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Ai-Ling Louie retells the story of Yeh-Shen, which was first recorded in The Miscellaneous Record of Yu Yang dating back to the T’ang dynasty (618-907 A.D.).   Included in his book is a copy of the myth in the original Chinese transcript found in the Hsueh Chin T’ao Yun edition recorded in the Ch’ing Dynasty (1644-1912).  The story predates the first Italian version of Cinderella written in 1634.
History fascinates me.  There are so many aspects to delve into.  When learning about another country’s history you not only learn about their people, places, and past; you also learn about their culture.  China has a rich history and their culture reflects that wealth.  Their myths and legends inherently contain their culture, and their past.  Yeh-Shen is no different!!!  I thought I would start from the beginning of the story and go through these gems into the past – section by section.  

 “As was the custom in those days, Chief Wu had taken two wives.”

  •  Polygamy was practiced widely up until the Han dynasty, however it continued in Hong Kong 
  • In 1971 Polygamy was banned, although some of the more wealthy business men continue to keep extra wives or concubines.  (Look at Macau Casino magnate Stanley Ho). 

“The only friend that Yeh-Shen had to her name was a fish she had caught and raised.”

  • Fish symbolizes hope and  prosperity. 
  • It is believed that if you eat fish your wishes for the coming year will come true.
  • (Just a side note, when you are reading Yeh-Shen A Cinderella Story from China retold by Ai-Ling Louie take a look at each page and see if you can find the fish.  The illustrator, Ed Young, incorporates a fish on each and every page.  It is phenomenal!!!!) 

 A sage approaches Yeh-Shen and tells her to bury the bones of her fish.  She does not question “kind uncle” but does as he says.

  • Confucian ideology placed men at the top of a very strict hierarchy. 
  •  Men, and older men in particular, were believed to be wise! 

 “Yeh-Shen . . . took comfort in speaking to the bones of her fish”

  • Chinese culture values ancestor worship 
  • They believed in praying to their dearly departed to overcome obstacles.  For Yeh-Shen her fish was her closest friend, and became an ancestor of sorts.

 “Festival time was approaching.  It was the busiest time of the year.  Such cooking and cleaning and sewing there was to be done.  . . . At the spring festival young men and young women from the village hoped to meet and to choose whom they would marry”

  •  Festivals form an important part of Chinese culture.
  •  Festivals are arranged around the lunar calendar.    
  •  The spring festival is also known as the Chinese New Year (Read more about the Chinese New Year here.) 
  •  Prior to the festival the houses are cleaned from top to bottom, much food is prepared, new clothes are worn. (Hmmmm, could this be the advent of spring cleaning????)

The old man makes sure that Yeh-shen knows not to waste the gift given by the fish.  When she loses her shoe the voice of her beloved fish is silenced!

 Chinese adages contain many references to not wasting anything.  Even in cooking!

  • It was then that he took a closer look and noticed that she walked upon the tiniest feet he had ever seen.
  • The advent of foot binding is one of heated debate among historians.  All it comes down to is that small, dainty feet were considered beautiful.  
  • To create this “look” women would bind their feet. 
  • It wasn’t until 1915 that foot binding became illegal in china.  
  • I learned through the San Francisco Museum that in 1991 a shoe factory in China still made tiny shoes meant for the older generation of women who still had tiny feet due to binding.