I’ve been reading Into the Porcelain Pillow: 101 Tales from Records of the Taiping Era, translated by Zhang Guangqian, a collection of stories from China’s earliest written history until the beginning of the Song Dynasty (10th century). The full collection is about 7,000 stories; this book selects just 101.
These stories are roughly comparable to their European equivalent, fairytales; they generally are about the exploits of some human who encounters some divine being – ghosts, fox vampires, giant magical apes, dragons, that sort of thing. There’s a lot of common themes; it’s amazing how many stories there are about men who inadvertantly marry (and even father children with) ghost women. I will say that the stories are no more progressive in the depiction of women than their European counterparts tended to be. Two examples in particular really stood out to me.
In The Lis’ Youngest Daughter, a village is menaced by a python that can only be appeased by feeding it virgin girls. At last one young girl, Li Ji, voluntarily offers herself as a sacrifice, because it is a waste for her family to raise a sixth daughter when they don’t have a son; daughters are “just a waste of food and money”. When presented to the python, she ambushes it with a sword and help from a dog, and hacks it to death. She then contemptuously views the skeletons of the python’s prior victims and says, “You died because you didn’t have the guts to fight.”
While the story ends happily for Li Ji, I was totally baffled – why didn’t the men of the village band together and kill the snake in the first place? I mean, a 12-year-old girl and a dog kill it! Get like six or seven dudes and kill it! Why keep feeding virgins to it? There’s some creepy subtext to this story that really skeeves me out.
My next example is maybe even worse. In* Love-Knot Inn*, a young man named Wei Gu meets a magical being who shows Wei Gu a glimpse of his destined future wife: a three-year-old girl who is the daughter of a ragged greengrocer woman. Wei Gu is disgusted at the thought of marrying such a lowly woman, and decides to try to escape his fate by hiring an assassin to murder the toddler and her mother.
The attempt fails, and the three-year-old girl is “only” wounded on the forehead. Years later, Wei Gu marries a prefect’s niece, who confesses that she was raised by a foster mother and attacked at the age of three by a scoundrel, resulting in a scar on her forehead. Surprise! Wei Gu married his destined wife after all. “They marveled at their fate and their marriage seemed all the sweeter to them after all those misadventures”.
I want to do another thread on the Arab Hero Cycles, which are medieval stories from the Middle East that are in the tradition of the 1001 Arabian Nights. Think the most over-the-top soap opera you can imagine, add cannibals, warrior women, lots of cross-dressing, singing, and attempted rape, and you’ll have an idea of what they’re like.