Cinderella has perhaps the longest and most complicated history of any fairy tale. The earliest known version by the numbers is the Egyptian tale of Rhodopis, 1st century B.C., who was discovered by a Prince when an eagle dropped one of her sandals in front of him. However, several places I have seen cite the 9th century (A.D.) Chinese Cinderella as the oldest source, including Surlalune's History of Cinderella page. Ordinarily I wouldn't dispute with Heidi of Surlalune on anything fairy tale related, but other reputable sources support the earlier date of Rhodopis. Maybe some people don't classify it as a Cinderella tale because she's not really persecuted before being discovered? That's my best guess-if anyone knows more feel free to enlighten me.EDIT: Surlalune's blog has information on Rhodopis and the debate about whether or not to classify it as a Cinderella tale, read the post here
Regardless of whether or not the Chinese Cinderella is the earliest recorded version, it was most likely and old oral tale before it was ever recorded. A rich, learned man, Tuan Ch'eng Shih, heard the tale from his servant, Li Shih Yuan, who used to live in the caves. (The interesting thing, if you, like me, sometimes have fantasies that fairy tales may be rooted in fact, this version refers to actual places and eras of history as the setting).
R. D. Jameson in Cinderella in China (from "Cinderella: A Casebook") uses as much knowledge as he can about the culture of China at the time to interpret the meaning of the story of Sheh Hsien. The daughter of a Cave Cheif was mistreated by her stepmother after her parents both died. She had to do all the hardest and most dangerous tasks, but one day she caught a beautiful fish with red fins and gold eyes and kept it. The fish kept growing, and outgrew every vessel she put him in, until she put him in the pond. The fish would show its head to Sheh Hsien, but no one else. One day her jealous stepmother sent out the girl, put on the girl's clothes to deceive the fish, who was now more than five feet long, and stood by the pond. When the fish showed himself, the stepmother killed and ate him, and buried his bones.
Sheh Hsien wept when she saw her fish did not come to her, but an old man came and told her where the bones were and that she should hide them in her room and pray to them when she wanted something. She did just this, and recieved gold, pearls, dresses, and food.
There was a cave festival Sheh Hsien wanted to attend. When her stepmother left, she put on a beautiful blue dress and gold shoes from the fish bones and went. The stepmother and her daughter noticed the resemblance, so Sheh Hsien hurried back, and was asleep with her arms around the tree when they returned, but in her hurry she had left one of her shoes behind at the festival.
This was found by the cave people, who sold it to the King of the T'o Huan government. He asked all the women in his kingdom to try it on, but it was too small by an inch. Torturing the cave people did not reveal the source of the shoe, so the King searched. When he found Sheh Hsien, he asked her to put it on her foot. She put on her blue and gold finery, and they were married. The stepmother and daughter were killed by flying stones and became goddesses of match-makers. The king asked so many favors of the fish bones in the first year, they stopped giving gifts, and were buried on the sea coast, later washed away by the tide.
Jameson points out evidence that the tale was probably influenced by other versions of the same tale-the sleeping with her arms around a tree that was never mentioned before would make more sense in one of the other versions where a tree supplied Cinderella's wants. The match-making goddesses out of the villains seems very random as well and could possibly have been from another story.
Jameson mentions two other versions of Cinderella from the north of China. In both the fish's bones are still the gift-giver. Both also have bird helpers, who carry the shoe to the prince, and animals who help with impossible tasks-which is more like the Grimm version.
Chinese versions of Cinderella fall into the same categories that Western Cinderella stories fall into: Cinderella, Donkeyskin, and King Lear (the heroine suffers for comparing her love to her father like her love for salt, and achieves a happy ending after proving how tastless food is without salt).
Jameson discusses those who believe Cinderella to be nature myths-those of seasonal change or sunrise. Though some details of the story might lead some to believe that this could be the case, he points out that, even if it were thought to be a nature myth at some point, this does not indicate that it was the origin of the tale, but merely some culture's adaptation of it, which is a good point. Of course, no one now really puts too much stock in the nature myth theory.
What I found really interesting was the connection between shoes and ancient rituals-which mostly had to do with chilbirth, or marriage. So the shoe would have been seen as a symbol of Cinderella giving the King authority.
Jameson also discusses the importance of animal helpers, and the theory that they are derived from ancient times when people practiced totemistic rituals. But Jameson's simple-and more convincing-conclusion is that the animals just represent a young child's desire for a pet who loves them, even when they feel victimized by other humans, and has the power to offer magical gifts.
The most noteable lack in this version is the absense of the dead mother's spirit as helper. Here the function is provided by a fish-which was also symbolic and linked to wealth or fertility.
Illustrations-1. Unknown? 2. Wen Shi 3.Hokkei