Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Ox That Knew a Thing Or Two (Zhuang)

This happened long ago, when people and animals still understood each other's language . . .

One day a farmer led an ox into a muddy paddy to do some plowing. The ox found himself up to his belly in the mire and felt most miserable. He raised a leg here and raised a leg there, moving very slowly. After what seemed like all day, the farmer discovered he had plowed an area probably not bigger than a banana leaf.

The farmer was furious and took a stick to the ox, beating him and scolding him.

"Oh, was there ever a beast more stupid and slower than you?" the farmer asked. "All day long we've been here, and just look at the ridiculously small patch you've managed to plow! Not all animals are as stupid and slow as you, though! No, indeed. Look at the tiger. He is both clever and fast. You ought to be more like him, as if you could!"

"Just wait a moment!" replied the ox, unable to hold his feelings in any longer. "I am better than any tiger when it comes to having any abilities!"

"Oh, is that a fact?" The farmer snorted. "I just bet . . ."

"You don't believe me?" asked the ox. "Fine. Tomorrow take me to see the tiger. I'll show you who is smarter, who is more able!"

"It's a deal," said the farmer. "Now let's get some more work done here!"

The next day the farmer led the ox to the tiger's lair, a cave. Long before the ox arrived, the tiger had already smelled the scent of approaching beef, so he bared his fangs, crouched and waited for the ox to arrive.

When the ox did show up, he lowered his horns and pointed them at the approaching tiger.

"Tiger! Tiger!" shouted the ox. The tiger halted. "Listen to me, Tiger. I did not come here today to fight you to the death. That can wait. No, I came here to tell you that your fangs are dull, as dull as spoons. So I'll suggest something to you. I'll return here in three days' time. During the next three days, I suggest you sharpen your fangs. I'll sharpen my own horns a bit too. Then we shall see who can beat whom. What do you say?"

"I'll be waiting, Ox." The tiger snarled and skulked back inside his cave.

So for the next three days, the tiger went about sharpening his fangs until they were as finely honed as razors.

The ox, meanwhile, sharpened his own horns but only for a day. For the next two days, he gathered all kinds of long, thick stalks and grasses and bound them to his body by wrapping them here and stuffing them there until they made up many layers. Next, he rolled himself in the mud until he was covered with mud from head to tail. When the mud dried, he repeated the process, and then, when that layer was dried, he rolled upon the ground until everything was good and plastered to his body. He then waited until the whole thing dried and hardened.

With the way he looked now, one would not be able to tell that beneath the mud was was layer upon layer of grass and stalks!

Finally the day of the duel to the death arrived. The ox arrived at the appointed place. As expected, the tiger was waiting. Off to the distance stood the farmer to witness the event.

"Why did you show up all covered with mud?" asked the tiger.

"Are you ever dumb!" replied the ox. "Is it not summertime? All day long I plow under the hot sun. Everyone knows oxen like me have to cool ourselves off by getting ourselves nice and muddy!"

"Oh. Well, anyway, Ox, you certainly look . . . beefier, fatter, juicier. I'm really going to enjoy ripping into your flesh!"

"Not so fast, Tiger. I'm not some weak goat or fat hog you can just kill without worry. You'll have your chance."

"You bet I'll have my chance. My fangs were a bit dull a few days ago, but they're more than able now to shred you!"

"Is that so, Tiger? I'll tell you what. I'll give you the first shot. I'll lie down on the ground and let you bite into me three times. If after that, I'm still alive, you must lie down on the ground and let me gore you three times. What do you say?"

"Fine by me!"

The ox nonchalantly lay down on the ground as if to rest.

"Well, come on . . . "

The tiger then immediately sprang upon the ox and sank his fangs into the ox's back, thigh, and then ribs--all without any effect on the ox, all without drawing so much as a drop of blood from the big beast busily switching his tail.

"All right, Tiger. You had your three chances. Now it's my turn . . ."

The tiger lay down, now shaking, now not quite as cocky as before.

The ox then raised himself up and attacked the ox. He gored the tiger's stomach, back and ribs. Blood flowed profusely . . . the tiger never knew what hit him . . . he lay dead in his own pool of blood.

From that day on, the farmer showed the ox newly found respect; he never again scolded or laid a finger on the ox.

To this day, you can ask any farmer about his own ox. He will tell you that, no, an ox is not a graceful, beautiful animal, but, yes, it certainly does know a thing or two!


from Jia Zhi & Sun Jianbing, eds. Zhongguo minjian gushixuan (A selection of Chinese folktales.) pp. 369-370.

Motifs: B264.3, "Duel of tiger and buffalo"; H1122, "Task: Preparing large quantities of grains."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Winter Melon Boy (Hmong)

There once were an old farm couple who had never had been blessed with any children. Though happy with each other, they were very lonely, not having the laughter and shouting of children to brighten up their days.

Now this old man had a farm field into which he put a lot of effort and, despite all his hard work, was only able to grow a rather large winter melon one particular season.

He lugged the winter melon back home.

"What's this?" asked his wife. "One winter melon? Are you joking?"

"This is our harvest! This is the yield this year! And on this we'll need to get by!" he answered.

Just then, the old couple were ready to fall over in a faint, for the winter melon started speaking to them!

"Don't worry! Make me your son and you can 'get by' on me!" it said.

"You are a winter melon!" the old people cried. "How can you be our son?"

"And why not? You planted me, and that makes me your son! Just call me Winter Melon Boy."

And so it was . . . Winter Melon Boy quickly grew from a melon into a strapping young man who single-handedly took over all the planting, hoeing, watering and harvesting on the small farm. From that day on, the old couple never had to fear starvation ever again; day and night they, thanks to their son Winter Melon Boy, had plenty to eat.

They had three good years, the two old folks and Winter Melon Boy, and then war came . . .

It was a war that touched every corner of the empire, turning everything upside down, destroying much, leaving crying fathers and mothers behind to watch as their young sons were dragged away.

The emperor sent, along with all the soldiers and generals, a mandarin to choose young men for the army. This mandarin arrived at the doorway of the old couple's home and insisted that Winter Melon Boy become a soldier of the emperor.

"Please, sir," the old father begged the mandarin, "don't take our son away from us!" Then he thought of something. "He's not even a real boy! He's just a winter melon!"

"I don't care if he's a winter melon or a pumpkin!" said the mandarin. "He's going right into the lineup of all those other young men you see over there, straight to the camp to learn to be a
soldier! If you don't like it, there's only one thing you can do."

"What, sir? Please tell me."

The mandarin's eyes danced as he smiled. "Cough up some money."

"How . . . How much?"

"Enough to pave the road from the door of your cottage all the way to the gates of the emperor's palace with gold. That's how much!"

The old man fell against the threshold of his doorway; his wife had to come to support him.

"Why," said the old man, "I've never even seen a gold coin, let alone possess one!"

The mandarin smiled. "Then, old man, you have your work cut out for you. Until then, your son needs to come along and . . . "

"Hold it!"

The mandarin's words were interrupted by Winter Melon Boy, who had climbed out a side window to confront the man who wanted to take him away from his mother and father.

"I can come up with all that gold!"

"Oh, is that so?" asked the mandarin, smiling and shaking his head. "All right. I'll tell you what. I'll be generous. I'll give you two full days to come up with the gold. After two days, if you haven't paved the road from here to the palace with gold coins, I'm coming back for you, and I won't be in such a pleasant mood!"

"That's fine," replied Winter Melon Boy. "Two days' time is all I need."

"Very well, boy. Just make sure I can walk on gold nuggets or coins all the way to His Imperial Majesty's palace gate, or it won't go well for you and your parents!"

The mandarin left, driving a chained line of young men to the camp for training.

As soon as the mandarin had left, the old father and mother turned to Winter Melon Boy.

"How are you going to come up with all that gold?" they asked. "We're in a fix now! You heard him! If you don't produce that gold, we're all in for it!"

"Don't worry," Winter Melon Boy said. "I can come up with the gold. Trust me."

"And how will you gather up so much gold in such a short time?" his father asked.

"Here's what you and Mother have to do. Quickly find a three-legged female dog, one red fish, and one white fish."

"What?!" the old people cried.

"Where on earth are we going to find such odd things?" his mother asked.

"In an odd world," replied Winter Melon Boy, "you shall find odd things. One of you search by the riverbanks, while the other go up to the mountains."

Well, the mother and father went off on their separate quests. That very evening, they both returned, one with a three-legged female dog and the other, with one red fish and one white fish.

Winter Melon Boy immediately went to work. He fried up the two fishes and fed them to the three-legged dog. He then went to a bamboo tree and sliced off a thin but sturdy section.

"Now what?" asked the father.

"This is what you do," said Winter Melon Boy. "Tomorrow you and the dog set out on the road to the palace. As soon as you close our front door, start to whip the dog with the bamboo switch. Do so every so often. You shall then walk on gold all the way to the gates of the palace."

And that's what the father did. As soon as he and the dog left the hut, he began to whip the dog's backside. Each time the dog was whipped, it would stop and relieve itself. The old man looked. What he saw drop onto the road was not dog dirt; no, it was a small nugget of gold, one at a time!
So the old man continued to the palace gates with the dog, whipping it every so often so that by the time he and the dog had arrived at the gates, a road of gold nuggets stretched all the way back to the old man's hut!

The emperor had received word that an old man and a dog had practically paved an entire road of gold to the gates of the palace. He came out to look for himself.

"You and your dog accomplished this? Is that true?" asked the emperor.

"Yes, Your Highness. Your mandarin who was in my village gathering young men up for your army told me that if I paved a path of gold from my humble home to your palace you would exempt my son from the army."

"I see . . . I hereby declare your son to be so exempt!" Then, turning to his guards, the emperor barked an order. "I want every bit of gold picked up, collected and taken to my storehouse! Do so immediately!"

"Immediately, Your Highness!" the guards replied in unison. And so thousands of men with huge sacks picked up each piece of gold and put in their sacks. They then brought all the sacks to keep in the emperor's storehouse.

The old man, his spirits much lightened, returned home with the dog to tell his wife and son the good news--Winter Melon Boy would not have to go off to fight the emperor's war! The three returned to their farming and lived in happiness and peace.

A few years later, a horrible stench wafted through the whole imperial palace. No one could escape smelling this odor; all who did felt like gagging and heaving, and many did the latter. The emperor ordered all guards and imperial chamberlains to scour the palace to locate the source of the smell. One man finally did trace the odor--to the emperor's storehouse. The emperor, his face covered, hesitantly approached his storehouse, unlocked the doors and threw them open. Inside, all the sacks were still there. However, what had once been the sacks of gold, were now sacks of . . . nothing . . . but . . . coiled . . . stinky . . . fly-covered . . . dog dirt.

The emperor was beside himself with rage. He ordered all available men to search for the Winter Melon Boy and his parents. The emperor's men scoured the countryside, mountains and forest, but no trace of the three was ever found.


(1) Li Yingqiu, ed. Miaozu minjian gushi (Hmong folktales). pp. 311-315; (2) Jia Zhi & Sun Jianbing, eds. Zhongguo minjian gushixuan (A selection of Chinese folktales). Volume I. pp. 318-320.

The story is reminiscent of motif F743.5, the Japanese "Momotaro," the boy who sprang out from a peach. (The Japanese have a number of versions, including "Konbitaro," the boy made from bodily dirt! See
Ancient Tales in Modern Japan: An Anthology of Japanese Folk Tales, edited by Fanny Hagin Mayer. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1984, pp. 3-6). The title of the version collected by Jia & Sun translates as "Eastern Melon Boy," with "eastern" and "winter" both having the pronunciation of "dong1." Motifs: B101.1.3, "Dog with droppings of gold"; D1716.2, "The magic power of the lame."