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"Ye Xian" (simplified Chinese: 叶 限; traditional Chinese: 葉 限; pinyin: Yè Xiàn) or Yeh-Shen is a Chinese fairy tale that is similar to the European Cinderella story (but about a millennium older) and the Malay-Indonesian Bawang Putih Bawang Merah tale. It is one of the oldest known variants of Cinderella, first published in the 9th-century compilation Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang.
In a community of cave-dwellers called Wudoung, their chief by the name of Wu had two wives and a daughter by each of them. Yeh-Shen is Wu's daughter of one wife, and she is extremely beautiful, kind and gentle, and gifted in many skills such as pottery and poetry. In contrast, her half-sister Jun-li is plain-looking, cruel and selfish, and both she and her mother, Wu's other wife, envy the attention Wu lavishes upon Yeh-Shen. Yeh-Shen's mother died while she was still a baby, so Wu did all he could to raise his motherless daughter.
Unfortunately, Yeh-Shen's father dies from a local plague, and a new chieftain was appointed to take his place, as Wu had no sons. With her family reduced to poverty, Yeh-Shen is forced to become a lowly servant and work for her scheming stepmother and envious older sister (in the original tale, it is her younger sister, because of the value of superiority in Chinese culture. But due to later influence, Ye was cast as the youngest child). Despite living a life burdened with chores and housework, and suffering endless abuse at her stepmother's hands, she finds solace when she ends up befriending a beautiful, 10-foot-long (3.0 m) fish in the lake near her home, with golden eyes and scales. The fish was really a guardian spirit sent to her by her own mother, who never forgot her daughter even beyond the grave.
One day, Jun-li follows Yeh-Shen to the lake, and discovers her talking to the fish, Angry that Yeh-Shen has found happiness, she told her mother everything that she had seen. The cruel woman tricked Yeh-Shen into giving her the tattered dress she wears, and by this, catches and kills the fish and serves it for dinner for herself and Jun-li. Yeh-Shen is devastated until the spirit of an old man, possibly one of her ancestors or her maternal grandfather, in a white robe with a white hair, appears and tells her to bury the bones of the fish in four pots and hide each pot at the corners under her bed. The spirit also tells her that whatever she needs will be granted if she talks to the bones.
Once in a year, the New Year Festival was to be celebrated. This is also the time for the young maidens to meet potential husbands. Not wishing to spoil her own daughter's chances, the stepmother forces her stepdaughter to remain home and clean their cave-house. After her step-family has left for the festival, Yeh-Shen is visited by the fish's spirit again. She makes a silent wish to the bones and Yeh-Shen finds herself clothed magnificently, in a gown of sea-green silk, a cloak of kingfisher feathers and a pair of golden slippers.
Yeh-Shen goes to the festival by foot. She is admired by everyone, in particular the young men who believed her to be a princess, and enjoys herself until she realizes that Jun-Li may have recognized her and leaves, accidentally leaving behind a golden slipper (in the original version Ye's sister tells her that she resembles her elder sister). When she arrives home, she hides her finery and the remaining slipper under her bed. The fish bones were silent now, however, for it warned Yeh-Shen before not to lose even one of her slippers. Sadly, she falls asleep under a tree. Her step family return from the festival and mention a mysterious beauty who appeared at the festival, but are unaware that it is Yeh-Shen they are speaking of.
The golden slipper is found by a local peasant who trades it, and it is passed on to various people until it reaches the hands of the nearby king of the To'Han islets, a powerful kingdom covering thousands of small islands. Fascinated by the shoe's small size, he issues a search to find the maiden whose foot will fit into the shoe and proclaims he will marry that girl. The search extends until it reaches the community of the cave-dwellers, and everyone, including Jun-Li, the late chief Wu's firstborn, tried the slipper. But by what magic, it seemed to shrink its size whenever touching a maiden's foot. Despondent that he could not find the woman he was searching for, the king made a great pavilion and placed the shoe there on display. Yeh-Shen arrives there late in the evening to retrieve the slipper, but is mistaken as a thief. Yeh-Shen then was brought before the king, and there she told him everything about her life, how she lost her friend, the gold-eyed fish, and now her slipper. The king, struck by her good-nature and beauty even though she lived in the land of the savages, believed her and allowed her to go home with the slipper.
The next morning, the king goes into Yeh-Shen's house and asks her to come with him into his kingdom. Yeh-Shen then wears both her shoes, and appears in her beautiful sea-green gown. The stepmother and Jun-li, however, said that Yeh-Shen could not have clothes of that kind, for she was only their slave, and the stepmother said that the finery was Jun-li's and Yeh-Shen stole them. The king dismisses her lies, and invites Yeh-Shen to live at the palace with him as his wife and queen. She accepts, but her cruel step-family was left with their fate, which is to be banished to the wilderness by the king forever. They live a harsh, unhappy life until the day they were killed by a rain of fiery stones. On the other hand the king takes Yeh-Shen into his kingdom and makes her his queen.
In some versions, the stepmother and the stepsister were buried in a shrine called "The Tomb of the Regretful Women". These two women became goddesses in later tradition, and have the power to grant anyone's wish. After Ye-Xian's marriage with the king, her husband became greedy and abused the fish-bone's powers, until it stopped yielding any magic soon after. The queen Ye-Xian, thus, buried the fish-bones in a nearby beach, with a great quantity of gold. A year later the king's people led a revolt, and in order to appease them, the king tried to dig the fish-bones and distribute the gold to the rebelling soldiers. But the gold was washed away by the tide, along with the magical bones, and the fate of the king and Ye-Xian after the siege remains unknown.
- The novel Bound by Donna Jo Napoli is a retelling of the fairy tale.
- Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story From China, retold by Ai-Ling Louie and illustrated by Ed Young, is well-known children's picture book adaptation of the fairy tale.
- Yeh-Shen was also animated for the CBS Saturday morning show, CBS Storybreak.
- The PBS show The Puzzle Place retold the story in the episode "Going by the Book".
- The film Year of the Fish is a modern retelling of the story.
References and footnotes
- "Yeh-Shen (review)". Retrieved 2010-06-17.
- Terri Windling,"Cinderella: Ashes, Blood, and the Slipper of Glass"
- Very small women's feet were highly valued in China, see Foot binding.