Once upon a time . . .

long, long ago, even before the Ch’in and the Han dynasties, there was a man named Wu.  He was cave chief of southern China and, as was the custom in those days, he took two wives.  Each wife gave him a baby daughter, however, one of the wives sickened, died and not long after that, Wu himself died.

So starts of the story of Yeh-Shen, a Cinderella Story from China.

In this Cinderella variant, there is an evil stepmother who is jealous of the beautiful, kind daughter since her own daughter is not pretty at all.  The stepmother gives her next- to-nothing to eat, but somehow Yeh-shen manages to have enough to feed her best friend, an enormous fish.

When the stepmother learns of the fish, she tricks Yeh-shen and kills the fish (taking it home to cook for dinner.)  Yeh-shen is sad to learn this news, however, a voice brings her a gift–the bones of the fish (which are filled with a powerful spirit.)  She uses the spirit sparingly and only asks for food as she was hungry quite often.

It is now time for the spring festival.  The stepmother wants her own daughter to find a young man to marry and forbids Yeh-shen to attend; she doesn’t want the young men to see the beautiful Yeh-shen.  Yeh-shen longs to attend the festival and asks the bones of her fish if there might be clothes she could borrow to wear to the feast.

She is instantly draped in a gown and cloak, and on her tiny feet are slippers woven with golden threads in a pattern like those of the scales of the fish, with soles made of solid gold.

When she appeared at the feast, people could only say, “Look at that beautiful girl!  Who can she be?”  She heard her stepsister say, “Mother, does she not resemble our Yeh-shen?”  And with this, she ran off down the mountainside, losing one of her slippers while her fine clothes turned back to rags.  She went to the bones which were now silent.  She promised to find the lost slipper and hid the other in her bedstraw.  She cried herself to sleep.

A villager finds the slipper, sells it to a merchant who then presents it to the king of the island kingdom of T’o Han.  The king is entranced by its beauty and longs to find the woman to whom the shoe belongs.  The kingdom is searched but the slipper does not seem to fit any of the women.

The king realizes it may take years to find the owner so instead he has it placed in a pavilion by the side of the road where it was found so it can be returned to its rightful owner.  This news is announced, women came eagerly to try it on and from a hiding place the king and his men watch for the woman who’s foot it will fit.

Waiting until the very darkest part of night, Yeh-shen carefully tiptoed to where the shoe had been placed.  She examined it, picked it up and would return both shoes to her fish bones.

The king was in disbelief that this girl in rags could be the owner of this slipper, however, he and his men quietly followed her home.  It was only moments later that Yeh-shen heard a pounding at the door.  She was surprised to see the king; he asked her to try on the slippers.

Can you guess what happens from here?  You’re right . . . the slipper fit, her rags turned into the beautiful cloak and gown she had worn to the feast and the king found his true love.

They were married, however, the stepmother and stepsister had to remain in their cave home.  It is said that one day they were crushed to death in a shower of flying stones.

This is a beautiful version of Cinderella.  Could it be the first?  The author’s notes indicate that this may predate the oldest European version (Italian, 1634).  “The story as it appears in The Miscellaneous Record of Yu Yang, a book which dates from the T’ang dynasty (618-907 A.D.)”


About Kathy

Senior Librarian, Children's Dept, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
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