Monday, August 30, 2021

Treasures and rainbows (Folktales of Chinese minorities 16. - Yao)

 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, but luckily there were many Yao tales scattered in the volumes I have at home. The Yao number about three and a half million people and live in China and Vietnam. Their stories seem to be popular with the editors of folktale collections, even in English. Yao women are famous for their long, gorgeous hair, which they only cut once in their lifetime (when they turn 18), and wear wrapped around their head. 


The legend of Liu Sain Mei (Maiden Liu) is one of the most well-known of the Yao tradition. It is about a Han girl who became a friend and ally of the Yao against oppression. She was a famous songstress who created many songs, and won many song contests with her quick wit, eloquence, and lovely voice. She defeated famous scholars and Han officials in song banter too. She married a Yao man of equal talent; together they turned into rocks, and their spirits became immortal.
One of my favorite legends from the Yao is the story of the Moon Hunters: When a scorching moon appears in the sky, famous archer Ya La and his clever wife Ni Wo set out to shoot it down. In the end the flames of the moon are extinguished, and the couple flies up to live on it - their figures still visible in the full moon (this story appeared in multiple sources). I also loved the tale of Longsi and the Third Princess, in which a young hunter and a clever princess fell in love and solved her father's tasks together. Unlike many Chinese love stories, this one had a happy ending. So did the story of the One-horned ox, about a boy whose drawings came to life. The ox he drew helped him travel to the sky where he fell in love with a fairy. When an evil lord tried to kidnap her, the boy drew a winged tiger and rescued his bride. The hero of The golden reed flute, Bayberry, saved his own sister from a(n evil) dragon, making it dance to the music until it died. 
The legend of the Gathering of the Birds was gorgeous. It claims that every October 360 different kinds of birds gather in the Yao mountains to commemorate a maiden named Azhamana. She could embroider such beautiful birds that all of them came to life. When she was kidnapped by an evil lord, people tried to rescue her, but she died in the attempt and rose to the sky in the shape of a golden peacock.
One book had a pangolin story, about how a clever pangolin managed to trick all the ants it wanted to devour. 


The legend of the rainbow was a classic swan bride tale, but it was much more beautiful than the others. Here the sky maiden hid her own wings voluntarily so she would not have to return to her cruel father. She married a mortal man and had a child, but eventually she had to return to the sky (her husband combed her wings for her). Her family followed, but the Jade Emperor pushed the son back to earth. The grieving parents' tears became rain, and they let the rainbow down occasionally to see if their child would climb back up to them...
I knew the cute story of the magpie's nest as an English folktale. The magpie tried to teach other birds how to build a good nest, but not many of them had the patience to follow all the way through. Treasure Mountain was a legend much like all the magic table cloth tales; here, the greedy king got locked into a cave for good in the end. (This story also appeared in multiple sources.)

Image from here

Who's next?
The daur (dagur) people

Monday, August 23, 2021

The new and the familiar (Folktales of Chinese minorities 15. - Salar)

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 ​Folklore of China's Islamic Salar Nationality
Kevin Stuart, Ma Wei, Ma Jianzhong
Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.

The Salar are a Muslim minority of Turkic origin who migrated to the area of Qinghai Province in the 13th century. Today they number about 130 thousand people. They have strong cultural ties to Tibet, Mongolia, and the surrounding Muslim groups.
The book contains 32 traditional stories, as well as several folk songs and proverbs. All of them are published in three forms: in Salar, in phonetic transcription, and English translation. Twenty years ago, when the book came out, it was the only publication in the Salar language. The short introduction talks about Salar culture and literacy, and also contains several color photos.
The texts themselves were hard to follow sometimes, because the three kinds of text alternate every paragraph, and the English parts are full of notes and in-text comments. Sadly, the only copy of the book I could find was not complete, but I still managed to read most of the stories.

Highlights and connections

Most of the highlights were also connections, so I am not separating the two.

For example, the legend about Lake Qizi belonged to the familiar type where people are punished for not respecting natural treasures. In this case, a woman washed dirty clothes in the lake's clean water. A mysterious old man soon showed up, and with the help of two borrowed mules he moved the whole lake to another location in a single night.
Boylir Boko was a legendary strong man, who lifted a millstone to give directions to his opponent (Hungary has similar legends too). Other than his storied strength, he also had magic abilities - for example, no matter how much grain he threshed, it always multiplied (a trope familiar from the Nart sagas). 
There was an exciting "magic flight" story: a girl fled form an old cannibal woman with the help of a friendly calf. The calf in the end turned into a lion to protect the girl. There was also a cool "three kidnapped princesses" variant with a hero named Masinbo, that once again featured the motif of an offended cat peeing on the fireplace, kicking off a quest for new fire. The hero was rescued from the underworld by a man who could turn into an eagle.
The story of Hasen Beser was a classic "swan bride" tale, but it had an interesting and beautiful start with mushroom picking and a magic garden full of edible flowers. The tale of Agu Kharaji belonged to another classic, the "clever maiden" type, where a girl speaking in riddles found herself a matching husband - sadly, however, the story came to a tragic ending when jealous relatives killed the husband.
The book also contained a version of the legend of Joseph and his brothers, likely transmitted through the Muslim tradition.

Image from here

Who's next?
The Yao people

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

StorySpotting Extra: Folktales of Elsa and Naruto

StorySpotting Extra is a new thing I just invented: a report from an actual gig where I got to use my pop culture experience. Because I like sharing fun moments when theory gets put into practice.

This summer, luckily, we got to have our camps with the Világszép Foundation where I work full time as a storyteller. We take children who live in the state care system to our campsite in beautiful Paloznak for a week (per age group, seven camps total) filled with games, adventures, and storytelling. The latter is very important: we tell stories every night - yes, even to the teens, and they get lullabies too! -, and sometimes in the mornings. Kids who have known us for years look forward to these events, and some of them like to give me requests for what kinds of stories they would like to hear. While the "official" stories are selected in advance, there is always ample time in the afternoons and evenings for some extra storytelling. This year, I got two requests: they wanted "Naruto stories" and "Elsa stories." 

The quest was on.

It is always a precious chance for a storyteller to connect to her audience through their fandoms. We can learn a lot from the stories and characters that kids these days are invested in. It is even better if it is a fandom we happen to share: Naruto and anime culture was a part of my childhood too, and I also adore Frozen.

I spent the next few weeks with intensive research. Elsa seemed like the easier ask of the two, since it is a fairy tale adaptation (although pretty far from the original). However, I have never liked Andersen's Snow Queen, and did not want to tell it. Instead, I looked for other tales about powerful women with cryokinetic abilities who are portrayed in a positive light. Suddenly, the search got a lot harder... I returned to one of my old favorites, the legend of Queen Virignal from the medieval German Dietrich cycle. I also tracked down a gorgeous picture book titled Snow Princess, by Ruth Sanderson. This latter is a retelling of a classic Russian folktale, not very close to tradition, but it does have a happy ending (which was very important to me). An American friend helped me track down a copy in time, so I could head out to camp with two "Elsa" stories in my repertoire.

Naruto turned out to be the easier of the two. I started with brushing up on my Japanese nine-tailed fox folklore, which I'm very familiar with from earlier trickster research. Teens and middle schoolers can handle longer, more complex stories, so I added the legend of Tamamo-no-Mae, a fox lady who brought down several dynasties over the centuries, and kept hopping from kingdom to kingdom until he was imprisoned in a rock in Japan, and convinced to change her ways. In addition, a previous StorySpotting article led me to the legend of Jiraiya, a famous ninja whose story inspired several characters and elements of Naruto. It is an epic tale with giant frogs, evil snake demons, and thrilling battles.

All the research was absolutely worth it. The kids asked for the ninja stories right on the first day of camp, and it turned out more than one of them were Naruto fans (I don't know if it's playing on Hungarian TV again, or if it's Boruto nostalgia, who knows). The Jiraiya legend found its perfect audience. I spend more than half an hour telling it. Sometimes we stopped the story and discussed how it had been adapted into the anime, what changed and what stayed the same. We also played with the idea of the legend's rock-paper-scissors concept, where giant toad beats giant slug, giant slug beats giant snake, giant snake beats giant toad. It was very amusing.
The other ninja story was told the next evening. It also took a good half hour while Tamamo-no-Mae rampaged her way across Asia and reached the final battle. After the story, we looked up photos on my phone about the places (and the rock) mentioned in the legend. By this point, the kids got so ninja-happy that they made up a whole ninja movie for their filming workshop. It was an instant blockbuster.

The Elsa stories hit a more personal note. A girl had asked for them in advance, and when we arrived at camp she checked to see if I had them. I told Virginal's legend just to her, sitting on the living room couch. She listened in rapt attention. This legend is very male-focused, but it did not need much creative finagling to focus on the character of the Queen of the Mountains instead. I really enjoyed retelling it from a different point of view, and found new things in the story even though I have worked with it before. 
The second story found itself an even better context. At the end of the week we could bid for pictures taken in the photo workshop by the kids. I bid my dessert for one, and for another, I bid the second Elsa story to the same girl. I got to tell it the last morning before the end of camp, just to her. She loved the Snow Princess, and noticed things in the story that I did not. It was a lovely, personal storytelling experience. And I got a lovely photo for it.

There kinds of "gigs" are my favorite. They have everything I love about storytelling: personal connection, cozy moments, enthusiastic listeners, traditional tales, and geeking out over shared fandoms. I can't wait to see what themes they will ask for next...

Monday, August 16, 2021

The cosmic fight for happiness (Folktales of Chinese minorities 14. - Bouyei)

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 of Bouyei (Buyi) folktales, so I gathered stories from multiple sources. Too bad, because the few I could find were really fascinating. The Bouyei number about three million people, and they live in Southern China, mostly in Guizhou Province.


The romantic legend of Yahkang and Cuhee was especially beautiful. They were persecuted by a mean official even after his death: he used his sacrificial ghost money to bribe the judges of Hell, asking them to torture the lovers. Yahkang and Cuhee were saved by the kind god of the Sun, and spirited away to the Moon, where they still live today. Another tale also featured a jealous man trying to kidnap a bride: here, a magic shirt made of nine types of feathers saved her in the end. The wife came from the sky (with the help of none other than the legendary Weaver Girl), and when a mean landlord wanted to take her from her mortal husband, the couple created the magic shirt together and used its power to escape.
Weaver Girl was also the protagonist of an exciting local legend in which she fought and killed a man-eating dragon (with various magical weaving instruments), sacrificing her own life to save people.


Bouyei tradition also has a myth about how the sky was raised up. Here people lifted it up with the help of a hero named Liga (Lijia), who then used various parts of his body to create the heavenly bodies. After his death, every part of him turned into something useful - rivers, roads, flowers, cows, etc.
There was a beautiful, classic "heavenly bride" legend that explained the origin of the sixth month sacrifice. A moon maiden descended from the sky and had a son with a mortal man. The young hero escaped all kinds of dangers, and before he flew to Heaven he promised people that he would watch over them - the sacrifice commemorates him. Another origin story featured zongzi (glutenous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves), eaten on a specific day to commemorate the women who brought food to the men who guarded Bouyei lands from the Chinese army. A third story explained the origin of the Ox Festival held in April. It was about a poor man who gained a magic ox, and used it to gain wealth and even a wife (through an interesting drinking/cooking contest). 
There was once again a frog husban tale, as well as a story about a clever frog that outwitted a tiger in a race. 

Who's next?
The Salar people

Monday, August 9, 2021

Sisters in arms (Folktales of Chinese minorities 13. - Yugur)

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.

Blue ​Cloth and Pearl Deer
Yogur folklore
Zhang Juan & Kevin Stuart  
University of Pennsylvania, 1996.

The book contains 18 stories from the Yugur people, an ethnic group speaking languages of Turkic and Mongolian origin, who live in Gansu Province and number about fifteen thousand. The introduction talks about their history and homeland, and there is also a short study on their wedding customs. The latter are fascinating, reflecting their matriarchal-matrilinear past. The folktales have been translated from Chinese language sources.


Image from here
The most amazing story in the book was the legend of Yangkesa and Gongerjian, two siblings. The young man married an evil woman and later died in exile in the desert. His sister set out to revive him. She learned martial arts from the fairies, fought every single creature that had eaten from her brother's body, and slowly pieced him back together. Another legend featuring strong women was the story of Geraos: the hero was protected and helped by a woman dressed as a man. Later on they were joined by a woman archer and a bandit's daughter, and they avenged the death of the hero's father together.
I liked the legend that explained why white and black horses are used in Yugur wedding ceremonies. The story was about two warring tribes, where the feud was passed down from fathers to children. When a prince and a princess came face to face on the battlefield, they decided to make peace instead. It was not easy, due to the hostility of their parents, but eventually persistent Prince Zhenersi and brave Princess Baoerde united their tribes - and even got married.
I liked the moral of the story of The archer and the geese. A lazy man pretended to be a master archer to win a princess' hand, and out of sheer luck he almost succeeded. Luckily, a young hunter managed to prove that the "master" was actually a liar and a coward.
The volume contained a version of the Epic of Gesar, known in most of Central Asia. It is an adventurous hero story, but I was actually more impressed by the legend of Queen Sarmark. She was the wife of the White Khan, and when her husband was about to lose a battle she showed up with an army of women and saved him. She later died due to court intrigue and jealousy, but even in death she managed to help her people find a new home.
I enjoyed the humorous tale explaining why the Yugur call foxes "the one with the hat".


Image from here
There was once again a tale where a girl married a snake. The snake family was kind to her, and eventually they all transformed into people. The girl's happiness made her sister jealous - from that point on, it was a classic "false bride" tale, and the evil sister turned into a snake in the end.
The plot o the blue cloth legend was familiar: the fire went out in a young woman's house, and she accidentally asked for embers from a monster. The monster followed her home and drank her blood until her husband showed up to the rescue. Interestingly, the husband was killed, and the wife took up his sword to behead the monster in the end. She buried her husband's bones wrapped in blue cloth, a funeral custom that still exists among the Yugur.
The origin legend of the An surname was the type where all old people were supposed to be killed, but a young man kept his father alive in secret. Later on, the old man's wisdom saved the entire nation. There was also a "kind and unkind brothers" type story in the book.
The resident trickster is Mula, a distant relative of the Hodja Nasreddin. He tricked rich people in various clever ways.

Who's next?
The Bouyei people

Monday, August 2, 2021

Stars from the sky, tales from the mountains (Folktales of Chinese minorities 12. - Tibet)

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.

A hóoroszlán meséi
Tibeti mesék
Ábrahám Linda & Szántai Zsolt
Sudhana Könyvkiadó, 2010.

Tibet was mostly a sovereign country for hundreds of years on the borders of China, until in 1951 it was occupied by them. Since then, the six million Tibetans have been counted by Chinese authorities as one of the 55 official ethnic minorities. This book sadly didn't contain any information other than the tales themselves (a total of 96). The stories were selected and translated from Shelton's Tibetan Folk Tales, as well as other English and Tibetan sources.


I liked the tale of the wise bat who saved all the birds in the world from being silenced. A king was going to make them mute on the order of his evil wife, but the bat's cleverness and bravery made him see he had been wrong. Another story that featured an evil woman (a stepmother) was about two half-brothers who loved each other so much that their devotion could even soften a cruel serpent-spirit's heart.
I enjoyed the exciting tale about the illusionist who drew a king into a whole alternate life, and only got away in the end without punishment because the king had signed a waiver ahead of time.
The most beautiful story in the book was about a boy named Chering, who traveled into the sky with the help of a magician. There he could see how dragons were causing storms and distributing rain, and he even managed to pluck a star and put it in his pocket. Another likable tale was about a little shepherd who used his magical music to gather animals, and teach a lesson about generosity to a greedy landlord.
There were several teaching tales in the book. In one of them, a judge announced that he was going to sentence a rock and a donkey for a disputed accident - then fined everyone who showed up to the hearing, for chasing sensation instead of demanding justice. In another, a fox tried to cause strife between a bull and a tiger who had grown up together. The two animals realized the trick just in time, and trampled the fox instead. My favorite, however, was that of the foolish judge who did not want to listen to people. His wife gave him sleeping powder, dressed him as a beggar, and abandoned him in the street. Having to survive among the poor, the judge learned about their life and returned to his post wiser and kinder.


Despite people thinking of Tibet as a place far removed from the rest of the world, there were many familiar tale types in the collection. I encountered international classics such as the Bremen town musicians (The two kittens), animals running a race (Hare and frog, with a duck stealing their prize in the end), wise woman solving a king's riddles (and she became an adviser in the end, not a wife), gold-spitting princes (The prince and his friend; The gold-spitting frog), six brothers who rescued a woman together (and then couldn't decide who should marry her, so they cut her into pieces...), chatty flying tortoise, "who is the strongest" (Mouse Princess, who was sadly married to a cat), Solomon's judgment (between a tortoise and a peacock), Death deceived with a clever trick (The woodcutter and death), a king who had horns; clever chicken, ungrateful animal in a trap (with wolf and hare), ebony horse (The iron fish and the wooden horse), a boy who saves his grandfather from being abandoned (Fathers and sons), Beauty and the Beast (The white rooster, which ended in separation), and even Cinderella (The white cow). The adventures of Nyima were a combination of the Aladdin tale and the journey of the man seeking his fortune.
I once again encountered the tale (in multiple versions) where someone rescues three animals and a human, and while the grateful animals later return the favor, the treacherous human doesn't. The tale of Pelzang was similar to European and Indian legends: it was about an illusionist who tricked a skeptic into living half a life inside an illusion. There was also a story about a hunter who accidentally killed an animal (here a raven) that tried to warn him of danger. The story of the foolish family who did not know what a mirror was sounded familiar from Japanese collections.
Among the tricksters there was a frog who made the tiger believe he fed on tigers. The most popular trickster seemed to be Uncle Tinpa (a clever old man featured in multiple stories), but there was also a young lad named Big Mouth who placed tricks on a greedy landlord. I was amused by the story where clever thieves stole a king's diamond by replacing it with a piece of ice.

Who is next?
The Yugurs