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Ancient Chinese Cinderella Story

Golden shoes, fish bones, and a king: Cinderella from the Tang Dynasty

03·22·2015

Ancient Chinese Cinderella Story

Golden shoes, fish bones, and a king: Cinderella from the Tang Dynasty

03·22·2015

The recent box office sensation Cinderella is one of Disney’s go-to princess tales, and written versions go as far back as Giambattista Basile in his Pentamerone in 1634 and in Charles Perrault’s Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé in 1697. What not a lot of people know is that China has its very own Cinderella story, published nearly a 1,000 years before the Western Johnny-come-lately versions.

That said, the Chinese version of Cinderella is very similar to the Western one. It was written during the reign of the Tang dynasty  around 700 AD, by Tuan Cheng-Shih. In the Chinese version Cinderella’s name is Yeh-Shen (also known as Ye Xian 叶限). Her father Wu, according to custom, had two wives and each wife gave Wu a baby daughter. But, one of the wives turned ill and died, Yeh-Shen’s mother, and not too long after Chief Wu took to his bed and died as well. Yeh-Shen was despised by her step-mother for her goodness, porcelain skin, and bright eyes, all things both she and her own daughter lacked. In her jealousy, she treated Yeh-Shen poorly, giving her backbreaking, demoralizing chores.

Like the Western Cinderella, the poor orphan Yeh-Shen had only one friend: an animal that she could communicate with, a golden fish with big, bright eyes. The step-mother gave Yeh-Shen almost no food, but she still always found some to share with her fish, which, consequently grew to an enormous size. When the evil stepmother discovered the friendship between Yeh-Shen and the fish, she served the fish for dinner as revenge.  As Yeh-Shen sat crying for her friend, an old man appeared and told her to save the fish’s bones and ask them for help when she was in trouble. Time went by, and Yeh-Shen, who was often left alone, took comfort in speaking to the bones of her fish.

cinderella-yehshen

Yeh-Shen speaking to her “fairy godfather”

Time passed and spring came. Festival time fast approached, the busiest time of the year. At Spring Festival, young men and women from the village hoped to meet their future spouse. Yeh-Shen wanted to go as bad as any other girl in the village, but her step-mother wanted her own daughter to find a husband, not the beautiful Yeh-Shen, so she had different plans. After the departure of her step-mother and half-sister, Yeh-Shen asked the bones of her dear departed friend for help and immediately found herself wearing a gorgeous feather gown with golden slippers. But, the bones warned her not to loose the slippers.

Yeh-Shen went to the Spring Festival, but the minute she saw her step-mother and half-sister looking at her, she became frightened and ran home. While running, she lost one of her precious slippers. A villager found the singular golden slipper and sold it to a merchant who, in turn, presented the beautiful slipper to the king. The king was more than happy to accept such an interesting gift. He marveled at its beauty, and became determined to find the woman to whom the shoe belonged. So, he put it in a little pavilion by the side of the road where any woman could come try on the slipper. Everyday hundreds of women came to try on the shoe, but their feet were too big.

Ever since Yeh-Shen had lost the golden slipper, the bones’ spirit refused to speak to her, so she was determined to get her golden shoe back. One night she slipped off to the pavilion to try to steal the shoe, but she was caught by the king’s guard. The king was understandably angry, but then he noticed how tiny her feet were. He let her go with the shoe, and had his guards follow her home. Yeh-Shen, unaware of the spies, went home and was about to hide both slippers in her bedding when there was a pounding at the door. Behold, the king’s guard and the king himself. But, he wasn’t angry. Rather, he simply asked her nicely to try on both of the slippers. When she did, her dirty rags were transformed into the beautiful dress she wore on the Spring Festival. Realizing how beautiful Yeh-Shen was, the king suddenly knew in his heart that he had found his true love, and he married her.

The  Chinese version has a pretty impressive publication date for a story that already seems to span much of popular culture today. But, scholars argue that this might not be the first Cinderella story, with some saying that the earliest prototype of the “Cinderella” story was actually in Ancient Greek. The Cinderella story is a beautiful tale of serendipity and love, and perhaps that’s why it seems to transcend time itself.

Image courtesy of 997788 and Baidu