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

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