Monday, September 20, 2021

Kindness over violence (Folktales of Chinese minorities 19. - Jino)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. First up are the minority peoples who live in China. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

Once again I encountered a minority that I could not find a full collection for, so I browsed various sources for individual tales. The Jino (Jinuo) people live in Yunnan province in Southern China, and number a little more than twenty thousand people. They are one of the smallest minorities, and the last one of the 55 that were officially recognized (in 1979). They are known for their colorful woven outfits. Next to hunting and gathering, they cultivate land cleared from forests by burning.


The tale of Lady Fish was both beautiful and sad: a dragon king's daughter married a mortal man, but her husband started cheating on her after a while, so she left him. The husband learned of a way to win back his wife through magic, but he was too lazy to do it properly, so the relationship ended for good.


The myth of the goddess Amoyaobai was the most beautiful "shooting the suns" story that I have encountered so far. The goddess gave humans intelligence so that they could solve their problems with thinking, rather than violence. Then seven suns rose into the sky and threatened the world, people threw rocks at them first, but then decided to negotiate in a kinder way. They managed to convince the suns to rise one by one and take turns.
I also read a Jino flood myth: after the flood, the first people of every ethnicity climbed out of a giant gourd planted by a brother and sister. The story explained why the Jino have no written language (they are the ox hide they had written their characters on), as well as the speech and skin color of various peoples. This myth is a very popular part of the Jino tradition: I found it in two more books, here and here.
Tricksters were represented by a man named Atui, in a story where in good trickster fashion he managed to steal other people's food instead of eating his own. 

Who's next?
The Monguor (Tu) people

Monday, September 13, 2021

Heroes make the world (Folktales of Chinese minorities 18. - Hani)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. First up are the minority peoples who live in China. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

Once again, sadly, I could not find a full book of folktales for the Hani tradition, so I read stories from multiple different publications. The Hani live in Southern China and other countries of Southeast Asia, numbering almost three million people. Among others, they are famous for their folk songs, folk music, dancing, and beautiful silver jewelry. 


The most beautiful origin myth was about a goddess named Lady Yao, who stole from her strict father the seeds of 77 useful plants, and gave them to the people. her father turned her into a dog as punishment, sending her to live with humans. Commemorating her sacrifice, the Hani give the first plate of food from the harvest sacrifice to dogs every year. Selflessness also played a central role in another legend, which explained the origin of rice: here an abused servant girl discovered that the seeds of rice are edible. She used her discovery to save her fellow servants, and get rid of a cruel queen. 
Nimaxingtian was a dragon-slaying hero who would put many others to shame: according to legend he had one eye and one, axe-sharp ear. He defeated two evil dragons by shooting blinding light from his eye, and chopping them up with his ear. Another dragon-slayer was a female hero named Amatu; in her legend she first convinced a monster to eat cows instead of people, and then dressed his two sons up as girls to help them sneak up on the monster and kill it. 


The Hani also have a myth about shooting down suns: here an archer named Erpupolo shot down eight out of nine of them. The last sun hid, and had to be lured out by the crowing of a rooster (which was not a pretty song, but very honest). Another legend explained why sun and moon alternate in the sky: two brave siblings, Ah Lang and Ah Ang, flew up to the heavens to convince them to keep a regular schedule. They are commemorated every year with a spring festival. 
Culture heroes were represented by Maumay, a monkey who became a man, who, according to legend, stole the first rice seeds from the sky, sacrificing the life of himself and his horse. Another story told of a bird who turned into a man named Ahli, who created a wine water spring for the people as he was dying. 

Who's next?
The Jino people

Monday, September 6, 2021

Shamans and spirits (Folktales of Chinese minorities 17. - Daur)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. First up are the minority peoples who live in China. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

China's Dagur Minority
Society, Shamanism, and Folklore 
Kevin Stuart, Li Xuewei & Shelear
Sino-Platonic Papers 1994.

The Daur live on the Chinese side of the border with Mongolia, they are related to Mongolians, and number about 130 thousand people.This detailed book is divided into three parts: The first introduces Daur culture, the second discusses Daur shamanism, and the third contains all the stories - 82 tales and 6 myths total. From the first chapter I learned a lot about Daur life, language, traditions, history, festivals, poetry, music, and crafts. The shamanism essay was very Chinese in the way it labeled all beliefs antiquated superstitions ("all religions are absurd"), but at least it admitted that recording them can be useful from an ethnographic point of view. The folktales in the third chapter have been recorded by a Daur native collector named Sayintana in the 1980s; 50 of them were told by an old storyteller named Qiker. The stories came with their own introduction about translation and cultural elements.


The best story in the book was the legend of Nisang Yadgan, a long and epic underworld journey undertaken by a famous female shaman to bring a young man back from the dead. They met (and bargained with) gods, demons, spirits, Nisang's ex-husband, and other obstacles; they witnessed afterlife punishments that would put Dante to shame. Nisang appears in other neighboring cultural traditions as well. She must have bee a remarkable lady.
 I also loved the story of the man who (unwittingly) married a Ginseng Spirit. The feud between ginseng girls and spider demons became a complex multi-generational tragedy, but luckily it ended on a good note. Among the less happy love stories my favorite was the Yearning Swans, in which a boy and the girl fell in love while they studied together. Outside of romance, I loved the tale about the friendship between a kind boy and a tiger.
There was a memorable tale about a hunter and his nephew. The hunter's sister was half-eaten by a monster, so the hunter tried to get rid of her; her son, when he grew up, managed to return the other half of his mother's body, and even befriended the monster. When the hunter attacked them, he tied ten thousand bags of chili powder to birds' feet, and chili-bombed the enemy soldiers...
An interesting legend explained why the Daur don't have writing. It was about the monk Tang Seng who brought the holy scriptures of Buddhism (see Journey to the West). On the way, he lied to a giant turtle, and it ate him in revenge. The scriptures were scattered in the ocean, and the peoples who managed to fish some out are the ones with written literature.
Among the origin myths, the one about Holier Barken was the most fascinating. It was about a magical antelope that brought havoc to all the land; the Chinese tried to kill it multiple times but failed. In the end the antelope and an Oroqen man (see later) were struck by lightning at the same time, and their spirits combined into one deity. Combined spirits like this were actually common in Daur mythology.
Among the shaman legends the stories of Gahucha yadgan were memorable: he could make a river freeze over in the summer, but it cost him 10 years of his life. I also loved the short legend that claimed that trees have their own shamans that heal other trees. 

Image from here


Once again there was a myth about raising the sky; it said that it used to rain oil and snow flour, but when people started wasting food, the sky grew angry and rose up high out of reach. There was also a flood myth, combined with the tale type where animals rescued from the water are grateful, but humans aren't.
This book contained the best "princess in the shroud" variant I have ever read. In the tale of The boy and the demon, a young man married a dead girl unwittingly, and then they went through all kinds of adventures until an old drunk was brave enough to break her curse and bring her back to life. There was a great variant for "why old people are respected" as well: here the rescued father helped his son climb up to the sky, and find tools to defeat a giant rat demon.
There were other familiar tale types, such as three kidnapped princesses (Bear's Son), handless maiden, magic flight (here with a snake wife), sister turned into a monster (here a vulture spirit), and dragon slayer (here a pearl diver who blew up a sea serpent with gunpowder). The story of Aqinbu was also a kidnapped princesses tale, very similar to an Oroqen story I know.
As for tricksters: Sun Wukong, the Monkey King appeared in a legend - he was responsible for creating caves in the mountains. Tricksters got their own chapter in the book, and were mostly nameless poor boys or orphans. Many stories were familiar: fake fortune-teller, master thief, exchanged punishment, and other classic (and often bloody) tricks. I especially liked the tale where the Chinese tried to build a military camp by a Daur village - so the people moved the camp across the river at night, and pretended it had been blown over by the wind.

Image from here

Who's next?
The Hani people

Monday, August 30, 2021

Treasures and rainbows (Folktales of Chinese minorities 16. - Yao)

 As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. First up are the minority peoples who live in China. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

Once again I could not find a whole book, but luckily there were many Yao tales scattered in the volumes I have at home. The Yao number about three and a half million people and live in China and Vietnam. Their stories seem to be popular with the editors of folktale collections, even in English. Yao women are famous for their long, gorgeous hair, which they only cut once in their lifetime (when they turn 18), and wear wrapped around their head. 


The legend of Liu Sain Mei (Maiden Liu) is one of the most well-known of the Yao tradition. It is about a Han girl who became a friend and ally of the Yao against oppression. She was a famous songstress who created many songs, and won many song contests with her quick wit, eloquence, and lovely voice. She defeated famous scholars and Han officials in song banter too. She married a Yao man of equal talent; together they turned into rocks, and their spirits became immortal.
One of my favorite legends from the Yao is the story of the Moon Hunters: When a scorching moon appears in the sky, famous archer Ya La and his clever wife Ni Wo set out to shoot it down. In the end the flames of the moon are extinguished, and the couple flies up to live on it - their figures still visible in the full moon (this story appeared in multiple sources). I also loved the tale of Longsi and the Third Princess, in which a young hunter and a clever princess fell in love and solved her father's tasks together. Unlike many Chinese love stories, this one had a happy ending. So did the story of the One-horned ox, about a boy whose drawings came to life. The ox he drew helped him travel to the sky where he fell in love with a fairy. When an evil lord tried to kidnap her, the boy drew a winged tiger and rescued his bride. The hero of The golden reed flute, Bayberry, saved his own sister from a(n evil) dragon, making it dance to the music until it died. 
The legend of the Gathering of the Birds was gorgeous. It claims that every October 360 different kinds of birds gather in the Yao mountains to commemorate a maiden named Azhamana. She could embroider such beautiful birds that all of them came to life. When she was kidnapped by an evil lord, people tried to rescue her, but she died in the attempt and rose to the sky in the shape of a golden peacock.
One book had a pangolin story, about how a clever pangolin managed to trick all the ants it wanted to devour. 


The legend of the rainbow was a classic swan bride tale, but it was much more beautiful than the others. Here the sky maiden hid her own wings voluntarily so she would not have to return to her cruel father. She married a mortal man and had a child, but eventually she had to return to the sky (her husband combed her wings for her). Her family followed, but the Jade Emperor pushed the son back to earth. The grieving parents' tears became rain, and they let the rainbow down occasionally to see if their child would climb back up to them...
I knew the cute story of the magpie's nest as an English folktale. The magpie tried to teach other birds how to build a good nest, but not many of them had the patience to follow all the way through. Treasure Mountain was a legend much like all the magic table cloth tales; here, the greedy king got locked into a cave for good in the end. (This story also appeared in multiple sources.)

Image from here

Who's next?
The daur (dagur) people

Monday, August 23, 2021

The new and the familiar (Folktales of Chinese minorities 15. - Salar)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. First up are the minority peoples who live in China. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

The ​Folklore of China's Islamic Salar Nationality
Kevin Stuart, Ma Wei, Ma Jianzhong
Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.

The Salar are a Muslim minority of Turkic origin who migrated to the area of Qinghai Province in the 13th century. Today they number about 130 thousand people. They have strong cultural ties to Tibet, Mongolia, and the surrounding Muslim groups.
The book contains 32 traditional stories, as well as several folk songs and proverbs. All of them are published in three forms: in Salar, in phonetic transcription, and English translation. Twenty years ago, when the book came out, it was the only publication in the Salar language. The short introduction talks about Salar culture and literacy, and also contains several color photos.
The texts themselves were hard to follow sometimes, because the three kinds of text alternate every paragraph, and the English parts are full of notes and in-text comments. Sadly, the only copy of the book I could find was not complete, but I still managed to read most of the stories.

Highlights and connections

Most of the highlights were also connections, so I am not separating the two.

For example, the legend about Lake Qizi belonged to the familiar type where people are punished for not respecting natural treasures. In this case, a woman washed dirty clothes in the lake's clean water. A mysterious old man soon showed up, and with the help of two borrowed mules he moved the whole lake to another location in a single night.
Boylir Boko was a legendary strong man, who lifted a millstone to give directions to his opponent (Hungary has similar legends too). Other than his storied strength, he also had magic abilities - for example, no matter how much grain he threshed, it always multiplied (a trope familiar from the Nart sagas). 
There was an exciting "magic flight" story: a girl fled form an old cannibal woman with the help of a friendly calf. The calf in the end turned into a lion to protect the girl. There was also a cool "three kidnapped princesses" variant with a hero named Masinbo, that once again featured the motif of an offended cat peeing on the fireplace, kicking off a quest for new fire. The hero was rescued from the underworld by a man who could turn into an eagle.
The story of Hasen Beser was a classic "swan bride" tale, but it had an interesting and beautiful start with mushroom picking and a magic garden full of edible flowers. The tale of Agu Kharaji belonged to another classic, the "clever maiden" type, where a girl speaking in riddles found herself a matching husband - sadly, however, the story came to a tragic ending when jealous relatives killed the husband.
The book also contained a version of the legend of Joseph and his brothers, likely transmitted through the Muslim tradition.

Image from here

Who's next?
The Yao people

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

StorySpotting Extra: Folktales of Elsa and Naruto

StorySpotting Extra is a new thing I just invented: a report from an actual gig where I got to use my pop culture experience. Because I like sharing fun moments when theory gets put into practice.

This summer, luckily, we got to have our camps with the Világszép Foundation where I work full time as a storyteller. We take children who live in the state care system to our campsite in beautiful Paloznak for a week (per age group, seven camps total) filled with games, adventures, and storytelling. The latter is very important: we tell stories every night - yes, even to the teens, and they get lullabies too! -, and sometimes in the mornings. Kids who have known us for years look forward to these events, and some of them like to give me requests for what kinds of stories they would like to hear. While the "official" stories are selected in advance, there is always ample time in the afternoons and evenings for some extra storytelling. This year, I got two requests: they wanted "Naruto stories" and "Elsa stories." 

The quest was on.

It is always a precious chance for a storyteller to connect to her audience through their fandoms. We can learn a lot from the stories and characters that kids these days are invested in. It is even better if it is a fandom we happen to share: Naruto and anime culture was a part of my childhood too, and I also adore Frozen.

I spent the next few weeks with intensive research. Elsa seemed like the easier ask of the two, since it is a fairy tale adaptation (although pretty far from the original). However, I have never liked Andersen's Snow Queen, and did not want to tell it. Instead, I looked for other tales about powerful women with cryokinetic abilities who are portrayed in a positive light. Suddenly, the search got a lot harder... I returned to one of my old favorites, the legend of Queen Virignal from the medieval German Dietrich cycle. I also tracked down a gorgeous picture book titled Snow Princess, by Ruth Sanderson. This latter is a retelling of a classic Russian folktale, not very close to tradition, but it does have a happy ending (which was very important to me). An American friend helped me track down a copy in time, so I could head out to camp with two "Elsa" stories in my repertoire.

Naruto turned out to be the easier of the two. I started with brushing up on my Japanese nine-tailed fox folklore, which I'm very familiar with from earlier trickster research. Teens and middle schoolers can handle longer, more complex stories, so I added the legend of Tamamo-no-Mae, a fox lady who brought down several dynasties over the centuries, and kept hopping from kingdom to kingdom until he was imprisoned in a rock in Japan, and convinced to change her ways. In addition, a previous StorySpotting article led me to the legend of Jiraiya, a famous ninja whose story inspired several characters and elements of Naruto. It is an epic tale with giant frogs, evil snake demons, and thrilling battles.

All the research was absolutely worth it. The kids asked for the ninja stories right on the first day of camp, and it turned out more than one of them were Naruto fans (I don't know if it's playing on Hungarian TV again, or if it's Boruto nostalgia, who knows). The Jiraiya legend found its perfect audience. I spend more than half an hour telling it. Sometimes we stopped the story and discussed how it had been adapted into the anime, what changed and what stayed the same. We also played with the idea of the legend's rock-paper-scissors concept, where giant toad beats giant slug, giant slug beats giant snake, giant snake beats giant toad. It was very amusing.
The other ninja story was told the next evening. It also took a good half hour while Tamamo-no-Mae rampaged her way across Asia and reached the final battle. After the story, we looked up photos on my phone about the places (and the rock) mentioned in the legend. By this point, the kids got so ninja-happy that they made up a whole ninja movie for their filming workshop. It was an instant blockbuster.

The Elsa stories hit a more personal note. A girl had asked for them in advance, and when we arrived at camp she checked to see if I had them. I told Virginal's legend just to her, sitting on the living room couch. She listened in rapt attention. This legend is very male-focused, but it did not need much creative finagling to focus on the character of the Queen of the Mountains instead. I really enjoyed retelling it from a different point of view, and found new things in the story even though I have worked with it before. 
The second story found itself an even better context. At the end of the week we could bid for pictures taken in the photo workshop by the kids. I bid my dessert for one, and for another, I bid the second Elsa story to the same girl. I got to tell it the last morning before the end of camp, just to her. She loved the Snow Princess, and noticed things in the story that I did not. It was a lovely, personal storytelling experience. And I got a lovely photo for it.

There kinds of "gigs" are my favorite. They have everything I love about storytelling: personal connection, cozy moments, enthusiastic listeners, traditional tales, and geeking out over shared fandoms. I can't wait to see what themes they will ask for next...

Monday, August 16, 2021

The cosmic fight for happiness (Folktales of Chinese minorities 14. - Bouyei)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. First up are the minority peoples who live in China. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

Once again I could not find a whole book of Bouyei (Buyi) folktales, so I gathered stories from multiple sources. Too bad, because the few I could find were really fascinating. The Bouyei number about three million people, and they live in Southern China, mostly in Guizhou Province.


The romantic legend of Yahkang and Cuhee was especially beautiful. They were persecuted by a mean official even after his death: he used his sacrificial ghost money to bribe the judges of Hell, asking them to torture the lovers. Yahkang and Cuhee were saved by the kind god of the Sun, and spirited away to the Moon, where they still live today. Another tale also featured a jealous man trying to kidnap a bride: here, a magic shirt made of nine types of feathers saved her in the end. The wife came from the sky (with the help of none other than the legendary Weaver Girl), and when a mean landlord wanted to take her from her mortal husband, the couple created the magic shirt together and used its power to escape.
Weaver Girl was also the protagonist of an exciting local legend in which she fought and killed a man-eating dragon (with various magical weaving instruments), sacrificing her own life to save people.


Bouyei tradition also has a myth about how the sky was raised up. Here people lifted it up with the help of a hero named Liga (Lijia), who then used various parts of his body to create the heavenly bodies. After his death, every part of him turned into something useful - rivers, roads, flowers, cows, etc.
There was a beautiful, classic "heavenly bride" legend that explained the origin of the sixth month sacrifice. A moon maiden descended from the sky and had a son with a mortal man. The young hero escaped all kinds of dangers, and before he flew to Heaven he promised people that he would watch over them - the sacrifice commemorates him. Another origin story featured zongzi (glutenous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves), eaten on a specific day to commemorate the women who brought food to the men who guarded Bouyei lands from the Chinese army. A third story explained the origin of the Ox Festival held in April. It was about a poor man who gained a magic ox, and used it to gain wealth and even a wife (through an interesting drinking/cooking contest). 
There was once again a frog husban tale, as well as a story about a clever frog that outwitted a tiger in a race. 

Who's next?
The Salar people