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The Story of Hǔ Gū Pó

[Translated from Mandarin Chinese]

Once upon a time, the hǔ gū pó (虎姑婆; a tiger spirit) lived atop a mountain. She wanted to become human, but the only way to do so was to eat children. From time to time she left her mountain to visit the village below, where she would sneak up on children from behind and eat them. After a while, the villagers discovered that wearing a mask on the backs of their heads would confuse the hǔ gū pó and prevent her from eating them. She was starting to look very human, but she still had a tiger’s tail to hide. With no more children to catch, the hǔ gū pó wandered down to the houses.

In one house lived a girl, her younger brother, and their parents, but the parents were out of town for the day. The tiger spirit tucked her tail within her pants and disguised herself as the children’s aunt.
“Your parents asked me to look after you today,” she said, and the children let her in.

In the middle of the night, the little girl woke up to a strange crunching sound.
“What are you eating?” she asked the hǔ gū pó.
“I am eating peanuts,” came the reply. “Would you like some?”
The hǔ gū pó handed over one of the little boy’s fingers.
Understanding that the tiger spirit had already eaten her brother, the little girl escaped from the house, pretending that she needed to use the bathroom.

The next morning the tiger spirit found the little girl hiding atop a tree.
“Come down,” the hǔ gū pó demanded, hungry.
“Fine,” the girl said. “But you should prepare a vat of boiling oil first, so I’ll taste better.”
The hǔ gū pó did just that.
“Now, hoist up the vat to me. I will cook myself and then jump into your mouth. Close your eyes and open your mouth.”
The tiger spirit did just that. The little girl poured the oil into the hǔ gū pó’s mouth and therefore killed her.

The story of hǔ gū pó is a well-known children’s folktale in Taiwan, and this is one of the many versions. It has been compared to the western tales of the Little Red Riding Hood, and “The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats”. It has been adapted into a less violent nursery rhyme telling children to stop crying and to go to sleep. The informant (my father) had learned the story from his parents and in turn told it to me many times as a kid. 

When I first heard it, I did not think much of the plot points—upon retrospect, however, the story seemed unusually gruesome for a children’s tale. While “The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats” has a similar premise, it is not as violent. The wolf deceives the goats and gobbles them up, but the youngest goat is able to cut open the wolf and save his siblings from its stomach, replacing the weight with rocks, which eventually drown the wolf. In the story of hǔ gū pó, the brother is not only eaten, but the sister receives the dismembered finger as food. She also kills the tiger spirit quite directly/actively. This may be a reflection on the differing cultural contexts of these two tales, in terms of ethics, etc.