Friday, September 16, 2011

Sweet . . . Fragrant . . . Gas?! (Taiwan)

There were once two brothers who lived somewhere off in the countryside. The older brother was named Zheng Shuihuo, and the younger brother, Zheng Jinmu.

While they were born of both the same mother and father, the two couldn't have been more different. Shuihuo was ruthless, heartless, capable of great wrongdoing. He was his town's local bully, fighting just for the fun and meanness of it all and always taking advantage of the weakness of others. The result--everybody in the countryside feared him, avoided him, and cursed him behind his back. Jinmu, on the other hand, was quiet, deferential, modest, and sincere. He was welcomed and respected by all.

And despite more than once being beaten and having his lip split by his Shuihuo, Jinmu still treated his brother with respect. Shuihuo, was after all, his older brother.

Then came the day to split up the family property after the remaining parent had passed away. Unfortunately, Shuihuo had strong-armed the local mediator to award him, Shuihuo, the lion's share: the house, the best farm fields, and so on. The three--Shuihuo, Jinmu, and the mediator--sat down in the house to discuss the distribution.

"The ancients said," the mediator spoke, "'As a tree grows branches, so the branches spread.' Thus, gentlemen, it's entirely proper for you to split from each other and start your own families. Life will thus be easier, more convenient for you both.

"You're still a young fellow, Jinmu," continued the mediator. "What do you, at your age, need such a huge spread for? Therefore, your brother has generously agreed to give you the plot of land along the foothills as well as an ox."

Jinmu nodded and thanked his brother and the mediator. Yes, the whole thing had been rigged from the start, and Jinmu knew this. However, he didn't quibble; that wasn't his nature. He agreed to the transaction.

The deal was done; the papers were signed; the mediator left.

"We're finished here," said Shuihuo to his brother no sooner than the mediator had exited the gate. "Don't even think about coming over here with your open palms, expecting a handout. The door is over there. Keep off my land."

Jinmu, who had never had any intention of asking his older brother for money, nodded and left for his portion of the land, the sandy stretch of field along the foothills that came with an old ox and a small hut that Jinmu would have to call "home."

Jinmu rose early the next morning and began plowing what was now his land. Working this basically useless plot of sand would be a challenge, but he decided to make the most of it.

Day after day he worked the land with no obvious result. One thing that did happen, however, was he grew attached to the old ox that came with the land and the hut. It tried its best to do the work expected of it, but Jinmu didn't push the poor creature too much. Instead, he let it rest under a tree much of the time.

The ox and I--we're in this together, he thought. It depends on me, and I depend on it as well. It can make or break my rice bowl.

He would lovingly stroke the ox's neck and throat, feeding it grass and other grains that it loved. He grew to love this old ox and sensed it loved him back as well.

One day, he left the ox tied to the tree while he went out for a bunch of grass stalks. The creature seemed to be all right when he left. When he returned, the ox was now lying on the ground, still, not breathing. From its mouth came a very bitter stench. It was clear the ox was dead.

Jinmu knelt beside his animal friend and partner and cried and cried.

Now what shall I do? he thought. I've lost my right arm and hand . . .

He dug a hole for the ox near the tree and buried it.

Three days later, he took a nap next to the ox's grave. He had a dream in which cold ripples of a wind bathed his face and eyes. In this dream he looked up to see the ox munching grass right before him and continually nodding its head, as if happy.

The ox then said, "Tomorrow you will notice a fruit growing upon my tree. This fruit, once ripe, can be picked and eaten. This fruit will earn you great fame and fortune . . ."

Jinmu woke up with a start. The ox was gone. He looked up at the tree--there wasn't a hint of a fruit growing on the tree.

That night, Jinmu tossed and turned on his cot, anxiously awaiting daylight and a chance to rush out to see if there was any fruit on the tree. As soon as the sun was over the horizon, he ran out to the tree, and, sure enough, there were strange fruits growing all over the tree. Not only that, but they appeared ripe. Jinmu picked one.

The ox said I could eat them and that they would bring me 'great fame and fortune,' he thought. All right, well here I go . . .

He ate one. It was delicious, sweet like honey. He ended up eating ten of them.

Hmm, he thought. They're filling. Now I don't need to prepare lunch.
As he walked back to his hut, a sudden deep pressure and dull pain gripped his bowels. He had the desperate urge to relieve himself. Holding his stomach, he half-waddled, half-quick stepped back to his outhouse.

Instead of relieving himself in the manner he thought he would, he relieved himself in a different manner: he emitted an extremely thunderous passage of wind. Instead of the usual foul odor that would accompany such an eruption came instead the most fragrant, most redolent scent imaginable, an aroma akin to the scent one might smell in the fanciest perfume and incense shops.

Huh! he thought.

Now he had no idea for what good purpose this fruit could be ultimately used, but, nonetheless, he was pleased that the tree was laden with these large, red fruits.

Meanwhile, over in town, the area's wealthiest man, Merchant Zhao, lay bedridden with an unidentifiable disease. He was the kind of stingy man of whom the ancients had said "would not pull out a single hair to save the world." A small army of physicians had failed to cure him of his illness, so all day long for many weeks he lay in his bed, moaning. At times, he would resemble a madman, suddenly screaming and pushing his hands forward to drive away horrible green-faced demons, visible only to him, with long claws and fangs. At other times, he would act like a small child and giggle at things only he could see or hear.

His wife, son and daughter were all at their wits' end about what to do.

Now one day a very raggedy old beggar, looking for a handout or some rice, approached the Zhao family mansion gate. The servant manning the gate waved his arms furiously.

"Old beggar! Get away from here!" shouted the guard. "The master of the house is ill and doesn't need to be bothered by the likes of you!"

The beggar, feelings ruffled, turned away from the gate and headed elsewhere. As he did, he turned his head back to the servant at the gate, laughed and sang a little song he had invented on the spot:

"Ha, ha, ha!

Merchant Zhao lying ill on his bed!

Needs to be saved by a fragrant fart.

Otherwise, he'll soon be dead!

Ha, ha, ha!"

The servant watched the mendicant leave. He thought about the song the man had sung. The more he thought about it, the more it seemed intriguing. Why had the man sung about "a fragrant fart," of all things? Was there even such a thing? Was this one of those off-handed suggestions that sounded so ridiculous, so preposterous that there had to be some merit to it? Could it be one of those things that was crazy but too crazy to overlook?

All these thoughts ran through the servant's head. He immediately left his post and ran through the narrow market streets of the town looking for the beggar, to ask him further what he meant. Maybe--just maybe--the beggar was on to something. Alas, the beggar was nowhere to be found, so the servant immediately ran back to the Zhao mansion and asked to speak with Merchant Zhao himself.

The servant stood before the stricken Zhao on his sickbed and told him what the old beggar had said about "a fragrant fart."

"Are you out of your mind?" shouted Zhao, raising his head from his pillow. "Bodily gas smells awful! It always has and always will! Get out of here with your 'fragrant fart'!"

Mrs. Zhao stepped in to comfort and to calm down her husband.

"Husband," she said, "hush and relax! Don't exert yourself over this. Please just listen. 'Fragrant fart'? Just because a mendicant said it is no reason to discount it. Did the ancients not say, 'Beneath the rags may lie a saint'? Here's what we'll do. We shall put up notices at all the crossroads, offering a great reward, one hundred thousand gold coins, and even the hand of our daughter, to whoever can provide the means of delivering such a . . . a fart! This may be your only option left. Don't pass it up!"

"One hundred thousand gold coins, Wife? Have you too lost your senses? That much money? No, no, no!"

Just then he witnessed one of the leering green demons pop up right in front of his face. He shrieked and waved his hands as those gathered around the bed just shook their heads in pity and dismay.

"Good! Just go and do it!" he cried. "Ten thousand gold coins, fine! Hurry and put the notices up!"

That day the notices went up at all the crossroads.

Soon everyone gathered in tea houses, inns and restaurants was talking about the same thing: Merchant Zhao's offer of one hundred thousand gold coins and his daughter's hand in marriage to whoever could supply a "fragrant fart," whatever that was. Much of the talk centered on the extraordinary amount of cash being offered; however, a very fair amount of the talk concerned the downright loveliness of Miss Zhao, even more beautiful than "Lady Chang O who ascended to the moon," as one wag put it.

All the men of the area longed for the chance to present themselves to Merchant Zhaoto claim the rewards; not one, though, had a clue as to what to do about providing "a fragrant fart."

Soon, the Zhaos' notice came to the attention of the one man who could indeed produce marvelous fragrant gas, Zheng Jinmu. He hurried over to the Zhao mansion; before doing so, however, he gobbled down ten of his special fruits.

By the time he reached the Zhao mansion, his quick steps had slowed down considerably; he wobbled and lurched towards the gate, his hands clutching his abdomen.

"I . . . read . . . your . . . notice . . . I . . . am . . . here . . . to . . . sell . . . my . . . fragrant . . . farts," he moaned to the servant at the gate.

He was hurriedly ushered into Merchant Zhao's bedroom before Mrs. Zhao, their chief servant, and, of course, on the bed, Merchant Zhao himself.

Had they not posted a reward of one hundred thousand gold coins and the offer to marry their daughter for a fragrant passage of wind?

Yes, they had. He was in the right place. Could the young gentleman now . . . er . . . deliver the goods?

Jinmu nodded his head. He turned to Merchant Zhao and painfully raised his two clenched hands in the traditional greeting. He then very gingerly turned around so that his back faced the ill man. He next pulled up his upper garment and bent over, thereupon letting loose the loudest, most window-rattling flatulent outburst in the history of the human race. It seemed to go on forever but must have lasted but a score of seconds or so.

The entire room was instantly bathed in the most wondrous scent, a scent more fragrant than a thousand field of jasmine blossoms or any other redolent flower, for that matter.

Then, it happened.

Merchant Zhao instantly sat up in bed, unaided. He smiled and stretched his arms and continued to breathe in the aroma.

"I . . . I feel wonderful!" he cried. "Yes, I truly feel wonderful!"

Not only that, he no longer saw the demons--in the day or night.

He had Jinmu sit beside him.

"You, young man, get the reward, the full reward!" he told Jinmu.

He made sure the young man received his money and also set the date of the wedding, three days later.

With a smile, Merchant Zhao watched the young man leave. He, Zhao, made a pledge to himself--he would no longer be a miserable skinflint. From that day forward, he successfully lived up to that pledge.

Once married, the first thing Jinmu did with the money was to build a grander tomb, a shrine, for the ox.

That Jinmu was now fabulously wealthy and married to the most beautiful young woman in the region had not escaped the attention of his older brother Shuihuo. He had heard about it while sitting drunk in a tavern, drinking up the proceeds from the sale of his house and failed farm.

Jinmu discovered what had happened to his older brother and felt compassion for him, giving him thirty thousand gold coins and telling him to turn a new leaf.

With tears flowing, Shuihuo bowed before his younger brother and accepted the money; more importantly he accepted his younger brother's advice as well. He became a new man, a better man, the kind of man his younger brother was, with or without riches.


from Taiwan minjian gushi jingxuan, Huang Deshi, ed. Taipei: Qingwen Publishing, 1981; pp. 12-24.

In another version of this story, the source of which I can't remember, the older brother suffers a very serious comeuppance at the conclusion. Discovering his younger brother's new wealth and marriage to the lovely Miss Zhao, he asks him how he did it. "Very simple," responds Jinmu. "I ate lots and lots of meat--mountains of it, and then advertised my 'sweet gas' for sale. Try it!" Arrogant and foolish Shuiho then begins consuming incredible amounts of meat, to the point where he does the unthinkable: he even butchers his own ox or water buffalo and eats it as well. He advertises his "wares," finds a wealthy buyer, passes wind in front of the face of this powerful individual and then is severely beaten within an inch of his life.

The brothers' names are the basic Chinese elements: Shuihuo (water & fire) and Jinmu (gold & wood), stressing their generic identity.

The Chinese title is "Mai Xiangpi," or "Selling Fragrant Broken Wind." This story or versions of it are apparently known throughout China. In A Type Index of Chinese Folktales (Folklore Fellows Communication 223; Helsinki, 1978, pp. 89-90), Ting Nai-tung labels this as 503m, "Selling Sweet Gas." For a similar Cantonese tale, "The Bamboo Grove of the Loyal Dog," see 6/26/07. Motifs: B580, "Animal helps human to wealth"; Q51, "Kindness to animal rewarded."

Monday, September 12, 2011

Some Taiwanese Folk Beliefs

The following items come from a couple of sources and may reflect certain superstitions, taboos, and traditions that stem from bits and pieces of long-forgotten and discarded legend and myth.

1. Peaches of the Immortals & Celestial Dew
Peaches of the immortals exist up in the heavens, it is said, and that if a mortal is able to eat one he or she can live forever without aging. Celestial dew, likewise up in the heavens, can allow a person, if he or she bathes in it, to achieve unparalleled wisdom.

2. Tiangou--"Heavenly Hound"
The sky dog, Tiangou, is responsible for both solar and lunar eclipses. These occur whenever the heavenly hound bites a chunk out of, respectively, the sun and the moon.

3. The Golden Bird
The sun itself is nothing but a huge golden bird with three legs.

4. The Sun's Birthday & the Sun's Hideous Face
The sun has its birthday on the nineteenth day of the third month, according to the traditional Chinese (lunar) calendar. Alas, the sun is so ugly that in order to hide its face from the rest of us, it is forced to shower our eyes with blinding rays, causing us to look away and not to see its horrible visage.

5. When the Sun & the Moon Are Ill
Solar eclipses occur when the sun is sick; in like manner, a lunar eclipse takes place when the moon is not well. The sun willingly allows itself to become ill so that the human race as a whole does not. Therefore, during a solar eclipse, people pray for the well-being and swift recovery of the kind, beneficent sun. The moon's illness is caused by a demon connected to the Peach Blossom Girl. Thus, during a lunar eclipse, people bang gongs to drive away the noxious being and to restore the moon to health.

6. Don't Count the Stars!
Counting the stars in the sky is a very bad idea. At the very least, it can cause scabies. There are, of course, an infinite number of stars above, and if one insists on wasting valuable time to count all the stars, even if one disregards the threat of scabies, the outcome could lead to death.

7. Respecting the Moon
Another bad idea is pointing a finger at the moon and scolding or cursing it. This could cause the moon to send down its "lunar knife" to snip off the offender's earlobes.

8. Red (or Bare) Dog Day
This is the third day of the lunar calendar new year. On this day, we should not engage in activities outdoors or host guests. "Red" or "bare" (the classical character for "red" or the modern character for "naked," [Mandarin: chi; Taiwanese/Hokkien: chhiah]) is also part of the Taiwanese/Hokkien compound for "poverty,"san-chhiah.

9. Some Lucky Dream Symbols
to enter a great hall . . . a sign of impending wealth and ennoblement
to see a great front door or large, imposing gate . . . a sign of impending wealth and ennoblement
to witness clouds billow in every direction . . . a sign of prosperous business dealings
to see surging river or ocean waters . . . a sign of great fortune
to butcher a hog . . . a sign of great fortune
to ride a dog and ascend into the heavens . . . a sign of future ennoblement
to sharpen a sword . . . a sign of great fortune
to be injured physically by another . . . a sign of luck
to witness heaven and earth united as one . . . a sign that one's deepest desire is about to come true
to travel through the mountains in the spring or summer . . . a sign of luck
to burn incense below the moon . . . a sign of great luck
to be attached to a snake . . . a sign of impending great inheritance

10. Some Unlucky Dream Symbols
to be killed by a dragon . . . a sign of great misfortune
to see a crab . . . a sign of future illness
to fall into a latrine or toilet and be unable to get out . . . a sign of great misfortune
to stand up in the midst of water . . . a sign of great misfortune
to see a monkey . . . a sign of future legal problems
to see oneself enter hell for thievery . . . a sign of great misfortune
to see a dragon enter a well . . . a sign of impending mental debility
to see an already dead person eating . . . a sign of great misfortune
to kill a turtle . . . a sign of impending death
to lose a water buffalo . . . a sign of impending death

11. Rain
Rain is actually ocean water breathed in by dragons and then expelled from the heavens. It may also be heavenly river water scattered to the earth below by a god.

12. Brides-to-be, Stay Away From Chicken Blood!
A young woman should not eat chicken blood just before her wedding lest she appear inexplicably red-faced.


from (1) Taiwan minjian gushi, Cang Dewu, ed.; Taipei: Yong'an Chubanshe, 1976; (2) Taiwan minsu, Wu Yingtao; Taipei: Zhongwen, 1984.

The Chinese celestial sky dog may be derived from a star deity. later becoming an entity that could ward off evil, especially the menace of fox goblins. However, in other traditions, it could preside over military disasters. It eventually evolved, in Japan, into the famed tengu, a malevolent creature of the mountain forests which was capable of abducting children. One species in Japan was purely bird-like, with the appearance of a huge malevolent crow. The other looked like yamabushi, or mountain hermit-monks, with a human appearance but also a very long nose.

The Peach Blossom Girl is a celestial servant girl and immortal in her own right, appearing with legendary Zhou Gong (the Duke of Zhou) in many legends and opera stories. She is noted for her ability with magic.

Counting, pointing at or otherwise disparaging heavenly bodies such as the moon or a comet is not a taboo just in Chinese culture. A version of a North American Indian folktale, "The Star Husbands Tale," tells of two sisters who lie down in the tall grass one warm summer's night and look up at the stars, particularly a red star and a gray one. They jokingly suggest they would like to marry those stars. They fall asleep in the grass and wake up to find that they are now indeed up in the sky married to the stars, the younger one married to the red star and the older sister, to the gray star. If only they hadn't looked up, pointed at the stars and brazenly claimed to want to marry them . . .