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Fourth in the Folk Tales from China series. In addition to the title story, contains the famous "Three Episodes of Fanjiangshan." Also an intriguing tale of the Bai (Dai) people.
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(A Zhuang Story)
Long, long ago, we Zhuang people knew there was a sun in the sky; that it rose in the east; that no creatures on earth could live without it. But at that particular time, we Zhuangs were completely denied sunlight.
In those days the place in which we lived was wrapped in absolute darkness all through the night and the day, devoid of sunlight and warmth. It was infested with wild animals — tigers, panthers, wolves and other beasts of prey — which took heavy toll of us. How could we kill these animals in such darkness? So it was decided to send some people to the sun to ask for its help.
A commotion arose among the people when they learned of this. Everyone clamoured to go.
A sixty-year-old man broke from the crowd: “I'll go. I'm getting on in years. I can't work on the land. But I am up to the trip — I can walk.”
A sturdy, middle-aged man pushed his way through the crowd. “You can't go!” he said to the old man. “I'm strong; and, since I can make 160 li a day, I can quickly reach the sun.”
He was followed by more and more healthy young men and women, each claiming to be the right person to go and promising to be there and back in the shortest time possible.
At this stage, a ten-year-old boy made his voice heard: “I think none of you are suitable to go. You all seem to forget that the sun is far, far from us. It can't be reached in forty or fifty years; it will probably take ninety years to get there. I am young. I am the obvious one for the trip.”
He had barely finished when a hot discussion ensued.
“There's something in what he says.”
“He's strong and healthy.”
“We'd better let him go.”
“He is very clever!”
* * *
A twenty-year-old pregnant woman called Male demanded silence, waving her hand above her head. “Be quiet, all of you!” she cried.
All fell silent.
She went on: “The boy was right when he said the sun is far from us. I don't think it's possible to get there even in ninety years. I think you had better let me go. For one thing, I am strong and neither towering mountains nor serpents nor wild beasts can daunt me. In addition, I am with child. If I can't reach my goal, my child can certainly do so.”
Hearing this, all clapped approval. So it was decided that Male would journey to the sun, and, when she got there, that she should burn a fire as a signal.
She set out eastward. After eight months or so she gave birth to a bonny baby. She took her baby along. She walked and walked till the seventieth year when she was too exhausted to drag her body further. So she stayed in a peasant's house and told her child to carry on.
During the long period of seventy years this, mother and her child, had scaled tens of thousands of high mountains, crossed tens of thousands of big rivers and come across tens of thousands of serpents and wild beasts. They had experienced all sorts of suffering and hardship, and on many occasions had even risked their lives. But they had come through all this safe and sound. For one thing, both were strong enough to scale the mountains and clever enough to elude the serpents and wild beasts.
On their way, Male and her child met many people who, hearing they were going to the sun, were anxious to help them, guiding them through the mountains, ferrying them across rivers, giving them clothes and shoes, and cooking them meals.
But what of their people at home? After Male's departure,. early every morning they looked eagerly towards the east to see whether the fire signal burned in the sky. One year elapsed; then another. It was now seventy years since Male's departure, and there was no sign of the fire it was hoped she would light. Everything continued as usual: no sunlight, no warmth; and everywhere tigers, panthers and wolves roamed. Everybody thought Male had died on the way. All gave up hope.
On the last day of the ninety-ninth year, the disheartened watchers saw a big fire burn in the eastern sky, colouring it with a blood-red tinge. Almost simultaneously, a glowing sun rose, casting its golden rays over all corners of our land. The tigers, panthers and wolves which had molested us Zhuang people from time immemorial were wiped out.
From that day to the present, Zhuang peasants, as a token of their tribute to Male and her son, set out to work in the fields when the sun rises and come home only when it sets.
(A Zhuang Story)
1 Dajia means orphan in the Zhuang language.
Dajia's mother died when she was two years old. Her father married again when she was three.
The stepmother was at first very kind to Dajia. She looked after her with great care and saw to it that she lacked neither food nor clothing. In fact she treated her as if she were her own child.
But Dajia's good fortune was like that of an emperor on the stage it quickly faded. It was not long before her stepmother gave birth to a child named Dalun, Dajia's happy days came to an end. Instead of being a darling to her stepmother she became a continuous affront. She was spanked and scolded without respite. Dalun, even as a small child, was quick to sense her superior position on account of her mother's power in the family. She soon became a young despot, constantly bullying her elder sister.
Misfortunes, as a common saying has it, never come singly — while Dajia was still young, her father died. Her conditions then changed from bad to worse. She did not share the better food and clothing of her sister and she was not even allowed to eat the left-overs.
Time passed. Dajia became a beautiful girl, while Dalun was ugly with a pock-marked face.
It happened that a wedding feast was to take place in a neighbouring village. The stepmother dressed Dalun in her holiday clothes and made preparations for her attendance at the feast.
“Mother, please let me go with my sister,” said Dajia.
Her stepmother's expression hardened: “So you want to go? Well, here's a job for you. If you can do it, you may go; if not, then keep silent and stay where you are, you nuisance.” Saying that, she took five piculs of sesame and six piculs of soya beans and mixed them thoroughly. Putting the mixture before Dajia she said: “If you can separate these two kinds of grains today I'll let you go to the feast.”
Having said this in a jeering tone, she departed.
Dajia looked at the mixed grain with a stunned expression. She knew she could not separate them in ten days, least of all in one. She realized there was no hope of her attending the feast. She sobbed and cried pitifully.
Hearing her daughter crying the spirit of Dajia's mother changed herself into a crow, which alighted on the roof of the house and sang:
Don't cry and don't worry.
Separating the soya beans and sesame is no difficult task.
Let me tell you what to do.
Take a sieve, put the mixture into it, and shake.
Then you will separate them easily.
Having heard the crow's song, Dajia was overjoyed. She took a sieve and did as the crow had advised. In less than an hour the sesame seeds and soya beans were separated. She ran to her stepmother and said: “Mother, I've separated the grains, now can I go?”
Her stepmother was greatly surprised at the feat. “The young devil certainly has uncanny skill,” she thought. But she was not through with her mean tricks. “Do you think that's all?” she said harshly. “It's not that easy.” She handed Dajia two water pails. “Fill the three jars in the courtyard with water and I'll let you go,” she said.
Dajia thought this was an easy job. Rolling up her sleeves and taking the pails, she went to the nearby stream. Little did she suspect that the bottoms of the pails had been perforated and the water she drew all drained out through the holes before she could get to the jars. It was approaching noon and the jars were still empty. Dajia fell into such a state of despair that she could not restrain her tears.
Dajia's mother heard her daughter cry. Again she changed herself into a crow, perched on a tree branch, and sang:
Don't cry and don't worry.
It isn't hard to fill the jars with water.
Plug up the holes with grass and mud,
And you will easily fulfil your task.
Dajia did as the crow told her. She plugged the holes in the pails with grass and plastered them with mud. Soon the jars were filled.
Having completed this second task, Dajia ran to her stepmother and said: “Mother, I've filled the jars with water, please let me go.” Amazed, her stepmother stared at her. Recovering herself, she said sharply, “But you have no new clothes, how can you go? Look at your sister. She has a red jacket and blue trousers, all brand-new. Her shoes are embroidered in silk and her stockings are spotlessly white. But look at yourself! Your clothes are patched. If you go, you'll be taken for a beggar rather than a guest.”
Having said this she turned on her heel and left Dajia standing.
Dajia burst into tears and her mother, knowing her daughter was in distress, assumed the form of a crow and again came to her rescue. She perched on the roof and sang:
Don't cry and don't worry.
Go and dig under the loquat tree,
And you'll find there new clothes, shoes and stockings.
Dajia was so glad that she danced. She took a spade and dug below the loquat tree. She had turned up only a few spadefuls of earth when lo! a package appeared. She opened it and found a beautiful gown, a pair of red silk trousers with laced edges, a pair of shoes with pointed toes, a pair of gold bangles, and a pair of ear-rings. Dajia lost no time in dressing herself up. Then she ran to her stepmother and said: “Mother, I've dressed myself in new clothes, please let me go.” Her stepmother, bewildered and frustrated, could do nothing but grant Dajia's request.
It was the first time that Dajia had been to a wedding feast. She felt exceedingly happy, and danced on her way. While passing over a bridge she stumbled on a stone ledge and one of her shoes fell into the river. Just at this time a young scholar, riding a big horse, came along. As soon as he arrived at the head of the bridge, his horse stopped and would go no further. He spurred and whipped the animal. It neighed, but refused to budge.
The young scholar felt the horse's behaviour rather strange. He alighted, looked around, and tried to find a cause for the animal's obstinacy. Suddenly he saw a woman's red shoe with a pointed toe on a little sandbank in the river. Could it be possible, he thought, giving free rein to his imagination, that I and the loser of this shoe shall meet and marry one day. He tethered his horse to the railing of the bridge, went down and rescued the shoe.
The story of the young scholar picking up a shoe with a pointed toe on a river shoal soon spread through the village. It was also rumoured that he would marry the girl to whom the shoe belonged. Dajia knew nothing of the rumours but they soon reached the ears of Dalun's mother. So she went to the bridge and said to the young scholar: “The shoe belongs to my daughter Dalun.”
“Let her come and identify it,” he answered.
“She is attending a wedding feast but will come very soon,” said Dalun's mother.
A few minutes later Dajia and Dalun approached from the other side of the bridge. Pointing at Dalun, her mother said: “Look, there comes my daughter, the girl wearing a red jacket and blue trousers.” Going to Dalun, she took her hand, gave her a significant glance and said, “This young scholar has picked up your lost shoe, Dalun; go quickly and claim it.”
Dajia had keen eyes and saw immediately that the shoe held in the young scholar's hand was hers. “Sir,” she said, coming forward, “the shoe is mine, please give it back to me.”
Seeing Dajia claiming the shoe, the stepmother lost her temper. “The shoe is Dalun's,” she said, “how could it be yours, you imbecile?” Saying this, she gave Dajia a nasty pinch.
As they quarrelled over possession of the shoe the young scholar found it rather difficult to make up his mind as to the rightful owner. Then an idea occurred to him. “Stop quarrelling,” he said. “You say it's yours and she says it's hers. If you continue to argue like this, there will be no end of it even if you should quarrel for a whole year. Now I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll take a bramble and place it in the middle of the bridge. Each of you girls will pass by it. The one to whose clothes the bramble sticks is the owner of the shoe.”
Saying this, he took a thorny shrub and placed it in the middle of the bridge.
Dalun was the first to try. She made her dress swing as hard as possible so that it might be caught by the bramble. But no matter how hard she tried, it never caught.
Now it was Dajia's turn. As soon as she came near the bramble a wind blew her coat and it was immediately caught by the bramble. So the young scholar gave the shoe to Dajia.
A few days later a bridal chair carried Dajia to him, and she became his wife.
Dajia and her husband loved each other and their married life was very happy. Dajia no longer suffered from bad treatment by her stepmother. Later she gave birth to a boy.
Once Dajia, riding in a chair and taking her child with her, went back to visit her stepmother. When her chair arrived at the door of the house, her stepmother hid her hostility and welcomed her with much fuss.
“Darling,” said her stepmother hypocritically. “How nice to see you. Come in and have a rest.”
Then she spent a long time preparing a sumptuous feast for Dajia.
When Dalun saw that her mother was so kind to Dajia she was wild with rage. She went to the backyard, cried and railed at her mother.
“Silly girl!” her mother whispered in her ear. “Do you think your mother is a fool?”
Then in a low voice she told Dalun her plot.
Dalun was appeased and came back joyfully to take dinner with her sister.
“Dajia,” said Dalun after the dinner was over, “you haven't been home for several years. The water in the well in our backyard has become very clear. Let's go and look at our reflections in it.”
“All right, let's go,” said Dajia, willing to please.
As they leaned over looking at the water, Dalun suddenly pushed Dajia into the well. Then she went back into her room and dressed up like Dajia. “Darling,” she said to Dajia's child, “let's go home.”
The child looked at Dalun and saw that it was not his mother. “No, I won't,” he said. “You are not my mother. My mother has no pock marks on her face.”
“Your grandmother was frying some dumplings for me a moment ago,” Dalun explained, “the fire was too big and the oil splashed on my face, hence these marks. And you took me for a stranger, you foolish child.”
The child believed what Dalun said and went back with her.
When she got into the chair the bearers felt the burden heavier than before. “How strange it is,” they said to each other, “the lady and child seem to be heavier than before.”
Dalun overheard them. “It's a common saying,” she explained, “that 'after eating rice one's belly is bigger and after eating dumplings one's body is heavier'; and, you see, I've just eaten some dumplings.” So she passed for Dajia again.
When Dalun arrived at the young scholar's home, he saw the pock marks on her face and also suspected that she was not Dajia. She told him the same story as she had told the child. He accepted her explanation, but he was not entirely free of suspicions.
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