Fairy Tale Friday: Beauty and Pock Face
Once upon a time in China there was a man who had two wives and two daughters. The older daughter, born from the first wife, was renowned for her good looks and was named Beauty while the younger, born from the second wife, was hideous and thus rather cruelly named Pock Face. (That was the simple part. Buckle in as the weirdness commences.)
The first wife died when Beauty was quite young but somehow turned into a yellow cow. The second wife, hating Beauty for her prettiness, treated her very badly and gave her all manner of difficult tasks. The yellow cow/Beauty’s mother did the tasks for her. When the second wife/wicked stepmother discovered this, she had the cow/Beauty’s mother killed (again?). Beauty, deeply saddened by her mother’s second passing, carefully collected the cow’s bones and saved them in a yellow jar.
One day, the stepmother would not let Beauty attend a play in town. Pock Face and the wicked stepmother set off to the theater and Beauty stayed home and threw a hissy fit. Beauty broke everything in the entire house in her rage, including the yellow jar of cow bones. Miraculously, when the yellow jar full of cow bones broke, a beautiful dress, shoes, and a horse appeared from the broken shards. Beauty, feeling much better about the whole tantrum already while failing to question why she should be rewarded for such unbecoming behavior, got herself all dolled up and headed off to town for the ball.
Unfortunately, along the way, Beauty dropped one of her shoes into the ditch running along the side of the road. (Apparently, in addition to being a spoiled brat and unendingly beautiful, Beauty was also rather clumsy?) Rather than do anything about it, Beauty stood by the edge of the road and begged various male passersby to help her. All of them willingly volunteered to fetch her shoe as long as she would marry them in return. Beauty refused a succession of such men including a fish monger (he was too smelly), a merchant (he was too dusty), and an oil salesman (he was too greasy). (Yes, really.) Finally, a scholar came along and Beauty happily agreed to marry him (he was neither smelly nor dusty nor greasy, but just right) if he would get her shoe. He did and they were wed.
Three days after her wedding, Beauty returned home to pay her respects to her parents. (Yes, apparently her father is still alive and okay with his new wife beating Beauty up and killing his first wife/his prize yellow cow.) Pock Face, jealous at Beauty’s good fortune on the marriage front, lured Beauty to a well and pushed her in. Pock Face then sent word to the scholar saying that Beauty had contracted small pox. After some time, Pock Face went to the scholar saying that she was Beauty but that she had been horribly scarred by the disease. The scholar apparently bought this.
Unbeknownst to Pock Face, Beauty had (like her mother) not died but had transformed into an animal: In her case, a sparrow. Beauty, rather peeved that her ugly sister had not only thrown her in a well but had now stolen her husband, taunted Pock Face while she combed her hair. Pock Face taunted her back (I can only imagine how this dialogue went down). The scholar, hearing the ruckus, came into the room and somehow divined that the sparrow with whom his supposed wife was conversing must be his actual wife. He told the sparrow to come to a nearby cage if she were he wife. Beauty complied, but Pock Face somehow got to her first and killed the sparrow. She then buried it in the yard.
Where she buried the sparrow, some bamboo sprang up. They tasted delicious to the scholar but gave Pock Face ulcers. So Pock Face cut down the bamboo and made a mattress. It felt great to the scholar but stuck Pock Face in all the wrong spots. So she threw it out in the street. An old woman, thrilled to have a new mattress, took it home. Miraculously, with the mattress in her possession, the old woman found that now her dinner was always ready for her when she arrived home. Somehow in time, the old woman caught Beauty (you’d think a bamboo mattress cooking dinner would be relatively easy to spot) and gave her some cookware which somehow transformed Beauty back into her beautiful, human self. (Um…what?)
So Beauty went back to the scholar’s house and presented herself. Pock Face was horrified and proposed a series of tests to prove which was the scholar’s true wife. First they walked on eggs. Beauty broke none while Pock Face broke them all. Then they climbed a ladder made of knives. Beauty managed it uncut while Pock Face’s feet bled all over the place. Finally, they jumped into boiling oil (!). Beauty emerged perfectly well, but Pock Face was fried and died. Beauty, pleased that her ugly sister was now out of her hair, sent Pock Face’s body back to her wicked stepmother, who initially thought it was a large carp. Upon realizing that it was her daughter, the stepmother fell down dead. And thus Beauty lived happily ever after with her scholar. No word on how the father or the scholar felt about all this.
What kills me about this story (among other things) is that neither Beauty nor Pock Face nor the stepmother are remotely blameless nor are they all wicked. On the whole, everyone is not very nice and no one comes across as likable. Except maybe the scholar, but he has such a passive role it’s hard to say. It is also interesting to me how passive all the male characters her in the story. The women are all varying degrees of terrible, but the men are practically nonexistent.
Moral of the story? Whatever you do to create your happy ending is okay as long as you’re a knock-out. Crazy Chinese fairy tales…