Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas 2009

To all who visit this website and their loved ones, I wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Cheers & All the best, FHL

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Wisdom From the Heartland -- Proverbs From the Provinces of Hebei, Henan, Hubei & Hunan


One can become poor from being wealthy. (For some who are addicted to a lavish lifestyle, their all-too-short period of wealth leads to an even quicker slide into poverty.)

Only one "today"; only one "right now." (It's better for us to take each problem one day at a time; even more importantly, we should focus on the here and now, not the what was here or might not be here.)

For every household, there's one sky once the door's been opened. ("To each his own." Each person's life has its own necessities, problems, reality, and ways of doing things.)

The ingredients for noodles is the same; the kneading is different. (We're basically all the same; it's what we do with our lives that is different.)

A person who is told by another to "drop dead" won't do so unless heaven wills it so. (One's successes or failures are not dictated by the mere wishes of others.)

Those without smiling faces close up shop early. (A prosperous business at least partly depends on a friendly demeanor.)

Reputation is to people what bark is to trees. (Both reputation and bark protect and insulate their respective hosts.)

A person may be poor but not his/her aspirations. (A poverty in funds is least consequential, for a wealth of determination is what enables one to succeed.)

With ten monks come nine accents. ("Too many cooks spoil the broth.")

When one's careful, one can accomplish a hundred things; when one's reckless, even just one inch can be rough going. ("Haste makes waste." Mandarin speakers also say, "With preparations, there won't be any disasters.")

No matter how big the biggest mountain is, it can never crush the sun. (It's easy to be intimidated in a debate. However, if you argue on behalf of righteousness, stand your ground, no matter how bullying or blustering the opposition is, "the truth will out.")

Like a couple of mutes accusing each other of interrupting. (Who knows who started this?)

You lift your head, not lower it, to ask for help. (Those who need the help of other people ought to show a respectful, pleasant demeanor instead of just silently demanding a handout.)


Even a god won't stand listening to heartfelt words repeated three times. (With even the best intentioned message, if its repeated too much, it goes in one ear and out the other, if resentment doesn't set in first. In other words, don't nag!)

Like one who can give up a thousand sentences but not be able to part with one copper coin. (Said of those who enter a shop, look around, and chat all day but leave without buying anything.)

Pushing a wheelbarrow requires no education; all that is required here is for the gluteus maximus to move. (There are times just to roll up the sleeves and get to work and let good old-fashioned elbow grease get the job done.)

Good people are fooled just as a good horse is ridden. (Here, "fooled" and "ridden" rhyme and are somewhat homophonic. The naive end up, like a docile horse, being manipulated.)

There can be a once or a twice but never a third or a fourth. (An occasional honest mistake can be tolerated but not mistakes over and over, especially the same or similar errors.)

To hear of something a hundred times is not as worthwhile as seeing it once. ("One picture speaks a thousand words.")

To secure the front gate against tigers but to let a wolf in through the back gate. (To be shortsighted, unable to see the big picture, thus doomed to adversity.)


In sales, the goods make up thirty percent, while the shopkeeper's facial expression makes up seventy percent. (Similar to the Hebei proverb above; a merchant with a jolly face will always be able to sell his/her products. People tend to patronize a store with friendly, smiling and helpful staff.)

Beautiful flowers are not fragrant, while those that are fragrant are not particularly beautiful. ("Don't judge a book by its cover.")

As long as there's one person around, there is a world. ("Where there's life, there's hope.")

To lead an ox up a tree. (To engage in a foolish, absurd act, or to try to teach an unteachable person a skill. Mandarin speakers also say, "To play a stringed instrument before a cow.")

Not to blame the tether for being too short but rather to blame the well for being too deep. (To play the blame game--to blame everybody and everything, but not oneself, for one's shortcomings.)

If you fall down a well, don't expect your ears to latch onto something. (Said of people who are about to take a big, unwise risk, of those who are foolishly optimistic.)

To be a bandit while it's still in the middle of the day; to try to eat a duck's egg before it's all the way out of the duck's bottom. (Said of the impetuous and rash, those who cannot wait to plan properly and who, instead go off pell mell to do something foolish and doomed to failure.)

When one is lucky, not even the city walls can stop one; when one bears misfortune, even one's can of salt will contain maggots. (Luck and adversity--they are due to one's fate.)

Having a home with an old person living inside is like having a treasure. (Old people are founts of wisdom and experience and enrich the lives of younger people with whom they live.)


It takes much clay to build such a big oven. (Big, grand things are also the sums of their parts. "Rome wasn't built in a day," as we say in the West.)

The problem is not if the soil will yield crops but rather if the farmer will till the soil. ("Where there is a will, there's a way." Mother Nature will do her part; the rest is up to us. Perhaps we can also say as an analog to this proverb: "Heaven helps those who help themselves.")

A small stone can break a great tub. ("All it takes is a small spark to burn down a great forest." Sometimes, as it has been said, "the bigger they are, the harder they fall.")

The land needs irrigation just as an infant needs a wet nurse. (There is an order or system required by nature and nothing can change that.)

From time immemorial, crickets and ants have always cherished their own lives. (Life is precious to all living things, not to mention to human beings.)

When the tofu falls into the ashes, you can neither eat it nor wipe it clean. ("That's the way the cookie crumbles." "Don't cry over spilled milk.")


from Zhongguo rende suhua, Shang Yingshi, ed. (See 6/19/07 for full citation.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Demoness (Hmong)

Long ago Farmer and Mrs. Fuxiang lived deep in the mountains, where they spent many hours and much sweat to make something out of their farm. They also raised pigs, which brought in more money.

A roaming demoness came by their farm and noticed the many pigs in the secure wooden pen by the Fuxiang home.

She wanted those pigs, but breaking down the sturdy logs of the pen would be far from easy. So, she did this: she went back down the mountain to the abandoned campsite of some shepherds, took some dry grass, thrust it in the dying embers of the fire in which they had been roasting yams, blew her breath upon it to make the fire grow, and then took the slowly growing torch with her back up the mountain to the farm. There, waiting for the west wind, she stuck the torch into a crack and set the pen wall on fire.

The fire burned and burned well!

Now the Fuxiangs had been out in the field, but from far away they could see a column of smoke and heard the squeals of their pigs. They rushed back as fast as their legs could carry them.

The demoness was long gone.

Farmer and Mrs. Fuxiang put out the fire soon enough; however, there was now a large hole in the wall of pen, and the canopy over the pen had been burned to charcoal.

That night, the farmer and his wife, each holding a club, stood watch in the pen over their pigs.
They stood all night, watching and waiting for anyone or anything that might try to come in.

"Ai," said Farmer Fuxiang, "this is no way to protect our pigs! In the morning, I'm going to find a carpenter who can repair this hole and build a new canopy!"

"Well, I guess you'd better," said his wife. "You know these mountains are full of tigers and demons, and they'd like nothing better than to devour all our pigs."

The demoness herself was hiding in the bushes and heard what the husband and wife had just said. She smiled. She had a plan.

After daybreak, the demoness turned herself into a man and put on workman's clothes. She also picked up a saw and ax and headed out of the bushes.

The demoness came up the road just as Farmer Fuxiang was coming down it.

"I'm a carpenter at your service," the demoness said to the startled farmer. "Let me guess--you have a pen in need of repair!"

"Why . . . yes . . ."

"Well, then, you'd better take me to see it! Can't let it wait too long, you know, with all these tigers and demons roaming about."

The farmer stared at this "carpenter."

"Now isn't that odd?" asked Farmer Fuxiang.

"What? What's that?"

"Well, now," continued the farmer, "I don't mean to be rude. It's just that you're a grown, mature man without the slightest trace of facial hair! Not only that, but you have a woman's voice. Are you . . . are you a man or a woman pretending to be a carpenter?"

The demoness knew she'd revealed herself, so, without saying another word, she turned and fled back into the forest.

I fouled up that chance! the demoness said to herself, as she fled farther into the forest. That's all right, though. I'll try again, next time with the wife!

Once again, the demoness set out to transform herself. This time she pulled off the leaves and branches of some trees and rubbed the dripping resin onto her face to affect the look of one who works with wood. Next, she swallowed some grains of charcoal to give her voice a grainy, scratchy quality. Still carrying her ax and saw, she also pulled up some grapevines and headed for the Fuxiang farm.

Mrs. Fuxiang was outside her home.

"Good woman!" cried the demoness. "Have some grapes?"

Mrs. Fuxiang looked up at the stranger speaking to her. "Thank . . . you . . . " she said.

"I'm a carpenter, and I can fix that pigpen of yours!"


"Yes, and what's more, I won't charge you a cent."

"Why, thank you! Please step on over to the pen!" Can it be true, thought Mrs. Fuxiang, that I have found such a wonderful carpenter, one who will even fix the pen for free?

Farmer Fuxiang showed up and joined them.

"This carpenter is willing to fix the wall of the pen for free!" Mrs. Fuxiang told her husband.

On their way over to the pen, Farmer Fuxiang took a good look at the "carpenter."

"Hmm, now isn't that a bit strange!" said the farmer.

"What? What's strange?"

"Your face is rather green."

"Oh, that," replied the demoness. "Last night I had too much wine and fell asleep in a dyeing vat. What's so strange about that?"

"And your ears--I just noticed them. They're pierced, like a lady's!"

"Oh, my ears! When I was small, I was once very sick. My mother prayed night and day at the earth god's shrine and was told to pierce my ears!"

"I see," said the farmer. "Why do you wish to repair my pen for free?"

"That's the way I am, I guess," replied the "carpenter," "full of heart! I like helping people whenever I can."

Mrs. Fuxiang leaned next to her husband and whispered into his ear. "Stop questioning him! He's already offered to help us for free. How rude can you be?"

Farmer Fuxiang deferred to his wife.

"Forgive my poor manners!" said the farmer. "Please go ahead and fix the wall of the pen."

They left the demoness alone to do the promised repairs. After several days of chopping and sawing, the hole in the pen wall was repaired. What's more, a new canopy protected the pigs from above.

"There you are!" said the demoness, still in her "carpenter" disguise. "Your pigs are now snug and safe! No tiger or demon or demoness could possibly get in there now!"

The Fuxiangs thanked the "carpenter," and "he" was on his way.

The next morning, out in the pen, Farmer Fuxiang noted that one pig seemed to be missing. He counted the pigs over and over again; sure enough, a pig was missing. He looked around the pen. Could it have gotten out somehow? No. The walls of the pigpen were tight, secure.

Oh, well, he thought, scratching his head.

Then, the next day and the next day after that, he noticed more pigs were missing, one for each day since the pen had been repaired.

The farmer and his wife looked at each other and had the same thought: the mountain god. Yes, they thought, the mountain god was taking their pigs. So, the farm couple raced over to the local mountain god shrine and prayed to the god not to take their pigs.

"Please spare us!" they prayed. "We need those pigs to sell to market!"

Not much happened after that, to their relief. Then, late one night about a month later, both husband and wife were awakened by the squeals of pigs.

The farmer tiptoed out the house and peered through a tiny opening. Inside the pen was the "carpenter"!

Aha, it was that impostor all along, thought the farmer.

Before the farmer could say or do a thing, the demoness, her feet like wings, had jumped or, more correctly, flown out of the pen with a pig under her arm.

The farmer told his wife. "You can now see why she didn't have a beard!" he said.

"What a fool I was! You were right to suspect her!" she said, slapping herself in the head.

The next day, the couple inspected the pen wall more carefully. They were not surprised to find a hidden door that permitted entry into the pen. With such a door, the demoness could enter fairly quietly. She could, if need be, make a sudden escape by leaping clear over the wall.

By sundown, the husband and wife were ready for the demoness's next visit. They both waited in the pen, the husband on one side of the door, the wife on the other. Both clutched sickles. There, they quietly waited and waited and waited . . .

Deep in the darkest part of that night, the demoness decided to make a return visit and steal yet another pig.

She crept up to the cleverly disguised secret door she herself had installed, oh so quietly opened it and gingerly stepped into the pigpen, unaware that just beyond the door stood the very angry Farmer and Mrs. Fuxiang.

Ah, the demoness thought to herself, the coast is clear yet again!

She then stuck her head and neck just a bit beyond the doorway when . . .

Whup! Whup!

The husband and wife cut her head off!

From that day on, Farmer and Mrs. Fuxiang never lost a pig again.


from Minhua ji, pp. 60-65. (Complete citation can be found on 1/13/09.)

Two other Hmong tales can be found at the postings for 1/13/09 and 2/12/09.

A hallmark of Indo-European folktales--characters being totally clueless--can be found in this story with the husband and wife not truly realizing the malevolent nature of the "carpenter" until the very end, after the trickster had had unfettered access to their pigpen. The original version in Chinese has the wife happily accepting grapes from the trickster, and both husband and wife are initially oblivious to a demoness in disguise. (Of course we're not supposed to recognize Superman is really Clark Kent without the hornrimmed glasses.)

The original version does not explain the relationship with a male child's having an illness, the parent's subsequent visit to the local earth god's shrine, and then having the child's ears pierced.

Motifs: F1071.2.1, "Enormous leap"; K521.2.5, "Disguise as a carpenter"; K1810, "Deception by disguise"; and K1832, "Disguise by changing voice."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Northern Chinese Proverbs & Folk Sayings

Those who wish to be wealthy, wear clothing of rough cloth; those who are destined to be poor wear expensive silks. (from Shandong. People who scrimp and save and who deny themselves the finest things in life while working hard shall end up being rich, while those who love to splurge will end up in the poor house.)

Those who live south of the river think everything north of the river is great; those who suffer from leprosy or dysentery think ulcers are great. (from Northeastern China. "The grass is always greener on the other side," some say. Perspective is everything.)

Thirty percent is the medicine; seventy percent is the recuperation. (from Shandong. Medicine alone can't do it all; the lion's share depends on rest and positive attitude.)

Like a camel surprised to see a horse's heavy load. (from Beijing. Mocking bumpkins who are easily amazed by everyday sights.)

Like one who, without pants on, chases a thief out the door--there is a time to be valiant but also a time to recognize shame. (from Shandong. Said of those who act on impulse and who never take consequences into consideration.)

Like a child flying a kite in the forest--an entanglement is sure to come. (from Beijing. Said of outcomes that are far from certain.)

Like a headless fly, flying into things. (from Beijing. Said of people who end up making themselves busier in various matters due to their not planning earlier; for things, events to become hectic due to poor or no planning. To go around "like a chicken with its head cut off.")

Trying to borrow a pig from a tiger. (from Shandong. To engage in an impossible, pointless activity. Mandarin speakers also say, "To look up a tree for a fish.")

When one carries poison in the heart, ghosts soon knock on the door. (from Shandong. The end result of living a life of sin is not pleasant.)

A blind person singing the praises of flowers in bloom. (from Northeastern China. A somewhat convoluted and contrary way of mocking a person who pretends for one reason or another not to know about something. "Out of sight, out of mind.")

A tile shard can still be used as a table leg pad. (from Shandong. Everything under the sun has a purpose, a value; nothing is totally useless.)

Like a dog's tail that's been in a bottle--it's both stinky and slimy. (from Beijing. Said of people who seem disreputable, who "give off bad vibes.")

In times of plenty, belongings are counted; in times of need, they are gone and missed. (from Shandong. What a difference an unfortunate season can make!)

Like the chicken that doesn't urinate everywhere but rather saves up its one big dropping for a particular moment. (from Beijing. Said of those who don't exhibit much promise but surprise us all later with their talents and accomplishments.)

Like a married couple quarreling--don't make anything out of it. (from Shandong. Describing any temporary difficulty that will almost always resolve itself, something that requires no panicking.)

Like a cobbler who doesn't even have a workbench; like a sorcerer who has ghosts singing at the front gate. (from Northeastern China. Said of those who are too busy in their work to see to the necessities in their own lives, just as we might remark about gardeners who allow weeds to appear in their own yards, or the carpenter not having a coffin of his own.)


from Shang Yingshi, ed. Zhongguorende suhua. (See 6/9/07 for full citation.)

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Golden Qilin (Fujian)

Way up in the heavens, right at the southern gate of the Heavenly Palace, is the Golden Qilin. At times, he opens the gate a crack and slyly takes a look on us down here. When the people are bustling, when the mountains and rivers are particularly serene and beautiful, then he prepares to come down amongst us . . .

They say at the foot of the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian Province, there once lived an old couple--a spry old man of eighty years and his equally peppy wife of seventy. Now this farm couple had never had the joy of little ones tugging at their pant legs and bobbing about at their knees. In their twilight years, they raised fish and birds, watching the fish dart back and forth and enjoying the chirping and peeping of the birds. This is what had to bring them pleasure.

One day, now, out in the field, the wife felt something crawling about in her ear. She scratched and tugged at her ear, and that seemed to take care of the problem for the time being, but not really. The feeling of something inside her ear was still there. Later at night, the sensation became more intense until she couldn't stand it anymore. She got a darning needle and probed her ear with it--not a good idea but the itching and scratching was driving her crazy.

Out of her ear and onto the table hopped a tiny little bug. She looked closely at it; it looked just like a very small silkworm! She picked it up, tossed it into a dustpan, and forgot all about it.

Three days later, she discovered this insect was now outgrowing the dustpan.

Huh, she thought. How about that . . .

So she put the thing into a bamboo cage, like the ones used for chickens. Three days later, it could no longer be contained by the cage. So the very curious woman carried the now much larger insect to the garden. And then, three days after this, the insect had now turned into a man-sized creature, with the body of a full-grown man and the head of a qilin!

Needless to say, both the husband and wife were utterly astounded to find this being in their garden. However, he--the qilin--turned out to be very sweet, kind and devoted to the pair, so they could not bare to send him off. Instead, they decided to let him live with them.

The husband and wife gave him a name--the Golden Qilin.

The Golden Qilin didn't consent to remain as a guest, though. No. He was very strong and offered to put himself to work to earn his keep. He then plowed the field all by himself, without needing an ox. He then, without so much as a bowl of rice in his stomach, turned over all the soil. When he took a "break," he went out into the forest and chopped and gathered firewood. He then hoisted the entire load of wood onto his shoulders and carried it on home!

The old husband and wife loved the Golden Qilin and doted on him, giving him good food to eat and clothes to wear. In turn, he was totally devoted and respectful to them.

"That Golden Qilin!" the neighbors would say. "He is such a good boy!"

Sadly, the happy home life the old couple and the Golden Qilin shared was not to last. Not long afterwards, the old man passed away; before long, his wife did so likewise.

The Golden Qilin was now all on his own. The only people he had ever known and loved were gone.

With no one else left at the farm, he tearfully packed up, left his home, and headed away from the Wuyi Mountains to travel to distant parts.

At this time, the whole empire was in turmoil; invaders had penetrated deep into China and threatened the imperial throne itself. Posters sprang up all over the capital. They read: "The Emperor needs a stalwart and brave warrior and champion to repel the invaders! Whoever can defeat them and rescue the empire shall marry the Emperor's third daughter. He shall become the Emperor's own son-in-law!"

Now it so happened that the Golden Qilin found himself in the imperial capital. All around were gangs of men, standing around, talking about the posters, no doubt dreaming about being victorious in battle and winning the Princess, yet not one stepped forward to volunteer. They were afraid. What if I get killed in battle? they thought. What if I survive but fail to turn back the invaders? Might I not just be serving my own head upon a platter to the emperor?

Hmm . . . , thought the Golden Qilin, to defeat the invaders is to win the hand of the princess. Why not? It is worth the try.

So he immediately headed for the palace, where he presented himself before the emperor. Impressed by his appearance and brute strength, the emperor appointed the Golden Qilin as "Great Barbarian-Punishing Commander-in-Chief." As such, the Golden Qilin was given command of a great force of men and horses.

The Golden Qilin lost no time. For a whole day and night, he double marched his army down to the banks of the river where the enemy force was camped. He then engaged them in battle. The invaders were so surprised and dispirited by the very appearance and fighting skills of the Golden Qilin that they threw down their weapons and armor and fled the field!

The invaders were defeated in this one battle but were not quite ready to return to their own land yet. Their crafty leader hand picked an elite group to attack the Golden Qilin's camp.

That night, under the cover of darkness, the enemy commander led his men himself towards the camp.

"Commander! Commander!" a messenger said, appearing before the Golden Qilin's tent. "An enemy host is swiftly approaching the camp from the south!"

"Alert the men," said the Golden Qilin.

He then had all the men leave a gap in the southern part of the camp. The men next all hid along the inner perimeter of the camp, forming a giant horseshoe formation.

The enemy force reached the southern edge of the camp. The invaders found no one to defend the gate and entered unopposed.

They all looked around. The camp seem deserted. Had it been abandoned?

Then, the Golden Qilin let out a cry and had his men open up their attack. From all directions, including the far southern edge now, the emperor's men fell upon the invaders with their swords.
The Golden Qilin rode up and personally cut down the enemy commander. As for the rest of the enemy soldiers, they all fell and died were they had stood.

The Golden Qilin, the Great Barbarian-Punishing Commander-in-Chief, had won his second great victory in as many days!

The very next day, the Golden Qilin and his men met the remnants of the invading force in one final battle and scattered them, sending the panicked survivors back to where they had come from. The invasion over, the Golden Qilin led his men triumphantly back to the capital.

The emperor received the Golden Qilin at court and heard first-hand the news of the two great victories. The southern boundary was now secure; the enemy had left; the empire was safe! The emperor looked at the Golden Qilin, this strange, not-quite-animal but certainly not-quite-human . . . thing. He thought about the promise he had made to the Golden Qilin, the promise to let the Golden Qilin marry the the third princess upon a victory. He knew it was a promise he could not keep.

"Golden Qilin," said the emperor, "it is my honor to award you three thousand ounces of silver."

"Am I to wed the Third Imperial Princess, Your Imperial Highness?" asked the Golden Qilin.

"That is another matter. You may marry if you wish. "

"I appreciate the monetary award, Highness, but I am not interested in the money. I wish to marry the princess. You had made me a promise. Does an emperor not need to keep his promise?"

There was silence. Then the emperor thought of something.

"Golden Qilin," said the emperor, "truth be told, my daughter is repulsed by the sight of you. Then, last night, something happened. The Tai Bai Jin Xing contacted me in my sleep through a dream. He said you could enter a golden vessel and stay there for a period of time. In 7,749 days you should then be able to assume a human shape. On that occasion, you and my daughter could be wed. Could anything be more wonderful than that?"

The Golden Qilin was a simple being, plain spoken and without any pretensions. He heard what the emperor said, nodded his head and agreed that the princess's engagement to the Tai Bai Jin Xing, the god of Venus, was for the best. In his heart, he loved the princess, for, after all, he had prepared to marry her and so he wanted what was best for her. He actually sympathized with her, understanding that she might not want to marry so hideous a creature as he himself.

So, yes, he said, he would enter this golden vessel, this distiller, and there wait for the 7, 749 if that would make his appearance more acceptable to the third princess.

The emperor snapped his fingers and had his men lug in a large golden distiller, the vessel, and told the Golden Qilin to enter it, which he did. The mouth of the vessel was then sealed. The emperor next ordered a palace eunuch to watch over the vessel night and day and to forbid anyone from entering it or for the Golden Qilin from leaving it.

And so there he sat, waiting for the 7,749 days to pass so that he could be married to his beloved.

Soon the third princess heard about what her father had done. She was incensed, for she had rightly guessed that the emperor wanted the Golden Qilin out of sight and out of mind. Moreover, her father wouldn't mind if the Golden Qilin suffocated or starved in the process.

The princess snuck into the chamber that kept the golden vessel. Sure enough, sitting before it, arms crossed and wide awake, was the eunuch, guarding the vessel with his very life. The princess realized there was nothing she could do at the moment, so she retreated back to her quarters.

What could she do?

Meanwhile, time passed quickly. In fact, a month and a half had now passed. If he is not out soon, thought the princess, he shall be suffocated.

Truth be told, the Golden Qilin was not close to death because of suffocation. He was in a miserable state, though, weak from a lack of water. Not a drop of water had been given to him since his being sealed up in the golden vessel. If the emperor wanted to kill him, it would be very easy to do so now.

The third princess rounded up all her ladies-in-waiting. Together they tiptoed to the chamber in the wee hours of the morning. They hid and observed the eunuch guarding the vessel.

He was nodding off, at this, the hardest time of all to stay awake! I'll just close . . . my eyes . . . for a few . . . seconds, he thought. What . . . harm . . . could . . . that . . . do . . . ?

He was asleep! Quickly, the princess and her attendants pounced upon the golden vessel, dug their nails into the seal and finally pried it right off the vessel.

They looked in. What did they see? A very thirsty and very hungry but also very handsome young man!

The princess herself helped the Golden Qilin out of the vessel. They embraced and knew they had been meant for each other.

The next morning the third princess appeared at court before her father, the emperor. There, holding his hand, she presented the Golden Qilin, now a fine-looking youth.

"Father, . . . may . . . I . . . present . . . the . . . Golden . . . Qilin?"


Call it pride, call it shock, call it embarrassment or call it saving face. The emperor could have taken both their heads but instead banished them. The third princess and the Golden Qilin were to be sent "to the mountains," the imperial edict read, "never to reappear upon the plains."

And so the young couple left the imperial capital and headed for the Wuyi Mountains of what is today Fujian Province. There, the Golden Qilin felled some trees and built a hut for the princess and himself. From then on, he was a farmer, hoeing the soil, sowing seeds, planting, harvesting. The third princess spun, knitted and embroidered. They were never without what they needed to live, and they certainly were never without each other ever again. For the rest of their days on earth, they lived happily and continually in love.


from Huang Rongcan, Fujian minjian chuanqi, pp. 95-98. (See 7/22/07 for full citation.)

Many details of this story are reminiscent of Indo-European folktales. Namely, characters mindlessly engage in physically impossible tasks--i.e., standing vigil without attempting to sleep or entering an airtight chamber in an attempt to stay for more than 7,000 days. Moreover, the eunuch, once the Golden Qilin is sprung from his vessel prison, disappears from the story. No more is mentioned of him, no "heads-up" is given the emperor about his daughter's liberating the Golden Qilin; instead, the emperor is allowed to discover the details of the Golden Qilin's transformation the day after. In Indo-European folktales and in Chinese folktales that are cognates of them, there are consequences that are met (i.e., banishment) and those that are seemingly ignored (i.e., the eunuch's dereliction of duty). The Golden Qilin's later deification and ascent to the heavens are also left unexplained. My comments are not criticism; rather, I am just noting what the great Indo-European folktale scholar Max Luethi had previously observed in such folktales. The original text does not show any introduction of the Golden Qilin to the third princess. The only time they meet seems to be near the end, during the rescue. The text doesn't seem to justify the hero's deep love for the hitherto unseen princess in the scene where the emperor tells him that he, the Golden Qilin, will have to climb into the golden vessel for many thousands of days to make himself more presentable to the woman he loves. The original text also surprisingly has the princess and Golden Qilin kiss upon his rescue from the golden vessel, a detail I chose to leave out.

The traditional qilin is the Chinese unicorn, a mythical creature symbolic of great joy, longevity, and fecundity. It's appearance ushers in a period of harmonic and benevolent rule. So gentle is it that it will not tread upon living grass. It is said to have the body of a deer, the tale of an ox, the hooves of a horse and "forehead of a wolf" (see "Unicorn" in Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives by C. A. S. Williams; the complete citation can be found in the post for 7/22/07). It is usually depicted with a scaled body and one horn, though qilins with more than one horn sometimes appear in popular prints as well.

Tai Bai ("the Great White One") and Jin Xing ("the gold star") are one in the same: Venus. His father is Bai Di, the White Emperor, one of the Five Heavenly Emperors of Taoism, who reigns in the Western skies. Tai Bai Jin Xing also makes an appearance in the famous Chinese novel Journey to the West.

For a similar tale type, see "Winter Melon Boy" on 2/12/09; both are very similar to the Japanese folktale "Momotaro."

Motifs: T50.2, "King (emperor) does not want daughter to marry"; T97, "Father opposed to daughter's marriage"; L161, "Lowly hero marries princess."

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Two Ghost Stories (Series Four) & A Shapeshifting Tale From Ancient China

(1) The Tale of Ji Kang

Ji Kang was a renowned scholar of the third century A.D.; he was also an inveterate traveler, often on the road, visiting all the places he fancied seeing.

One time he walked in a southwesterly direction out of Loyang for more than ten li and found himself in a town called Huayangting. There, he decided to spend the night. He found lodging for one in an inn.

In those days Huayangting had a bad reputation as a dangerous place, many murders having been committed there. Ji Kang was aware of this but not concerned. In the middle of the night, he took out his lute and started strumming some tunes.

Suddenly a sound, much like a mumbling of pleasure, drifted through the room like a breeze of air.

"Who is there?" asked Ji Kang, continuing to play and not missing a chord.

"Just someone who died in this room long ago," said the voice. "When I heard you play, I had to come back. Your music is so beautiful. You'll have to excuse me. I didn't die a pretty death. I want so much to come face to face with you but wish you won't be revolted by what you see."

"It's very late and dark outside. Come on and appear," replied Ji Kang. "You might indeed not look very pretty, but, anyway, what do I care about how you look!"

The ghost instantly appeared and grabbed Ji Kang by the head.

"Your music has made me very, very happy, more than you can ever know. It makes me feel alive again."

Ji Kang did not act afraid. Instead, he and the ghost carried on a lively conversation about music for the rest of the night.

"Say, may I borrow your lute and play something?" asked the ghost at some point very early in the morning.

Ji Kang handed him the lute. The ghost began to play.

He's not very good at all, thought Ji Kang.

Suddenly, though, the ghost started playing a melody that undoubtedly no mortal had ever heard before, and he handled it exquisitely. Ji Kang was enraptured throughout the rest of this performance. He asked the ghost to teach him this tune. It took much of the early morning, but Ji Kang finally learned how to play it.

Of all I have ever learned to play, thought Ji Kang, nothing comes close to being as beautiful as this unearthly song.

The ghost knew how much Ji Kang valued this melody but told him he must never pass the song or its technique on to any other person. He also refused to tell Ji Kang his name.

When the darkness began to give way to light, the ghost said, "Although you and I can never meet again, I will never forget you. I now have to leave you, and it makes me very sad to do so."

With that, he disappeared.


from Hanwei liuchao guiguai xiaoshuo, Yeh Qingbing, ed. pp. 84-85. Originally from Liu Yiqing.
Liu Yiqing (403-444 A.D.) was more famous for another work, Shishuo xinyu (New Chats on What's Happening in the World).

Motifs: E378, "Ghost continues to remain in usual surroundings after death; E402.1.1.; "Ghost speaks"; E402.1.3; E554, "Ghost plays musical instrument."

(2) An Old Man and His Daughter

During the time of the Eastern Jin, in Guzhang County (now Northwest Anji County, Zhejiang Province) there lived an old man and his beautiful and unmarried daughter. They lived together up on Shen Mountain, and there they were utterly devoted to each other.

Now, a certain young man named Guang of nearby Yukang County approached the old man and asked for his daughter's hand in marriage. No. The old man refused.

And so, for a while, that was that.

One day the old man died, so his daughter had to go into town to purchase a coffin. On the road into town, she encountered Guang, who had not lost one whit of his passion for her.

"Look, " she said to him, "I'm all worn out to the bone with what I have to do to prepare for Father's funeral. If you would so kindly watch Father's remains until I can come back with a coffin, I promise to marry you." Guang quickly agreed. "Feel free," added the daughter, "to slaughter any of the pigs in the pen outside our house."

Well, that was also fine with Guang, so he hurried up to the young lady's house.

Guang had no sooner reached the front door of the Shen Mountain home when he heard from within the house the sounds of applause and laughter.

He took a peek inside.

The room was full of ghosts surrounding the old man's body, poking, pulling, disturbing and, worse, mocking it!

Guang found a long piece of wood that could be used as a club, rushed in the house with a loud roar like that of a madman, and scattered the ghosts. The ghosts scattered, running in all directions.

He then took his place by the corpse and began his vigil, breaking it once to go outside to slaughter a pig.

Near midnight, as Guang was feasting on some pork ribs, a long hand--the hand of an old ghost--reached out to Guang to beg for something to eat. Guang turned around and grabbed the old ghost by the shoulder. The more the ghost resisted, the tighter Guang held.

Outside, the rest of the ghosts had gathered.

"You greedy devil," they chanted, mocking Guang, "unable to part with one bite! You'll have your comeuppance, your heavenly payback! Just wait and see!"

Guang turned to the old ghost and said, "It must have been you who had killed this nice old man!
I bet you stole his life essence. Well, if you stole it, you can also return it! Give it back, or else I won't let go of you."

"I am not the one!" cried the old ghost. "My children are the ones who killed him." The old ghost then tilted his head towards the direction of his ghostly children. "Give 'im back his life!"

Then, moments later, the old man who had been lying virtually dead started to breathe and then to stir. Guang let go of the old ghost.

Then not long after, the daughter arrived back home, with porters in tow in carrying a coffin. Imagine her surprise to see her dear old father sitting up, alive and well!

And so a tragedy was turned into a joyous occasion.

And yes--the daughter still kept her promise. Guang and she were promptly wed!


from Hanwei liuchao guiguai xiaoshuo, p. 168. Originally by Liu Yiqing.

The old ghost in the story and his mob are reminiscent of the so-called "hungry ghosts," though he and the other specters are not specifically described as such. Suppose they are indeed hungry ghosts, otherwise known as "wandering ghosts" or the euphemism used by rural Taiwanese, "the good brothers." They are the ghosts for whom there is no one left to offer sacrifices; hence, they wander the earth vainly in search of food and drink. Hungry ghosts, the preta of Indian Buddhism and the Hinduism that preceded it, have been popularly depicted as having ultra thin necks, pinhole mouths and huge extended abdomens, all indicative of those who are starving, craving food but physically unable to ingest it (see Gods, Ghosts & Ancestors by David K. Jordan [Berkeley: University of California Press], pp. 34-35). Author Lin Liming writes that there are thirty-six varieties of hungry ghosts. Among them are the following: ghosts that "eat water," "drink blood," "eat the wind"; and ghosts of "the wide open spaces"; "the social world," and "filthy alleys" (Guiyu shijie [The world of the ghostly domain]; Xiamen: Xiamen Daxue Chubanshe, 1993, p. 60).

Motifs: E337.1.3.1., "Sounds of ghostly party"; E402.1.1.3.,"Ghosts cries & screams"; E499, "Meetings of the dead."

(3) A Filial Son

In the time of the Jin, there was an impoverished young man whose mother had just died. Because he had no money to pay for a proper funeral, he had the coffin taken up Mount Liang. There, he located a plot of land, dug a hole, and began to construct a tomb for his mother. In the evening, he slept by the fire in his makeshift camp.

He worked day and night on the tomb. He was still working on the tomb early in the evenng when a young mother carrying a baby stumbled into his camp. Could she and her baby spend the night next to the warmth of his fire? He of course said yes and continued to work on the tomb well into the darkness.

It was now late at night, and the filial son decided to turn in for the night, to go to sleep in his little camp by his mother's grave.

He turned to look at the woman and child sleeping by the fire; he didn't, however, see a woman and child.

No, what he saw was a fox cradling in its paws a black crow!

He crept up to them and beat them both to death. He then threw their remains down a pit.

The next day a man came by the camp and tomb.

"Excuse me," he asked. "Last night my wife and child were here. Do you know where they are?"

"There was no woman or child here last night. There were just a fox and a crow, and I killed them both."

"You killed my wife and baby! How can you now turn around and say that you killed a fox and a crow? Very well, then. Can you show me where you put the two bodies?"

"Follow me."

The filial son led the man to the pit. The son looked down, expecting to see the carcasses of two animals. The fox and crow were gone! Lying in the pit were a dead woman and a baby!

The husband of the dead woman grabbed the son, subdued him and tied him up. He then dragged the young man to the local government house and demanded the filial son pay with his life for the murder of the woman and her baby.

"Please, Your Honor," he told the magistrate, "don't believe this man! This is obviously a case of shapeshifting! Please bring out your best bloodhound! It will get to the bottom of this problem!"

The magistrate thought about what the filial son had said, snapped his fingers and had a bloodhound and a tracker brought in. The husband took one look at the bloodhound and promptly turned into a fox right on the spot. Before the fox could get away, though, the tracker shot it dead with an arrow.

The magistrate ordered the son released.

The son returned to the mountain and to the pit. Lying in the pit were the small carcass of a fox and the even smaller one of a crow.


from Hanwei liuchao guiguai xiaoshuo, pp. 169-170. Originally by Liu Yiqing.

This is a very early example of what would become a staple of East Asian supernatural lore, the shapeshifter. Here the primary beast is the fox, a creature that can combine the characteristics of cunning, dangerousness, voluptuousness, and charm. For two folktales about shapeshifters--respectively a tiger and a wolf--see the postings for 6/8/07 and 3/26/08. For still other stories, especially those about were-foxes, see the famous
Ming dynasty anthology, Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling, available in many English translations.
Crows and ravens have traditionally been considered ominous throughout the Western world but not necessarily in the Far East, where in ancient times the crow or raven was considered to be a sun symbol and a model of filial piety for the belief that it feeds its parents (Chevalier & Gheerbrant, p. 789; see 2/26/2008 for full citation.) However, folklore expert Professor Ren Cheng writes that while Manchus might revere the crow or raven and set out a sacrifice for it, the majority Han Chinese of Nanjing, Jiangsu region, would in former times upon hearing a raven or crow cry early in the morning recite a special seven-character formula to avert ill luck (Zhongguo minjian jinji [Chinese Folk Taboos], Taipei: Hanxin, 1996, p. 564).

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Mynah Bird (Han)

There was once a mason, plasterer and artisan named Liu Shan, and he had raised a mynah bird from the time he was just a boy. Now this was no ordinary bird, nor no ordinary mynah bird, for that matter. This mynah bird had a very lively, cheery disposition and an incredible vocabulary for a talking bird.

Every morning the mynah bird would perch on the window sill and call out to Liu Shan: "Good morning, Big Brother, good morning! The sun is up! Let's go, go, go!" Liu Shan would then rise and take the mynah bird to that day's work site.

Liu Shan and his mynah bird were an inseparable pair!

Liu Shan was hired to remodel the county magistrate's home. While up on a wall, Liu Shan discovered he had forgotten to bring a special horsehair brush. He told the mynah bird to fly back home and fetch, which the bird soon did. Then, when Liu Shan moved a bit too close to the edge of the wall, the mynah bird said, "Big Brother, take care! Big Brother, take care!"

The mynah bird was also popular with all the workers and craftsmen at the county magistrate's house, and how the bird loved the attention! The workers each took turns teaching the bird new words and songs.

All together Liu Shan, his fellow workers, and the mynah bird made up a happy, boisterous crew.

Now one day the county magistrate himself made a visit to the work site to see how his house was coming along. Liu Shan had just started the preliminary drawings for a fresco of the god of longevity upon one of the walls.

The county magistrate came over to see what Liu Shan was drawing.

"What's that supposed to be?" he asked, pointing with his nose.

"That's the god of longevity," replied Liu Shan.

Immediately the mynah bird flew down from some unseen perch.

"The god of longevity! The god of longevity!" the mynah bird chirped.

The county magistrate was delighted and stroked his long beard. "Whose bird is this?"

"It is mine," said Liu Shan.

The county magistrate stretched out his arm. "Come to me, my little friend! I shall give you something to eat." The bird landed on his arm, and off they went, the magistrate chuckling with joy, to give the mynah bird a snack.

The next day the county magistrate's attendant came up to Liu Shan. "I have been instructed by my master the county magistrate to take delivery of the mynah bird. In exchange my master is to pay you ten ounces of silver."

"Well, kindly instruct your master that my mynah bird is not for sale."

"Not for sale! Not for sale!" the mynah bird chimed in.

The attendant curled his lip, tittered a bit, and left.

That seemed to take care of that, and Liu Shan went back to work.

Then, around the time of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, Liu Shan came down with a sickness that prevented him from working. All he could do was borrow some money from the county magistrate, his salary, promising to repay him as soon as he was able.

Then, one straight month of illness became two, and two became three. Liu Shan would never be able to repay three months' wages . . .

By this time the house had been remodeled without Liu Shan's artistic touches. Upon completion of the work, the county magistrate arrived to tour his remodeled house. He came to the wall where the fresco of the god of longevity was supposed to be. The wall was blank. Liu Shan had been unable to finish the fresco, so the wall was just painted.

The county magistrate was livid.

He had Liu Shan arrested and dragged before him.

"Why, you filthy swindler!" the county magistrate said. "How dare you take my money and not do what you were hired to do!"

"I . . . I have been ill, Your Excellency . . ."

"'Ill' indeed! Give me back my five ounces of silver! Not only that, give me that mynah bird of yours!"

"Excellency, if it takes me all my life to repay my debt to you, I shall, but I am not giving my mynah bird away!"

The county magistrate had Liu Shan beaten and tossed into a jail cell.

Now the mynah bird had been away from home when Liu Shan was arrested. It flew back to an empty home, not knowing that Liu Shan couldn't, wouldn't be coming back. Soon, the bird tired of waiting for Liu Shan to return, so it just took off, hoping to find its master. It flew and flew all over the town, over all the roofs of homes, shops, inns, taverns.

Then, while resting on a branch, it turned its head towards a hole in the brick wall of a building, the town jail, and there, it spotted Liu Shan inside, sitting with his head in his bloodied hands in a cell. Closing its wings right against its body, it forced itself through the hole and into the jail cell.

"Mynah bird, my mynah bird!" cried Liu Shan. "You don't know what I have gone through because of you! Look what the magistrate has done to me. He has broken my fingers, one by one, beaten me and left me here--all because I would not give you up to him. You have been mine since you first hatched; I have raised and taken care of you. How could I ever let someone take you from me?"

"Wu, wu . . ." was all the mynah bird could say.

From that day on, the mynah bird would visit Liu Shan daily in his cell, chatting with him and trying to cheer him up. It was almost like old times again--the two of them together. However, there was a problem: the jailer happened to peek in on Liu Shan and saw the mynah bird there with him. The jailer then notified the county magistrate, who then came to the cell.

Seeing the magistrate, the bird immediately flew to a rafter.

"County magistrate!" cried the mynah bird. "You oppress the people! You'll never get me!"

The county magistrate gnashed his teeth in anger as he helplessly watched the bird go out the hole from which it had entered and fly off up into the sky.

The county magistrate sent out an order to all his men--"Bring me that mynah bird alive!" Soldiers and yamen guards then scoured the countryside and town searching for the mynah bird.

The mynah bird seemed to have disappeared.

Then, that same night, the mynah bird flew back to the cell to see its master. It once again made squeezed its way into the hole in the wall.

"Got you!" a voice cried.

A net dropped over the cell window and hole, and hidden guards rushed into the cell to trap the mynah bird now caught inside the jail wall.

Caged, the mynah bird was brought before the county magistrate.

"I have you now, mynah bird," he said. "I plan to roast and to eat you. What do you think of that?"

"You are a cannibal, a vampire!" chirped the mynah bird. "One day a homeless dog shall eat from your skull!"

"Take this thing away!" bellowed the county magistrate. "Take it away to the kitchen and let the cook prepare it!"

In the kitchen, the cook carefully plucked each of the mynah bird's feathers and put the naked little creature upon the chopping board. When the cook was distracted by the oil beginning to boil in the frying pan, the mynah bird quickly flapped its wings to fly away. It couldn't fly, of course, so it hopped off the chopping board and onto the floor.

The cook was just in time to see the mynah bird scurry away down into the drain.

Down, down into the drain went the mynah bird until it was able to find itself a little niche so that it wouldn't be washed away by the water surely to come. There it stayed until the beginning of spring, surviving on the bits of food washed down the drain with the garbage and dirty water. By this time its feathers had grown back.

And then came the day when no one was around in the kitchen. The mynah bird emerged from its hiding place, unfurled its wings, and flew out the window, to search again for Liu Shan.

Unknown, of course, to the mynah bird, Liu Shan had escaped from his jail cell and was now hiding deep in the mountains.

Meanwhile, the mynah bird flew around and around, looking for its master. In town some kind of celebration was taking place. Men were beating drums and cymbols, and crowds of people were milling about. The mynah bird flew to the roof of a building to watch all the bustling activity.

And there, below, was the county magistrate! What was he doing? He was entering the city god's temple to offer incense and prayers. There, before the statue of the city god, he lit his incense and knelt upon the floor to kowtow.

"If all those you have harmed come forward to testify about your corruption and abuse, woe unto you!"

Who said that? In the courtyard, there was just the county magistrate and the statue of the city god. The county magistrate looked around, sweated, and continued his prayers.

"Hear me speak! Admit your crimes, and I shall go easier on you. If you try to cover up all the evil you have done, you will have been better off being born as a dog!"

The county magistrate increased his kowtowing with a feverish pitch, banging his head upon the floor with the energy you'd use to grind up dried garlic with a mortar and pestle. The pain was awful, and he cried like a baby; however, the head-banging continued. Maybe, just maybe, if he prayed earnestly enough, the god would be satisfied . . .

"Come forward to admit your crimes and receive your punishment so that your burden can be lightened!"

Faster and faster did the county magistrate hit his head upon the floor!

"Do this now. First, in front of me, pluck out every hair on your face so that you can pass among the common people without distinction . . . "

Still on his knees, the county magistrate began pulling out all his whiskers until his aching face was a smooth as a baby's bottom.

"Second, kowtow 365 times before me now to learn about humility and to remind yourself never again to abuse the people!"

The county magistrate kowtowed another 365 times with such vigor he nearly upset the altar. He stood up, reeling, his head battered and bleeding.

He slowly staggered his way out the temple. Just as he reached the exit to the courtyard, a voice called out to him.

"Hee, hee! Magistrate, it is I!"

He swung around, nearly toppling over, grabbing onto a pillar for support. There, on a rafter, sat the mynah bird.

"Last year, you had my feathers plucked; this year, I have your beard plucked. Last year, you broke my master's body; this year, I break your piggish head! So long!"

The county magistrate watched the mynah bird fly away from the rafter, out of the temple and into the sky.

It finally dawned on him that the voice he had heard earlier was not the city god's but the mynah bird's; however, there was not a thing he could do about it.


from Jia & Sun, Zhongguo minjian gushixuan, Vol. 2, pp. 160-163. (For full citation, see 7/22/07.)

This is a very famous Han (the Chinese ethnic majority) folktale which is anthologized in Pu Songling's Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio. (A number of translations exist, including John Minford's English translation published by Penguin.) This story, collected during the Cultural Revolution, bears traces of proletarian revising in the increasingly sophisticated and politically conscious utterings of the mynah bird when it dupes the venal magistrate in the temple. I suspect the politicized language was added to make the story conform to the party line of that era.

In a land where beard growth is generally sparse, the possession of a beard, itself a symbol of masculinity, power, sagacity, etc., would be something of which to be proud. Hence, the loss of the beard, especially in which one painfully plucks one's own beard, would have to be extremely galling and demeaning.

Motifs: B211, "Animal uses human speech"; B211.3, "Talking bird"; J1117, "Animal as trickster"; J1118, "Clever bird"; J2465, "Disastrous following of instructions." In addition, the story has a variation of K1971, "Man hides behind statue and pretends to be god."

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Fabulous Porcelain Bed -- a Legend From Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province

Long, long ago, some emperor sent an imperial edict to the famed porcelain potters of Jingde Town: "Make me a bed of your porcelain ware that will keep me cool in the summer and warm in the winter. You have one year's time upon receiving my command."

There was also an additional comment: "Failure to meet the deadline will result in death."

Minister Qin, a venal court high official, personally delivered the imperial message.

It was clearly an impossible task, but what could the good porcelain makers of Jingde Town do? They got started--that's what they did! If the project failed, would one be singled out for execution? a pair? a whole clan of potters? They didn't know, so the whole town of potters got together as one team to produce this porcelain bed demanded by the emperor back in Yanjing.

They constructed a bed of fine unburnt clay and loaded it into a big kiln. They then watched and waited . . .

When the time was up, they took the bed out. It was a total failure: the bed had failed to be baked evenly!

They started over and created a new unbaked porcelain bed. The result was the same--again, again, and again.

To make matters worse, Minister Qin and his retinue continued to stay in town, making the rounds, demanding to be treated to wine and food by each family of porcelain makers. The overtaxed townspeople put up with him, for one word of complaint, just one sneeze the wrong way, would be enough for him to send a note back to the emperor about the "rebellious peasants."

Now just outside of town was an old experienced but retired potter. It was said that if he created a porcelain bird, it would fly and chirp! That was his reputation. A delegation of people from town made the trek to his home.

"Master!" the spokesman for the group said to the old potter on his front porch. "Surely you've heard that the emperor has commanded us to create a porcelain bed for him that will keep him cool in the summer and warm in the winter. If we fail to do so within the year, we die. We've tried and tried and can't get it right! Please help us!"

For the longest time, the old man said nothing. Then he sighed and motioned for the twenty or so people to follow him into his modest house.

The group entered the house and looked on in shock: there in the house were a number of porcelain beds unable to be baked and tempered. The old master had also been trying to create a porcelain bed but to no avail.

They thanked the old man for trying to do his part. Then, spiritless, the group turned around and trudged out the house in silence.

The old potter then decided he would commit himself to finding a way to make a successfully baked porcelain bed. He went back to work, not stopping for rest or food.


He turned around. His only daughter, a beautiful young girl, was standing behind him.

"Please get some rest and food to eat! I am worried about you."

"No, Daughter. Papa has to work and find a way to bake the porcelain bed!"

Now one day, the daughter fell asleep while sitting by the kiln. She then had a dream. In the dream, a very old white-bearded man came up to her from behind and tapped her shoulder.


"Do you want your daddy to find a way to make a porcelain bed?"

"Yes, I do!" she replied in the dream.

"Well, I know of a way! Shall I tell it to you?"

"Please tell me!"

"Very well. The next time you load the kiln with a bed of unburnt clay, you must enter the kiln as well and be fired along with the bed. Are you afraid to die?"


"Can you then enter the flames of the kiln along with the bed?" asked the mysterious old stranger.

"Yes, I can!"

The old potter saw his daughter talk in her sleep by the kiln. When she awoke, he asked her about it.

"What were you shouting about, Daughter?"

"Father, do you have another bed ready for the kiln?"

"Yes. Why?"

"The bed can be fired today, successfully."

"Are you still talking in your sleep?"

"Father! Is there a bed ready or not?"

"Yes, yes, there is, for what good it will do! Feel the heat. There's one in the kiln right now."

The girl leaped to her feet and ran into her room. She emerged not long after, clad in a new flowery dress, her hair combed and brushed, with sweet oil applied. She approached the front of the kiln.

"Daddy!" she cried and then plunged right into the mouth and flames of the kiln.

The fire inside than surged upwards and outwards, burning bolder and redder than before.

The old man couldn't believe his eyes and sprang forward to the kiln, too late.

"My daughter . . . my daughter . . . "

When the bed was brought out to cool, it was discovered the firing had been absolutely successful. The curled dragon motif on the bed was said to be able to move its tail, while the inlaid phoenix motif could supposedly flap its wings.

Minister Qin thus took possession of the bed and had it loaded aboard a ship bound for the North. He daydreamed about the emperor ennobling him, granting him vast tracts of land. In his eagerness to return to the imperial palace, he ordered the captain to go full speed ahead, ignoring cautions.

The ship entered the waters of Poyang Lake, Jiangxi. Right in the middle of the lake, a sudden electrical storm arose, flinging its lightning bolts down to earth. One bolt hit the bed, secured on top of the ship, shattering it into hundreds of shards, piercing Minister Qin, causing him to bleed from "the seven orifices." He fell down dead amongst the remnants of the porcelain bed.

It is said that to this day the grateful pottery families of Jingde Town all have beautiful images of the master potter's daughter placed on their own kilns.


from Jia & Sun, Zhongguo minjian gushixuan, Vol. 1, pp. 114-117. (For full citation , see 7/22/07.)

This story is a variation of another that long ago appeared in English: "The Voice of the Bell" from The Sunken City and Other Tales From Round the World by James McNeill (New York: Scholastic Book Services, 1975; pp. 132-137), originally a reprint of a British book published in 1959. In this version, Kuan-yu, minister to the historical Ming Emperor Yung-lo (Yongle) (1360-1424 A.D.) is ordered to cast a huge bell the peals of which should be heard for many miles around. After two attempts at casting the bell, Emperor Yung-lo sends word he will not tolerate any more failure upon pain of death. In the end, Kuan-yu's daughter Ko-ngai, inspired by the words of a fortuneteller, jumps into the cauldron to enable the bell to be cast successfully and to save her father's head.

Mr. McNeill's version is beautifully told, as are all the other tales in his anthology. I heartily recommend his book if you can be lucky enough to find a copy.

"Jingde Town" is Jingdezhen, a world-famous location for fine porcelain china.

Porcelain pillows first appeared during the Sui dynasty (581-618 A.D.), but I haven't been able to find any citations about entire porcelain beds as either actual or legendary objects.

Foundation myths and legends suggest that a landmark (i.e., bridge, building) for some reason required a human sacrifice embedded within or otherwise melded or contained within the landmark in order for it, the landmark, to exist or to be sustained. In McNeill's version as well as this one, a beautiful girl (i.e., a virgin) willingly immolates herself to allow, respectively, a bell to peal more sweetly or a porcelain bed to contain the needed essence of goodness and chastity that would befit such a marvelous creation from which much is to be expected.

The Chinese title refers to the "longfeng porcelain bed," longfeng, "dragon and phoenix," being a metaphor for "conjugal."

For another story in which a girl sacrifices herself so that others may live, see the Hezhen story "The Stone Girl," 2/13/08.

The grisly bleeding "from the seven orifices" is heavenly retribution, according to Chinese folklore, supposedly reserved for those --typically, high officials--who had committed evil in their lifetimes and may have covered it up.

Motifs: D1810.8.2, "Information received through dream"; S261, "Foundation sacrifice"; W28, "Self-sacrifice."

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Ghost Stories From Ancient China -- Series Three

(1) Father Comes Home

In Wuxing (Wuxing Town, Xinye County, Henan Province or Wuxing County, Zhejiang Province), there lived a farmer, his wife and their two sons.

Now one day this farmer went up to his two sons who were plowing in the fields and started berating them. Not only that but he proceeded to beat them mercilessly. The sons, hurt and bewildered, left the field and went straight home. There, they told their mother what had happened.

Later, when the father had returned home, the mother asked him about it.

Simply put, he was devastated; he would never treat his two sons that way. No, he insisted, he had not been the one scolding and beating his two sons in the field. It must have been some devilish ghost playing a prank in the manner they were known to do so, by impersonation.

He took his two sons aside.

"Listen," he said, "if someone who is my spitting image should ever again come up to you while you two are at work and try to harm you, take an ax and kill him. It will be a ghost overstepping his bounds, and you will teach him a lesson."

That seemed to take care of that.

Some time later, though, the farmer had time to think over his words. The more he thought about what he had advised his sons, the more alarmed he became.

Why, he thought, my sons might mistake me for a ghost anytime I go out to help them with the plowing! No, I'd better caution them about acting too rashly.

He then went out to where they were plowing. Before he had gotten too close to them, his sons, assuming the ghost had once again impersonated their father, immediately cut him down with an ax. They then buried the body under the tall grasses.

Now the real ghost had witnessed all this. He just simply transformed himself into the likeness of the farmer and returned home at the end of the work day.

"Congratulate our sons when they return home," he told the unsuspecting wife. "They took care of that annoying ghost once and for all!"

The sons soon came home and, like their mother, never suspected the older man in the house was not the farmer whose body lay decaying under the soil but rather the cunning ghost impersonating him. As if all this weren't bad enough, the ghost stayed with the family for many years without raising anyone's suspicions.

One day years later, a traveling Taoist priest happened to pass by the ghost masquerading as the farmer. The priest went directly to the farmer's wife.

"Madam, I need to tell you something," said the priest. "Your husband has an evil qi about him."

The two sons overheard this conversation and instantly ran out to tell the "farmer," who was absolutely enraged. He returned to the farmhouse as the priest had just stepped outside.

"That liar!" he screamed to the wife. "That priest is spreading filthy lies!"

The priest heard this and stormed inside the house.

The "farmer" immediately changed back into his original form, that of an old fox. The fox then scurried under the bed. Everyone in the house cornered the fox in its hiding place and succeeded in pulling it out and killing it.

The two sons then made sure their real father was exhumed and buried properly.

That's not the end of the story, however. Not long after, one of the sons took his own life, while the other son sank into deep despondency, became ill and eventually died.


from Guiguai xiaopin, pp. 51-52.

Originally from Bowu zhi (The Annals of Strange Things) by Zhang Hua (232-300 A.D.) of the Jin dynasty (265-420 A.D.)

This story is reminiscent of "Qin Jubo" (see "The Tale of Uncle Ju," in "Ghost Stories From Ancient China--Series One," 3/26/09), and like other ghost stories, it shows the inevitably fatal consequences of interacting with ghosts. Here, however, as with the Qin Jubo story, the term "ghost" must be used flexibly. The "ghost" in this story is not yet in the codified form recognizable to most people around the world--the misty and/or partially transparent image or form of a recently or long ago deceased person. It can also be "killed," an ultimate fate that escapes the already dead ghosts. Here, the "ghost" is the malevolent shapeshifting fox goblin known throughout Chinese, Japanese and Korean folklore. There is no intimation of this "ghost's" connection to a dead human. However, one thing remains true: this entity is a thoroughly evil and implacable foe of the living, qualities traditionally ascribed to many, if not most, East Asian ghosts.

The compilers of Guiguai xiaopin write that ghosts (presumably those that are shapeshifters or
revenants) are "bored" and thus mercilessly torment and kill for fun (53). To this we can add that ghosts, as the dead, are the polar opposite of the living and, therefore, if they manifest themselves after death, are very much unresigned to their status and harbor ill will to the living.

Motifs: A13370.2, "Disease caused by ghost"; D42.2, "Spirit takes man's shape."

(2) The Wedding Must Go On

Zhang Yacheng, a licensed scholar of Xinjian County, Fujian Province, had a peculiar hobby when he was younger: he enjoyed making miniature suits of armor, hair clasps and the what-not out of gold foil paper and using them as playthings, keeping them in his room, never letting anyone see them. Apparently he possessed some skill, though no one else was supposed to know about it.

Imagine his surprise when one day a thirty-something year old woman knocked on his door.

"Yes?" he asked. "How may I help you?"

"I want to commission you to make some gold foil ornaments for me."

"Oh? What kind of ornaments?"

"Hairpins, bracelets, pearl ornaments for the hair . . . "

"I see," said Zhang. "May I ask what for?"

"Wedding ornaments . . . for my daughter to wear."

Zhang thought the woman had to be joking, but she appeared very earnest and assured Zhang he would be paid for his work. He accepted the job and said no more about it as she left.

The young woman returned the next day.

"My surname is Tang," she said, "perhaps related to the family of the mandarin surnamed Tang who lives in the nearby village. I need to ask a favor of you."


"On this strip of paper, please have someone write in a nice calligraphic hand the name of that official, my kinsman, so I can place it on one of the wedding lanterns, as is the custom."

Again Zhang thought the woman was joking with him. Why would she need him to do this? Why not approach her distant relative, the local official, herself and have him or someone else do this? But he played along.

"Allow me, please, Miss Tang. I shall write the name for you."

Supressing his mirth, he went ahead and wrote the name of the official on the strip of paper. The woman, satisfied, then left.

Several days passed. The designated day for the woman to pick up her daughter's wedding accouterments had arrived. Zhang handed them over to her; she in turn paid Zhang very handsomely with hundreds of certificates redeemable in silver and many lucky wedding biscuits. They thanked each other and the woman left.

That was that, or so Zhang had thought.

Early the next morning, after arising Zhang went to look at the payment he had received from the woman. What had been many fancy gourmet biscuits were actually individual little clods of dirt. What had been silver certificates were actually partially silver-foil embossed "hell bank notes," the money reserved and then burned for the dead.

Now Zhang Yacheng realized the truth; the woman had been a ghost.

Several days after that, everyone in town was woken from his or her dreams at an unholy time early in the morning by musicians blaring trumpets and beating drums. The racket went on and on, and it all seemed to emanate from one place: the top of the hill where there no houses but only a cemetery with its forlorn graves.

A lonely hilltop cemetery with loud music in the wee hours of the morning . . . nobody in his right mind would be up there . . . nobody but ghosts . . .

Some local foolhardy teenage boys decided to creep up the hill to look at the ghost musicians performing for what--a ghostly funeral? They did so and saw that the spectral musicians were wearing the red sashes worn by those attending a wedding, and on the dragon lantern illuminating the show was the strip of paper written in the nice cursive writing of Zhang Yacheng, displaying the name of an official, a local mandarin, a man surnamed Tang . . .


from Guiguai xiaopin, pp. 75-77; Yuan Mei, Gao shenme gui. (What the devil are you doing?). Wang Huan, ed. Taipei: Guanshe chubanshe, 2004; pp. 58-60.

This not terribly ancient story is from Qing dynasty (1644-1911) writer Yuan Mei (1716-1797), a collector and compiler of ghost lore. We first get the impression that Zhang Yacheng is inviting trouble with his habit of playing with foil paper, a medium used in preparation for "Bank of Hell" ghost bills burned as offerings to the dead. His misuse of such an item ensures a visit from a ghost.

Yuan Mei himself, commenting on this story, suggests it shows that the world of the dead is not far removed from that of the living in that the desire "to keep up with the Joneses," to maintain a front or to keep face, is an undying human need for both the living and the dead. Here, the ghost mother, originally from a less wealthy background, desperately wishes to have the aura of respectability and affluence attached to her daughter's name through the imprimatur of a living or (more probably) now dead mandarin.

Apparently Zhang Yacheng comes out none the worse after his repeated encounters with a dead woman. Yuan Mei notes that later in life Zhang Yacheng entered the ranks of the licentiates after passing his literary examinations and went on to become a renowned local scholar.

Motifs: D476.2.1, "Food changed to dirt"; E334.2, "Ghost haunts burial spot"; E402.4, "Sound of ethereal music"; E554, "Ghosts play musical instruments."

(3) The Disciple of Shixu

In Wuxing (now, Wuxing County, Zhejiang Province) there lived a very influential man named Shixu who had a student whose name is lost to us.

This student was a very stubborn fellow, always blathering about his opinions and never diverging from them. One of his favorite topics with which to argue was ghosts. "There are no ghosts!" he would say.

One day, probably by the road, this student encountered a traveler wearing a white upper garment. They exchanged greetings, and the traveler stopped to chat. Before long, the student of Shixu brought up his favorite topic--the non-existence of ghosts--and a debate soon commenced. They argued and argued, well after the sun had already set behind the trees.

In this debate, the student got the better of the visitor.

During a lull in the argument, the visitor turned to the student and said, "You're a real tongue wagger, aren't you? I suppose you think you know just about everything. You've got me where I can't reply to your position. Very well.

"In any case, allow me to tell you something. I happen to be a ghost myself. What do you have to say about that?"

The student chuckled and dismissively asked, "So you're a ghost. Very good. Answer me this: what do ghosts want out of us?"

"What do ghosts want? It's very simple. We collect lives, lives from those about to die. In fact I'm here to collect your life. Tomorrow noon your time shall be up."

Now the student was scared, where before he had been smug, cocky.

"Please spare me! Don't let me die!" he pleaded.

"Hmm . . .," said the ghost. "Is there anyone around here who resembles you?"

"Yes! Yes! At Shixu's estate there's a military officer who looks a great deal like me!"

"All right. Tomorrow we shall go there together, and I'll have a look . . . "

The next day the student led the now invisible ghost to Shixu's estate. There, the student announced his intention to visit this military officer he was supposed to resemble. The student was admitted inside with, of course, the invisible ghost following him all the way. The student sat down on a chair across from his friend, the officer, and the two began to chat.

While they were chatting, the ghost took out a metallic needle and, stepping behind the officer, jabbed the needle right into the man's skull.

Immediately the officer cried out, "I have a headache!"

The headache grew worse, and by noontime, the poor man had already died.


from Hanwei liuchao guiguai xiaoshuo, p. 46; originally from Soushenji by Gan Bao.

Motifs: *D1855.2, "Death postponed if substitute can be found"; E247, "Ghost kills man"; E421, "Invisible ghost"; P316, "Man killed in friend's place."

(4) An Unnamed Husband and Wife

Long ago there once were a couple whose names have been lost through the years.

Early one morning the wife got out of bed earlier than her husband and went outside to wash her face. Unknown to her, her husband got up shortly afterward to bathe.

Neither one encountered the other outside.

The wife returned inside and peeked in the bedroom. Sure enough, she saw what looked like her husband still sleeping. Not wishing to disturb him, she quietly got ready to leave to do some chores.

As she was ready to go out the door, however, the servant boy came inside the house and took a mirror.

"What are you doing with the mirror?" the woman of the house asked.

"The master said I could use it," replied the boy.

"Now how could that be? He's inside the bedroom sleeping. How could he give you permission to borrow the mirror while he is asleep?"

The boy looked befuddled.

"I was outside just now and asked him! He's still out there. Let me go get him!"

Before she could say anything, the servant boy shot outside and immediately came back in with the husband, who looked very concerned.

Together the husband and wife entered the bedroom.

There, on the bed, was the split image of the husband, still sleeping away. In complete disbelief, the husband approached his twin lying motionless upon the bed. The husband bent down to touch his counterpart; as he did so, his hands, arms and the rest of him gradually merged with those of his lookalike until both were once again one person.

Needless to say, both the wife and husband were totally shaken and left speechless by this event.

Shortly after, the husband suddenly came down with an illness from which he was never to recover.


from Hanwei liuchao guiguai xiaoshuo, p. 48; originally from Soushenji by Gan Bao.

By now we can see it is just about axiomatic that to encounter a ghost or, here, a doppelganger, is usually a fatal occurrence. The doppelganger phenomenon is also highly unlucky, frequently fatal, in German folklore as well. A similar story of bilocation, but one with a much happier outcome--"Chunmei's Journey"--can be found at the posting for 7/15/07.

Motifs: A13370.2, "Disease caused by ghost"; E723, "Wraiths separate from body."

(5) Chen Jia

Chen Jia had lived in Beixiangting, Wu Prefecture, Haiyan County, Jiangsu Province, and then, sometime during the reign of the Jinyuan emperor (276-323 A.D.), he moved to nearby Huating.

Just outside Huating, by the eastern marshes, he spotted a huge snake while hunting. It was enormous, being six, seven or even eight zhang long, lying just below a ridge. It looked like a long boat turned on its side, and it was black, yellow and other colors.

He shot an arrow at the creature, killing it, but then turned and left the area in a great hurry.

Back at home, he thought about his encounter with the huge serpent and was overcome with an inexplicable uneasiness over the matter. He decided not to tell anyone about what he had seen or done.

Three years passed . . .

Chen Jia, along with a local Huating man, was again out hunting in the marshes near the same area where he had killed the huge snake three years before.

Remembering the event that had so shaken him up several years before and without really thinking, he turned to the Huating man and said, "You know it was right over here that I had once killed a gigantic serpent a good number of zhang long!"

His companion was astounded that such a thing had happened; he had known Chen Jia for some time and had never heard him say a word about the serpent.

That night, Chen Jia had a dream. In that dream, a man in black with a black scarf wrapped around his head approached him.

"I was once resting on the path along the ridge," said the man in black, "minding my own business and not harming a soul, when you came along and killed me. Why? What had I ever done to you?

"I had just been sleeping off after being drunk. I never saw the face of the man who had killed me. I pledged to myself to wait for this enemy of mine who had done this to me. Now, three years later, you returned to the spot to brag openly of your deed! Today, you brought all this upon yourself . . . "

Chen Jia woke up, trembling and soaked with sweat, his heart madly palpitating, his intestines in knots. Before the day was over, he was dead.


from Hanwei liuchao guiguai xiaoshuo, p. 56; originally from Soushenji by Gan Bao.

Snakes are generally looked upon with suspicion and dread but also acknowledged to be wise, due to their proximity to the ground and knowledge of what lies beneath the earth. Snake or serpent spirits supposedly can foretell the future and may take human form, as so many Chinese folktales and legends attest. The most famous is, of course, the legend and opera, Madame White Snake.

One zhang is 3 1/3 meters.

Motifs: B731.10, "Multicolored serpent"; D391, "Serpent transformed to person"; E265.3, "Death caused by ghost"; E526, "Ghost of snake."