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Chinese Fairy Tales and Myths


In Chinese folk and fairy tales of old, we see the same social themes and human concerns that are found in Western and other mythologies the world over. At the same time, Chinese fairy tales and myths bear the unmistakable mark of the society from which they sprang, with its unique philosophies, structures and traditions. In Chinese mythology, a fascinating social and political conflict is pervasive, even the catalyst for the tales themselves, according to many scholars.

On one side are traditional Confucian philosophers, who reinforce through their tales, the view of a divinely-endowed Emperor at the center, surrounded by humans in a strict hierarchy that is birthright-based. In Confucianism, human beings are characters in obligatory relationships, with a main purpose of obedience. Women in this setting are in a lowly, subordinate position, with little or no choice about the course of their lives, and subject to the view that love and marriage are essentially mutually-exclusive concepts.

Counterpoint to, and rebelling against, the hereditary-based Confucian society, Taoist philosophers, like P'u Sung-ling and Lieh Tzu, discard the notion of birthright, embracing instead a view of life wherein all beings are equally created to live one lifetime, without obligation to ancestors or descendents, and without the essentially political mandates of the Confucians.

Taoism encourages compassion for fellow humans and for animals, which it considers as equal to humankind. Taoists, in their serious challenge to the existing social order, brought about important societal changes: a rise of anti-dynasty overthrows, cults of Taoists priests who practiced and taught disciplines formerly thought heretical, and the long-sought-after freedom to love and marry. Taoists tales also explored connections of the human and animal realms, and in what would today be termed anti-racist views, accepted the many Asian races who had historically been denigrated and ostracized.

Here is a tale of a courageous, intelligent act by a girl who was meant to be a sacrificial victim. Her story illustrates a freedom of action unthinkable under Confucism, and the egalitarian views that Taoism so vividly encouraged.

Li Chi Slays The Serpent

Li Tan and his wife had raised six daughters, but had no sons. They loved their daughters very much, despite the fact that they lived in a society that equated having daughters with being childless. The family lived in Chianglo county in Fukien, located in the ancient state of Yueh.

In Fukien, the Yung mountain range towered to a height of many miles at the peaks. A giant serpent, which inhabited a cleft in the northwest part of these mountains, had terrorized the people of the region for nearly a decade. Wider than the span of ten hands and over seventy feet long, the monster was unappeased by offerings of oxen or sheep, and already many officers and magistrates from nearby town had been killed.

By entering men's minds in dreams and through mediums, the beast had made its demands known: a young girl of twelve or thirteen to feast upon once a year was its price to stave off terror and murder. And so it had been, for nine years, in the eighth month of each year, a young girl was delivered to the the temple at the mouth of the serpent's cave, where they were devoured.

The search began in the tenth year for the daughter of a bondmaid or criminal, and Li Tan's youngest daughter, Li Chi, responded by volunteering. Against her parent's protests, she said, "Dear parents, you have no one to depend on, having not a single son. I only waste your good food and clothes. Since I'm no use to you alive, what could be wrong in selling me to gain a bit of money for yourselves?"

But her parents refused, and so Li Chi went secretly. The girl asked authorities for two items....a sharp sword and a snake-hunting dog. On the appointed day, she seated herself in the temple, the dog at her side, sword clutched in her hand. Then she took several pecks of rice balls sweetened with malt suger, and placed them at the entrance to the dreaded cave.

The serpent smelled the sweet rice balls and, with eyes like mirrors two feet across and a monstrous head, it appeared and opened its mouth to eat them. Li Chi unleashed the snake-hunting dog, which bit hard into the serpent, and then she came from behind with her sword, digging several deep cuts into the serpent. So painful were its injuries, it disappeared into the bowels of the cave and died.

Li Chi entered the cave and retrieved the skulls of the nine victims who died before her, and she cried out, "For your timidity you were devoured. How pitiful!"

Upon learning of her achievements and bravery, the king of Yueh made Li Chi his queen and appointed her father magistrate, giving the family great riches and position.

Never again was the district set upon by monsters, and to this day, ballads celebrating Li Chi survive.

(Sou Shen Chi, Ming Dynasty era)

Moss Roberts' Chinese Fairy Tales & Fantasies is my primary inspiration and source for the Chinese tales related here. Other sources are consulted for geographical details and further interpretive aspects.

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