Author Archives: Xingyu Chen

The tale of bamboo cutter

A friend of mine, who’s an international exchange student from Japan now currently studying in China, contributes this story, one of the most famous tales in Japan. According to her, this is like the most common bedtime story for kids in Japan. We interviewed in Chinese so the following is only rough translation of what she shared.


A long long time ago, there were an old man and his wife. They were poor and childless, and the husband cut bamboo to make a living. One day, he found a beautiful shining bamboo in the forest, and when he cut it open, there’s a small baby inside. The baby was a beautiful girl. The old man took her home and raised her like his own. Ever since the bamboo cutter found this baby, every bamboo he cut he would found gold in it. The couple became rich soon after.

The baby grew among great love and care, and she grew as fast as the bamboo. As she became more and more beautiful, she would shine the night like it was day. The old man named her Kaguya-hime, meaning “The Shining Princess”. Three months past, she became the fairest lady in the country. The old couple cared for her a lot and did not let her go out, fearing she would be taken. The news of her extraordinary beauty spread fast nevertheless. Countless people came, hoping to witness her beauty but only failed and gave up. However, five royals (two Princes and three governors) stuck around years after years, wanting to marry her. Finally, the old man was moved and went to Kaguya-hime, said she should get married one day and those five royals did not seem to be a bad choice. Although Kaguya-hime did not want to get married, she also didn’t want to disappoint the old man, so she agreed with one condition – She’s gonna assign each five of them a task, only the one who accomplishes the task can marry her. The five tasks were: Retrieving the stone begging bowl of Buddha from India, a jeweled branch from island Horai, a robe made of fire-rat from China, a five-colored jewel from a dragon’s head, and the delivery shell of swallows. All of these five items were from legends and were impossible to get, and of course the five royals failed.

The Emperor of Japan heard of Kaguya-hime‘s beauty and also wanted her. He called in the bamboo cutter to have him to bring Kaguya-hime to the palace. The old man brought back the message but Kaguya-hime refused so, saying if the old man want to exchange her for the good fortune the Emperor promised, she’d rather die. Since the old man loved her so much, he then returned to the palace and explained that Kaguya-hime was not this actual child so he couldn’t arrange a marriage for her. However, the Emperor came up with the idea of going to the bamboo cutter’s house and having a peep of Kaguya-hime during the royal hunt.

During the hunt, the Emperor saw Kaguya-hime in her room and was mesmerized by her beauty. He broke in and wanted to bring her back with him, but the Kaguya-hime disappeared in the air suddenly. The Emperor panicked and promised her not to touch her again, only begging her to show herself to let him have a final look at her. Kaguya-hime showed herself, and the Emperor left reluctantly. Ever since the Emperor saw Kaguya-hime‘s beauty with his own eyes, he could not think of anyone else. He started to write to Kaguya-hime, and Kaguya-hime wrote back out of politeness. They exchanged letters for years and actually became friends.

One day at night, Kaguya-hime looked at the moon and suddenly started to cry violently. She told the worried couple that she in fact was not from earth but was sent from the moon, and it was time for her to go back. The moon people were gonna come and to ensure she comes back. The old man was distressed and went to the Emperor for help, so the Emperor sent an army to guard Kaguya-hime‘s place. The army of course, by the time moon people came, was useless against them. The leader of the moon people declared that Kaguya-hime was sent to earth as a punishment and now it was time for her to go home. Kaguya-hime had no choice but obey. The moon people then gave her some immortal pills for her to take so she could be cleaned from “living in filthy earth”. Kaguya-hime took some, and left the rest to the old couple and the Emperor. She also wrote a letter to the Emperor saying that she only turned him down because she knew this was gonna happen and didn’t want to upset him. During the whole time Kaguya-hime was sobbing, but as soon as she put on the feather coat the moon people brought, she became emotionless and left without hesitation.

The army brought back the pills and the letter, and the Emperor was in deep sorrow. He sent a messenger to bring the letter the pills to the top of the highest mountain – the place that is the nearest to the moon – and burn them there. Both the Emperor and the old couple thought that if they could not see Kaguya-hime again, immortal would mean nothing. They soon died out of grief. The mountain the pills were burnt was then called the Mountain Fuji, meaning “never die/end”. The smoke from the burnt pills ascends to sky to reach Kaguya-hime till today.


I googled the tale after the interview and realized this is actually one of the earliest tales that survived in Japanese literature. The earliest transcript of the tale could be dated back to almost a thousand years ago. Though there were some different versions of the tale but they do not differ from each others much. This tale is particularly interesting because it is not a typical tale where a male hero fights against villain and such such. The tale focused on the only protagonist – a female who resists the tradition of getting married. This piece of tale carries hints of feminism that I see precious considering it is thousand year old. In addition, the end of the tale explained the natural phenomenon of where the smoke of volcano Mountain Fuji comes from.


For another version of this story, see:

Kawabata, Yasunari, Donald Keene, and Masayuki Miyata. The tale of the bamboo cutter. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1998. Print.


Here is a proverb my friend provided on keeping a normal heart. She learned it from her political teacher in her middle school.


The followings are Original script, Phonetic script, Transliteration, and Full translation in order.

水            能          载         舟,          亦          能       覆            舟。

Shui       neng      zai     zhou,           yi         neng     fu          zhou.

Water    can        float    boat,         also       can    capsize    boat.

Water can float the boat, but also can capsize the boat.



This proverb was originally a warning the famous philosopher Xunzi gave to a King. He used the water as metaphor of the people and the boat of King’s authority. It is later used to describe that everything has a positive side and a negative side, so one must handle things carefully.

This proverb shows how the proverb can originally targeting one specific event, but later is re-comprehended and now can have a more general meaning.

Mid July

This friend of mine [noted as T] shared a taboo her grandmother warned her about. 


T: My grandmother used to warn me, never answer anyone who’s calling your name or tapping on your shoulder on the mid day of July, no matter how much it sounds like someone you know, you have to make sure you actually see that person before you answer them or turn back.

Me: Why? What would happen if I answered as soon as I heard my name?

T: Well, the mid day of July in lunar calendar is actually a ghosts’ day. On this day, all the ghosts in the netherworld are given a “holiday” and are allowed to walk on earth. So when you hear someone’s calling your name, it might not be actually a real person but you know, a ghost. Once you answer the ghost, it will take you to the netherworld with it. That’s what my grandma told me. Since I could never keep track of the lunar calendar though, I would just become extra cautious around July and August.

Me: Are there other taboos on this day your grandma told you?

T: I can’t remember much, mostly are the things like “don’t go near the water body because the drowned spirit will drown you” kind of thing… Oh, there’s another. You should never stick your chopsticks in a bowl of rice when you’re eating or whatever. That would look a lot like offering libation, so the spirits will think you want to share food with them and they will come.


Mid July sounds a lot like Halloween, except that now Halloween has become a holiday for entertainment, but Mid July still maintained it’s scary nature. China has several holidays for the dead, the most important one is Qingming festival. On this day, people would go to clean up the tombs of those who passed away, and offer libation. On Qingming Festival, it’s for people who are alive to cherish the memory of those who are dead; on Mid July, it’s more focused on those who are dead, and thus is scarier and there’re more taboos on this day.

Butterfly Lovers

My mom shared the story of Butterfly Lovers, which is actually a well-known folktale in China. There is a beautiful violin concerto composed based on this story and that’s one of my mom’s favorite — hence why my mom sent me to learn to play violin. My mom says she always kinda knew what happened in the story but was never entirely sure until she watched a movie based on it. We interviewed in Chinese so the following is only rough translation of what she shared.


During the Jin Dynasty, there were two youngsters Liang and Zhu. Liang and Zhu were classmates, while Zhu disguised herself as a man. Zhu secretly loved Liang deeply, but for years, Liang never realized Zhu was a woman, and only viewed her as a best friend but nothing more. The day Zhu went back home, Liang was so reluctant to leave her that he walked her home for eighteen miles. On the way home, Zhu vaguely hinted her feelings to Liang, but Liang was too oblivious to understand. Defeated, Zhu told Liang that she had a sister who looked exactly alike, and encouraged him to visit and marry her. Liang said yes and they parted.

Liang went back and tried to gather the money for the proposal and wedding, but since he’s only a poor student, it took him a long time. By the time he finally came to visit Zhu, Zhu’s parent had already promised her to the governor’s son, Wencai Ma. Only by then he realized Zhu had no sister and Zhu was actually a girl. Liang and Zhu confessed their feelings to each other, cried and said goodbye. When they parted, they made a promise that even though they could not be married in this life, they shall be buried together after they die.

Soon after, Liang was appointed to be the mayor but died shortly out of sorrow. On the wedding day of Zhu, as a part of Chinese wedding tradition, Zhu got on the carriage and off to her husband’s place. However, when they passed by the grave of Liang, a storm came and they could not move any further. Zhu got off the carriage and came to the grave to mourn her love. Suddenly, the ground split in half. Zhu jumped into the ground to be buried with Liang together, and then the ground repaired. The storm stopped and rainbow appeared. Liang and Zhu turned into two butterflies, flew out from the grave and flew into the sky.


This folktale is one of the most famous tales in China. I’d say its popularity would be like SnowWhite in Western countries. Since it’s such a wide spread story, there are countless TV shows and movies made out of it. Those versions did not differ much except there are always some original plot added. What my mom shared are majorly the plots that most version agreed. This is one of a few Chinese folklores that the story is evolved around the female protagonist instead of male — a story of how how the female making choices for her own life.

Spirit during sleep

This friend of mine [noted as T] decided to share an event that she went through. The experience she went through is often called Gui Ya Chuang in China, which literally means “A ghost pressing one on the bed”. 


T: I experienced Gui Ya Chuang for two times, if that’s something you’re looking for?

Me: What happened? What was it like?

T: So my high school was a boarding school, and I experienced Gui Ya Chuang two times there during my Junior year. I remember the first time: I was taking a nap at noon. When I woke up, I just couldn’t move my body and I couldn’t make a sound. I was terrified, you know? I didn’t know it’s Gui Ya Chuang though, I just thought I must be really sick, or I’m paralyzed for some reason. And the other time it was in the middle of the night, I woke up and I couldn’t move, and couldn’t speak, of course. 

Me: Are you sure you’re not dreaming or something?

T: For both times, I was perfectly conscious the whole time. That I am sure of. It’s a completely different feeling from dreaming. Like if you were dreaming, you always know when you woke up, right? But those two times felt real. My brain was functioning just fine but my body won’t cooperate. For both times I tried so hard to move my finger or my foot but just couldn’t. During the first time, I kept trying to make a sound and finally I made out a whining sound. After that it’s like every constraint is gone, I could move my body again! So I just dozed off again… 

Me: Except you couldn’t move and speak, is there anything else special?

T: Well, after my first time, I asked my mom and some of my friends. They told me it’s Gui Ya Chuang. It sounded scary, but since I only experienced temporary paralysis but nothing else, I didn’t really take it seriously. The second time, however, got a little spooky. So I was there, laying paralyzed in the middle of the night and couldn’t make a sound, but what’s more is that I swear I can feel something heavy is on top of me, even though I saw nothing. AND it’s moving! I can hear the sound of my bed sheet shifting and that thing kept pressing at me. I was honestly terrified and I tried so hard to move but could not. It kept pressing and pressing but with a rhythm, kind of like someone was trying to give me a CPR. Anyway, I just fall asleep again, and when I woke up in the morning, every thing is fine. 

Me: And you never experienced this again?

T: No. After the second time I asked the Dorm Assistance to assign me to another room, and I never experienced it again. 



This kind of experience has been reported by countless people online. Basically it is the experience that when you wake up from sleep, even though you are conscious, your body could not move, like you’re paralyzed. Experiences are varied, some people reported they can speak while some say they could not. Some say they can feel there is something on top of them keep pressing them to the bed; some say they saw people, either strangers or people they know, in the room that later confirmed no one was there. I personally had never experienced this, but it turned out many of my friends have, though also a lot of my friends have not. I do think that if this is something that so many people have encountered, there must be a scientific / medical explanation.