Another Tale of the Weaver Goddess

The second of two tales about the Chinese Weaver Goddess, Zhinu, the daughter of the master of Heaven, (the Jade Emperor). As the Weaver Goddess, she either weaves her father’s royal robes out of the clouds, or else weaves the clouds and the rainbows themselves (it seems to vary, depending on what you read). Her mother, the Celestial Queen Mother, created the Silver River (the Milky Way).

This is the story of Zhinu and her other mortal husband, Niulang.

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The Weaver Maiden and the Cowherd

Niulang was a poor cowherd, with nothing in the world but an old, worndown Ox. Unbeknownst to Niulang, the Ox was a Celestial being, whom the gods exiled to Earth as punishment for… well, I don’t know what. On a day like any other day, as Niulang led his Ox to the fields, to his great surprise, the Ox turned and spoke to him!

“Let’s go down by the river,” the Ox said.

“Why?” said the Niulang — as soon as he got over his surprise at owning a talking Ox.

“You’ve been a good master. I want to repay you. Trust me,” the Ox said.

So down to the river they went. What the Ox knew — and Niulang didn’t — was that this particular bend of the river was a favorite bathing spot for the Jade Emperor’s seven daughters. As Niulang approached, he saw the sisters splashing in the water. He especially noticed the youngest one — Zhinu. The Ox noticed Niulang’s infatuated expression, and he helpfully pointed out the seven piles of clothing neatly stacked on shore.

“The robe the color of the sunset is Zhinu’s,” the Ox said.

So Niulang snuck to the shore as the sisters swam and splashed, and stole the robe that was the color of the setting sun. Eventually, the sisters finished their baths, scrambled to shore, put on their robes, and flew back up to the heavens. All except poor Zhinu.

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A Tale of the Weaver Goddess

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The first of two tales about the Chinese Weaver Goddess, Zhinu. Zhinu is the daughter of the master of Heaven, the Jade Emperor. As the Weaver Goddess, she either weaves her father’s royal robes out of the clouds, or else weaves the clouds and the rainbows themselves (it seems to vary, depending on what you read). Her mother, the Celestial Queen Mother, created the Silver River (the Milky Way).

The Tale of Dong Yong

In the time of the Han dynasty, there lived a young man name Dong Yong. His mother had died when he was just a baby, and he lived with his father, a poor farmer who spent every penny he had to care for and educate his son. When Dong Yong was nineteen, his father died, leaving Dong Yong so penniless that he could not afford to pay for his father’s burial rites, or for his tombstone.

Well, this wouldn’t do. Dong Yong gave up his studies and sold himself into indentured servitude, at a price high enough to give his father a proper funeral and a fine tombstone. Dong Yong knew that he would have to serve his master many long years to repay the debt, but he regretted it not at all. It was the least he could do for his father.

After the funeral, Dong Yong packed up his meagre belongings and made his way to his master’s house. On the way, he met a beautiful young woman. She told him that her mother had died, and her father had remarried. Her new stepmother wanted to marry her off against her will, and so she ran away. Dong Yong suggested she marry him instead — since neither had family, they could care for each other in a world full of strangers. The girl agreed. Continue reading

The Test

A new installment in my occasional and hopefully ongoing series of active heroines: lesser-known fairy tales featuring women who do more than wait around to get rescued. This one is from Lafcadio Hearn, and was told to him by his gardener Kinjuro. I give it here, verbatim. The story features the “marriage test” motif, where a hero must pass a test in order to win the fair maiden. In most cases, the fair maiden’s father imposes the test. In some cases — like this one — the fair maiden herself sets the conditions.

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A long time ago, in the days when Fox-women and goblins haunted this land, there came to the capital with her parents a samurai girl, so beautiful that all men who saw her fell enamoured of her. And hundreds of young samurai desired and hoped to marry her, and made their desire known to her parents. For it has ever been the custom in Japan that marriages should be arranged by parents. But there are exceptions to all customs, and the case of this maiden was such an exception. Her parents declared that they intended to allow their daughter to choose her own husband, and that all who wished to win her would be free to woo her.

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A Ghostly Lover tale from Southeast Asia

A tale told by Mark Seng Yang, who kindly allowed me to post it here.

800px Stilt house at Kalibo Aklan Philippines

Here’s a classic tale from SE Asia:

A man leaving to study abroad promised his lover he would return one day to marry her. Reluctantly, she agreed and waited for him. But as the years passed, her lover didn’t show and it was believed she died of a broken heart. A dilapidated house now stood where once a beautiful maiden waited for her knight.

As fate would have it, one day the man did come back and as he passed by his lover’s house, he could see her through the window combing her long, dark hair. Ecstatic as he was, the man decided to go home and clean up from the long journey. Imagine his surprise when his parents told him a peculiar thing.

“I’m told she’s dead and all that’s left is a ghost of her memory,” his parents said of his girlfriend.

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Boy Meets Ghost

A young man meets a beautiful, noble-born widow who has a crush on him; the noblewoman’s servant girl helps the two of them orchestrate their trysts. But all is not what it seems…

There are many variations of this originally Chinese tale, some of which have been carried over to Japan too. My favorite is a version by Lafcadio Hearn, called “The Story of Ming-Y,” from his collection Some Chinese Ghosts. Hearn attributes the story to the thirteenth century collection Kin-Kou-Ki-Koan (which he translates as “The Marvelous Happenings of Ancient and of Recent Times”).

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Tang Dynasty Poet Xue Tao
Image: Wikipedia

Ming-Y and Sië-Thao

Ming-Y is a young scholar who as been hired as a tutor into the household of the high commissioner Tchang, who lives just outside the city where Ming-Y’s parents live. Ming-Y lives at his employer’s house, but one spring he gets permission to visit his parents in the city. It’s on his way back to Tchang’s house when he first encounters a mysterious woman:

The dreamy joy of the day entered into the heart of Ming-Y; and he sat him down among the young blossoms, under the branches swaying against the violet sky, to drink in the perfume and the light, and to enjoy the great sweet silence. Even while thus reposing, a sound caused him to turn his eyes toward a shady place where wild peach-trees were in bloom; and he beheld a young woman, beautiful as the pinkening blossoms themselves, trying to hide among them. Though he looked for a moment only, Ming-Y could not avoid discerning the loveliness of her face, the golden purity of her complexion, and the brightness of her long eyes, that sparkled under a pair of brows as daintily curved as the wings of the silkworm butterfly outspread. Ming-Y at once turned his gaze away, and, rising quickly, proceeded on his journey. But so much embarrassed did he feel at the idea of those charming eyes peeping at him through the leaves, that he suffered the money he had been carrying in his sleeve to fall, without being aware of it. A few moments later he heard the patter of light feet running behind him, and a woman’s voice calling him by name. Turning his face in great surprise, he saw a comely servant-maid, who said to him, “Sir, my mistress bade me pick up and return you this silver which you dropped upon the road.” Ming-Y thanked the girl gracefully, and requested her to convey his compliments to her mistress. Then he proceeded on his way through the perfumed silence, athwart the shadows that dreamed along the forgotten path, dreaming himself also, and feeling his heart beating with strange quickness at the thought of the beautiful being that he had seen.

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Ghostly Lover: from the Sioux and from Japan

While flipping through my copy of American Indian Myths and Legends yesterday morning, I stumbled upon this gem, collected in 1970 from a Brulé Sioux informant at Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It’s a terrific ghost story all on its own, but it caught my eye for another reason as well. Before I give you the reason, though — the story:

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O-Kame: A Japanese Vampire Tale

After watching Kwaidan last week, I spent some time flipping through Shadowings and Kotto, which I’d never read before. I found this little vampire-style story in Kotto. It seems familiar; I think I’ve read a similar tale before, possibly a Chinese version.

I don’t believe the vampire myth, as we know it in the West, exists in Japanese folklore. However, (at least according to Wikipedia) the Japanese do have two kinds of “hungry ghosts”. The gaki are the ghosts of jealous or greedy people who have been cursed with insatiable hunger (so O-Kame might qualify). The jikininki are ghouls (corpse-eaters). Neither type seems to suck blood or life essence, as a vampire does. So it’s likely that Lafcadio Hearn transposed a folk motif (or several) from another place, either Europe or perhaps China, to Japan.

Either way, it’s a good story. Enjoy.

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Illustration from Kotto: being Japanese curios, with sundry cobwebs (1902).
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Kwaidan (Ghost Story)

THERE was a young Samurai of Kyōto who had been reduced to poverty by the ruin of his lord, and found himself obliged to leave his home, and to take service with the Governor of a distant province. Before quitting the capital, this Samurai divorced his wife,—a good and beautiful woman,—under the belief that he could better obtain promotion by another alliance. He then married the daughter of a family of some distinction, and took her with him to the district whither he had been called.

— “The Reconciliation” from Shadowings, by Lafcadio Hearn

Kwaidan (1965), directed by Masaki Kobayashi, won the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival. The film consists of four short stories, taken from the writings of Lafcadio Hearn.

Kwaidan

At first, it seemed odd to me that a Japanese film, about Japanese folklore, should be based explicitly on versions of this folklore as rendered by a westerner — even a westerner as fully assimilated into Japanese culture as Hearn apparently was. Lafcadio Hearn was born in Greece, raised in Ireland, lived much of his adult life as an American, and finally moved to Japan, becoming a Japanese citizen in 1895. He taught English literature at the Imperial University in Tokyo, changed his name to Yakumo Koizumi, and married a Japanese woman. His previous wife, in Cincinnati, was African-American — this, at a time when miscegenation was illegal in the United States. Although he is best known for his writings on Japan, he also wrote extensively on New Orleans, where he lived for about ten years. In a sort of foreshadowing of his future Asia-based writings, he wrote the first known article (for Harper’s Bazaar) about Filipinos in America: the “Manilamen” of Saint Malo, Louisiana.

On the face of it — especially when reading his lovely prose — one might accuse him of Orientalism — that is, of promoting an overly romantic view of the far East, especially Japan. On the other hand, much of what I’ve read while researching him for this post suggests that Hearn was a champion of “cultural miscegenation”. His goal was not to appropriate the cultures of The Other — the Creoles of Louisiana, the Japanese — but to try to understand them (and encourage understanding of them), to find the commonalities in all human experience, and to create literature, colored by his own multicultural, “perpetual outsider” experiences.

And as far as I can tell, his writings on Japan are looked on favorably by Japanese readers and folklorists, even now. So it’s not so surprising, after all, that Kobayashi would base his film on Hearn’s stories.

So. Back to the movie.

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Research, Re-links, and Japanese Monsters

I killed part of the long, long flight from Paris to Los Angeles at the end of our vacation by reading Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. One of the tales that he relates is entitled “Rokuro-kubi”. It is the story of a fifteenth century samurai turned Buddhist monk who encounters, and defeats, a band of monsters that he calls Rokuro-kubi: creatures that appear human, but their heads detach from their bodies, fly around and eat people.

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Nukekubi. Photo:Wikipedia

My first thought: “I’ve read this — this is a Hellboy story.” My second thought: “I wonder if they are related to aswang.” Aswang are a similar Filipino monster, except the entire upper torso of the aswang flies around, not just the head. They were also featured in a comic, Lynda Barry’s autobiographical (I think) One! Hundred! Demons!.

Oh cool, fodder for the blog! Only not entirely as I expected.

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