Monday, July 26, 2021

Tales within the clouds (Folktales of Chinese minorities 11. - Nakhi)

 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.

Tales from within the clouds

Nakhi stories of China
Carolyn Han & Jaiho Cheng
University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

A slim, but beautifully illustrated volume that contains ten folktales. The Nakhi number about 300,000 people, and they have migrated from Tibet to the area of Yunnan and Sichuan around the start of CE. They are known for the fact that a large group of them is still matriarchal, marriage is not common among them, and they only have a word for mother, not father.
The tales were translated from Chinese to English by Jaiho Cheng, and retold by Carolyn Han with close attention to the original content and meaning. The short introduction talks about Nakhi culture, storytelling, and the importance of folktales and women heroes. The book is illustrated by the paintings of Li Ji, an artist from Yunnan.


An old favorite of my from this book is the Nakhi creation myth, in which four women - Thinker, Doer, Seer, and Wisdom - find a way to rid the world of an evil serpent. They trick the serpent into stealing the egg of Golden Wings, a giant bird that kills the monster in revenge. The serpent's body transforms into mountains.
I also loved the tale about the Heavenly sisters, Sun and Moon. Sun was lazy and easily angered, while Moon was patient and hard-working. When they wanted to go on a journey together, Moon set out without waiting for her sleeping sister. Sun ran after her in a hurry, forgetting she was naked - and has been blinding people ever since to cover herself up.
The tale of the cicadas was a bit creepy: it explained why they spend several years underground, but it also claimed they "grow little umbrellas" against the sun... except said green umbrellas are a parasitic fungus that grows out of the cicadas it kills. The same phenomenon appeared in the story of Miss Chongcao, the origin legend of the Chinese caterpillar fungus. The caterpillar in the tale put on green or brown clothes, depending on who wanted to eat her.
I liked the message in the Arrogant azalea story: in a beauty contest among flowers, the azalea belittled and bullied the Pine Tree - who ended up getting the award from the Queen of Flowers for its inner beauty anyway.


I was reminded of folktales from Africa by the story that explains why dogs lap water. Here, the lazy dog did not help others deal with channeling water, so he was forbidden from drinking it. Ever since then, he has to lap water secretly, in a hurry.
Tricksters were represented by Flea, who had a race-like contest with Louse about who could collect more wood. In the end, Flea was defeated by his own impatience.

Who's next?

Monday, July 12, 2021

The children of snow (Folktales of Chinese minorities 10. - Yi)

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 ​Nuosu Book of Origins
A Creation Epic from Southwest China 
University of Washington Press, 2019.

The Yi live in Southwest China and number about nine million. This minority group is divided into various subgroups, each with their own name and identity. Among them, the Nuosu are the largest (about 2.3 million) - the epic in this book belongs to their tradition. It was translated as a collaboration between Mark Bender (who also translated the Miao epics) and Aku Wuwu (a prominent Nuosu scholar and poet).

Bimo. Pic from here
This traditional epic is known as The Book of Origins, and it contains creation myths, origin stories, genealogies, and migration legends. It has been passed down through generations for hundreds of years in manuscripts written in Yi script (different from Chinese writing). The text translated in the book was hand-copied and translated by Jjivot Zopqu, a traditional Nuosu mediator, from an older text. It is divided into 29 sections, presenting a fairly complete epic from a single source (as opposed to the versions pieced together from multiple sources by Chinese folklorists). This epic is usually recited by ritual experts called bimo on important occasions, often for several hours. Sometimes at weddings or funerals traditional singers also performed parts of it. The book comes with footnotes, references, pronunciation guides, appendices, and many other resources. The long introduction talks about Yi/Nuosu culture, everyday life, rituals, and the epic tradition.


I loved it that the epic presents humans as one part of Nature's whole, our existence intertwined with that of plants and animals. The part where the Great Bimo, Awo Shubu, filled the world with plants and matching animals was especially beautiful. Later on, when almost everything was burned up by the six suns, red snow fell three times, and transformed into new creatures - the Twelve Sons of Snow. Ice turned to bone, snow turned to flesh, wind turned to breath. Six of the twelve became "beings without blood" (plants), while six became "beings with blood" (animals and humans). Their descendants and proliferation are detailed in the epic in a sort of folk taxonomy. It was especially intriguing that horses, which are not native to the area, were hatched from four snow-eggs by butterflies. On the advice of a frog spirit, humans and crows drank from the Water of Wisdom, and became the most intelligent among living beings.
The larger half of the epic details the genealogies and migrations of various tribes, with lots of names and repetition (kinda like the "begets" in the Bible). It was interesting to see why people decided not to settle in various unsuitable places, but other than that only a few short episodes disrupted the lists. One of the most exciting was the contest between two families, Hxuo and He, who competed in a series o shapeshifting challenges. Eventually, they were reconciled, and joined their children in marriage.

Nuosu manuscript with
Zhyge Alu, from here
There was an episode, not included in this version of the epic but mentioned in the notes, about the invention of the lightning rod. The hero Zhyge Alu found a village where people were afraid to light fires in the house, worried lightning would strike their roof. The hero climbed up to a roof wearing a copper helmet and a copper club, and managed to trap lightning in a copper net. Lightning as a living being was mentioned multiple times in the epic; it was noted that twelve kinds of lightning form a family that sleeps underground in the winter, and snores loudly in the spring.


This epic once again featured the motif of separating earth and sky (and propping the sky up with columns). Here the job was done by deities, spirits, and immortals, and the brand new sky and earth were swept clean by nine fairies with nine iron-copper brooms. There was also the motif of multiple suns and moons: Anyu Ddussy, the Spirit Monkey, summoned six suns and seven moons, along with all the constellations. The suns scorched the world almost to extinction, although a few animals (such as the water deer) managed to survive. The surplus heavenly bodies were shot down by the great hero Zhyge Alu. He was raised by dragons in a cave. He climbed various trees to get a vantage point for shooting, but only the fir could support him, which is why it is still respected among the trees. The last sun fled and hid, and had to be lured out by a rooster.
The fiery apocalypse was followed by another classic: a great flood. Here the only human survivor was the kind-hearted Jjumu Vuvu, who hid in a wooden box. He rescued various floating animals (a rat, a venomous snake, a bee, a frog, etc.), who in turn helped him get a bride from the sky. But since the elopement was not approved by the sky spirit, their children were born mute, and they needed the help of the mythical Apuyoqo bird to steal the secret of speech from the sky. Thus, various languages were born.
Another motif that appeared in the epic was that of the clever maiden who posed riddles to her suitor. The hero Shyly Wote failed to answer them, and he needed the help of his clever sister to win the bride anyway.

Nuosu women weaving together, image from here

Who's next?
The Nakhi people

Monday, July 5, 2021

Love and dragons (Folktales of Chinese minorities 9. - Bai)

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.

Once again I could not find a whole book, so I gathered tales from many different volumes. The Bai live in Yunnan, numbering about two million people. They are surrounded by a gorgeous landscape of mountains and lakes, which does not only make the place popular with tourists but also colors local stories equally beautiful. Among other things, the Bai are known for cormorant fishing and dragon boat races.


Many of my ever-favorite folktales from China are actually Bai stories. For example, I have adored the legend of Wild Goose Lake for a long time. It is a story of friendship between a human girl and a dragon princess who share a love for singing, and work together to end a drought and bring water to the people. In the end they even move in together. Another favorite of mine is the Dragon carved from wood, in which a carpenter helps an entire village create a magical dragon to combat the evil monster that lives in their lake. It is a long, elaborate, and amazing story.

I also like the legend of Green Dragon Pond, in which a dragon befriends and old monk and they play chess together every day. However, the friendship comes to an end when the monk wants to see the dragon in his true (non-human) form. The same issue appeared in the legend about the Dragon King of Langchiung. A brave man sacrificed his life to kill an evil snake, and he was reborn as a dragon. Later on he befriended a scholar and helped him through various adventures; but when the scholar wanted to see his true form, the sight scared him to death. He became a deity as well, and people worship the two friends together. The legend of Erhai Lake also featured dragons: the battle of the Big Black Dragon and the Small Yellow Dragon ended with the victory of the latter, who was smaller, but also braver and smarter.
One of the most well-known Bai legends was about a princess named Awa who fell in love with a hunter. The lovers managed to elope together (with the help of some magic), but Awa's father retaliated against the hunter, and the story came to a tragic end. The princess died of grief and turned into a white cloud over Mt. Cangshan that brings wind, seeking her lost beloved among the waters of the lake below. The same story appeared in a beautifully illustrated version in this book, and also in the Yunnan collection.
Another beautiful yet tragic love story was the Spring of Butterflies from Dali. Here, lovers persecuted by a tyrant jumped into a bottomless lake together, and transformed into thousands of butterflies. Their death angered the people, who overthrew the tyrant later on. Luckily, not all love stories came to a tragic ending: the legend of the Phoenix fez also featured an evil king pursuing two lovers, but here the captured maiden managed to escape and reunite with her beloved. Her phoenix fez became a symbol of love and good luck.
Another beautiful lake legend was attached to Horse Washing Pond in Dali, in the same book as the butterfly spring. It was about a kind and brave young man who discovered the pond there heavenly winged horses came to bathe and drink. He dug a channel from the pond to end a drought, accepting the fate of turning into stone as punishment for his heroic act.


In one book I found a new legend about the origin of salt (I love those). This one was about a girl named Gunv who discovered the secret of salting food. However, her brother's spirit boar grew jealous and killed her; her spirit deer uncovered the crime, and Gunv became the Goddess of Salt.
There was also another legend about a rich man whose greed made his fields sink underwater. Justice here was served by a magic ox, summoned by a poor boy with a magic flute.

Who's next?
The Yi people