Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Chinese Cinderella

Cinderella is known for, sometimes even loathed for, her goodness and humility in the face of persecution from her stepfamily. Yet this Chinese variation*, "Beauty and Pock Face," gives us a Cinderella is not quite the shining example we have come to expect...
There were once two sisters. The elder was called Beauty, because she had a beautiful face, and the younger had a face covered with pock marks and was called Pock Face. Her mother was the second wife of their father. Beauty's mother had died when she was very young, and became a yellow cow. Beauty loved the yellow cow, but the stepmother treated it badly.

One day the stepmother took her daughter to the theater and left Beauty at home. She wanted to go, but her stepmother told her to straighten the hemp in her room. With the help of the yellow cow, she did so, but the next day, instead of taking her to the theater, the stepmother gave her another task, which the yellow cow again did for her-separating sesame seeds from beans.
G. P. Jacomb Hood

The stepmother asked who had helped Beauty, and she revealed it was the yellow cow. The stepmother was angry, killed the cow, and ate it. Beauty saved its bones and put them in her bedroom.

But her stepmother would still not take her to the theater. Beauty became so angry that one day she smashed everything in the house, including the pot that contained her mother's bones. There was a loud crackling sound, and a white horse, new dress, and embroidered shoes came out. She put on the new dress and shoes, jumped on the horse, and rode out of the gate.
Image from here-Anna Megerya

She was riding along, and one of her shoes came off. Along came a fishmonger, who returned the shoe and offered to marry her. She responded, "Who could marry you? Fishmongers always stink." The same thing happened with a rice clerk, but she refused, saying rice brokers are always covered with dust. She rejected an oil merchant, because oil merchants would be greasy.

Finally a scholar came by, picked up her shoe, and offered to marry her. This she thought was a good match, and they were married.

Later, the newly married couple went back to Beauty's family's house to pay respects. Beauty's mother and sister pretended to be kind to her, but Pock Face tricked Beauty into looking into a well, and pushed her in. Beauty drowned.

Her husband grew concerned when she didn't come home, and Beauty's family lied and told him she was sick. He sent all sorts of presents over, which they greedily took for themselves. Finally, Pock Face went back to the scholar, pretending to be Beauty, whose face had been changed by smallpox. The scholar couldn't believe it was his wife, but the stepsister cried and he tried to comfort her, despite his doubts.
Kay Nielsen (illustration for "The Nightingale")

Beauty had become a sparrow, and came to her husband's house, where he discovered who she really was, and kept her in a golden cage. Pock Face discovered the bird, and in her jealousy killed it and put it in the garden. Beauty then became a bamboo, which Pock Face had cut down and made into a bed. But whenever she lay in the bed, she felt needles pricking her all over, although the scholar felt it comfortable.

So Pock Face left the bed out, where an old neighbor woman found it and took it home. The old woman was surprised when each day she found dinner mysteriously prepared for her. Finally she caught a shadow washing rice, and asked her who she was. Beauty told her everything, and told her what she needed to be restored-a rice pot for her head, stick as hand, dish cloth as entrails, and firehooks as feet. The old woman brought all these things, and Beauty was restored.
Image from here-artist??

Beauty gave the old woman an embroidered bag to give to her husband, and the husband recognized it as a gift he had once given to his wife. The old woman told him everything, and he brought Beauty back to his house.

Pock Face was upset to see her sister again. She demanded that there be trails to prove which one was real. Though she failed every test-walking on eggshells, then walking up a ladder of knives, she demanded a third. First Beauty jumped into a cauldron of boiling oil and came out unharmed. When Pock Face jumped in, she did not come out again.

Beauty and her husband sent the remains of her stepsister to her stepmother. When she saw her daughter's remains, she let out a scream and fell down dead.
"Beauty and Pock Face," recorded in Shanghai in 1933. Found in Surlalune's Cinderella Tales From Around the World, summarized by me.

Beauty's rage at the beginning of the story is understandable, and arguably much more realistic than the never complaining, always obedient Cinderellas in many versions of the story. However, Cinderella is usually rewarded for being loving to her mother, or her dead mother in whatever reincarnation-here she is surprisingly rewarded, so it seems, for destroying her mother's remains (somewhat like the heroine in the Frog Prince being rewarded after throwing the frog violently against the wall).

We also usually tend to think of Cinderella as a story about not judging by appearances or status-Cinderella the servant, after all, turns out to be worthy of marriage to a Prince. This Cinderella turns down her first three suitors for fairly shallow reasons, when she of all people shouldn't condemn people for their lowly positions.

Then, how many times can you possibly kill off and resurrect a character? And is there any reason to believe that Pock Face and her mother are truly dead, or will they come back too?

One thing I really like about this version is that Beauty's husband, unlike the Prince in most other Cinderella tales, can actually recognize his true bride and smell a rat with the false one.

*If you came here looking for information on Yeh Hsien, the earliest recorded Chinese version of Cinderella, you can read more here

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