Thursday, February 13, 2020

Li Ji and the Serpent (Feminist Folktales 7.)

Another Thursday, another post for Feminist Folktales! It's a series of traditional stories from around the world that display motifs that reflect feminist values. I am not changing any of the stories, merely researching and compiling them, and posting them here as food for thought. You can find the list of posts here.

Origin: China

The story

Fujian Province is threatened by a giant, man-eating serpent that keeps snatching livestock and people. Through a dream, the serpent demands a sacrifice: a twelve-thirteen year old maiden every year on the eighth day of the eighth month. For nine years, the sacrifice is given out of fear, from the daughters of servants and convicts. In the tenth year, a girl named Li Ji volunteers for the task. She is the sixth daughter of her family, and has no brothers, so she volunteers hoping her family would get money for her sacrifice. However, her parents refuse to let her go because they love her. Li Ji, determined to go, sneaks out in secret.
Armed with a sword and a snake-hunting dog she sets out for the serpent's lair in the mountains. At the entrance she sets rice cakes, soaked in malt sugar, on the ground. The the serpent comes out to devour the cakes the dog attacks it, and so does the girl, and the two of them together manage to kill the monster. Entering the cave Li Ji finds the skulls of the previous victims. She collects them and says "You were timid, and you were devoured. How sad!" The ruler of the state of Yue hears about the heroic girl and makes her his queen, and her family is brought to the court to live in comfort. No more monsters haunt the mountains.

What makes it a feminist story?

A female monster-killer, who saves other girls from certain death. The trope of St. George and the dragon, but with a girl protagonist. Next to the whole yassss, cool girl with sword and a dog factor, there are also smaller details in this story that are worth talking about.
The serpent does not demand just any sacrifice: it wants maidens twelve-thirteen years old, at the start of puberty. We could go into the whole Freudian analysis of what a snake symbolizes in this story, but even setting that aside, the fact remains that young, defenseless girls are being sacrificed here for the greater good. There are variants where warriors try to defeat the serpent and fail, while in others the monster simply states its claim, and is given the girls. In the spirit of intersectional feminism, we should also note that these girls are not selected at random, or in a democratic fashion: they are taken from the most vulnerable population, the families of bondservants and convicted criminals. They are seen as expendable.
And then enters Li Ji.
Li Ji doesn't want t be a hero. She doesn't volunteer to save other women as much as she, in a very Katniss Everdeen moment, offers herself as a sacrifice to help her family. She is a sixth girl in a family of no boys, and in the cultural and social context of this story she is simply one more mouth to feed. She says this to her parents, asking them to allow her to at least help them by selling herself as a sacrifice. The parents, however, refuse. While her reasoning makes a kind of sense, they choose love over practicality; they value and love Li Ji for who she is. In the end, she sneaks away without their permission.
She has a plan, though: she asks for a weapon and a dog, things she'll need to fight. She knows what she needs and she voices that need. She prepares the rice cakes to distract the serpent, and when her moment of opportunity comes, she does not hesitate. Li Ji is not a victim who throws herself to the monster; she set out with a plan to survive and triumph. In many traditional stories, dogs represent intuition; Li Ji trusts her instincts, and takes advantage of them in the fight.
The closing scene of the story is also interesting. When Li Ji defeats the monster, she collects the skulls of the nine previous victims. She says a sentence over them that can be interpreted in various ways (see below), but the fact remains that the previous victims are acknowledged, and the audience is reminded how many of them perished before Li Ji came along to win. Remembering the victims of cruelty, abuse, and painful customs is an integral part of ending the cycle.

Things to consider

I read various English translations of the sentence Li Ji says over the skulls, and I even got help from a friend in looking at the Chinese original. Essentially, Li Ji says something like "You were weak, devoured by the serpent. How miserable." In other versions she says "For your timidity, you were devoured. How pitiful!", or "Because you were timid, the serpent ate you, poor things!" or "Because you were afraid to fight, you quietly lost your lives. How sad!"
It is hard to tell if Li Ji means these words as words of sorrow for the lost girls, or as some kind of a moral about putting up a fight. Modern audiences can take this two ways: either as respectful commemoration (see above), or a message about not giving up. The latter might brush too close to victim blaming, so it is important for a storyteller to be aware of their phrasing.
(Let's also note that we are talking about twelve-thirteen year old girls, who could not reasonably be expected to have three years of serpent-fighting experience for an entry level sacrifice.)


This story is a part of the Shoushen Ji (In search of the Supernatural) collection by Gan Bao, from the 4th century AD. Very bad English translation hereChinese original here.

Hua Long: The Moon Maiden and Other Asian Folktales (China Books, 1993.)
Jane Yolen: Not one damsel in distress (Houghton Mifflin Hacourt, 2018.)
Moss Roberts: Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies (Pantheon Books, 1979.)


Li Ji was featured in Rejected Princessesyou can find the entry here. I personally find it unfortunate that the artist drew a Chinese dragon for the picture, though, since no text ever calls this serpent a dragon. Chinese dragons are a whole different creature.

No comments:

Post a Comment