Monday, June 21, 2021

Tales in the community (Folktales of Chinese minorities 7. - Hakka)

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.

Studies in Hakka folktales
Wolfram Eberhard
Chinese Association for Folklore, 1974.

The Hakka are not one of the 55 recognized ethnic minorities of China; they are considered a subgroup of the Han Chinese, but they are clearly defined in their cultural and linguistic identity; their population numbers somewhere between 80 and 100 million. The tales of this book were collected from the Hakka communities of Taiwan in the 1970s (many of whom migrated to the island from Fujian Province in China). The collectors interviewed more than 500 people, none of them storytellers, seeking answers to research question such as "how do folktales reflect the values of a community?" and "what are the most popular tales among the Hakka?"
According to the collector, folktale books often focus on the unique repertoires of highly talented storytellers, and therefore they don't necessarily reflect the full array of stories a community has. He wanted to know what the most liked and generally known folktales are among the Hakka, and how they reflect cultural values. To this goal, many Hakka people were interviewed with specific questionnaires, including a wide range: young and old, women and men, urban and rural informants were equally represented in the sample. The book's introduction describes the project in great detail with numbers and statistics. It introduces the most common genres (e.g. myths, legends), the values most often mentioned (honesty, filial piety, kindness, etc.), the possible sources of the tales, and people's opinions on them. The research project included more than 500 stories.
The tales themselves are embedded into analysis and academic discussion throughout the book; some of them are published in more than one version for comparison. The author compares their popularity to their Chinese counterparts, and references the Chinese folktale type index. Later on the researchers also interviewed talented storytellers (although still excluded the professional ones), to compare their repertoire to the communities'. This two-pronged approach was used to delineate a full picture of Hakka folktales in Taiwan.
At the end of the book there is a list of the stories with titles, type numbers, and two-line summaries - which to me as a storyteller was equal parts fascinating and frustrating.


I was intrigued by the tale in which a theater play was interrupted by a ghost. The ghost approached the actor portraying the legendary Judge Pao, asking for justice in his own murder. The actor remained in character, and the murder was solved. Otherwordly justice also figured into the story where a poor man lodged a complaint against Yenlo Wang, ruler of the Underworld, for assigning him a miserable fate. With his persistence, he managed to convince the deity to rewrite his fate.
I liked the stories about the grateful bees who helped a person who rescued them; and also the legend of Pan-pien Mountain, in which an old man was giving away baskets of dumplings for free, and rewarded the one kind young man who insisted on paying a fair price anyway. Kindness also featured into the story of In the light and In the dark, which started out as a rich brother-poor brother tale, but the brothers mutually supported and helped each other instead of fighting. 
The legend of the daffodils was especially lovely. The gods gifted an ever-blooming daffodil field to a poor boy who lost his inheritance.


After the Zhuang tales I once again encountered the delightful "fragrant farts" folktale type. Among other classics there was a version of the legend of the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd, the origin of the animal zodiac, and also the story where a father makes his sons dig up the garden by promising them buried treasure. I was happy to see a new variant for the Chinese story of the friendship of a fisherman and a ghost. There were some stories of possibly Japanese origin, such as Urashima Taro, and the eight-headed dragon defeated by Susanoo.
Some common folktale types also appeared in the collection, such as Aladdin (with the grateful cat and dog who ended up hating each other), golden ax, kind and unkind girls (Big Gold and Little Gold), animal husband (here a snail, who ended up reclaiming his stolen snail shell in an Aladdin-like story), and Fortunatus (here three young men adopted an old beggar as their father, and received magic items from him). 
Among the trickster figures there was a monkey (who usually messed up his tricks), and a clever young scholar named Li Wen-ku.

Who's next?
The Tujia people

Monday, June 14, 2021

Songs of Gold and Silver (Folktales of Chinese minorities 6. - Miao)

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.

Butterfly ​Mother 
Miao (Hmong) Creation Epics from Guizhou, China
Mark Bender
Hackett, 2006.

This book contains five Miao creation epics, unfolding a fascinating mythical landscape.
The Miao are an ethnicity of about 12 million, out of which more than 9 million live in China as one of the 55 officially recognized minorities. They are divided into various subgroups, all with their own names. The introduction to the book gives a detailed description of Miao culture, customs and oral tradition (as well as a look at other epics from China). Since the Miao language did not have a written version until 1945, the oral tradition continued strong well into the 20th century. The texts in the book were collected in the 1950s, then, after a hiatus for political reasons, collection started again in the 1980s. 
The sung epics in the book are usually performed as a collaboration between two (or two pairs of) story-singers. It's a playful contest, in which one side sings part of the epic then poses a question. The other side has to answer the question with the appropriate verses, then pose a question of their own ("And then who helped them?"; "What was the house built from?" etc.). If someone cannot answer the question, they are ridiculed for it; epic-singing is a challenge of creativity and knowledge. Singers (such as Jin Dan, one of the collectors and co-authors of the book) spend their life collecting new questions and answers, and adding them to their repertoire. In addition they also collect "song flowers", lyrical elaborations that can be used to expand and color the epic song's "bones". Sadly, only a few of these were included in the book, because otherwise the texts would have been too long.
The introduction also talks about how epics are shaped by collection, translation, and editing. None of the five epics included are usually performed this completely: the collectors gathered versions of them from various singers, and then assembled a full series of questions and verses to make a "master text" (since every singer has their own, different set of collected questions and verses). Singing one of these full texts could take up to ten days, although in reality it is not rare for singers to compete for three full days. They often go seeking competition in other towns, challenging each other in song. It is amazing how well-practiced singer pairs can perform together flawlessly, and how the two sides negotiate which epic to sing - in song. Only one of these sung negotiation "preludes" is included in the book, but it was a fascinating read.

"A sung word is worth a hundred spoken", claims the Miao wisdom. But even so, reading these epics was still an amazing experience.
(You can watch a short video about the singing tradition here)


Since five epics are features in the book, and all were very unique, I decided to count all of them as highlights.

The Song of Gold and Silver
was about the origin of metals and the forging of heavenly bodies (the Miao are famous for their metalwork). The metals appeared as living beings who grew up, married, traveled, etc. The song begins with the old times, when Earth and Sky were stuck together, and the Sky had to be raised onto pillars to create space. The metals, born from broken rocks, were cleaned and suckled by Grandma No, gaining their unique colors. Later they all married: Silver married Borax (which is used for cleaning it), Gold married Water Chestnut, Tin married Pine Resin, Iron married Bellows, etc. Later the metals fled towards the East (the ancestral home of the Miao), hiding in water and rocks, but they were found and brought back eventually, to be used for making suns and moons. The process was described in great detail; 12 suns and 12 moons were forged, transported, and fastened to the sky. Along the way stars and many other objects and creatures were also born from extra pieces and discarded tools. In the end, since 24 heavenly bodies gave too much heat, a hero named Hsang Sa shot down 22 of them, leaving only one sun and one moon in the sky.

The Song of the Ancient Sweet Gum was also a creation myth. Here the seeds of various trees and plants lived together in a house, until the house burned down. They also fled to the East, but were brought back by the hero Xang Liang, who cultivated the land and planted the seeds. The whole epic was full of practical information about agriculture. In the end, a great old sweet gum tree was accused (falsely) of stealing fish, and cut down; all parts of the tree turned into various beings, such as Butterfly Mother from the next song.
One of the most interesting moments of the epic was about a rock that was used to make paper. Tired of continually being beaten, the rock ate up all the paper - explaining why the Miao did not have a written language for centuries. 

The Song of Butterfly Mother
is an epic of special importance, usually performed by experts during ancestor sacrifice rituals. Butterfly Mother, born from the Ancient Sweet Gum, grows pregnant from Water Foam, and lays twelve eggs. The eggs are hatched by the mythical Ji Wi bird (also born from the tree). One of the twelve children is Jang Vang, the ancestor of humanity, while the others include Thunder God, Water Dragon, snake, tiger, and elephant. Their umbilical cords are cut, and turn into various things: Jang Vang's into rice, the dragon's into a turtle, etc. Dragon's cord is cut with copper, which is why dragons are afraid of copper to this day. The pieces of eggs turn into clouds and other phenomena. The rest of the epic details the birth of tools and rituals needed for ancestor sacrifice.

The Great Flood is a flood epic not unlike many others around the world. It is preceded by the animosity between Jang Vang and Thunder God. Jang Vang survives in a large gourd along with his sister, whom he has to marry to repopulate the earth. The issue of sibling incest is debated in great detail. In the end, it turns out to be the wrong choice: instead of a baby, a ball of flesh is born, which Jang Vang cuts up, creating various ethnic groups. (The collectors did not publish the details, afraid to offend anyone; they only say the Han were made form the flesh, and the Miao were made from the bones.)

Westwards, Upriver is more historical legend than creation myth: it details the migration of the Miao from their ancestral home in the East to where they live now. On the way they encounter and overcome various obstacles (such as a dragon, a giant toad, and a giant eagle), although some of them are created by their own thoughtless behavior. One important character in the story is the magpie who scouts ahead to find good land, and the Ant King, who teaches the Miao how to walk in single file.

Who's next?
The Hakka people

Monday, June 7, 2021

Read more Uighur folktales (Folktales of Chinese minorities 5. - Uighurs)

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.

Uighur Stories From Along the Silk Road
Cuiyi Wei Karl W. Lukert
University Press of America, 1998.

The Uighurs are a Turkic ethnic group of about 13,5 million, out of which approximately 12,5 million live in China's Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomus Region (both the people and the region have been featured in the news a lot lately, for lamentable reasons). The book's diplomatic introduction talks about the intersection of folklore and politics even in 1998. By the way, one of the authors is the same as in the Hui volume two weeks ago, so the structure is very similar too: the introduction lists the "evolutionary phases" of Uighur culture, from hunter-gatherers to the 20th century, and each story comes with comments about which era is reflected in it. After the Introduction we get a chapter of black-and-white photos introducing Uighur culture. The tales are organized into chapters by theme (origin stories, winning the bride, wisdom tales, etc.). At the end of each chapter we get notes with the sources of the stories, and comments on their most interesting parts. The book comes with an extensive glossary and bibliography.
Once again, there were many amazing stories in this volume, so I added it to the list of my all-time favorites. You'll see why.


One of my favorite tales in the book was The wisdom of a craftsman who made his three sons choose three professions (so they became a painter, a musician, and an excavator), and then made them teach their skills to each other. When the eldest fell in love with a princess whose father jealously guarded her, they used their skills together to help her sneak out, and eventually marry her love. The other big highlight was Courageous Daughter, the main reason I bought this book. It's a story about a brave girl who sets out on an adventure to find a cure for her father's blindness; she rides a dragon, visits Rome, and even rescues a princess in the end. Instant favorite.

Many of the other stories featured brave, capable women too, which made me very happy. The nine daughters of Afrat Khan inherited their father's kingdom after he and his sons died in battle; one girl became khan, another first minister, two captains of the palace guards, four military commanders, and one became the defender of the kingdom. When they were attacked by a neighboring khan, they recruited the help of the Queen of the Desert, and summoned the desert sands with magic to protect their people. Pir Chengi was a famous singer who won immortality with her songs; when she discovered that demons who torture human souls can't stand music, she started spending her time in graveyards, singing for the dead to bring them peace. Nazugum, My Slender Girl, was also a singer, executed by the Manchu government, but still famous for her songs of freedom.
Among the origin legends the most interesting was that of Bögü Khan. It would fit any sci-fi story: a shining dome rose from the earth, with music emanating from it; a door appeared, and inside the dome people found five babies in five rooms, with "hanging nipples" in their mouth. The Uighurs raised them, and the youngest, Bögü Khan, became a famous conqueror and ruler. 

The tale of Hasan and Husan was a story of friendship between two young merchants. When one of them fell in love with a girl and a cruel king wanted to take her from him, his friend infiltrated the royal court as a minister, and helped the lovers get away. The story of the widow's son was about a bald boy who gained the magic ability of talking to herbs, and used it to save people during a pandemic (and grow his own hair back).
Among the trickster tales my favorite was the one where a king paid a man for his watermelons by saying "excellent" three times - after which the man used the three exclamations to pay at a restaurant. Good moral for people who want to pay artists in exposure. There was a similarly modern moral to the tale where a married couple interrupted everyone with "I knew that already!". In the end, they did not listen to all the instructions about using a magic flying coat properly, and the husband floated off into the distance.


Among the creation stories where was a familiar legend about bringing soil up from the bottom of the ocean. Here the hero was the fish hawk, who risked his own life to help the animals create dry land. The origin of flies was explained by one of those stories where the hero's sister turns into a monster (in this case, a werewolf). After she was burned, her ashes turned into blood-sucking insects. The legend of the Seven Sleepers originated from the Muslim tradition, while the tragic love story of Pharhat (Farhat) and Shirin probably migrated from Persian lore; both were featured in the book in multiple versions.

I have encountered the magic well of youth in stories before, where someone drank too much and ended up as a baby. This Uighur version was very colorful and enchanting (even though the ending was pretty dark). There was also once again a vengeful cat who peed on the fireplace, sending a girl on a quest for fire and bringing a monster to their doorstep (Chin Timur Batur). I happily encountered a new version of the capable woman who is forced to marry a poor man, but turns their luck around with hard work; and also the father who promises buried treasure to his sons to make them dig up the garden. It was fun to read another version of the three golden dolls as well, which is a fan favorite among storytellers (even though the third doll was not a storyteller in this case, just a gossip.)
There were other familiar tale types in the book: Puss in Boots (Amitek and the fox), magic bird heart (The chicken that laid golden eggs - here combined with a Polyphemus story), animal groom (The foal king), animal bride (Monkey Girl), woman seeking her husband (The dragon man - here the woman learned magic from a goddess, and used it during the magic flight). Shawdon, the fisherman's son was a version of the "hide-and-seek" folktale, with an interesing twist in the end: the hero did not marry the princess he'd won. He just wanted to stop her from killing any more of the suitors.
There were many familiar stories among the trickster tales too. A jester shared his punishment with a corrupt minister. Among the animals there was a clever hare (who tricked a tiger), and a wily fox (who tricked a wolf, and tried to create fights among peaceful animals). The main trickster figure, however, was Ephendi - the title the tellers use to refer to Hodja Nasreddin. He got a whole chapter to himself. There were many familiar stories in it, and several funny one-liners. He even took on some modern themes: in one story he made fun of the mandatory honoring of the image of Chairman Mao. Another modern trickster was Hisamidin, a 20th century uighur humorist.

Who's next?
The Miao people.