Saturday, April 13, 2019

L is for Lychee and Death (A to Z Challenge 2019: Fruit Folktales)

This story is a Chinese variant of a folktale type that is well-known around the world. In Spanish-speaking countries it is often called Tía Miseria, Aunt Misery, and the tree in question is usually a pear tree or a fig tree.

The Chinese story tells about a poor old woman known to everyone as Pin Qiong, Poverty. Most people avoid her or look down on her as she picks her way through the garbage dump every day. One day, she comes across a lychee seed with a small green shoot sprouting from it. She takes the seed home and plants in outside her hut. Miraculously, by the next morning the seed grows into a giant lychee tree, laden with sweet fruit.

Poverty takes the fruit to market and sells it. She doesn't know that she has the best lychee in town, so she sells it cheap, but still makes enough money to start living a little better. The next morning, however, she finds the tree torn, and all the fruit gone. The next year, when the tree bears fruit again, the thieves take all the lychee even before the old woman can pick any of them at all. She complains to the authorities, but no one bothers to help her. The third year, she tries to pick the lychees early, but since they are not ripe yet, they are all sour and useless. She tries to stay up all night to catch the thieves, but she is too old to keep watch.

Eventually, an old beggar comes by. Poverty treats him well, giving him food and drink, and kindly inviting him in. The old man, in exchange, grants her a wish. Poverty wishes that the thieves could not take her lychee anymore. Her wish is granted: Next time the tree bears fruit, she finds half the village in the morning, all stuck to the branches of the tree. They had been stealing from her, and the magic keeps them from leaving. At first they yell and argue, and then they beg. Eventually, Poverty sets them free by clapping her hands. No one tries to steal her lychee anymore.

One day, Death knocks on the old woman's door. She agrees to go with him, but kindly offers that he can eat some lychee from the tree first. Death climbs the tree, eats the fruit, and gets stuck; he begs for a long time to be set free, but the old woman refuses. Eventually Death promises not to ever take her. This, says the story, is why Poverty never dies, and lives in the world to this very day.

(Read the story in this book.)

Honestly, I am all for the kind and clever old woman owning her lychee tree and avoiding death, even if she is an allegorical figure...
What do you think?

P.S.: I first heard about lychee nuts from Avatar: The Last Airbender. For the longest time, I thought they were a made up fruit...


  1. I am on her side too. If people just were not so mean and greedy.

  2. Definitely an allegorical figure! Poverty never dies, indeed! However, it sounds uncannily like some European folktales about cunning peasants who trap Death or the Devil!

    L Is for Lost In Austen and Lost In A Good Book

  3. clever lady!! hehe. using her tree to trap death.

    Joy at The Joyous Living

  4. Great story! I'm on her side toofor the village people, but too bad she caught the dead ;)

  5. I likey lychees! Well done Poverty, she deserves to live on.

    My A-Z of Children's Stories

  6. Poverty lives on and in some places ‘thrives’. Yes she is an allegorical figure.
    Poverty is a small lady who hoodwinks Death. Loved the folktale.
    Kalpana solsi

  7. Great story - tricking death and poverty lives on.

  8. Lots to unpack in that folktale, from Poverty having the best fruit in town to everyone stealing from her to the bargain with Death so that she lives forever...Does it mean Poverty is a virtue?

  9. Great story! Love it.
    I have had this fruit, actually. It's pretty good. But it tends to be overpriced in my area.

  10. I think it seems very unlikely that the sort of poverty that lives forever is descended from such a kind, generous, clever character. If poverty were really like that, no one would mind having her come to stay!
    Black and White: L is for Leviathan

  11. I do like how she fooled death, but because of her Poverty is exists to this day!
    Hard to figure this one out.

  12. I like how half the village was stealing from her. I mean, I don't like it, but it is funny, in a painful, cynical sort of way. Because, I mean, they are the very people, probably, who refused to help her before... and they must know she's poor... and yet, they steal from her. Nasty. I hope they learned a lesson slightly broader than "don't steal from that particular tree, it is super-sticky."
    I also love, of course, how she tricks Death. That is always fun. Of course, there's her allegorical status, which does make my pleasure at her triumph more complicated... but she just sounds so nice, I can't help it. Imagine letting those villagers go so cheaply.
    Wonderful post!

  13. Great story although I would prefer she had allowed death to take her.
    I love lychee and even find it quite refreshing in a glass of champagne.
    AtoZTheme: very short stories/various genres

  14. I've never heard any version of this story and I really like it. And so now we know why poverty lives on. I've never had lychee, but when I do I'll certainly think of this tale.

  15. Lychees are one of my favourite fruits! A staple in the summer in Bengal. Loved today's tale, great explanation for persistent poverty.

  16. Oh, goodness! When did you change your blog theme? I thought I was in the wrong place. LOL!
    I loved the story, though I think the villagers were really awful. The lychees is all the woman has, she sold them to the villagers cheap, and they still steal from her. More than her win over Death, the villagers' attitude is what struck me the most.

  17. I grew up with lychees --got confused in Avatar when they called 'em lychee nuts :-) Delicious! Great story -- and good for Poverty for getting them all stuck to the tree.

    Ronel visiting from the A-Z Challenge with Music and Writing: Two Sides of the L

  18. Wow, amazing tale. It is a story that is not soon forgotten. I love that she is an older woman, that she succeeds against death on the strength of her wits. Her name....

  19. Like the fruit and love the tale - very strong moral. Presumably Poverty also lives on as some people feel that they still have the right to steal 'the fruits' of other people's efforts.