a great river or ocean?"

"My father is playing the song 'Thinking of the Water,' Excellency. His voice and music penetrate the waters of the Mudan, from which your little stream flows. I know this, for I can hear him too."

The magistrate turned away from her and snapped his fingers for his attendants. "Send some men to the Mudan and have them bring the girl's father to me!" he barked.

The magistrate's guards finally found the old man sitting by the water, his legs crossed, his hands folded in his lap, his fiddle resting by his side and his eyes closed.

"Let's go, Grandpa," said one guard, shaking the old fiddler's shoulder. However, the old man showed no response.

"I said to go! The magistrate of Bohai is waiting for you, and he doesn't like to be kept waiting. So if I were you--"

The old man neither moved nor said a word.

The guard touched the old fiddler's neck and knelt down to look closely at the little old man below him. The old fiddler was stone, cold dead and had been so for a long time.

The guards rushed back to the palace and reported directly to the magistrate, who was somewhat relieved. Maybe now that accursed noise of surging, breaking water would finally stop.

When it continued even louder that very night, the enraged magistrate ordered Muke beheaded, thinking it had been she all along responsible for the mysterious noise. However, the sound of crashing, turbulent water continued night after night.

Before long, the magistrate died a madman's death in some dark corner of his estate, cursing and screaming at the sound of waves only he could hear.

Even now when people in that part of Manchuria hear the distant sound of water churning and roaring, they say, "The fiddler is crying for his Muke again!"


From Heilongjiang minjian gushi xuan (A selection of folktales from Heilongjiang) pp. 89-91. (Harbin: Heilongjiang renmin chubanshe, 1983.)

Motif: D2063.1.1, "Tormenting by sympathetic magic."

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Loyal Old Servant (Ewenki)

Long, long ago there lived a very rich and powerful nobleman named Batu. At the age of fifty, Batu still did not have a child. Since his wife was already past the age of not having a child, Batu took a second wife, a lovely young woman. However, Batu was often away from home hunting, so every time he was off in the mountains or forest, he'd have his second wife enclosed in a huge mosquito net in a room in his mansion and guarded by an old servant. Batu feared younger men would steal her heart!

One day, after Batu had already been gone for several days, the second wife was taking a nap, and the old servant sat nearby guarding the mosquito net. All seemed well with the world when the servant suddenly heard a drip! drip! drip! He looked up and around but saw nothing. He then looked in the net and saw what looked like water dripping on the face of Batu's second wife, still fast asleep. Looking above, he saw a deadly forest snake on top of the net, ready to chew through the fibers of the net, slither down and bite the sleeping girl.

The old man moved quickly and hit the snake with a nearby broom handle, forcing it to escape through the open window. He then entered the net and started to wipe the snake venom from the girl's face, especially from near her mouth. She awoke as the old servant wiped her mouth and sat up, alarmed and on the verge of screaming.

Now Batu happened to enter and saw the old servant leaning over wife number two, though he hadn't a clue that a dangerous snake had just been driven away. He stormed over and grabbed the old man by the shoulders and roughly threw him against the net.

"You old devil!" Batu screamed. "I trusted you to watch over my wife, and this is what you do when I'm away!"

"But . . . but . . . ," stammered the old man.

"He started making eyes at me as soon as you left!" chimed in the second wife, fearful that she might be accused of wrong doing.

The old servant tried to tell Batu about the snake, but Batu wouldn't believe him. Instead, he struck the old man across his back with a bamboo stick.

Batu was a very wealthy man and employed several chamberlains to dispense justice to the rest of his servants when they stepped out of line.

"This is what you shall do," said Batu to the old servant. "Report at once to the first chamberlain."

"Yes, sir," replied the old one, "and then?"

"'And then?' Why, tell him what you did and so on! He'll find a suitable punishment for you! Now go!"

So the old servant went to see the first chamberlain. He found that man seated behind a great wooden desk in his quarters. The first chamberlain bade the old servant to sit and to state his business.

After hearing what the old man had to say, the first chamberlain looked at the old man with a weary but not unfriendly expression and said, "I am not a well man these days and cannot exert myself. However, I have a story that I want you to tell Batu. Now please listen.

"There was once a widow whose son was born shortly after her husband had died. As you can guess, her life was very hard without her husband, but she managed to keep her small cottage and find food for her son, herself and a cat she kept to watch over her son whenever she had to fetch food.

"Well, one day she went out and returned to find her infant son screaming. The cat was next to him, licking away blood pouring from the son's ear. She shooed the cat away and discovered part of her son's ear had been eaten!

"'Filthy treacherous creature!' she roared, and picking up a club, she beat the cat to death.

"Sometime later, after nursing her son back to health, she discovered in a corner by her oven the body of a truly huge rat with part of the infant's ear still in its mouth. The poor cat had killed this rat and then tried to stop the infant's bleeding.

"The mother tearfully picked up the dead cat and cradled it in her arms. 'Forgive me!' she cried to the dead animal. 'Please forgive me!' Of course it was a bit too late."

Having spoken, the first chamberlain told the old man to return to Batu and tell him the tale, which he thereupon did.

"Huh!" replied Batu. "Don't waste my time with stories! If the first chamberlain cannot handle your punishment, I know others who can. Go to the second chamberlain now!"

So once again the old servant was dismissed and told to report for his punishment, this time to the second chamberlain, whom he found behind his desk in his quarters. The second chamberlain told the old servant to sit, and, by and by, the old man told the reason why he had come.

Having spoken, the old man then said, "Could you now please punish me as Master Batu has ordered?"

"I cannot," replied the second chamberlain in a voice full of weary and quiet sorrow, "for I am now dealing with the death of a close family member. There is much to be done and rites to observe. However, I will tell you a story, which you may relate to our master.

"Long ago, there was a great hunter whose name has now been forgotten. This was a man which all animals ran before in stark terror. 'For every one hundred shots, he had a hundred bulls' eyes,' as they say. However, one day this man noticed his eyesight had seriously declined, and so he took a splendid, keen falcon with him to hunt. This hunting bird never let him down, always catching the rabbit, fox, or quail it had set its eyes on. The hunter loved this falcon, and it became his steady companion.

"One hot dry day, the hunter and falcon were at rest beneath a pine when a small shower came down. The hunter stretched out his hands and cupped them to drink, only to have the falcon land on his hands and angrily flap its wings. It then flew off when the collected water had all been lost.

"Once again the hunter cupped his hands to drink and relieve his parched throat, and once again the angry, squawking falcon stopped him.

"Perhaps it was because of the extremely hot day, or perhaps it was because the hunter was getting on in years and thus a bit cranky. In any case, the hunter was now very annoyed and slashed his falcon with his knife, killing the unfortunate creature. He then stood up and looked above him. The shower that was coming down was not rain but venom from an enormous python not more than ten feet from the man's head.

"Well, needless to say, he killed the monster, and then turning to his dead falcon, he knelt and said, 'I am very sorry for misjudging you!' His regrets came rather too late."

The second chamberlain finished his tale and ordered the old servant to return to Batu. This he did, and he then told Batu the tale of the hunter and his falcon.

This time, after hearing the story, Batu thought, These two stories--could they have been about me?

However, this thought departed from his mind as quickly as it had entered it. He pushed the old servant out the door, ordering him to report to the third chamberlain, who he was sure could administer a sound punishment.

The old servant found the third chamberlain seated behind his desk and told the man the whole story.

When asked to provide the needed punishment, the third chamberlain smiled, shook his head and said, "I cannot. My wife will give birth to a child shortly, and I must help to prepare. I will, though, tell you a story that you may in turn tell Batu.

"In ancient times there was a khan of all the birds, a master of all birds that could fly. When his wife had given birth to his heir, she said to the khan, 'You're the mighty khan! You must call an assembly of all the world's birds so they may pay homage to us and the prince, your heir.'

"So this khan of all flying birds did exactly that, and all the birds in the world save one showed up. The missing subject, a falcon, did not arrive until three days later. As you can well guess, the khan was absolutely furious and was prepared to execute the falcon right then and there.

"'What's your excuse?' fumed the khan.

"'Your Majesty! Please don't think for a moment that I planned to be late,' replied the falcon. 'I was delayed and kept from attending by the Jade Emperor himself, who required that I answer two questions before he allowed me to leave.'

"'And what were the two questions?'

"'The first question was which is longer--day or night. The second was who are there more of--men or women.'

"'How did you answer the first question?'

"'Well, Your Majesty, all the cloudy and rainy days are dark days, and added to all the nights, they see to it that nighttime lasts longer than daytime.'

"'And how did you answer the second question?'

"'Why, I said that there are more women than men!'

"'On what basis do you say so?'

"'When you take into consideration all the women who are already on earth and you add to that number all the men who do nothing but only listen to their wives, you can see then there are indeed more women than men!'

"Now," concluded the third chamberlain, "go back to our master and tell him this tale."

The old servant then went back right away to Batu and told him the third chamberlain's tale.

Batu immediately thought, Am I like the khan of all birds, all too eager to listen to just my wife? Am I like the hunter and mother in the other two stories, too eager to punish first and to reason later? No! Better to be judicious first rather than having to say sorry later!

Batu then placed his hands on the old servant's shoulders and apologized for having accused him of disloyalty and having physically maltreated him. He then made the old servant the fourth chamberlain, and he, like the other three chamberlains, became known for his fairness and sense of justice.


from Ewenke minjian gushi (Ewenki folktales) by Lu Guangtian. (Huhehaote: Neimengu renmin chubanshe, 1984; pp. 71-74.)

A frame story, like the much longer Arabian Nights, but made up of only three other stories. Two of the stories are variations of AT 178, "Killing the animal that has saved your life." (The most famous version is the very similar "Prince Llewellyn and His Dog Gellert," AT 178A.) Motifs: B331, "Helpful animal killed through misunderstanding"; B521.1., "Animal warns against poison."