Author Archives: Gage Miles III

The Myth of the Jade Rabbit

Text: “One day the goddess of the moon, Chang-e, needed help preparing the elixir of life. She knew that humans were too selfish for the task, so she decided to look among the animals. When she arrived, she asked all of the animals to bring her sacrifices, like vegetables and handmade gifts. All the animals offered her gifts, and she collected them, but when she got to the rabbit, the rabbit confessed that she hadn’t been able to find a gift. The rabbit felt terrible, so she jumped into a fire and sacrificed herself, becoming a roasted rabbit for Chang-e to eat. The goddess was so impressed with the rabbit’s bravery and sacrifice that she resurrected the rabbit and brought her to the moon to help her make the elixir. And today, if you look closely enough, you can see the image of the rabbit on the moon.”

Context: The informant is a 19-year old Chinese-American student who heard this at her local Chinese Christian church in Orange County when she was around 8 years old. She admittedly had some concerns about the accuracy of the story but told it how she remembered it. 

Analysis: Despite the story’s explicit condemnation of humanity, an interesting tension arises in how the animals in the story are still indirectly anthropomorphized as they display the ability to understand language and comprehend success/failure on an intellectual level. There seems to be an inherent contradiction embedded in the fact that a human is not able to carry out this task but an animal, who is humanlike in every other sense, gets chosen instead. To explore this further, the central focus of the myth seems to be selflessness and the search for the ideal selfless being. Pure selflessness seems only to be attained by creatures and beings that are simultaneously like and unalike us, such as Jesus Christ, the quintessential Christian sacrifice who was both human and God, or an anthropomorphic rabbit, a non-human animal that exhibits humanlike traits. The rabbit also seems to be a sort of Messiah figure who lays down her life and ascends to heaven to dedicate her life towards serving humanity. Perhaps the story suggests that as humans, we recognize and strive towards goodness/selflessness within ourselves, but at the same time acknowledge that this ideal is unattainable for us as imperfect beings. This fundamental tension embodies the paradigmatic approach to the myth pioneered by Claude Levi-Strauss, who explains how dichotomies inherent in myth are reflective of larger social and cultural paradigms. I believe the tension demonstrated here is the fundamental tension between mortality and the soul: our spiritual capacity for good but our mortal folly that prevents us from always acting on it. Only very special messianic figures, like Jesus and the rabbit, who are simultaneously both human and not, are able to act with this degree of selflessness and bridge the gap between mortality and the divine by performing the ultimate sacrifice. The difference between humans and the messiah is that humans are composed of both body and spirit, only part divine, whereas the messiah is both fully human and divine simultaneously, which is a great paradox beyond our ability to comprehend. Perhaps, this was why humans were not chosen in the story, because such a selfless task requires a being ontologically separate from (but still related to) humanity all together: a creature that physically embodies this Straussian dualism where mortality and divinity simultaneously inhabit the same being. Nonetheless, the connections to contemporary Christianity seem striking, and perhaps these messianic themes have more polygenetic roots than initially thought. This could also serve as a reflection on Christianity’s influence in China and an attempt for the Chinese people to reclaim their own form of cultural agency in the messianic narrative. 


The Butterfly Lovers

Text: “This is the story of the Butterfly Lovers–it’s really well known and is like the Romeo and Juliet of Chinese legends. So one day, a long time ago, back when women weren’t allowed to be educated or go to school, there was a young lady who wanted desperately to be educated, but her parents told her that she couldn’t. However, she was determined to find a way to go to school and devised a plan to get into a boarding school by dressing as a boy. She managed to get into school and no one suspected anything. While she was away at school, she became really close friends with a guy, and they did everything together, though he didn’t know she was a girl. But as she got older, it became harder and harder for her to hide it. One day, while she was taking a bath in the river, some boys came to make fun of her and were trying to get her to come out, but she couldn’t and her friend came and chased them away. He told her to come out and she told him that he had to turn around, which he did. Once school ended, it was time for her to get married, and she told him that she had to leave, and he got very upset. So she left and was forced into an arranged marriage with a wealthy aristocrat. Her old friend found out that she was a girl and asked to marry her, but the parents said no since the other marriage had already been arranged. So, the two of them ran away and jumped off a cliff, killing themselves since they couldn’t be together. The parents were distraught and realized they should’ve allowed the marriage, so as a last attempt to let them be together, they buried them together in the cemetery under the same gravestone. But at the funeral, lightning struck the gravestone and split it in half, and out of the gravestone flew two butterflies–a pink one and a blue one–and both flew off together into the night.” 

Context: The informant is a 19-year old Chinese-American student who initially heard this as a bedtime story from her parents when she was younger; however, she recently remembered it while working on a screenplay and asked her mother to retell it to her.

Analysis: This legend represents a poignant form of social critique. In The Butterfly Lovers, two young lovers are prevented from pursuing a life together due to the institutions of arranged marriage forced upon them. As the informant acknowledged, it bears some striking similarities to Romeo and Juliet, which was also the story of a couple’s demise following the imposition of an arranged marriage. However, it is not just in the play’s explicit critique of arranged marriage that draws my interest, but also its more implicit, symbolic critique that is worth exploring. Legends have the characteristic ability to blend reality with the supernatural, and the supernatural element can be used as a tool to express or reinforce a social critique or function. This story utilizes the supernatural in this exact way in order to implicitly critique the oppressive and unethical institution of forced marriage. Not only is this message made explicit in how the lover’s kill themselves and their parents’ subsequent regret, but it is twice reinforced by the legend’s symbolic conclusion with the two butterflies that spawn once lightning strikes and fly away together into the night. A butterfly is a well-known symbol of metamorphosis, and in this instance, it represents a transformation into spirit, where the protagonists are no longer tethered to worldly expectations and are free to be together in a new, transcendent form. In other words, and excuse the cliché (although its pertinence and pervasiveness in our culture cannot be denied), love will always find a way, and thus our attempts in society to restrict and control it through arranged weddings, banning gay marriage, etc. will never truly succeed. I believe this legend, perhaps in a way similar to myth, naturalizes love and suggests that oppressive institutions and regulations should never be enforced on it. In reality, the story suggests, love will always adapt and find a way to circumvent the futile attempts to control it. It seems to critique the ancient Confucian principles that prioritize love as duty and commitment in marriage, rather than genuine emotional attachment, and acknowledges that love can exist separately from marriage, which is a fascinatingly progressive message for a piece of ancient Chinese lore. In all, this legend is more than a bittersweet love story, but rather a commentary on the nature of love itself. However, this could have very well been a more recent variation that took on a new meaning to conform to contemporary values and attitudes, whereas older versions which may have taken a more conservative stance that aligned more closely with Confucian ideals.

The Crushed Lady

Text: “So, my mom told me this story. Back when she was younger, she worked on this project in China, and they had to knock down a mountain to do it. But the mountain is a village and people dug out holes in the mountain to live there. So, the people had to flatten the mountain, but one of the construction workers accidentally flattened a woman. And legend has it, people say, the man suddenly switched up and started talking in the woman’s voice. He said, in a woman’s voice, “Who just flattened me?” and then he would switch back to his own voice and the two voices began to have a conversation. They eventually started talking about how they would get together: the woman said that because he flattened her no one would date her, but the man told her that he would. This was terrifying to everyone who saw it, so they took him to a hospital, but no one could help him there. Then they took him to a shaman who couldn’t do anything either. Finally, they went to a butcher who took out two really big knives and hit them against the ground, telling the spirit of the woman to get out, after which the woman finally left and stopped talking. Afterwards, the man snapped out of it and had no idea what happened.”   

Context: The informant is a 19-year old Chinese-American student who heard this story from her mother a few months ago, who was present at the time and place in which it took place. She would not disclose the location where the story took place out of fear that the story was cursed and something bad might happen to her if she revealed any more details. 

Analysis: This supposed firsthand account expresses some very interesting attitudes towards ghosts. In spite of the perceived curse surrounding this story, and how terrified the informant recalls her mother being when she told it to her, I cannot help but wonder if the story would have been even more terrifying and difficult to digest had the woman just been crushed, an innocent life, accidentally and irreversibly taken. Ülo Valk describes that ghosts can be a way for people to process difficult, confusing, and upsetting realities. Perhaps, this ghost story was actually an attempt to assuage the horror of sudden death that the story describes by having the woman live on in the consciousness of the man that killed her. It is also fascinating to consider how the woman’s spirit was removed from the body of the man. Both a hospital and a shaman–traditional sources of healing in most societies–were useless in helping him. It was, as a matter of fact, a butcher, a known facilitator of death, quite the opposite of healing, that was able to successfully exorcize the woman’s spirit. Perhaps, the butcher is symbolic of the very reality that the story refuses to acknowledge: the acceptance of death. I believe the subliminal message in this legend is that death is a harsh, blunt reality, and despite our attempts to lessen its blow by conjuring up spirits or magical awakenings, that reality will never change, and we can only fully heal once we have accepted it in its purest form. This belief may also be rooted in Chinese Buddhist practices where the belief in samsara (traditionally a Sanskrit term), continuous death and rebirth, is widely accepted. According to samsara, no one truly dies, your spirit merely transfers from one form to another, and this story may represent a malfunction in that process, hence why it is viewed as cursed. 

What Comes Around Goes Around

Text: “So to start, there was a medium-sized town–a long time ago–and there were a few wealthy patrons and some poor people on the outskirts. Some of the wealthier people thought of themselves as above all the poor people who they thought were lazy and didn’t deserve anything. So, there was this guy and his wife riding a horse drawn carriage back home after church, and there was this old lady standing in the road that had her hand out begging for food. The guy who was driving the carriage wasn’t watching and almost hit her, causing her to fall into a ditch. Instead of getting out and helping her up, he just tossed a six-pence at her and then just drove off, thinking “She deserved her lot in life.” However, the old lady was a type of witch, and she put a curse on him. As time went by, the guy noticed that all of his business dealings started crashing, and eventually his business went so bad that he went bankrupt and lost his house, and his wife divorced him. He lost everything, and as he got older and more and more feeble, he had to turn to begging. One day, he was begging on the same road that he first encountered the witch, and this motor vehicle came by and almost hit him and knocked him into the mud. And as he’s laying there in the mud, starving and half drowning, he’s thrown a six-pence by the passing car–the same one he gave the old lady.”  

Context: The informant is a 63 year-old man who was told this story by his grandmother as a child to learn about how treating others poorly might come back to bite you. His maternal grandmother had an ancestral connection to the Salem Witch Trials, which was when this story took place. 

Analysis: This is another example of how a legend can perform an intended social function or reinforce important messages. This story was told to the informant as a child and was meant to instill in him the importance of treating others with dignity and respect. It encapsulates a number of universal messages that every child learns, such as “treat others the way you want to be treated” and, more importantly, “what comes around goes around” (which the informant not surprisingly used as a title). The story is particularly effective at communicating these messages to children especially through its use of polarities and narrative symmetry. The use of polarities and clearly-defined extremes can resonate more effectively with a child who tends to process and understand the world in terms of binaries and in less of a nuanced way. The wealthy man who rapidly descends the socioeconomic ladder to the status of a beggar represents a very clear contrast in order to communicate to a younger audience the consequences of acting insensitively and allows no confusion in terms of portraying his actions as having a starkly negative outcome (the man is “starving and half-drowning” at the end). The story’s moral is likewise reinforced through its narrative symmetry. The legend has an organic ending that perfectly mirrors the way it began, coming full circle as the positions of the old lady and the man are reversed. The old lady, now, is the one throwing change in an identical act to the man in the beginning. The message “What comes around goes around” is thus inherent on an intuitive structural level in the story, where, quite literally, a coin being thrown inevitably gets tossed back. On this level, the message “What comes around goes around” can potentially be translated as “What gets thrown gets tossed back.” This legend is definitely useful for children as it anchors the message in a clear, concrete action that serves as the tangible thematic framework for the entire story. The tactile element of the coin and use of simple binaries throughout the story would naturally appeal to children, so it is no surprise that the informant’s grandmother chose a story like this in order to convey an important life lesson to her young grandchildren. If this story was indeed passed down from the Salem Witch Trials, it may have also been very effective at frightening children (and even adults) who were indoctrinated by the Church into believing in malevolent witches and compelling them to abide by Christian teachings, such as philanthropy and loving your neighbor as yourself. 

The Legend of the Hook


Informant: “The story happens in a small town, and there’s a small darkened road that teenagers would go down and park along to kiss and make out. So, the story follows these two teenagers who are parked alongside the road and start to get a little amorous…”

Collector: “Do we know anything about the identities of the two teenagers?”

Informant: “They were just two young kids from the local high school that haven’t been dating for long; they’re very innocent and new to the dating scene, so the whole situation is exciting for them. Anyhow, they’re out, things are starting to get hot and heavy, but they hear some noises out in the woods. The guy rolls down the window and asks, “Hey, is anybody out there? Do you need help?” There’s no response, so they just go back to making out. A few minutes go by, and they hear the same noises again, and the kid rolls down the window and again asks if anyone’s out there. The girl tells him, “Why don’t you go out and take a look?” and so he goes out and looks around the car and sees nothing. He gets back in and rolls up the window, but they hear yet another noise, and this time it sounds even closer, so they start to get concerned. They realize how late it is and decide to head home, and on the way home, they turn on the radio. On the radio they hear that a mass murderer had just escaped from a nearby mental institution and was on the loose. The broadcast described the man as having one defining feature: a hook for one of his hands. And so they’re like, “Oh, well, at least we’re out of that area.” So they drive home, and when they stop in front of the house, the guy gets out to open the door for her, and there on her door handle is a hook.”

Context: The informant is a 63 year-old man who was told this story by his grandmother as a teenager when she was cautioning him against staying out late at night. The informant said that the legend accurately referenced a mental hospital that was close to where he lived as a boy in upstate New York. He explained that the moral is that you can be much closer to danger than you think, and that you should trust your instincts whenever you feel like something isn’t right.

Analysis: Legends can function as a powerful social tool, and this story is a prime example of the kinds of effects that they can have. Legends typically intersect with both reality and some supernatural or extraordinary element(s), which can blend together to become powerful persuasive devices. In this case, this story was used to scare teenagers into behaving responsibly, and I will attempt to analyze how it does so, taking into account the distinctive western context that it is situated in. Teenagers often have a reputation for being fearless and reckless in their behavior, and many American teens, especially, are heavily influenced by the American education system, which arguably prioritizes rational thought and critical inquiry and de-emphasizes superstition and blind adherence to belief. As a result, it is reinforced in many American teens and adolescents with traditional schooling to be skeptical of fantastical monsters and stories. Thus, in an attempt to use storytelling as a method of persuasion for teens, it helps to incorporate some tangible aspect of reality for credence, which legends as a narrative form tend to have. Therefore, in teens, the legend would seem to be particularly effective over myths and tales, which are understood by most at their age as not factually true. The manipulation of reality in “The Hook” is particularly effective here, referencing a real location–a mental asylum–where criminals were really known to be held, in order to give the story a greater rhetorical weight and degree of plausibility. The supernatural element, a deranged man from the asylum, blends so seamlessly with the factual details of the story that I see how it would be highly useful in persuading a skeptical, rebellious teenager (as my informant once was) into avoiding staying out late at night.