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

Monday, August 9, 2021

Sisters in arms (Folktales of Chinese minorities 13. - Yugur)

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.

Blue ​Cloth and Pearl Deer
Yogur folklore
Zhang Juan & Kevin Stuart  
University of Pennsylvania, 1996.

The book contains 18 stories from the Yugur people, an ethnic group speaking languages of Turkic and Mongolian origin, who live in Gansu Province and number about fifteen thousand. The introduction talks about their history and homeland, and there is also a short study on their wedding customs. The latter are fascinating, reflecting their matriarchal-matrilinear past. The folktales have been translated from Chinese language sources.


Image from here
The most amazing story in the book was the legend of Yangkesa and Gongerjian, two siblings. The young man married an evil woman and later died in exile in the desert. His sister set out to revive him. She learned martial arts from the fairies, fought every single creature that had eaten from her brother's body, and slowly pieced him back together. Another legend featuring strong women was the story of Geraos: the hero was protected and helped by a woman dressed as a man. Later on they were joined by a woman archer and a bandit's daughter, and they avenged the death of the hero's father together.
I liked the legend that explained why white and black horses are used in Yugur wedding ceremonies. The story was about two warring tribes, where the feud was passed down from fathers to children. When a prince and a princess came face to face on the battlefield, they decided to make peace instead. It was not easy, due to the hostility of their parents, but eventually persistent Prince Zhenersi and brave Princess Baoerde united their tribes - and even got married.
I liked the moral of the story of The archer and the geese. A lazy man pretended to be a master archer to win a princess' hand, and out of sheer luck he almost succeeded. Luckily, a young hunter managed to prove that the "master" was actually a liar and a coward.
The volume contained a version of the Epic of Gesar, known in most of Central Asia. It is an adventurous hero story, but I was actually more impressed by the legend of Queen Sarmark. She was the wife of the White Khan, and when her husband was about to lose a battle she showed up with an army of women and saved him. She later died due to court intrigue and jealousy, but even in death she managed to help her people find a new home.
I enjoyed the humorous tale explaining why the Yugur call foxes "the one with the hat".


Image from here
There was once again a tale where a girl married a snake. The snake family was kind to her, and eventually they all transformed into people. The girl's happiness made her sister jealous - from that point on, it was a classic "false bride" tale, and the evil sister turned into a snake in the end.
The plot o the blue cloth legend was familiar: the fire went out in a young woman's house, and she accidentally asked for embers from a monster. The monster followed her home and drank her blood until her husband showed up to the rescue. Interestingly, the husband was killed, and the wife took up his sword to behead the monster in the end. She buried her husband's bones wrapped in blue cloth, a funeral custom that still exists among the Yugur.
The origin legend of the An surname was the type where all old people were supposed to be killed, but a young man kept his father alive in secret. Later on, the old man's wisdom saved the entire nation. There was also a "kind and unkind brothers" type story in the book.
The resident trickster is Mula, a distant relative of the Hodja Nasreddin. He tricked rich people in various clever ways.

Who's next?
The Bouyei people

Monday, August 2, 2021

Stars from the sky, tales from the mountains (Folktales of Chinese minorities 12. - Tibet)

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.

A hóoroszlán meséi
Tibeti mesék
Ábrahám Linda & Szántai Zsolt
Sudhana Könyvkiadó, 2010.

Tibet was mostly a sovereign country for hundreds of years on the borders of China, until in 1951 it was occupied by them. Since then, the six million Tibetans have been counted by Chinese authorities as one of the 55 official ethnic minorities. This book sadly didn't contain any information other than the tales themselves (a total of 96). The stories were selected and translated from Shelton's Tibetan Folk Tales, as well as other English and Tibetan sources.


I liked the tale of the wise bat who saved all the birds in the world from being silenced. A king was going to make them mute on the order of his evil wife, but the bat's cleverness and bravery made him see he had been wrong. Another story that featured an evil woman (a stepmother) was about two half-brothers who loved each other so much that their devotion could even soften a cruel serpent-spirit's heart.
I enjoyed the exciting tale about the illusionist who drew a king into a whole alternate life, and only got away in the end without punishment because the king had signed a waiver ahead of time.
The most beautiful story in the book was about a boy named Chering, who traveled into the sky with the help of a magician. There he could see how dragons were causing storms and distributing rain, and he even managed to pluck a star and put it in his pocket. Another likable tale was about a little shepherd who used his magical music to gather animals, and teach a lesson about generosity to a greedy landlord.
There were several teaching tales in the book. In one of them, a judge announced that he was going to sentence a rock and a donkey for a disputed accident - then fined everyone who showed up to the hearing, for chasing sensation instead of demanding justice. In another, a fox tried to cause strife between a bull and a tiger who had grown up together. The two animals realized the trick just in time, and trampled the fox instead. My favorite, however, was that of the foolish judge who did not want to listen to people. His wife gave him sleeping powder, dressed him as a beggar, and abandoned him in the street. Having to survive among the poor, the judge learned about their life and returned to his post wiser and kinder.


Despite people thinking of Tibet as a place far removed from the rest of the world, there were many familiar tale types in the collection. I encountered international classics such as the Bremen town musicians (The two kittens), animals running a race (Hare and frog, with a duck stealing their prize in the end), wise woman solving a king's riddles (and she became an adviser in the end, not a wife), gold-spitting princes (The prince and his friend; The gold-spitting frog), six brothers who rescued a woman together (and then couldn't decide who should marry her, so they cut her into pieces...), chatty flying tortoise, "who is the strongest" (Mouse Princess, who was sadly married to a cat), Solomon's judgment (between a tortoise and a peacock), Death deceived with a clever trick (The woodcutter and death), a king who had horns; clever chicken, ungrateful animal in a trap (with wolf and hare), ebony horse (The iron fish and the wooden horse), a boy who saves his grandfather from being abandoned (Fathers and sons), Beauty and the Beast (The white rooster, which ended in separation), and even Cinderella (The white cow). The adventures of Nyima were a combination of the Aladdin tale and the journey of the man seeking his fortune.
I once again encountered the tale (in multiple versions) where someone rescues three animals and a human, and while the grateful animals later return the favor, the treacherous human doesn't. The tale of Pelzang was similar to European and Indian legends: it was about an illusionist who tricked a skeptic into living half a life inside an illusion. There was also a story about a hunter who accidentally killed an animal (here a raven) that tried to warn him of danger. The story of the foolish family who did not know what a mirror was sounded familiar from Japanese collections.
Among the tricksters there was a frog who made the tiger believe he fed on tigers. The most popular trickster seemed to be Uncle Tinpa (a clever old man featured in multiple stories), but there was also a young lad named Big Mouth who placed tricks on a greedy landlord. I was amused by the story where clever thieves stole a king's diamond by replacing it with a piece of ice.

Who is next?
The Yugurs

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.