Thursday 9 September 2010

Chinese Cinderella - Ye Xian

If you spend some time studying the western and eastern culture, you will find the two do have a lot in common.

I bet you must know the rags-to-riches fairy tale of Cinderella. The most popular version of this story is believed to be written by Charles Perrault in 1697. But, you may not know that in 850 A.D. in China, the first written Cinderella story named Ye Xian (叶限, also known as Teh-Shen) already appeared in a book called Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang which was once quite famous for collecting a big number of interesting stories.

The Chinese version of Cinderella is very similar with its European counterpart but a thousand years older than it! And surprisingly, that’s not even the oldest one. According to some experts, the story of Cinderella can date back to ancient Greco-Egyptian times. It is thought that the story emerged sometime in the first century.
Here’s the Chinese Cinderella story. Enjoy it.

Ye Xian: The Chinese Cinderella

 Long, long time ago, there was a village chief named Wu in south coast of China. He married two wives. Unfortunately, One of them died after giving birth to a babygirl . After growing into a young lady, the girl was extremely beautiful and had a remarkable gift for embroidery and spinning. Chief Wu liked her very much and named her Ye Xian. Before long, Chief Wu died too leaving Ye Xian to be reared by her stepmother. The mean woman did not like Ye Xian for she was prettier and smarter than her own daughter so she treated her poorly. Apart from giving her the worst jobs like collecting firewood and drawing water, she and her daughter often mock at her, while Ye Xian always silently did her work without any complaint. 

One day, while drawing water, Ye Xian found a lovely little fish with big golden eyes and red fins. She loved it so much that she took it home and put it into a big bowl. Though the young lady had little food for herself, she was willing to share with the fish. Under her care, the small fish grew up every day, soon being too big for a bowl. Ye Xian had to move it to a pond nearby. Each time she approached to the pond, the fish would come out of the water onto the bank to greet her. It became her only friend companying her in her hard time. 

Her stepmother heard about the fish. Angry that Ye Xian had found happiness, she planed to kill the fish. She followed Ye Xian to the pond and saw the fish from the distance. But as long as she came onto the bank, the fish immediately sank into the deep water. So the next day, the malicious woman made Ye Xian go carry water from a new place far away from their house, and then she put on her step daughter's clothes and imitate her voice to call the fish. Unaware of this deadly trap, the innocent creature floated up to greet its friend as usual. When it clearly saw the dagger in the bad woman's hand, it was too late.

Ye Xian's step mother cruelly killed the fish on the bank, cooked its flesh and deeply buried its bones with rubbish. Ye Xian was distraught when she learned of the fish’s death. But she could do nothing but cry on the bank. As she was mourning for her friend, an old man wearing the coarsest of clothes and with hair hanging down over his shoulders flew down from the sky and landed by her side.

"Don't cry", he said, "I know where the fish bones were buried. You go there, dig them out, keep them secretly. When you are in bad need, you could pray to the bones which would give you what you want. But memorize, don't be greedy, otherwise, you will be punished by the God." Then, the old man leaded Ye Xian to a abandoned cellar, disappearing.

Ye Xian retrieved her friend's remains there and hid them in a safe place.

Remembering the warning of the old man, Ye Xian rarely used the magic bones until Cave Festival which was an important local festival when the young people gathered in the village to meet one another and to find husbands and wives. Every young girl was keen on going to the festival in beautiful dress. Ye Xian was not an exception, but she knew that her stepmother would not allow it because she feared that someone would pick Ye Xian rather than her own daughter, which meant she would lose her half property to pay her step daughter's dower. Moreover, Ye Xian did not have any decent clothes.

After the stepmother and her daughter left for the festival, desperate Ye Xian asked the bones for clothes to wear to the festival. Suddenly she was wearing a sumptuous gown of kingfisher feathers. On her feet were a pair of shining golden shoe which were magically lighter than a feather and did not make any noise while touching stone floor.

Ye Xian arrived at the festival and soon all were looking her way. Attracted by her charm, young men circled her dancing and singing; shocked by her beauty, young ladies looked at her from the distance with envy complaining the stranger stole their thunder. Ye Xian's step sister was one of them. After a while staring, she screamed to her mother: "Look! mom, she just looks like my sister!" They both started moving towards Ye Xian to have a clearer look. At the same time, Ye Xian too recognized them in the crowd. Seeing that she would be found out, Ye Xian dashed out of the festival leaving behind one of the golden shoes.

On reaching home she quickly change back into her rags and pretended to be sleeping under a tree in the yard. When her step mother and sister came back, they found nothing unusual.

Ye Xian's lost shoe was found by a merchant and a few months later sold to the king of Tuo Han (陀汗), a strong kingdom of tens of islands, covering thousands of miles.

Fascinated by the delicate ladies shoe, the young king could not resisted yearning for its owner. He ordered his ministers to travel round the kingdom with the shoe and bring back any lady who could fit in it. But no one was found, because the shoe could magically change its size. No matter how tiny a girl's foot was, the shoe was always a inch shorter than it. The eager king called in the merchant again for inquiring of the spot where the shoe was found, only to know it was somewhere near a mountain in mainland.

The king himself sailed off to the mountain right away. To his disappointed, it was a remote and poor area. He could not believed that the owner of the golden shoe could live there. But he still had his men search every house of the neighbor villages for the other shoe. Finally, they found it and the gown that Ye Xian had worn to the festival in her bed-drawer.

Ye Xian was taken to the king. Pretty as she was, the king yet doubted that the village girl in rags would be the one he had been longing for day and night. So he asked her to try on the shoes and clothes. After a while, from the shabby cottage was walking out a lady beautiful like a fairy. A charming smile was shining on her angelic face, the splendid gown was wrapping her appealing body, and the golden shoes were the perfect fitting for her feet. At the moment, the king realized that she was the one for him.

The step mother and sister begged for forgiveness, and Ye Xian forgave them for their cruelties.

The king took Ye Xian back to his kingdom where they married and lived happily ever after.

Background and Writer Comment:

The Other ending of Chinese Cinderella

Chinese Cinderella Do you like this story? I'll be very happy if you do. :) But I have to tell you that this story was not finished yet. In order not to destroy the classic fairy tale theme of Cinderella, I made up a happy ending for it. In fact, the original ending is quite boring and superfluous. Just like a old Chinese idiom going: " Paint a snake with feet (gild the lily)", it ruins the story. Yet, to present you a complete story, I added it here.

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 (懊女冢, ao nu zhong).

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.

It isn't a good ending, is it? But Why? Didn't the author want his story sound beautiful?

To answer it, I have to talk a little about how a modern, classic folklore comes into being.

We all know that folklores are passed down from old generations. Thus, they are "their" (I mean old generations) stories not ours. They tends to contain some things easy appreciated by "them" but hard by us. Furthermore, due to the shortage of processing of professional writers, they are often badly organized and even incomplete. These can be seen in many classic folklores.

For example, in the early version of Little Red Cap, the story ended right after the little girl was swallowed by the wolf. There was neither good hunter rescuing her and her grandmother nor the bad wolf drowning in the well. Similarly, in the early version of Cinderella, generous forgiveness and friendly reconciliation were replaced by cruel revenge -- the two step sisters were pecked to blindness by birds instead of being forgiven and marrying two lords as depicted in the modern version.

This story was translated from the most original version of Ye Xian written in classical Chinese. In other words, it is at least 1,100 years old and therefore inevitably has the above issues. Besides, the book that collected Ye Xian was a collection of novel stories. According to Chinese writing tradition, the authors of this kind of books would rather loyally recorded the stories that they heard of than artistically processed them.
If you like the modern version of this story which may be more suitable for the taste of people today, please click here to the modern version of The Chinese Cinderella.
Other Versions of Cinderella

The Author of The Chinese Cinderella

Chinese Cinderella Ye Xian was originally produced by Zhuang people, a Chinese minority in south coast of China where many different nations living together such as Miao (苗), Zhuang (壮), Dai (傣), Bai (白) and so on.

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) from the south coast of China 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, you yang za zu). When he was a child, his biggest ambition was to know everything in the world. So through his whole life, he had been collecting and learning all kinds of knowledge. 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 provicne. 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 jewelry, in over thirteen hundred entries that describe the world that Duan Chengshi heard about, read of, or personally observed.

Ye Xian was in Chapter 21 of the book. The story was allegedly told by his servant Li Shi Yuan (李士元) , a native from the south coast of China. The exact location is unknown, but the most likely candidate is Nanning, the capital of Guangxi province of China.

Source of The Chinese Cinderella

There are two different opinions on source of The Chinese Cinderella in China.
Some scholars argued that the south coast of China is the only source of this story. They mainly have two points:

 According to the local customs, hand-sewed shoes are a kind of important pledge of love that a girl gives to her lover.

 In ancient time, magic fish worship was popular in the south coast of China.

Some other scholars think that the most original inspiration of Ye Xian was from the tale of Rhodopis recorded by Greek historian Strabo (Geographica Book 17, 1.33) in the 1st century BC. They too have two main reasons.

The ways in which a king found the lost ladies shoe are very similar in the two stories.

The south coast of China had a close business association with other countries even in ancient time. It is highly possible that the tale of Rhodopis was transmitted into China by some businessmen or sailors.

In recent years, growing evidences have supported the second opinion.

However, since the tale of Rhodopis does have some basic plots that a complete story of Cinderella theme should include, like a wicked step mother and step sisters, a party, magical transformations etc, they both agree that Ye Xian is technically the first written and complete version of Cinderella theme story.


The Original Version of The Tale Of Rhodopis

In Ancient Egypt, a Greco-Egyptian girl Rhodopis, "rosy-cheeked", lived in the Greek colony of Naucratis. One day, when she was bathing, an eagle snatched one of her sandals from her maid and carried it to Memphis. The eagle, when it arrived above the head of the king who was administering justice in the open air, flung the sandal into his lap. And the king, stirred both by the beautiful shape of the sandal and by the strangeness of the occurrence, sent men in all directions into the country in quest of the woman who wore the sandal. Finally they found Rhodopis in the city of Naucratis. She was brought up to Memphis, became the wife of the king. 


  1. What happened next?
    Please continue the story. I need it so badly.

    1. Sorry to have kept you waiting so long. I had put the whole story in one article so that you can read through it.

  2. Very good article! Enjoy it.