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.

Gaya Kingdom: Myth and History

A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go on a school field trip to the Gaya Theme Park in Gimhae (near the Busan airport). I had never been on a school field trip before, and while some of you may be thinking, ugh a day of corralling screaming kids outside, my unenviable position as foreigner gave me a bit of a pass on kid wrangling and a lot more freedom to indulge my sightseeing urges.

The Gaya Theme Park is a strange combination of history, mythology and recreation. Let’s start with the history part.

What is the Gaya Confederacy?

Korea has not always been a single unified nation. I was not taught Korean history beyond the US involvement in the Korean war at any point during my education, which is vastly disappointing since I studied East Asia at University. I’ve been trying to fill in the gaps since arriving here. There’s not much history in any part of the BCE. There’s some fossils and pottery and a legend about a kingdom that dates back to more than 2000 BCE. The first records seem to be from a Chinese encounter in the 7th century CE, but the seat of that Kingdom and most of it’s stuff was in what is now North Korea, so we may never know any more than what we find in the Chinese records.

china mapSkipping ahead to the first century CE, we get what is known as the Three Kingdoms Period. The three kingdoms were Goguryeo (purple) controlled huge swaths of the north including what is now North Korea and parts of China (it is also where we get the English word “Korea” from, since their word for their own country is hanguk) The south was divided between Baekje (yellow) on the west, and Silla (blue) on the east. Except, there were more than three. The Gaya confederacy wedged it’s way between Baekje and Silla for almost 500 years. And let’s not forget the Tamna, who were a whole other Kingdom until the 1400’s! But, sure, it’s the Three Kingdoms Period.

UntitledBetween it’s mythic founding 42 CE and it’s surrender to Silla in 562 CE, the Gaya confederate existed in the south central area of the Korean peninsula, just barely missing Busan (where I live) but keeping it’s capital in the nearby Gimhae (where our airport lives). They did some fishing and agriculture, but were most famous for their ironwork. It was a rough confederation of 6-12 different Gayas. When they Japanese invaded Korea in 1910, they claimed that Gaya had been a Japanese military outpost from 300-710 to justify their “return”, but no scholars take this claim seriously today.

Ok. History part done. Let’s get colorful.

6 Golden Eggs

The theme park is located in Gimhae because that is thought to be the historical capital of the biggest baddest Gaya of the confederacy, the Geumgwan Gaya. I was worried about the weather since the heat had been bad a couple of days during the week, but between happy weather gods and the fact that the theme park was up at a higher elevation, it was a stunningly sunny day with blue skies, fluffy clouds and cool breezes.

20170526_140450As we entered the park, the first statue was of a giant golden egg with 5 smaller eggs around it’s base. I was taking pictures of absolutely everything, hoping to figure it out later, so I snapped a shot and kept walking with the group. My co-teacher saw me take the picture and told me that the egg was there because the founding king of Gaya was hatched from an egg that fell from the sky. She also referred to this as “history” although I’m hopeful the last part was just a linguistics flub and that no one here seriously thinks that kings really hatched from sky eggs in the good old days. I could not figure out how to ask this without sounding rude, tho, so I let it go.

The Palace & The Indian Princess

20170526_100351.jpgWe made our way deeper into the park heading directly for the palace. It’s a replica palace. Very little archaeological evidence of Gaya has been found, although the tomb of Suro (first king of Gaya) is maintained in Gimhae as well. The palace grounds are reminiscent of Chinese palace architecture with familiar canted roofs and wide open courtyards between buildings. The colors and designs are quite unique to Korea, being less the scarlet and gold of China and more earth toned versions of dusty rose, pink, taupe yellow and pea green.

The kids ran eagerly around the courtyards and explored the buildings inside and out. Within each open building were some museum like decorations showing the furniture, art, history and stories of the Gaya king and his Indian queen.

What? Yes, that’s right. His queen was said to be from India. While the king’s building was full of pottery, iron work, carvings and paintings, the queen’s building was a more wistful romance story including a wall where visitors could tie wishes written on paper, a love throne for two, a hall of stars (using mirrors and LED lights to create the illusion of a blue star filled eternity), and the “pasa stone pagoda”. The pasa stones, the sign said in broken English, were red stones from India used to appease the sea gods during her voyage, and later erected in the palace. I have no idea if these stones are actually from an archaeological dig, or from India, or if it’s just a collection of rocks from the area stacked up to look like the ritual rock stacks common all over Asia.

20170526_101605One room had a huge map along a wall showing the queen’s “romance road of Asia”, paths from India to Korea picked out in red and blue. Another sign seemed to imply that the queen had brought Buddhism into Korea, however that is highly unlikely. I suppose she may have brought hers to Gaya (assuming that she was actually Indian) but the northern Kingdom of Goguryeo got it from their Chinese neighbors. I question her Indian origin story because the myth (written originally in the Samguk Yusa in the 13th century, it’s a kind of history/mythology mashup of the Three Kingdoms period) refers to her as being from Ayuta, a “distant kingdom across the sea”, but the name doesn’t correspond to the name of any country or city from that time period in India or any other country.

However, in the 21st century a gaggle of historians and diplomats (including the North Korean ambassador to India) went and did a statue of the queen in Ayodhya, India, believing it to be the “Ayuta” refered to in the Samguk Yusa account of the tale. Although the statue was accepted, the Indian government says there is no evidence of any such person in their historical records or mythology. (citation BBC)

EDIT: Thank you Varuna for sending me more information about Heo Hwang Ok, also called Seembavalam in Tamil. Present day Kanyakumari was called Ayuta in the past. Although there is still no academic consensus, so wonderful to keep learning about this legendary Queen from people around the world. Check out this Quora for more details on her Tamil Nadu origins!

The Story of Miracle Love

20170526_100403We took our time around the palace complex, letting the kids run off some of their excitement after the long bus ride. There were plenty of historical things of interest, but no teachers tried to make the kids focus on learning, nor was there a guided tour where kids were shuffled from one room to another while someone explained things. They did separate out the grades so that no one building became too full, but on the whole, the kids were on their own to enjoy the space.

20170526_103748After a while, we headed out of the palace complex and back toward the main entrance to the theater. Turtle imagery was everywhere. A large mountain with an artificial waterfall towered over the theater building. A gray stone turtle lurked in the pond below and another golden one perched precariously on an outcropping halfway up the mountain! I asked about the turtles, but my co-teacher didn’t know (don’t worry, there’s an answer later).

The theater offered a showing of a musical rendition of the love story of King Suro and Queen Heo (alternatively Hur) called “Miracle Love”. I was a bit nervous of going to see a musical in Korean. I didn’t want to pester my co-teacher to translate while we were watching, so I figured I’d just enjoy the music, costumes and dancing. However, the theater thoughtfully had installed some large screens on either side of the stage where English translations were displayed. It was immensely helpful, if still a little grammatically imprecise.

20170526_110511The story began with two archaeologists stumbling onto a large cache of relics from the Gaya period. Their song explained with some lament how little was known of Gaya before this discovery. Then a cave in knocked our archaeologists unconscious and a hazy dream fantasy of the mythstory of King Suro began in earnest. Dancers dressed as the zodiac animals performed intricate dances on stage as some kind of high priest or shaman character sang of the strife, war and drought in the land, praying to the heavens for deliverance which arrived in the form of 6 eggs. (although all 6 eggs hatched out kings, 5 of them were elsewhere being kings of other parts of Gaya, so aren’t in this story)

20170526_110923The glowing egg hatched to reveal the full grown form of Suro who is proclaimed king on the spot and is expected to wield the power to heal the land. Yay! But it’s not easy being king. The drought continues and his people begin to resent him for not living up to the promise of his celestial birth.

20170526_111433Meanwhile in Ayuta (India?), the princess Heo has a dream that her destined love is in a land far away, and that she must set sail to reach him and fulfill her destiny (lots of destiny). The dancers costumes were reminiscent of saris and there were certainly hints of Indian Bollywood style music and dance moves that were obviously meant to place the princess and her handmaidens in India.

20170526_112151But OH! The villain! Satal, a god of war and a gleefully over the top villain dressed in a skull mask and rough furs and accompanied by evil temptresses dressed in black and red gauzy costumes came on to sing his number about how he would defeat Suro and become the king of Gaya, keeping the kingdom forever in a state of greed, hate, and famine. His musical style was that of classic hard rock and the stage was lit by enormous flames as he and his minions sang and danced.

20170526_112450The princess’s ship is caught in a deadly storm and she is washed ashore in the wreck. It seems the moon itself has saved her just in time to be found by king Suro and they sing a touching love duet in the style of popular Korean ballads. But their happiness cannot last. Satal and his minions kidnap the princess and beat Suro nearly to death in battle. He wants to give up. He didn’t expect this to be so difficult. Where are the heavenly powers he’s supposed to have, after all? But his loyal servant reminds him of the plight of his people and the love of his princess and his resolve is bolstered.

20170526_113408During a rallying all cast dance number, new armor is forged for the king, turning him from a dandy to a warrior. He is told he can receive the remainder of his heavenly powers upon the mountaintop and so newly armored he ascends to greet the powers of heaven, represented on stage as a white dragon flying around Suro to strengthen him. However Suro fights, Satal holds his own and the soaring duet of hero and villain waxes lyrical about the evils of greed, selfishness and divisiveness being defeated by the power of love. In the end, it is not the armor or the power of heaven that gives Suro the strength to defeat Satal, it is the love of Heo, her voice joining the song to call back to their duet and the fact that their love was made in heaven.

Strengthened by love, the king defeats Satal and restores peace, harmony and prosperity to Gaya. Everyone celebrates with this all cast finale that I managed to get a video of. There’s no direct translation, but it’s basically yay we won, isn’t love awesome? Love, love, love.

I haven’t read the Samguk Yusa, but synopses online seem to indicate that the creators of the musical may have taken a few romantic liberties with the story. I also could not help but look at this story of a man who arrives on earth in a giant egg, is nearly defeated by his enemy (another godlike being), retires to his fortress in disgrace before being reminded he has to rescue his true love and re-emerging stronger than ever to defeat General Zod… I mean Satal… and wonder if maybe he’s related to Kal’el?

What’s Up With the Turtles?

20170526_123913After the musical, we escorted the kids back over to the palace where they unpacked tiny picnic blankets and box lunches under the watchful eye of the staff while we enjoyed the cool, fresh mountain air. When the kids were all done eating, they were turned loose in the playground section of the park while the grownups had a lazy lunch of fried chicken next to the lake surrounded by heaps of purple pansies.

20170526_140416On our way out of the park, I spotted a turtle garden with empty shells that kids could climb in and around, as well as a happy, smiling gray stone turtle overlooking the scene. The sign near the stone turtle informed us that the mountain where King Suro’s egg landed and hatched looked so much like a laying turtle that it was named Gujibong (gu meaning “turtle” in Korean). Which explained the mystery of why there were so many turtles around the park.

I also spotted the naked turtles who had apparently left their empty shells for kids to play in. These pink and white polka dotted creatures were caught in embarrassed poses of disrobing and we all got a pretty good chuckle about it on the way back to the buses.

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Serendipity

I had never heard of Gaya Theme Park and would not have even known to put it on my list of things to do if the school hadn’t taken me there. Looking at it now, public transit would still only get me to within 2km, though I suppose one could hire a taxi to get up the mountain, I’m not sure how the best way to get back down. My point is, it’s not a hotspot for foreign tourists.

On top of that, Gaya’s history isn’t well known even by Koreans, perhaps because so much of the archaeological evidence was lost until recently. It’s things like this that truly highlight the differences in experience between living and working in a foreign country and merely visiting one. It’s so easy for us to take for granted that our history and culture are spread across the world (first by colonialism and now by commerce and entertainment) that we can forget that every country has a rich historical and mythological tradition of it’s own. I’m grateful to have had this chance to learn about Gaya, and I hope you enjoyed learning about it with me. Please enjoy the rest of the photos of this beautiful day on the Facebook page. Thanks!

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