Monday, May 17, 2021

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. 

1 comment:

  1. Loved the stories today. Felt like I had travelled to southern China.
    The dung beetle story made me think about intermittent fasting:)
    How much better we would all be (no world hunger and no obesity) if he'd delivered the correct message!