I am fascinated by how various folk/fairy tales occur in widely different parts of the world and yet have a very similar stories, and none has surprised me more than the Tale of Yeh Xian (Yeh Shan), the Chinese Cinderella.
Nowadays many children probably think that Walt Disney created the story of Cinderella and many other fairy tales such as Snow White and Beauty & The Beast. However Disney was using tales that had been known and told in Europe for hundreds of years. It was actually a Frenchman, Charles Perrault, who wrote down the story we know of as Cinderella (and other famous tales) and that was way back in 1697 AD. Many of his stories were then picked up and re-told by the Brothers Grimm, and then, thousands of children’s books later, they arrived on Walt Disney’s drawing board.
The tale of Yeh Xian pre-dates any western version of the Cinderella story by almost 1000 years. It was first written down in a book called YuYang Tsa Tsu which was a collection of weird and supernatural folk tales from the oral tradition which had become well known. This particular tale was said to come from the region near Nanning, a southern city in Guanxi province which abuts Vietnam. Despite being so much older than the western Cinderella story, and having being written down half a world away, the similarities are striking – see what you think.
Once upon a time – long, long ago – there was a Chieftan who had two wives. His first wife bore him a daughter Yeh Xian, but sadly his wife died. He remarried and his second wife also bore him a daughter, Jun Li. His second wife was always resentful of his first daughter who was beautiful, kind and charming, whereas her own daughter had the skin of un-husked rice and a mean character.
When the Chieftan himself died, the 2nd Wife had Yeh Xian banished to the kitchens to work , to go and cut wood, or to go and draw water from dangerously deep wells as if she were one of the lowest rank of servants. She was only given old and tattered clothes to wear. Poor Yeh Xian was very unhappy.
One day when drawing water she caught a fish with red fins and golden eyes, she took the fish and placed it in the pond behind her home. Each evening she would take any scraps of food she could find and take them to the pond to feed the fish, which grew and grew. Whenever Yeh Xian came to the pond and called the fish it would come to the surface and pillow its head on the edge of the pond as Yeh Xian spoke softly to it. It would not appear for anyone else.
The 2nd Wife saw this happen and decided to do something about it; she gave Yeh Xian a new jacket and sent her on an errand to a distant village. Then she put on Yeh Xian’s old jacket, and hiding a knife in her sleeve she went to the pond. Imitating Yeh Xian’s voice she summoned the fish, and when it rose up through the water she killed it, took it back to the kitchen and had it cooked for dinner – everyone thought it was the most delicious fish they had ever tasted. The evil stepmother had the fish bones thrown on the dungheap.
When Yeh Xian returned from her errand and discovered what had happened she was terribly distressed and wept for the fish. Suddenly a little old man – probably one of her ancestors – appeared and instructed her to retrieve the fish bones, put them in a bowl in her room and whatever she wanted she should ask the bones and she would have it. And so she did.
Now the time of Spring Festival arrived, the 2nd Wife and her daughter decked out in their finery set off for the celebrations because this was the time for young maidens to meet potential husbands. Yeh Xian was left at home. She asked the fish bones for their help and suddenly found herself clad in the most beautiful green silk robe, with jade and other fine jewellery adorning her.
Her dainty feet were wearing a pair of exquisite little golden slippers, and over it all she was wearing a fabulous cloak made of kingfishers’ feathers.
Looking absolutely lovely, she hurried to join the Spring Festival celebrations. Late in the evening she noticed her stepmother and Jun Li had seen her and were wondering who she was. In a panic she ran from the celebrations, and as she ran she dropped one of her golden slippers. By the time the stepmother and Jun Li returned she was asleep, having put on her old clothes and hidden her beautiful new garments.
Meanwhile someone at the celebrations had picked up the golden slipper and deciding it was valuable sold it to a merchant who sold it on to the King of a nearby state. He was mesmerised by this tiny slipper, and had all the women of his court try it on, but none could fit it. He then had all the women of his kingdom try the slipper, but again, every foot was too big. He was desperate to find the owner of the slipper , and had the merchant tortured as to where he had acquired it. The merchant told him that it was from an adjoining region – so he sent his courtiers to search all the houses in that region and so Yeh Xian, who had the other golden slipper was discovered and of course they fit her perfectly.
She dressed in her fine clothes and carrying her precious fish bones with her, she was taken to the King who made her his first wife. Shortly afterwards, the wicked Stepmother and her daughter were killed in an avalance of flying rocks and the villagers buried them in a grave marked ‘The Tomb of the Regretful Women’.
I have a theory (and if anyone reading this is an academic folklorist, please correct me if I am wrong) that this tale would have been told orally in China, and thus have travelled from person to person along the fabled Silk Roads until it reached the west, where it altered slightly over time and entered the canon of western fairy tales . It seems to me that it is too unlikely that two such similar tales could arise spontaneously in different parts of the world, and the fact that the Chinese written version supercedes our own version by so many years clinched it for me.