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Chinese Cinderella
by Valerie Sartor
2012-07-12 10:22:48
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Some of the world’s greatest inventions, ideas and concepts originated from China. Very few Westerners know, however that a beloved fairy tale - Cinderella – has been traced by scholars to the Zhuang people, a minority group that has lived for millennia on Chinese soil. One key factor linking the Zhuang story to Cinderella is the fact that the Zhuang have always been famous for making beautiful, handmade, shining shoes.

The Frenchman Charles Perrault made the Cinderella story famous to Western people. In our lifetimes, the 1950’s Disney cartoon has made Cinderella a common American style fairytale. Some scholars say that Perrault’s story arrived by boat to Italy in the 17th century; it is remarkably similar to the ancient Zhuang folk narrative that dates back to the ninth century. The motifs and story line for both are the same: a mistreated stepdaughter is kind to an animal; the girl is pure, hardworking and without hope; a magical personage appears to help the girl; the girl receives a marvelous dress to wear at a special festival; the girl loses one of her small, shining shoes; this shoe identifies her with a prince, who marries her. There are also, in the Zhuang version, some Chinese/Asian motifs to the story: a marvelous fish with red fins and golden eyes (the carp or Koi now so beloved and thought auspicious by Chinese and other Asians) and a strong-willed Asian heroine named Yexian. The Zhuang story also has two narrative lines: one focuses on the girl saving the strange fish; the other focuses on a supernatural being that helps the anguished girl. Asian scholars have argued that these storylines originate from Hindu and Buddhist sources.

In the 9th century, Zhuang lived at a focal crossroads in Southeast Asia where they could easily absorb Han Chinese culture, as well as Hindu and Buddhist influences from abroad. For example, in the 9th century during the T’ang Dynasty, the story of Yang Guifeng circulated around China. She was a young girl who rose from poverty to become the emperor’s favorite consort. Other stories circulated about a magical, poor, and kind maiden who sought a husband and carried a fishbasket around with her. At this time, the popularity of goldfish as pets and Buddhist ponds of mercy arose in China where devout Buddhists would release small red fish into ponds near Buddhist temples.

Interestingly, in the Zhuang story, the foreign prince does not live happily ever after. He becomes greedy for the wealth Yexian’s friendly fish offers; once his greed becomes apparent the fish bones stop producing. This ending emphasizes the need for political harmony rather than domestic harmony, a key difference from the Western Cinderella tale.. 

The Zhuang Cinderella story is as follows: Among the southern tribal people known as the Zhuang, was once a man who married two women. One of his wives died; she had a daughter called Yexian. This girl was pure, intelligent, hard-working, and beloved by her father. After some years, however, Yexian’s father died. The girl was now ill-treated by her step-mother, who ordered her to collect firewood in faraway, dangerous regions and to draw water from dangerously deep pools.

One day, as Yexian was drawing water, she saw a strange little fish with red fins and golden eyes. The fish swam into her hands and she carried it home. She put the fish into a bowl and fed it tidbits. The fish grew too large for the bowl, so she put it in a small, nearby pond where it grew as large as a man. Every time she came to feed the fish he lifted his head out of the water and smiled at her. The fish hid when anyone else came nearby.

The stepmother saw the fish and wanted to eat it. She sent the girl far away to collect firewood; then she dressed in the girl’s rags and went to the pond. The stepmother called the fish, which appeared, thinking it was the girl. The evil stepmother hit the fish over the head and killed it, then dragged it out of the water. She had a big party for her friends and roasted the fish.

The next day girl returned from the forest and called her fish, but it was gone. Suddenly, a strange man told her where to find the fish bones thrown away by the feasters. She collected the bones and put them in a jar in her room. Yexian cried from grief; she had lost her parents, and now she had lost her friendly pet. But the stranger had told her to pray to the bones and she would get whatever she wanted. In this way she gained pearls and gold, food and dresses.

The time came for the Zhuang festival. The stepmother went with her daughters and left the girl to guard the fruit trees in their courtyard. But the girl decided to go to the party. She called for a beautiful blue dress made of kingfisher feathers; she wore her own traditional golden shoes. But when the girl saw that her stepmother might recognize her, she fled, losing one of her golden shoes. The stepmother and her daughters came home and found Yexian asleep by a fruit tree.

The nest day a peddler sold Yexian’s golden shoe to a foreigner, and the ruler of a nearby foreign land got the slipper. He wanted to find the girl who wore this pretty, petite shoe. It fit no one in his kingdom, so he travelled to the land of the Zhuang and had girls try on the shoe. Finally, he found Yexian in a closet, hidden by her stepmother. She put on the shoe; it fit; and suddenly she was wearing her kingfisher dress. Yexian was as beautiful as a fairy maiden, so the foreign prince took her as his wife, along with her magical fish bones. The stepmother and her daughters died when stones from the sky hit them with great violence. The villagers buried them in a pit; this place became sacred. Men would pray there to receive a dutiful wife. Sadly, the foreign prince began to love wealth more than Yexian; he asked the fish bones for treasure and jade without limit. After one year the bones refused to give him more. The king buried the bones by the sea shore, covered them with gold and pearls. His general and soldiers dug up some of the wealth and rebelled; the fish bones were washed away, forever, into the sea. 

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Emanuel Paparella2012-07-12 13:16:59
Indeed, the nexus could be cultural and historical but it could also be spiritual and psychological issuing out of the common archetypes of a common human nature. Jung traveled the world and discovered that there are many common myths and parables surprisingly similar even in cultures that have had no contact with each other. He called the phenomenon “the collective unconscious” which resides in the whole of the human race. The common myths and parables of human kind reveal such a phenomenon.

Leah Sellers2012-07-13 05:51:10
Ms. Sartor,
Thank you for sharing the re-sharings of this wonderful multicultural story.
When teaching high school English, I located myths, legends, fairy tales and parables from around the world, in order to show my students that all cultures share much more in common than not.
It was also another rich way to get them to think critically about what makes all folks tick psychologically and sociologically as individuals and collective groups. It was also a wonderful way to introduce them to various cultural philosophies, ethics and morays, Historical timelines, visual art forms, music, theatrical forms, architectural forms, scientific discoveries, mathematical systems and cuisines.
Then at the end of each unit, we would share major reports and a festival which displayed everything the students had learned. And we would spend the festival days (usually lasting two days)"speechifying", eating and drinking various cultural foods and beverages, playing other cultural games, showing off various art forms the students had created to express the stories and cultures represented within their reports, various cultural forms of music, and use critical thinking skills to discuss the archetypes and similarities and differences amongst each culture's stories.
These Cinderella stories are some of the same that my students discovered and explored.
Your "sharing" brought sweet memories flooding back to this 'ole school marm. Many thanks.

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