A Cinderella Story from China

A Cinderella Story from China

A Cinderella Story from China Retold by Ai-Ling Louie I 10 n the dim past, even before the Ch’in and the Han dynasties,1 there lived a cave chief o...

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A Cinderella Story from China Retold by Ai-Ling Louie



n the dim past, even before the Ch’in and the Han dynasties,1 there lived a cave chief of southern China by the name of Wu. As was the custom in those days, Chief Wu had taken two wives. Each wife in their turn had presented Wu with a baby daughter. But one of the wives sickened and died, and not too many days after that Chief Wu took to his bed and died too. Yeh-Shen, the little orphan, grew to girlhood in her stepmother’s home. She was a bright child and lovely too, with skin as smooth as ivory and dark pools for eyes. Her stepmother was jealous of all this beauty and goodness, for her own daughter was not pretty at all. So in her displeasure, she gave poor Yeh-Shen the heaviest and most unpleasant chores. The only friend that Yeh-Shen had to her name was a fish she had caught and raised. It was a beautiful fish with golden eyes, and every day it would come out of the water and rest its head on the bank of the pond, waiting for Yeh-Shen to feed it. Stepmother gave Yeh-Shen little enough food for herself, but the orphan child always found something to share with her fish, which grew to enormous size. a

1. Ch’in (chGn) and the Han (hän) dynasties (dFPnE-stCz): groups that held power in China. The Ch’in dynasty ruled from 221 to 206 B.C., and the Han dynasty ruled from 206 B.C. to A.D. 220.


unit 6: myths, legends, and tales

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This painting shows a scene and its reflection in the water. Identify where the water begins and ends.



Reread lines 11–16. What do you learn about YehShen from the way she treats her friend? What kind of person is YehShen?

Detail of The Moonlight (2001), Chen Jia Qi. Watercolor. Red Lantern Folk Art, Mukashi Collection. © The Mukashi Collection/SuperStock.

12/31/10 5:06:48 PM





Somehow the stepmother heard of this. She was terribly angry to discover that Yeh-Shen had kept a secret from her. She hurried down to the pond, but she was unable to see the fish, for Yeh-Shen’s pet wisely hid itself. The stepmother, however, was a crafty woman, and she soon thought of a plan. She walked home and called out, “Yeh-Shen, go and collect some firewood. But wait! The neighbors might see you. Leave your filthy coat here!” The minute the girl was out of sight, her stepmother slipped on the coat herself and went down again to the pond. This time the big fish saw Yeh-Shen’s familiar jacket and heaved itself onto the bank, expecting to be fed. But the stepmother, having hidden a dagger2 in her sleeve, stabbed the fish, wrapped it in her garments, and took it home to cook for dinner. b When Yeh-Shen came to the pond that evening, she found her pet had disappeared. Overcome with grief, the girl collapsed on the ground and dropped her tears into the still waters of the pond. “Ah, poor child!” a voice said. Yeh-Shen sat up to find a very old man looking down at her. He wore the coarsest of clothes, and his hair flowed down over his shoulders. “Kind uncle, who may you be?” Yeh-Shen asked. “That is not important, my child. All you must know is that I have been sent to tell you of the wondrous powers of your fish.” “My fish, but sir . . .” The girl’s eyes filled with tears, and she could not go on. The old man sighed and said, “Yes, my child, your fish is no longer alive, and I must tell you that your stepmother is once more the cause of your sorrow.” Yeh-Shen gasped in horror, but the old man went on. “Let us not dwell on things that are past,” he said, “for I have come bringing you a gift. Now you must listen carefully to this: The bones of your fish are filled with a powerful spirit. Whenever you are in serious need, you must kneel before them and let them know your heart’s desire. But do not waste their gifts.” Yeh-Shen wanted to ask the old sage3 many more questions, but he rose to the sky before she could utter another word. With heavy heart, Yeh-Shen made her way to the dung heap to gather the remains of her friend. Time went by, and Yeh-Shen, who was often left alone, took comfort in speaking to the bones of her fish. When she was hungry, which happened quite often, Yeh-Shen asked the bones for food. In this way, Yeh-Shen managed to live from day to day, but she lived in dread that her stepmother would discover her secret and take even that away from her. c



Why does the stepmother kill the fish?

collapse (kE-lBpsP) v. to fall down



Like other folk tales, the Cinderella story contains recurring stylistic elements that serve an important function in the story. One recurring element in folk tales is the magic helper. Who is the magic helper here? How is this magic helper different from the ones in the Cinderella stories you know?

2. dagger: a short, pointed weapon. 3. sage: someone known for his or her wisdom.


unit 6: myths, legends, and tales

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Comparing Theme

S 60




o the time passed and spring came. Festival time was approaching: It was the busiest time of the year. Such cooking and cleaning and sewing there was to be done! Yeh-Shen had hardly a moment’s rest. At the spring festival young men and young women from the village hoped to meet and to choose whom they would marry. How Yeh-Shen longed to go! But her stepmother had other plans. She hoped to find a husband for her own daughter and did not want any man to see the beauteous Yeh-Shen first. When finally the holiday arrived, the stepmother and her daughter dressed themselves in their finery and filled their baskets with sweetmeats.4 “You must remain at home now, and watch to see that no one steals fruit from our trees,” her stepmother told Yeh-Shen, and then she departed for the banquet with her own daughter. d As soon as she was alone, Yeh-Shen went to speak to the bones of her fish. “Oh, dear friend,” she said, kneeling before the precious bones, “I long to go to the festival, but I cannot show myself in these rags. Is there somewhere I could borrow clothes fit to wear to the feast?” At once she found herself dressed in a gown of azure blue,5 with a cloak of kingfisher feathers draped around her shoulders. Best of all, on her tiny feet were the most beautiful slippers she had ever seen. They were woven of golden threads, in a pattern like the scales of a fish, and the glistening soles were made of solid gold. There was magic in the shoes, for they should have been quite heavy, yet when Yeh-Shen walked, her feet felt as light as air. “Be sure you do not lose your golden shoes,” said the spirit of the bones. Yeh-Shen promised to be careful. Delighted with her transformation, she bid a fond farewell to the bones of her fish as she slipped off to join in the merrymaking. e That day Yeh-Shen turned many a head as she appeared at the feast. All around her people whispered, “Look at that beautiful girl! Who can she be?” But above this, Stepsister was heard to say, “Mother, does she not resemble our Yeh-Shen?” Upon hearing this, Yeh-Shen jumped up and ran off before her stepsister could look closely at her. She raced down the mountainside, and in doing so, she lost one of her golden slippers. No sooner had the shoe fallen from her foot than all her fine clothes turned back to rags. Only one thing remained—a tiny golden shoe. Yeh-Shen hurried to the bones of her fish and returned the slipper, promising to find its mate. But now the bones were silent. Sadly Yeh-Shen realized that she had lost her only friend. She hid the little shoe in her bedstraw, and went outside to cry. Leaning against a fruit tree, she sobbed and sobbed until she fell asleep. f

banquet (bBngPkwGt) n. a dinner honoring a particular guest or occasion d


Reread lines 55–66. Why doesn’t Yeh-Shen’s stepmother allow her to go to the festival?

glistening (glGsPEn-Gng) adj. sparkling





Reread the warning in line 77. What do you predict will happen to the golden slippers?

What effect does losing the slipper have on Yeh-Shen? How is this like or unlike other Cinderella stories you have read?

4. sweetmeats: sweet food, such as candy. 5. azure blue (BzhPEr blL): a light purplish blue.

yeh-shen: a cinderella story from china

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Celebration (1996), Pang Gui Chen. Watercolor. Red Lantern Folk Art, Mukashi Collection. © The Mukashi Collection/SuperStock.


The stepmother left the gathering to check on Yeh-Shen, but when she returned home she found the girl sound asleep, with her arms wrapped around a fruit tree. So thinking no more of her, the stepmother rejoined the party. Meantime, a villager had found the shoe. Recognizing its worth, he sold it to a merchant, who presented it in turn to the king of the island kingdom of T’o Han. The king was more than happy to accept the slipper as a gift. He was entranced by the tiny thing, which was shaped of the most precious of metals, yet which made no sound when touched to stone. The more he marveled at its beauty, the more determined he became to find the woman to whom the shoe belonged. A search was begun among the ladies of his


Choose a figure from this painting that reminds you of one of the story’s characters. Which character does the figure remind you of, and why?

unit 6: myths, legends, and tales

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Comparing Theme


own kingdom, but all who tried on the sandal found it impossibly small. Undaunted, the king ordered the search widened to include the cave women from the countryside where the slipper had been found. Since he realized it would take many years for every woman to come to his island and test her foot in the slipper, the king thought of a way to get the right woman to come forward. He ordered the sandal placed in a pavilion6 by the side of the road near where it had been found, and his herald announced that the shoe was to be returned to its original owner. Then from a nearby hiding place, the king and his men settled down to watch and wait for a woman with tiny feet to come and claim her slipper. g



How is the king’s plan to find the owner of the slipper similar to and different from the way the prince or king in other Cinderella stories looks for the shoe’s owner?





ll that day the pavilion was crowded with cave women who had come to test a foot in the shoe. Yeh-Shen’s stepmother and stepsister were among them, but not Yeh-Shen—they had told her to stay home. By day’s end, although many women had eagerly tried to put on the slipper, it still had not been worn. Wearily, the king continued his vigil7 into the night. h It wasn’t until the blackest part of night, while the moon hid behind a cloud, that Yeh-Shen dared to show her face at the pavilion, and even then she tiptoed timidly across the wide floor. Sinking down to her knees, the girl in rags examined the tiny shoe. Only when she was sure that this was the missing mate to her own golden slipper did she dare pick it up. At last she could return both little shoes to the fish bones. Surely then her beloved spirit would speak to her again. Now the king’s first thought, on seeing Yeh-Shen take the precious slipper, was to throw the girl into prison as a thief. But when she turned to leave, he caught a glimpse of her face. At once the king was struck by the sweet harmony of her features, which seemed so out of keeping with the rags she wore. It was then that he took a closer look and noticed that she walked upon the tiniest feet he had ever seen. i With a wave of his hand, the king signaled that this tattered creature was to be allowed to depart with the golden slipper. Quietly, the king’s men slipped off and followed her home. All this time, Yeh-Shen was unaware of the excitement she had caused. She had made her way home and was about to hide both sandals in her bedding when there was a pounding at the door. Yeh-Shen went to see who it was—and found a king at her doorstep. She was very frightened at first, but the king spoke to her in a kind voice and asked her to try the





How does the king react when he receives Yeh-Shen’s missing slipper as a gift?

Reread lines 121–133. Why does the king first think Yeh-Shen is a thief?

6. pavilion (pE-vGlPyEn): a decorated tent. 7. vigil (vGjPEl): a period of observing.

yeh-shen: a cinderella story from china

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golden slippers on her feet. The maiden did as she was told, and as she stood in her golden shoes, her rags were transformed once more into the feathered cloak and beautiful azure gown. Her loveliness made her seem a heavenly being, and the king suddenly knew in his heart that he had found his true love.



ot long after this, Yeh-Shen was married to the king. But fate was not so gentle with her stepmother and stepsister. Since they had been unkind to his beloved, the king would not permit Yeh-Shen to bring them to his palace. They remained in their cave home, where one day, it is said, they were crushed to death in a shower of flying stones. ! j


UNIVERSAL THEME How is Yeh-Shen rewarded in the story?

Notice how the figures in this painting are dressed. Compare them with how you imagined Yeh-Shen and the king looked. Shadow Puppets, Chen Lian Xing. Watercolor. Red Lantern Folk Art, Mukashi Collection. © The Mukashi Collection/SuperStock.


unit 6: myths, legends, and tales

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