Tag Archives: Chinese

The Monkey King


AX: “There’s this old story about something called the Monkey King, and how he goes from being… he goes through all these trials and training, like Hercules and the twelve trials. He goes from this little monkey who goes through all these problems, solving some and causing others, he ends up achieving godhood and he’s the savior. He has a trusty staff that can expand in size. It was very special that we had to remember that he has 72 transformations. It’s him, a pig, and like a sage, and there’s a monk that all of them follow. A journey to the West. If you go west enough, further west, you’ll hit mount Olympus, or the equivalent of that: enlightenment. So they try and go to the West and everything. It was important that the monkey king had 72 transformations, his little brother had 36, and then his youngest brother had 18, it was very important that we remember that. So this Monkey King has a band around his head, it’s gold and it’s enchanted, so his monk, his master can chant something whenever he’s misbehaving and it’ll tighten around his head in punishment. So like as they journey to the west, he always has this headband on him, so when they finally reach the west and everything, Buddha takes off the golden band and replaces it with a halo to represent how he’s gone from being imprisoned from his thoughts to him being enlightened, above that. When it was on his head, it was in contact with his skin, but when it was replaced, it hovered slightly above it.”

Context: AX is a freshman at USC studying English—she’s a fellow student in our folklore class and knows the material well. She grew up in Chino, a small suburb outside of Los Angeles. She’s of Asian descent.

AX: “My mom always called me her little monkey king, and would threaten me. Don’t make me put a red band around your head! Like, yes ma’am. I cannot misbehave!”

Analysis: The Monkey King is a common story, common enough for me, a white Californian, to have heard of it. Right off the bat, she compared her story to Hercules and the twelve trials. In Western society, Hercules is more commonly known, partially due to academic emphasis on Greek/Roman mythology and the popular Disney movie Hercules. AX’s childhood in California may have resulted in this association, almost a need to preface with a comparison to Western culture. I wonder if AX’s knowledge of the folklore class impacted her interpretation. The numerology of the story itself is interesting, especially since AX knew they were important but didn’t know what they mean. All of the numbers AX said are multiples of 2, 3, 6, and/or 8, which are all lucky numbers in China. And, of course, each is a multiple of the other. 18 times 2 is 36, and 36 times 2 is 72. 72 in particular is frequently used in Chinese folklore, occurring across a vast number of stories, and it’s the base of calculation in the ancient Chinese calendar.

The Little White Snake


AX: “This is very common. If you ask any Chinese person, they could tell you about it. So there’s this little white snake. My tale is… a long time ago, there was a little white snake, and she wanted to become a human and go to school. For context, I was a little girl who did not want to go to school, by the way. As she was slithering down the mountain, a hunter caught her and was about to kill her, but then the hunter’s apprentice, this little boy, was like no, she’s innocent, let’s just let her go! So the hunter released her, and she never forgot about this. So centuries pass by, and this little white snake has been training and learning to be a human forever, and then when she does it, she runs into the reincarnation of that apprentice, and they fall in love… happy story. They have a child. But then the monks found out she was actually a snake, so they locked her up under a tower. This little boy grows up, went to school trying to save his mother. He ended up being smart enough and gained enough credibility to force the tower to come down, and that’s how he freed his mother. There’s a lot of variations of it. I think in other variations, there’s no child, it’s just the snake falling in love with her lover, and in others, it’s not even a lover: she grows up and has a child with someone we don’t name, and she frees herself from the monks.”

Context: AX is a freshman at USC studying English—she’s a fellow student in the folklore class and knows the material well. She grew up in Chino, a small suburb outside of Los Angeles. She’s of Asian descent.

AX: “Now that I’m saying it out loud, it’s so obvious that my mom was trying to get me to go to school! I was like oh my God, I want to learn how to go to school and learn how to free snakes!”

Analysis: The informant acknowledges the existence of other versions, enforcing the fact that it’s a folk narrative with variation. It reflects both the individual and community—the story is very uniquely AX’s, drawn from her community but affected by her mother’s telling. As for the category, it’s a tale, primarily aimed at AX as a child, updated to reflect her need to go to school. On a separate note, the coloration of the snake is loaded with symbolism. Going back to Vaz da Silva’s examination of the chromatic symbolism, the snake was white at first, representing purity. On top of that, the snake is described as little, which reflects its age. It’s childlike in size, adding onto the white coloration to create the image of purity. However, when she grows up and reaches maturity, she loses the form of a white snake and thereafter gives birth, a symbolic loss of purity with sex. In this particular variation, the snake appears to have agency until after giving birth, after which her son makes the major choices in the story. Her loss of agency may reflect the patriarchy of society, where a matriarch is only in control of herself until she bears an heir, after which he takes control.

Why the Great Wall was Built


CF: A long time ago, there was an emperor and an empress. The empress was so beautiful that one time, the emperor–he was just fed up. He didn’t want anyone to look at her–look at his wife, who is so gorgeous. He’s like ‘I am done. I want to keep her just for myself and I’m going to build this great wall–I’m going to build the longest wall, the highest wall so nobody can look at my empress. So that’s what he did! And that’s how the Great Wall was built.

AJ: Oh, I remember!

CF: You remember that? Yeah the Great Wall–it shields her from the outside world and he will just keep the empress to himself-

AJ: I want to tell one… one story.

CF: “Okay–but do you remember that story I told you? That’s the reason why it’s built!”


I was eating at Glory Days with my mother (CF) and five-year old cousin (AJ). My cousin always loves to hear a good story, so my mother always has one prepared to tell. She keeps the stories short and concise, to make sure she holds my cousin’s attention the entire time. My mother mentioned that her mother told these stories to her at great lengths in Cantonese. This was just one of the many tales her mother had up her sleeve from her plethora of experiences, which feel so distant when examining the past through these stories. Even though my mother says she can’t tell stories “like Oma (grandma) can,” she tries to remember them to connect her back to her childhood. Her memory of the full story is fragmented, and she changes the length depending on who she tells it to. More often than not, however, she’s used to being an audience member.


The passing down of a narrative contributes to a strong familial and cultural identity, as they are not only shared among people of the same culture, but they also have an ability to kindle intergenerational connections. My mother said that if there was anyone to collect tales and legends from, it would be my grandmother, as her wisdom and experience exceed anything my mother can tell right now. There seems to be a consistent relationship between the storyteller and the audience; the performers tend to be older and share these stories with younger generations to nourish their relationship to their cultural community. However, as my grandmother gets older, there appears to be a natural transition between who tells the story and who listens. Now, my mother has assumed the role of a performer and tells the story to my cousin and I. Oral performances grant flexibility in determining length and content–when we’re completely alone, my mother tends to flesh out the story and add her own humorous tidbits that only we understand together.

These tales on the speculative history of China pique curiosity and intrigue in the origins and meanings behind structures that hold a sacred value. There are countless tales and legends surrounding the Great Wall–it’s one of the Eight Wonders of the world, and its mystical aura lingers because of the stories that still circulate. Additionally, this ensures that the younger generations continue to appreciate and show interest in their cultural roots. After my grandparents immigrated to the US, it often felt like my family could be detached from Chinese customs and practices. However, the stories our ancestors carry can be everlasting; as long as we continue keeping them alive, these tales can constantly link us back to our cultural identity.

Pretend to Play the Yu


Title: 滥竽充数

Literal translation: Pretend to Play the Yu

Dynamic translation: Pretending to be something that you are not

XX: This story is about a musician. The musician- he couldn’t really play any instruments. Anyway, one day, he heard that there is an audition going on, and he went for it anyway. When he got to the place, he found that he’s going to be playing among a group, a group of instruments, in an orchestra in front of the emperor. So anyway, he got into the audition, and he passed it as a group, and the whole orchestra got employed by the emperor, and he got famous after that. So, he got famous, and after decades and decades, he played in the group for the emperor, to entertain him. So after the emperor passed away, his son succeeded his crown, and his son is someone who prefers to hear solo music, so one day, he gathered this whole orchestra and had every musician play to him one by one. And when it was the musician’s turn–the emperor finally found out that the man couldn’t play any instrument, so then the emperor executed him. That’s the story–that’s how we tell people that you cannot lie about your skill if you don’t know how.

Me: Oh wow–I was expecting this to be some sort of wholesome children’s story–so your grandpa would tell you this before you slept?

XX: Yup, but I’m not really bothered by the execution part, because I feel like he deserved it, right? Because he’s a liar.


XX mentioned that they heard this story almost every day as a young child. Their grandfather would tell this to them during the “little time we had before we all went to bed.” It was “just a little educational lesson my grandpa wanted to give me.” Their grandfather was never one to “say something really obvious–” he liked to “inspire you to know something.” While XX said that the story was mainly just a typical part of their daily nighttime routine, they also learned something from it: don’t lie about having a skillset you lack. It has been a while since XX last told this story, and this was the first time they told it in English.


When people first started to think of folklore, the bedtime stories told by nannies and babysitters came to mind. Bedtime stories and lullabies are meant to put children to sleep, but the text and lyrics themselves can be ambiguous. Perhaps introducing kids to these valuable lessons–don’t pretend to be something you’re not–in a relaxed, tranquil setting will resonate with them more vividly as they grow up and become acclimated to the world around them. This idea of “double vision” that parents/grandparents hold rings true: while they want to comfort their children, they also want to warn them and give them lessons and pieces of advice that they will carry on with them through adulthood. These stories balance the weight of consequences with lighthearted fun. However, it is questionable whether we associate these stories with their actual lessons or more with the fonder memories of childhood and bedtime.

Nonetheless, being set in a distant past and intertwining fictive elements with real world morals, these tales open up children to important pieces of knowledge to function in society, rather than shielding them in a romanticized image of the world. While execution is an exaggerated consequence of lying, the tale’s ending provides a vivid warning on what happens if you’re caught for fabricating your identity. These stories are effective because they are memorable–they spread messages creatively and even with a negative, violent ending, children want to hear them over and over because it is ingrained into their night routine. They’re comforting because they’re consistent–they’re told by the same, reliable person at the same time. The last words children hear before falling asleep often get at the heart of the bedtime story, so it lingers in their memory. These tales can contain universal values: its message is clear across language barriers, which reveals the foundational similarities amongst different variations.

Huo Yi and Chang’e


“So one time there was the world and there were nine suns, so it was really hot on earth, like unbearably hot, all the plants withered away, like it was so hot people would just stay in their house, it was a terrible time to live on earth. And so this archer, Hou Yi, decided to do something about the suns. So he got his bow and shot down eight suns, so now there was only one. But that meant the divine beings were really made that eight of their suns are gone from the celestial world. So he kind of got punished to live as a mortal – basically he was a divine being that’s how he was able to shoot down the suns – so he ended up finding a beautiful wife, Chang’e. And they are happily married and the villagers were very thankful for him to get rid of all eight suns because there is only one left and now the plants can grow, they can go outside, life was much more bearable. So they gift him with this elixir of immortality so he can go back to being a divine being. But he didn’t want to leave because he has a wife with him and that would mean he would have to choose immortality over her. So they just had a random elixir of immortality in their house. So one day he [Huo Yi] was just out in the field working, doing his archery stuff and his wife was at home. So he has an evil apprentice, who learns about this elixir of immortality and feeling jealous or greedy he wanted to get it for himself because he wanted to be immortal. And then he goes into their house and is looking for it, but Chang’e learns about his plan so instead of letting him [the evil apprentice] have it she drinks it and she ends up flying to the moon and becoming a divine being.”


The informant first heard the myth when she was in school. It’s a popular Chinese myth depicting the story of the moon spirit. The story also gives background to the Chinese Mid-Autumn festival. The informant says that there are many different variations of the story that have been told, though they all include Huo Yi and Chang’e.


This is an extremely popular Chinese myth that many people of Chinese descent likely know. The first time I heard the story was in elementary school, though there was no evil apprentice. In another version, there are ten suns rather than nine. Sometimes the elixir of immortality is given by another divine being or immortal. It is typically told during the Mid-Autumn festival as an origin myth of Chang’e, the moon deity. Often during the Mid-Autumn festival, people make offerings of food and other things to the deities, including Chang’e, and pray. The moon is very significant in many Chinese traditions as the Chinese calendar follows the Lunar cycle. It’s often associated with women and feminity, and it was once believed that a woman’s menstrual cycle was connected to the lunar cycle. The moon in Chinese culture is also associated with yin, from the Chinese philosophical concept of yin and yang which describes the balance of opposing forces.