Thursday, February 27, 2020

The wooing of Pumei (Feminist Folktales 9.)

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: Oroqen (China)

The story

Art by Laurent Diána
(for my book Hősök és pimaszok)
A young hunter named Yanjiao sees a beautiful girl across the river, with a red poppy in her hair. He decides to flirt with her by shooting an arrow through her bark bucket. The girl gets angry at him for ruining the bucket, and tells him he'd be a better man if he tamed the wild horse of his father. Yanjiao goes to the forest and tames the giant beast, returning to the river the next day, and shooting another arrow. This time, the annoyed girl tells him he'd really be someone if he went off and on Pumei, the most beautiful girl in the world, for himself as a wife. Yanjiao takes on the challenge and sets off, ignoring his father's warnings about the long journey.
As he journeys, he saves a group of girls from a terrible dragon - the red poppy girl among them. She agrees to travel with him "as brother and sister" and show him the way to Pumei. They go through several adventures together, fight demons, wade through giant mosquitoes, and they save each other more than once. When they finally reach Pumei's home, she says goodbye to him.
Yanjiao has to pass three tests for the girl's hand. The first too are easily done, but for the third, they put the red poppy girl on a blazing pyre. He saves her from the flames, and it is revealed that she herself is Pumei. When the shocked hunter asks her why she made him travel so far, she says "I had to see for myself what kind of a man you are before I could marry you." Yanjiao admits that she is wise, and they happily get married.

What makes it a feminist story?

If I had to name my top ten favorite folktales ever, this would be one of them for sure. I fell in love with it at first read.
Oroqen girl, image from here
It is very rare to find a folktale where hero and heroine overcome obstacles and go through adventures side by side, without the whole story already being about their love. Yanjiao, after his "flirting" is rejected, treats the poppy girl as a friend, partner, or "sister" along the way - so much so that he even promises to help her find a husband once he's married Pumei.
Let's take a moment to talk about the "flirting", by the way. Yanjiao thinks he'll win the girl's good graces by showing off his archery skills; he doesn't even care that he destroys her water buckets in the process. It is very inconsiderate of him, and the girl calls him out on it: "this was neither brave nor clever", she says, and gives him other things to do to prove his worth. Taming his father's wild horse is strongly symbolic for taming rampant destruction, and the journey he undertakes for Pumei is also a journey of proving that he is capable of learning, and behaving like a decent person. He is not a hero because he "wins" an unknown bride - the important part is how he treats the poppy girl along the way. Toxic masculinity is replaced by respect and caring. "Flirting at" someone in violent ways is one of the signs of toxic masculinity, and it is high time we started calling out those behaviors, just like Pumei does. No more "He pulls your hair because he likes you! It's a compliment!" nonsense.
It is important to highlight Pumei's closing words: "I needed to see what kind of a man you are before I could marry you." This attitude stands in contrast to many love-at-first-sight, marriage-or-death folktale types. Pumei wants to see with her own eyes what she's getting into, so much so that she accompanies the hunter on his journey, they talk, travel together, fight together, save and support each other (they even switch horses for practical reasons at one point). They get to know each other. Along the way they don't only fall in love, but they also learn to treat each other with respect, which becomes the stable foundation of a marriage of equals.
(I also have to add that as a demisexual person [for us, attraction is based on emotional connection] I love tales where people get to know each other first, and their attraction grows out of friendship.)

Things to consider

In the original text I found Pumei tells the hunter who she is first, and throws him a red poppy, before he jumps into the flames to save her. When I tell the story, he saves her first, and then she reveals who she is. I like to believe he would have saved her no matter what.


The Seven Sisters: Folktales from China (Foreign Language Press, 1982.)


Like all folktales, this one also comes with a rich cultural context, especially regarding the role of women in Oroqen culture. I recommend reading this Oroqen folktale collection, which is available online, and is full of great stories.


  1. Thank you, as always, for sharing your great discoveries. This is a wonderful story!

  2. This is incredible. Thanks for the online collection.

  3. Great story. Now I have to learn more about demisexuality.