Dai Mythology, Part Two

Here is translation number two, sourced from a post on Baidu by Teacher Jia Xianhua. I will here mention that my translation is geared more for non-Chinese-speaking English/American readers. So the goal is ease of read, while also maintaining the original characteristics. #translationproblems

A very very long time ago, there was an evil demon king who was embodied with magical powers. If he fell into the water, he would not drift away; if he fell into the water, he could not be burned; the knife could not do bad to him; the bayonet could not enter him; the arrow could not pierce him. His extraordinary powers exceeded that of regular people, and because of it he was terribly arrogant. He ceaselessly domineered, committing all kinds of evil. At that time, heaven had 16 layers, and he became the ruler of the dominant layer. He oppressed and looted the people, leaving no misdeed uncommitted. He already had six beautiful wives, but if a family were to have a beautiful daughter, he would steal her away as his wife. One time, he saw amongst the people a princess named Nan Zongbu [Dumpling Cloth Nan], more beautiful than all six of his wives, and so he stole her as well, making her his seventh wife.

One year in the sixth month [presumably summer], while the people were celebrating the New Year, the Magic King wished to impress Nan Zongbu with a New Year’s party.* So he convened his magic ministry, and had a grand feast replete with revelry. After three rounds of drinks, the officers and ministers had drunk themselves into imbecility. Nan Zongbu seized the opportunity to announce to the King, “My Honorable King, your magic has no bounds, your morals are more worthy than gold. With your prestige, you can certainly conquer all of Heaven, Hell, Humankind, and become the king of all three realms.” The King listened and was very pleased with himself. He reflected for a moment, and then turned to the wife he loved** and said: “I certainly can conquer all three of those worlds, my weakness is known to no one. Nan Zongbu continued to inquire, “The king has such [great] power, how can he possibly have a weakness?” The King softly replied, “It’s just that I fear people pulling up head by the hair and reigning me in at my throat, for this is the weakest part of my body. You can maybe usually notice it a bit.” Nan Zongbu feigned surprise and pressed more questions, “Such a powerful king, how can he fear hair?” The King replied, “Although I do not have much hair, it can be used to carve my neck and break it, and I cannot live after that.”

After Nan Zongbu heard this, she inwardly made up her mind. She continued to fill the King’s cup until the feast had broken up, and then supported him to his bed for a deep sleep. At this time, she carefully pulled up one strand of the King’s hair, while he still had not woken, and carved his neck with it. The King’s neck immediately fell to the floor, the top of his head dripping with blood, each drop turning into a flame. Fire roaring, its greatness and speed threatened to extend into the people’s kingdom. At this time, Nan Zongbu hastened to hug the head, and the great flame on the ground immediately burnt out. But as soon as the head was placed down, the fire again started up. And so, the other six wives also hurried over, and they took turns hugging the King’s head, and thus the fire was never started again.

Afterwards, Nan Zongbu returned to the people, but her whole body was covered in blood. To wash the blood off her, people one after another splashed her with water. The blood was finally washed off, and Nan Zongbu finally lived with fortune amongst the people. After Nan Zongbu died, in order to remember her, people every year on the New Year splash one another with water, using clean water to wash the dirt off each other, welcoming an auspicious New Year.

*The literal translation is that “in order to wish [her] a Happy New Year, he convened the ministry and had a party of feasting and drinking.” A little liberty taken.

My initial reaction to the story has been that it has some obvious common elements with mythology from elsewhere. Any of the children stories I heard as a kid, or Bible tales, or Greek myths, all display a conflict of definite good and evil. Was relative morality truly a bi-product of 20th-century modernism? I’d be impressed, as I am currently impressed with peoples’ conviction that there was once a definite good and evil.

That the King was evil because of his misdeeds, presumably his misdeeds toward his subjects, also gives clues. “Evil” was not necessarily about intention or inner moral conviction, but about the way your deeds played out in real life. Especially as a King, the ultimate evil he can do is be arrogant and domineer all day. I wonder what the ancient Dai storytellers would say about today’s politicians.

The role of Nan Zongbu is classic: beautiful young woman proves to be arrogant type-A male’s weakness. Male foolishly trusts her (or rather, underestimates her); in the end, she saves everybody. The story reminds me vividly of Judith and Holofernes, whose depiction by Caravaggio was my 19th-birthday present (it was my favorite painting at the time, which my dad was more than happy to get it for me, thinking it would scare off other guys). Basically, Holofernes is an arrogant and domineering dufus who requests the company of Judith, the most beautiful girl in the village. She cuts off his head in bed as the nurse-maid collects the blood. After burning down her house, what did he expect?

An evil king is a common motif is ancient mythology, and I suppose that is because a king is capable of the greatest amount of evil. This set-up also allows room for the heroine to sacrifice on behalf of many; perhaps the greatest good one can do. Here is where a Sino-Western comparative literary analysis of the role of the hero/heroine in ancient mythologies would be interesting. I am not qualified for that.

Finally, the ancient Dai people were wary of magicians. Good thing JK Rowling was born when she was.

This entry was published on August 15, 2011 at 9:01 am. It’s filed under China travel, Chinese minorities and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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