Investigating Yeh-Shen and the Chinese Cinderella Myth

yehshenYeh-Shen

Retold by Ai-Ling Louie
Illustrated by Ed Young

Original Pub. Date: 1982
Publisher: Putnam (HC); Puffin (PB)

Country of Origin: China

This title appears to be a fairly straightforward translation/retelling of the original text found in an old Chinese book. In the foreword, Louie states that the story can be traced back to 850 A.D., in the Tang Dynasty. This is widely regarded by the western and Chinese folklorists as accurate.

Although the actual 9th century text seems to be forever lost and the current tale was copied and compiled much later, in the 17th century. The story of Yeh-Shen is in volume one of the Appended text. The original text’s standard English title is You Yang Za Zu — Columbia University’s East Asian library rare book collection owns two editions of the 19th century reprints.

Even if this tale was originally recorded in the 9th century, whether it is the “original Cinderella story of the world” is still up for much debate in the academic world. I found a source that collects many different theories (unfortunately, all in Chinese) and one of the revelation is that Yeh-shen is a highly unusual name for a Chinese girl and it shares similar sound to the word “Aschen” which means ash, and Aschenputtel is the original Grimms fairy tale title for the better known Cinderella. This seems to indicate to some scholars that Yeh-shen was a retelling of a Western story, brought over to south west China by Arabic traders or via current day Vietnam.

Although Louie’s translation is fairly faithful, she chose to leave out the last part of the original story. Here’s the last part of the translation done by Arthur Waley, a famous East Asian scholar, although he never set foot in any Asian country in his lifetime. It’s published in Folk-lore, vol. 58 (London: The Folklore Society, 1947.):

The step-mother and step-sister were shortly afterwards struck by flying stones, and died. The cave people were sorry for them and buried them in a stone-pit, which was called the Tomb of the Distressed Women. The men of the cave made mating-offerings there; any girl they prayed for there, they got. The king if T’o-han, when he got back to his kingdom made Yeh-hsien his chief wife. The first year the king was very greedy and by his prayers to the fish-bones got treasures and jade without limit. Next year, there was no response, so the king buried the fish-bones on the sea-shore. He covered them with a hundred bushels of pearls and bordered them with gold. Later there was a mutiny of some soldiers who had been conscripted and their general opened (the hiding-place) in order to make better provision for his army. One night they (the bones) were washed away by the tide.

Cultural Analysis:

Cave: The Chinese word for Cave, DONG, could have meant also a small village. It seems that the Cave People might have been Villagers. Evidence of such terminology is prevalent in Korea today.

Worshiping the two dead women: It is not uncommon for many spirits of the deceased to be deified (taken as an object of worship/made a god/dess of.) It is unclear, though, from the original Chinese text whether the people were praying for girl friends, as Waley’s text states, or praying for birthing of baby-girls. The text only used one work — NU, female — (However, given the importance of boys over girls in most Chinese cultures, it might not be praying for baby-girls.)

Costume/Illustration:

Supposedly, the southern tribe in where Yeh-Shen came from was probably Zhuang Zu (壮族) — from the modern Guang Xi province. This image from a Chinese stamp shows the traditional outfits which echo Ed Young’s illustration.

It is important to keep in mind that this is a minority group and the traditional costume is not the same as the majority, Han, group.

zhuangzu

Costume of the minority group (design found on a Chinese stamp)

(This was posted, by me, on another blog a few years back.  Reposted.)

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Filed under Book Notes, WIWWAK

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