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.


  1. Thanks for sharing this information, Zalka. So many of the stories you mention in the book fascinate me and I especially like that they feature strong women in prominent roles. I found a kindle edition that I hope will be satisfactory.

  2. Oh, boy, I do love the "vengeful cat who peed on the fireplace"! So like a cat! And I love how you wrote "again," like cats are often peeing on things in these tales! I've had some cats like that, they hold grudges, unlike dogs.

    1. That's actually a trope I have encountered in other folktale collections before :D It also features into one of my favorite tales, Aicha the Demon-hunter. :D

  3. I am so excited you did this post! I'm looking forward to reading it. I was looking up stories from Central Asia before the pandemic!

    1. This is Misty Mator - I'm not sure why it didn't sign my name.

  4. I'm really enjoying this book! (I've already told The Wisdom of the Craftsman.) I have also recently read a book of Uighur Nasreddin tales.