Saturday, March 3, 2012
Li Chi Slays the Serpent: Context is Key
Often the modern reader is shocked to read the fairy tales that have often been most recently shaped in accordance with Victorian values-they can be considered as degrading to women and shallow. If we interpret fairy tales only through the lens of our own culture, we will miss the point that was being made.
Take for example the Chinese tale "Li Chi Slays the Serpent." In this story a serpent demands a young girl to devour each year, so for nine years a poor girl has been given to him. A young girl, the youngest of six daughters, offers herself as a volunteer-much like Beauty in Beauty in the Beast or Scheherezade. Yet this heroine's speech is very self-depricating: "Dear parents, you have no one to depend on, for having brought forth six daughters and not a single son, it is as if you were childless...I cannot take care of you in your old age; I only waste your good food and clothes. Since I'm no use to you alive, why shouldn't I give up my life a little sooner? What could be wrong in selling me to gain a bit of money for yourselves?"
This passage really disturbed me when I read it. Li Chi's words echo the cultural belief that daughters were worthless compared to sons, but Li Chi's parents "loved her too much to consent"-which sadly is more than can be said for all parents, many of whom did not value their female children in reality.
Despite Li Chi's words, indicating that she will simply go and give her life without complaint, she actually goes with a plan, sets a trap for the serpent, and kills it, saving her village and therefore proving all her previous words wrong.
In the introduction to this collection of Chinese fairy tales, Moss Roberts notes, "The Confucians defined human beings solely in terms of a set of obligatory relationships, in which the essence, the fundamental act, was obedience: children obeyed parents, peasants obeyed lords and officials, wives obeyed husbands. This was the primary force in behavior-leaving passion and instinct as attributes not of humans but of animals...Master storyteller P'u Sung-ling" (who did not write the above tale, but I think this point may apply:) "...attacks this entire tradition in a set of tales in which animals and other "subordinate" creatures set the standards for virtuous conduct that their superiors would do well to follow." Again, Li Chi's words and actions appear to contradict, as if Li Chi spouted words she did not believe for a second. Her actions prove her to be brave, clever, willing to take risk to save the lives of others-these actions would be applauded if conducted by a male. Li Chi also proves to be critical of the traditional expectations of young females when, after slaying the serpent, she recovered the skulls of the nine victims, sighs, and says, "for your timidity you were devoured. How pitiful!"
So the tale that appears so shockingly sexist to us at first glance may in fact have been incredibly feminist at the time it was created.
Another tale, "The Waiting Maid's Parrot," has two characters falling in love at first sight in a way that seems incredibly shallow. "Hsu looked into the girl's face and saw that her beauty was truly exceptional...her demure air utterly captivated him...though they could not exchange a single word, their affections were engaged." At first this passage seems laughable-no one can possibly fall in love without even exchanging a word. Even Cinderella had a whole three evenings at the ball with the Prince, and we think that relationship moved lightning fast. Especially with all of my Beauty and the Beast inspired, love-a-person-for-who-they-are-on-the-inside soapboxes, in theory this should make me really angry.
But again, context: later in the tale, Hsu's love poem to the waiting maid says, "I care not if your fan be plain, my love is for your face so fair." I assume the plain fan is a reference to either the fact that she is poor, or that she is a servant and therefore not a suitable lover for him-yet he disregards this. So he doesn't love her for her money and status, which is good, but for her beauty, which is...not so exemplary, but we're getting there.
Similarly to the love at first sight in Western tales, this was a reaction against arranged marriages-although love purely for looks is not the ultimate answer, the culture at the time explains this desire. Again from Moss: "The arrangement of marriages was essential. If a young noble and his first wife had little choice in the matter, secondary wives or concubines had none at all...in a society that makes the family a political as well as a social unit, freedome of love and marriage cannot be tolerated; personal preference and appetite must be overruled by the social virtues. The response to this demand-the struggle for freedom to love and marry-became the spark in much of Chinese literature."
Images from here and here