Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Tamamo - The Fox Maiden (Folktale, Japan)

"I've been waiting for you for over a hundred years," sighed the young girl by the side of the road. A passing peddler paused to scratch his head, eyed the pretty girl, then laughed at the cryptic remark.

"Why don't you come to Kyoto with me then, if that's the case," he called. "I'll be selling my wares at the Emperor's Court, perhaps we might find something for you there."

So on they traveled together for many days along the Tokaido roadway to Kyoto. Traveling day and night, he marveled that she was never tired or afraid.
In Kyoto, the peddler sold his fine wares to the ladies of the court. Amidst their merriment one lady remarked on the graceful appearance of the young girl and asked her to entertain them with some dancing. The young girl obliged them with the most elegant performance they had ever seen. So delighted were the ladies that the Emperor himself called for a special performance of the dance. And so she danced again and to His Augustness it seemed as if she was the foam upon the waves.

"Tell me", asked the Emperor,"what favour can I grant you in return for this beautiful gift?"
The girl was silent with eyes averted as if she were overwhelmed.
"Do not be afraid, ask of me anything at all."
"Anything?" ventured the girl in a small voice.
"Of course, please just ask."
"Then...if it pleases you... let me stay here in the residence of Your Radiance."
And so it was that the girl was accepted into the Emperor's household.

Within a few years the girl grew into the most refined of ladies, accomplished in every lovely art; at the koto there was none to match her sensitive touch, the tracings of her brush were cherished and kept in sandalwood boxes, her knowledge of the Classics was enviable. There was not one art that escaped her perfection. She became known as the Jewel without Flaw - and the Emperor's favourite.

As the years past the Emperors temper became increasingly strange, listless at times more querulous at others till the state of the court was nervous and brittle. But still he would favour Tamamo and became bright and gay while she was with him. So careless did he become that for the occasion of her thirty-seventh year he commanded a great banquet to be held in the Summer Palace in her honour. His wise councilors advised him of the dangers of such an inauspicious occasion, but the Emperor heeded them not sending them violently away.

Gathered together the whole court proceeded to dine and feast, wine cup after wine cup. Giddy with pleasure the Emperor openly declared, "Tamamo, there's not a woman in the world who is fit to touch your sleeve!" At that very moment there was a clap of horrendous thunder so loud that it pierced the ear - the Emperor collapsed as one struck by lightening! Black boiling clouds rose up out of nowhere and the day became as night. The Court was panic stricken, ladies screamed and men ran pell mell over tipping the feast and up turning furniture. The red and gold clad Tamamo was as an unearthly statue and from her body their came a ghostly fire.

The Emperor remained as one asleep from that time and the wise men of the Court were very worried. They decided that they should call on the assistance of Abe Yasu, the Diviner.

"Please help us!" they supplicated. "You who have knowledge of the secret ways must help us find the cause and cure of this strange stupor." And so he did, Abe Yasu performed the rites of divination. Returning to them the Diviner said:

" Merry wine sinks with a leaden head.
Bright fruit, bitter taste.
The Peony disguises the Death Lily,
confusion in its scent.
Vices are illusions web; deception wears desire's mask."

"What can that mean?" the wise men questioned Abe Yasu. "Please explain the meaning of what you say for we are in sorry need of aid."
"I will help you but first I must fast for three days, return to me then and we will save His Augustness."
When the wise men returned they found Abe waiting for them. The Diviner took the Sacred Gohei from its place in the Shrine - blessing each of them with a touch of the Gohei.

Abe Yasu and the wise men proceeded to the Palace and asked for an audience with Tamamo. Tamamo was in her bower with her maidens.
"What could they want with me?" she asked the attendant who delivered the message.
"They wish you to here a poem, My Lady."
"It is a strange time for poetry, tell them to go away."

But the wise men and the Diviner insisted saying they would not leave until she had given them an audience. So she finally consented and Abe Yasu coming forward spoke to Tamamo though the screen.
"My Lady please come a bit closer, I am an old man and my voice is feeble." Tamamo drew very near to the curtain so that her fair hand revealed itself.
"What is this poem you speak of?"
"I will tell it to you:

Merry wine sinks with a leaden head.
Bright fruit, bitter taste.
The Peony disguises the Death Lily,
confusion in its scent.
Vices are illusions web; deception wears desire's mask."

And with that he touched the Scared Gohei to Tamamo's hand. Her hand withdrew with a terrible cry of pain. The curtains blew out and a golden fox with nine tails flew out from the bower and away.

Far, far it few until it came to the plain of Nasu, where it hid itself beneath a large black stone that stood in the plain.

The Emperor was said to have recovered the very day Tamamo disappeared.

There soon came stories of the Black Stone on Nasu plain; that there flowed from it a poison steam, any who drank from it whether bird, beast or man, sickened and died. People were said to have passed away just from sitting in its shade and birds flying over the stone were said to have dropped from the sky. It became know as the Black Stone of Death for over a hundred years.

The wheel of fate turned and so it was that a High Priest named Genyo - a special holy man, was traveling through Nasu on a pilgrimage. The villagers kindly filled his begging bowl with rice and vegetarian food. They also warned him of the Black Stone of Death.
"Do not rest near the Black Stone," they said. "For its poison is ancient and evil."
The priest thoughtfully thanked the villagers for their care but reminded them, "the Book of the Good Law tells us that even the herbs, trees and rocks shall enter into Nirvana."
Instead of avoiding the Stone, Genyo made his way towards it. On arriving there he set up incense and recited scriptures. After many hours when the sun was dipping low on the western horizon Genyo picked up his staff, striking the Black Stone he cried, "Spirit of the Black Stone of Death, Come out!"

A great fire blazed forth from the stone as it split through its middle with a great howling sound. Then all was quite and before the Priest there stood an old woman, her eyes full of tears. She said:
"I am Tamamo, once called the Jewel without Flaw. I am the golden fox spirit, who has lived for over two thousand years. I have the knowledge of all magic and I have been worshiped by nations and by men. But love has changed me and I have passed these hundred years weeping in bitter grief. Please holy man strike me down so that I may be eased of this terrible pain."

"No, poor spirit, I shall not kill you." Genyo removed his priests robes and wrapped them around the fox spirit. He gave her his begging bowl and his prayer beads saying, "go instead upon the long journey of enlightenment."
Tamamo gave a small wan smile before vanishing never to be seen of again.
Genyo lit more incense. Praying for the fox spirit, he said:

"O Buddha Tathagata and merciful Bodhisattva Kwannon, may she be reborn upon the path of Devotion."


Japan and China have a significant body of folklore concerning the fox - kitsune in Japanese. If you would like to know more, the information on kitsune from wikipedia is quite excellent, click here. The Kitsune Page is a good source for more foxlore too.

"What's a Gohei?" I hear you ask. Not an easy one to translate into Western thought, so once again wikipedia has a little something to give you a basic picture, click here for an image. The information on wikipedia for gohei is very slim, I thought the image of one might be of more imaginative help.

This story has been adapted from the book, Green Willow and other Japanese Fairy Tales by Grace James, Macmillan and Co., London, 1923 (this edition 1979), ISBN 0 333 27390 7.
This book belongs to the collection of my friend Susan K. It was given to her as a gift by a friend, it is a beautiful fabric hardcover with charming watercolour illustrations by Warwick Goble. Unfortunately I'll have to return it soon, as she is going to Shanghai for an arts administration residency in September. I wish her luck and as thanks dedicate this story to her.

Image 1: Japanese Mitsuore Ningyo of a Girl, a jointed Costume Doll. Standing 10-1/2" High. Meiji Period, Circa 1870. Image taken from the ningyo page on L'asie Exotique. I have added this site to my Web Links section as their collections are very good - worth a look.

Image 2: Court Lady in full dress from the Heian Period from Kokushi Daijiten. Image taken from Dairies of Court Ladies of Old Japan, digital version found here.

Image 3: Court Ladies, Kuchi-e, Eisen Tomioka (1864-1905), woodblock print circa 1900-1910. Taken from Artelino Auctions.

Image 4: Nine Tail fox, artist unknown. Image taken from The Kitsune image page.

Image 5: Old Nun, Tong Zhenguo(?), taken from Chinese literature: Fiction, Poetry, Art, Summer 1986. Beijing, China. The Old Nun is a powerful image - when I saw it I immediately thought of this story. The image is Chinese and the story Japanese, however the art of Sumi-e (ink painting), as the Japanese call it, is a tradition of both countries so I felt it was still within the right vein.

Image 6: Fox as Nun, Artist unknown, 18th century. Netsuki, ivory, height 7cm. Collection of Dr. and Mrs. George A. Colom. Taken from the book Japanese Ghosts and Demons: Art of the Supernatural,Steven Addiss, George Braziller Inc., New York,1985. ISBN 0-8076-1126-3

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Ancestor of Tea - Chinese Folktale

Nestled in the high mountains sits the village of Dragon Well, once it was but a poor and isolated place.

In the poorest part of this poor village lived an old woman, all alone, a widow of many years and without sons or daughters to care for her. But she was of a good heart, and every day she would tend her scrawny tea bushes in memory of her husband even though the other villages would laugh at her folly - for her tea was bitter. "Old Wife's Tea" they called it, and to this day in China, poor quality tea is named so.

And so it was that one New Year's Eve night, in the middle of a harsh winter, as the old woman shuffled about the stove preparing her meager tea as an offering to her ancestors, there came a knocking at the door.

"What a dreadful night to be out in the cold, " the old woman said when she beheld a shivering man in her doorway, "Please come in, sit down and have some tea."
The strange man showed much thanks and took in his hand the warm cup of tea.
"I'm afraid my tea is not very good but it is all I have," the old woman explained as she worried over the guests needs.
"Why is that? You are a weathy woman," laughed her guest as he drank down the tea.
"Wealthy? You shouldn't play with an old woman like that sir, how can I be wealthy?"
"Outside your door is something of great wealth, and if you don't want it, I'd gladly pay for it."
The old woman went to the door and peeked outside, the old bench and table were there and the old millstone mortar full of years of cooking scraps and rubbish. "I don't see what he could mean," she thought.
The strange man on his way out pointed to the millstone mortar, "That is worth more than you could dream."
The old woman told him that he could have it, but the man refused to take it for nothing and promised to come back the following night to collect and pay for it.

The next morning the old woman went out to look at the mortar, and was so ashamed of its appearance she thought she would clean it up. She dug out the rubbish and spread it under her tea bushes, then she drew water from the well and washed the mortar, also pooring the muddied water under her tea bushes. When she was finished she was happy to think that her strange guest of the following evening would be pleasantly surprised.

That evening the stranger knocked on her door again. But this time the knock was much louder and more insistant. It was her guest of the night before and he was wanting to know what had happen to the treasure he came for. The old woman was perplexed and coming outside showed him the newly cleaned mortar.
"No," said the strange man (with just a hint of a twinkle in his eye), "That wasn't the treasure at all." So saying he turned and left never to be seen of in the village again.

That spring a wonderful thing happen. The old woman's tea bushes grew lush and tender leaves. The tea was so frangrant and lovely that all the villages wanted to share in her tea. She gladly gave them cuttings and seed. So all the tea bushes in Dragon Well were eventually planted from those bushes. The tea became famous through-out the land and instead of being called "Old wife's Tea" it coined a new name called "The Ancestor of Tea".


I first heard a version this story on a documentary called "Robert Fortune: The Tea Thief" about the man who was sent into China by the British government to discover the secret of tea. The British were fawking over so much silver bullion for the stuff they had to find an alternative supply. Robert Fortune was a botanist not really the espionage type, but off he went in service to his country into the very heart of China. How did an English man get around China? Well, I encourage you to see the documentary. But it tells of how he comes to the village of Dragon Well and he is told the story of the old woman and the tea bushes. Not only did he have to discover how tea was processed, both green and black, but as a botanist he had find out what it was about the plants that made them special. He found that the tea bushes were all the same variety but that the taste of the tea depended on where the bushes were planted and what they were feed. He discovered, like the old woman in the tale, that it was the nutrience that made the tea taste good.

In the stories the man who comes to the door part is always a little different as is the case with storytelling. I've been reading Chinese tales for some time and have been reading "The Journey West" by Wu Cheng'en of the Ming Dynasty - "a mythological novel based on many centuries of popular tradition, put into its present form in the 1570s", known to most of us by the popular TV series Monkey. From these readings I have become used to the 'figure who appears to help out' usually some deity or demon. I was looking through my books for pictures to include for this tale when I stumbled upon the man pictured above. He is the ox-headed divine farmer Shen-nung, second of the Three Sovereigns, who taught the arts of agriculture as well as the use of herbal drugs. I immediately blinked, this would seem to be the perfect deity to pop in unexpectedly and generously teach the secrets of tea. Very serendipidous.

I wish to dedicate this story to my friend Rebecca Ward, because she's a composter from way back, maybe even from past lives.


Image 1: Landscape dated 1922 by Huang Binhong (1864-1955), hanging scroll; ink and colours on paper. 110.7 x 44.3 cm, Gugong Museum, Beijing. Taken from the book Chinese paintings of the Ming and Qing Dynasties 14th-20th Centuries: exhibition catalogue, Victoria, 1981, ISBN 09594122 0 4

Image 2: Shen-nung, engraving from San-tsai thu-hui (1607 edition), University of Hong Kong. Taken from the book Chinese Mythology, by Anthony Christie, The hamlyn Publishing group, 1968, ISBN 0 600 00637 9

Image 3: The Chinese Tea Pot by Wang Jia Nan (1990s?). Taken from the book, The Complete Oriental painting Course, by Wang Jia Nan and Cai Xiaoli with David Young, Quantum Books, London, 2004 (this edition) ISBN 1 86160 461 0

Image 4: Open work jade dragon, Western Han, 206 BC- AD 8, (5.5cm length, 6.5cm width), Shanghai Museum. Taken from the book Treasures from the Shanghai Museum, Exhibition Catalogue, Queensland Art Gallery, 1990, ISBN 0 7242 4060 8

*The Ancestor of Tea was based on the version found in the book, Folk Tales of the West Lake adapted by Wang Hui-Ming, Foreign Language Press, Beijing, 1982.

**The Journey West by Wu Cheng'en(1500-82), translated by W. J. F. Jenner, Foreign Language Press, Beijing, 1982 ISBN 0 8351 1003 6