Based on the recurrent theme o f absent or uncaring father/father figure, rivalry between women, the ability to overcome obstacles, rewards, magical assistance and mythical element Ai-Ling Louie retells the story of Yeh-Shen – A Chinese Cinderella Story. Yeh-Shen, which was first recorded in The Miscellaneous Record of Yu Yang, dating back to the T’ang dynasty (618-907 A.D) written by Tuan Ch’eng Shih . Included in Louie’s book is a copy of the original myth in Chinese transcript found in the Hsueh Chin T’ao Yun edition recorded in the Ch’ing Dynasty (1644-1912). Some say that the story predates the first Italian version of Cinderella written in 1643. Who really knows – travel and trade not only produced goods but it also produced a legacy of literature!!
In 850 A.D, during the Tang dynasty, a famous poet, writer, and government official , Duan Cheng Shi, published a collection of stories he had gathered throughout his entire life. In “Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang” Duan Cheng Shi retold the story of Ye Xian (also known as Yeh-Shen). He apparently heard of this mythical legend from his servant Li Shi Yuan.
Ai-Ling Louie’s tells Yeh-Shen’s tale of woe begins as we are introduced to a cave chief somewhere in southern China. He has two wives, polygamy was widely practiced in China up until the Han Dynasty, and both wives gave him daughters. Unfortunately one of the wives died, and poor Yeh-Chen was raised by her stepmother. Her only friend happens to be her pet fish, which in Chinese culture symbolizes hope and prosperity. 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. The first time I read this book to my own three children it took my oldest three pages to notice that there was a fish on each page. Even the cover art has a carp like fish hidden among Yeh-Shen’s Spring Festival dress. From the moment they realized there was a fish on each book I couldn’t read until they had found the book.
Out of spite Yeh-Shen’s stepmother kills her pet fish and in her moment of mourning an old man (her fairy godfather) tells her to bury the bones and miracles will happen. She did as she was told as in Confucian ideology men are placed at the top of a very strict hierarchy. Men, and older men in particular, were believed to be wise! Following his advice proved to be to her benefit. She prayed often to the bones of her beloved fish and found comfort, for in Chinese culture they value 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. She benefited from her prayers, for whenever she was in dire straights she would pray to the bones and voila – her hearts desire would appear.
As in most Cinderella stories there is a ball. Okay, maybe not a ball as we think in the traditional terminology. “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 choose whom they would marry” (p. 8). She loses her shoe, and the king receives her shoe from a merchant. He is awe inspired by the dainty shoe and sets off on a journey to find the girl that fits into the golden shoe. In school I was always fascinated when we learned about Chinese culture and the practice of foot binding. 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 and parents would bind the feet of their baby daughters to create this “look”. In 1915 foot binding finally became illegal in China. In 1991 a shoe factory in China still made tiny shoes meant for the older generation of women who still had tiny, delicate feet.
Back to the story: After much searching (by both the King and Yeh-Shen – for she wants her shoe back) the two meet and the King falls in love with her. They are married and live happily ever after. Her stepmother and stepsister – they don’t make out so well. They are killed by a shower of rocks!!!!