As I was working on research for something else entirely, I stumbled upon a collection of Monguor folktales, collected from Qinghai in northwest China. This was a cultural tradition I wasn’t familiar with, and with no little eagerness I found myself drawn into an unfamiliar imaginative world.
These stories, edited by Kevin Stuart and Limusishiden, reminded me forcefully one can how different folktales can be from the often reassuring stylings of literary fairy tales. There’s a jagged richness here that literary tales can often lack—a frankness in their humor and solemnity, their bawdiness and their melancholy, that too often we veneer with fashionable theories or techniques. There are deep and powerful images and questions and ideas that twine through these stories, lodging themselves deeply in the imagination, feeling both strange and familiar.
I’ll be posting a few of the more blog-length stories here occasionally, as I find them or remember them. For those of you eager to read them all at once, the necessary links are below. Here’s a haunting origin tale about a tree, and becoming a tree…
The Light-Giving Tree
Long ago the earth was filled with wasteland. During the day the sun gave out heat and brightness, but at night the moon only occasionally came. Most of the time it was pitch black without even a hint of light. People had no clothing to wear, but because they worked under the sun during the day, they didn’t greatly suffer. But at night the moon gave neither light nor heat and the people suffered terribly from darkness and coldness and often took firewood from the mountains to the caves in which they lived and burned it for heat and light. After a long period many people became blind and died.
One little boy named Xiao Hui lived with his sister, who was 2 years younger than he was. Their parents had died some time earlier, so they were cared for by neighbors. When Xiao Hui was 12 he realized the sort of life he would have to face and thought, “How wonderful it would be if the moon could come out every night giving all the people warmth and light. But he had no idea how to realize this. The next day he heard older villagers talking about an old white-haired man who lived on a distant mountain. They said that he had the power to put the moon in the sky. Many people had tried to reach him, but they had all failed and died because of the length of the journey and because of the many beasts along the route. Xiao Hui then announced that he would start out for that distant mountain the next morning. The villagers gave him bread and drink, and the next morning he started out. He crossed many very steep and tall mountains, numberless wide rivers, and managed to avoid countless wild animals. At last he found the mountain that he had been looking for and climbed it. On the top lived a white-haired old man. Xiao Hui explained why he had come and then asked the old man to send the bright shining moon every night. The old man answered that he did not have the power to make the moon shine every night. But he said that he did wish to help, and that he could give a potion. The person who drank the potion would become a tung oil tree and could give out light and heat every night. Xiao Hui said that he would take the potion and become a tung oil tree in order to help his people. When he returned home he swallowed the potion and immediately became a young green tung oil tree. Every night when there was no moon he smiled and gave out light and heat. Later, people made a statue of Xiao Hui and people went there to light lamps and kowtow to him.
Translated by Hu Jun
From: Kevin Stuart and Limusishiden, editors. China’s Monguor Minority: Ethnography and Folktales. Sino-Platonic Papers 59 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1994), p. 132. http://sino-platonic.org/complete/spp059_monguor_folktales.pdf. Available under a Creative Commons license.