Sunday, January 18, 2009

Some Proverbs From Southwestern China


He who tries to keep a foot in one boat and the other foot in another will end up getting nothing done. (Such a person must be too ambitious, "biting off more than he can chew.")

Water spilled on the ground can never be collected; mistakes, once made, can always be rectified.
(All that's happened before is "water under the bridge.")

Happiness and sweat are brothers; luck and hard work are a family. (Industriousness and the fortune that come from it cannot be divorced from each other; one definitely leads to the other.)

The more you sharpen a knife, the quicker it cuts; the more you use your brain, the faster it thinks. (The brain works if one would only use it.)

Buyi (Buyei)

For each day an evil man lives, the decent common people must suffer for a year. (The evil of one bad person spreads like a cancer.)


The loudest bird is not necessarily the biggest. (Looks may be deceiving. "All that glitters is not gold.")


You wouldn't ask a monkey to collect fruit anymore than you would tell an otter to watch over the fish. (Taiwanese would say, "Don't send a ghost to the pharmacy to fill a prescription." Trying to cut corners while doing something important can lead to disaster.)

Sticking your hand out won't block the wind, and pulling your ears close to your head won't keep you dry from the rain. (To engage in pointless, useless activities, tasks that are doomed to failure from the start. Mandarin speakers would say "to look up a tree for a fish." Japanese speakers would say "to look for oysters in a field.")

Wood not drilled cannot be connected with other wood; a person not taught remains ignorant. (Like so many other proverbs, this rhymes in Chinese. Think of learning as akin to drilling, with information, wisdom, etc., being drilled into the brain so that one may become learned, better connected to the world around him/her, and disabused of his/her innate ignorance.)

Just as loud thunder usually means only a little rain, an arrogant loudmouth is usually one with only a few accomplishments. (Some people are all talk. "Talk is cheap.")


(1) Yanhai Langhua, Zhang Dingya, et al. (2) Zhongguo minzu minjian wenxue (Folk literature of the peoples of China). Zhongyang minzu xueyuan xiaoshu minzu wenxue yishu yanjiusuo. Beijing: Zhongyang minzu xueyuan, 1987.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Old Grandpa Money Rock (Hmong)

There were once two brothers who lived together and cultivated a vegetable patch. When the older brother got married, he gave his younger brother a grass rain-cape and hoe and told him to fend for himself. 

 The younger brother headed for the mountains to seek out some land unclaimed by others where he could grow his own crops. There, up in the mountains, near a large rock, he started hoeing. As he hoed, from time to time he'd look at the nearby rock sticking out of the ground. 

 Huh, he said to himself, that rock looks just like an old grandpa. 

 The sun came out; it was no longer chilly; there was no longer any chance of rain. He took off his rain-cape and laid it on top of the rock. 

 "Old Grandpa Rock!" he said affectionately. "Please help me out by holding my rain-cape for me, all right?" 

 When the day's work was done, he sat down by the rock and started talking to it as if it were an old friend. 

 "If I could be as sturdy as you, old Grandpa Rock," he said, "I'd never get tired, never get worn out."

 The younger brother worked there daily.

 Now one particular day, when he was taking a break and, as usual, talking to the rock about how hot and tired he was, the rock suddenly spoke back. "Hey, young fella, just listen. You think you're hot and tired? Every day you come here and place your hot and scratchy rain-cape on top of me! It's heavy too! Take the rain-cape off me and I'll give you something!" 

 "You'll give me something?" asked the younger brother, thinking he must be in a dream. 

 "Yes, that's what I said," replied the rock. "Tomorrow come here with a three-foot-long sack. I'll fill it up with silver coins for you!" 

 The younger brother did just exactly that. The next day he showed up with a three-foot-long burlap sack. 

 "All right," said the rock, "open it up . . . " 

 The younger brother did. As he did so, the rock opened his mouth and spat out hundreds of sparkling silver coins right into the sack. Pretty soon the sack was largely full.

 "How's that?" asked the rock. "Is that enough?"

 "Oh, it's too much!" said the younger brother. "Too much!" 

 "'Too much!'?" The rock laughed. "Few ever say 'too much.' Anyway, take the coins with you and make a fine home and life for yourself. You're a hardworking young man and deserve every coin." 

 The younger brother happily took his sack of coins back home with him. Before long his older brother discovered his riches, for they still lived near each other. 

 "How is it you became so rich, Little Brother?" he asked. The younger brother told him the whole story--about the strange rock up in the mountains, about his leaving his rain-cape on the rock, about the rock's being able to speak, about the silver coins, and so on. 

 "And this rock is easy to find?" asked the older brother. 

 "Of course! Just go up the path all the way into the mountains. You'll find a clearing on your right. In the middle of this clearing, sticking right out of the ground, there's this rock that looks like an old grandfather . . . " 

 The older brother was off like a shot up the mountain carrying his own rain-cape and hoe. He soon located the rock that looked like a grandfather. He laid his raincape on the rock and began hoeing. After hoeing all day, he sat down next to the rock for a break. 

 "Well, how are you, old Grandpa Rock?" he asked. "Is it warm enough for you today?" There was no answer. "Hello? Did you hear me, old rock? Hello?"

 Again, there was no reply. 

 The older brother spent the whole afternoon trying to get the rock to speak but all to no avail.

 "All right, all right," the man said. "I think I know how to make you talk."

 He piled stone after stone atop the rock. Soon the rock was covered with scores of other rocks. 

 "Take these stones off me!" cried the rock. "Take them off me, and I shall reward you!" The older brother greedily rubbed his hands and then removed the rocks. "Do this: Be here tomorrow with a three-foot-long sack. I'll let you fill it up with silver coins!"

 "Yes!" said the older brother. "I'll be here!" 

 Bright and early the next day, the older brother was there with his own burlap sack. 

 "All right," said the rock. "Open it up." 

 The rock then spat out a stream of silver coins. Pretty soon the sack was 98 percent full. 

 "How's that?" asked the rock. "Is that enough?"  

"No!" cried the older brother. "It's not enough! More!"

 "All right," said the rock. More shiny silver coins flew out until the sack was absolutely bulging with coins, ready to burst. "Now, how's that?" asked the rock. 

 "More, more!" cried the older brother. 

 The rock tried and tried, but he just didn't have any more coins in him. When he saw no more coins coming out, the older brother stuck both his hands into the mouth of the rock. 

 "Come on, old man rock! I know you have more coins in there!" Just then, the rocks mouth closed right on the older brother's two hands! "Aiyoooo!" screamed the older brother. "Hurry up and let go of my hands!" He stomped the ground and kicked the rock with his two feet, but the rock did nothing. It just stood still, showing no life. "Please! Please let go of me!" The old man rock showed no sign that it heard him or even cared. 

 Nightfall came and the older brother was still there, his hands stuck inside the rock. And then came a powerful downpour, soaking him and washing away his sack of coins. At daybreak, the older brother looked around. Where there had been some silver coins still lying around after the little flood, there was now nothing but dirt. Still another full day and night passed before his wife finally found him. Seeing her husband stuck this way, she burst into tears. 

 "Hey, hey, don't cry! There's no time for that now! Pull my hands out of this rock!" 

 Climbing up onto her husband's back, she tried and tried to pull his hands free but only managed to make him scream in pain. She tried again and again, but all her efforts got her nowhere. 

 Sighing, the older brother said to his wife: "Well, you might as well go back down the mountain to our house and fix me something to eat. Perhaps with some food in my belly I'll have the strength to pull my hands out of this cursed rock!" 

 The wife did so. As a matter of fact, from then on she had to prepare three meals daily for her husband since he couldn't get himself free. There he stayed for three years! He stood by the rock all through the day and night, through sticky, sweltering summer heat and the spring rains. He was ready to go mad! 

Then one day, with his wife by his side, he made up a little song and started to sing: All through the rain and wind, three full years and another April is here! Back at home, the rice shed is empty; Everything I've done has come to naught. Might as well cut you off, my two hands! 

 The rock heard this song and started to chuckle. He then laughed out loud. When the rock opened his mouth, the older brother instantly fell backwards. His hands were free! He was free! He and his wife immediately scurried down the mountain path and never again returned to that spot. 

From (1) Miaozu minjian gushi (Hmong folktales). Li Yingqiu, ed. Taipei: Mutong Chubanshe, 1978; pp. 324-329; (2) Minhua ji (A collection of popular tales). Qiu Meidai, ed. Taipei: Yongan Chubanshe, 1978; pp. 13-18. 

 Years ago I learned from an American professor who is an expert on Hmong culture that these people of Thailand, Laos, and Southwest China resent their name in Chinese (Miao) and regard it as pejorative. Thus, in accordance with their wishes, I'll refer to them by the name they themselves prefer, Hmong.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Sultan of the Pomegranate Tree (Uighur)

There was once a poor man named Aimutai'ke, and all this man owned were his hut and a pomegranate tree.

Now he loved the tree dearly, so he took good care of it, pruning it frequently and, of course, watering it like clockwork. When he wasn't working, he watched over his tree every chance he could get. In fact, when the evening weather was warm, he spent the night under the pomegranate tree, lest someone or something come by and do so much as touch one branch or disturb one leaf. Once in a while, a child might climb the wall and try to steal a pomegranate. Aimutai'ke would yell at the child and say some things that are not very nice; that usually did the trick and would make the child scurry away. If the child was in striking distance, he'd lash out with a stick, if he could.

Because of all this, everyone in the neighborhood, young and old, gave Aimutai'ke a nickname--"the sultan of the pomegranate tree."

Early one autumn his pomegranates were plentiful and ripe. He kept a special eye open on them. However, we are all only made of flesh and can only do so much. Aimutai'ke had counted his pomegranates and then fell asleep a little earlier than he expected. When he woke, one was gone!
He was furious with himself for letting that happen. He wondered who or what had taken his pomegranates, but, oh, well, nothing could be done about it now. He resolved, though, not to let a thief get away with stealing his pomegranates again.

The next night, he slept indoors by the window, all the better to keep an eye on his tree. He fell asleep watching the tree. He awoke with a start; a few more pomegranates were missing!

Well, that was that! He decided to stay awake at all cost to get sight of the thief. The next night he drank many cups of tea to stay awake. He lay down by the trunk of the tree and pretended to be asleep, slyly keeping his eyelids slightly open. Then, sometime during the night he spotted it: a fox had crept over the wall and was now approaching his tree . . .

He leapt up, startling the very silent fox that now turned tail and crawled back up and over the wall.

"You . . . you thief! Come here again to steal and I'll teach you a lesson you'll never forget!"

The fox was long gone.

Aimutai'ke wanted to trap the fox to protect his remaining pomegranates but didn't know how to go about preventing a very sneaky fox from coming over the wall. His old neighbor had a solution.

"It's very simple," said the old gray-bearded man. "Heat up a pot of paste. Then apply it all along the top of the wall where the fox climbs over. I guarantee you that you'll catch your fox yet!"

Aimutai'ke did just that the very next night and waited behind the tree, keeping a thick cudgel by his side. Sure enough, in the middle of the night, the fox crept up to the top of the wall. It stood on the top and was prepared to jump down onto Aimutai'ke's side of the wall when it discovered it couldn't budge. It was stuck! It tried to turn around and run back the other way, but all it could do was twist and turn but not leave the spot.

"Aha! I've got you, thief!" shouted Aimutai'ke, grabbing his club. "I'll teach you!"

He ran over to where the fox sat hopelessly stuck and raised his cudgel.

"Sultan Aimutai'ke of the Pomegranate tree!" cried the fox. "Spare my life, please!"

With the cudgel raised in midair, Aimutai'ke looked at the fox and asked, "And why should I, thief?"

"Spare me and I'll serve you well for the rest of my life! I'll even find a very fine wife for you!"

"Ha! You take me for a fool!" Aimutai'ke squinted his eyes as he prepared to club the fox to death.

"No, no! Don't beat me! Spare me and I'll keep my word! You'll see! You won't be sorry!"

"I won't be sorry? Why won't I be sorry? How could you, an animal, find a wife for a poor egg of a man like me?"

"Not only will I find you a bride," said the fox, "but she shall be a princess! Do you hear me? A princess!"

Aimutai'ke put down the cudgel, laughing so hard.

"You shall find a princess for me to marry? Oh, that's funny! All right, fox, I'll spare you, not because I believe you but because I want to see you try to find a princess bride for me!"

"I shall keep my promise!" said the fox, running away into the night. "I will get to work on our project right away! You shall see . . . "

The next day, the fox ran over to the royal palace in the neighboring land to see the old sultan who ruled there.

"Your Majesty, could I possibly borrow your royal sieve?" asked the fox.

"My royal sieve? What for?"

"Well," continued the fox, "it's actually my sultan who needs to borrow it, so he sent me. We got ourselves into a mess, you see. We had a large load of agate stones somehow mixed in with a lot of dirt and dust. My sultan said you had the only sieve around that could separate the dirt from the agates!"

"Is that so?" asked the old sultan. "And who is this sultan of yours?"

"Sultan Aimutai'ke!"

"Ah, Sultan Aimutai'ke! He's very famous. Has a large, wealthy sultanate, I've heard. Well, of course! By all means borrow my sieve."

The fox then ran off with the sieve. Before he left the palace, he made sure to steal a few precious stones--agates and pearls. Several days later, he returned with the sieve. With the gems in his palm, he handed the sieve back to the sultan, letting the pearls and agates drop out of his palm, into the sieve, and down onto the palace floor.

The princes and the princesses were nearby and couldn't help notice the gems rolling around on the floor. The fox looked at them as they looked at the gems.

"Oh? Do you like agates, pearls, and other gems too? I wish you had told me! I would have taken you to see Sultan Aimutai'ke. He'd be more than happy to let you sift for more jewels. He has plenty of 'em!" The fox winked at them.

The sultan's ears perked up when he heard about Aimutai'ke's "jewels." He stopped himself from licking his lips and rubbing his hands together.

"Fox, " said the sultan, "let me make an offer. I have three daughters. Suppose you play matchmaker for your sultan and help him to choose one of my daughters for a bride. My daughter will bring him great happiness, and, of course, his marrying her would be a great honor to me as well. What do you say?"

As soon as the three princesses heard what their father said, they started quarreling among themselves about who would be most qualified to be Sultan Aimutai'ke's bride.

"Now, now, Your Royal Princesses! No need to excite yourselves at this moment!" said the fox. The three princesses quieted down. "I don't know if my sultan even wants to marry! May I have permission to return to his palace to ask him?"

Once back at Aimutai'ke's hut, the fox said to Aimutai'ke: "Well, it's all settled. The neighboring sultan has agreed to let you marry one of his daughters. Tomorrow we're off !"

Aimutai'ke was overjoyed, but then he suddenly thought of something.

"Wait a minute, fox!" said Aimutai'ke. "This is all wonderful, but what will I wear? I can't show up at the sultan's palace looking like this, can I?"

"Never mind about what to wear. I'll take care of that tomorrow."

The next day, the fox and Aimutai'ke were in view of the sultan's palace when they came to a river.

"All right, Sultan Aimutai'ke. Take off your clothes."


"Yes," said the fox, "take off your clothes and wade into the river. When you get to the point where your head is just above water, wait there and don't move until I come back and tell you to come out again!"

Aimutai'ke did as the fox told him, and the fox rushed off to the palace.

The fox was let in before the startled sultan, panting and wiping his brow.

"Fox, whatever happened?" asked the sultan.

"Oh, Your Majesty! Your Majesty! It's so terrible!"

"What? What?"

"My master, Sultan Aimutai'ke and his caravan laden with jewels and gems were crossing the river when the water suddenly surged, washing away his forty camels! The sultan himself was nearly drowned!"

"Oh, my . . . "

"Yes, Your Majesty! And Sultan Aimutai'ke waits for you now, still in the river. You see, his robes were also taken right off him by the violent water!"

The old sultan thought about the forty mules, each carrying a load of jewels and gems. How he would have loved to have gotten hold of all those now lost jewels and gems! But what could he do?

He sighed.

"All right, fox. Lead my men to Sultan Aimutai'ke so we can rescue him. I'll give him some clothes to wear. I'm sorry about the ordeal he has gone through. Since I cannot receive the dowry of jewels and gems he was bringing, I'll just have to accept them in my heart. Let him still choose a princess, and let the wedding go on!"

The fox showed the sultan's men where Aimutai'ke was. The poor shivering naked man climbed out of the river and let the sultan's men dress him in the finest robes.

"Now, Your Majesty, Sultan Aimutai'ke," said the fox, "we're ready to enter the palace!"

"Yes, yes," said Aimutai'ke.

The pair, followed by the the able men of the sultan's guard, entered the palace. The old sultan took a good look at his future son-in-law and liked what he saw. He presented his three daughters, and, taking his time, Aimutai'ke chose one, the one he thought was prettiest.

This was the start of the forty days of the wedding celebration.

On the fortieth day, when just Aimutai'ke and the fox were alone in Aimutai'ke's chamber in the palace, he turned to the fox and said, "Look, fox. I'm married now to an actual princess, and that is as wonderful as can be, but there's one huge problem. Tomorrow we're leaving this place, and I'm supposed to take my bride back to my palace! I don't have a palace, a castle, a fortress or anything! I just have a miserable hut and a pomegranate tree! What am I going to do?"

"Don't worry. I have it all figured out. All you need to do is just to remain calm and quiet and to let me do all the talking."

In the morning a troop of men and horses, led by the one of the old sultan's top officers, the commander, was ready to escort Sultan Aimutai'ke, his bride and the fox back to their "palace."

After all had said their goodbyes and the party was ready to ride out, the fox turned to the commander and said, "Commander, allow me, if you will, to go on ahead of you and your group to lead you to the palace of Sultan Aimutai'ke."

"Of course, but why, fox?"

"Allow me to be your guide and your eyes and ears on the road. At the earliest sign of trouble ahead, I'll run back to report to you. This is how I travel with Sultan Aimutai'ke in our land."

"By all means, go ahead."

So the fox ran ahead. On the road, way before Sultan Aimutai'ke and his party came into view, the fox crossed the paths of a camel herder and his herd of camels.

"Hey, there, fox!" shouted the camel herder. "Where are you off to in such a hurry?"

"Ohh . . . ," replied the fox, barely slowing down, "you'd be wise be to hurry off too! Behind me on the road are a gang of cutthroat bandits who'd just as soon kill you as look at you!" The fox then slowed down further and turned back to look behind him. The dust raised by the hoofs of Aimutai'ke's group could be seen in the distance. "And there they are! Run for your life!"

"Yikes!" cried the camel herder. "I see them! I'll never get these camels off the road and hidden in time! What am I going to do? You're a fox; you must have some plan!"

"Actually," said the fox, "I just thought of something. You really have nothing to fear. Here's what you do. When the bandits show up, they'll want to know who owns all these camels. Just tell them that they all belong to the great and mighty Sultan Aimutai'ke . . . "

"S-Sultan Aimutai'ke . . . "

"Yes, Sultan Aimutai'ke, and that you are the royal and official camel herder for the sultan. That should do the trick! Those bandits won't dare touch a hair on your head! Good luck!"

And the fox was off!

"Sultan Aimutai'ke . . . Sultan Aimutai'ke . . . " The camel herder quickly memorized the name. He had his story all prepared by the time the commander and the Sultan Aimutai'ke party arrived.

"You, there! Camel herder!" shouted the commander.

"Y-Yes, s-sir?"

"To whom do all these camels belong? I've never seen such a large herd!"

"Why, t-to S-Sultan Aimutai'ke! I'm his official and royal camel herder!"

"I see," said the commander. He must be the grandest, wealthiest monarch on the planet, he thought.

Meanwhile, still ahead of everyone else on the road, the fox came across a horse trader leading a herd of beautiful, magnificent stallions.

"Fox, my goodness!" yelled the horse trader. "Why are you running in such a hurry? You'd think the devil himself were after you!"

"If you saw who was on the road," said the fox, "you wouldn't laugh! The most dangerous, evil gang of vicious bandits is behind me. Take a look behind me!"

Off in the distance, the cloud of dust raised by many hoofs could be seen.

"Oh, no!" cried the horse trader. "They'll surely cut my throat for all these horses! Quickly, O he who is wisest of animals! What can I do? I'll never get these horses hidden in time!"

"All right, listen carefully," said the fox. "The bandits will ask to whom these horses belong. Just tell them that they are owned by the great, all-powerful and mighty Sultan Aimutai'ke . . ."

"Sultan Aimutai'ke?"

"Yes, that's right, Sultan Aimutai'ke. Tell them that you are the sultan's personal horse trainer. They won't dare harm you! Now remember what I said! Good luck!"

And the fox was off.

The horse trader had just gotten Sultan Aimutai'ke's name straight when the commander and the rest of the group rode up.

"You, there!" called the commander. "Yes, you with all those horses! Who owns this herd?"

"The wise, great, all-mighty, all-powerful Sultan Aimutai'ke, sir!"

"I see," said the commander. I might have guessed, he said to himself. Such a magnificent ruler wouldn't have just a bunch of bony nags running about, would he?

Of course the princess had witnessed everything the commander had seen so far on the road.

A herd of camels that stretches for as far as the eye can see, she said to herself. A herd of gorgeous horses the likes of which I've never seen! Such wealth . . . My father's riches pale to nothingness next to my groom's!

Before long, the fox came across a shepherd and his flock of sheep.

"Ha!" laughed the shepherd. "Look at that fox run! Where are you off to, boy?"

"Think it's funny, do you?" asked the fox. "Well, take a look at the horizon!"

The shepherd looked; a large cloud of dust is what he saw.

"What of it?" asked the shepherd.

"Why, man, that is a gang of murderous, bloodthirsty bandits! Hope you have a small army to defend yourselves and to keep these sheep!"

"I . . . I see them!" The shepherd gasped. "What . . . what am I going to do? I am just one fellow out here! Fox, do you have any clever idea?"

"Well, I might. All right, here's what you must do. Their chief will ask you who owns all these sheep. Tell him they are owned by the mighty and powerful Sultan Aimutai'ke. Believe me--when they hear that, they'll head on without so much as bothering you!"

"'Sultan Aimutai'ke,' you say?"

"That's right! Now, good luck!"

With that, the fox was off.

No sooner had the nervous shepherd committed the name "Sultan Aimutai'ke" to his memory than the group of riders arrived.

"Hey, you over there! Yes, you! Come here!"

"Y-Yes, s-sir? M-May I h-help you?"

"Do you own all these sheep?"

"N-no, sir. They all belong to the great, mighty, wise, powerful, amazing and awful Sultan Aimutai'ke! I'm just his humble shepherd."

The commander and the group rode on.

This is ridiculous, he thought. Is there anything that this man doesn't own? I'll just have to stop asking.

Now the fox was on the path that led to the castle of the King of the Demons, a place nobody in his/her right mind would even venture near.

The fox ran through the unattended front gate, opened the front door and entered the demon's chamber.

The Demon King was amused to see a fox right before him, panting, trying to catch its breath.

"Ha! A fox!" He laughed and shook his head. "What are you doing in my chamber? Why are you struggling to catch your breath?"

"Oh, great King . . .," said the fox, "I'm here to warn you!"

"Warn me about what?"

"It's Sultan Aimutai'ke! He's on his way with a great army. He plans to kill you!"

"What? Sultan who?!"

"Sultan Aimutai'ke! He tried to kill me already but I got away! Quickly hide before he enters your castle!"

"Sultan Aimutai'ke, you say?"

"Yes, yes! Please hide quickly!"

"Well, you're a fox, the most cunning creature around. Do you have any suggestions where I should hide?" asked the Demon King.

"Oh, let me think . . . let me think . . . I've got it!" cried the fox. "Hide up your fireplace! I'll then stack firewood underneath. He'll never look inside!"

The demon ran to the fireplace and squeezed himself up the chimney. He wriggled all the way up until the soles of his boots couldn't be seen. The fox then busily placed firewood beneath him.

"How's this, fox?" asked the Demon King.

"Fine, just fine. Now don't say anything!"

The fox then lit the wood in the fireplace, and the fire roared right up the chimney itself, roasting the King of the Demons to the bone. And that was the end of him and all his evil!

Shortly afterwards, the commander led Sultan Aimutai'ke, his bride and all his men right into the castle, unopposed.

And that is how Sultan Aimutai'ke took possession of a whole castle!

Now for some time Sultan Aimutai'ke and his wife lived in the castle, along with the fox. One day the fox came to speak to Aimutai'ke.

"Mighty Sultan, I think you'd have to admit that I kept my original promise to you, wouldn't you say?"

"Absolutely. You certainly did keep your promise!"

"I also think you couldn't deny that I have been of tremendous service to you , could you?"

"Of course I could never deny that! Everything I have I owe to you!"

"Then," continued the fox, "let me ask you something. If I died, what would you do?"

"If you died, fox? Why, why I would honor you!"

"Oh? How so?" asked the fox.

"I would wear you on my very head!" Aimutai'ke replied. "That way I would remember you forever and ever."

"I see."

A few days later, the princess came to Aimutai'ke with an urgent and sad look upon her face.

"Your Highness, my husband, I have sad news," she said.

"What is it?"

"It's the old fox. He's dead!"

"Oh, is that so?"

"Yes, my husband. What shall we do?"

"With him? Oh, just toss him into the furnace!"

"You treacherous man!"

Sultan Aimutai'ke suddenly turned around. Standing in the doorway was none other than the fox himself.

"You had told me that if I died you'd wear me upon your head for remembrance's sake. Is your word as heavy as a mountain or as light as a feather?" asked the angry fox.

"Fox, dear friend, I'm sorry! Don't be angry. If you should really die, I swear before you and under heaven that I shall truly wear you upon my head!"

As it turned out, the fox did die a few days later. This time Sultan Aimutai'ke kept his promise. He took the fox's pelt and head and fashioned it into a head covering. Now the people of the area thought this was mighty strange but didn't say anything, of course. In time, though, it became quite fashionable to wear a fox on one's head. That fashion has continued down to our time!


from Zhongguo minjian gushi xuan, vol. 1, pp. 267-271.

It seems a function in nearly every Indo-European fairy tale, like this one, for characters to act like clueless fools, never questioning the obvious or suspicious, taking everything at face value. At the end, we are not told how the castle operated without even a minimal staff. Were the commander and his men invited on to stay as well? The story doesn't tell us.

This story is, of course, a variant of AT 545B, "Puss-in-Boots." Many variants end with the death of the helpful animal. In some tales, the cat, reluctantly slaughtered by her master, turns into a beautiful princess. Here, the dead fox serves to establish the origin of fox-fur caps.

I chose to translate guowang as "sultan" here instead of "king" in keeping with the Islamic traditions of the Uighur people. The story never specifies whether the "King of the Demons" is an actual demon or the nickname of a fiercesome bandit or warlord. I chose to treat him as the former.

The Two-Headed Phoenix (Dai)

There were once two friends whose love for each other put the closest brothers to shame. These two men shared everything; each made sure the other was never without what he himself had. They had been friends for many, many years and no doubt expected to enjoy many more years of friendship and brotherhood. One day, though, one of the two, the elder, fell ill. He grew worse and worse daily until, alas, he passed away. The younger of the pair was inconsolable. He carried on for a while without his lifelong friend, but it was very difficult for him. One day, not surprisingly, he too fell ill and, before long, he too was gone. Not long after they they left this existence, they were both reborn as one animal--a two-headed phoenix. It had one body and tail and a pair of wings like any other bird. It also had a pair of heads. This creature behaved just the same selfless way as the two friends had in life. Both heads cared for each other; both heads helped each other find food. And this phoenix flew only to places both heads wanted to visit. One day a hunter spotted the phoenix in the woods. Instinctively, he raised his hunting rifle. He stopped in his tracks and He did a double take. Yes, he, thought to himself, it's a phoenix; not only that, it is a double-headed one! One head was feeding the other head. He lowered his rifle. He didn't have the heart to kill the phoenix because he was so moved by the way the two heads had obviously so much affection for each other. The hunter left the forest and returned to his village. He told everyone there about the fabulous creature he had seen in the forest. "Oh?" asked his friends and neighbors. "Tell us more." Each of those villagers made sure he/she told everyone else he/she knew. Before long, well, the king himself heard of the two-headed phoenix. The king was fascinated. He sent his chief game warden into that part of the forest with orders to capture this creature. Now this game warden was himself a very canny hunter. He too spied the double-headed phoenix on the high branch of a tree. He raised his rifle, but before he could shoot, the phoenix had flown off to another tree. The game warden again tracked it down. Once again he raised his rifle, but once again the phoenix, as if guided by some hidden awareness, flew away to safety before the game warden could shoot it! The game warden continued to track the phoenix but had to give up the hunt at dusk. Disappointed, his head downcast, the game warden returned to the royal palace to give his report to the king. The king, of course, was not happy to see the game warden return empty handed. "I promise I'll catch that phoenix, Your Majesty," the game warden told the king. "Rest assured I'll bring it to you alive!" "Very well," the king replied. "See that you do--soon." The game warden went to his workshop and started to work on a number of traps just for the two-headed phoenix. He finished building them early in the morning, when the sky is at its blackest. With the help of a small caravan, he then took the traps into the forest to capture his prey. He had the traps spread out beneath fruit trees all through the forest. The game warden then hunkered down in the dark forest to wait and to watch, no matter how long it would take . . . Then, at daybreak, he received the news he had been waiting for from one his men--the two-headed phoenix had been caught! He rushed over to that particular trap; sure enough, the phoenix was inside, its two heads looking all around, no doubt trying to figure out how to get themselves out of this trap. "No escape for you!" The game warded laughed, loading the trap onto a mule. "Prepare to meet the king!" Before long, the caged phoenix with two heads sat before the king. "They are all yours, Your Majesty! Any further instructions for your humble servant?" asked the game warden. "No. I want to be alone with my phoenix. You are dismissed." Now in the throne room, it was just the king and his phoenix. The king had heard about how unselfish and loving this creature was, so he decided to do some experiments. He fed one of the two heads but not the other. The head that received food stopped eating after the full mouthful, when it became clear the other head would be receiving no food. When the king tried to feed the head that had eaten a morsel a little more, it took the food and gave it to the other head. It did this over and over. If the king prevented the first head from giving the second head food, the first head just didn't eat. No matter what the king did, he couldn't force this head to eat or prevent it from feeding its brother. The king was angry; he wasn't used to being disobeyed. He summoned his top councillors. "All right, men," said the king, "I have a task for you. See the two-headed phoenix here in this cage?" The men all nodded. "I need you to find a way so that I can split this creature into two living phoenixes--two, not one. Whoever can do this will receive a full half of my kingdom! Do you understand?" The men looked at each other and then nodded again. "Well, step forward, whoever among you can accomplish this task!" Finally, one councillor did manage to step forward. "Your Majesty, if I succeed in splitting this phoenix into two living phoenixes, I shall receive half your kingdom? Did I understand you correctly?" "Yes." "Well, Your Majesty, I am willing to try, but I must request you allow me to take the two-headed phoenix home with me for at least a full month. Do I have your permission?" "Permission granted!" "And you do promise me, Your Majesty, to give me half of your kingdom if I succeed?" "You heard me the first time! Do not ask me again! Now get to it!" The councillor then took the caged two-headed phoenix home. He suspended the cage from the main beam of his ceiling. He then set about finding a way to split the phoenix into two birds. Everyday he watched over the bird, noticing its every movement, as he fed the two heads. He wanted to take over half of the kingdom, so he devoted every available moment to observing the bird and to devising a way to split the bird into two. Many days into his project, he discovered something: during periods of the day, the two birds' heads would turn in totally opposite directions. This happened randomly throughout the day. I'll split you two yet, thought the councillor as he looked at the two-headed phoenix. Yes, you shall see. You'll shall be two birds and I, the ruler of half a kingdom before the week's done. He waited for the next time one of the two heads would turn totally away from its partner and brother. When the head on the right did so, the councillor immediately stood beside the bird's head and whispered this to him: "Xu xu xu xu xu xu . . . " The councillor then stepped back, turned around and left the room. As soon as he was gone, the head on the left turned to the one on the right and asked, "What did he just say to you?" "Nothing!" "Really? Come on, now. What did he really say?" "Nothing I tell you! Just some nonsense. That's all!" "All right . . . " After a while, the councillor reenterred the room and waited for the right head to turn his way again. Once it did, the councillor whispered to it: "Xu xu xu xu xu . . . " He then left the room. "That man just whispered something to you again this time! I know he did!" said the head on the left. "Now what did he say this time?" The head on the right sighed and said, "Nothing! Just something ridiculous, meaningless!" "Now don't you tell me he said nothing! I know he said something!" "He didn't say anything that made sense!" "Uh huh . . . " The next day, the councillor whispered the same nonsense to the head on the right and then left the two heads alone. "Let me see," said the head on the left. "He said 'absolutely nothing at all.' Is that what you're going to tell me?" "I have no idea what he said, Brother! It made no sense! It never makes sense!" "Of course . . . of course . . . " "He doesn't really say anything!" "Yes, yes. I believe you." "You do?" "No. You're a terrible liar!" The two heads, belonging to, in another life, two sworn brothers and lifelong friends, began to quarrel; the quarreling turned to vicious pecking. The fighting grew more intense, as the two heads pecked and scratched at each other's head. They squawked, screeched and grunted; feathers flew and the cage rocked violently back and forth. Finally, with great effort from both heads, the phoenix split right down the middle, becoming, at last, two complete birds! "Ha, ha!" The councillor leaped into the room, grabbed the cage and ran off for the royal palace. He presented the king with what were now two phoenixes instead of one. "Here you are, Your Majesty! Two phoenixes, not one! And all done within a month's time!" The councillor beamed from ear to ear. "Now I believe we had a deal . . . " "A deal? Oh, yes," replied the king, admiring the birds. "Discuss it with me later." Here our tale ends. The king ended up with what he had wanted: two phoenixes instead of one. The councillor, however, ended up with nothing. The king refused to admit he had had a deal with the councillor. The poor councillor! He had never dreamt his words to the king would be just as intelligible as all the "xu xu xu" he had spoken to the phoenix's right head! Notes from (1) Minhua ji (A collection of popular tales), Qiu Meidai, ed. Taipei: Yongan Chubanshe, 1978. pp. 39-44. (2) Zhongguo minjian gushixuan, vol. one. pp. 451-453. Note an interesting anachronism: the mention of hunting guns. The Dai of Southwest China is an umbrella term for tribes containing some who are ethnically related to the majority group of Thailand. For another (though more sardonic) tale of "divide and conquer," see the Mongol story "The Tiger, the Yak and the Fox" (7/25/07). A note to Sarah Probasco: Sarah, I'm not sure if you received my email note so I'll print my response below. I was asked to recommend some English translations of classical Chinese literature. I'd recommend the titles below: Cyril Birch: (1) Anthology of Chinese Literature, vols. 1 & 2. (2) Stories From a Ming Collection David Kherdian: Monkey: A Journey to the West (You also might enjoy Arthur Waley's translation of Monkey as well.) Pu Songling: Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio. (This is the famed Liaozhai. There are various translations. Among the best is the one by Herbert Wade-Giles, famed sinologist of the previous century.) Pearl Buck: All Men Are Brothers (This is Miss Buck's translation of The Water Margin, or Shuihu zhuan, the famous Yuan dynasty action novel by Shi Naian.