Monday, December 31, 2012

Ghost Brides -- Two Folktales About Ghosts

(1) The Ghost Wife Pays a Debt of Gratitude (Inner Mongolian)

There was a poor young fellow, a day laborer too impoverished ever to get married.

One day, his neighbor, a very wealthy young widow, asked him over to do some work.

"How can I help you?" he asked.

"Go to the well. I believe I dropped my hairpin down into it. Can you retrieve it for me?"

The young man agreed to retrieve the hairpin for her. Having done so, he left. However, as the young man later heard, the mother of the widow's late husband had accused the young woman and the worker of improprieties. Based on her suspicions, the poor young woman was beaten to death and buried.

That was that. As for the young man, he returned to his life of toil.

Something strange in his life did begin to occur, however. Someone was now preparing wonderful meals for him in his home every night before he returned from a day's work. One night, he came back early to spy through the window and see who had been cooking for him.

It was none other than the young woman--the widow--who had been beaten to death and buried not long ago!

"But . . . how . . . is . . . this . . . possible? Are . . . you  . . . not . . . dead? " he asked.

"No, I'm alive, as you can see!" the young woman replied. "The truth is that I escaped from that house to be with you!"

She certainly did appear to be alive and well. The eyes are not supposed to lie.

They ended up marrying.

The young man certainly did not lack good food, for his bride continued to whip up the same delicious meals for him, which were always waiting for him on the table upon his nightly return from work.

How incredibly fragrant and flavorful these meals are! he thought.

However, one night he must have returned home early, for he discovered the secret that lay behind his bride's cooking secrets. He witnessed his wife standing over the freshly cooked food, dripping blood from her fingertips all over the food!

"What is going on?" he asked. "Tell the truth!"

She stood there, saying nothing. He asked her insistently again and again.

Finally, after the third time, she said, "All right, I am a ghost . . ."

"Yes," he replied, "I suspected as much . . ."

Instead of fleeing from her, he discovered he loved her all the more and was more determined than ever to remain with her as her husband.

Now that he knew she was a ghost, she asked him for a favor.

"Of course. What do you wish?"

"Please go to my grave and dig up my bones and remove them from that place to some other location no one knows about."

He did so, and shortly after, the two of them moved to Horqin (in Inner Mongolia). There, she gave birth to a daughter. The three of them stayed together and lived very prosperously.

Gu Xijia, Zhongguo minjian gushi leixing yanjiu [Research in the types of Chinese folktales], Liu Shouhua, ed. Wuhan: Huazhong Shifan, 2002; pp. 226-227.

What might be interesting to note in this tale and the one that follows is that the living man and female ghost remain together without apparently any ill effects. The previous ghost stories organized into six series (3/26/09; 5/4/09; 7/4/09; 10/1/09; 4/8/10; and 8/16/12) have been literary legends, with "actual" names and locations recorded. The ghosts in these stories, beautiful, charming, handsome or otherwise, have largely been noxious and therefore harmful to human life. The present two stories are folktales, not legends. In this first story, aside from one mention of an actual town (Horqin), no other names, not even those of the characters, are mentioned, as is often the case with folktales, which do not delve into the specifics tied to legends. (Two generic names are mentioned in the second folktale below, but the setting remains unidentified.) These folktales are diachronically presented; they could have occurred during any dynasty or era and are timeless, while legends are often linked to a particular era and location. Whether character or place names are given or not, these two folktales, like other folktales, are simpler and usually relate a poor but deserving individual's rise in status. Moreover, the ghosts in these folktales are not baneful and can, in fact, behave  in time biologically and emotionally much the way a human would. 

Another interesting aspect is in the folktale, unlike the legend, dreams and/or wishes can come true. A poor laborer can marry someone, albeit a ghost, from the upper class, thus breaching class differences, an event that would not normally occur in the ostensibly realistic legend and almost certainly never in actual feudalistic-era life. 

Motifs: D1041, "Blood as magic [herb]"; E363, "Ghost returns to aid living"; cE422, "Living corpse"; E474, "Cohabitation of living person and ghost"; E495, "Marriage to a ghost"; H976, "Task performed by mysterious stranger"; cN831.1, "Mysterious housekeeper." 

(2) Paper Manikin Wife (Han Chinese)

Impoverished young Li Guang lost a sum while gambling, so he went to his uncle to borrow some money.

"I'm getting married and need some money!" he told him. The uncle believed him and lent him the amount he requested.

There was one further matter. "Don't be surprised if one of these days I pop over to see your bride!" said the uncle.

That put Li Guang into a bind. What could he do? Obviously, if his uncle showed up and there was no bride to be seen, that would make Li Guang a huge liar. He wracked his brain for a solution. He finally thought up a plan. He went out and bought a life-sized paper manikin of a woman and propped it up in his bed to await
his uncle's eventual visit.

Finally, the day came for the uncle's visit.

Lo and behold, right before the uncle's eyes, from off the bed came a maiden--a real, live young lady!

The uncle was very impressed; his nephew had indeed married a lovely young woman. He then left.

Li Guang wasn't one to waste an opportunity or look a gift horse in the mouth, so he consented to live with her as his wife and did so for one hundred days.

On the hundredth day, the bride admitted that she was not a mortal but a ghost.

"For us to be together," she said, "there's something you must do."

"Tell me what it is, and I shall do it!" replied Li Guang.

"Go to the Liu family tombs. There, you shall find the freshly dug grave of Miss Liu, who passed away very recently. Dig up her grave and uncover her remains. I shall borrow them as my own to live in this world with you."

"Very well . . ."

And so Li Guang went ahead and did exactly what his wife had instructed. His wife's plan worked, and Miss Liu's body was now inhabited by the spirit of Li Guang's wife. Miss Liu was thus reanimated, and Li Guang married her.

Gu Xijia, Zhongguo minjian gushi leixing yanjiu, p. 227. 

The story implies that the ghost had not originally been the spirit of Miss Liu. 

Motifs: E.474, "Cohabitation of living person and ghost"; E495.2, "Marriage to a ghost"; E726, "Soul enters body and animates it"; and F990, "Inanimate object acts as if living." 

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Tough Man & The Rooster's Eggs -- Two Chinese-Language Tales From Russia (Dungan Hui)

(1) The Tough Man

Some folks were amazed to see a woman leading a donkey, atop which was her husband.

"Aiya," some local menfolk said, "we might be afraid of our own wives, but not that man! Come on! Let's catch up to them and talk to him!"

The wags then ran after the short procession and stopped right in front of the woman.  Before they could say anything, they noticed the man on the donkey was crying.

"Aiya," he cried, addressing the people before him, "my wife hit my leg, and now I can't walk!"

"Aiya," one of the group said, "he's afraid of his wife! Let's leave . . ."

Dungan minjian gushi chuanshuo ji [A collection of Dungan folktales and legends], Li Fuqing [Boris Riftin], ed. Shanghai: Shanghai Wenyi Chubanshe, 2011; pp. 196-197. 

The Dungan people are Hui (Chinese Muslims) who live across the border from the far west of China in neighboring Russia, Kazakhstan, and other former states of the USSR. Some Dungan may also be partially of Kazakh or Kirghiz descent. The Dungan, like their Hui cousins in China, are Sunni and preserve many Chinese customs. Their ancestors left China in the late 19th century due to economic and probably political conditions. Their form of Mandarin preserves many archaisms; for example, instead of "president," they tend to say "emperor." 

Professor Boris Riftin, the Russian academic who compiled the volume of Dungan tales from which the preceding and the following tales come, is a giant in the world of Chinese folklore research. I would venture to say that he is the preeminent non-Chinese expert on Chinese myths, folktales, and legends today. He has done research in China and in the past decade was a visiting professor at a university on Taiwan. Unfortunately, little if any of his work has been translated into English. His first exposure to the world of Chinese folklore was in the early 1950's, when he happened to encounter members of the Dungan community in the former Soviet Union. 

The browbeaten husband, as witnessed in Laurel and Hardy two-reelers and  Fawlty Towers, is a staple of comedy. This very brief humorous anecdote from a bygone era about a husband who from afar puts on a good front is reminiscent of the Chinese joke about the milquetoast husband who one day while being scolded suddenly develops some backbone and talks back to his combative wife about how, once a man makes up his mind, he will do what he wants to do. His wife then becomes furious and chases the husband to the bedroom, where he takes refuge under the bed. When ordered to come out from under the bed, he shouts: "No! I'm staying right here! When a man makes up his mind, he sticks to it and no one can make him change it!" This is what Taiwanese today might label as "the mouse's bravery." 

(2) The Rooster's Eggs

A local yamen tyrant turned to his yamen runner one day and said, "I feel like having a couple of rooster's eggs. I'll give you three days to come up with them. If, by the third day, you don't bring me any, I'll put you to death."

The runner was dismissed and left. On the way home, he thought, Where in the world would I ever be able to find such a thing as a rooster's egg? 

While at home, he neither ate, nor drank tea, nor spoke a word.

"What's bothering you? Why do you look so gloomy?" asked his wife.

"Aiya, I'll tell you why. The Laoye (i.e., "old grandfather," or local mandarin) has just ordered me to bring him two rooster's eggs in three days' time."

"Don't let it worry you," his wife replied. "On the third day, I shall go to the yamen and see the Laoye. Let me handle this."

The third day arrived, and the wife showed up at the yamen instead of her husband, the runner.

"What are you doing here?" asked the Laoye. "Where's your man?"

"Oh, Laoye, he couldn't be here today!" she replied.

"And why not?"

"He's giving birth to a baby!"

"What?! You shameless woman, saying such a thing! Who's ever seen a man giving birth to a baby?"

"Who, Laoye, has ever seen a rooster lay eggs?"

The mandarin didn't say another word!

Dungan minjian gushi chuanshuo ji, Li Fuqing, ed. ; p. 198.

For a tale with a similar theme, see the Sino-Korean tale from 1/7/08. A yamen was the local government house or office in imperial China, the seat of the mandarin's power. 

Motifs: H919.4, "Impossible task assigned by (official);  J1191, "Reductio ad absurdum."

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all my readers and your families!


Fred Lobb  羅老师

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Weird & Eerie Stories From Old China -- Series Two

The weird, bizarre, and inexplicable from old China--just about everything anomalous except ghosts.  

(1) Fox Pearl

The following is a story told by Mr. Liu Quanbai.

Liu's wet nurse had a son named Xing'ai, who, when he was young, would hide himself beside some country path and set up a net as a booby trap to catch boars and foxes.

Liu's estate was at the foot of a mountain, and so on one evening, Xing'ai set his net up to the west of the estate, half a li down the road. Xing'ai was patiently sitting by the road, hidden, when he heard footsteps on the road.

In the darkness he could make out some kind of small figure on the ground near the net. By and by, the figure slowly stood up, revealing itself to be a young woman clad in red. The woman then sidestepped the net and ran towards two old disused carts by the road. There, she stopped and grabbed a rat, which she devoured alive.

It was then Xing'ai sneaked up on her, dropping his net over her, ensnaring her. Xing'ai then gave her a clubbing, which would normally kill a fox. However, the fox woman remained alive, and this gave Xing'ai pause for some thought. He had seen her transform herself from a smaller figure into that of a human; however, the transformation had largely been in the dark, in the shadows. In the back of his mind, there was still some doubt she could very well be an actual person; on the other hand, if she did happen to be a shape-shifting fox, it would be too dangerous and irresponsible of him to let her roam the roads. And then there was the fact that he had seen her eat a live rat on the spot, an act people were not normally known to do.

He decided to throw her, enclosed in the net, into the [dried, empty] pond for the night. He then went home and told his parents about what had happened.

Early the next morning, Xing'ai returned to the pond, where he discovered the woman had long since revived. Convinced she was a shape-shifting fox, he struck her with an ax. Immediately, she fell to the ground and turned back into a fox.

Xing'ai was overjoyed. He had subdued and killed a noxious being, and so he carried the fox back home.

On the road back home, he encountered an old monk, who pointed out to Xing'ai that the fox was indeed still alive.

"Don't kill it," the old monk said. "Let it live. In the mouth of such a fox, there is a 媚珠 (meizhu, "a pearl of attraction"), which would make the owner, if he can obtain it, the most beloved, desired person around! Now, allow me to tell how you may extract this pearl . . . "

Xing'ai took the fox home, bound her front paws and then her back, and placed her in a cage, where he kept  and fed her for the next several days. Then, the old monk came over and outside Xing'ai's home, buried some bottles in the ground so that the mouths of the bottles were level with the dirt. In each bottle were two
slabs of fresh roast pork.

Xing'ai  next let the fox loose near the bottles.

If there's one thing a fox loves, it's eating roast pork. The fox instantly ran towards the mouths of the buried bottles. The fox, however, could not retrieve the pork from the bottles, for the openings of the bottles were much smaller than her own mouth. She lay before bottle after bottle, her mouth locked onto each opening, desperately trying to get the meat.

The slabs of pork grew cold, so while the fox was restrained,  Xing'ai added some fresh, sizzling roast pork to each bottle.  Once again the fox attacked the mouth of each bottle, attempting to get to the pork but all to no avail.

The process was repeated over and over. Soon, each bottle was nearly full of savory pork that the fox could not reach. Finally, the fox lay before one bottle, again tried to reach the pork, and salivated copiously. A small object rolled out of her mouth, and she put her head down and died.

Xing'ai bent down to look at the small round object, no bigger than a weiqi, or go, tile. Before him lay the fox pearl.

Xing'ai gave the fox pearl to his mother, who kept it on her person. It is said that Xing'ai's father, for the first time or not, became totally infatuated with his wife.

Guangyi ji [Record of broadly odd things] by  Dai Fu in Zhongguo qitan [Talks on bizarre matters in China],
Lin Yaochuan, ed. Taipei: Changchunshu Shufang, 1977; pp. 68-69. 

I wish to thank Dr. Ulrich Theobald, a specialist in classical Chinese history, literature and technology, for his very kind help and time spent in providing me information about Dai Fu. For those interested in Chinese culture, technology, literature and art prior to the establishment of the Republic, I highly recommend Dr. Theobald's encyclopedic website:

Dai Fu was a writer who flourished between the Tang Tianbao and Zhenyuan eras (respectively, A.D. 742-756 and 785-805), dying at the age of 57. A biographer and short story writer, he came from what is now Anhui Province.  Liu Quanbai was a scholar who likewise lived during the Tang Dynasty. 

Foxes are prime shape-shifters in East Asian folklore and possess an alluring essence. They can turn themselves into men or women, usually women, though, and do great  harm to those they encounter and bewitch, the result of which is often a fatal encounter for the incautious human. While the Japanese have two attitudes towards foxes--reverence towards the fox spirit Inari, the Shinto deity of rice and agriculture, and fear and avoidance towards the arch-trickster Kitsune of folktales--the Chinese attitude in popular secular literature and folklore is less ambiguous. The fox shape-shifter is regarded as a malevolent enchanter/enchantress and troublemaker, though, to be fair, there are also Northern Chinese traditions in which the "fox immortal" (狐仙) is respected. Specific shrines exist where offerings are made to this spirit. 

The shape-shifting fox in this story, unlike those in many other stories, doesn't utter human speech. She doesn't attempt to beguile Xing'ai with sweet words or her alluring charm, hallmarks of the fox enchantress. 

Pearls in general are linked to the moon and water and are reputedly aphrodisiacs and symbols of feminine nature and romance, not to mention all the different applications of pearls in Western religious iconography. A pearl is, of course, a priceless object, and those pearls which do not exist in nature, even more so. A single dragon pearl, for example, was supposed to be worth a king's fortune or more. However, a dragon pearl or, here, a fox pearl, like the elusive blue rose of European alchemists, does not occur in nature; hence, the high value placed on that which we can never own but which we can in our imaginations cherish as representations of various unattainable ideals. 

Motifs: D313.1, "Fox transformed to person"; D1355.3, "Love charm"; H481, "Fox in human form betrays identity."  

(2) Night Watchman

In Hedong Prefecture (now in Shanxi Province) during the reign of the Tang Emperor Wenzong (A.D. 836-840), there lived a young man who served as night watchman. He very energetically and earnestly applied himself to his job, eager to, in his small corner of the empire, uphold the order of the mighty Tang Dynasty.

It was on a night when the moon shone like a mirror in the sky that the night watchman found himself patrolling the area just outside the gates of the Jingfu Temple. Nearby, he spotted someone all in black, or painted in black, sitting on the ground, head tilted forward, knees drawn up to the chin and with arms hugging his forelegs, someone the night watchman suspected was sleeping.

"Hey, you!" he shouted. "This is a public place with strict laws against anyone sleeping here! Don't you realize how badly you are reflecting the great Tang Empire? Do you hear me? Hurry and get up! Outside the city wall, there's an abandoned temple you can sleep in! Don't let me catch you here again!"

The figure remained in the same position,  not moving a muscle.

The night watchman looked about; he and the figure were the only ones around at this time of night. The night watchman was a bit worried but girded up his courage.

"Did you hear what I just said? If you don't beat it, I'll bang this gong, and moments later every guard in the prefecture will be here! Then, you'll be in for it!"

The night watchman stood near the figure and dramatically waved the gong mallet around to scare the figure into getting up and leaving.

The figure indeed suddenly jumped to its feet and, instead of fleeing, headed towards the night watchman. The whiteness of the figure's face contrasted with its black, seemingly painted body and the night. Equally visible were the figure's long teeth. The night watchman was petrified as the figure rushed him, picked him up and threw him upon the ground like a rag doll. The figure then trampled the gong, crumpling it.

The night watchman, with great effort, managed to get to his feet and flee for his life as the figure laughed insanely behind him in the growing distance.

The next day the night watchman told everyone he knew about his encounter with the strange being the night before, but no one believed his story.

A few months later, the main gate of Jingfu Temple was being replaced. Digging a hole for the new gate's foundation, workmen excavated a bizarre painted manikin. The night watchman happened to be there and caused a one-man uproar. That dirt-caked, lifeless black manikin with the white face was the very thing that had attacked him that night!

Xuanshi zhi (Records of the revealed room) by Zhang Du in Meiying zhixia (Small box of bewitching shadows), Chen Peng, ed. Guizhou: Guizhou Renmin Chubanshe, 2011; pp. 194-195. 

Zhang Du was a chronicler of the strange and flourished during the Dazhong period (A.D. 847-860) of the Tang Dynasty. 

Motifs: cD1620.0.1, "Automatic doll"; cD1639, "Automata"; and F990, "Inanimate object acts as if living." 

(3) Fruits of the Forbidden Valley

When the official Li Lun was traveling through Qizhou (today, Jinan, Shandong Province), he passed the time doing some hunting in the countryside. He happened to come across a temple, where he took a room and rested. While there, he suddenly smelled the powerful sweet scent of a fruit, most likely peaches. His curiosity got the better of him, and so he asked a monk about the fruit with the strong fragrance. The monk handed Li Lun a couple of the fragrant peaches.

They were small, about the size of chicken eggs and had an irregular shape. Li Lun, as it turned out, was hungry and ate one of the peaches.

"These are not ordinary peaches, are they?" he asked the monk.

He told Li Lun that the peaches were an offering from the owners of a private orchard.

Li Lun wasn't content with only knowing about the peaches' general location of origin. He pressed the monk for more information about them.

"Well," said the monk, laughing, "this place is about ten li from here, in a deep, dark valley. There, you'll find several hundred peach trees, each bearing the most incredibly sweetest peaches you've ever eaten, peaches like these! By chance, your humble poor monk has actually been there, picked a few peaches and returned with them. Sadly, everyone just about ate them all up, leaving none for me . . ."

"Take me to this place."

"No, that's not possible," said the monk. "The place is too inaccessible; there's not even a road there. It would be too arduous."

Li Lun was so insistent that, finally, the monk relented.

So, they set off!

For the first five li,  they did nothing but navigate through and cut down brambles and thorns. Then, they came to roaring river which would normally discourage nearly anyone from crossing.

"Are you up to this? Is this where we turn back?" asked the monk.

"Don't underestimate me," Li Lun replied. "I'm not some weak, effete scholar!"

"All right, then," said the monk, "let's jump in!"

"Wait! Hold on. I don't know how to swim. Will you carry me across?"

The monk nodded, and Li Lun hopped onto his back as the monk swam across the river. Fortunately, this monk could swim like a duck, and so they made it to the other side.

Reaching the opposite river bank, the monk then led Li Lun in a northwest direction. The pair now had to cross two streams, climb a tall mountain, and ford a water-filled ravine. After several more li along a mountain path, they finally arrived at the hidden valley, a place blanketed by clouds and resounding with the sound of trickling spring water.

And there were the peach trees, hundreds of them.

The monk and Li Lun climbed down and began to pick peaches from the tree, eating peach after peach as if there were no tomorrow.

When they were full and ready to return, the monk caught Li Lun stuffing his robes with peaches.

"Sir, you mustn't do that!" said the monk. "This place is the realm of immortals! You mustn't be too greedy. After all, you are an official, not someone planning to open a fruit stand! My abbot told me that once before someone attempted to take back as many peaches as you have there. He almost ended up getting lost and dying out here!"

Li Lun thought about what the monk had just told him and decided it had merit. Before leaving that place, he decided to take back only two peaches.

They returned back to the temple. Before parting, the monk made Li Lun swear never to tell about what they had done or to reveal the location of the valley. Li Lun agreed.

Once back at his government office, Li Lun took out one of the deep valley peaches  to eat. He was suddenly overcome with the desire to have more and more peaches; the two he had with him would not satisfy him. He sent a courier to the temple to tell the monk to fetch him more peaches. However, the courier came back with the news that the energetic, strong young monk had already passed away while meditating in the lotus position.

Youyang zazu (Sundry offerings from Youyang's chopping board) by Duan Chengshi in Meiying zhixia; pp. 13-14. 

Duan Chengshi (A.D. c.803-863) lived during the Tang Dynasty and came from what is today Binzhou, Shandong Province. The son of a former prime minister, Duan Chengshi became a proofreader and later found renown as a poet. 

Peaches are important symbols of spring time and immortality. The particular peaches in this story are in a restricted, tabooed area, and one of the two men who enter that area pays the ultimate price for the taboo violation of taking/eating food from fairyland. The magical power of the peaches in this story is implied. The description of the peach orchard accentuates its otherworldly, supernatural nature.

Motifs: cC211.1, "Eating in fairyland forbidden"; cC225, "Taboo to eat certain fruit"; c*C621, "Forbidden fruit"; D950.3, "Magic peach tree." 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Stinky Tofu & Eight Treasures Rice Pudding -- the Legends Behind the Two Specialties

(1) Stinky Tofu

Anyone even slightly familiar with Chinese cuisine knows about and has eaten soybean curd, or tofu, the Japanese name for what Chinese people call doufu (豆腐). Tofu was introduced to the Japanese during the Tang Dynasty. I also remember reading somewhere that the famed Japanese soup miso shiro, made from a soybean base with curds floating in the soup, is actually based on a Song or Yuan Dynasty recipe, enjoyed by the ancestors of today's Chinese eight or nine hundred years ago.

There's regular tofu, and then there's stinky tofu (臭豆腐), delicious but truly odoriferous, now enjoyed widely outside Taiwan and China. What follows is the legendary origin of stinky tofu, as explained by writers Shao Wenchuan and Guo Xiangshi:

It seems during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor (1661-1722), there lived in Beijing a man, a failed licentiate, named Wang Zhihe. Having flunked the exam which would have perhaps allowed him entry into the civil service and, maybe, a post as a mandarin, Wang opened up a tofu shop to make ends meet.

One midsummer's day, business was slow, and Wang and his wife had on their hands many plates of tofu that were just not selling. The two of them couldn't eat up all the tofu themselves, so Wang cut the slabs of tofu into cubes, added some wild pepper and other seasoning, and sealed the tofu and other ingredients in some earthen jugs, sealing them tightly.

He then forgot all about the tofu in the jugs.

The autumn came.

Mrs. Wang was straightening up the shop when she first noticed the jugs. She had noticed a sour scent and assumed her husband had left some preserved cabbage nearby.

Just then, Wang entered, spotted the jugs, and said, "Aiya, the tofu! I forgot all about it. Quick, let's open up the jugs and see how the tofu turned out!"

By now, the soybean curds had fermented. Wang scooped up a small portion with his finger. He liked what he tasted.

"Not bad . . . Here, try some," he said, turning to his wife.

His wife agreed. It was delicious.

Together, they poured themselves a bowl of the fermented bean curd and added some ginger, onions, and sesame oil. They served other members of their family, who scarfed up this new style of tofu. Wang opened the other jugs, and the odor attracted passersby. The first customers wolfed down the tofu and couldn't stop praising it.

Wang put up a sign outside his shop: "Wang Zhihe's Southern Garden Soy Sauce." This evocative advertising and word-of-mouth brought in more and more customers. Thus, stinky tofu, the name by which we now know this food, was born.  Its fame spread far and wide and right into the warrens and quarters of the Forbidden Palace itself. Eventually, the Dowager Empress Cixi (1835-1908; reigned 1861 -1908) herself was one of the many who became enthusiasts of stinky tofu. Soon, stinky tofu found its way to Japan and then, America.

Zhongguo xiangsu gushi (Stories of Chinese country customs), Shao Wenchuan & Guo Xiangshi; Taipei: Hanxin, 1999; pp. 55-57. 

The same thing is said of stinky tofu that is said of sausage: "You'll never eat it again once you've seen how it's prepared." Having said that, however, I still very much enjoy Taiwanese-style stinky tofu as well as a good hot dog. How about you? 

(2) Eight Treasures Rice Pudding

Who has never had eight treasures rice pudding? Maybe you ate it at a birthday or wedding banquet or during Chinese New Year. Eight treasures rice pudding (八宝饭) is a glutinous rice dish with many kinds of fruit added. Below is Shao and Guo's rather fanciful version of how this dessert came to be.

It all took place during the reign of the ill-fated Guangxu Emperor's "One Hundred Days of Reform" (1898).

While the progressive-minded emperor attempted to reestablish China as a constitutional monarchy along the lines of Japan, much dangerous palace intrigue occurred. The feared Empress Dowager Cixi, the real head of the empire, the actual puller of puppet strings and the one most to lose from any reform, fled for her life from the imperial court and had to hide. Imperial chef Xiao Dai accompanied her as she securely hid somewhere in the city outside the palace.

While in hiding, the Empress Dowager grew hungry and ordered Xiao Dai to rustle her up some food. The Dowager Empress and Xiao Dai had fled with just the clothes on their backs, and the capital was in an upheaval with the threat of all-out civil war between the Guangxu and Cixi factions. So Xiao Dai had to beg for some food while keeping a low profile.

Somehow finding a porcelain bowl, Xiao Dai went to a door and begged for some rice. Once he had the rice, he went along the street to the door of another residence to beg for something else. He received some corn. He then went to another door and received something else. By the time he felt he had enough to feed the Empress Dowager Cixi, he had already received eight different ingredients.

With the rice and other ingredients mixed together in the bowl, he rushed back to the Empress Dowager's hiding place and gave her the bowl of food.

"What is the name of this dish?" she asked, eating away.

Now, Xiao Dai had himself prepared only the finest, rarest meals for the Empress Dowager. How could he tell her that what she, the de facto supreme ruler of China, was eating were just scraps obtained by begging at eight different doorsteps?

He thought a moment and then said, "Why, this, Your Majesty, is 'eight treasures rice'!"

The Empress Dowager Cixi ate until the bowl was dry and clean, proclaiming this bowl of eight treasures rice to be finer than the all the exquisite delicacies Xiao Dai had previously prepared.

Before long, the One Hundred Days of Reform crisis was over. The Empress Dowager, with the help of Manchu general Ronglu and the secret backing of Han Chinese general Yuan Shikai, had launched a coup d'etat which swiftly and ruthlessly ended the Reform and stripped Emperor Guangxu of all real power. He was placed under house arrest; never again would he have any authority,especially any that could challenge Empress Dowager Cixi.

 The Empress Dowager could now return to the palace.

One day, the Empress Dowager called for Xiao Dai.

"Yes, Your Majesty?"

"I want to eat eight treasures rice. Prepare it for me."

"At once, Your Majesty!"

Xiao Dai, now that  he was back in the imperial kitchen, thought it was no great task to recreate the bowl of rice and added fruits and vegetables he had prepared for the Empress Dowager. He readily found all the ingredients and, within a short time, had a steaming bowl of eight treasures rice placed before the Dowager Empress.

She placed a spoonful in her mouth and immediately spat it out. Her face became a mask of pure rage.

"This is not eight treasures rice!"

She then made it very clear to Xiao Dai. He had until the next day to prepare eight treasures rice in the manner in which she had first tasted it; if he disappointed her again, she would deliver to him the white silk belt with which he was to hang himself.

He retired to his quarters to ponder what to do. There was a knock on the door. A messenger stood in the doorway with a package for Xiao Dai from a distant relative. He took the parcel and opened it. Inside were various fine quality sweet comestibles: lotus seeds, dried longan meat, melon seeds, winter melon strips, peanuts, peas, and dried dates.

Xiao Dai was at the point of desperation. These certainly weren't the ingredients in the original bowl of eight treasures rice, no. He figured he had no choice but to whip up something delicious in a hurry to try to appease the Empress Dowager. His life itself depended on it.

So, the next day he took the sweet snacks, added a generous quantity of sugar, and cooked them in a sticky rice pudding.

With great trepidation, he approached the Empress Dowager with his latest concoction.

"Your eight treasures rice, Your Majesty . . . "

Empress Dowager Cixi ate a spoonful of the rice pudding and beamed. "Yes! This is exactly the eight treasures rice I remember eating!"

From that day forward, cooking eight treasures rice pudding became Chef Xiao's chief duty.

In 1908, the Empress Dowager Cixi died. Shortly after that the Qing Empire crumbled. Xiao Dai retired to Jingzhou, Hupei, where he opened up a restaurant, Juzhen ("Gathering of Valuables") Garden. The restaurant's specialty? Eight treasures rice.

Thus, has this famous dish come down to us from history into popular folklore!

Shao & Guo, Zhongguo xiangsu gushi; pp. 81-83.

This legend is very much like another, "An Emperor Shows up for Supper" (see 3/28/08). In that tale from Fujian, an emperor escaping mutineers enjoys a very rough, rustic meal with a fancy name. When he returns to the capital, he finds he is unable to relive the enjoyment of that same dish once it has been recreated for him. Dai Xiao, however, is able to bamboozle Empress Dowager Cixi with something richer and more luxuriant to save his life.