During the 1920s, the Folklore Movement chose four ancient tales as China’s Four Great Folktales. As a significant part of China’s proud ancient tradition, Chinese folktales tell stories of human nature, legends, historical events, and myths.
Chinese folktales have also reflected the virtues amongst its people for centuries. Among these virtues are justice, wisdom, filial piety, patience, and loyalty to traditions and philosophies. In addition, Chinese folktales are often used to explain natural phenomena and origins of landmarks and events.
Here are China’s Four Great Folktales:
1. Butterfly Lovers
During a time when women were still discouraged from taking up scholarly pursuits, the female protagonist of the story, Zhu Yingtai, urges her father to permit her to disguise as a man so that she can attend classes. He eventually agrees. On her way to Hangzhou to study, Zhu meets Liang Shanbo, a scholar from Kuaiji. As they converse, Liang feels drawn to Zhu in a brotherly way that they both decide to take an oath of fraternity in the pavilion of a wooden bridge. For the next three years, the two study together in school and Zhu eventually falls in love with Liang. But with Liang’s nose buried in books, he fails to notice Zhu’s feminine characteristics.
But then one day, Zhu writes a letter to his daughter, urging her to come home, and she has no choice but to agree. Before she leaves, however, she reveals herself as a woman to the headmaster’s wife and asks her to send a jade pendant to Liang as a betrothal gift. When Liang sees her off, Zhu hints that she is a woman, but when her efforts fail, she tells Liang to come visit her.
Months later, Liang visits her only to discover two things: that Zhu is actually a woman and that her parents have arranged for her to marry a wealthy merchant. Liang is heartbroken that he falls critically ill and dies as a county magistrate.
Eventually, the day of Zhu’s marriage to the wealthy merchant arrives, but strong winds make it hard for them to proceed. Along the way lies Liang’s grave so Zhu decides to stop to pay her respects. But upon reaching the grave, she throws herself in there to join Liang, and the two meet in the afterlife. The story ends with their spirits taking the form of butterflies flying away together.
2. Legend of the White Snake
One of China’s most beloved and well-known legends is the Legend of the White Snake, also known as Madame White Snake. It has since been depicted in a number of major Chinese operas, films, and television series.
The story starts with Lü Dongbin, one of the most powerful deities in the Eight Immortals in Chinese mythology, disguising himself as a tangyuan vendor. A boy named Xu Xian unknowingly buys his immortality pills from him. After eating them, Xu doesn’t feel a sense of hunger for three days so he goes back to the vendor to ask why, but he was eventually flipped upside down by the deity after leading him to a lake just so that he could vomit the tangyuan. But a snake spirit in the lake accidentally eats the pills that gives the spirit 500 years worth of magical powers. This turn of events binds her with Xu Xian.
Another snake in the same body of water was jealous since it wasn’t able to consume any of the pills. One day, a beggar catches the snake and plans to dig out the snake’s gall and sell it. The white snake then transforms into a woman to buy the snake from the beggar, saving its life, and the two form a friendship.
After 18 years pass, both snakes transform themselves into two young women called, Bai Suzhen and Xioqing, respectively, to attend the Qingming Festival. It starts to rain, and they meet Xu Xian who offers them his umbrella. Xu Xian and Bai Suzhen eventually fall in love and marry. Shortly after, both move to Zhenjiang where they open a medicine shop.
A terrapin spirit takes on human form, disguising as a monk, and plots to break Bai Suzhen’s relationship with Xu Xian. He approaches Xu Xian and convinces him to let his wife drink realgar which would reveal her true form. Xu Xian reluctantly agrees, but he dies from shock of discovering Bai Suzhen in the form of a white snake. Bai Suzhen, in the company of Xiaoqing, travels to Mount Emei to steal a magical herb to bring Xu Xian to life. They succeed and upon returning, Xu Xian comes back to life and chooses to love Bai Suzhen regardless of her true nature.
3. Lady Meng Jiang
The folktale of Lady Meng Jiang has evolved over the last 2,000 years, taking various forms and versions. One of the most popular versions of the folktale tells the story of Lady Meng Jiang and her husband. The two are happily married and had plans of enjoying their time as newlyweds. At that time, however, the Great Wall was under construction.
Since Emperor Qin wanted the Great Wall to be finished right away, he ordered his soldiers to seek able-bodied men and forced them to finish building the Great Wall. One of the men was Lang Meng Jiang’s husband who was taken days after their wedding. As months passed by, the husband didn’t return, but Lang Meng Jiang kept her hopes up, thinking about him every second of the day.
On one winter night, Lady Meng Jiang had a nightmare of her husband calling out to her for help because he was freezing cold. The next day, she decided to bring him clothes, but upon reaching the Great Wall, she discovers that her husband has died. Filled with grief, she cries so hard against the wall that she causes it to collapse, revealing the bones of her husband. Moments later she climbs up the terrace, curses the emperor’s corruption before leaping into the sea and drowning herself.
4. Cowherd and the Weaving Maid
The Chinese folktale tells the love story between Zhinü, the weaver girl that symbolizes the star Vega, and Niulang, the cowherd that symbolizes the star Altair.
The story begins with a young cowherd named Niulang who comes across seven fairy sisters bathing in a lake. Deciding to have fun and trick them, he and his ox steal the fairies’ clothes and wait around to see what would happen. Upon realizing that they were tricked, the fairy sisters elect Zhinü, the youngest and most beautiful amongst them, to retrieve all their clothing. Zhinü agrees and even marries Niulang since he had already seen her naked. Despite how they met, both prove to be an honorable husband and wife, have two children, and live happily ever after.
However, Zhinü’s mother goddess finds out about her daughter marrying a mortal and becomes furious. She orders Zhinü to come back to heaven just so that she could return to her duties as the weaver of colorful clouds. Zhinü returns to the heavens and leaves Niulang. Suddenly, his ox begins to talk, instructing his master to kill him so that he will be granted an opportunity to go up to heaven. Niulang kills him, wears its skin, and carries his two children with him as they’re allowed to go to heaven to look for Zhinü.
When Zhinü’s mother discovers this, she becomes so furious that she takes out her hairpin and scratches a wide river in the sky to separate her daughter from the mortal forever, thus forming the Milky Way between Altair and Vega. The tale concludes with Zhinü weaving on clouds forever, while Niulang watches her from afar and takes care of their two children.
But it is believed that once a year, all the magpies in the world would take pity on them that they would fly up to the heavens to form a bridge over the star Deneb in the Cygnus constellation so that the lovers would be together for just one night. And that night happens to be the seventh night of the seventh moon which has been celebrated as the Qixi Festival in China since the Han dynasty. It has also been celebrated in the Tanabata festival in Japan and in the Chilseok festival in Korea.