Monday, February 15, 2021

Leggings for ants (Following folktales around the world 189. - China)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Full disclosure: So, back when I started this challenge I started with China, but I only began posting in English a few countries later. So these posts, while they are the end of the list, were actually the first ones I made 5 years ago. I'm just translating them now.

I started the challenge with this book because I got it for Christmas and I was intrigued. I am planning on returning to Chinese Han and minority tales after I finish the challenge.

South of the Clouds: Tales from Yunnan
Szerk. Lucien Miller
University of Washington Press, 1994.

The book contains folktales from the twenty-five ethnic minorities of Yunnan Province in Southern China; it contains a total of 54 stories. It's an academic publication, so it comes with a long introduction, a glossary, notes, maps, and other useful resources. It also notes the names and origins of the storytellers, and the names of the collectors and translators. Brownie points for that.

The tales were collected as part of the folklore collection campaign of the Chinese government. The introduction talks about how difficult it is to find original folk texts outside of obscure archives, and how published folktale collections "edit" the tales they include (the American translators hint that "politically incorrect" messages and morals might be left out). This does show in the collection, because all rich people in the tales are evil, and all kings are tyrants. I wonder how many good kings are hidden in the archives... Still, this book is a well edited and fascinating read.
(It also speaks volumes that the American introduction praises the minority policy of China, while the Chinese introduction calls Yunnan minorities "superstitious" and "primitive" a couple of times.)


There were multiple myths about why the sky and the earth were pushed apart. According to a Zhuang tale, bamboo is flexible because in the old days it used to grow up to the low-hanging sky and it had to bend. A Derung legend claims the mountain that connected earth and sky disappeared because ants undermined it. They were in the right: they just wanted to ask people to give them leggings, but our ancestors cruelly refused.
I have a soft spot for Zhuang tales. I especially liked the five-story cycle about the fight between a mortal trickster and the God of Thunder. At the high point of the tale the hero, Bubo fought the god while sailing in an upside-down umbrella. 
There were also some beautiful tales in the collection, such as Wild Goose Lake, where a mortal girl befriends a dragon's daughter (and they end up living together), or the girl with tufty eyebrows, whom a boy married despite everyone thinking she was bad luck (moral: don't believe old superstitions when your happiness depends on it). I also loved Gathering of the Birds, about a girl who embroidered 360 different birds who all came to life, and they still gather on the anniversary of her death.


The Mythology chapter contains a lot of similar flood myths. It was intriguing that many of them addressed the fact that the siblings who survived (brother and sister) would have to commit incest if they wanted to repopulate the earth. In some stories the gods sent them meaningful signs to let them know they were exempt from sin for the sake of humanity. 

Where to next?

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