Monday, May 10, 2021

Getting started on China (Folktales of Chinese minorities 1. - Han)

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.

Note: I am aware that he Han are not a minority; they are the majority people of China, making up more than 90% of the population. I wanted to start with them anyway, because the book I previously read for China in the challenge did not contain any Han tales at all. 

Chinese Folk Tales
Louise Kuo & Yuan Hsi Kuo
Celestial Arts, 1984.

This book contains Han and minority tales, 35 total, out of which 21 are Han, and the rest are Yao, Zhuang, Mongolian, Tibetan, etc. I will include those in upcoming posts, and in this one I'll be focusing on the Han stories.
I chose this book because many folktale collections reference it, and I came across the title so much it felt like a classic I should read. It has an introduction that talks about Han and minority cultures and storytelling traditions, and every story comes with its own introduction that puts it in cultural and historical context. It mostly treats minorities with respect, although there are some very questionable comments in some of the notes (such as minorities overcoming their "primitive superstitions". Um.). There are a few black and white illustrations.


The tale of the first storyteller was an obvious highlight for me. It was about a prince who was born blind and abandoned in the woods. Animals and fairies raised him and taught him the art of storytelling. Later on he refused to return to court, traveling the world instead and sharing pieces of his pipa (lute, see left) with people of other crafts.
The story of the official and the hermit was also quite interesting. They were good friends in their youth, and when they met again many years later,both believed that the other one's profession was more meaningful...
There was also an amusing and clever story about a boy who eavesdropped on the new year offerings and prayers of people, and found out many of them were praying for disaster so that they could grow rich. The boy tricked them all, and publicly shamed them for their greed. In another story a wise magistrate decided an argument about a rich man's will by putting the punctuation in the correct place.


The role of the clever maiden was played by a clever wife here, while the kind and unkind girls were replaced by kind and cruel women. The latter were rewarded (or punished) by a sparrow. I was also familiar with the story of the blind men and the elephant from India, and the tale of the wise magistrate who gives a poor man the purse a rich man accused him of stealing. There was, once again, a tale about why the sea is salt (because a salt-making magic item sank into it). 
From trickster tales, the story of the ungrateful animal made an appearance, featuring a scholar, a wolf, and a wise old man.

Who's next?
I plan on going by number of population, so the Zhuang people are next.


  1. The one where the people wanted disaster so they could profit off it sounds interesting. Too true today as well. Some businesses just happen to profit off disaster, and I can hardly blame them for that! But to hope and pray for it?
    The official and the hermit... nice moral there.

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