I used to live in Belfast, and had a number of conversations with friends and neighbours there about what life was like during the Troubles. How did they survive, I wanted to know—how did they bear it? Keeping your humour and your wits about you—that was a common answer, if not in so many words than in the stories they told of narrow escapes and bumbling ineptitude.
But this answer, in all its forms, pointed to a deeper answer: the Troubles ended, they said, because of the courage of ordinary people who quietly persisted in living ordinary, everyday lives. ‘Of course I tried to carry on with life as usual,’ one friend said. ‘We all did.’
It’s another grim and heartbreaking day in the world. We’ve had too many of these lately, and Friday 13 seems particularly bitter and bitterly pointless. Other, better, more eloquent writers can tell you what’s happening, and give some shape to the numb weariness that overtakes us. Today, we want to celebrate life as usual, the ordinary everyday, boring days when nothing remarkable happens and good days when something hilarious happens.
So here, as usual, are a few unsettling folktales for your reading pleasure. These are from the Oroqen minority, in Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang Province in China. I hope that, to paraphrase Chesterton, they can be a heartening reminder not simply that dragons exist, but that dragons can be beaten.
Killing a Monster
Told by Mo Yuling, translated by Wang Jing
A hunting family lived in a forest and, one day when the father was out hunting, the mother and her two children built a camp fire in front of their sirelji. As the mother worked she sang:
Making a fire,
Making a fire,
Mother sings a happy song,
A happy song.
Suddenly she saw a monster’s reflection in the water of a pot she was putting over the fire. She turned and saw a monster descending the mountain, coming towards her. She said to her crying children, “Don’t be afraid. Mother has an idea.”
The monster arrived and laughed at the children: “You are fat and just what I want to eat,” and opened his huge mouth to devour the children. Doing as their mother had told them, the two children took a bridle and bit in their hands. The monster immediately drew back, for it is said that monsters are in great fear of bridles and bits.
But the monster noticed the mother had nothing in her hands and went near her. Displaying no fear she placed a pot of water and pot of oil near the fire and began to pour the water on her chest. The monster saw this and thought, “You are bathing, so I’ll do the same,” and poured the oil on his chest. The mother knew monsters easily imitate human action and opened her arms to hug the fire. The monster followed suit and then the oil on his chest caught fire. In pain and aflame he cried out and began running. He used his hands to scratch his chest, which made his hands burn and, as he scratched his head with his burning hands, his head also caught fire. Thus he became a burning monster and died a moment later.
Huoqina Defeats the Monster
Told by Gan Zhushan, translated by Fu Yiguang
Three brothers lived between White Mountain and Black Mountain. The eldest was Pianzhushan and the second was Guoxiyan. Both were timid. It was only the youngest, Huoqina, who was bold and fearless, and thus much liked by the tribesmen. One day, when Pianzhushan was returning from hunting at sunset, he met a shaggy monster with long paws climbing towards an open coffin in a tree top. Seeing a ferocious wolf, the monster jumped from the tree and fled with the wolf in hot pursuit. His nerves shattered by this, Pianzhushan returned home, fell ill, and didn’t leave his bed.
Later, Guoxiyan went hunting. When it was dark, he tied his horse to a withered tree and lit a bonfire. After eating, he saw a black hairy monster with glimmering eyes squatting by the fire. He raised his ·firelock and shot. The monster ran away yelping. Afraid the monster would return and attack him, Guoxiyan intended to sit by the fire and wait for dawn. His horse snorted constantly and he felt this signalled the monster had come again. He saddled the horse and rode for home. As he reached his home, dawn broke and his tribesmen saw that he was pale. They asked, “Why are you trembling, and why is the saddle set backwards?”
A few days later Huoqina went hunting. He was so strong of limb that only a very large horse could carry him. As he returned at sunset, he saw a leopard and raced after it. Just as he caught up with it, it vanished. In its place was a pretty maid collecting firewood. Huoqina asked, “Why do you venture out alone to collect firewood?” “I am single and homeless,” she replied. Huoqina noticed that the maid was concealing paws inside long sleeves. He realized that she was actually a monster. Unafraid, he decided to do his best to defeat it. Just then, he heard the ‘maid’ ask, “Would you let me spend the night at your home?” Pretending compassion he then tied her behind him with a rope. When he reached his tribe, dogs barked furiously, which so frightened the ‘maid’ that she hurriedly transformed ‘herself’ into a coffin lid. Amazed, Huoqina’s family asked, “Why did you bring a coffin lid home?” Huoqina explained, “Just a moment before it was a beautiful maid.” He took the coffin lid from his back, lit a bonfire, and threw it into the flames. After some time, the coffin lid had burned completely, except for a small piece of wood. Recognizing this as the monster’s heart, Huoqina built the fire up again and burned it completely to ashes. Afterwards, that region was never haunted
Dragon Head Mount and the Boy Hunter
Told Mo Gande, translated by Wang Jing
Years ago there was much game in the Huma River Basin. Oroqen hunters came from many places to hunt there. But later a monster came, which resembled neither beast nor man. He stood 3 meters tall and was hairy. His head was as ugly as a moose’s and his eyes were as large as big bells and emitted green light. His sense of smell was so keen that he could detect a human from far away. His mouth resembled a big bloody basin and the ends of his paws were eagle-like talons. He had a walking stick made from a ‘crow-eye tree’ and, when crossing boggy marshlands, he could run quickly using the stick. If he sat on a boulder, the pressure of his body was such that he left a hole in the stone. This monster ate many people and frightened still more.
One day, two hunters met this monster while hunting. Terrified, they lashed their horses and ran quickly away, but the monster pursued. Hills and rivers could not stop him and, just as the two were- nearly caught, they met a boy hunter, who curiously asked, “Why are you running?”
“A man-eating monster’s coming.”
“Don’t you have bows and arrows?”
“Then why are you afraid? Shoot him! ”
“We’ve never seen anyone who doesn’t fear this monster,” the two hunters said and hid behind a huge stone. The monster suddenly ran up and the child asked angrily, “What are you doing?” Startled, the monster replied, “Did you ask? I am chasing two men.” “Why do you want to catch them?” the boy demanded. “Why?” the monster laughed nastily. “I want to eat them.”
“Are people good food?”
“I’ve eaten people since I was born.”
“How terrible! How dare you eat people!”
“Little boy, do you dare scold me?”
“Leave or else I shall beat you!”
The monster yelled, “I don’t want to eat you, because you’re so small that you wouldn’t even fill the cracks between my teeth! Leave, otherwise I’ll seize you by the throat and rip you apart! ” and he reached out with his paws to catch the boy, but the boy was too nimble and jumped out of his rtach. The monster said, “Let’s compete and see who has the greater ability!” “You will never win!” the boy said. “Now say how we shall compete!”
“Wrestling? I’m small and quick while you are big and clumsy. You could never win!”
The monster suggested, “Let’s pull up trees to see who can pull the fastest!”
“That’s not a match to measure ability!”
“Then you make a suggestion!”
“Let’s throw grass and see who can throw it the furtherest.”
The monster pulled up grass from the ground and threw it with all his might, but it didn’t go very far. Then the boy threw some grass much further. The monster saw that the boy was clever and thought, “If he is more able than I, how can I continue to stay here and eat people?” So to encourage himself he said, “Even if you have won, it is still impossible for you to defeat me.”
“I can kill you with one arrow!
The monster looked at the small boy and his small bow and arrows and laughed. “That little arrow is for a baby to play with. How can you kill me with such a small bow and such tiny arrows?” he said.
“Let’s see who shoots the best!
“OK, tell me what the target is! ”
“Let’s shoot at that mountain. The one who shoots the dragon’s head out from the top of the mountain will win,” said the boy, pointing to the mountain standing against the Huma River. The monster shot first. His arrow flew to the foot of the mountain and knocked some stone down.
“Look!” Boy Hunter cried and fired his arrow, which struck the top, cracking a rock, and a huge dragon thrust its head out through the crack! The monster was so afraid with this that he fled away, but the boy ran after him. As he was running, the monster turned his head and asked, “When can I return here?”
“In 200 years, can I?”
“No, you can’t! You can’t return even after 200 times 200 years!”
Then the boy shot the monster as he ran, and the monster died from that one arrow! The two hunters hiding behind the rock came out. They thanked the boy, “It’s you who saved us. If not, we would have lost our lives!” “Don’t say thanks,” the boy said. “Later, don’t be afraid of monsters. You have bows and arrows and can kill them using your brains!” Ashamed, the two men’s faces and necks went red, but they were happy in their hearts. Later, they often told the story of this boy hunter whenever they met someone. And those on boats on the Huma River can also still see Dragon Head Mountain, standing by the river which the boy shot at before he killed the monster.
From: Kevin Stuart and Li Xuewei, editors. Tales from China’s Forest Hunters: Oroqen Folktales. Sino-Platonic Papers 61 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1994), pp. 32-33, 37-38, 54. http://www.sino-platonic.org/complete/spp061_oroqen_folktales.pdf. Available under a Creative Commons license.