Over the past few weeks, I’ve been pondering here about stories that speak from wounded, devastated earth—that come out of a place of suffering together with the world we inhabit. So I thought you might appreciate this selection from Kevin Stuart and Limusishiden’s collection of Monguor folktales: two stories that talk about suffering and changing landscape. What I find most curious about these strange, unsettling stories is the different reactions of the people to the changing land, and the unstated reaction of the storyteller.
Phoenix Mountain Legend
There is a high mountain running in a north-south direction called Phoenix Mountain in Guanting. Local people have a story about this mountain’s name. In Sanchuan long ago there was a lovely place of green trees where beautiful birds sang. Everywhere there was the scent of flowers. Spring water freely ran and our ancestors happily lived in this place for a long time. One day Jade Emperor was inspecting earth as he flew in the sky and noticed that this place was more beautiful than his. His jealousy turned to anger and he sneered that he would ruin this place. For several years disasters came. The four seasons disappeared. Storms, hailstorms, and snow all suddenly came. The earth lay in waste. Trees shriveled, birds flew away, people suffered from hunger and cold, and everything appeared lifeless. Just at this time Phoenix Fairy Maiden happened to pass by and saw that this previously scenic place had become such a wasteland that she could hardly recognize it. Though she was angry and sad she lacked power to change conditions on earth. All she could do was to lead people to fight the disasters.
Several years later, this almost dead place began to come back to life. Trees turned green again, flowers bloomed, birds returned, and people began to once more lead a happy life. The Jade Emperor saw that this place was again beautiful and gnashed his teeth in anger. He sent generals to bring Phoenix Fairy Maiden to the sky, had her head cut off, and then threw her corpse to earth. More disasters came to Sanchuan and this is why most mountains are bare today. The Phoenix Fairy Maiden’s corpse fell to earth and became a mountain. Her right wing extended westward and the other wing fell to the east. Her headless body lay in a north-south direction. Her neck pointed up in the north as though she was resisting heaven, or else as though she was trying to look at this place. You can still find red marks here and people say it is her blood. To the south, her beautiful tail spread. Her body extends through all the Monguor area as though preventing more disasters from the Jade Emperor. Looking down from above it is just like she is spreading her wings, like a bird getting ready to fly. Thus people call this mountain Phoenix Mountain.
How Red Cliff Mountain Lost Its Forest
There is a brigade located in the northeast corner of Sanchuan whose name literally translates as Red Cliff. To the rear of the brigade is a high mountain known as Red Cliff Mountain. In recent years, there have been only a few trees on this mountain, but many say that long ago this mountain was covered with a forest of ancient trees. Long ago in this forest there lived a fox. Everyday it looked after the forest, for it was the master of the forest. One day a merchant passed by and, in bright sunshine, noticed the fox’s very beautiful fur. At that time fox furs were very valuable and extremely expensive. The merchant very much wanted to catch it and thus become rich. He returned home and prepared for several days. He readied a large net, a trap, much food, and then started out for the forest. He stayed in the forest the whole day, thinking and waiting. He thought, “Maybe the fox knows all of this,” because the fox ate the bait the man put in the trap, but was never caught. The fox also never ventured near the net. Days and months passed and the food the merchant had brought with him was gone. Then he collected all his things and set off for home. Halfway home he met an old white-haired man who saw his things and asked for an explanation. The merchant told the old man everything. The old man saw him in this pitiful condition and said that he would like to support him and give him more food, so he could continue his effort. The old man said, “When you catch the fox, skin him, but don’t cut any part of his body.” The man returned to the forest and once more tried to catch the fox. Just as the food the old man had given him was nearly gone he caught the fox. After he skinned it he suddenly remembered the old man’s words and murmured, “Hm, the old man said not to cut him anywhere, but there might be treasures inside his body, so why don’t I cut him open and see?” He then cut open the fox and looked inside but, except for some grass, he found nothing. As he flung the body to the ground and prepared to leave the earth suddenly cracked, mountains collapsed, and trees toppled, burying the merchant. The old man he had met earlier on the road was really a god and, if the merchant had listened, he would have gotten the fox skin and become rich, but more importantly, the fox would have had another life and continued to care for the forest. But the businessman didn’t listen and thus, refusing to abide by heaven’s judgement, he was punished. Afterwards, the mountain assumed its present form with no forests, just a few trees and green grass.
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), pp. 135, 183-184. http://sino-platonic.org/complete/spp059_monguor_folktales.pdf. Available under a Creative Commons license.