Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Original Cinderella Was Chinese! And a Bilingual Version, Too

Cinderella is one of those fairy tales that has likely been written about a lot since there are countless versions of it, and so I wouldn’t have chosen it on my own. But, after reading and writing about Captain Underpants in honor of my son, I decided to dedicate this INFO 268 History of Youth Literature assignment to my six-year-old daughter. I asked her what her favorite fairy tale is, and she immediately answered: Cinderella. As I have learned, she's not alone in her love of Cinderella.

In order to identify two different Cinderella versions to compare, a resource that I found helpful was “Multicultural Cinderella Stories” by Mary Northrup. Northrup (2000) cites “more than 500 versions have been found--just in Europe!” and her look at this is nowhere near new since, as far back as 1893, Marian Roalfe Cox published the book Cinderella: Three Hundred and Forty-Five Variants. While there is a preponderance of Cinderella versions from Europe, it was interesting to learn that the original version is generally considered to be the tale of “Yeh-Shen” from ninth century China. Learning this, I decided to start by reading a modern retelling of Yeh-Shen.

Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China 
Retold by Ai-Ling Louie
Illustrated by Ed Young
Originally Published in 1982

In this book, Ai-Ling Louie has adapted the Chinese tale of Yeh-Shen, which is believed to have originated during the T'ang dynasty (618-907 A.D.). As is common to Cinderella stories, the protagonist Yeh-Shen is a stepdaughter who is subjected to abuse by her stepmother. Yeh-Shen shows kindness to a fish, sharing her meagre food portions with it until her stepmother finds out and ends up killing and eating the fish. All that Yeh-Shen has left are the bones, which grant her wishes. Yeh-Shen wishes for humble things such as food until there is a spring festival where people meet to marry. This time, Yeh-Shen wishes for nice clothes to attend the festival and is provided with an outfit, including beautiful golden slippers for her tiny feet. Unfortunately, at the festival, Yeh-Shen's stepsister recognizes her and so she must run away, and in doing so, she loses one of her slippers. The king, while not having seen Yeh-Shen, is intrigued by the slipper that was left behind, and he becomes intent on finding out its owner. He conducts a search and eventually discovers it belongs to Yeh-Shen. He believes he has found his true love and asks Yeh-Shen to marry him, but he forbids her to bring along her stepmother and stepsister since they had been unkind to her in the past. The story abruptly ends with them left in their cave home where "they were crushed to death in a shower of flying stones."

As with the Disney version of Cinderella that my daughter is accustomed to, there are similar familial relationships, magical wishes, a party, a lost shoe, and a wedding at the end. The story, however, is darker with the fish getting killed and eaten and the family members being stoned at the end. It also stood out to me that when Yeh-Shen comes to retrieve her shoe, the king initially thinks she is a thief. It is not until "he caught a glimpse of her face" that he is able to see past the rags that she is wearing. His interest is piqued by her tiny feet, "the tiniest feet he had ever seen," and then when she is transformed into her beautiful outfit once again, it is "her loveliness" that "made her seem a heavenly being" and "the king suddenly knew in his heart that he had found his true love." Much like the Disney version of Cinderella, it is Yeh-Shen's beauty that causes the king to fall in love.

My six-year-old daughter's review: [Thumb's down] Bad, because it's creepy that people get killed at the end.

My nine-year-old son's review (since he ended up listening in as well): It was darker, but it was a good story. Some parts didn't really resemble the Disney version of Cinderella, but the fish was an interesting addition.

NOTE: While Ai-Ling Louie retells one version of Yeh-Shen, Smith (2013) traces variants of the story of Yeh-Shen, and even cites research that a Tibetan version may predate the ninth-century version commonly referenced. Smith also interestingly connects Yeh-Shen with validating the practice of footbinding.

Also inspired by my daughter, I selected the second Cinderella version Little Gold Star / Estrellita de oro: A Cinderella Cuento Retold in Spanish and English since she is currently studying Spanish at a full immersion school, and the story is a bilingual retelling.

Little Gold Star / Estrellita de oro: A Cinderella Cuento retold in Spanish and English
Retold by Joe Hayes
Illustrated by Gloria Osuna Perez and Lucia Angela Perez
Originally Published in 2000

In Little Gold Star / Estrellita de oro, Joe Hayes tells a version of Cinderella that evolved from Spanish settlers in the Americas. Told in both English and Spanish, this version "that is popular in the mountain communities of New Mexico" features Arcía as the Cinderella character who convinces her father to marry stepmother Margarita, who initially seems to be "sweet," but turns out to be "bitter." The story departs from the Disney version of Cinderella much more since there is no lost slipper, and instead what distinguishes Arcía from her two stepsisters is a gold star on her forehead that she is given by a hawk after acting respectfully toward it. In contrast, her rude stepsisters are marked by the hawk's alternative gifts: a donkey ear on one stepsister's forehead and a green horn on the other's. Like the Disney Cinderella, there is a prince who hosts a party to find a bride, but Arcía does not transform herself to attend. Instead, she dutifully helps her stepsisters prepare for the party and only ends up sneaking there to peek in at it from outside. Marked by her goodness, though, Arcía's gold star on her forehead shines brightly and catches the attention of everyone, including the prince. Arcía runs off, and the prince goes in search of her. Like other Cinderella tales, he eventually finds her, falls in love immediately, and asks her to marry him. Unlike Yeh-Shen, though, even the stepmother and stepsisters are invited to the wedding party.

When looking up information about Little Gold Star / Estrellita de oro, I was pleased to be introduced to its publisher, the independent small press Cinco Puntos, which was started in 1985. I enjoyed the following statement on their About Us page:
We come to publishing as writers. We aren’t educators. We think it’s important to note that. Manuscripts are really interesting to us when the writing is amazing or the voice of the author is unique or the book opens up a door into a culture or a people that hasn’t been opened before. Or when the writer is someone whose work we’ve just plain admired over a long period of time. There are so many fine publishers who understand the educational needs of children and what kids should be learning at what age, but that’s not how we approach publishing.
Also linked on their website was a teacher's guide, which included a moving story about the co-illustrators, mother and daughter pair Gloria Osuna Perez and Lucia Angela Perez. Mother Gloria started off creating paintings for the book, but as she had ovarian cancer, she only finished three. Her daughter who was caring for her ended up finishing the rest:
While Lucia was taking care of her, Gloria talked to her about the colors she was using and what she wanted for each of the scenes she had sketched out. After her mother died, Lucia painted the twelve remaining scenes, always with her eye on the work her mom had begun, always remembering her mother’s words. The result is truly remarkable, a tribute to the powerful relationship between a mother and her daughter.

My six-year-old daughter's review: Good! Since they [the stepsisters] were always making her [Arcía] do all the work and she thought of helping her dad first, she got a star and the others got a cow horn and a donkey ear. They really did deserve that.

  • Hayes, J. (2000). Little gold star / estrellita de oro: A Cinderella cuento retold in Spanish and English. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos.
  • Louie, A. (1982). Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella story from China. New York: Putnam.
  • McMillie, K., & Rivera, L. (n.d.). Teacher's guide: Little Gold Star / Estrellita de oro. Retrieved from
  • Northrup, M. (2000, May). Multicultural Cinderella stories. Book Links, 9(5). Retrieved from
  • Smith, T. S. (2013, May). Cinderella's lessons on footbinding: How tiny feet found their way into the Chinese Cinderella story. Transnational Literature, 5(2), 1-8. 
Further Reading

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