Myths & Tales from China 08

This episode is all about animal women: the spirits which are mostly animals, but sometimes turn into beautiful maidens that hapless mortals fall in love with. Lots of cultures love spirit animals that turn into women who marry worthy or clever men. China is no exception. Here’s three stories about a peacock (well, peahen), a snake, and a mollusk who bridged the gap between the spirit, animal, and human worlds.


Peacock Princess

A long time ago, beside the Lancang River was a beautiful Peacock Kingdom. The Emperor and Empress had seven daughters altogether. Each one grew up to be extremely beautiful, and moreover, as long as they wore their dazzling peacock feather robes, they were able to fly. Every day they flew far from home to Jinhu, the Golden Lake, to bathe.

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One day they went down to Golden Lake again, continuously playing until the sun set, and only then hurrying ashore to dress. But as for the youngest little sister, Nanmu Ruona, her peacock feather robe was nowhere to be seen! They searched all over the surrounding meadow, but simply couldn’t find it. Just then, a young lad carrying a feather robe walked up and went over to Nanmu Ruona. He very courteously apologized to her and said he was alone and meant no harm, merely to express his feelings of admiration. Actually, he was Prince Shao Shu Tun of the country Meng Ban Jia. While hunting, he was chasing a golden deer to the bank of Golden Lake where he saw the peacock princesses. He was immediately smitten with their beautiful figures and flower-like smiles, especially that of the youngest princess. Thus he took the feather robe of the seventh princess, Nanmu Ruona.

At that moment, the six elder sisters were all urging the youngest princess to quickly return home, but the young princess saw that the prince was handsome, tall and sturdy, and fell in love with him, so she lowered her head and said nothing. Thereupon, the eldest sister took charge and agreed to let the youngest sister stay behind at Shao Shu Tun’s side. Soon after the six elder sisters and younger sisters shed tears and said farewell, then flew back to the Peacock Kingdom.

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The grand wedding ceremony for Shao Shu Tun and the Peacock Princess Nanmu Ruona was barely finished when war broke out at the border lands. Shao Shu Tun had no choice but to bid farewell to his newly wedded bride and lead his troops to the front line to fight. In the beginning, news came in every day of Shao Shu Tun’s defeat in battle, and the King, Shao Meng Hai paced frantically in circles. Then, an evil wizard said to him, “Nanmu Ruona is a demon transformed, it is she that has brought about this disaster and misfortune, she must be killed at once.” Shao Meng Hai heard what the wizard had to say then ordered the Peacock Princess to be burned to death.

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Nanmu Ruona was carried down to the execution grounds. Her face was streaming with tears, and she begged Shao Meng Hai to let her dance one more time, and Shao Meng Hai agreed. Nanmu Ruona spread the brilliantly colored peacock feather robe over her shoulders and began to dance elegantly. She danced and danced, and then she flew up into the air.

Not much later, Prince Shao Shu Tun defeated the invading enemy and returned to the palace. After hearing the news that his wife had been falsely accused and had flown away he was completely brokenhearted. In order to comfort him, his father the King had all the most beautiful women in the kingdom go to the Shao Palace for him to choose among. But the Peacock Princess was the only one in Shao Shu Tun’s heart, and he resolved to find his wife and bring her back. Even if the Peacock Kingdom was as far as the horizon, he would go.

He walked and walked; he walked for ninty-nine days. He experienced countless trials and tribulations, and at last arrived at the Peacock Kingdom and found the Peacock Princess. The estranged couple were reunited. In that moment, a hundred flowers bloomed and a hundred birds sang, and all over the Peacock Kingdom the young men all cheered for their pure and sincere love, and the young women all danced for the reunion of husband and wife.

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Note: I think this story is very similar to our own stories of swan lake and the swan princess. It also might be the closest thing to a Disney-style princess idol because there are a lot of little girl peacock princess costumes on the Chinese internet. If you would like to watch the cartoon these images are from, please follow the link.


Lady White Snake

A long time ago, on top of Mt. Emei (in Sichuan), there was a white snake and a green snake, they had been practicing Daoist austerities for the last thousand years, and had both cultivated the ability to change into human shape. They very much yearned for a life in the human world. One year during the Tomb Sweeping Festival season (April), the two were unable to hold back their curiosity, and decided to take a tour of the human world. The white snake transformed into a beautiful and dignified lady and took the name Bai Suzhen, which means ‘pure white silk’. And the green snake transformed herself into a servant girl called Xiao Qing, which means ‘little green one’. And they both went down to Xihu (West Lake) to go sightseeing.

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On the Broken Bridge, they were in the middle of stopping to admire the view of West Lake when suddenly it started to rain. Bai Suzhen and Xiao Qing wanted to find some place to avoid the rain, and just then a scholar unfurled an umbrella for them to block out the rain. Bai Suzhen and the scholar fell in love at first sight. Xiao Qing saw it in their eyes and quickly said, “May I ask, oh noble son, what be thy august family name?” The scholar replied, “I am called Xu Xian, and I live beside the Broken Bridge.” From then on, they made arrangements to meet, and before long the two had married and become husband and wife. They opened up “Bao He Tang” pharmacy (which means ‘the Hall of Preservation of Harmony’) beside West Lake. Bai Suzhen used her magical powers to cure many people’s difficult and complicated illnesses. What’s more, for the poor, they would examine them and prescribe medicine and not charge a single cent, so the business was flourishing. The people affectionately nicknamed Bai Suzhen as “Bai Niangzi” or White Lady.

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However, Bao He Tang‘s prosperity offended one person – the Buddhist monk Fahai of Jinshan (Golden Mountain) Temple. Because everyone was getting cured at Bao He Tang, the number of people coming to Jinshan Temple to burn incense and pray to the Bodhisattvas was shrinking. One day, Fahai came to Bao He Tang’s main gate, he watched Bai Niangzi give one person a treatment, then attentively do a dozen more, a-ya! In truth, this White Lady isn’t an ordinary person, but rather a snake spirit! Therefore, Fahai found an opportunity to bring Xu Xian into the temple. He told Xu Xian that his wife was a transformed snake spirit and taught him a way to cause Bai Suzhen to appear in her original form. Xu Xian listened to this, half believing and half doubting.

In no time, the Dragon Boat Festival arrived (autumn), Xu Xian, in accordance with the method Fahai taught him, ceaselessly urged Bai Suzhen to drink Red Orpiment wine. Bai Niangzi was unable to put it off, and had no other option but to drink several glasses. The result was that she soon changed back to her original shape. Xu Xian saw the white snake and fainted dead away. After Bai Niangzi cleared her head, she revived  Xu Xian. Xu Xian knew that Bai Niangzi was truly his own beloved one, and no longer minded whether she was a human or a snake spirit, the two of them were even more in love.

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Fahai saw that his strategy failed, so he once more tricked Xu Xian into coming to Jinshan Temple, and pressured him to leave home and become a Buddhist Monk. Xu Xian was not willing, so Fahai locked him inside the temple. Inside Bao He Tang. When Lady White didn’t see Xu Xian return home, she burned with impatience. She asked about and heard that Xu Xian was being held by Monk Fahai at Jinshan Temple. She quickly took Xiao Qing along to Jinshan Temple, and begged Fahai to release Xu Xian. Fahai was indifferent, and Bai Niangzi was quite furious. In spite of the fact that she was pregnant, she drew her golden hairpin from atop her head, shook it into the wind, and summoned up a torrential surge to flood Jinshan Temple.

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Fahai promptly took off his kasaya robe and transformed it into a dam, blocking off the temple gate. If the flood waters rose a foot, the dam also grew a foot taller, so no matter how big the waves got, they could not go unrestrained. Bai Niangzi was pregnant, so she couldn’t really fight Fahai and had no choice but to flee under the protection of Xiao Qing. While they were fleeing to the Broken Bridge, they ran into Xu Xian by chance, also fleeing the Jinshan Temple.

Several months later, Bai Niangzi gave birth to a son. Many people came to congratulate them, and Fahai also came. He held in his hands a begging bowl of a Buddhist Monk, and worked an enchantment on Bai Niangzi. The alms bowl slowly rose into the air, and suddenly emitted ten thousand golden rays of light. Bai Niangzi was illuminated by the rays, and immediately became weak all over, she was powerless to resist, and was collected into the bowl. Fahai pushed her down under the Leifeng Pagoda beside West Lake.

Xiao Qing was no match for Fahai, and had no choice but to retreat to Mt. Emei, go back into the cave and return to practicing Daoist austerities. Twelve years later, she had finally completed the True Fire of Samadhi, and came to find Fahai for revenge. There was nowhere for Fahai to escape being burned by the True Fire of Samadhi, so in a great rush, he hid inside a crab shell. Leifang Pagoda collapsed, and Bai Niangzi was saved. From then on, she and Xu Xian, Xiao Qing, and their child all lived a blessed and happy life together.

These beautiful stills are from the newly released (fall 2019) feature film. 


The Shell Maiden

A long time ago, there was a young man in a village. From the time he was little he had no father or mother, and his family was also poor. At twenty years old he had still not taken a wife. He could only work and suffer hardships, and every day he worked hard manual labor in the fields. One day when he was working in the rice paddy, he accidentally picked up a large periwinkle mollusk. He thought that was very strange, so he took it back home and kept it in a water jar.

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Time passed quite quickly; in the blink of an eye three years had gone by. Then one day the young man finished work and returned home to discover that the table was spread with delicious and savory food. He looked left and right, but didn’t see anyone. He thought it was very strange, but was very hungry so regardless of the consequences, he sat down at the table and began to eat. The flavor of the food was really good. He thought while he ate, who could have cooked this delicious food? The even stranger thing was that from that day forth, every day he came home to see a table full of delicious rice and vegetables, and that the house had been put in order, neat and tidy without one speck of dirt.

The young man thought this was becoming increasingly strange. He thought to himself, “I can’t be sure it isn’t Mrs. Li from next door doing me a good turn.” Thus, the young man found Mrs. Li to thank her. The Mrs. Said, “It’s not me! I actually heard cooking noises from your kitchen and thought you had come home early!” This time the youth was even more confused, unable to make heads or tails of it. He was determined to figure it out.

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The next day, just like normal, he carried his hoe over his shoulder and went down to the field. A short time passed, and he stealthily ran back home, hid outside the door and peeked in. Soon it was midday, and from inside the water jar stepped out a goddess-like beautiful young maiden. She first adeptly cleaned the house, then went on to skillfully prepare a meal, at once stir-frying and deep frying, and delicious food quickly filled the table. When the food was finished, she laid out a bowl and chopsticks. When everything was properly arranged, she went to hide in the jar. The young man was baffled.

The next day at noon while the maiden was concentrating on preparing the food, the young man suddenly pushed open the door and rushed inside. The maiden saw him and was happily surprised. She wanted to hide in the water jar, but the young man rushed to step forward first and bar her way. He noticed that floating on the water in the jar was a periwinkle mollusk shell.

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Could it be that this maiden was the periwinkle mollusk transformed? The young man thought this as he pulled the empty mollusk shell out and threw it on the ground to break it. The maiden looked at the broken shell and immediately felt deeply hurt and began to cry, as she cried she told the young man the story of her life, “I am a periwinkle mollusk, many years ago I carelessly fell into an old fisherman’s net and was carried to the market to be sold. A small boy going past the market saw that big periwinkle mollusk drying out under the sun and took pity, so he bought me from the old fisherman, and returned me to the rice paddy. That small boy was a previous incarnation of you! We have been brought together by fate, this year we meet once more, you kept me in the water jar for three years, I did all this to pay a debt of gratitude… but now my mollusk shell has been broken, and I cannot change back into a periwinkle mollusk.”

The young man was deeply moved, and was profoundly attracted by her kindheartedness and beauty. He took the mollusk maiden’s hand, and sincerely requested that she stay and become his wife. The maiden blushed and nodded her head. Later on the two became parents; they had a pair of children, a boy and a girl. The more days passed, the happier they became.

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There are multiple books and animations of this, though no Disney-esque princess movie in the works that I could find. The cartoon I used is a much simplified (and possibly kinder) version of the story where the young man doesn’t break the shell. If you want to see the short animation, follow the link.

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