Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Righteous Tiger (Han)

Final posting for 2014. Once again, Happy New Year!

The events you are about to read occurred during the reign of Ming Emperor Hong Zhucong (A.D. 1521-1566), in Xiaoyi County in what is now Shanxi Province.

A woodcutter once set out to do a day's work. While way up in the mountains, he slipped and fell into a deep valley, losing consciousness.

When he came to, he discovered he had landed, of all places, into the midst of a tiger's den. Right by his side were two tiger cubs, crying to be fed. The woodcutter raised his head and surveyed his plight : He was indeed in a deep valley surrounded by high walls of rock and stone. There was no chance of his getting out of there.

He sighed and prepared for what was certain to be a brutal death.

Around what he reckoned to be noon, an adult tiger showed up, dragging a deer carcass. The tiger ripped into the carcass and tossed the cubs some meat. The tiger then turned to the woodcutter and did the same for him--throwing him a chunk of deer meat.

The woodcutter was still frightened out of mind but took stock of the situation. He still expected a swift, violent death, but he was also very, very hungry. So, he took the raw meat that had been offered and, like an animal himself, he wolfed the meat down in the presence of the tiger and cubs.

Once the cubs and woodcutter had been fed, the tiger quickly climbed its way out of the canyon and disappeared. It returned that evening with more fresh meat for the cubs and the woodcutter.

The woodcutter noted that the tiger had so far not harmed one hair of his head.

Time passed on, and the woodcutter one day discovered he had been living with the tigers for a month or so. During this time, he had gotten fatter and become more comfortable among the predator felines. In time, he played and roared with them.

The day came for the cubs to venture out of their lair with the adult tiger. The big tiger allowed one cub to climb onto its back and picked the other up with its massive jaws. The tiger approached the woodcutter, and the woodcutter understood this to mean he, the woodcutter, was to ride along with the cubs.

The woodcutter knelt before the tiger and said, "Please, Highness, don't pick me up and carry me along this way! It would surely mean my death!"

The tiger looked at him and then, with his two cubs, leaped out of the lair. By and by the tiger returned, this time without the cubs. The tiger knelt before the woodcutter and allowed the man to climb onto its back, which the woodcutter did without hesitation. The woodcutter hugged the tiger's neck for dear life. The tiger let out a roar and headed for the side of the cliff, which it very smoothly scaled. The tiger shortly reached the forest, still carrying the woodcutter on its back. Once in the forest, the tiger let the woodcutter down.

"Kind Highness," said  the woodcutter, kneeling, "I'll never forget you for the rest of my life! I'm afraid I've been away from my world too long and no longer know where I am. Could you please take me to the nearest road so I can find myself back to town?"

The tiger obliged him, nodded its head, and then deposited him by a road.

With tears in his eyes, the woodcutter said, "Highness, there's no way I can ever adequately repay you for all you've done for me. I shall return to my home. I will purchase and raise a hog. Two months from today at noon, go to the courier station outside the West Gate. I'll have a juicy hog waiting for you!"

The tiger seemed to understand, nodded its head, and departed.

Two months later from that day, the tiger showed up at the West Gate but far too early. It looked around for the woodcutter, didn't find him, and proceeded into the town proper. A huge uproar ensued, with townspeople screaming and fleeing in all directions. The county magistrate called out armed guards who succeeded in trapping the tiger alive. The guards then transported the subdued tiger to the magistrate's office so the magistrate could decide what to do with the animal.

The woodcutter heard the news about what had happened. He rushed to the magistrate's office, ran up to the tiger, and there, in front of all the astonished witnesses, knelt before the tiger, hugging it. There, in the silent chamber, all beheld the tiger's face flowing with tears.

"Highness . . ." said the woodcutter. "You came too early! Oh, how could that have been a good idea . . . "

The county magistrate was amazed at what he had just seen and asked the woodcutter to explain all this.
Then, having heard the woodcutter's story, the county magistrate said, "This is a righteous tiger! How could I ever punish it?"

He ordered the tiger released to the thunderous cheers of all present.

The tiger was then allowed to accompany the woodcutter to the West Gate, where the woodcutter had a butchered hog delivered to the tiger. The tiger devoured the hog with gusto. Then, when there was nothing left of the hog, the tiger tarried, reluctant to leave. It finally left, turning its head back to look at the woodcutter each time it took several steps. Finally, the tiger was gone.

Everyone there was moved beyond speech.

from 魅影之匣 [A Box of Beguiling Shadows], Chen Peng, ed.; pp. 34-35.  (See 6/29/14 for full citation.)

This is one version of a beloved fable of a friendship between a human and what should have been a mortal enemy--a tiger. This version doesn't not identify the sex of the tiger or explain whether the man and tiger ever saw each other again. 

Another more famous version of the "Righteous Tiger"concept is "The Noble Tiger," classified by folklore scholar Professor Nai-tung Ting as tale *156D in A Type Index of Chinese Folktales (FF Communications No. 223, Helsinki, 1978). In that particular legend, a tiger kills an old woman's only son. She sues the tiger in court, resulting in a subpeona being issued against the tiger. An inebriated court officer (who else?) goes to the forest and serves the summons to the tiger. The tiger then volunteers to go to court, and later, to make up for what he had done, he attends to the old woman until her death by supplying her with food. 

The original author was Wang Shizhen (1634-1711) of the Qing Dynasty. This tale comes from his anthology 池北偶谈 [Unexpected Tales From North of the Pond].

Motifs: A511.2.2.2., "Hero (man) cared for by tiger"; B.431.3, "Helpful tiger"; B.557.10, "Tiger carries person."

Monday, December 22, 2014

Two Fables From Southwest China

Before we get to the tales . . . Merry Christmas & Happy New Year to all!

(1) The Tiger That Was Too Competitive for His Own Good  (Wa)

A rather ignorant tiger finally left his stomping grounds and  encountered a little bird singing and dancing to her heart's content on a branch.

"You spindly legged homely thing," said the tiger, "what are you? And that dance of yours, what is it? Never mind. Let's see you match your abilities with mine. Are you willing?"

"Tiger," said the bird, "do you think you ought to go around insulting others? Fine. Let's go to that vine over there on that tree and see which one of us can dance upon it!"

"Ha!" snorted the tiger. "Nothing to it. Let's go!"

They did so.

The bird alighted onto the vine and danced as well as she would have on solid ground.

She then flew from the vine. "Your turn, Tiger."

The tiger studied the loose vine. He climbed the tree, approached the vine from a sturdy branch, and, when he was unable to grasp anything substantial, he fell to the ground below. Pudong! He landed on some rocks and roared with pain and anger. He slunk away.

He came upon rice paddies. There, he spied a shrew sunning himself on the ridges between paddies.

"Ho!" the tiger roared with laughter. "Can such a creature as you truly exist! Why, look at you! You haven't legs or feet to speak of!"

"Who are you to mock others?" asked the indignant shrew. "If you are so fast and agile, let's have a contest. Not far from here are people. Suppose you and I each run a gauntlet through a crowd of humans. Let's see who can get through unscathed. What do you say?"

"Terrific! Let's do it!" said the tiger.

The pair crept on a location where a number of people were gathered.

Turning to the tiger, the shrew said, "I'll go first. Watch me."

Off he went!

"Hey, what is it?" cried someone.

"Don't know!" cried someone else.

"Let me grab it!" said another, squatting down to no avail.

The tiny shrew easily dodged all the hands, sandals and clubs and escaped without so much as a scratch or missing hair.

"All right, Tiger. Let's see you do that!"

"Ha, easy as a wink. Watch this."

The tiger ran into the crowd.

"Tiger! Tiger!" people screamed and opened up a way for the tiger to run through.

"Take this!" said a farmer with a hoe as he slammed it down onto the tiger's back.

"And this!" said another, whacking the tiger's rib cage with a cudgel.

The tiger was barely able to make it out alive.

"Ha ha! Weren't you the one laughing at my legs?" said the shrew. "What happened to your own four legs, my friend?"

The tiger, livid, would have eaten the shrew if the latter hadn't scurried away like lightning.

The tiger then ventured into a marshy area, and, there, by a large bog, he rested, nursing his wounds. That is when he spotted a snail.

"Oh, I swear by my mother that you are the ugliest creature I've ever seen!" cried the tiger, forgetting he had been down this road before. "Is it possible that in this world there could be anything as hideous as you? Why, look at yourself! You don't even have a mouth! And your legs--I thought I had seen creatures without legs before, but you truly don't have legs, feet, paws! What good are you? What use are you?

"Brother Tiger," said the snail, "may I offer you a challenge? Let's see which one of us can cross this quicksand. How about it?"

"I can do it easily. I've accepted your challenge, so go ahead."

"Very well," said the snail. "Allow me to go first."

The snail then gingerly crossed the quicksand to the other side.

Looks easy enough, thought the tiger, planning to make a mighty leap across.

The tiger launched himself over the quicksand but came down well before the other edge. His four paws then became mired in the quicksand. The more he struggled, of course, the more he sank. First, his legs, then his body, and then finally only his head was visible.

The snail moved up a rock to get a better view of where the tiger was, but when he looked the tiger was nowhere to be seen.

As it turned out, that particular tiger was never seen again anywhere else!

from 中国民间故事选.  [Selection of Chinese folktales, Vol. 1]. Jia Zhi & Sun Jianbing, eds. Beijing: Renmin Wenxue Chubanshe, 1980; pp. 454-455. 

The Wa people live on both sides of the Chinese-Burmese border. (See Wa people - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Motifs: J1706.1, "Stupid tiger"; J2353.1, "Foolish boasts bring trouble"; and W117, "Boastfulness." 

(2) Cat and Leopard  (Jingpo)

Long ago, Cat and Leopard were close kin; they were a family, as a matter of fact. Besides their different sizes, there was one other big difference between the two--Cat was much, much smarter than Leopard. Whatever poor Leopard couldn't do, Cat seemed able to do and much more.

One day Cat said to Leopard, "Humans have fire; they can cook their food until it is nice, toasty and tasty. I'm going to go to them and borrow some of this fire from them."

And he did so.

He visited the home of some friendly people, and they gave him a small burning torch to take home. While he was there, he noticed some they were cooking savory sticky rice. Did it ever smell good! Cat was worried that Leopard, waiting back home for supper, might be too hungry and impatient, so he rushed back with the fire without waiting to see how the sticky rice casserole turned out.

Cat made several trips back to get fire. On one trip, the kindhearted humans saw Cat staring at the freshly cooked sticky rice and offered him some, which he gladly ate.

That's it, thought Cat. People live in warm houses and cook such delicious food. Leopard and I should live with people from now on. 

Cat returned home and said to Leopard, "Look. People live well and can keep themselves warm. They always cook wonderful food, and they treat me very well. I want to live with them. I don't want to live the way you and I have been living."

"All that might well be true, but I'm not going to live with them," said Leopard. "Neither are you. You're staying here with me."

And that seemed to be that.

Cat was well aware that Leopard, as dumb as he was, could effortlessly overpower him with his sheer weight and power. Cat would have to resort to his wits to escape from Leopard in order to make a home with humans.

After some time had passed, Cat turned to Leopard and said, "You know, there's something I have failed to teach you!"

"What is it?"

"How to climb a tree! Let's go! C'mon!"

Cat indeed taught Leopard to climb trees. Not only that but he showed Leopard how to make it to the very top of a tree. He did not, though, show Leopard how to climb down.

"Bye!" said Cat, hopping down branch to branch until he was on the ground, scampering towards where the people lived.

Leopard was way up in the tree, terribly hungry and untaught as how to climb down. His stomach growling, Leopard decided to emulate Cat's movements, having watched his much smaller, lighter relative go from branch to branch. He tried the same and ending up crashing through the branches and landing, head first, with a huge thump on the ground, breaking his neck bones.

Cat ended up becoming a domesticated pet, the ancestor of the house cats we know and love today. As for Leopard, his neck bones broke, compressing his neck, making him unable to lift his head fully. If you ever see leopards in the wild or zoo today, you'll notice their necks are much the same as their ancestor's.

from Jia Sun, Vol. 1, p. 505. (See citation above.) 

Two other pourquoi tales may be found in the postings for 3/7/12 and 5/24/14. 

Like the Wa, the Jingpo reside in both China and Burma. (See Jingpo people - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Motifs: A1443, "Origin of domestic animals (cats)"; A2493.8, "Friendship of leopard and cat"; cA2528.1, "Origin of walk of leopard"; A2581, "Cat omits teaching tiger (leopard) all he knows"; B391, "Animal grateful for food"; and cB393, "Animals grateful for shelter." 

Friday, October 31, 2014

Some Chinese Proverbs and Lore About Foxes

Happy Halloween . . .

A proverb from the Tang Dynasty nicely sums up the sometimes contradictory attitude towards foxes and the way fox folklore intertwined with everyday life: "You can't have a village without the werefox" [无狐魅不成村]. A contemporary proverb states a similar message: "From Tang times onward, the common people have had to placate foxes" [唐初以来,百姓多事狐]. Both proverbs suggest the importance and depth of foxes within the human psyche, especially in Northern China. Below are more fox proverbs known largely throughout China:

1。 狐假虎威 The fox intimidates courtesy of the tiger. (Said of a coward who is only tough when 
       followed or backed up by his bodyguards or retinue or of a petty tyrant who stays in power only 
       because of his more powerful connections. The Chinese fable that inspired this proverb 
       tells how a  tiger was ready to eat a fox when the fox suddenly told the tiger that he, the fox, 
       was actually the king of beasts and that he could prove it. The tiger agreed to spare the fox so 
       that the fox could prove his point. The tiger was willing to follow the fox into an area full of 
       other animals. When all the animals saw the dreaded tiger following close behind the fox, they 
       all fled for their lives, convincing the tiger that, yes, the fox was indeed the "king.")

2。狐狸打不成,反惹一身臊 The fox not only failed in what he was trying to do but also ended up with
      his whole body stinking head to toe. (Said of a failed attempt at something that leads to even worse 

3。狐埋狐搰 A fox will keep digging up what it has just buried. (Said of those with misgivings  and 
      whose fears and suspicions sabotage their endeavors.) 

4。狐媚魇道 or 狐媚魇倒 The guile of a fox and the ability to entrance. (Said of an insidiously 
      captivating vixen using her charms to seduce and entrap.)

5。狐朋狗友 Dog and fox friends. (Describing ostensible friends who are actually bad influences; 
      so-called "friends" who get one in trouble; the supposed "pals" that might lead one to say, "With 
       friends like these, who needs enemies?")

6.  狐群狗党 A den of foxes and a faction of dogs. (Unsavory people who hang out together. "Birds
     of a feather flock together," Westerners say. A variation of #5 above.)

7。狐裘羔袖 A fox jacket with sleeves of lambskin. (Something overall good but with some 
      undesirable detail or feature; something or someone flawed."The fly in the ointment.")

8。狐死兔泣 The rabbit cried after learning the fox had died. (Sometimes also expressed as "The fox
      cried after learning the rabbit had died." At first glance, one might assume either expression 
      means "to shed crocodile tears." However, that would not be the case. Instead, it means "to 
      mourn the loss of a contemporary, peer, or friend.")

9。狐死首丘 A fox always dies with its headed pointed towards its mound (i.e., lair). (A metaphor of 
      patriotism: the desire to be reunited with one's beloved homeland.) 

10。狐疑不定 or any of the other variations: 狐疑不断, 狐疑不决, 狐疑犹豫 Because the fox has
        doubts, it is irresolute. (See #3  above. A comment on the fox's furtive and supposed overly 
        calculating nature that primarily seeks self-preservation. Such an attitude leads to an excess of 
        caution and may prevent the fox from furthering its aims and succeeding. Said of those who 
        would be sneaky and cunning but who cannot pull off their schemes due to a lack of 
        determination and courage. The antithesis would be, of course, the motto of the Special Air 
        Service: "He who dares, wins." Another saying that provides the inverse of  the above Chinese 
        proverbs would be "Fortune favors the bold," coined by Thucydides.)

11。狐狸尾巴 The tail of the fox. (It was believed that a werevixen would inadvertently reveal her 
        true identity if her tail accidentally appeared. Said of those who "show their true colors" 
        through their words or deeds.) 

12。狐狸看鸡,愈看愈稀 When the fox watches over the chickens, the flock grows smaller and
        smaller. (Akin to our saying "The fox guarding the hen house," suggesting that employing
        an unreliable person in an important position is asking for trouble.)

13。狐狸活到老,永远难变好 No matter how long a fox lives, it will never be up to any good.
        ("A leopard can't change its spots," we say.)

14。狐狸再狡猾,也洗不掉一身臊 No matter how cunning the fox is, it can never rid itself of its
        stench. (Similar in meaning to #11, 12, and 13 above. A fox can masquerade as something
        else, but it will reveal itself by its odor.) 

15。狐狸再狡猾,斗不过好猎手 No matter how cunning the fox is, it is no match for the wiliest
        hunter. ("No one stays on top forever," some say. This is what happens when someone 
        "meets his or her match.")

Chen Yantian, Zhou Kuijieh, and Lin Hong'en, eds. Practical Thesaurus. [實用近義詞詞典]. Hong Kong: Haifeng, 1991; 关于狐狸的谚语、俗语—经典用语大全关于狐狸的谚语_谚语_好词好句大全;豺狼当道,安问狐狸? - 口语/谚语 - 翻吧 - 英语点津 - 中国日报网站

The Practical Thesaurus above is actually a thesaurus of Chinese proverbs.

I personally find foxes to be endlessly fascinating, as did, I guess, storytellers of old from around the world, with all the various myths, legends and folktales about these crafty animals. For much of my life, the only live foxes I had ever seen were in zoos. Once, a few years ago while taking a walk in a nearby canyon, I came across a gray fox sitting by the side of the road, its eyes closed. It was breathing heavily without opening its mouth. The fox didn't attempt to flee; neither did it do the slightest bit of flinching; it was obviously in distress, probably dying. Naturally, I didn't get too close. I resumed my walk. The next day, it was not there. Several years have passed, and I still wonder about that fox and what became of it. Then, starting earlier this year, one or more gray foxes began appearing in my area, often at night. I still see them occasionally, bounding up and down the cul-de-sac with their fluffy upright tales. Late one night, taking my Maltese out to do his nightly business, I came across a gray fox sitting in the middle of the backyard, calmly observing us, seemingly without a care in the world. My dog, being a typical Maltese, began barking his head off. I had to put him back inside and shoo the intruder away. Such are my experiences with foxes. 

In traditional Chinese lore, foxes often cast a malevolent shadow but could also be the objects of veneration in older times, during the Tang Dynasty, at home-based shrines. They were and are major bewitching tricksters and shapeshifters. Tales of werevixens abound in Chinese and Japanese folktales. However, before we examine the deadlier aspects of foxes, let's first take a look at the major figures in the cult that was centered in Northern China, particularly around Beijing and Tianjin. There is the 狐仙, the  fox immortal, to use a literal translation, also known as 狐神, the fox spirit or god. In time people came to believe that foxes could take a human form and, if slighted, exact revenge. People thus began to propitiate the fox spirit. In areas of shamanic activity, fox idols were created. Hunters in these northern areas would pray to the fox god before hunting. The fox god could augur both good and evil. A saying popular in Ming and Qing times goes like this: "The South has many ghosts, while the North has many fox [spirits]" 南方多鬼,北方多狐 (See the entry for 狐仙 by Ma Guojun in The Dictionary of Chinese Folk Beliefs and Customs [中国民间信仰风俗辞典]; Wang Jinglin and Xu Tao, eds; pp. 376-377. The complete citation can be found at 12/24/13)

Finally, there is the famed nine-tailed fox 九尾狐, also the object of veneration and mentioned in the Classic of Mountains and Seas, written in different stages sometime between the Warring States Period (475 B.C. - 403 B.C.) and the onset of the Han Dynasty (c. 206 B.C.). The Classic describes the mountain-dwelling nine-tailed fox as having a cry like that of a baby and being able to feast on humans. Its appearance can herald either nationwide prosperity or death and destruction. (See Ma Guojun's article on 九尾狐 in The Dictionary of Chinese Folk Beliefs and Customs, p. 366). 

For classic stories of werefoxes and werevixens, I recommend Pu Songling's early Qing Dynasty anthology, Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio, also known by other titles, such as Strange Stories From Liaozhai and Strange Stories From the Liaozhai Studio. I particularly recommend Herbert A. Giles's translation and version. I am sure all the versions provide some good reading for Halloween. 

For other folktales and legends about foxes and werefoxes, please see the posts for 10/21/07, 10/1/09, 10/28/10, and 12/18/12. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Wang Zhi and the Rotted Ax Handle -- Three Versions of Missing Time in a Chinese Legend

Version 1

The following is the basic, core version of an old legend:

A woodcutter went up the mountain to cut some wood. While there, he saw two people--two old men, by some accounts, or two children--playing chess. He stands by, observing the game, assuming only minutes have gone by. He feels something strange. He holds up the ax he's been carrying; the handle has totally rotted away. The woodcutter heads back home only to discover that his family is no longer there, that at least one century has lapsed.

Version 2: Rotted Ax Handle Mountain (Henan)

Up on Rotted Axe Handle Mountain, one can see strange foliage not seen elsewhere; stranger still are the many petrified trees there that jut up from the mountainscape, resembling ivory tusks. Once a traveler finds him/herself on Rotted Axe Handle Mountain, he or she will have truly entered the realm of immortals . . .

It so happens that woodcutter Wang Zhi was up on the mountain one day when he beheld two very old men playing a game of chess while seated beneath a peach tree. The old men were white whiskered and had a ruddy glow to their faces.

Wang Zhi was not a wealthy or particularly cultivated individual, but he too certainly appreciated the fine game of chess. He stopped, stood by the chess board and watched the two old gentlemen. On and on he watched, oblivious of the time or his duties.

Something then fluttered onto the ground past him and then more of the same onto his person. He looked up. Peach petals were floating downwards, littering the ground. Then, before he even knew it, rich, succulent ripe peaches appeared on the branches.

Wang Zhi couldn't resist plucking a peach from the tree and biting into it. The flavor was incredibly sweet. After eating the peach, a change came over him, a sensation he had never had before. He felt suddenly enlightened, his mind cleared, and his body, completely comfortable.

Then, almost as soon as they had appeared, the peaches were gone and the stems they had been on, withered and yellowed. The ground was now covered with dried, yellowed leaves.

Once again, though, the whole process repeated itself, with new green leaves immediately appearing . . .

Here, the narrative ends.

Version 3: Watching an All-Consuming Chess Match (Hubei)

A farmer took a little trip up the mountain, and there he saw two old men--one with a long black beard and the other, with a long white beard--playing chess. The farmer, intrigued, watched them for a long while.

The black-bearded man then stopped playing and addressed the farmer.

"There's a serious drought going on right now, isn't there?" he asked the farmer.

"Yes, that is the case. I have only a dou of sesame seeds to plant . . . "

"Suppose, Farmer, that I can show you how to plant a whole field with that small amount of seeds and how to reap a huge harvest?"

The farmer had his suspicions that this black-bearded man knew what he was talking about, but he, the farmer, was game and watched and listened as the old man with the black beard showed him the procedure. The farmer thanked him and returned home to his drought-stricken village. He decided to plant the seeds in the manner shown to him by the strange man up on the mountain.

In time the farmer had a huge harvest of valuable, useful, versatile sesame plants!

Overjoyed, the farmer filled a  sack of sesame seeds to take up the mountain to the old men, especially the black-bearded one, as a thank-you gift. He hoisted the sack onto his mule and off he went back up the mountain.

From afar he spotted the pair--still playing chess.

He approached them and explained why he had come. The two old men, however, continued to play their game of chess. The farmer felt compelled to watch them play and watched them for only a few minutes. He then bid them farewell and turned around to head home.

His mule was missing . . . Had it headed back down the mountain without him? Ahh, the stubborn old cuss of an animal! He went back down the mountain to look for it.

And once he found himself back on level land, he discovered from those he had encountered that several hundred years had passed from his time . . .

Lin Jifu. 中国民间故事类型研究. [Research on the Types of Chinese Folktales]. Liu Shouhua, ed. Wuhan: Huazhong Shifan, 2002; pp. 179-190. 烂柯山_百度百科王质故乡——烂柯山的传说;
烂柯山 - Wikipedia

 The original source is perhaps "Wang Zhi and the Rotted Axe Handle" from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.). 

In more than one culture, we can find examples in folklore of time dilation, a situation in which an incredible amount of time passes by in what seems like a short period. Time, that universal concept of measurement, here distorts itself, allowing years to be experienced as what had been regarded as minutes. Typically, such stories from East Asia may follow a pattern. A woodcutter, for example, heads off into a different part of the forest, or a fisherman lands on an uncharted island. In either locale, the visitor encounters some beings--old men or children playing xiangqi (i.e., "elephant chess"  象棋, or Chinese chess) in the forest, or, in the case of a native Taiwanese tale, beautiful but hostile Amazon-like females on a small barren island. (The latter story is "The Island of Women," an Amis legend in an anthology I'm preparing for future publication.) After tarrying among the beings or entities for what appears to be a brief time, he returns home, sometimes after extremely arduous circumstances, only to find that a huge gap in time has inexplicably transpired, that his village is now unrecognizable, that everyone he had once known is now long dead. The time traveler may then discover himself withered, prematurely aged, ready to die.

The three versions not surprisingly differ to some degree. The Henan version doesn't mention whether the visitor to the mountain ever saw his family again. The chances are he most likely didn't. The Hubei version has the old black-bearded  man offer lifesaving aid to the farmer but doesn't warn him not to return. (The farmer should have probably known better.) The very terse, somewhat elliptical original Chinese version doesn't state whether the two chess players greeted or spoke to the farmer upon his return visit. In any case, the farmer apparently overstepped his bounds by daring to return to the abode of immortals who were busily playing chess, the game which is a metaphor or symbol for life itself. The farmer had already had tremendous luck by visiting the two immortals, receiving a gift, and going back and being able, presumably, to talk about it. To go back up again to locate them was a foolhardy idea just begging for trouble. 

We find also similar motifs in "Rip Van Winkle," the well-known Japanese fairy tale "Urashima Taro," the Irish "Tir na nOg," and the Celtic fairy/leprechaun lore of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England. Among the latter are stories of individuals who left the safety of their homes to investigate strange, alluring music and then come across fairy fiddlers and dancers. Upon returning home, they then encounter what is now the predictable result of their lingering among otherworldly beings. One way or another, there is often an unpleasant price to pay for being in the company of the otherworldly. The Japanese have legends of children abducted by "sky dogs," tengu [天狗], weird anthropoid beings with wings who live in the forested mountains. Upon returning, if they ever do come back, these children are not necessarily prematurely aged but instead "touched in the head" and never quite the same again. Today we still hear incredible stories of missing time from those who claim to have encountered odd beings inside or outside "spacecraft" or UFOs, our very own modern versions of rendezvous with bizarre entities. The widely discussed Barney and Betty Hill case from the 1960's is a good example. In any case, the bottom line seems to be that a date with residents from the unknown is fraught with danger--mainly, because the natural order as represented by time is violated--and thus best avoided. 

For similar tales of inexplicable events and entities that are said to be still occurring in the mountains of Taiwan, see the post for 12/24/13, "The Little Flying Swordsmen of the Mountain."

Motifs: cA163.1., "Gods play chess"; C712, "Staying too long in fairyland forbidden"; F377, "Supernatural lapse of time in fairyland"; F971, "Miraculous blossoming and bearing of fruit."

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Beggar and the Ghosts (Han)

One dark night, a young mendicant knocked on the door of a house.

"Yes?" asked the old woman caretaker who opened the door. "What do you want?"

"Would you have a spare room to put me up for the night?" asked the beggar.

"Normally we wouldn't mind and wouldn't turn you away, but you wouldn't want to spend the night here."

"Why not?"

"Because this place is haunted! Besides, the owner has recently died, and there's no one else here but me and a young lady lying ill in bed. Do you still wish to spend the night here?"

"Why not? I'm not afraid of ghosts," replied the beggar.

"All right . . . you've been warned. Suit yourself. Come in."

The beggar entered the house and was shown a spare bedroom.

"This will do nicely." He thanked the old woman and lay down to go to sleep.

Around midnight, the young beggar was woken up by voices. He got up to investigate. The voices were coming from the main hall. Instead of going over there, he opened the window and climbed up onto the roof, where he could easily look down and see the main hall.

And there they were.

From his vantage point, he spotted four ghosts, cavorting, raising a ruckus in the main hall.

He could see them, but apparently they did not notice him. Maybe he didn't see where he was stepping, or maybe he craned his neck too far to get a good look. In any case, he lost his footing and fell right off the roof.


He landed into a vat of lime powder, such as that which is used to prepare plaster or whitewash. He emerged bathed in white powder from head to foot. The ghosts looked at him and stepped back, afraid.

"Who . . . Who are . . . y-you?" one of the ghosts asked.

This young vagabond and beggar was quick-thinking, so he replied in a booming voice, "Who am I? Why,  I am the White Grandfather of Penglai Mountain! Now, each of  you . . . one at a time . . ."

The ghosts all together dropped to their knees and faced the beggar.

"Who or what are you?" the beggar asked the first ghost.

"I . . . I am the spirit of a cleaning cloth, Grandfather . . ."

"And you? Who or what are you?"

"T-The bamboo whisk b-brush, G-Grandfather . . ."

"And you?"

"The b-broom, Grandfather . . . "

"All right. And you over there?"

"The tortoise, Grandfather . . ."

"I see. Very well."

Morning finally came, and all was still in the house.

The beggar informed the old woman who watched over the house what had happened and how to rid the house of the ghosts.

"It's quite simple," he said. "Gather up the cleaning cloth, whisk brush, broom and tortoise shell." After she had done so, he added, "Now, take them outside and burn them!"

She did and the ghosts never returned again. What's more, the young lady bedridden by illness, the daughter of the late owner, completely recovered. The young beggar was asked to stay on, and before long he wed the house owner's daughter.

Gu Xijia. 中国民间故事类型研究 [Research in the types of Chinese folktales], Liu Shouhua, ed; Wuhan: Huazhong Shifan, 2002; pp. 288-299.

This is an ancient tale with a widespread distribution. It belongs to the Chinese classification of "Catching Ghosts in a Haunted House" 凶宅捉鬼. , and belongs to folktale type AT326E, which Chinese-American folklorist Nai-tung Ting labels "Fearless Man Defies Demons in the Haunted House" (Folklore Fellows Communication No. 223, A Type Index of Chinese Folktales, p. 58). Gu has reconstructed the ur-form of the tale presented above. Other variants with other settings exist. 

The story hints at the death of the owner and his daughter's debilitating sickness as being tied to the hauntings. This would be in keeping with traditional Chinese ghost lore. Penglai or Pengcai Mountain was reputed to be the abode of immortals in the middle of the sea. It is not clear as to whether an actual tortoise or just the shell is burnt. Of course, I hope it was the latter . . .

An interesting motif also found in Japanese folktales is the animation in the form of spirits of lifeless objects (e.g., broom, cloth, etc.). Professor Noriko T. Reider identifies such haunted or spirit-animated objects as  tsukumogami 付喪神, or to use her English translation, "tool specters." (Gu Xijia  just identifies the objects as jingguai 精怪,normally defined as "demons" but here differentiated from "ghosts" as former "animals, plants and other objects" now transformed into spirits [289].) The idea here is if a (normally) inanimate object could attain an old enough age, it would then become animated by a spirit now housed within it (see Noriko T. Reider,  Animating Objects: Tsukumogami ki and the Medieval Illustration of Shingon Truth. Asian Folklore Studies 64, p. 207. [2007]). For another story of tool specters, see "The Abandoned House," the first story in "Ghost Stories From Ancient China--Series Two," 5/04/09. 

Motifs: E265, "Meeting ghost causes sickness"; E265.3, "Meeting ghost causes death"; E281, "Ghosts haunt house"; E293, "Ghosts frighten people (deliberately); E431.13, "Corpse (objects) burned to prevent return; E432, "Ghosts deceived"; and E530ff, "Ghosts of objects."

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Contemporary Ghost Stories From China -- Series 3

Note: The following stories are all supposed to have taken place in Hong Kong.

(1) Tales From the Golden Valley Movie Theater

There is an abandoned, apparently unsellable movie theater in Sau Mou Ping (秀茂坪), Kowloon. The whole structure tilts to the side, resembling a coffin ready to tip over. It is the former Golden Valley Movie Theater, which, in its heyday, showed first-run films. It ceased operation early in 1992; stories about the theater, however, have not ceased. After a disastrous fire, it reopened but since that time seemed to be plagued with ghosts. Now vacant, it is still regarded today as one of the most haunted locations in Hong Kong. Golden Valley, by the way, used to be known as "Tomb Sweeping Flats" (扫墓坪), a play on its former name, "Wild Thyme Flats" (苏茅坪), both of which have a similar pronunciation in Cantonese (sou mou ping). The resemblance of the pronunciation to a most inauspicious name finally led to the area being renamed as Sau Mou Ping ("Graceful and Luxuriant Flats").

"One Rainy Evening"

A female teacher was passing the theater on a dark, wet night when she noticed a mother and daughter standing outside in the rain. The mother was bent over the daughter, wiping the raindrops off the little girl's face. The kindhearted teacher stopped and approached the pair, intending to lend them her umbrella. As she got closer and closer, something made her stop in her tracks. She looked at the faces of the mother and the little girl as they looked up to her. From their noses, eyes, ears, and mouths came ceaseless fine outpourings of silt . . .

The theater is close to an area where a fatal landslide took place in the 1970's. A coincidence?

"Tickets for Two"

It is said that there was once a mother who was unaware of the theater's unsavory reputation. Discovering how cheap tickets were, she purchased a pair for her son and herself so that they could go catch a movie. They entered the seating area and discovered they had the whole place to themselves. Once the curtain parted, the theater darkened, and the film rolled, the boy noticed how the seats all around them slowly filled with other audience members until the whole theater was packed. He said nothing to his mother. Only after the movie was over and as they were walking out did he mention how each seat had been taken once the movie began. He discovered that his mother had never noticed anyone else in the theater but themselves, that she believed they had been the only ones in the whole theater for that showing.

The Stories Continue . . .

Some kids once sneaked into the theater to see a movie without paying, as kids are known to do. While watching the movie, something unspeakable befell them, causing one of them to have a psychotic episode and then to be sent to a psychiatric ward. The closing down of the theater didn't halt the theater's fame as a magnet for ghosts. On more than one occasion, on rainy days, a spectral pale brother and sister have been seen to emerge from the sealed building and scan the street for who knows what.

Liang Wenwei, ed. 香港灵异档案. [The Hong Kong Supernatural File]; Hong Kong: Sing Tao, 2012; pp. 12-15; 拆不得的金茂坪戲院(觀塘的鬼故事) | 活在觀塘香港的神秘地方....好急ga,,,唔該幫下我啦.. - Yahoo!知識+金茂坪戲院鬧鬼?? - 香港懷舊文化 - Uwants.comGolden Valley Theatre in Hong Kong, CN - Cinema Treasures

Motifs: E265.2, "Meeting ghost causes person to go mad"; E280, "Ghosts haunt building (theater)"; E334.2.2, "Ghost of person seen at death or burial spot"; E401, "Appearance of spirits." 

(2) Brief Ghostly Tales of Hong Kong Rapid Transit

Around the world and in different cultures, journeys by train, plane, bus, and/or ship frequently involve eerie occurrences. The vehicle, whether ship or airplane or train, involves taking us from our safest sanctuary, the home, and delivering us to a familiar or sometimes unknown destination. It is during the journey itself that, when we are sealed  in a confined liminality, as we travel from one threshold to another, we are at our most vulnerable. Ghost stories involving mass transportation seem to suggest a physical defenselessness of travelers and their unpreventable psychic openness to various phenomena as they are about to embark or disembark or as they actually ride the particular vehicle in the midst of the journey. It is during this time that ghosts or other beings are seen on the land or sea, and, UFOs, if in the air. It would be easy to assume that if ghosts did haunt subway and railway stations and tunnels, the locations of these supernatural disturbances more likely than not would be structures built decades and decades ago. Yet Hong Kong's various subway stations, while far from being as old as the New York City subways or London tubes, have their share of hauntings and ghostly sightings as well.

"The Girl in Red at Yau Ma Tei Station"

The story supposedly took place in the 1980's at the Yau Ma Tei (油麻地)Station platform and made the evening TV news. Multiple witnesses saw a girl leap onto the tracks just before the arrival of a train. The engineer himself testified that he felt the wheels run over an object on the tracks. An exhaustive search was immediately conducted, but no body was ever located. However, a number of witnesses on the platform insisted they had seen a girl in red jump off the platform and onto the tracks, emitting a sharp scream as the train ran her over. Authorities had the car raised to search for any human remains; once again, nothing out of the ordinary was found.

The story now takes an unsettling twist.

Among the witnesses was a young woman who personally witnessed what had happened. This young lady was naturally very frightened by what she had seen. Shortly afterwards, she fell ill and later died. Before her death she confided to her friends that she herself had been wearing exactly the same red clothing as the girl who had jumped off the platform, the same cut, the same style, and so on. What's more she, the witness, had been the spitting image of the suicide victim, her virtual twin . . .

"Sheung Wan Station's Portal to the Other World"

It is said that there is a secret exit on Rumsey Street (林士街), Sheung Wan (上環), which, if one can go back inside, would lead one to a platform to which no subway cars ever arrive. Indeed, strong iron chains stretch across the tunnel, preventing anything from running through there, track or no track. This is the so-called "little platform" of Sheung Wan Station. It is presumably blocked off because when the subway was being built, too many construction workers reported seeing a female apparition in white roaming back and forth through the tunnel and leaping onto the tracks. One could also bet on hearing disembodied moaning through the tunnel late at night. The story goes that the authorities feared they had inadvertently opened up a portal to the other world, or "the gate to hell" (鬼門關), invited in a Buddhist priest to perform a rite and then had this section of the Sheung Wan line blocked off.

"Some Goings-on in Tsuen Wan"

At the various stops along the Tsuen Wan (荃灣) line, the restless dead have also been busy making themselves seen. Suicidal jumpers have been reported, yet when the tracks are scoured for mangled corpses and body parts, no human remains can be found. Then, on more than occasion, subway employees and security personnel have observed persons bent down on all fours on the tracks, apparently looking for something. It has gotten to the point where employees just look away or pretend not to see what would be absolutely hair-raising to any other observer. On one occasion, the train master encountered someone rummaging on the tracks and asked him what in the world he was doing. The man, standing below him, looked up and replied, "I'm looking for my feet!" The train master looked down and saw that the man was missing the rest of his torso below his waist before he, the ghost, faded away as a white silhouette. The train master was traumatized by this encounter. After a period of recuperation, he applied for and was granted an earlier shift.

Liang Wenwei, pp. 108-115; 香港油麻地女鬼跳轨灵异事件 - 要常来油麻地天橋驚現「紅衣女鬼」 - 太陽報大眾檔案.X傳說中的香港猛鬼地鐵站--上環站(林士站) - 香港新聞時事
各地方地铁闹鬼大全~~~-恐怖故事|鬼故事-八目妖; 香港地鐵鬼故~荃灣線好多.... - 優曇花三千年一現,現則金輪王出。轉輪聖王第一等的是金輪王,是不用武力用正義轉動正法的輪,以此來支配世界的理想王 - Coleman - 頭條日報 頭條網Blog City

For another urban legend about mass transit, a haunted bus in Beijing, see "The Midnight Bus," posted on 8/6/12. 

Motifs: A671.0.3, "Entrance to cave (subway) as gate to hell"; C311.1, "Tabu: looking at ghost"; E265.1, "Meeting ghost causes sickness"; E402.1.1.3, "Ghost cries and screams"; E421.5, "Ghost seen by two or more persons"; E422.4.3, "Ghost in white (red)"; E723.2, "Seeing one's wraith (double) a sign that person is to die shortly"; F91, "Door (gate) entrance to lower world"; F525, "Person (ghost) with half a body."

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Seeing Fairies by Marjorie T. Johnson: A Review

I don't normally write or comment on material that does not appear in Chinese or that does not directly pertain to Chinese folklore. However, I've recently come across a very engaging book--an anthology of four hundred or so individual memorates, first-hand accounts of encounters with the traditional anomalous entities of Western, primarily British folklore--collected by the late Marjorie T. Johnson and only recently published. It comes with both a warm and informative introduction that explains Miss Johnson's background, introduces some of her acquaintances and prepares the reader for the amazing journey he/she is about to take. The collection itself had been translated into German and now appears years later in its original English, some four years after the death of Marjorie T. Johnson at the age of 100. Much of the material she collected, some of which was written down as late as the 1990s, shows an uncanny similarity to memorates that are still recorded today in Taiwan, namely run-ins with what we in the West would call fairies, elves, gnomes, elementals, and so on, and what Taiwanese and residents of Southeastern China (e.g, Fujian Province) would call shanjing (山精, or "mountain changelings, entities etc."), among other names. But more about the similarities between Western and Chinese sightings of inexplicable creatures later.

Nearly all the memorates come from residents of the British Isles and from expatriate Britons in Australia, Canada, and outside the Anglosphere.  One story comes from Germany, of all places, where an English schoolgirl in a German boarding school between the wars hears ethereal music and traces it to its source, a troop of "gnomes" treading around a tree in the snow. Her headmistress, a German baroness, confirms that, yes, such entities exist. Most of the stories are about encounters in the forest with beings that range from mere inches high to nearly a couple of feet tall; winged or wingless; most often fully clothed, often with mushroom or acorn-shaped hats; with anything from cheerful, ruddy faces to wizened and sometimes displeased countenances from those elementals that had not counted on being disturbed by those in our realm. The encounters often occur on excursions into the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish countrysides. Sometimes the beings are seen inside buildings, such as old farmhouses. For the most part, the visitations are innocuous and all are, of course, bizarre; yet, with a number of them, there is more than just a tinge of hinted malevolence. Cases in point: (1) the Irish informant who comes across a field of thousands of fairies, many of whom have "pleasant faces" but who also apparently seek to lead him away; (2) the English soldier stationed at his Dublin base on guard duty one evening who is unnerved by the sight of a flying woman in white; and (3) the eight year old girl who, in her home,  glimpses what could only be called "gnomes" who had been hiding underneath a table covered by a tablecloth and who, perhaps in a manner that is a little too friendly, beckon to her, causing her to flee upstairs. The subtext I  receive from these accounts is it is better to leave well enough alone!

And who are the folks who have, in these accounts that span many decades, made these sightings? They run the gamut from small children to mature adults, from homemakers to retired military officers to clergymen. A number are from Marjorie T. Johnson herself; indeed, the cover photograph of the book shows a youthful Marjorie playing the panpipes in a forest as a fairy or other entity slowly materializes from a mist. The vast majority seem to be British or of British extraction. In short, they apparently could be anyone's neighbors, friends or relatives. They could be anyone reading this blog. The informants come across as credible, likable, and, in some cases, reluctant to sound foolish. A few seem to be Theosophists, while many others reveal nothing about their religious orientation. Many are adults recalling the encounters they had as children. Their accounts made me remember something I myself saw as a six year old, sitting one night, for some weird reason, in my darkened room with the door open, revealing the lit hallway. I remember seeing a black and white cat make a mad dash down the hallway past the open door, and heading to my left. I ran out the door and scoured the hallway, looking for this cat. What boy or girl wouldn't? When asked where the cat was, my amused parents, reading the evening newspaper, merely smiled. We didn't have a cat. Childhood exuberance? over imagination? Perhaps. I remember it as if it were yesterday. Marjorie T. Johnson could have recorded such a story.

From the aspect of psychology, this is what I find most fascinating: Why would otherwise ordinary people, those who are not apparently ingesting hallucinogenics or drinking themselves into a delirious state, see these beings? Years ago I read some commentary on the folklore of Ulster Scots (what Americans call the "Scots-Irish"), those of Scottish descent and who preserve some Scottish identity but who were born in Ireland, in which the writer laughed at the idea of an Ulster church elder, for example, seeing a leprechaun. Yet, Miss Johnson's book is a compilation of hundreds of such stories from people who had likewise probably never dreamed they would ever see anything like a fairy flitting around the forest or elves hiding under leaves. Though seeing entities is not necessarily an illness or maybe even a mental condition per se, is the frequency with which one sees fairies, elementals, and ghosts a culture-bound or specific condition highly tolerated among some groups than others, nurtured and tacitly encouraged throughout the centuries? I don't have an answer; each person can come to his or her own conclusion. I think of my own three Scottish, Scottish-Canadian grandparents, "low kirk" people, and cannot entertain that they would have ever admitted to seeing fairies. Yet . . .  Today in Taiwan there are those that likewise still claim to have brushes with remarkable beings--grandmothers lost in the forests who are nurtured by strange entities of legend and folktales; mountain climbers and hikers who have seen the malicious humanoid sprites that, like fairies, may deliberately lead travelers astray, often permanently; and little girls/women in red who show up on hiking excursions who then fatally infect someone. Many people in Taiwan would be loath to having their names or identities attached to such reports, yet they still occur, as a perusal of the online Chinese press reveals. Marjorie T. Johnson's book as well as Chinese-language memorates on modern sightings of inexplicable beings reminds us that a worldwide phenomenon is still ongoing, still puzzling and perplexing all who come face-to-face with it; that it may be part and parcel of the human experience and does not discriminate according to geography and ethnicity; that it might be something innate within humans or that it could be symptomatic about all that which Jacques Vallee has written about since his Passport to Magonia, the shaping, conditioning of human society for a purpose which is currently beyond our ken.

Seeing Fairies: From the Lost Archives of the Fairy Investigation Society, Authentic Reports of Fairies in Modern Times by Marjorie T. Johnson is published by Anomalist Books of San Antonio and Charlottesville. Seeing Fairies is a boon to the scholarship on folklore. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in psychology, anthropology and parapsychology.

For Chinese/Taiwanese stories of strange entities, see my posts for 12/24/13 and 6/29/14. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Weird & Eerie Stories From Old China -- Series Three

From A-Z, an ongoing series of the strangest stories from old China, with everything but ghosts. 

(1) Rat Demons

During the era of the Northern Song (A.D. 960-1127), there lived a man in Jiankang (now, Nanjing, Jiangsu Province).

Now one day, this man was eating and threw a fish head upon the floor.

Immediately, from out of a rat hole in the wall emerged a tiny man mounted on a small horse, with horse and rider together no longer than one chi (about 13 inches)! As small as they were, the rider, wearing a full set of gleaming armor, still possessed an undeniably gallant, dashing bearing, and the horse showed itself to be nothing but a noble heavenly steed, miniature though it was.

The rider speared the fish head with a long lance, lifted his catch off the floor, made a full circle with his horse and galloped back into the hole.

The onlooker was dumbfounded. After he gathered his wits, he went to tell his neighbors about what he had just witnessed. Not surprisingly, no one believed him. He felt he had no choice but to buy another fish. He cooked the fish and then, with all the doubters gathered around him, he tossed the fish head upon the floor.

As expected, the tiny rider and horse shot out of the rat hole like lightning, speared the fish head, and escaped back into the hole.

The man repeated the experiment three more times, and each time the same thing happened: the tiny rider and horse appeared, successfully snatched the fish head, and fled back into the hole.

Now it was the turn of all the other witnesses to be stupefied. After some hesitation, the man and his neighbors dug about three chi into the wall, starting from the rat hole. Inside the wall, the people found several huge, unfriendly-looking rats munching on fish heads. The rats took a look at the man and his neighbors and fled. The humans chased after them but were unable to catch a single one. Left behind in the rat lair were what looked like scattered chopsticks; upon closer inspection, they appeared to be the lances seen earlier. Gone without a trace were the horse or horses and the armor.

Everyone there came to the conclusion that this was a monstrous and, thus, evil event. All of them but the original resident of the house moved away to escape the deadly curse that was sure to follow. The man who lived there paid no heed and refused to move. However, he soon came down with a violent illness and died shortly after.

from Meiyingzhi yixia 魅影之一匣 [A box of beguiling shadows]; Chen Peng, ed. Guizhou: Guizhou Renmin Chubanshe, 2011; p. 62;  梦魇照进现实:中国古代那些稀奇古怪事 / 魇之侠 / 第58页-[天涯]

This is a story from Jishenlu 稽神录 [Records of research into spirits], a collection of strange stories compiled by Xu Xuan (A.D. 916-991) of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Rats, malevolent chthonian animals privy to secrets in the earth and walls and having a predilection for shape-shifting ("Rat," A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, Wolfram Eberhard; New York: Routledge, pp. 246-247) were, in ancient times, thought of as important bellwethers of a family's fortune. Rats vacating a home meant something akin to "rats deserting a ship" ("Rat," Dictionary of Symbolism, Hans Biedermann; New York: Facts-on-File, pp. 279-280). This story, however, suggests just to leave well enough alone, not to fool around with the bizarre, the inexplicable, for doing so only brings about misfortune. 

(2) Chicken Dreams

Over in Dongping County, Shandong Province, there once lived an old man named Dong Yingjian. All his life he refrained from eating meat or fish, and he remained an open-minded gentleman with a sweet attitude and respect for all. He told everyone he met the reasons why he never ate flesh. It all had to do years before with a bizarre occurrence involving his father.

Mr. Dong's father had once been county magistrate of Lingchuan County, Zechou (today, Lingchuan County, Shanxi Province). Now in those days, Lingchuan County had been a wild, desolate place, an impoverished region. Magistrate Dong was himself an honest, upright official, so he and his family, like the people in his county, lived frugal,  hardscrabble lives.

Despite the frugality, Magistrate Dong liked to eat, especially meat, sending his servant out to the local market to buy all kinds of meats. However, on this particular day, not really a market day, there wasn't any meat to purchase. Magistrate Dong was disappointed that there would be no meat.

Also on this day, the chief of the prefecture had heard that Dong's younger sister was about to marry, so the chief had thirty eggs delivered to Dong's house as a way of expressing his congratulations.

Thirty eggs!

Magistrate Dong was practically drooling in anticipation of eating something with meat in it, so he had his chef immediately cook seven of the eggs. He had the remaining twenty three eggs packed in a padded quilt and placed on a beam in the house for safekeeping.

That very night, he had a bizarre dream. In his dream, children he didn't recognize, twenty three of them, were leaping off the beam where the eggs had been placed. These children all came up to him with tears running down their faces, kneeling before him, begging him to spare their lives. Among them was a memorable girl in a skirt who walked with a limp.

Magistrate Dong woke up feeling uneasy but couldn't really figure out what exactly was bothering him as the details of the dream started to fade away.

That morning, he received word from a servant that his future brother-in-law was on his way over.

That put Magistrate Dong in a fix: What would he feed his little sister's fiance? Would Magistrate Dong, the servant asked, consent to having the remaining eggs cooked for breakfast? Dong nodded his assent.

Suddenly it dawned on him as he saw the servant girl bring the eggs down from the beam--twenty three eggs and twenty three children, begging for mercy. . .

He ordered the eggs to be well cared for, finding someone to incubate them properly. As it turns out, all the eggs hatched, and among the chicks was a lame one that grew to be a hen!

From that day forward, Magistrate Dong never again ate meat or killed a living thing. His legacy became the practice observed by each later generation of the Dong family.

from Meiyingzhi yixia, pp. 17-18;  夷坚丁志卷十六 鸡子梦

This story is from the Yijianzhi 夷坚志 [Intimate Annals of Barbarian Tribes], a compilation of strange stories collected by Hong Mai (A.D. 1123-1202) of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1229). This tale is reminiscent of two from Japan: "Oshidori," which appears in Lafcadio Hearn's Kwaidan (see
Oshidori, by Lafcadio Hearn, 1904), and "Enough Is Enough!" from Japanese Tales (Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library), translated and edited by Royall Tyler (New York: Pantheon, 1987: pp. 114-115). In the former, a hunter kills one of a pair of ducks and later dreams of a beautiful but grieving widow who castigates him for having killed her lover. In the latter, a new homeowner whose villa is infested with foxes instructs his servants to hunt down and kill all the foxes. A dream about an apologetic old man who begs that his descendants be spared prompts the homeowner to call off the hunt. The cancellation of the order turns out to be a wise move. 

(3) "Now . . . Trade Faces!"

In the year 418, at the very end of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (A.D. 317-420), there lived a soldier and tactician named Jia Bi, originally from Hedong (now, Shanxi Province), serving at the prince's palace in Langya (perhaps in Anhui Province). Our annals tell us that he was one exceedingly good-looking man.

One night Jia Bi had a weird dream. In his dream he came across a fog. Then, from out of the fog stepped a man whose ugliness was unrivaled. This man was more hideous than any possible person could be in real life: He had a face full of pimples; a big "wine trough" nose (i.e., a nose with prominent rosacea); red eyes with eyelids swollen with pus; and an unkempt beard resembling weeds.

The face wobbled before him, giggling, saying, "Jia Bi, you are so handsome! How about you and I trade faces?"

"Brother," replied Jia Bi, "I've suddenly been thrust into the midst of a marvelous dream. How about not trading?"

"Don't try to stall me with that fancy talk about dreams. Now, let me have a more pleasing reply! Are we trading or not?"

"Come now. Our flesh, our bodies come from our parents! We can't do such things as you wish without violating the rules of filial piety! Each person's face is his own. How could someone possibly trade his for someone else's? Your request is absolutely impossible to grant."

The hideous man resorted to cajolery in his quest to trade faces. The pestering continued.

"I am to trade faces with someone impersonating a demon in some kind of . . . ahem . . . fabulous dream?" asked Jia Bi, trying a different tack. "No, we're not trading!"

The dream then started  to unravel as the fog dissipated; the bizarre man started to fade away; soon, Jia Bi was awake. He got up, remembering the details of the odd dream, and he felt deeply anxious.

As it turned out, Jia Bi was to have the same dream several nights in a row, with the weird, repulsive man pestering him over and over to trade faces.

Night after night, Jia Bi endured relentless entreaties and demands to trade faces, and gradually this harassment from the dream world began to take its toll.

One particular night, Jia Bi, now mentally exhausted by the stranger's incessant demands, blurted out without thinking: "Very well! If you can take my face and trade it with yours, then do it! Just make sure you never  bother me again!"

That morning, Jia Bi woke up, rolled out of bed, dressed, left his quarters and reported for duty at the palace. When he showed up, the servants who first encountered him reacted with such fright and caused such an uproar that the Prince of Langya himself appeared.

"Who are you, ugly man?" the Prince asked, recoiling as he faced Jia Bi. "Where do you come from?"

Instinctively, Jia Bi raised his hands and started groping around his own face. "Ahhh!" he screamed. He ran back to his quarters and looked into a mirror.

What he saw made him want to faint: His face was that of the repulsive man in the dream.

The Prince personally led a detachment of guards to Jia's quarters, where they subdued and arrested him. The Prince then spent some time with Jia Bi, talking to him, listening to him. The Prince came to the conclusion that this very homely individual was indeed Jia Bi.

"Jia Bi," said the Prince, "you've always been so clever and handsome, much more handsome than I. What happened to you? Did you do something, something perhaps stupid?"

With that, Jia Bi began to weep copiously.

"Jia Bi, whatever has brought this about won't be cured by your crying," continued the Prince. "You only look very ugly; it's not as if you've turned into an idiot! What are you worried about, then? Do you not still have your wits about you? Come on, now. Is it not said, 'A great man has great contributions to make'? So what if you're somewhat homelier now! I know you still want to be that handsome young man you once were! Well, don't fret. Your Prince is not going to turn his back on you now just because you don't look the same way you used to."

Jia Bi dried his tears.

"Your Highness," asked Jia Bi, "if I ask you a question, would you please tell me the truth as you see it?"

"Ask," replied the Prince.

"Very well. Your Highness, does my present appearance make me . . . perhaps . . . look somewhat . . . tougher?"

The Prince stifled a laugh and nodded vigorously. "Indeed, it does."

Hearing that, Jia Bi felt faint and passed out.

Not long after, there was some upheaval. An emperor passed away, and his successor took his place. The region suffered heavy rainstorms. Many wondered if all these events were presaged by what had happened to Jia Bi.

Jia Bi's new face remained for the rest of his life. However, with his new face he seemed to develop new talents. He could, for example, laugh with one half of his face and cry with the other half. Perhaps more noteworthy was he became a renowned essayist, able to wield the ink brush and to write in different styles which could appear to have been written by totally different people.

"Anyone who can write like five individuals deserves a huge pay raise!" said the Prince.

from Meiyingzhi yixia, pp. 216-217; Anye qianyu 暗夜千羽[A thousand wings in the dark of night]; Lin Suwei; Beijing: Beijing Kexue Jishu Chubanshe, 2011; pp. 117-123;  换脸_魇之侠_新浪博客

This story is originally from the Southern Dynasty (A.D. 420-589) collection of strange stories, Youminglu 幽明录[Records of the Nether Regions], compiled by Liu Yiqing (A.D. 404-444). 

This story could probably be included in an anthology about ghosts. It's included here, though, because this particular series excludes more traditional types of ghost stories, such as hauntings, dead lovers and spouses that interact with the living, and revenants, all of which I write about elsewhere. 

 Lin Suwei comments on the undeniable reality of how handsomeness/beauty is a great asset in life. She also likens this old legend to the 1997 Hollywood film Face/Off, which starred John Travolta and Nicholas Cage (117-118). In that movie, a criminal and an FBI agent have plastic surgeries to resemble each other, with the criminal now resembling the law officer and the officer, the criminal. However, the legend made me think of a marvelous Philip K. Dick story, "Impostor," in which a man is accused of actually being a totally human-looking android housing a powerful bomb in its chest. The accused man, the scientist (or engineer?) Olham, vigorously protests his innocence, especially when he, being considered too much of a hazardous risk by the authorities, discovers he is scheduled for instant termination. Apparently, this story inspired Dick to write a series of stories exploring the theme of what makes one a human. We see some of this theme when Jia Bi seems to change after acquiring his new face, developing talents that had never before been evinced. Perhaps those with a Freudian bent might see this as a meditation on the breakdown of the superego.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Haunting in Hong Kong--a Case From 1953

It all happened way back in 1953, in a place on Nathan Road, Kowloon, an unimaginable, bizarre ghostly event that shook up much of Hong Kong, and a section of Kowloon in particular.

(1) "Set up the Tiles"

There lived an older woman on the fourth floor of a home on Nathan Road. Now, starting early one evening in 1953, this woman began to see the same inexplicable, eerie scene replay itself over and over again every night. Looking out from her home to the fourth-floor home facing hers on Nathan Road, she could see four or five people stirring in the window, sitting at a table, playing mahjong, with one sitting by the window itself, as if on lookout duty. Such a sight in Hong Kong was and is still perfectly normal. What made these nightly gatherings out of the ordinary were two details--the mahjong players were all completely dressed in white, and each was completely headless.

Needless to say, the woman was horrified. She began refusing to roll up her curtain after dusk and completely stayed away from the window.

Residents had probably chalked up the story about the headless mahjong-playing ghosts in white to the woman's perhaps failing eyesight or maybe an urban legend making its rounds through the neighborhood. A few days later, a delivery boy in one of the restaurants had the following tale to tell . . .

(2) "With Money to Burn"

On one occasion, the delivery boy had brought food up to the fourth floor flat, the same locale where an older woman had seen headless spooks. At nine P.M. someone had phoned in the order for food to be sent up--four bowls of rice congee (i.e., gruel or porridge). The door opened a crack without revealing a glimpse of anyone or anything inside, a single hand picked up the bowls of porridge and then took each bowl one-by-one inside. Then came the time to pay the bill. The delivery boy was paid by this single hand, clutching the correct amount of money, appearing from out of the crack in the doorway. The boy took the money and returned to the restaurant.

Once at the restaurant, the delivery boy took out the money for the bowls of rice porridge just delivered and discovered that the bills were not standard Bank of Hong Kong currency; instead, they were "hell notes," money to be burnt for the dead as an offering to the deceased in the world beyond.

Then, the exact same thing happened again the following night when someone at the same address had called in an order for four bowls of rice porridge.

The owner of the restaurant was incensed at these thieves who he thought were using some kind of subterfuge to trick his delivery boy, and he was not one to put up with such chicanery. Something was going on, and the law probably couldn't help, especially since on each occasion, the delivery boy walked away, without complaining, with a payment in his pocket. No, he, the owner, would do something . . .

When the order for four bowls of rice porridge came in the next night, the owner sent a different deliveryman, someone who might be better able to spot a sleight of hand and to deal with any miscreant trying to get away with paying not just fake money but money for the dead. Maybe when getting paid by the hand that appeared from behind the door, the deliveryman this time looked carefully to see if it was legal tender. Perhaps he counted it himself before the door closed. In any case, the deliveryman returned to the restaurant, took out the money he had kept his eyes upon while up on the fourth floor, and . . . saw that he was indeed holding those telltale fake banknotes on cheap yellowed newsprint paper in his hands, the ones with a conspicuous square of foil in the center, the kind of paper no one in his or her right mind would dare to carry around, let alone touch . . . money to be burnt for the dead . . .

(3) "A Sealed-up Unit"

The restaurant owner notified the police, and some officers were sent to the apartment that very night. By now a crowd of over one thousand onlookers, with  newspaper reporters in attendance, gathered below to watch whatever unfolded. 

The police officers went to the apartment of the woman who lived directly across from the fourth-floor flat, and, as witnessed by the police officers and civilians, four human figures in white, without heads, could be seen in the window, sitting around a mahjong table, playing mahjong. From the beginning to the end of this incident, no officer dared to enter the haunted apartment. The whole affair finally came to a conclusion when the policemen had the front door to the place sealed. 

In time, the building itself was demolished to make way for a new structure. 

(4) Another Version

A reporter wrote there had once indeed been live humans having a mahjong party upstairs in the fourth-floor flat. The owner's daughter was having some friends over for a friendly game one evening. Everything was going well; all were merry, enjoying themselves. When it was time to order some refreshments, the players remained seated in their places around the table and each stuck a hand out with some coins to pay for his or her portion of late-night snacks. From out of nowhere, a fifth outstretched hand and arm appeared . . . 

Those at the table bolted out the door. The police were notified. Later, it came out that several people, including those who had called the police, had simply vanished, whereabouts unknown. 

And what of this location now? There's a different building there, one housing a bookstore. 

from 東周網【東周刊官方網站】 - 玄機 - 玄緣學院 - 香港史上最猛鬧鬼事件

香港史上最猛鬧鬼事件 (HK旧闻) - 恐怖鬼话 - 闲情逸致 - 佳礼网络社区综合论坛 ~ 马来西亚中文论坛 - Powered by Discuz!

A bowl of rice porridge is a favorite late-night meal of gamblers. The fourth floor is interesting; the pronunciation of "four" in many Chinese dialects (Mandarin, Cantonese and Hokkien/Taiwanese included) sounds like "death," a word to be avoided during felicitous times, such as New Year. White is the color of mourning. The motif of money offered by a ghost which is then inexplicably transformed into the money for the dead is not unknown. One of the most famous Taiwanese ghost stories, "Lin Toujie" 林投姐, the story of an avenging spirit, also has this motif. In at least one version, the female ghost buys something from a vendor, maybe a rice cake, and pays with what seems to be good money. She disappears or otherwise goes off with the food, and the hapless vendor discovers he or she now has a fistful of money for the dead. Such an interaction with the dead, resulting in a physical memento of the occurrence, would be, of course, bad luck. But then again, in Chinese lore, ghosts are just about always bad luck. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Two Animal Fables From the Jing People (Guangxi)

(1) The Dragon King of the Sea Holds a Meeting

Long ago there was a time when the whales and the sharks ruled the oceans and ate up the rest of the aquatic life without any qualms. The rest--the fish, the rays, the octopuses, and so on--couldn't do a thing about it because they were unarmed and unprotected. They had no means to fight back, to defend their young and their own lives. It became very clear that it would be only a matter of time before the whales and the sharks would gobble down every other living thing in the sea.

None of this was lost on the Dragon King. He hurriedly called a meeting of all the weaker, defenseless sea creatures.

"I hereby grant each of you the means of defense," the King told the gathering.

The thornback ray, due to its soft shell and body, was given a virtual whip for a tail that would ward off any enemy. The lobster already had two pairs of four shelled legs but was then allowed pincers on the front pair. Any foe attacking it would be pinched and caught in its vises. The king crab already had some formidable spiny defenses, but it was also saddled with poor eyesight. So it was then granted a pair of scissors-like pincers for its front legs. The octopus had no such protection--its body was and still is squashy. Thus, the octopus was given eight arms with which to beat off attacks and to run away swiftly when it needed to escape. Then there was the ray, and its body was soft, spongy like many of the rest. It was then equipped with an electrical system installed in its spine, electrifying its tail, making it able to ward off any attacker. From then on it became known as the electric ray.

The carp showed up to the assembly late, enraging the Dragon King.

"There's nothing for you since you decided to show up so late!" said the King. "Nothing but . . . this!"

He then slapped the carp so hard that he left its mouth twisted, as it has been to this very day.

So, that is how virtually all the residents of the sea were provided self-defensive weaponry and armor, all but the carp, which was left with a permanent wry mouth!


I am happy to share this story with you because it is a bit of elusive folklore from the Jing, a rare story from an ethnic group that doesn't have many published stories available for folklore enthusiasts. Turning to the Internet, I've been able to find these two fables. 

The Jing people are apparently descendants of Vietnamese migrants who entered China. They primarily live in Guangxi Province. (See Gin people - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia) They still speak a dialect of Vietnamese that may remain intelligible to many people from Vietnam or other members of the Vietnamese diaspora. Below are some YouTube music videos that show young women of the Jing minority wearing the ao dai and playing traditional instruments:

[远方的家 720HD] 边疆行 (02) 海防京族三岛 1/3 - YouTube

【风华国乐 720HD】蓝色梦岛 / 京族独弦琴民乐 - YouTube

【天之蓝 720HD】簪蒲树 / 京族哈妹组合 京族民歌 - YouTube

This short fable is a pourquoi story, explaining the origin of certain sea animal attributes. The dragon king frequently appears in folktales and myths. Dragon kings belong to watery domains and may be related to the Hindu naga serpents. 

Motifs: A139.3, "Dragon god"; cA1459.1, "Acquisition of weapons";  A2461, "Animal's means of defense"; A2531, "Why animal is harmless (defenseless)"; B11.12.5, "The dragon-king"; B223, "Kingdom of fishes"; B248, "King of dragons." 

(2) The White Eel and the Long-Necked Crane

One day a white eel was swimming along, looking for something to eat when a long-necked crane standing on the river embankment saw him approach.

The crane stretched his neck a bit to grab the eel, but--snap! The sharp-eyed and quick-moving eel dodged the crane's beaks and instead bit onto the crane's beak, clamping down on it, preventing the crane from doing anything.

So there they were, one in the river and one on land, both wriggling, neither going anywhere. Needless to say, the eel couldn't exactly let go with the beak of such a  formidable foe locked between his own jaws.

The weather turned warm, and then both creatures commenced quarreling, as best as they could, that is, with both of their jaws locked down.

"Say, old brother, you want to live?" asked the crane. "If you do, you'd better let go of my beak now!"

"Oh, I want to live all right!" replied the eel. "Where do you get off trying to eat me? And you think I'm so stupid as to let you go? Huh! There's no way I'm letting you go!"

"So you're not letting me go?"

"No, I'm not!"

The long-necked crane could see that he was getting nowhere by trying to intimidate the eel, so he came up with a different gambit.

"Say, eel, it's not that I'm afraid of you, but think about this: If some fisherman or hunter came upon you right now, you'd be unable to escape."

"You think so? I could submerge myself and burrow myself into the mud on the floor of the river and hide there."

"So you say. I myself could just instantly fly off to the sky and right into the clouds!"

There they were, arguing back and forth about each one's merits and how he--the crane or the eel--would boldly do this or amazingly do that. And so on and on they went . . . until a fisherman did actually show up and--whoop! He scooped them both up in his bamboo basket. Off he went with both long-necked crane and white eel inside the basket.

Only now did the eel let go of the crane and did the crane refrain from trying to eat the eel. They continued their argument.

"Are you happy now?" cried the crane. "If only you had listened to me and let me go!"

"And if you hadn't tried to eat me," replied the eel, "we wouldn't be in this situation!"

"Why didn't you swim to the bottom of the river and hide in the mud? Huh?"

"And why didn't you fly up to the sky and hide in the clouds?"

And so they argued and argued until . . .  they couldn't anymore.

海白鳝和长颈鹤 - 中国民族宗教网

This is the Jing version of a fable based on the very famous Han Chinese proverb 鹬蚌相争,鱼夫得利 (i.e., "In a struggle between a sandpiper and clam, it's the fisherman who walks away with the upper hand"). In the fable that inspired the proverb, a sandpiper attempting to eat a clam gets its beak caught between the edges of the clam's top and bottom shells. While they wrangle, a fisherman comes along and snatches both of them up. A similar Korean proverb is "While the whales wrestle, the shrimp get their backs broken." The Korean proverb bemoans the fate of smaller nations that get in between more powerful warring neighbors (e.g., Russia vs. Japan or China vs. Japan). The Chinese proverb and Jing fable, however, urge quarreling neighbors or countries to unite to in order to resist larger, more formidable dangers or powers. Americans, for example, might interpret this as "United we stand; divided we fall!"

This tale is classified as 160A* ("The Pike Caught by the Fox," or "The Snipe Caught by the Mussel") in A Type Index of Chinese Folktales by Nai-tung Ting (FF Communications No. 223, Helsinki, 1978), pp. 36-37.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Little Old Man Who Sold Sticky Rice Dumplings (Taiwan)

From out of nowhere, a stranger, a little old man arrived in a village one day. He had a full head of snowy white hair, and his ruddy cheeks made him look vigorous.

He noted both the nearby mountain and the north-south path that ran by the village and decided this place was to his liking, that he would remain here and do some business. And so he rented a cottage near the foothill of the mountain. Underneath a phoenix (or flame) tree, he set up a stand to sell tangyuan, sweet sticky rice dumplings.

His dumplings were not those small marble-sized glutinous dumplings; no, his were large, plump, and delicious--fragrant and sweet. Moreover, they were sold at a very reasonable price. Soon, everyone in the neighborhood had heard of the old man's sticky rice dumplings stand and flocked over.

He began to do a brisk business.

One day a bunch of customers as usual showed up at the stand and began placing orders for his rice dumplings. One of the customers, a local farmer, noticed the old man had now set up a sign in front of his stand.

"Hey, Boss," said the farmer, "what do those characters on your sign say?"

"Well," replied the old man, "one copper coin will buy you a big dumpling."

"All right. I already know that. What does the rest of the sign say?"

"The rest says that if you pay three copper coins, you may eat until you kut ("slip," "slide," "drop")!"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means, my friend, for three copper coins, you can eat as many sticky rice dumplings as you like until you are full."

"Wa!" cried the growing throng, overhearing what the old man had said to the farmer.

"Hey," said one, "I'll pay three coins to eat all the dumplings I can!"

"Sure, so will I! Who wouldn't, with dumplings this tasty?" said another.

They each scrounged for three copper coins in their pockets, satchels and coin purses. Each one thrust forward three copper coins upon his palm.

"All right, everyone! All the dumplings you can eat coming right up!" cried the old man. Soon, the crowd of farmers, laborers, passersby and others were scarfing down fragrant, sweet sticky rice dumplings.

Well, as they say, "ten told a hundred and a hundred told a thousand." Before long, everyone from the village and outlying areas headed for the sticky rice dumpling stall under the flame tree. The crowd grew day by day, swamping the area with hungry men, women and children ready to shell out three copper coins for the chance to eat their fill of sticky rice dumplings.

As for the little old man, he worked from morning until night without rest, providing all paying customers with as many dumplings as they could eat. On and on he worked, without taking any breaks or time off. Some local ladies began to talk about him.

Li Saosao said, "With only three copper coins and then eating until you kut, I'm afraid the old gent will go bankrupt! He'll have to shut down the stand!"

"That's right!" said Great-auntie Wang. "The point of doing business is to make a profit. How long can he manage to do what he's doing?"

"Aiya," said Auntie Zhang, "who knows if he's even on the up and up or not! Maybe he's planning to go bankrupt. Maybe he's got something up his sleeve . . ."

"That's right! Who knows?" Li Saosao and Great-auntie Wang said, turning to each other and nodding.

"Listen," continued Auntie Zhang, "has anyone ever seen him at the marketplace buying rice or sugar? Has anyone ever seen him making the sticky rice dumplings? Does any of us even know from where he gets his dumplings?"

And on and on they talked . . .

Seemingly in the blink of an eye, a whole year passed since the little old man had first come to town. In the past year, not one customer opted to buy the sticky rice dumplings one by one; no, all gleefully chose to eat as much as they could for three copper coins.

Now, one day a little girl carrying a bowl approached the little old man at his stand.

"Ah Gong," she said, "I'd like to buy a dumpling."

"Oh? Just one, child? Don't you know that for three copper coins you can as many dumplings as you like?"

"I know," said the little girl. "I have more than three coins, but I just want one sticky rice dumpling. That's all!"

"Hmm . . ." said the old man. "Isn't that remarkable? Very well, child, hold out your bowl . . ."

He scooped up a big dumpling with his ladle and put it into her bowl. The little girl ate it while it was still good and warm. Then she scampered home.

Once the little girl reached home, something happened--her stomach grew and grew, not unlike that of a woman who is with child.

"Ma, come quickly!" she cried. "Look at my stomach!"

Her stomach was as big as a leather ball. The mother shrieked and then the father came.

"What happened to your stomach?" asked the father. "What did you eat?"

"A sticky rice dumpling . . . from the old man under the flame tree!"

Her parents were shocked, but then the shock turned to white fury. With their daughter in hand, they marched off to the old man's stall to confront him.

The old man saw them approach from far away. He was unconcerned; he even had a slight smile upon his face.

When he saw the angry faces of the parents, with their blue veins standing out on their heads and smoke practically bellowing from their noses and ears, the little old man chuckled and said, "You know I've been here a full year now, and every single person who comes to me plunks downs three copper coins to eat his or her fill of my dumplings--every person that is but your daughter. Your daughter's the only one to insist on eating just one dumpling instead of gorging herself as everyone else has.

"And so," he continued, "I wish to reward her for not being a glutton but rather for being moderate. I gave her a 'Pearl From the Great Ocean.' Why are you so upset?"

"'Pearl From the Great Ocean' or not, look what happened to her stomach!" said the girl's father. "How dare you harm our child, making her stomach bloat up like a huge balloon!"

"Not a problem, not a problem!" said the old man, who then lifted his hand to the sky, mumbled some words to himself, and then assumed a posture of prayer. He stepped behind the girl, and then he gave her a slap on the back.


The little girl spat out what was indeed a large "Pearl From the Great Ocean." Her stomach then shrank to its original size. The pearl itself was round and shiny, and as it spun on the ground, it gave off a striking effulgence.

"That pearl," said the old man, addressing the little girl, "is your reward for not being gluttonous."

By now a large crowd had gathered around the flame tree.

"Exactly who are you, old man?" asked someone. "And how can you make a pearl appear?"

The old man laughed and said, "I guess I can tell you. I came here to examine the hearts and minds of the people here. Never did I suspect just how much all of you are so lacking in moderation, self-control, frugality! All those sticky rice dumplings all of you so joyfully ate to  your stomach's content? Why, all of those dumplings were made from dirt I took away from the foot of that great mountain over there! If you don't believe me, go take a look."

Some villagers then rushed away to the foot of the mountain. There, they found a large pile of earth, much of which consisted of tiny little balls of rolled dirt the size of sticky rice dumplings awaiting boiling.

When those men returned and told their neighbors, friends and family members gathered what they had found, the throng turned ugly. Countless pairs of glaring eyes turned towards the little old man, as many coughed and tried to vomit up the "dumplings" they had just moments before consumed like starving wolves.

"Who are you?" asked those gathered. "Why did you do something so disgustingly immoral as to feed us dirt? We're going to let you have it . . ."

The little old man chuckled, and then, before everyone's eyes, he floated up into the sky and out of sight.

Originally, the little old man was no mere human; he was, instead, an immortal.

Jiang Rulin & Guo Fengjuan. 台灣民間故事 [Taiwanese folktales]. Taipei: Liangguang, 1987; pp. 4-15. 

This anthology seems geared towards students of grammar school age. The flame, or phoenix, tree, the Delonix regia, apparently originates in Madagascar, and, according to various sources on the Internet, didn't arrive on Taiwan until relatively recently, the late 1890's. Tangyuan (湯圓) on Taiwan commonly have a sweet red bean paste filling and are often enjoyed around the New Year. Kut (滑)means "to slip." 

Motifs: A171.0.2, "God (immortal) ascends to heaven"; D452.4, "Transformation: earth (dirt) to another object; D855, "Magic (pearl) acquired as reward"; cK1811.2, "Deity (immortal) disguised as old man visits mortals"; cQ277, "Covetousness punished"; Q552.3.5, "Punishment for greed (gluttony)."