Tales from the Realm of Morning Calm (part II)

On March 14th, it happens to be the Korean Valentine Day, and Korean boyfriends must offer chocolate truffes to their beloved (otherwise imminent break-up for the rule-breaker).

I just remembered a story I heard in Taiwan, when I was ranting against Valentine’s Day, like the true shrew spinster I am. It’s a sad yet beautiful one about star-crossed lovers, and it reminds me of the tale of Bata the Egyptian (one of my favourites!), or even the Puss in Boots (challenge! could you find the common features and tell which kind of archetype they belong to?) …

Ladies and gentlemen, the story of Niulang and Zhinu, aka the Cowboy and the Tailor, will begin soon. Please take a comfy seat and don’t forget to turn off your smartphones (don’t try to fool me, young man in the back! I can see the flashy blue reflection of the display on your glasses!). Usually, it is told to children at the Qixi celebration, or the Festival of the Seventh Night, at the beginning of August, when rain starts to fall.

Once upon a time, a young cowboy named Niulang lived with his elder brother and his wife, but the latter disliked him so much and was so cruel towards him that he had to eventually set off, with a lone cow for companion. Yet, this was no ordinary cow : it was formerly a god, but convicted of rebellion against the Emperor, he was thrown in the mortal world under a bovine shape.

One sunny day, the cow drove his young master to a sacred lake where few fairies were taking a bath. Among them was Zhinu, a heavenly skilled tailor, and beautiful beyond compare. As soon as their eyes met, both fell madly in love and they decided to get married on that very day. They had two children, a boy and a girl, and their happiness knew no cloud.

Nevertheless, such perfect happiness couldn’t last long : the Mighty Jade Emperor, supreme taoist divinity, considered such an uneven union between a mortal and a fairy as unlawful and thus sent the Emperess to recall to Heaven the gifted Zhinu.

Niulang was desperate. Touched by its master’s misfortune, the cow told him to make a pair of shoes out of its skin, once dead.

With these magic shoes, Niulang could chase the Emperess through the sky, crying to let Zhinu go back to him and his children. The Emperess thus threw her hairpin to make a barrier between the two lovers whose hands were almost touching, and the Milky Way was born to tear them apart. However, the divine magpies, deeply moved by such a strong love, decided to make a bridge over the Milky Way and Niulang and Zhinu could finally be together again, even if for an instant.

The Jade Emperor, whose heart was not made of stone, allowed the couple to meet once a year, the seventh day of the seventh month.

So remember to lift your eyes in the summersky and look for the brightest star in the constellation of the Eagle ; just on the other side of the Milky Way, the proud Vega shines flawlessly… these are Niulang and Zhinue waiting to meet again.

Tales from The Realm of Morning Calm (part I)

Annyeong-ah-seyo!

I hope you enjoyed the Guarani folk tales and Bolivian legends faithfully reported by Janyce! Did you notice some similitudes with stories told in Europe?

Since it is a bit difficult to visit schools in Asia, I’m exploring another way to discover and exchange myths : whenever I can, I try to speak with local families or elderly people, who are usually the guardians of popular wisdom and sassy jokes. Of course, sometimes it is quite complicated to communicate because of the linguistic barriers (I can understand some Mandarin and I’m beginning to figure out Korean), but I’m always surprised at how many things we can actually tell with hands, drawings or very simple words – besides a lot of good will and laughters. I could say I have the incredible luck to experience storytelling beyond words.

Sometimes, when  similar or official versions cannot be found by further research, I suspect some stories to be self-made – not to say simply invented – or at least heavily personalized by the storyteller, who has adapted them to a certain public or context of enunciation. Traditions can be preserved while slightly modernized… This is not that bad for our recollection on folk tales and myths : it proves that storytelling is still alive and dynamic, involving multiple interactions between the speaker and the listener.

There are ghost stories, Buddhist moral tales, historical legends, etiologic myths, fables and fairytales… Some of them can serve a moral purpose, educating the children in a funny or scary way, others give a soul to landscapes and natural phaenomena. It could be said that folk tales, in general, are a beautiful attempt to give sense to man and his surroundings.

Thus, while Janyce will tell you the fascinating myths of Peru and Chile, let’s discover now some stories from the mysterious Asia… So tune your ears and listen carefully…

SINGAPORE

 The Street of the Dead

There is a street in Singapore‘s Chinatown, called Sago Lane, where all the death houses were. In those shabby shacks, old and very poor Chinese immigrants came to die. The houses were dark and sad, no young foot ever stepped in nor lively childish voice echoed in them : once you entered  there, you could not get out alive. The elderly were afraid of such a terrible place and prayed day and night not to die, offering cakes and fruit to the divinity. But men must die, it is part of life and even the gods cannot interfere with it. Thus Death itself decided to make the last journey less fearful, and taking the shape of an old man wearing white garments and selling dried fruits and knick-knacks, he put colourful paper flags and drawings at the door of the dying ; he told jokes to make them laugh their heart out, carving their last smile on a mask of clay or paper that shall be burnt with the dead, so to remind him the good times, and let little fish kites fly with their last breath. Little by little, the dark lane began to cheer up, the old people weren’t so frightened anymore, and some of them waited for the old man like children the toy-seller… Nowadays, the death houses have disappeared in Sago Lane, but not the colourful lanterns and papercuts, and sometimes when the wind shakes the doorpaths, you can almost hear an old man’s laughter…                   

TAIWAN

Chang’Er, the Lonely Moon Goddess

Chang’Er was a beautiful nymph serving at the Palace of the Jade Emperor in Heaven, where the gods, fairies and saint souls dwelled. One day, while she was dancing at the feast of gods, she accidentally broke a precious vase in porcelain and the Emperor, furious, cast her away, down in the land of mortals. The only way to come back to Heaven was to perform a good deed on earth. Meanwhile, she was reborn in a poor family.

Eighteen years had passed since that fateful day, and Chang’Er had become e beautiful maid. While he was chasing in the woods, the brave archer Hou Yi spotted her and fell in love at first sight.

Yet something strange occurred : ten suns instead of one arouse the next day, and the earth was withering and burning. The rice fields were dry and full of scars, the Great Yangtse, once storming with its mighty voice, was just a murmuring little brook. The trees started to crackle and burn and the animals, the men, all were desperately looking for shade or a drop of water to quench their thirst. Hou Yi climbed on the highest mountain, tended his bow towards the sky and shoot an arrow, then another and another. Nine arrows had been shot and nine suns had already burst out, when the Emperor stopped Hou Yi, asking him to let just one sun in the sky.

As a reward for his valiant deed, Hou Yi became King and married the beautiful Chang’Er. Years passed, and Hou Yi became a tyrant afraid of death. He that once shot nine suns should soon never see the sun. He ordered to find an elixir of immortality and the moon rabbit make it with magic herbs and powder of stars. Hiding the elixir in a box, Hou Yi smiled with satisfaction. Soon he would become immortal. But what about Chang’Er? Should she die, or should he offer her half of the beverage? Would they still be immortal then? While he was walking in his garden, pondering such existential questions, Chang’Er found the box and swallowed the whole phial, so to save her people from her tyrannical husband. The bitter liquor burnt her throat and she felt strange, as if she was becoming lighter and lighter… soon she was floating in the sky, higher and higher. “Hou Yi, Hou Yi, Hou Yi” called the wind, and the King caught a last glimpse of his beloved wife disappearing behind the clouds. She flew to the moon, where the cassia tree, endlessly cut off by the demon cutter, endlessly buds again.

Hou Yi was furious, but he loved so much Chang’Er that he didn’t shot the moon. Instead, he flew away in dismay and ascended to the sun : darkness in the sun, silver light in the night, Hou Yi and Chang’er became the Yang and the Ying, always intertwined, always apart.

To commemorate the lonely Chang’Er, the people instaured the Moon Festival… paper lanterns are set flying in the nightsky, and moon cakes are baked to remember the rebels against the Sung Dinasty : they used to hide secret messages on the cakes.

But hey! Let’s not forget! who are the moon rabbit and the demon cutter? They have a story too!

Once upon a time, three wise fairies took the shape of old beggars and asked some food to the fox, the monkey and the rabbit. Moved with pity, the fox gave them some mice and a squirrel, while the monkey offered them his nuts. The rabbit, empty-handed, was heartbroken. He thus decided to offer his own flesh to the poor old men and threw himself into the fire. The three fairies were so touched by this extraordinary sacrifice that they transported him to the Moon Palace, where he became the Jade Rabbit.

Wu Kang was a restless young man, always stung by the greatest curiosity, but quite inconsistent : he jumped from master to master like a butterfly. Unsatisfied by mortal teachers, he went to live in the mountains, importunating a god, asking him incessantly to accept him as an apprentice. He learned the healing power of plants to cure his restlessness, but after three days his old disease came back, and he craved for something else to learn. The immortal thus teached him how to play chess, then gave him the book of the immortals to study, but Wu Kang kept asking for more, always more to escape boredom. He went so far as to propose to his master to travel to exotic and faraway lands. Indignant with the annoying young man, the god banished him to the Moon, telling him that he had to cut down a huge cassia tree before coming back on earth. But as soon as Wu Kang cuts down one of its branches or trunks, a new one grows up instantly, simbolizing the endless renewal of desire and life.

Doesn’t this last misadventure of poor Wu Kang remind you of another greedy character from Greek mythology? A special reward for those who can answer!

The Wandering Miners

Jiufen, at the North of Taipei, was once a gold town, until the first half of the XXth century. Labyrinths of tunnels were excavated under its soil, and you could hear the clinking and wailing of chariots, spades ans spikes day and night, day and night, so greedy were the men to find the precious metal. In order to stay awake for so long, men kept sipping tea whose leaves had a strong taste, because the plants grew on the steep cliffs where the sea angrily breaks in thousands waves. But the spirits of the mountain couldn’t sleep because of the frantic noise and became very angry. They hid the gold so deep into the womb of the earth that men had to dig more and more, and drink more tea. Yet the tunnels became unstable, many miners died and the golden veins disappeared. The tunnels were closed, many houses were abandoned, an old dust covered everything, the face of the town wrinkled and withered, and many lanterns where hung on the walls to honour the dead miners, who are said to have become cats. Now the town once so busy dwells in a peaceful, forlorn atmosphere, and in the tunnels the spirits have planted many seeds, building a wonderful hidden garden for their amusement. Meanwhile, cats are lazily sunbathing…

602049_155501657938439_203340602_nBy talking to very kind fishermen, I also managed to get some interesting stories about the weird rocks of Yehliu, but I still have to decipher the ideograms and drawing they’ve made. I’ve also in my pocket two aboriginal taiwanese fairytales from Hualien and Alishan. Lots of myths to tell and such a long post already!

In the next episode : the tragic story of Niuliang and Zhinu, and… Korean legends! dragons, Hwarangs, Buddhist tales, mermaids and mountain love!

Hope you enjoyed (I did, especially when mimed by children and grandpas)!