Chinese folk tales

Gather round.

The Legend of White Snake (白蛇传) is a tale about a snake fairy who marries the descendant of her benefactor only to find he’s a bit of a plonker. Meanwhile, there’s her old enemy, Fa Hai (法海), to worry about. But with the help of the faithful Xiao Qing (小青; Robin to Madam White’s Batman) and some intervention from Buddha, Madam White defeats Fa Hai who hides inside a crab shell to escape her. 

The Oxherd and the Weaving Maiden (牛郎织女) is the story of Niulang (牛郎) and his wife Zhinu (织女), who is the granddaughter of the Jade Emperor. Big surprise, grandma and granddad don’t approve of the match, but with Zhinu’s help, Niulang manages to complete the tasks the Jade Emperor sets him. However, because of a cock-up on the information front, they are limited to meeting each other once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month.

The Butterfly Lovers (梁山伯与祝英台 “Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai”) is China’s Romeo and Juliet. Actually, Shakespeare probably would’ve liked it since it starts with the heroine, Zhu Yingtai, dressing up as a boy so that she can go to school. She meets Liang Shanbo and they become sworn brothers. Before they’re separated three years later, she drops several Titanic-sized hints that she’s a girl, although Shanbo is oblivious until Auntie Zhou tells him the truth. (I suspect if she’d flashed him, he would’ve said, “Bloody hell! Those are big mosquito bites!”) Unfortunately, the Zhu family have arranged for Yingtai to marry Ma Wencai (马文才) from the rich and powerful Ma family. When Shanbo hears that he can never marry her, he dies of consumption. When she visits his grave, the earth swallows her, and they’re reincarnated as butterflies.

The translations needed to have been proofread by a native speaker to weed out various errors, but they’re not so many or so great that the English is painful to read.

…he had to believe that such a thing did have happened.
…he knew that… blaming was useless.
The whole house collapsed, and the python was pressed into a pile of flesh.
…the pearl had helped it contract five hundred years of cultivation…
He felt greatly pitiful for him…

The problem in many instances is a matter of tone where the translation is a little too colloquial. 

Liao Zhai Z(h)i Yi (聊斋志异 Liáozhāi Zhìyì; Strange Tales from a Lonely Studio) is a collection of over 400 supernatural stories by Pu Songling (蒲松龄 1640-1715). Ma Dewu (马德五) has translated a selection of tales and rewritten them in part. Probably not a bad thing. I can imagine that like Journey to the West, the stories might be a little repetitive in nature. I can’t help recall a brief quote from the first chapter of A Dream of Red Mansions:

As for books of the beauty-and-talented-scholar type, a thousand are written to a single pattern and none escapes bordering on indecency. They are filled with allusions to handsome, talented young men and beautiful, refined girls in history.

That sounds like Liaozhai Zhiyi, which are all boy-meets-hot ghost girl/fox spirit stories, which are generally accompanied by a lot of shagging and a certain amount of reincarnation when ghosts reanimate the bodies of dead wives or other hot babes. 

The last collection of stories is Selected Tang Dynasty Stories (唐代传奇选) translated by Yong Xianyi and Gladys Yang, who also translated A Dream of Red Mansions. In The White Monkey (补江总白猿传), a monkey demon seizes the wife of a soldier called Ouyang He who manages to rescue her and kill the demon. In Ren the Fox Fairy (任氏传), a man gets involved with a fox fairy until he forces her on an ill-fated journey and she is chased and killed by dogs. The Dragon King’s Daughter (柳毅传) is a story about a man of integrity who saves a princess from a bad marriage. In Prince Huo’s Daughter (霍小玉传), Li Yi starts a relationship with a daughter born to Prince Huo by his favourite slave, but he proves to be unfaithful and she dies. After her death, Li Yi is perpetually suspicious of any woman he is involved with. Governor of the Southern Tributary State (南柯太守传) is a story about a man who thinks that he’s been given high honours, but finds that it’s all a dream about ant hills. A young man spends a fortune on a pretty enticement who then helps him after his luck runs out in The Story of a Singsong Girl (李娃传). Wang Xianke is betrothed to Wu-shuang in Wu-shuang the Peerless (无双传), but they are separated for a time until they can be reunited by subterfuge and are married for fifty years. The Spendthrift and the Alchemist (杜字春传) is another tale of a dissolute young man, Du Zichun, who keeps being offered increasingly large sums of money by a mysterious man. He turns out to be a priest who tries to perform a rite to make Du Zichun immortal so long as he doesn’t utter a word. As it turns out, the only emotion the young man can’t conquer is love. In The Kun Lun Slave (昆仑奴), a man called Cui calls on a minister and falls for one of his daughters. It’s with the help of a slave called Melek that he wins her. The last story in the collection, The Man with the Curly Beard (虬髯客传)[1], is about Li Shimin and the prediction that he will become a great emperor. (Li Shimin was the Tang Dynasty emperor Taizong, and responsible for sending the monk Sanzang to get the Buddhist scriptures from India, a tale told in Journey to the West.)

1. It took me ages to find the second character (髯 rán “whiskers, beard”) because I didn’t know that the top half is the hair-radical. I only found that by complete chance using charmap. Well, it’s one of those obscure multi-stroke radicals that I’ve never encountered before.

6 thoughts on “Chinese folk tales”

  1. It’s fun comparing the translated titles with the originals. Anyway, ESWN has a good post up today about some of the problems with China’s excuse for a translation industry, but that’s mostly about the 外语-Chinese side of things, though. Another major and obvious problem is the assumption that Chinese people can do an adequate job of translating from Chinese into whatever 外语, which is sometimes true, but usually leads to less than stellar 外语 editions of what are actually pretty damn good books. So far as I know, the international standard is to only translate into your native language, but China doesn’t seem to understand why this is. Of course, there’s also a desperate shortage of foreigners with good enough Chinese and the necessary translation skills to fill the gap, but from what I’ve heard, translation doesn’t pay well enough to attract talented translators anyway. They seem to translate as more for the love of the literature than the financial reward, and that’s not a good way to run things.

  2. That’s why I added the titles in Chinese because I couild see, even if I couldn’t read them without the aid of a dictionary, that they’re different from the English.
    I realised some time ago that translations from Chinese into English are better done by native speakers of English; but as you say, there just aren’t enough foreigners with a decent enough level of Chinese. It’s times like these that I wish I could read Chinese more fluently (OK, just "fluently"; well, all right, better than my usual "I wonder what that means.") because I’d be tempted to do some translation work even although it’d more for the love of literature than the money.

  3. 竹兄弟,你太有才了………..
    It would be definitely difficult for foreigners to read these folk tales in chinese without those related background knowledge.
    For being a good translator ,  source languange and target language both should be mastered. We aim our translation works to the level of "信,达,雅"………..

  4. No doubt I’d need a scholarly edition with a stack of footnotes even if my Chinese was a lot better than it is to read material from the Tang and Song Dynasties. I’d expect that even Chinese people should need help, just as Middle English ranges from barely intelligible to utterly incomprehensible to English speakers today; and Old English is a completely foreign language (comparable in dates to the Tang Dynasty). The letters or characters might be familiar in the modern world, but the words and idioms aren’t.
    Shannon, I suppose I do have abilities, though much less in Chinese than in other areas.

  5. hello & I hope you may be of help. I recently came across a Chinese folktale story in Chinese but without a title. The story starts with a peasant who explains that a BLUE dragon is a menace to her village & could the emperor send a brave warrior to kill the dragon. The warrior kills the dragon & the emperor uses the skin for clothes. The warrior wants to marry the emperor’s daughter but must perform other tasks such as killing a large spotted snake,etc. The warrior still asks for the daughter but more tasks. He meets a phoenix who helps him, a wise old man & a witch or oracle who tell him he must destroy the emperor’s palace with his magic bow & arrow. The palace is destroyed, but the pages finish there. The basics of the story – it’s nearly 40 years since I studied Chinese & I may have missed some important points. I hope someone may be able to help. thank you isa

    1. I must admit that the story rings no bells. However, it’s probably three years (or thereabouts) since I read a swathe of old Chinese folk tales, which mostly came from the Tang and Song Dynasties, and there’s a lot of material which I will’ve missed.

      Have you tried searching via Google or Baidu with, say, Chinese terms such as 蓝龙 (although that alone is probably too vague)?

      Sorry I can’t be of more help. Good luck with your search.

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