Tea and a Story: How to Make a Million Pieces of Gold

Today’s story is one that comes from Chinese folklore. It’s one I learned in middle school as part of my literature class and was one of my first introductions not only to non-Western folklore, but also to Eastern religions and philosophies. Throughout the years, I’ve become more interested in meditation and Buddhism, having practiced Zen meditation for many years now. But I think the real reason I still love this story is because the deity it references gives her name to one of my favorite teas, making this truly a story to enjoy with a nice cup of Tieguanyin oolong.

“The Living Kuan-yin” is the story of a young man who is named Chin Po-Wan or “One Million Pieces of Gold,” and everyone who reached out to him on the streets was given money. But one day, someone asks Po-wan for help and he doesn’t have any money. All he can share is a bowl of rice. He wonders why, if his name means “Gold,” can’t he help this person by giving them gold. He decides to seek the living Kuan-yin, a goddess of mercy who allows all who visit her to receive the answers to three questions.

On his journey, he is helped by three beings. First, a snake overlooking a river crossing wonders if he will ask the Kuan-yin why he has not yet become a dragon. Then, an innkeeper has him ask the Kuan-yin why his twenty-year-old daughter has never spoken a word. Finally, he stays at the home of another man, who asks him to ask the Kuan-yin why his garden has no plants. Po-wan continues on his way and ends up asking the three questions of the three beings he met on his journey, and ignores his own.

He learns from the Kuan-yin that the snake on the cliff has seven pearls on his head. If he removes all but one, he will become a dragon. The innkeeper’s daughter will not speak until she sees the man destined to be her husband. And the rich man’s garden has buried in it seven jars of treasure. It will bloom if he gives away half of this treasure. Despite not having asked his own question, Po-wan leaves and returns to the three beings he had met previously. Upon telling the rich man about his garden, the man gives Po-wan half of the treasure in gratitude. When he arrives at the inn, the innkeeper’s daughter greets him by name, signifying that they are to be married. And finally, when he tells the snake what the Kuan-yin had said, the snake gives him the six pearls. So even though he never asked the Kuan-yin his question, Chin Po-wan is once again worth a million pieces of gold, and married as well.

Now, in understanding this story, it helps to understand a little bit about the Kuan Yin in Chinese culture. The Kuan-yin or Guanyin is a bodhisattva in Buddhist tradition. Her full name is Guanshiyin, which means “one who perceives the sounds of the world.” Guanshiyin is also a translation of the Sanskrit Avalokitesvara, who is named in the Heart Sutra as the bodhisattva of compassion. While the bodhisattva are sometimes called goddesses, that’s not exactly their function in Buddhist tradition. Much like Gautama Buddha, who was a man who attained enlightenment before helping others to find it themselves, bodhisattvas are believed to be those beings who have attained enough enlightenment to become buddhas themselves. The bodhisattva of compassion, however, vows not to leave the cycle of karma, as allowed by achieving buddhahood, until all beings have been released. They stay behind to help others on the path.

The thing is, the Guanyin also appears in other Chinese traditions outside of Buddhism. Taoist literature claims she was a mortal woman who achieved immortality. She is a popular folk deity worshiped in China, even being considered a fertility goddess in some traditions. Like many religions, it’s possible that the Buddhists absorbed a popular figure into their cannon, particularly given the Guanyin’s defining characteristic of compassion and generosity.

So in this story, a young man is going to seek the help of this bodhisattva or goddess. But, as her characteristic is compassion for all living beings, by bringing the pleas of three others to her, over his own needs, he shows his own compassion, and is therefore also rewarded with an answer for his own, unasked question. It’s interesting because his reward is material, which goes against the teachings of Buddhism, but at the same time follows the goals of a young man in Chinese culture, namely to be able to support himself and to gain a wife. And finally, because his original wish was to have the means to offer financial aid to others, granting him material wealth is simply a way to grant him the means to help others.

I find this story, while characteristically from an Eastern tradition, to be satisfying as a general folk tale. It doesn’t become preachy or instructional, as some of the koan-stories do, but instead shows the way to do good, rather than explaining how to do good.

Source:

“The Living Kuan-yin” from Sweet and Sour: Tales from China, by Yao-Wen Li and Carol Kendall [link]

Background about the Guanyin from Wikipedia [link]

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Tea and a Story: The Unnatural Father

Today’s stories are two variations on what is called by some who analyze folk tales stories of the trope of the unnatural father. Now, in the future, I’ll talk a little bit about the unnatural mother, which is where all the stories of evil stepmothers come from, but for today, we’re talking about dads. One story is from the Brothers Grimm and the other is from Jacobs’ English Fairy Tales, and have big enough differences to be told distinctly, though the structure is similar. At their core, they’re the stories of two young women who are forced to flee their respective fathers and homelands, disguise themselves, and then find their way back to their rightful stations as nobility through their wits.

The first is the story of “Catskin,” from the Grimms. It’s also called “Roughskin,” which is the name I had heard originally, but the version of Grimm’s fairy tales that I have now calls it Catskin. In the story, a king has a beautiful wife with golden hair. Sadly, she dies without bearing a sun, though she does have a daughter as beautiful as herself. The king is beside himself with grief, but also must wed again. He decides that the only one beautiful enough to replace his wife is his daughter. Now, even though this takes place in medieval Europe, most people still think this is icky, especially the girl, who does not want to marry her father. But he’s pretty set on it. So she asks for four gifts before she can marry: three dress, one of gold like the sun, one of silver like the moon, and one as dazzling as the stars, plus a coat made out of a thousand different animals’ skins. Upon getting her gifts, she packs everything up, along with a few trinkets of her own, puts on the patchwork fur coat, disguises herself by smearing soot on her face and hands, and runs away.

She ends up falling asleep in a wood in another kingdom and is found by a huntsman who thinks she is an especially exotic form of animal. The huntsman catches the strange creature for his king (the king who rules the forest, not the girl’s father), and it’s revealed that it’s not a strange animal, but a particularly dirty young woman. The young woman, called Catskin because she doesn’t give another name, is offered a job as a kitchen maid, which she accepts. Some time later, there is a ball and Catskin wants to attend. She cleans herself up and wears her dress that is gold like the sun and dances with the king, who doesn’t recognize her. But she has to leave early to prepare the soup afterwards. She puts one of her trinkets, a golden ring, into the soup, and the king finds out that Catskin made the soup and asks her about the ring. She plays coy. This continues twice more, with her wearing the dress that is silver like the moon and putting a gold necklace into the soup, and a third time when she wears the dress that is as dazzling as the stars.

But the third time, the king is starting to suspect something, so he instructs the musicians to play an extra-long song so that the mysterious woman he’s dancing with doesn’t leave so early. Unfortunately, that means that Catskin realizes she might not have time to change to make the soup. In her haste to leave, she doesn’t notice the king slip a gold ring on her little finger. She also doesn’t have time to change, so she just puts her fur coat on over the stars dress, and doesn’t fully cover one of her fingers in soot. She does, however, have time to put a gold brooch in the soup. When the king calls her up again to ask about the soup, he grabs her hand and reveals the clean finger with the ring on it. He also sees a flash of her dress through the coat, so he pulls it off, revealing that she is the mysterious woman from the ball. And they get married and live happily ever after.

This version of the story is interesting because, although the girl is the one who comes up with the plan to escape her father, disguise herself, and still meet and intrigue the king, it is the king’s ingenuity that actually leads to their marriage. It’s a bit strange because, although Catskin doesn’t seem to want the king to know who she is, as she continues to disguise herself and deny putting the trinkets in the soup, she must, on some level, want him to figure it out because, well, she puts trinkets in his soup. Because of this, I prefer the alternate version of this story, “Cap o’ Rushes.”

The story of Cap o’ Rushes starts in a familiar way, if you know Shakespeare. Rather than wanting to marry his daughter, a gentleman asks his three daughters how much they each love him. One daughter says she loves her father as much as her life, the second as much as the whole world, and the third daughter says she loves her father “as fresh meat loves salt.” Naturally, the father thought that the third daughter is not only weird, but doesn’t actually love him, and casts her out. She disguises herself with a hooded cloak made from rushes and finds a job in a local nobleman’s house. They call her Cap o’ Rushes because of her distinctive fashion sense. But when there are dances held near the manor, she takes off her disguise and wears her fine clothes and dances with the son of her employer. This goes on for a few nights, and on the last night, the master’s son gives her a ring. When she’s asked to make gruel for the son because he is dying of love for his mysterious dancing partner, she puts his ring into it and reveals herself.

Now, this is where the first story ends, but the other thing I like about this story is the ending. You see, when the master’s son and Cap o’ Rushes get married, all the nearby gentry attend, including Cap o’ Rushes’ father. When she finds out that he’s coming, she tells the cook to prepare all the meat without salt, despite his protests. When the guests sit down to the wedding feast, they find the unsalted meat is inedible. But surprisingly, Cap o’ Rushes’ father (who at this point is just a random neighbor) bursts into tears and exclaims that he understands how much his daughter, whom he cast out, loved him. Once again, Cap o’ Rushes reveals herself and is reconciled with her father. And that’s how you live happily ever after.

Now, I like this version better because the heroine’s ingenuity basically takes her the whole way. She waits three nights to reveal herself not out of some coyness, but because she has proof of who she is. And at the end, she is able to redeem her father by showing him how he misunderstood her (although it helps that his “unnaturalness” was in casting out his loving daughter, not wanting to commit incest). Of course, there are some parallels to the story of Cinderella in these stories, but what I particularly like is that, other than some potentially magical packing devices, these women find their ways in the world through their own intelligence, and not with any help from fairies or gods. Perhaps I gravitate a bit much towards stories of strong women, but I think it’s important to highlight the often-forgotten heroines of folklore who fight the idea that all fairy tale princess are just waiting to be rescued.

Sources:

“Catskin” from The Complete Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales, by Jacob Grimm [link]

“Cap o’ Rushes” from English Fairy Tales, by Joseph Jacobs [link]

Tea and a Story: The Heroine’s Journey

While I’ve been reading fairy tales, myths, folklore, and legends since I was a young child, I first developed a deep love of the cultural significance of different stories when I bought an old collection of fairy tales at a used book store called East of the Sun, West of the Moon. It is a collection of fairy tales simply called “from the northern lands” and portrays a land that was much more exotic than the Grimms’ and Perrault’s fairy tales from my youth. The title story, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” bears a structure that I have since seen repeated in other cultures’ stories, most notably in one of my favorite stories from Classical mythology.

I’d like to share a little bit more personal background on this one first. When I was a child, there was a second-hand bookstore in town that also sold records where my dad would take my sister and me pretty regularly. This is probably part of where I learned a deep love of used bookstores, which is neither here nor there. But looking at used books one day (and dodging the shop’s cats, who were not as friendly as hoped), I stumbled upon a treasure: a collection of “Old Tales from the North” that was first published in 1914. Now, I don’t know if I have an original first edition, although the condition of the book wouldn’t rule that out, but it was like a new world of stories for me. The stories were similar in some ways to the stories I knew, but different enough to be exotic and exciting. And the accompanying illustrations showed a world of lush furs and rich embroidery. I was entranced, and those stories became my favorites, as I would return to them over and over again, especially the title story of the book.

“East of the Sun, West of the Moon” starts like the classic Beauty and the Beast story with a poor but lovely and sweet girl being sent to marry a thoroughly unsuitable suitor, this time in the form of a giant white bear. She finds herself living at a sumptuous palace, with everything she could ever want, but at night, when it’s too dark to see, she realizes that instead of a bear, she’s joined in bed by a young man. She goes on like this for sometime until it becomes apparent that she’s lonely and misses her family. Now, because in this story, she was traded for wealth, and not sent as a prisoner for some transgression, the bear allows her to go and visit her family on one condition: she must not listen to the advice her mother gives her when they speak in private. Well, this being the beginning of a fairy tale, she listens to her mother, who tells her she really should know with whom she sleeps at night and gives her a candle to take back with her. Fortunately, she lights the candle and realizes she’s been sleeping with a handsome prince! Unfortunately, she drips hot wax on him, waking him. He informs her that he was cursed and if she had gone a year without trying to look at him at night, he would have been freed, but because of her curiosity, he was going away forever to be wed to a woman with a nose three ells long (incidentally, an ell is an outdated unit of measurement most commonly accepted to be equivalent to a cubit, which is the length of a man’s forearms, or about 18″ long, so he’s about to go marry someone with a more-than-meter-long nose).

From here, the young woman decides that she’s going to brave the journey to find her prince and rescue him from the princess. The only thing she knows is that it’s east of the sun and west of the moon and that she’s never find it. On her journey, she meets three hags who give her three golden gifts as well as horses who seem to know where she needs to go. She comes to the houses of the winds, first the West Wind, who takes her to his brother the South Wind, who takes her to their brother the North Wind. The North Wind finally says that, yes, he knows where this place is and agrees to try to take her there. Upon arriving, she sets herself up at the window of the long-nosed princess and gets herself noticed while playing with a gold apple that she got from one of the hags. Long-nose asks to buy the apple and the young woman says it’s not for sale for gold or money but that she’ll trade it for one night alone with the prince. Long-nose agrees and the young woman finds that, when she goes to the prince, he’s asleep and she can’t wake him not matter how hard she calls to him. This goes on again, with a gold carding comb, and again the prince is asleep and unable to be woken. After the second night, some “Christian folk,” as the story calls non-trolls, tell the prince that a young woman has been crying and calling out in his bedroom the last two nights, so when Long-nose comes to give him a sleeping potion, he doesn’t drink it. The young woman trades her final gold gift, a spinning wheel, for one more night with the prince, where she finds him awake. He says she’s come in the nick of time, for their wedding is tomorrow.

In order to forestall the wedding, the prince tells Long-nose that he won’t marry her unless he can wear his favorite shirt, which happens to be spotted with candle wax. He asks her to wash it for him because, of course, as a proper wife, she must know how to do as simple a thing as wash a shirt. But of course, because these are trolls, they can’t do it and it just gets dirtier the more they wash it. The prince then says he bets this young woman could do a better job. The young woman simply has to dip the shirt in the water and it’s all clean (because she’s a good Christian girl and not a troll). They then get married, live happily ever after, and free all the good Christian folk who had been trapped by the trolls.

This is a really interesting story in that it starts like Beauty and the Beast, but actually becomes much more complex. It has a journey and trials for the hero, who in this case is a young woman. She comes to find the object of her quest (a man) not by being virtuous and meek, but by going out and looking for it. But after all that, her final trial is the wash a shirt. So it’s not entirely feminist. It’s also interesting to see such strong themes of Christian=good, non-Christian=troll in this story because it comes from Norway, where Christian missionaries did a lot of work to turn the local population against the old Norse pagan gods. Perhaps stories like this served to Christianize the idea of folklore.

Interestingly enough, the oldest story I know with this structure comes from Classical mythology. The original written version is from a Roman writer, so most of the characters are called by Roman names, but the original story obviously came from the Greeks. It’s the story of Cupid and Psyche, and it’s one of my favorite stories from Classical mythology. Like the young woman, Psyche is sent to marry a beast, although in the myth, she’s not so much betrothed as sacrificed to what her family thinks is a dragon-like creature (incidentally, she’s brought to the palace of her betrothed by the West Wind, which I found an interesting parallel). She realizes that she’s not sleeping next to a dragon at night and gets an oil lamp from her mother to see who it is. She realizes that her husband is actually Cupid, but in revealing him, dooms them to be parted by his mother, Venus, who disapproves of the union. She travels to Venus, who gives her three trials to complete, the last of which leads to her falling into a death-like sleep. Eventually the other gods decide they’ve had enough of Venus’ stubbornness and Jupiter brings her back to life and gives her the food of the gods so she can live as an immortal with Cupid.

Again a young woman is sold into a terrifying marriage, and again she finds out it’s not so bad by doing a bit of snooping, only to be disproportionately punished by losing her husband. This probably hearkens back to the fear women had when entering into a marriage. In fact, the original story of Beauty and the Beast was meant to be a commentary on how dangerously uncertain marriage could be for a young woman. But, through her own ingenuity and perseverance, each heroine is able to regain her husband, and on better terms than before. In the first story, the heroine is able to live with her husband as a man without being with him as a bear for part of the day, and Psyche is able to live openly with Cupid because her trials convinced the gods to stand up to the one who wanted to keep them apart. So perhaps they’re not such old-fashioned stories after all. Yes, each woman has the ultimate goal of an attractive and prestigious husband, but each also has the knowledge that they were the ones who rescued their husbands from those who wanted to keep them apart.

I always liked these stories because the heroines were neither too completely perfect, nor too demure. Yes, they’re both supposed to be beautiful beyond compare, but it actually does them more harm than good. And they have real journeys and tasks to complete. While Psyche’s first task is pretty mundane, the second is to get a golden fleece and the third is to go into the Underworld itself, something that are trials repeated by various Greek heros. And, unlike at least one man from mythology, she succeeds in regaining her love after going down into the Underworld.

Sources:

“East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” from East of the Sun, West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North by Peter Christen Asbjornsen, translated by George Webbe Dasent [link]

“The Marriage of Cupid and Psyches” from The Golden Asse by Lucius Apuleius, translated by William Adlington [link]

Tea and a Story: The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself

In honor of officially launching this section on Halloween, I thought my first set of stories would be stories about fear. Specifically, I’m exploring the variations of the story about the boy without fear who goes forth to find out what it is. The main story comes from the Brothers Grimm, who wrote a story called “The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was” and I first encountered it as a child as part of the brilliant series Faerie Tale Theatre where it was called “The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers.”

In the story, a boy doesn’t know what fear is and so he tries in a few ways to learn about it. When the first attempt leads him to injure the local sexton, his father turns him out and he wanders the land trying to figure out this whole fear thing. He spends the night at a gallows, but doesn’t find anything to fear. Eventually, he’s led to a local haunted castle, where he spends three nights, ostensibly as part of a challenge set by the local king, but really because he wants to learn fear. He fights black cats and dogs, outwits ghosts and demons, and eventually breaks the curse on the castle, thereby winning the hand of the princess, but still has not learned fear, or as he puts it “how to shudder.” When he laments this fact to his new wife, she comes up with a plan and douses him with a bucket of ice water, complete with writhing eels, so he can learn what it is to shudder.

Honestly, this version of the story is a bit Pythonesque to me — the action of the story is fun, and the scenes where he encounters beings of varying spookiness are fun, but the ending is a bit… dumb. I mean, most of the youth’s “affliction” can be explained by simply being too stupid to realize that he’s in a dangerous situation. Even the fact that his wife is able to satisfy his curiosity with a trick does not look good for him.

This theme of the person (usually a boy) without fear encountering and besting supernatural creatures is not limited to the Brothers Grimm. I encountered another version of this story on the Myths and Legends Podcast in the episode titled “Native American Folklore: Skeletons.” Now, Jason does a wonderful job of telling the story, but the gist is that a fearless youth encounters and bests four skeletons who have a wager that they can strike fear into the fearless youth. But after coming out the victor in this battle against fear, the youth returns to his camp and promptly has a conniption over a spider. Now, this might seem just as silly to some people, but I honestly found it refreshing after the Grimm’s version. In the Native American version, the fearless youth isn’t simply stupid, but very, very confident. And maybe I feel a bit of kinship with this person who has a profound fear of spiders (ick).

But it is a third version of this story that found the most enjoyable of all. This version comes from Turkish folklore, and was collected by Andrew Lang and published in his Olive Fairy Book. In this story, called “The Boy Who Found Fear at Last,” the protagonist suffers from the same inability to understand fear, and goes forth to learn about it. Along the way, he encounters what appears to be the hand of a dead person trying to steal his food, a mysterious woman who tried to drown him after asking his help retrieving her brother in the middle of a river, and a storm that nearly kills a ship full of people. Rather than stupidly barreling ahead, the youth simply uses common sense and quick thinking to get through these trials, gaining riches and rescuing a ship full of people. He finds out that the three trials were the doing of three women, who drink his health because he didn’t show the fear that other men show. In a seemingly discontinuous leap, the boy then makes his way to a city that has lost their king. Probably because of his great lack of fear, the ritual that is supposed to show the people their next king chooses this youth. And upon being declared king, he learns fear at last, as he realizes that his life is no longer his own.

I like this version, despite its inconsistencies, because the youth isn’t simply stupid, but mostly uses common sense. I mean, if a hand reaches out of the grave, that’s unexpected, but not scary in and of itself, especially if it just wants some cake. But he learns true fear, and not by some trick, but by realizing that what he values about life (his freedom) has been taken away by responsibility. So perhaps the true moral this Halloween is that it is not necessarily brave nor foolhardy to be without fear, but that the only thing we have to fear is… responsibility.

Sources:

“The Boy Who Left Home to Find out About the Shivers,” Faerie Tale Theatre [link]

“The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was,” Grimm’s Fairy Tales [link]

Myths and Legends Podcast, Episode 19, “Native American Folklore – Skeletons” [link]

“The Boy Who Found Fear at Last,” from The Olive Fairy Book, collected by Andrew Lang [link]

Currently Listening: Myths and Legends Podcast

So I’ve spoken in the past about how I love the resurgence of podcasts and audio-based shows. I love them so much, I actually had a voice role in a podcast last year! But lately, I’ve found myself more and more enthralled with this storytelling podcast: Myths and Legends.

I found this podcast when I was looking for something interesting, yet innocuous, to listen to on one of my many flights this summer during my most intense travel season. What I found was an amazingly intricate treatment of Morgan Le Fay, drawn from multiple sources, and offering insight into this often-one-dimensional character from Arthurian legend. And then, a retelling of a story about a kelpie that was nearly laugh-out-loud hilarious (which would have been awkward on a crowded flight.

Jason, the host of the podcast, blends in-depth knowledge of folk tales, fairy tales, myths, and legends with a tongue-in-cheek narration style that makes these stories come to life in a way I probably haven’t encountered since my preschool story time. While some of the versions he tells differ in varying degrees from the versions I grew up enjoying, the podcast brings back my early and lifelong love of lore and stories.

You see, when I was a small child, I started reading early in life, but I pretended to read less well than I could so that my parents would continue to read me stories. I love hearing stories as much as I love reading them. Eventually, they caught on when I started correcting them while they were reading, and I had to read the stories to myself. When I was in middle school, we did a section in English class where we had to learn a folktale and tell it orally to the class. While researching for the project, I found out that our longtime neighbor had written a collection of West African folk tales, including the title story, “The Cow-Tail Switch.” Intrigued by both the fact that it was a non-European story and the local connection, I learned that story.

And now, as an adult, while I read as widely as I can, both modern books and old tales, there hasn’t really been anyone to tell me stories. Well, now through this podcast, I feel as though I’ve gone back, not only to the love of my childhood, but back to an oral tradition of stories. Anyone with an interest in stories should definitely check the podcast out.