Monday, July 26, 2021

Tales within the clouds (Folktales of Chinese minorities 11. - Nakhi)

 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.

Tales from within the clouds

Nakhi stories of China
Carolyn Han & Jaiho Cheng
University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

A slim, but beautifully illustrated volume that contains ten folktales. The Nakhi number about 300,000 people, and they have migrated from Tibet to the area of Yunnan and Sichuan around the start of CE. They are known for the fact that a large group of them is still matriarchal, marriage is not common among them, and they only have a word for mother, not father.
The tales were translated from Chinese to English by Jaiho Cheng, and retold by Carolyn Han with close attention to the original content and meaning. The short introduction talks about Nakhi culture, storytelling, and the importance of folktales and women heroes. The book is illustrated by the paintings of Li Ji, an artist from Yunnan.


An old favorite of my from this book is the Nakhi creation myth, in which four women - Thinker, Doer, Seer, and Wisdom - find a way to rid the world of an evil serpent. They trick the serpent into stealing the egg of Golden Wings, a giant bird that kills the monster in revenge. The serpent's body transforms into mountains.
I also loved the tale about the Heavenly sisters, Sun and Moon. Sun was lazy and easily angered, while Moon was patient and hard-working. When they wanted to go on a journey together, Moon set out without waiting for her sleeping sister. Sun ran after her in a hurry, forgetting she was naked - and has been blinding people ever since to cover herself up.
The tale of the cicadas was a bit creepy: it explained why they spend several years underground, but it also claimed they "grow little umbrellas" against the sun... except said green umbrellas are a parasitic fungus that grows out of the cicadas it kills. The same phenomenon appeared in the story of Miss Chongcao, the origin legend of the Chinese caterpillar fungus. The caterpillar in the tale put on green or brown clothes, depending on who wanted to eat her.
I liked the message in the Arrogant azalea story: in a beauty contest among flowers, the azalea belittled and bullied the Pine Tree - who ended up getting the award from the Queen of Flowers for its inner beauty anyway.


I was reminded of folktales from Africa by the story that explains why dogs lap water. Here, the lazy dog did not help others deal with channeling water, so he was forbidden from drinking it. Ever since then, he has to lap water secretly, in a hurry.
Tricksters were represented by Flea, who had a race-like contest with Louse about who could collect more wood. In the end, Flea was defeated by his own impatience.

Who's next?

Monday, July 12, 2021

The children of snow (Folktales of Chinese minorities 10. - Yi)

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 ​Nuosu Book of Origins
A Creation Epic from Southwest China 
University of Washington Press, 2019.

The Yi live in Southwest China and number about nine million. This minority group is divided into various subgroups, each with their own name and identity. Among them, the Nuosu are the largest (about 2.3 million) - the epic in this book belongs to their tradition. It was translated as a collaboration between Mark Bender (who also translated the Miao epics) and Aku Wuwu (a prominent Nuosu scholar and poet).

Bimo. Pic from here
This traditional epic is known as The Book of Origins, and it contains creation myths, origin stories, genealogies, and migration legends. It has been passed down through generations for hundreds of years in manuscripts written in Yi script (different from Chinese writing). The text translated in the book was hand-copied and translated by Jjivot Zopqu, a traditional Nuosu mediator, from an older text. It is divided into 29 sections, presenting a fairly complete epic from a single source (as opposed to the versions pieced together from multiple sources by Chinese folklorists). This epic is usually recited by ritual experts called bimo on important occasions, often for several hours. Sometimes at weddings or funerals traditional singers also performed parts of it. The book comes with footnotes, references, pronunciation guides, appendices, and many other resources. The long introduction talks about Yi/Nuosu culture, everyday life, rituals, and the epic tradition.


I loved it that the epic presents humans as one part of Nature's whole, our existence intertwined with that of plants and animals. The part where the Great Bimo, Awo Shubu, filled the world with plants and matching animals was especially beautiful. Later on, when almost everything was burned up by the six suns, red snow fell three times, and transformed into new creatures - the Twelve Sons of Snow. Ice turned to bone, snow turned to flesh, wind turned to breath. Six of the twelve became "beings without blood" (plants), while six became "beings with blood" (animals and humans). Their descendants and proliferation are detailed in the epic in a sort of folk taxonomy. It was especially intriguing that horses, which are not native to the area, were hatched from four snow-eggs by butterflies. On the advice of a frog spirit, humans and crows drank from the Water of Wisdom, and became the most intelligent among living beings.
The larger half of the epic details the genealogies and migrations of various tribes, with lots of names and repetition (kinda like the "begets" in the Bible). It was interesting to see why people decided not to settle in various unsuitable places, but other than that only a few short episodes disrupted the lists. One of the most exciting was the contest between two families, Hxuo and He, who competed in a series o shapeshifting challenges. Eventually, they were reconciled, and joined their children in marriage.

Nuosu manuscript with
Zhyge Alu, from here
There was an episode, not included in this version of the epic but mentioned in the notes, about the invention of the lightning rod. The hero Zhyge Alu found a village where people were afraid to light fires in the house, worried lightning would strike their roof. The hero climbed up to a roof wearing a copper helmet and a copper club, and managed to trap lightning in a copper net. Lightning as a living being was mentioned multiple times in the epic; it was noted that twelve kinds of lightning form a family that sleeps underground in the winter, and snores loudly in the spring.


This epic once again featured the motif of separating earth and sky (and propping the sky up with columns). Here the job was done by deities, spirits, and immortals, and the brand new sky and earth were swept clean by nine fairies with nine iron-copper brooms. There was also the motif of multiple suns and moons: Anyu Ddussy, the Spirit Monkey, summoned six suns and seven moons, along with all the constellations. The suns scorched the world almost to extinction, although a few animals (such as the water deer) managed to survive. The surplus heavenly bodies were shot down by the great hero Zhyge Alu. He was raised by dragons in a cave. He climbed various trees to get a vantage point for shooting, but only the fir could support him, which is why it is still respected among the trees. The last sun fled and hid, and had to be lured out by a rooster.
The fiery apocalypse was followed by another classic: a great flood. Here the only human survivor was the kind-hearted Jjumu Vuvu, who hid in a wooden box. He rescued various floating animals (a rat, a venomous snake, a bee, a frog, etc.), who in turn helped him get a bride from the sky. But since the elopement was not approved by the sky spirit, their children were born mute, and they needed the help of the mythical Apuyoqo bird to steal the secret of speech from the sky. Thus, various languages were born.
Another motif that appeared in the epic was that of the clever maiden who posed riddles to her suitor. The hero Shyly Wote failed to answer them, and he needed the help of his clever sister to win the bride anyway.

Nuosu women weaving together, image from here

Who's next?
The Nakhi people

Monday, July 5, 2021

Love and dragons (Folktales of Chinese minorities 9. - Bai)

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, so I gathered tales from many different volumes. The Bai live in Yunnan, numbering about two million people. They are surrounded by a gorgeous landscape of mountains and lakes, which does not only make the place popular with tourists but also colors local stories equally beautiful. Among other things, the Bai are known for cormorant fishing and dragon boat races.


Many of my ever-favorite folktales from China are actually Bai stories. For example, I have adored the legend of Wild Goose Lake for a long time. It is a story of friendship between a human girl and a dragon princess who share a love for singing, and work together to end a drought and bring water to the people. In the end they even move in together. Another favorite of mine is the Dragon carved from wood, in which a carpenter helps an entire village create a magical dragon to combat the evil monster that lives in their lake. It is a long, elaborate, and amazing story.

I also like the legend of Green Dragon Pond, in which a dragon befriends and old monk and they play chess together every day. However, the friendship comes to an end when the monk wants to see the dragon in his true (non-human) form. The same issue appeared in the legend about the Dragon King of Langchiung. A brave man sacrificed his life to kill an evil snake, and he was reborn as a dragon. Later on he befriended a scholar and helped him through various adventures; but when the scholar wanted to see his true form, the sight scared him to death. He became a deity as well, and people worship the two friends together. The legend of Erhai Lake also featured dragons: the battle of the Big Black Dragon and the Small Yellow Dragon ended with the victory of the latter, who was smaller, but also braver and smarter.
One of the most well-known Bai legends was about a princess named Awa who fell in love with a hunter. The lovers managed to elope together (with the help of some magic), but Awa's father retaliated against the hunter, and the story came to a tragic end. The princess died of grief and turned into a white cloud over Mt. Cangshan that brings wind, seeking her lost beloved among the waters of the lake below. The same story appeared in a beautifully illustrated version in this book, and also in the Yunnan collection.
Another beautiful yet tragic love story was the Spring of Butterflies from Dali. Here, lovers persecuted by a tyrant jumped into a bottomless lake together, and transformed into thousands of butterflies. Their death angered the people, who overthrew the tyrant later on. Luckily, not all love stories came to a tragic ending: the legend of the Phoenix fez also featured an evil king pursuing two lovers, but here the captured maiden managed to escape and reunite with her beloved. Her phoenix fez became a symbol of love and good luck.
Another beautiful lake legend was attached to Horse Washing Pond in Dali, in the same book as the butterfly spring. It was about a kind and brave young man who discovered the pond there heavenly winged horses came to bathe and drink. He dug a channel from the pond to end a drought, accepting the fate of turning into stone as punishment for his heroic act.


In one book I found a new legend about the origin of salt (I love those). This one was about a girl named Gunv who discovered the secret of salting food. However, her brother's spirit boar grew jealous and killed her; her spirit deer uncovered the crime, and Gunv became the Goddess of Salt.
There was also another legend about a rich man whose greed made his fields sink underwater. Justice here was served by a magic ox, summoned by a poor boy with a magic flute.

Who's next?
The Yi people

Monday, June 28, 2021

The people of the White Tiger (Folktales of Chinese minorities 8. - Tujia)

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.

I could not find a full book of Tujia folktales, so I went scavenging in various publications. 

The Volume of Tujia and Bai Ethnic Groups
Classical myths of China's 56 ethnic groups
Li Xueqin & Pan Shouyong
New Buds Publishing House, 2013.

The Tujia are an ethnic group of about eight million people, who live in the heart of Chine in the Wuling Mountains. They are known for their traditional dancing, singing, and exquisitely woven xilankapu brocades.


The book above only had two Tujia stories. One was about eight brothers, born along with a little sister; their father abandoned the boys in the wilderness. They were raised by a dragon and a phoenix. They returned home strong and brave, took care of their family, protected their village, and later on, when their sister became empress (with the help of a magpie), they even defended the kingdom from an invading army. The other story was a lovely myth about the goddess Lady Yiro, who created the first humans from all kinds of vegetables after two (male) creators failed in their attempts. Just so you know, our bones are made of bamboo, and our flesh is made of radishes.

I also found an article about how, unlike in many traditions, tigers are positive characters in Tujia folklore. One legend says their ancestor was the child of a tiger and a human; another famous myth claims their first leader turned into a white tiger after his death, which is why the Tujia call themselves "the offspring of the White Tiger". In one story, a woodcutter helped a tiger who had porcupine quills in its mouth; in exchange, the tiger helped him get a wife, and even accompanied him to war at the head of a tiger army. In another tale, a painter saved a tiger from a trap, and in exchange the tiger saved him when he had an accident in the mountains. A third story was about a midwife, asked by a tiger to help his mate give birth.
The famous xilankapu brocades also had their own origin story. It was about a girl who could weave marvelous patterns, and the flowers and birds she created came to life. One night, however, when she went out to admire gingko flowers, she was killed by a jealous brother-in-law. The brocades got her name to honor her memory.


Among the Tujia creation myths I encountered the familiar tropes of the flood and multiple suns together. The two creators, Zhang Guolao and Li Guolao, created 12 suns to dry up the land after a great flood, but the suns created so much heat that a brave frog quickly had to swallow eleven of them to save the world from being scorched up. In another version of the story nine out of ten suns were shot down with arrows by brave young men, and the tenth hid in fear. It had to be lured out again; the Rooster accomplished the task, and ever since then every June the Tujia celebrate the return of the light with a Sun Festival.
As for tricksters, I found a collection of stories about a clever and witty woman named Luo Lanjiao; among others, she played the role of the clever maid who gives fitting answers to a magistrate's riddles.

Who's next?
The Yi people

Thursday, June 24, 2021

StorySpotting: They don't make critters that big anymore (Love and Monsters)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

I finally watched Love and Monsters on Netflix, and I have things to share.

Where was the story spotted?

Love and Monsters (2020)

What happens?

"The destruction of an asteroid headed for Earth releases chemical fallout, causing cold-blooded animals to mutate into large monsters and kill off most of humanity."
The movie has some spectacularly designed giant insects, worms, frogs, crabs, and other creepy-crawlies.

What's the story?

Incidentally, the fear of gigantic creepy-crawlies is nothing new to the human imagination. Let's take them in order of appearance:

Giant ant

Large (small dog-sized) gold-digging ants might be familiar to people who read Herodotus. They don't necessarily eat people, but they do attack anyone who approaches their nest. The Irish Voyage of Mael Duin legend, on the other hand, features a whole island of man-eating ants as big as foals (by the way, the folktale motif number for those is B16.6.1). 
In a Dominican version of the "Boots and the Beasts" folktale type, the hero gains the ability to transform into various animals - among them, a monstrously large ant. In a Namibian folktale two siblings accidentally grow an ordinary ant into a giant monster. All the animals try to defeat it together, but it is finally killed by a puff adder's venom and the arrows and ax of the father of the children.

Giant toad

Probably one of the most well-known large frog stories is the Australian Aboriginal myth of Tiddalik, the frog that drinks up all the water in the world, and has to be tricked into laughing to release it. Another famous example is the Japanese legend of Jiraiya, in which the main character gains the magic ability to summon frogs and toads and grow them to enormous sizes. He uses this ability (in tandem with his wife Tsunade) to defeat the serpent magician Orochimaru. If you feel like this sounds familiar, you probably watched Naruto.
There is a Tsimshian legend about a boy who creates a clever trap to kill a giant, copper-clawed frog and take on its skin and powers. In a Macedonian folktale, eternal summer grows frogs and toads so large that they threaten to take over civilization. When the Toad King tries to kidnap St. Peter's daughter, the saint finally finds a way to end the heat wave. In a legend from the Khasi in Northeast India, the beautiful girl Ka Nam is first helped, then enslaved by a giant toad named U Hynroh. When she escapes into the sky and joins the household of the Sun, the toad wages war on her - which is what causes solar eclipses.
In more recent sources, the Wuhnan Toads of China deserve a mention. They are large, voracious albino amphibians that pursue people who disturb them. One of them allegedly even ate a camera tripod.

Giant worms

One notable story is the tale of the Giant Caterpillar from the Ivory Coast. In it, a giant and ugly caterpillar swallows a young boy, and when the men of the village fail to defeat it, the women band together and beat the monster to death. In an Inuit legend a young man named Kivio goes on an adventure and encounters an evil old woman who eats people. The woman's protective spirit is a giant worm that attacks Kivio, but the boy shoots arrows at it and manages to kill it.
In the Persian Book of Kings there is a legend about a giant worm raised by a man named Haftvad and his daughter. The worm brings good fortune, and the bigger it grows the better the luck of its owners is. However, the worm is evil, and it corrupts Haftvad as well, until he becomes drunk with power. Finally, a hero named Ardashir defeats the monster with molten lead.

Giant snail

Giant snails are somewhat less common in folklore, but we can still rustle up a few. The Sarmatian Sea Snail is a delightful specimen of medieval legends, complete with antlers and meat with curative powers. Another large snail (laconically called Snail) haunts the city of Hastingues in France.

Giant centipede

Possibly the most famous giant centipede story is the Japanese Tawara Toda Monogatari. It features a brave samurai, Fujiwara no Hidesato, who is recruited by a Dragon Queen to help her kill a giant centipede (omukade) that has destroyed many of her family. He manages to kill the monster with an arrow that he'd spit on, after saliva-free arrows don't do the trick. Monster-hunters, take note.
In a Yaqui legend the giant centipede monster (chupia) travels inside a whirlwind. It is bigger than a human, and a man chops it to death with an ax. (Centipedenado, anyone?).
There is also a Thai folktale in which a kind boy saves and raises a snake. When he later travels to take examinations in the city, the snake follows him, and saves him by battling a giant centipede that has killed many people. An even larger centipede monster is mentioned in a legend from Myanmar: this one is big enough to hunt and eat elephants, and build its lair from their ivory.
A Korean folktale (A father's legacy) mentions a giant centipede that ate thirty people. It is killed with a gun by the hero, who uses a woman as bait... Interestingly, the Korean hero Nam Yi was believed to be the reincarnation of the spirit of a giant centipede that was killed by another hero for demanding human sacrifice. Nam Yi retained some supernatural, ghost-related powers from his origins. 
On an even more disturbing note, in a folktale from Assam a man with the evil eye transforms into a giant centipede in his sleep, chasing people around. When his family is burned for their ability, they pass on their evil eye powers to those who killed them. Oops.

Giant crab

Spoiler alert: the giant crab in the movie turns out to be a friendly creature. Hands down my favorite friendly giant crab story is an indigenous legend from Taiwan, where a giant snake causes a flood, and people are saved by a giant crab that takes up the battle against the serpent. To protect it in the fight, people make a giant clay shell for it; but since time is short, the crab puts on the shell while it is still hot, accepting the pain in order to help. 
A hero of the Garo people enlists the help of a loathsome giant crab, Songduni Angkorong Sagalni Damohong, The Terror of the Sea, to threaten his grandmother into helping him defeat another monster. This creature "was a hideous loathsome-looking being. It had projecting eyes that seemed to be constantly glaring , long , flexible feelers and gigantic claws with which it used to nip its victims to shreds." On a friendlier note, the legend of Our Lady of the Barn from Guam tells of a "naked fisherman" who finds a statue of the Virgin Mary floating in the sea, guarded by a giant crab carrying two candles in its pincers.
A Haida legend tells of the giant crab of Chief Rock that served a famous chief by guarding the entrance to his harbor. Eventually it kills a lot of people, and a young man (who learns how to turn himself into a halibut) manages to kill it in an underwater battle. 
Another giant (golden) crab appears in the Kakkata Jataka, in which the Buddha is born as an elephant, and is captured by the crab that likes to eat elephants. With the help of his mate he breaks free, and tramples the monster. A giant, ship-sinking hermit crab features into an adventurous navigation legend from the Maldives. According to Moken tradition, tides are caused by a giant crab that lives under a sky-high mango world tree. There is also the giant crab from Indonesia that ferries girls across a river in exchange for a kiss...
But giant crabs are no strangers to European mythologies either: the constellation Cancer is based on a giant crab named Karkinos that tried to stop Herakles from killing the Hydra, and in the legend of Theseus the famous murderer Skeiron kicks his victims into the sea to be devoured by a giant crab (sometimes a turtle). 


Rule of animals in folklore: if it exists, there is probably also a giant version of it.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Tales in the community (Folktales of Chinese minorities 7. - Hakka)

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.

Studies in Hakka folktales
Wolfram Eberhard
Chinese Association for Folklore, 1974.

The Hakka are not one of the 55 recognized ethnic minorities of China; they are considered a subgroup of the Han Chinese, but they are clearly defined in their cultural and linguistic identity; their population numbers somewhere between 80 and 100 million. The tales of this book were collected from the Hakka communities of Taiwan in the 1970s (many of whom migrated to the island from Fujian Province in China). The collectors interviewed more than 500 people, none of them storytellers, seeking answers to research question such as "how do folktales reflect the values of a community?" and "what are the most popular tales among the Hakka?"
According to the collector, folktale books often focus on the unique repertoires of highly talented storytellers, and therefore they don't necessarily reflect the full array of stories a community has. He wanted to know what the most liked and generally known folktales are among the Hakka, and how they reflect cultural values. To this goal, many Hakka people were interviewed with specific questionnaires, including a wide range: young and old, women and men, urban and rural informants were equally represented in the sample. The book's introduction describes the project in great detail with numbers and statistics. It introduces the most common genres (e.g. myths, legends), the values most often mentioned (honesty, filial piety, kindness, etc.), the possible sources of the tales, and people's opinions on them. The research project included more than 500 stories.
The tales themselves are embedded into analysis and academic discussion throughout the book; some of them are published in more than one version for comparison. The author compares their popularity to their Chinese counterparts, and references the Chinese folktale type index. Later on the researchers also interviewed talented storytellers (although still excluded the professional ones), to compare their repertoire to the communities'. This two-pronged approach was used to delineate a full picture of Hakka folktales in Taiwan.
At the end of the book there is a list of the stories with titles, type numbers, and two-line summaries - which to me as a storyteller was equal parts fascinating and frustrating.


I was intrigued by the tale in which a theater play was interrupted by a ghost. The ghost approached the actor portraying the legendary Judge Pao, asking for justice in his own murder. The actor remained in character, and the murder was solved. Otherwordly justice also figured into the story where a poor man lodged a complaint against Yenlo Wang, ruler of the Underworld, for assigning him a miserable fate. With his persistence, he managed to convince the deity to rewrite his fate.
I liked the stories about the grateful bees who helped a person who rescued them; and also the legend of Pan-pien Mountain, in which an old man was giving away baskets of dumplings for free, and rewarded the one kind young man who insisted on paying a fair price anyway. Kindness also featured into the story of In the light and In the dark, which started out as a rich brother-poor brother tale, but the brothers mutually supported and helped each other instead of fighting. 
The legend of the daffodils was especially lovely. The gods gifted an ever-blooming daffodil field to a poor boy who lost his inheritance.


After the Zhuang tales I once again encountered the delightful "fragrant farts" folktale type. Among other classics there was a version of the legend of the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd, the origin of the animal zodiac, and also the story where a father makes his sons dig up the garden by promising them buried treasure. I was happy to see a new variant for the Chinese story of the friendship of a fisherman and a ghost. There were some stories of possibly Japanese origin, such as Urashima Taro, and the eight-headed dragon defeated by Susanoo.
Some common folktale types also appeared in the collection, such as Aladdin (with the grateful cat and dog who ended up hating each other), golden ax, kind and unkind girls (Big Gold and Little Gold), animal husband (here a snail, who ended up reclaiming his stolen snail shell in an Aladdin-like story), and Fortunatus (here three young men adopted an old beggar as their father, and received magic items from him). 
Among the trickster figures there was a monkey (who usually messed up his tricks), and a clever young scholar named Li Wen-ku.

Who's next?
The Tujia people

Monday, June 14, 2021

Songs of Gold and Silver (Folktales of Chinese minorities 6. - Miao)

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.

Butterfly ​Mother 
Miao (Hmong) Creation Epics from Guizhou, China
Mark Bender
Hackett, 2006.

This book contains five Miao creation epics, unfolding a fascinating mythical landscape.
The Miao are an ethnicity of about 12 million, out of which more than 9 million live in China as one of the 55 officially recognized minorities. They are divided into various subgroups, all with their own names. The introduction to the book gives a detailed description of Miao culture, customs and oral tradition (as well as a look at other epics from China). Since the Miao language did not have a written version until 1945, the oral tradition continued strong well into the 20th century. The texts in the book were collected in the 1950s, then, after a hiatus for political reasons, collection started again in the 1980s. 
The sung epics in the book are usually performed as a collaboration between two (or two pairs of) story-singers. It's a playful contest, in which one side sings part of the epic then poses a question. The other side has to answer the question with the appropriate verses, then pose a question of their own ("And then who helped them?"; "What was the house built from?" etc.). If someone cannot answer the question, they are ridiculed for it; epic-singing is a challenge of creativity and knowledge. Singers (such as Jin Dan, one of the collectors and co-authors of the book) spend their life collecting new questions and answers, and adding them to their repertoire. In addition they also collect "song flowers", lyrical elaborations that can be used to expand and color the epic song's "bones". Sadly, only a few of these were included in the book, because otherwise the texts would have been too long.
The introduction also talks about how epics are shaped by collection, translation, and editing. None of the five epics included are usually performed this completely: the collectors gathered versions of them from various singers, and then assembled a full series of questions and verses to make a "master text" (since every singer has their own, different set of collected questions and verses). Singing one of these full texts could take up to ten days, although in reality it is not rare for singers to compete for three full days. They often go seeking competition in other towns, challenging each other in song. It is amazing how well-practiced singer pairs can perform together flawlessly, and how the two sides negotiate which epic to sing - in song. Only one of these sung negotiation "preludes" is included in the book, but it was a fascinating read.

"A sung word is worth a hundred spoken", claims the Miao wisdom. But even so, reading these epics was still an amazing experience.
(You can watch a short video about the singing tradition here)


Since five epics are features in the book, and all were very unique, I decided to count all of them as highlights.

The Song of Gold and Silver
was about the origin of metals and the forging of heavenly bodies (the Miao are famous for their metalwork). The metals appeared as living beings who grew up, married, traveled, etc. The song begins with the old times, when Earth and Sky were stuck together, and the Sky had to be raised onto pillars to create space. The metals, born from broken rocks, were cleaned and suckled by Grandma No, gaining their unique colors. Later they all married: Silver married Borax (which is used for cleaning it), Gold married Water Chestnut, Tin married Pine Resin, Iron married Bellows, etc. Later the metals fled towards the East (the ancestral home of the Miao), hiding in water and rocks, but they were found and brought back eventually, to be used for making suns and moons. The process was described in great detail; 12 suns and 12 moons were forged, transported, and fastened to the sky. Along the way stars and many other objects and creatures were also born from extra pieces and discarded tools. In the end, since 24 heavenly bodies gave too much heat, a hero named Hsang Sa shot down 22 of them, leaving only one sun and one moon in the sky.

The Song of the Ancient Sweet Gum was also a creation myth. Here the seeds of various trees and plants lived together in a house, until the house burned down. They also fled to the East, but were brought back by the hero Xang Liang, who cultivated the land and planted the seeds. The whole epic was full of practical information about agriculture. In the end, a great old sweet gum tree was accused (falsely) of stealing fish, and cut down; all parts of the tree turned into various beings, such as Butterfly Mother from the next song.
One of the most interesting moments of the epic was about a rock that was used to make paper. Tired of continually being beaten, the rock ate up all the paper - explaining why the Miao did not have a written language for centuries. 

The Song of Butterfly Mother
is an epic of special importance, usually performed by experts during ancestor sacrifice rituals. Butterfly Mother, born from the Ancient Sweet Gum, grows pregnant from Water Foam, and lays twelve eggs. The eggs are hatched by the mythical Ji Wi bird (also born from the tree). One of the twelve children is Jang Vang, the ancestor of humanity, while the others include Thunder God, Water Dragon, snake, tiger, and elephant. Their umbilical cords are cut, and turn into various things: Jang Vang's into rice, the dragon's into a turtle, etc. Dragon's cord is cut with copper, which is why dragons are afraid of copper to this day. The pieces of eggs turn into clouds and other phenomena. The rest of the epic details the birth of tools and rituals needed for ancestor sacrifice.

The Great Flood is a flood epic not unlike many others around the world. It is preceded by the animosity between Jang Vang and Thunder God. Jang Vang survives in a large gourd along with his sister, whom he has to marry to repopulate the earth. The issue of sibling incest is debated in great detail. In the end, it turns out to be the wrong choice: instead of a baby, a ball of flesh is born, which Jang Vang cuts up, creating various ethnic groups. (The collectors did not publish the details, afraid to offend anyone; they only say the Han were made form the flesh, and the Miao were made from the bones.)

Westwards, Upriver is more historical legend than creation myth: it details the migration of the Miao from their ancestral home in the East to where they live now. On the way they encounter and overcome various obstacles (such as a dragon, a giant toad, and a giant eagle), although some of them are created by their own thoughtless behavior. One important character in the story is the magpie who scouts ahead to find good land, and the Ant King, who teaches the Miao how to walk in single file.

Who's next?
The Hakka people

Monday, June 7, 2021

Read more Uighur folktales (Folktales of Chinese minorities 5. - Uighurs)

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.

Uighur Stories From Along the Silk Road
Cuiyi Wei Karl W. Lukert
University Press of America, 1998.

The Uighurs are a Turkic ethnic group of about 13,5 million, out of which approximately 12,5 million live in China's Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomus Region (both the people and the region have been featured in the news a lot lately, for lamentable reasons). The book's diplomatic introduction talks about the intersection of folklore and politics even in 1998. By the way, one of the authors is the same as in the Hui volume two weeks ago, so the structure is very similar too: the introduction lists the "evolutionary phases" of Uighur culture, from hunter-gatherers to the 20th century, and each story comes with comments about which era is reflected in it. After the Introduction we get a chapter of black-and-white photos introducing Uighur culture. The tales are organized into chapters by theme (origin stories, winning the bride, wisdom tales, etc.). At the end of each chapter we get notes with the sources of the stories, and comments on their most interesting parts. The book comes with an extensive glossary and bibliography.
Once again, there were many amazing stories in this volume, so I added it to the list of my all-time favorites. You'll see why.


One of my favorite tales in the book was The wisdom of a craftsman who made his three sons choose three professions (so they became a painter, a musician, and an excavator), and then made them teach their skills to each other. When the eldest fell in love with a princess whose father jealously guarded her, they used their skills together to help her sneak out, and eventually marry her love. The other big highlight was Courageous Daughter, the main reason I bought this book. It's a story about a brave girl who sets out on an adventure to find a cure for her father's blindness; she rides a dragon, visits Rome, and even rescues a princess in the end. Instant favorite.

Many of the other stories featured brave, capable women too, which made me very happy. The nine daughters of Afrat Khan inherited their father's kingdom after he and his sons died in battle; one girl became khan, another first minister, two captains of the palace guards, four military commanders, and one became the defender of the kingdom. When they were attacked by a neighboring khan, they recruited the help of the Queen of the Desert, and summoned the desert sands with magic to protect their people. Pir Chengi was a famous singer who won immortality with her songs; when she discovered that demons who torture human souls can't stand music, she started spending her time in graveyards, singing for the dead to bring them peace. Nazugum, My Slender Girl, was also a singer, executed by the Manchu government, but still famous for her songs of freedom.
Among the origin legends the most interesting was that of Bögü Khan. It would fit any sci-fi story: a shining dome rose from the earth, with music emanating from it; a door appeared, and inside the dome people found five babies in five rooms, with "hanging nipples" in their mouth. The Uighurs raised them, and the youngest, Bögü Khan, became a famous conqueror and ruler. 

The tale of Hasan and Husan was a story of friendship between two young merchants. When one of them fell in love with a girl and a cruel king wanted to take her from him, his friend infiltrated the royal court as a minister, and helped the lovers get away. The story of the widow's son was about a bald boy who gained the magic ability of talking to herbs, and used it to save people during a pandemic (and grow his own hair back).
Among the trickster tales my favorite was the one where a king paid a man for his watermelons by saying "excellent" three times - after which the man used the three exclamations to pay at a restaurant. Good moral for people who want to pay artists in exposure. There was a similarly modern moral to the tale where a married couple interrupted everyone with "I knew that already!". In the end, they did not listen to all the instructions about using a magic flying coat properly, and the husband floated off into the distance.


Among the creation stories where was a familiar legend about bringing soil up from the bottom of the ocean. Here the hero was the fish hawk, who risked his own life to help the animals create dry land. The origin of flies was explained by one of those stories where the hero's sister turns into a monster (in this case, a werewolf). After she was burned, her ashes turned into blood-sucking insects. The legend of the Seven Sleepers originated from the Muslim tradition, while the tragic love story of Pharhat (Farhat) and Shirin probably migrated from Persian lore; both were featured in the book in multiple versions.

I have encountered the magic well of youth in stories before, where someone drank too much and ended up as a baby. This Uighur version was very colorful and enchanting (even though the ending was pretty dark). There was also once again a vengeful cat who peed on the fireplace, sending a girl on a quest for fire and bringing a monster to their doorstep (Chin Timur Batur). I happily encountered a new version of the capable woman who is forced to marry a poor man, but turns their luck around with hard work; and also the father who promises buried treasure to his sons to make them dig up the garden. It was fun to read another version of the three golden dolls as well, which is a fan favorite among storytellers (even though the third doll was not a storyteller in this case, just a gossip.)
There were other familiar tale types in the book: Puss in Boots (Amitek and the fox), magic bird heart (The chicken that laid golden eggs - here combined with a Polyphemus story), animal groom (The foal king), animal bride (Monkey Girl), woman seeking her husband (The dragon man - here the woman learned magic from a goddess, and used it during the magic flight). Shawdon, the fisherman's son was a version of the "hide-and-seek" folktale, with an interesing twist in the end: the hero did not marry the princess he'd won. He just wanted to stop her from killing any more of the suitors.
There were many familiar stories among the trickster tales too. A jester shared his punishment with a corrupt minister. Among the animals there was a clever hare (who tricked a tiger), and a wily fox (who tricked a wolf, and tried to create fights among peaceful animals). The main trickster figure, however, was Ephendi - the title the tellers use to refer to Hodja Nasreddin. He got a whole chapter to himself. There were many familiar stories in it, and several funny one-liners. He even took on some modern themes: in one story he made fun of the mandatory honoring of the image of Chairman Mao. Another modern trickster was Hisamidin, a 20th century uighur humorist.

Who's next?
The Miao people.

Monday, May 31, 2021

The beauty of kindness (Folktales of Chinese minorities 4. - Manchu)

A Népmesék nyomában a világ körül kihívás folytatásaként belevágtam a kisebbségek és bennszülött népek meséibe. Elsőként a kínai kisebbségek kerülnek sorra. A korábbi bejegyzéseket itt találjátok, a Facebookon pedig itt követhetitek nyomon a sorozatot.

The Volume of Manchu 
Classical myths of China's 56 ethnic groups
Li Xueqin & Pan Shouyong 
New Buds Publishing House, 2013.

This book is part of a 12 volume series that features myths from all 56 ethnic groups in China (I will probably read more volumes for the challenge later). It is a thin, richly and gorgeously illustrated book that contains six stories. The short introduction talks about the cultural importance of myths, and the opportunity of the series to introduce them to young Chinese and English-speaking readers. At the end of the volume we get a short chapter and pictures on Manchu culture and history. 


Since there are only six stories in the book, all of them very beautiful, I decided to consider all of them highlights.

The most beautiful tale in the book was The Forest of Happiness, in which a mute, lonely girl fell in love with a kind huntsman. When people's gossip tore them apart, the young man found his lover again with the help of a magpie. Kind magpies also starred in the tale Weaver Girls, where two birds transformed into humans to help out a poor old woman. 
The origin story of the wula sedge was a sad tale about a boy who sacrificed himself to save his younger brother from freezing to death. From his grave grew the sedge that can be woven into warm shoes. Similarly sad but beautiful was the legend of Echoing Waters, in which a father mourning his daughter filled the rivers with heartbreaking song.
The legend of the fairies of Mount Changbai was the origin story of the Manchu people. A heavenly fairy descended to earth, ate a berry and got pregnant, so she decided to stay and raise her son alone. He eventually became the ancestor of the Manchu, in the area north of Mt. Changbai where their original home was.
The story of Lady Red Silk took an unexpected turn. She was the most beautiful woman in the world, who also made herself gorgeous clothes from feathers. She asked all of her suitors what the most precious thing in the world was, and since no one answered correctly (a prince, for example, said power), she continued living happily alone by a lake.

Who's next?
The Uighurs

Monday, May 24, 2021

Falling in love with Hui folktales (Folktales of Chinese minorities 3. - Hui)

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.

Mythology ​and Folklore of the Hui, A Muslim Chinese People
Shujiang Li & Karl W. Luckert  
State University of New York Press, 1994.

The Hui are a minority group defined by their Muslim religion; they number approximately ten million. However, sometimes the name Hui is used for other Muslim ethnicities in China (e.g. the Salar, Dongxiang, or Bonan people). Although this group is defined based on religion, they are still officially an ethnic minority (because the People's Republic of China organizes everything in non-religious terms). I learned all this from the book's detailed Introduction, along with the history of the Hui from the earliest hunter-gatherer times all the way to the 1990s. The authors even noted which eras are reflected in which folktales throughout the book. After the Introduction there is a chapter of more than 70 photos with comments, illustrating Hui life and culture. 
Each tale comes with footnotes, as well as information about the source, the name of the teller, and the name of the collector. There are more than 100 stories included, organized into thematic chapters (such as animal tales, origin stories, tricksters and fools, etc.). I am still at the beginning of this reading challenge, but I already have a new instant favorite.


There were so many fascinating tales in this book, I don't even know where to start. This is gonna be a long post...

There was an exciting legend about How Adang brought fire to the people. I love fire theft tales, and this one had a lot of great elements, including the part where people first encountered fire during a volcanic eruption, and Adang taming the first wild horse. The story of Bogota Mountain was also connected to origins: a shepherd acquired a magic Mountain Raising Peach and a Mountain Propping Stone, which he could use to lift a mountain and get under it to seek agricultural treasures. I loved the origin legend of Yanqi horses, which featured a brave young man who lured a dragon stallion out of a pond to start a bloodline with his mares. He was helped by the wisdom and support of his home town's diverse community: Mongol, Kazakh, Uighur and Hui elders gave him good advice on how to succeed.
Of course there were several dragon stories. Lilang and the dragon was about a selfish dragon who would only bring rain in exchange for copious gifts (such as asking for pork from a Muslim village). The clever hero and the villagers managed to trap the dragon and forced it to change his ways. The legend of the North Pagoda was about a dragon king's fight against his own troublesome son, and featured all kinds of exciting magic items.
I shed some tears over the tale of the Number One Scholar Pines: two brothers were too poor to attend school, so they studied in secret; when they were banned from doing so, they both died from heartbreak. After their death, however, they returned to take the state exams, and brought much pride to their grieving family. I also adored the legend where the Hui army decided to go around a valley where skylarks were nesting - and they have been friendly with the birds ever since. The most beautiful origin story, however, was that of the Winding river. It was about a soldier who deserted the army of Genghis Khan and joined the refugees to live a more peaceful life. In the end, he even sacrificed his life for the community.

This was not the only tale that highlighted the virtue of selflessness. I also loved the beautiful legend of The Phoenix and her city about Yinchuan, in which a phoenix turned a desert into fertile land, and turned herself into a city and a river to keep her people safe. In the story of the Rhinoceros Care an immortal exiled from Heaven atoned for his mistakes with the help of his children, a hero named Naxigaer gave his life to save people from an earthquake, and the wise doctor Ma Ahong used his medical knowledge to help a young couple elope together.
I especially liked the moral of Abudu and the devil, where the hero could only defeat evil when he was fighting for his community. When he tried to repeat the victory for selfish reasons, he failed. Another touching legend repeated this sentiment, explaining why the Hui hang teapots in their doorways on special occasions. It was about a window who gave up her own life by passing the protective sign to her neighbors.
The story of the golden pheasant was a classic monster-killing tale, while in Xueda and Yinlin two heroes, a boy and a girl set out to find two components of a cure that could save their people. There was also a story that explained how a servant from the heavens taught people about the benefits of tea.

I loved the tales that featured magic items, such as the Water Pearl ("there are only two real treasures, water and fire"), or the Wind-calming Needle. These items usually looked like ordinary objects, and only those with deep knowledge could recognize their real value.
The book had multiple legends about the famous admiral Zheng He, who lead the Treasure Fleet in the 15th century. I haven't realized until now that he was Hui too.


There were several variants for the story of Adam and Eve (Adan and Haowa) based on the Quran, and embellished by storytellers. In one it was Adam who picked the fruit; in another everything in the world was created from Adam's life force as it leaked out of his head after an injury. In a third, the 73rd child of the couple (!) flew to the heavens on a dragon to meet Allah. I encountered a legend that also exists in the Hungarian tradition: the first couple first had sex on the ice of a frozen river, which is why women's butts and men's knees are always cold. My favorite, however, was the story where Eve cut up a pink cloud to create the first flowers.
There were multiple cool versions in the book for the tale of the man in search of his luck. In one, Yishima visited the sun's mother and returned with advice on agriculture; in another a man named Musa made the journey and returned wealthy. Horse Brother was a lovely version of the three kidnapped princesses (complete with a cat peeing on fire), the snake box was an Aladdin tale, while Luguma was one of those creepy stories where a hero has to fight his evil, man-eating sister (in this case, she was a black wolf). The golden sparrow was a beautiful tale that reminded me of the Bird of Happiness from Tibet.
There were multiple legends about the emperor Kangxi who visited his Hui subjects in disguise (as many other legendary wise rulers do). When people tried to tell him lies about the Hui, he wanted to see the truth with his own eyes, and in the end it was the gossips who got punished. Another wise ruler was Governor Yimamu, who solved multiple mysterious crimes in clever ways.
One resident trickster was Litte Kalimu, who tricked an evil landlord; another man named Abudu played spectacular pranks on rich people. I was especially happy to encounter a female trickster too, a wise woman called Sailimai, and a version of the classic "hungry clothes" folktale with an unnamed hero.

Who's next?
The Manchu people

Monday, May 17, 2021

StorySpotting: Weather wizards and cloud pirates (New Amsterdam)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

Where was the story spotted?

New Amsterdam, season 3, episode 11 (Pressure drop)

What happens?

Dr. Iggy Frome, New Amsterdam's resident psychiatrist, runs into an interesting case: a young man who insists that he can control the weather with his mind. A self-proclaimed "weather nerd", Iggy convinces him to get a scan, hoping to find an explanation for the delusion. While waiting for a scan, he jokes that the man either has a tumor, or "he is a tempestarii." When Dr. Kao asks him what those are, he says "medieval wizards who could control the weather."
(Obviously the guy turns out to have a medical condition in the end.)

What's the story?

Let's say up front that Dr. Frome uses the Latin incorrectly: tempestarii is the plural of tempestarius, storm-maker. We know of these strange medieval wizards from the writings of Agobard of Lyon, a 9th century archbishop who wrote a treatise titled "On Hail and Thunder." And no, that's not the title of the next Thor movie.

According to Agobard the people around Lyon claimed that storms, hail and thunder were raised by storm-makers. These wizards were in league by the people of Magonia, a magic land of sky pirates. Magonians sailed in the clouds on their ships, and under the cover of the storms raised by tempestarii they stole the crops from the fields.

While the good archbishop Agobard rails extensively about the stupidity of people who believe such things, I gotta admit I love everything about this. I am predisposed to: weather wizards are an integral part of Hungarian folklore. I blogged about them here but I want to add some more info.

Hungarian weather wizards are called garabonciás, derived from the Italian word for necromancy. They are mortals who gain their magic powers by going to a secret wizard school abroad, usually in Italy or Transylvania (eat your heart out, JK Rowling). After they complete their studies, they all have to sit on a spinning wheel of fortune, and one of them has to fall down and die so the others can gain their powers. 
And you thought your graduation was tough.

Garabonciás wizards most often deal with the weather. They can summon storms just like the tempestarii. They usually wander from village to village, asking for milk, eggs, bread and other simple foods. If people are rude to them, they create a storm to punish them and destroy the crops. In one story, the garabonciás turns eggs into hail, and milk into clouds. They can also travel inside storm clouds or even in whirlwinds. While they sound terrifying, they are actually often helpful: they can protect villages from hail, and deflect magic storms summoned up by witches.

The garabonciás' most common features are his book and his dragon. The latter are usually aquatic creatures that bring storms when they fly up into the sky. Garabonciás use their magic book to summon up these dragons, tame them, and ride them, creating raging storms, lightning, and thunder. People often called storm clouds 'dragon's tail'. Some believed the wizards ride the dragons to Africa, where they sell their cool meat for protection against the heat.

Garabonciás beliefs lived on well into the 20th century. Some famous Hungarian writers and poets - Petőfi Sándor, Csokonai Vitéz Mihály, Jókai Mór - were rumored to have been garabonciás. Also, in the early days of bicycles, people tended to claim anyone riding a strange metal contraption at breakneck speed had to be a garabonciás too. Makes sense to me.


When someone asks you for a cup of milk or a bite of bread, don't refuse them.

Tricksters and inventors (Folktales of Chinese minorities 2. - Zhuang)

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 Zhuang live in Southern China and other countries of Southeast Asia. They are the largest ethnic minority in China, with almost 20 million people.

At Grandfather's Knee 
Zhuang Folk Tales from Wuming 
Bwz Licuh & Margaret Milliken 
Min zu chu ban she, Peking, 2001.

The stories in this book were collected from the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, inhabited by the largest community of Zhuang people (app. 14 million). The tales were written down straight from the oral tradition as part of an international project aiming for the preservation and promotion of minority languages. The storytellers told their tales in front of a live audience, and the collectors preserved some of their interactions with the listeners. The book is trilingual (Zhuang, Chinese, English); every story comes with the name and origin of the teller. The 36 stories are organized into thematic chapters (children's stories, traditional values, battles of wits, etc.), and accompanied by the black-and-white illustrations of a Zhuang artist.


There was a lovely story about a stubby tailed carp raised in a barrel by a lonely old woman until it grew so big she had to release it back into the river. People made fun of her for not having children - so ever since her death, Stubby Tail has been returning every year with wind and rain to care for her grave.
In another, more exciting tale a village headman and his son fought two giant serpents that had been living in a temple, demanding pigs and pregnant women to eat.
There was a legend about how the famous engineer Lu Ban invented the saw by observing the legs of grasshoppers and the serrated edge of silvergrass. Another realistic story told of how people learned to make fire by hitting rocks together. One legend claimed rice used to come to people's houses when it was ripe - until the first farmer's wife chased it away because she was not finished cleaning yet. Ever since then, people have to go to the fields to harvest the rice. The best origin story, however, was that of the dung beetle: the Jade Emperor sent the beetle to the people with a message that they should eat once every thee days. The poor beetle got the message mixed up and told us to eat three times a day instead. Ever since then, it's his job to clean up the excess excrement. Yikes.

Zhuang wedding, image from here


The tale type of the fairies' gift here was combined with the story of someone exchanging a useless thing for increasingly more useful ones. It was about two brothers, one mean and one kind. The mean one got his nose stretched out, and his brother erased it back to size... then a little more, so elder brother ended up with no nose whatsoever.
The kind and unkind girls were sisters too; the elders, hard-working sister grew rich, while the youngest, rich sister grew poor, but in the end the kind sister showed her that she could be redeemed through generosity. In another tale the kind brother grew rich because he sold is magically fragrant farts - and when the mean brother tried to repeat the trick, he obviously failed.
There was yet another story about how the animal calendar was created (and why the cat was left out), and also a chain tale with animals passing blame around. The latter ended with the conclusion that everything was the rooster's fault for not helping his wife with the chicks. The judge slapped him, and ever since then the rooster's face has been red.
The resident tricksters were a clever boy named Gam Lo, who answered a greedy mandarin's impossible questions, and a poor man named Gungcei who made a fool out of his rich in-laws in several tales. A third trickster, Lu Sandong lost the battle of wits in the end. There was also a clever servant who solved riddles set by his master - even guessing that the master's head weighed exactly three pounds and six ounces.

Who's next?
The Hui people.