Friday, October 30, 2009

The Golden Qilin (Fujian)

Way up in the heavens, right at the southern gate of the Heavenly Palace, is the Golden Qilin. At times, he opens the gate a crack and slyly takes a look on us down here. When the people are bustling, when the mountains and rivers are particularly serene and beautiful, then he prepares to come down amongst us . . .

They say at the foot of the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian Province, there once lived an old couple--a spry old man of eighty years and his equally peppy wife of seventy. Now this farm couple had never had the joy of little ones tugging at their pant legs and bobbing about at their knees. In their twilight years, they raised fish and birds, watching the fish dart back and forth and enjoying the chirping and peeping of the birds. This is what had to bring them pleasure.

One day, now, out in the field, the wife felt something crawling about in her ear. She scratched and tugged at her ear, and that seemed to take care of the problem for the time being, but not really. The feeling of something inside her ear was still there. Later at night, the sensation became more intense until she couldn't stand it anymore. She got a darning needle and probed her ear with it--not a good idea but the itching and scratching was driving her crazy.

Out of her ear and onto the table hopped a tiny little bug. She looked closely at it; it looked just like a very small silkworm! She picked it up, tossed it into a dustpan, and forgot all about it.

Three days later, she discovered this insect was now outgrowing the dustpan.

Huh, she thought. How about that . . .

So she put the thing into a bamboo cage, like the ones used for chickens. Three days later, it could no longer be contained by the cage. So the very curious woman carried the now much larger insect to the garden. And then, three days after this, the insect had now turned into a man-sized creature, with the body of a full-grown man and the head of a qilin!

Needless to say, both the husband and wife were utterly astounded to find this being in their garden. However, he--the qilin--turned out to be very sweet, kind and devoted to the pair, so they could not bare to send him off. Instead, they decided to let him live with them.

The husband and wife gave him a name--the Golden Qilin.

The Golden Qilin didn't consent to remain as a guest, though. No. He was very strong and offered to put himself to work to earn his keep. He then plowed the field all by himself, without needing an ox. He then, without so much as a bowl of rice in his stomach, turned over all the soil. When he took a "break," he went out into the forest and chopped and gathered firewood. He then hoisted the entire load of wood onto his shoulders and carried it on home!

The old husband and wife loved the Golden Qilin and doted on him, giving him good food to eat and clothes to wear. In turn, he was totally devoted and respectful to them.

"That Golden Qilin!" the neighbors would say. "He is such a good boy!"

Sadly, the happy home life the old couple and the Golden Qilin shared was not to last. Not long afterwards, the old man passed away; before long, his wife did so likewise.

The Golden Qilin was now all on his own. The only people he had ever known and loved were gone.

With no one else left at the farm, he tearfully packed up, left his home, and headed away from the Wuyi Mountains to travel to distant parts.

At this time, the whole empire was in turmoil; invaders had penetrated deep into China and threatened the imperial throne itself. Posters sprang up all over the capital. They read: "The Emperor needs a stalwart and brave warrior and champion to repel the invaders! Whoever can defeat them and rescue the empire shall marry the Emperor's third daughter. He shall become the Emperor's own son-in-law!"

Now it so happened that the Golden Qilin found himself in the imperial capital. All around were gangs of men, standing around, talking about the posters, no doubt dreaming about being victorious in battle and winning the Princess, yet not one stepped forward to volunteer. They were afraid. What if I get killed in battle? they thought. What if I survive but fail to turn back the invaders? Might I not just be serving my own head upon a platter to the emperor?

Hmm . . . , thought the Golden Qilin, to defeat the invaders is to win the hand of the princess. Why not? It is worth the try.

So he immediately headed for the palace, where he presented himself before the emperor. Impressed by his appearance and brute strength, the emperor appointed the Golden Qilin as "Great Barbarian-Punishing Commander-in-Chief." As such, the Golden Qilin was given command of a great force of men and horses.

The Golden Qilin lost no time. For a whole day and night, he double marched his army down to the banks of the river where the enemy force was camped. He then engaged them in battle. The invaders were so surprised and dispirited by the very appearance and fighting skills of the Golden Qilin that they threw down their weapons and armor and fled the field!

The invaders were defeated in this one battle but were not quite ready to return to their own land yet. Their crafty leader hand picked an elite group to attack the Golden Qilin's camp.

That night, under the cover of darkness, the enemy commander led his men himself towards the camp.

"Commander! Commander!" a messenger said, appearing before the Golden Qilin's tent. "An enemy host is swiftly approaching the camp from the south!"

"Alert the men," said the Golden Qilin.

He then had all the men leave a gap in the southern part of the camp. The men next all hid along the inner perimeter of the camp, forming a giant horseshoe formation.

The enemy force reached the southern edge of the camp. The invaders found no one to defend the gate and entered unopposed.

They all looked around. The camp seem deserted. Had it been abandoned?

Then, the Golden Qilin let out a cry and had his men open up their attack. From all directions, including the far southern edge now, the emperor's men fell upon the invaders with their swords.
The Golden Qilin rode up and personally cut down the enemy commander. As for the rest of the enemy soldiers, they all fell and died were they had stood.

The Golden Qilin, the Great Barbarian-Punishing Commander-in-Chief, had won his second great victory in as many days!

The very next day, the Golden Qilin and his men met the remnants of the invading force in one final battle and scattered them, sending the panicked survivors back to where they had come from. The invasion over, the Golden Qilin led his men triumphantly back to the capital.

The emperor received the Golden Qilin at court and heard first-hand the news of the two great victories. The southern boundary was now secure; the enemy had left; the empire was safe! The emperor looked at the Golden Qilin, this strange, not-quite-animal but certainly not-quite-human . . . thing. He thought about the promise he had made to the Golden Qilin, the promise to let the Golden Qilin marry the the third princess upon a victory. He knew it was a promise he could not keep.

"Golden Qilin," said the emperor, "it is my honor to award you three thousand ounces of silver."

"Am I to wed the Third Imperial Princess, Your Imperial Highness?" asked the Golden Qilin.

"That is another matter. You may marry if you wish. "

"I appreciate the monetary award, Highness, but I am not interested in the money. I wish to marry the princess. You had made me a promise. Does an emperor not need to keep his promise?"

There was silence. Then the emperor thought of something.

"Golden Qilin," said the emperor, "truth be told, my daughter is repulsed by the sight of you. Then, last night, something happened. The Tai Bai Jin Xing contacted me in my sleep through a dream. He said you could enter a golden vessel and stay there for a period of time. In 7,749 days you should then be able to assume a human shape. On that occasion, you and my daughter could be wed. Could anything be more wonderful than that?"

The Golden Qilin was a simple being, plain spoken and without any pretensions. He heard what the emperor said, nodded his head and agreed that the princess's engagement to the Tai Bai Jin Xing, the god of Venus, was for the best. In his heart, he loved the princess, for, after all, he had prepared to marry her and so he wanted what was best for her. He actually sympathized with her, understanding that she might not want to marry so hideous a creature as he himself.

So, yes, he said, he would enter this golden vessel, this distiller, and there wait for the 7, 749 if that would make his appearance more acceptable to the third princess.

The emperor snapped his fingers and had his men lug in a large golden distiller, the vessel, and told the Golden Qilin to enter it, which he did. The mouth of the vessel was then sealed. The emperor next ordered a palace eunuch to watch over the vessel night and day and to forbid anyone from entering it or for the Golden Qilin from leaving it.

And so there he sat, waiting for the 7,749 days to pass so that he could be married to his beloved.

Soon the third princess heard about what her father had done. She was incensed, for she had rightly guessed that the emperor wanted the Golden Qilin out of sight and out of mind. Moreover, her father wouldn't mind if the Golden Qilin suffocated or starved in the process.

The princess snuck into the chamber that kept the golden vessel. Sure enough, sitting before it, arms crossed and wide awake, was the eunuch, guarding the vessel with his very life. The princess realized there was nothing she could do at the moment, so she retreated back to her quarters.

What could she do?

Meanwhile, time passed quickly. In fact, a month and a half had now passed. If he is not out soon, thought the princess, he shall be suffocated.

Truth be told, the Golden Qilin was not close to death because of suffocation. He was in a miserable state, though, weak from a lack of water. Not a drop of water had been given to him since his being sealed up in the golden vessel. If the emperor wanted to kill him, it would be very easy to do so now.

The third princess rounded up all her ladies-in-waiting. Together they tiptoed to the chamber in the wee hours of the morning. They hid and observed the eunuch guarding the vessel.

He was nodding off, at this, the hardest time of all to stay awake! I'll just close . . . my eyes . . . for a few . . . seconds, he thought. What . . . harm . . . could . . . that . . . do . . . ?

He was asleep! Quickly, the princess and her attendants pounced upon the golden vessel, dug their nails into the seal and finally pried it right off the vessel.

They looked in. What did they see? A very thirsty and very hungry but also very handsome young man!

The princess herself helped the Golden Qilin out of the vessel. They embraced and knew they had been meant for each other.

The next morning the third princess appeared at court before her father, the emperor. There, holding his hand, she presented the Golden Qilin, now a fine-looking youth.

"Father, . . . may . . . I . . . present . . . the . . . Golden . . . Qilin?"


Call it pride, call it shock, call it embarrassment or call it saving face. The emperor could have taken both their heads but instead banished them. The third princess and the Golden Qilin were to be sent "to the mountains," the imperial edict read, "never to reappear upon the plains."

And so the young couple left the imperial capital and headed for the Wuyi Mountains of what is today Fujian Province. There, the Golden Qilin felled some trees and built a hut for the princess and himself. From then on, he was a farmer, hoeing the soil, sowing seeds, planting, harvesting. The third princess spun, knitted and embroidered. They were never without what they needed to live, and they certainly were never without each other ever again. For the rest of their days on earth, they lived happily and continually in love.


from Huang Rongcan, Fujian minjian chuanqi, pp. 95-98. (See 7/22/07 for full citation.)

Many details of this story are reminiscent of Indo-European folktales. Namely, characters mindlessly engage in physically impossible tasks--i.e., standing vigil without attempting to sleep or entering an airtight chamber in an attempt to stay for more than 7,000 days. Moreover, the eunuch, once the Golden Qilin is sprung from his vessel prison, disappears from the story. No more is mentioned of him, no "heads-up" is given the emperor about his daughter's liberating the Golden Qilin; instead, the emperor is allowed to discover the details of the Golden Qilin's transformation the day after. In Indo-European folktales and in Chinese folktales that are cognates of them, there are consequences that are met (i.e., banishment) and those that are seemingly ignored (i.e., the eunuch's dereliction of duty). The Golden Qilin's later deification and ascent to the heavens are also left unexplained. My comments are not criticism; rather, I am just noting what the great Indo-European folktale scholar Max Luethi had previously observed in such folktales. The original text does not show any introduction of the Golden Qilin to the third princess. The only time they meet seems to be near the end, during the rescue. The text doesn't seem to justify the hero's deep love for the hitherto unseen princess in the scene where the emperor tells him that he, the Golden Qilin, will have to climb into the golden vessel for many thousands of days to make himself more presentable to the woman he loves. The original text also surprisingly has the princess and Golden Qilin kiss upon his rescue from the golden vessel, a detail I chose to leave out.

The traditional qilin is the Chinese unicorn, a mythical creature symbolic of great joy, longevity, and fecundity. It's appearance ushers in a period of harmonic and benevolent rule. So gentle is it that it will not tread upon living grass. It is said to have the body of a deer, the tale of an ox, the hooves of a horse and "forehead of a wolf" (see "Unicorn" in Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives by C. A. S. Williams; the complete citation can be found in the post for 7/22/07). It is usually depicted with a scaled body and one horn, though qilins with more than one horn sometimes appear in popular prints as well.

Tai Bai ("the Great White One") and Jin Xing ("the gold star") are one in the same: Venus. His father is Bai Di, the White Emperor, one of the Five Heavenly Emperors of Taoism, who reigns in the Western skies. Tai Bai Jin Xing also makes an appearance in the famous Chinese novel Journey to the West.

For a similar tale type, see "Winter Melon Boy" on 2/12/09; both are very similar to the Japanese folktale "Momotaro."

Motifs: T50.2, "King (emperor) does not want daughter to marry"; T97, "Father opposed to daughter's marriage"; L161, "Lowly hero marries princess."

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Two Ghost Stories (Series Four) & A Shapeshifting Tale From Ancient China

(1) The Tale of Ji Kang

Ji Kang was a renowned scholar of the third century A.D.; he was also an inveterate traveler, often on the road, visiting all the places he fancied seeing.

One time he walked in a southwesterly direction out of Loyang for more than ten li and found himself in a town called Huayangting. There, he decided to spend the night. He found lodging for one in an inn.

In those days Huayangting had a bad reputation as a dangerous place, many murders having been committed there. Ji Kang was aware of this but not concerned. In the middle of the night, he took out his lute and started strumming some tunes.

Suddenly a sound, much like a mumbling of pleasure, drifted through the room like a breeze of air.

"Who is there?" asked Ji Kang, continuing to play and not missing a chord.

"Just someone who died in this room long ago," said the voice. "When I heard you play, I had to come back. Your music is so beautiful. You'll have to excuse me. I didn't die a pretty death. I want so much to come face to face with you but wish you won't be revolted by what you see."

"It's very late and dark outside. Come on and appear," replied Ji Kang. "You might indeed not look very pretty, but, anyway, what do I care about how you look!"

The ghost instantly appeared and grabbed Ji Kang by the head.

"Your music has made me very, very happy, more than you can ever know. It makes me feel alive again."

Ji Kang did not act afraid. Instead, he and the ghost carried on a lively conversation about music for the rest of the night.

"Say, may I borrow your lute and play something?" asked the ghost at some point very early in the morning.

Ji Kang handed him the lute. The ghost began to play.

He's not very good at all, thought Ji Kang.

Suddenly, though, the ghost started playing a melody that undoubtedly no mortal had ever heard before, and he handled it exquisitely. Ji Kang was enraptured throughout the rest of this performance. He asked the ghost to teach him this tune. It took much of the early morning, but Ji Kang finally learned how to play it.

Of all I have ever learned to play, thought Ji Kang, nothing comes close to being as beautiful as this unearthly song.

The ghost knew how much Ji Kang valued this melody but told him he must never pass the song or its technique on to any other person. He also refused to tell Ji Kang his name.

When the darkness began to give way to light, the ghost said, "Although you and I can never meet again, I will never forget you. I now have to leave you, and it makes me very sad to do so."

With that, he disappeared.


from Hanwei liuchao guiguai xiaoshuo, Yeh Qingbing, ed. pp. 84-85. Originally from Liu Yiqing.
Liu Yiqing (403-444 A.D.) was more famous for another work, Shishuo xinyu (New Chats on What's Happening in the World).

Motifs: E378, "Ghost continues to remain in usual surroundings after death; E402.1.1.; "Ghost speaks"; E402.1.3; E554, "Ghost plays musical instrument."

(2) An Old Man and His Daughter

During the time of the Eastern Jin, in Guzhang County (now Northwest Anji County, Zhejiang Province) there lived an old man and his beautiful and unmarried daughter. They lived together up on Shen Mountain, and there they were utterly devoted to each other.

Now, a certain young man named Guang of nearby Yukang County approached the old man and asked for his daughter's hand in marriage. No. The old man refused.

And so, for a while, that was that.

One day the old man died, so his daughter had to go into town to purchase a coffin. On the road into town, she encountered Guang, who had not lost one whit of his passion for her.

"Look, " she said to him, "I'm all worn out to the bone with what I have to do to prepare for Father's funeral. If you would so kindly watch Father's remains until I can come back with a coffin, I promise to marry you." Guang quickly agreed. "Feel free," added the daughter, "to slaughter any of the pigs in the pen outside our house."

Well, that was also fine with Guang, so he hurried up to the young lady's house.

Guang had no sooner reached the front door of the Shen Mountain home when he heard from within the house the sounds of applause and laughter.

He took a peek inside.

The room was full of ghosts surrounding the old man's body, poking, pulling, disturbing and, worse, mocking it!

Guang found a long piece of wood that could be used as a club, rushed in the house with a loud roar like that of a madman, and scattered the ghosts. The ghosts scattered, running in all directions.

He then took his place by the corpse and began his vigil, breaking it once to go outside to slaughter a pig.

Near midnight, as Guang was feasting on some pork ribs, a long hand--the hand of an old ghost--reached out to Guang to beg for something to eat. Guang turned around and grabbed the old ghost by the shoulder. The more the ghost resisted, the tighter Guang held.

Outside, the rest of the ghosts had gathered.

"You greedy devil," they chanted, mocking Guang, "unable to part with one bite! You'll have your comeuppance, your heavenly payback! Just wait and see!"

Guang turned to the old ghost and said, "It must have been you who had killed this nice old man!
I bet you stole his life essence. Well, if you stole it, you can also return it! Give it back, or else I won't let go of you."

"I am not the one!" cried the old ghost. "My children are the ones who killed him." The old ghost then tilted his head towards the direction of his ghostly children. "Give 'im back his life!"

Then, moments later, the old man who had been lying virtually dead started to breathe and then to stir. Guang let go of the old ghost.

Then not long after, the daughter arrived back home, with porters in tow in carrying a coffin. Imagine her surprise to see her dear old father sitting up, alive and well!

And so a tragedy was turned into a joyous occasion.

And yes--the daughter still kept her promise. Guang and she were promptly wed!


from Hanwei liuchao guiguai xiaoshuo, p. 168. Originally by Liu Yiqing.

The old ghost in the story and his mob are reminiscent of the so-called "hungry ghosts," though he and the other specters are not specifically described as such. Suppose they are indeed hungry ghosts, otherwise known as "wandering ghosts" or the euphemism used by rural Taiwanese, "the good brothers." They are the ghosts for whom there is no one left to offer sacrifices; hence, they wander the earth vainly in search of food and drink. Hungry ghosts, the preta of Indian Buddhism and the Hinduism that preceded it, have been popularly depicted as having ultra thin necks, pinhole mouths and huge extended abdomens, all indicative of those who are starving, craving food but physically unable to ingest it (see Gods, Ghosts & Ancestors by David K. Jordan [Berkeley: University of California Press], pp. 34-35). Author Lin Liming writes that there are thirty-six varieties of hungry ghosts. Among them are the following: ghosts that "eat water," "drink blood," "eat the wind"; and ghosts of "the wide open spaces"; "the social world," and "filthy alleys" (Guiyu shijie [The world of the ghostly domain]; Xiamen: Xiamen Daxue Chubanshe, 1993, p. 60).

Motifs: E337.1.3.1., "Sounds of ghostly party"; E402.1.1.3.,"Ghosts cries & screams"; E499, "Meetings of the dead."

(3) A Filial Son

In the time of the Jin, there was an impoverished young man whose mother had just died. Because he had no money to pay for a proper funeral, he had the coffin taken up Mount Liang. There, he located a plot of land, dug a hole, and began to construct a tomb for his mother. In the evening, he slept by the fire in his makeshift camp.

He worked day and night on the tomb. He was still working on the tomb early in the evenng when a young mother carrying a baby stumbled into his camp. Could she and her baby spend the night next to the warmth of his fire? He of course said yes and continued to work on the tomb well into the darkness.

It was now late at night, and the filial son decided to turn in for the night, to go to sleep in his little camp by his mother's grave.

He turned to look at the woman and child sleeping by the fire; he didn't, however, see a woman and child.

No, what he saw was a fox cradling in its paws a black crow!

He crept up to them and beat them both to death. He then threw their remains down a pit.

The next day a man came by the camp and tomb.

"Excuse me," he asked. "Last night my wife and child were here. Do you know where they are?"

"There was no woman or child here last night. There were just a fox and a crow, and I killed them both."

"You killed my wife and baby! How can you now turn around and say that you killed a fox and a crow? Very well, then. Can you show me where you put the two bodies?"

"Follow me."

The filial son led the man to the pit. The son looked down, expecting to see the carcasses of two animals. The fox and crow were gone! Lying in the pit were a dead woman and a baby!

The husband of the dead woman grabbed the son, subdued him and tied him up. He then dragged the young man to the local government house and demanded the filial son pay with his life for the murder of the woman and her baby.

"Please, Your Honor," he told the magistrate, "don't believe this man! This is obviously a case of shapeshifting! Please bring out your best bloodhound! It will get to the bottom of this problem!"

The magistrate thought about what the filial son had said, snapped his fingers and had a bloodhound and a tracker brought in. The husband took one look at the bloodhound and promptly turned into a fox right on the spot. Before the fox could get away, though, the tracker shot it dead with an arrow.

The magistrate ordered the son released.

The son returned to the mountain and to the pit. Lying in the pit were the small carcass of a fox and the even smaller one of a crow.


from Hanwei liuchao guiguai xiaoshuo, pp. 169-170. Originally by Liu Yiqing.

This is a very early example of what would become a staple of East Asian supernatural lore, the shapeshifter. Here the primary beast is the fox, a creature that can combine the characteristics of cunning, dangerousness, voluptuousness, and charm. For two folktales about shapeshifters--respectively a tiger and a wolf--see the postings for 6/8/07 and 3/26/08. For still other stories, especially those about were-foxes, see the famous
Ming dynasty anthology, Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling, available in many English translations.
Crows and ravens have traditionally been considered ominous throughout the Western world but not necessarily in the Far East, where in ancient times the crow or raven was considered to be a sun symbol and a model of filial piety for the belief that it feeds its parents (Chevalier & Gheerbrant, p. 789; see 2/26/2008 for full citation.) However, folklore expert Professor Ren Cheng writes that while Manchus might revere the crow or raven and set out a sacrifice for it, the majority Han Chinese of Nanjing, Jiangsu region, would in former times upon hearing a raven or crow cry early in the morning recite a special seven-character formula to avert ill luck (Zhongguo minjian jinji [Chinese Folk Taboos], Taipei: Hanxin, 1996, p. 564).