Friday, November 25, 2022

Ancient stories with modern morals (Folktales of Chinese Minorities 23. - Lahu)

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.

Lahu stories
Angela Pun, Paul W. Lewis
White Lotus Press, 2002.

As the title suggests, this book contains 49 Lahu folktales. The Lahu are a people numbering about one million, living mainly in Southern China as well as some Southeast Asian countries. They speak a Tibeto-Burman language.
This book is the English translation of a Lahu collection. The original was published in 1939, written by a Baptist pastor named Ai Pun, who was also a storyteller who wanted to preserve the Lahu language and culture. The translation was the idea of his daughter (also a pastor). The selection was obviously influenced by this religious background, and the worship of God has an important place in the narratives, but according to the introduction the main goal was preserving the stories and their culture. The first half of the volume contains myths and origin legends, while the second contains folktales.


The first few stories dealt with creation. One of my favorite moments was that the Creator, before getting to work, thought and planned for a long time (wore out seven pairs of shoes standing, seven chairs sitting, and seven beds lying down), so that everything would be created perfect. Stories even explained how he made the earth revolve. Creation was followed by the origin stories of animals; among them, one that explained why the peacock's anus protrudes when it dances. Another story claimed that the shrew once told a very beautiful funeral speech, and so many animals patted his nose in approval that it grew long.
An interesting legend explained why the Lahu live in the mountains: the Creator wanted to reward them with the fertile lowlands, but every time they had to make a symbolic choice they always picked the mountains (while the Dai, who will be discussed later, got the plains).


After creation, a rivalry broke out between the Creator and a giant - and this legend, about them competing and trying to destroy each other, contained a whole bunch of familiar motifs: cosmic hide-and-seek, cheating in a running race, cheating in a flight race, nine suns in the sky, eternal darkness, even a flood. In the end, the Creator could only defeat the giant by cheating. He ground up its remains and shot them into the air with a cannon: they became flies and termites (this motif was also familiar, minus the cannon).
The creation of people was an interesting mix of motifs from East Asia (humans born from a gourd, shapeless first child, ancestors raised by animals) and the Bible (forbidden tree, serpent, first couple, ladder reaching for the sky, evil city destroyed). The story of lost writing was also familiar from other minorities: the Creator gave the Lahu their alphabet written on pastries, which they ate - so they don't have literacy, but they carry the Creator's words in their heart. (The Han Chinese also lost their tablets, but they returned and asked for new ones).
The story of the fisherman who crossed into the underwater realm to untangle a dragon's daughter from a net reminded me of tales about crossing into the animal world from Brazil, Scotland, and Togo. Other familiar tale types also made an appearance, such as the foolish boy who followed his mother's instructions to the letter and did everything wrong; the animal husband (or in this case just a human head), animal bride (the orphan, with some hide-and-seek), golden-haired children (the three suffering children), and Aladdin.
The local trickster was the rat, who outsmarted a bear with various tricks that reminded me of Mouse Deer.

Who's up next?
The Pumi people

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