Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Watching, Waiting, Yearning Cloud (Bai)

This story happened ages ago, when the Nanzhao dynasty was in charge of Dali, in what is now Yunnan Province.

There once was a young woodcutter in those parts. He was not only a woodcutter but a skilled magician as well. He could turn himself into different small creatures, such as a tiny mouse or a bird. He could also transform himself into a very handsome gentleman. Here is what he did: he turned himself into a mouse and, slowly and steadily, pecked a hole, made a tunnel and thus dug his way into the king's palace. Once there, he transformed himself into a splendidly handsome man and introduced himself to the king's lonely, reclusive but very lovely daughter. Before long, they fell in love with each other and couldn't bear to part.

They wished to marry each other but how? One was a princess; the other, a humble woodcutter, albeit a skilled magician but a woodcutter nonetheless.

Such a marriage didn't happen, couldn't happen, there or anywhere else in those days. The princess knew if her father should ever find out she was in love with a woodcutter that would be the end of him and, probably, her too.

"We will never be together in this life," said the princess.

"No! Never say that!" said the woodcutter. "Don't worry. I have a plan to take you out of the palace."

He had the princess climb onto his back. He then stepped to the windowsill, opened the window and stepped out into the air. He flew upwards with the princess on his back, skipping across the sky to the most remote part of Cang Mountain, where no one lived, to a cave on the side of a cliff.

When the king discovered his daughter missing, he was beside himself with worry. He had all available soldiers search the mountains and forests for her, but not a trace of her was found.

Meanwhile, the princess and the woodcutter were trying to make the best of it living in the empty cave. A cave is no substitute for the warm quarters of a princess, and so no matter how much wood the woodcutter chopped to build a fireplace, the princess found she couldn't keep warm. Before they had been in the cave very long, she had already become ill. She sat in the cave, with a smoky fire roaring day and night, coughing and shivering; her hands, icy to the touch.

The woodcutter looked at the princess with sadness; his magic was of no use here. He had to act quickly.

"If only I could get you clothing that could keep you warm!" he said to her.

"There is such clothing. My father has a robe, the Robe of Jewels, that will keep anyone warm no matter how cold it is inside or out."

"Tell me where it is! I will return to the palace and get it for you!"

"It is hidden in a cabinet in the room of his favorite wife," she said, and then she told him where this room was in the palace.

The woodcutter turned himself into a blackbird and flew back to the palace. He found an open window, flew in, and, when no one was about, turned himself back into a man. He dodged guards and hid from servants before finally finding the room of the king's favorite wife. Luckily, no one was there. The Robe of Jewels was in the cabinet the princess had mentioned. The woodcutter grabbed the robe, turned back into a bird, and, with the robe in his beak, flew back to the princess.

A guard saw the bird flying away with a robe in its beak. He told the commandant of the guards, who then told the King, who was sitting in his throne room. Next to the king was Lo Quan, a fearsome and formidable sorcerer and monk who now worked for the king.

"Check upstairs in the room where you keep the Robe of Jewels, Your Majesty," said Lo Quan.

The king and some of his men rushed upstairs to his favorite wife's quarters. Sure enough, the cabinet drawer that kept the Robe of Jewels was open and the robe itself was missing.

The king returned to his throne room, ashen faced, livid.

"I have something to show you, Your Majesty," said Lo Quan, handing the king a cup of water. "Please look in, if you would."

The king looked into the cup; he could clearly see the image of a blackbird flying with the Robe of Jewels in its beak. He handed the cup back to Lo Quan.

"That is no bird. That is a man who can transform himself into a bird and no doubt other creatures," said Lo Quan. "I think, Your Majesty, you and I now both know what happened to the princess. This bird-man abducted her. I will be more than happy to handle this matter. Do you wish him dead or alive? Captured alive, he might lead us to the princess."

The king lowered his head and thought for a moment. He then looked up and said, "I want him dead. Someone like that is much too dangerous to be left alive."

"Very well. I shall take care of it this very moment," said Lo Quan. He took the cup of water that still showed the image of a blackbird in flight with a robe in its beak. He pointed at the image with his forefinger. Immediately the blackbird turned into a stone donkey and dropped from the sky, crashing down into the waters of Lake Erhai, never to stir again.

The princess continued to wait for the woodcutter who would never be coming back. She waited everyday and all through the night. If he doesn't come in the daytime, she told herself, he'll surely be here by night! If not today, it will be tomorrow! She told herself such things over and over as her body became colder and colder and as a raging fever finally took complete control.

Just a few days later, she died alone in the cave.

In life she had watched and waited, watched and waited. Her spirit now turned into a cloud.

In time, this cloud was supposed to form over Lake Erhai sometime during the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. Then, from the depths of the lake would emerge a stone donkey, bellowing, ruffling the smooth waters of the lake. Upon seeing the cloud floating above, the stone donkey would cry no more and sink back down to from where it had come.

When this Cloud of Yearning is out over the lake, local people never take their boats out to fish or to ferry passengers. They believe that it is a dangerous time and fear their boats will capsize. The lake is left alone for the two lovers who still cannot be together.


from volume two of Zhongguo minjian gushixuan (A selection of Chinese folktales), Jia Zhi & Sun Jianbing, eds., pp. 361-363.

For me, this story represents something new: my first published translation of a folktale from outside Han Southeast China and Taiwan and the region of those who speak Altaic-Tungusic languages. The story comes from the Bai minority of Yunnan, who are primarily Buddhist but who have also preserved some animist beliefs.

I had to make some modifications to the story in order to flesh it out. Like many Chinese-language folktales, it comes in a very terse, telegram-like form with interesting sections left unexplained. For example, the original never explains who first witnessed the woodcutter's flight from the palace with the king's robe. According to the story, Lo Quan, a Han Chinese-sounding name, is not only a sorcerer but also a Buddhist monk. I hesitated about keeping his identity as a monk, believing that the collectors of this particular story might have been demonstrating some anti-religious prejudice that was current in the immediate post-Cultural Revolution period, when this story was published. However, later research indicated that this is a very old story and previous collections also identify Lo Quan as a monk (Yuan Ke, et al., Zhongguo shenhua chuanshuo cidian, 367). We can bear in mind this story, like the Manchu "Nudan the Shaman" (posted 1/20/08), might represent the inevitable struggle between two competing religious systems--the Indo-Chinese Buddhism and the native Bai animism/shamanism that occurred when a larger, more powerful culture imposed itself on the other and not be merely crude anti-religious propaganda. Thus, this story might well be an historical artifact. In Zhongguo minjian wenyi cidian, Guan Yanru et al. also see this story as a wistful longing for the now vanished open and relaxed courtship and marriage standards of a minority people (415).

A much less tragic story with a similar theme--the creation of a natural phenomenon stemming from the separation of star-crossed lovers, "The Cowherd and the Weaving Maid," can be found in the posting from 6/23/07, "Two Taiwanese Opera Stories." The story also bears some similarity to a somber story about a woman who, while waiting and longing for her husband to return, a husband who would never return, was transformed to a rock: "The Legend of Wangfu Rock," posted on 6/22/07. Both this story and the Bai story have the Chinese phrase wangfu ("watching [and waiting] for the husband") in their respective titles.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Rose-Red Horse (Manchu)

Long ago, during the Qing dynasty, over in the Aihunkalun mountains, there lived an old man named Wu. He had a rose-red horse, a foal, with fleshy stumps for hoofs. Now this horse could barely walk, let alone gallop or canter. So old Wu decided to put him in his cart and walk him into town to sell him.

On the road to town, old Wu ran into someone he knew, a young fellow named Fuling.

"Say, where are you taking that foal?" the younger man asked.

"Oh, to town to sell him. He's no use to me with those hoofs of his."

Fuling looked the horse over. He knew something that old Wu did not: this was a very fine horse with lots of potential, a "treasure horse, " as the local people would say.

"Sell him to me. How much do you want for him?"

"Three silver coins."

"'Three silver coins'?! That's a bit steep, isn't it? Couldn't I have him for a little less?"

"No." Old Wu shook his head. "Not a coin less. Three silver coins."

"Very well," said Fuling, handing old Wu the price he had charged. "Three silver coins it is."

Old Wu and Fuling then pushed the cart with the foal inside to Fuling's house. Fuling's wife, Qingrong, was in the courtyard hanging up laundry when the pair and the horse arrived. After the two men had taken the horse out of the cart and a while after old Wu was good and gone, Fuling fetched a hog butcher's knife and a stool. He placed the stool next to the foal and then, still brandishing the knife, sat down.

"What in the world are you going to do with that horse?" asked Qingrong. "Slaughter him?"

"Ha! No one's going to slaughter him. I'm just going to open up his hoofs so he can later do his magic. Watch me."

He then gently scraped away the thin layer of skin that covered each hoof. He was very careful not to hurt the foal. He knew a good horse when he saw one, and this was a very good horse indeed.

The foal could now walk with ease.


Fuling and Qingrong beamed as he watched the young horse get used to walking without pain.

Fuling took good care of the foal. Three years later it was no longer a small foal with wobbly legs. It was now a fine, strapping horse.

One day Qingrong fell seriously ill. He summoned a shaman, who told Fuling, "There's one thing I need to help your wife that I don't have with me. I need this substance to complete her medical formula."

"What's that?"

"A portion of a spider's web, but it must be a spider's web from a relative's house, yours or hers. Only that will do."

Fuling leaped up and prepared to leave the house. "I know just the place to get such a web."

"Where would that be?" asked the doctor.

"At my aunt's house."

"And where is your aunt's house?"

"Over in Aihunkalun Town."

"Aihunkalun Town?! Why, that's a good nine or ten li from here! Do you suppose your wife will be able just to wait in comfort and health for your return?"

"Doctor," asked Fuling, "do you see that jug at the edge of the table?"

"Yes. What of it?"

"Well, I'll be back with the cobweb before you can finish half the wine in that jug."

"Oh, really? Do you think you have a 'thousand li horse' or something?" asked the disbelieving shaman.

But there was no answer from Fuling because he was already out the door!

The shaman looked at the jug and the small cup next to it. He got up and went to the table, where he poured himself a cup of wine. Hmm, not bad, he thought. He poured himself another and took a nice, long gulp. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and said to himself, I believe I shall have another!

He was finishing the third cup when he heard a whinnying from outside. Then Fuling came striding back inside, clutching a bag.

"I probably brought back more cobwebs than you really need, but, anyway, here you are," he said, handing the bag to the astonished shaman. "Finish the jug yet?"

The shaman just smiled and took the bag of cobwebs. He finished preparing the medicine for Qingrong. He gave it to the sick woman. Immediately, she felt better and sat up!

Fuling had the shaman stay for supper. After eating, he took the shaman outside to see his rose-red horse. Outside in the courtyard stood the majestic red horse with his bristling jet-black mane and tail.

"Watch!" said Fuling, mounting the horse.

The horse galloped out of the courtyard. His fleet hoofs lifted off the ground, and he and his rider soon disappeared into the clouds before returning in a flash!

You can probably guess what happened next. The shaman told someone else about Fuling's horse, and that person told a few others. Those few others told more people. . . Soon everybody in the Aihunkalun mountains knew about Fuling and his rose-red treasure horse.

Fuling and his horse also came to the attention of the local Qing army commander, who ordered Fuling and his horse to show up at the army camp for military service.

"All right," said the commander to Fuling, "let's see what this horse of yours can do. Let's see if he is as swift as they say and if he can beat the speed of one of my arrows. When I let an arrow go, head immediately for the target next to the one I am going to hit!

"Get ready . . .  " said the commander, pulling back the bowstring. "Go!"

He let an arrow fly, and as he did so, Fuling and his horse took off. They easily reached the second target at the same time the arrow hit the first one.

"Interesting, very interesting," said the commander, as Fuling rode back. "We shall repeat what we just did. Now, get ready . . . "

In all, the commander raced his arrows two more times against the horse, each time with the same result.

The commander called Fuling into his office.

"I don't need to tell you," he said, "that you have an amazing horse. Sell him to me."

"No," replied Fuling, "he is not for sale."

"All right. Give him to me and I shall make you a high-ranking officer. You and your wife shall live very, very well. What do you say?"

"No, he is not to be bartered either. I'd rather return to my own farm than to be an officer here."

"Oh, is that so? You impertinent wretch!" The commander shouted for his men. "Guards, take this good-for-nothing rat, put shackles on him and toss him in the stockade! I'll deal with him later!"

Fuling was shackled and led away to the camp's jail. The commander smiled and said to himself, One way or another that horse was going to be mine anyway . . .

Soon, a big show was held in the camp, a demonstration of military skills, such as archery, fencing and horsemanship. The commander led the rose-red horse out onto the field.

"Mount him! Mount him!" his troops cried.

"Show us what you and he can do!"

"Go, Commander, go!"

The commander nodded. He climbed upon the horse. With his feet firmly in the stirrups, he gave the horse a gently slap on its behind.

To the astonishment of all there, the horse and rider shot up into the heavens!

Up, up,up they went, so far up that those below lost sight of them.

The commander held onto the horse's neck and mane with all his might. He was terrified. He screamed at the horse to return and tried tugging on its reins and turning its neck, but to no avail. They continued to climb into the sky when, suddenly, the horse reared. The commander fell off. He tumbled down through the sky, down through the clouds and all the way back to earth. He landed near the camp with a horrifying thud, and, well, it was not pretty . . .

The horse returned to earth too and descended right outside the stockade where Fuling was being kept. When word came that the commander was no more, the nervous guards released Fuling. He mounted his horse, tipped his hat to the guards and took off into the sky to return home to Qingrong.

It is said that once back home, Fuling called Qingrong to climb upon the horse together with him. Then the three of them flew off to some place far, far away, never to be seen in these parts ever again.


from volume two of Zhongguo minjian gushixuan (A selection of Chinese folktales), Jia Zhi & Sun Jianbing, eds. p. 345-346.

The original title in Chinese was "The Rouge Treasure Horse" (yanzhisede baoma). I modified the title to prevent confusion with a story that has a similar title. Three other folktales about gallant horses from Tungusic-Altaic sources can be found at these postings: 8/4/07; 12/11/07; and 2/19/08. Motifs: B17.1.4.1, "Infuriated horse kills driver"; F460.2.2, "Mountain folk ride through air on horse."