Friday, 16 November 2018

Fairy Tale Friday--Ye Xian (China, 850 AD)

Hello and welcome to Fairy Tale Friday. Are you sitting comfortably? Good. then I'll begin.

Last week we looked at a version of Cinderella from Egypt circa 7 BC. Today we look at the second oldest version of our tale that I can find, the story of Ye Xian 叶限 (pronounced Ye Shen)  from the 9th century. 

According to this source:
In late Tang dynasty, a government official named Duan Cheng Shi (段成式 803-863AD) heard of this story from his servant Li Shi Yuan (李士元)  and recorded it in his book .

Duan Cheng Shi, a son of a prime minister, was a famous poet and writer at that time, but his most remarkable contribution to Chinese culture was his book --Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang (
酉阳杂俎,). All who knew him thought that he was the most knowledgeable scholar in Tang dynasty.

Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang was the result of his decades of collection. Youyang refers to the south slope of Mount You, a small hill located in what is now Huaihua, Hunan province. The book was written in the 9th century, and is divided in to 30 volumes, containing unusually varied content, like historical events, novel stories, scientific findings and various knowledge about astronomy, geography, architecture, religion, music, and jewellery, in over thirteen hundred entries that describe the world that Duan Cheng Shi heard about, read of, or personally observed. Ye Xian was in Chapter 21 of the book. 


There are two reasons why scholars think this story originated on the south coast of China. The first is that according to local customs, hand sewn shoes were an important pledge or lover's token between a girl and her sweetheart and the second reason is that magical fish worship was popular along the south coast of China. This tale contains a magical fish who is the reincarnated soul of her dead mother and the bones of the magical fish provide Ye Shen with  "a cloak of kingfisher feathers, jewellery and a pair of golden shoes which were woven of golden threads in a pattern of a scaled fish and whose soles were made of solid gold."

Whatever its origin, this story gives us a persecuted heroine who receives help from a magical creature who provides her with beautiful clothes. The golden shoe is lost and only when it the shoe is reunited with the rightful owner do we get our happy ending. Some versions end with the stepmother and stepsister punished like in the version by the Brother's Grimm, but they all end in marriage and a way to improve her station. 
  Karolis Strautniekas from Cinderella animation, Victoria & Albert Museum
Karolis Strautniekas from Cinderella animation, Victoria & Albert Museum

Ye Shen

Once upon a time, a scholar named Wu, who was a village head, had two wives and each gave birth to baby girls. Ye Xian was the daughter of the prettier wife, and she was beautiful, intelligent and gifted in many skills such as pottery and weaving. In contrast her half-sister, Jun-li, was spoiled, lazy, and self-interested. When Ye Xian was a little girl, her mother and then her father died from a local plague. she had to live with her wicked stepmother, named Jin and her daughter. Soon they forced Ye Xian to become a lowly servant and worked for them.

 Despite living a life burdened with hard housework and chores, and suffering endless mock and abuse at her stepmother's hands, Ye Xian found solace when she ended up making friends with a beautiful, 10-foot-long fish in the lake near her house. Each day the fish came out of the water onto the bank to be fed by her. But she did know the fish, with golden scales and eyes, was the reincarnation of her mother, who now watched out for her. Her stepmother heard about the fish. Angry that Ye Xian had found happiness, She disguised herself as Ye Xian and enticed the fish from the water. She stabbed it with a dagger, and cooked the fish for dinner. Ye Xian was devastated until her mother's spirit appeared and told her to bury the bones of the fish in pots at each corner of her bed. She also was told that if she needed anything, just prayed to the bones, and her mother's spirit would appear to help her. 

Time passed and the local spring festival was nearing. This was a time when many young women would have the opportunity to meet potential suitors. Not wishing to spoil her own daughter's chances, Jin forced her step daughter to remain home and clean their house. After they has left, Ye Xian who also longed to go to the festival prayed to bones. Her mother's spirit occurred and told her to dig up the pots containing the fish bones. Ye Xian found fine clothes, including a cloak of kingfisher feathers, jewellery and a pair of golden shoes which were woven of golden threads in a pattern of a scaled fish and whose soles were made of solid gold. When she walked in them she felt lighter than air. 

Ye Xian dressed up and went to the festival. Soon She got all attentions. She enjoyed herself until she realised her step sister may have recognised her. She dashed back home, accidentally leaving behind a golden shoe. When she arrived home, she was dressed in her rags and hid the clothes in the pots beneath her bed again. When her step family returned, they discussed Jun-li's marriage prospects and also mentioned a mysterious lady in the festival. But they were unaware that it was Ye Xian that they were speaking of. 

The golden shoe was found and traded by various people until it reached the hands of the King of a island kingdom of Tou Han. Fascinated by the shoe's small size, he issued a search to find the maiden whose foot would fit in the shoe and declared he would marry that lady. The shoe eventually reaches the house of Ye Xian, Jun-li and her mother tried to put on the shoe and failed. The shoe ended up fitting Ye Xian's foot perfectly. However, the step family, in order to prevent the King from marrying her step daughter, declared that it was impossible for Ye Xian to be owner of the golden shoe, because she saw the lady who owned it wearing a pair of the golden shoes and fine clothes at the festival, while Ye Xian had not been there at all. Ye Xian proved her wrong by bringing out and putting on the other golden shoe and the clothes she wore at the festival. In the beautiful clothes that her mother's spirit gave her, Ye Xian looked like a fairy. Awed by Ye Xian's beauty, the King affirmed that he would marry her. 

The wicked step mother made a final attempt to dissuade the King from marrying Ye Xian by accusing her of stealing the lady's golden shoe, however, the clever king easily saw through her evil plan. To punish the step family for their dishonesty and cruelty, the king force them continue to live in their village and never allowed them to visit Ye Xian. The king took Ye Xian back to his palace where he made her the queen of his kingdom, and lived happily with her ever after. 

Alternate endings: source

The step mother and sister were left and continued to live in their village until the day they were killed in a shower of flying stones from nowhere. The local who felt sorry for them buried them in a stone pit and called it the tomb of regretful women.

Some year after returning his kingdom, the king were greedy for treasure. Praying to the fish bones, he obtained a lot of gems. But next year when he did it again, the bones seemed to lose its magic power. Now He buried them with many pearls in a secret place and made a mark with a block of gold. A couple of years later, some soldiers revolted against him. The king wanted to dig the pearls out to award his loyal army. But one night before he did that, the sea flooded the hidden treasure spot, so the bones and the pearls were gone.

That's all for this week. Stay tuned next week for a version from Italy where our heroine is not quite as innocent as in other versions. 

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