Tuesday, May 31, 2022

The Tale of Duke Tiantou (Jing)

 Tiantou was a very energetic and studious young man, and he also happened to possess a remarkable thousand-li horse. Not only that but he knew a fair amount of magic tricks. 

In time Tiantou married a wonderful, beautiful, and clever young woman. With her encouragement, he studied very hard for his examination. Her support--her delicious meals and her being available to help him by making sure that items like the lamp wick and inkstone were ready for use--enabled him to study well and to obtain the highest score, zhuangyan, thereby allowing him to become a noble at the emperor's court. 

His future would be secure! He would now be known as "Duke Tiantou." 

However, it would mean that he would have to leave his wife's side and live at court, where he would need to be constantly on duty. 

Tiantou deeply loved his wife and could not bear to be without her, and so he would mount his thousand-li horse and fly off to the emperor's court before daybreak every day, secretly returning late in the evening. 

All this was highly contrary to imperial orders; however, this is what he did, and for the time being, it worked very well. He got to be an official throughout the day and much of the evening and be with his wife in the early hours of the morning. 

He took steps to make sure that no one at the court, especially the emperor, knew he was secretly leaving the palace each evening for fear of losing his head on the chopping block.

Before long, the young wife revealed to Tiantou that she was pregnant. Now, Tiantou believed he had all the more reason to make the risky late evening/early morning return trip home. 

Tiantou's mother, now aware of her daughter-in-law's pregnancy, was still unaware of her son's completely illegal and dangerous nightly returns home on the flying horse. So, one day, she remarked to her daughter-in-law in a snarky tone: "Barren trees won't produce fruit."

Tiantou's wife mulled over her mother-in-law's words. She absolutely wanted anything but a "barren" marriage, so she contrived an idea to get Tiantou to stay with her, her child-to-be, and her mother-in-law. So, late that night, upon Tiantou's return, she fed him a dinner made up of his favorite foods: prawns, crab, and fish. She also plied him with rice wine as he eagerly devoured his dinner. 

With dinner now over, Tiantou, as drunk as a skunk, staggered to bed without taking off his clothes. He was sound asleep as soon as he fell upon the bed. Once he was good and asleep, his wife pulled off his court boots, footwear issued to all members of the court, and hid them where he'd never find them. 

Early that next morning, Tiantou woke up to the cawing of the roosters. He had gotten up too late, and his boots were gone! Where could they be? He looked everywhere for them, including under the bed. He tried waking up his wife, who, after what seemed like forever, finally turned her head, groggily denied knowing where the boots were, and suggested he buy another pair as she immediately fell back asleep. 

Tiantou tried waking her up, but it was no use. Panicked, knowing that there would be a very real possibility that he could be executed, Tiantou went outside and smeared the darkest mud over his feet and halfway up his pant legs to mimic the appearance of wearing court boots. He also used his magic power to stop the sun from rising, thus silencing the roosters. 

He climbed onto his horse and took off for the court. He landed, hid his horse, and rushed to the palace, allowing the sun to rise just before entering the court. 

The emperor had noticed how strange it was that the sun had come up so late that day and shared this observation with a trusted councilor. 

"Your Imperial Majesty," said the councilor, "a renegade is surely at work! Anyone who can stop the sun from rising and the roosters from crowing is a rebel and poses a danger to the court!"

The emperor mulled over this. He issued an order for his guards to find if any courtier had been engaging in suspicious behavior. When Tiantou showed up with his muddy pant legs and shoes, the emperor decided he had found the court traitor. 

The emperor ordered his guards to take Tiantou out to the chopping block. Tiantou was thus beheaded. However, instead of that being the end of the story, he calmly got up from the ground, bent down to pick his head up, and repositioned his head back on his neck. He left the execution grounds, went back to his horse, and flew back to his home. 

Flying back home, he spotted a boy herding cows not far from his house. He landed the horse and spoke to the boy.

"Say, young fellow," said Tiantou, "allow me to ask you a question."


"That grass your cows are munching on. Once it's gone, it grows back doesn't it?"

"Oh, yes, Sir!" replied the boy. "It grows back as soft and munchy as ever!"

Good, he said to himself. 

He got back on his horse, took off, and continued flying until he saw below a young woman picking some wild onions. Once again, he landed his horse, dismounted it, and approached the girl. 

"Young lady," said Tiantou, "I'd like to ask you something."

"All right," said the young woman, without bothering to look up.

"Those onions you're picking. They will eventually grow again, won't they?"

"Ha," she said, still not looking up, "what a silly question. Of course, they'll grow back! With some fertilizer and water, they'll grow back quite nicely, thank you." 

Wonderful! he said to himself. He was now feeling very happy and encouraged. 

He got back on his horse and flew back to his house. He tethered his horse and entered the house. His mother, holding a dead chicken, was surprised to see him 

"Son!" she said. "It's wonderful you're back already. We slaughtered some chickens for tonight's dinner." 

She prepared to cut the chicken's head off when Tiantou asked a question.

"Mother, if a chicken's head is cut off, will it still live?"

"Aiyo!" said the mother, cutting her fingertip by accident out of surprise from the question she had just been asked. "When the head is cut off, Son, the chicken dies!"

As soon as Tiantou had heard that, he became very still. His head then fell right off his neck, and he collapsed upon the floor, dead. 

Needless to say, Tiantou's mother and wife were deeply shocked and saddened. They had his body washed and wrapped in coarse linen before being placed in a coffin. A priest performed a ceremony, and the family performed three days of funeral rituals before having the body and coffin interred. 

Tiantou was gone. Now, his widow would have to live in the dark, quiet house. A few nights after her husband's death, she saw him in a dream. 

"My dear wife," he said. "Do this: slaughter a chicken every day for 360 days. Let each carcass soak in a tub. All of this will be helpful!"

The widow was about to ask him why, but Tiantou immediately disappeared. 

She carried out the instructions her husband had given her in the dream. Nearly one year later, the tub was overflowing with the stinkiest, most disgusting maggots imaginable. The mother-in-law poured boiling water on the maggots to kill them.

That night Tiantou reappeared in his widow's dream.

"My dear wife," he said, "use the tub of maggots and chicken remains to fertilized the field in front of our house."

With tears in her eyes, the widow did exactly that. Within two days, two sturdy bamboo trees now grew in the field. 

A few days later, who should come by the area but the emperor himself, riding regally in his sedan chair, taking an inspection tour. When the emperor and his party were passing the house, the handles of his sedan chair suddenly snapped, and he hit the ground, with his rear end taking the brunt. 

"You idiots!" he shouted at the porters. "Fix these handles at once if you wish to keep your worthless heads!" Then, turning his head towards the bamboo trees in the field, he said, "Over there! In the field! There are two bamboo trees. Perfect! Chop them down and use them for handles. Hurry!"

The porters did as they had been told, of course. With the sedan chair repaired, the party moved on. 

"Perfect!" said the emperor. "Everything's just perfect for me! The weather, the views, the bamboo! Everything is just perfect in my land for me!"

The porters were taking the emperor across a narrow bridge, and just as the emperor had said, "Everything is just perfect in my land for me!", the handles of the sedan chair once again broke, and this time the emperor tumbled far down into the river below. 

That was the end of the emperor. 

All this happened on August 15 on the lunar calendar many, many centuries ago. The Jing people still honor Duke Tiantou on that date every year. 



The Jing (京族 or Gin or Kinh) people are ethnic Vietnamese who live in China's Guangxi Province. A friend from Vietnam told me that "Kinh" is the name Vietnamese people give to the majority ethnic group in Vietnam. For two other Jing tales, see the post for 5/24/14. 

The lesson of this magic tale seems to be that there is a limit to one's power, whether it might be supernatural powers like Tiantou's or earthly, imperial power like the emperor's. For all his ability, Tiantou could still not prevent his own death. Here was a man with a flying horse who could conceal or otherwise stop the sun itself and even remain alive (for a while, anyway) after being decapitated. Yet, he also depended on his wife so that he could put all his energy to use for studying. One might add that Tiantou's very power, like that of a Greek hero, led to his eventual downfall. 

Motifs: A721.1, "Theft of sun"; B41.2, "Flying horse"; D1810.8.2, "Information revealed through dream"; E321, "Dead husband's friendly return"; cE720.1, "Soul(s) of the human being(s) seen in dreams"; F961.1, "Extraordinary behavior of sun"; Q200, "Deeds punished"; cQ211.0.3, "Emperor punished for many murders"; Q411, "Death as punishment"; Q428, "Punishment: Drowning." 

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