Residence: Los Angeles, California
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/29/13
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Chinese
My informant was a kindergarten teacher for a Chinese school me that she has presented this story many times before. It was therefore very rehearsed and unusually eloquent.
Informant: “Yeh-Shen was born to Chief Wu and his wife. However soon a sickness overtook them both, so she was reared by her stepmother. The stepmother didn’t like Yeh-Shen for she was more beautiful and kinder than her own daughter so she treated her poorly by giving her the worst chores.
She only had one friend at that was a fish with golden eyes in the pond. Each day the fish came out of the water onto the bank to be fed by Yeh-Shen. Yen-Shen had little food for herself but she still shared with the fish. Her stepmother hearing about the fish put on Yeh-Shen’s coat and went to the pond. The fish swam up thinking it was to be fed, and she stabbed it with a dagger, and cooked the fish for dinner.
Yeh-Shen was upset over the death of the fish and sat crying next to the river. Suddenly and old spirit appeared and told her that the bones of the fish were filled with a powerful spirit, and that when she was in serious need she was to kneel before the bones and wish on them with her heart’s desires. Yeh-Shen retrieved the bones and hid them.
Spring came and with it, the spring festival. Yeh-Shen was forbidden from going to the spring festival. After the stepmother and sister left, she went to the bones wishing for clothes to wear to the festival. She got a beautiful gown and cloak and golden slippers with a pattern of scaled fish. She went to the festival and everyone was dazzled by her beauty. However her stepmom and sister moved closer and she feared being caught, so she ran, leaving behind one slipper. When she arrived home she was dressed again in her rags. She spoke again to the bones, but they were now silent. Saddened she put the one golden slipper in her bedstraw. After a time a merchant found the lost slipper, and seeing the value in the golden slipper sold it to the King.
The king wanted to find the owner of this tiny beautiful slipper. He sent his people to search the kingdom but no ones foot would fit in the tiny golden slipper. He put it on display in an area near where it was found. All the women came to try on the shoe but it didn’t fit. Until one night Yeh-Shen slipped quietly across the pavilion, took the tiny golden slipper and turned to leave, but the king’s men rushed out and arrested her. She was taken to the king who was furious for he couldn’t believe that any one in rags could possibly own a golden slipper. As he looked closer at her face he was struck by her beauty and he noticed she had the tiniest feet.
The king and his men returned home with her where she produced the other slipper. As she slipped on the two slippers her rags turned into the beautiful gown and cloak she had worn to the festival. The king realized that she was the one for him. They married and lived happily ever after. However, the stepmother and daughter were never allowed to visit Yeh-Shen and were forced to continue to live in their cave.
Informant: “It’s my favorite story. I know it by heart and I’ve told it so many times I can’t count.”
Me: “What do you think the moral of the story is?”
Informant: “Be a kind-hearted soul and you’ll be rewarded! I mean, fish are lucky symbols in China, and there’s the whole Buddhist thing too about not taking another life.”
Analysis: This story is a variation of what was thought to be the original Cinderella story. My informant was correct when she assumed that the story had certain Buddhist influences – it is against the religion to take another life, regardless of what it is. Thus the stepmother is ultimately punished for killing the fish.
In Chinese culture, there will often be more fish symbols around Chinese New Year. That’s because the word for fish “Yu” sounds like the word for ‘extra’. Fish are therefore a symbol of wealth and prosperity, so we can see that this cultural aspect was included as a symbol within the story.
The motif of the tiny golden slipper relates to the Chinese tradition of foot-binding, and how women with smaller feet are thought to be more attractive. As we can see, the King is eager to find the owner of the slipper, but he has not met her beforehand. All he knows is the size of her foot.
The Grimm tale had the evil stepsister chop off a part of her foot to try to fit it into the small glass slipper, so it is interesting to note that this very unique cultural part of the tale (tiny feet equivalent to beauty) made it into the Western adaptations of Cinderella.
Annotation: Cinderella, Grimm Brothers