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."