The 2,200-year-old Tale of the Chinese Cinderella

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Before there was Cinderella, there was Ye Xian. Undeniably one of the most well-read fairy tales, Cinderella describes the life of a young woman forced into servitude by her stepmother until she is freed by her fairy godmother and a charming prince.

Meet the Cinderellas: Ye Xian, Zezolla, and Cendrillon

Considered to have been first dictated in the 17th century by Italian writer Giambattista Basile, and later streamlined in the 18th century by the renowned Frenchman Charles Perrault, the version of Cinderella that most have read is, in truth, a later telling of a much older story. 

Illustration of Cinderella, A. Anderson

Illustration of Cinderella, A. Anderson ( Wikimedia Commons )

Before both of these men told of Zezolla and Cendrillon, there was Ye Xian, the tale of a young Chinese girl living sometime between the Qin and Han Dynasties of China (221-206 BC and 206 -220 AD, respectively). 

As the child of a chief, Ye Xian grew up accustomed to a good, fine life until her father's untimely death left her in the hands of her spiteful and malicious stepmother. Not unlike Cinderella, Ye Xian had no choice but to abide by her stepmother's regulations, however the way in which Ye Xian escapes her circumstances speaks clearly to a very different culture.

The Beginning of Ye Xian's Story

The protagonist of the tale, Ye Xian is the motherless daughter of a cave-dwelling chieftain in an uncertain region of China called Wudoung. The other primary characters of Ye Xian's tale all fall into a very similar role to that of the French "Cinderella": there is the cruel stepmother, one of two wives of Ye Xian's father; an unkind stepsister called Jun-li, who's age varies depending on the translation; a supernatural wish granting figure; and—of course—the royal male who will whisk Ye Xian away from her difficulties. 

Ye Xian is mentally and physically juxtaposed with her stepsister Jun-li.  While Jun-li is considered unpleasant to look upon and incredibly envious, Ye Xian is described as stereotypically beautiful and intelligent.

With the death of her father, Ye Xian is forced to become the servant to her stepfamily, as much to destroy her beauty as to degrade her. Furthermore, as her father was a Chinese chieftain, his lack of male heirs allows another man to take control of the tribe, thus regulating Ye Xian and her family to poverty.

Ye Xian's Magical Protector

Ye Xian's only relief comes from her acquaintance with a very large and very chatty fish living in the river near Ye Xian's home. The fish, as it turns out, is a guardian sent from the sky by her ever-present mother, and helps Ye Xian through her dark home life. That is, until Jun-li catches Ye Xian with the fish and Ye Xian's stepmother stabs it with a dagger for her and Jun-li's dinner.

Fish Swimming Amid Falling Flowers by Liu Cai, China

Fish Swimming Amid Falling Flowers by Liu Cai, China ( Wikimedia Commons )

However, just as the fairy godmother of the better known maiden Cinderella has extraordinary magic, so does the Ye Xian's fishy friend. Its role in Ye Xian's future does not end with this mishap.

Following the murder of her only friend, Ye Xian is visited by the spirit of an old ancestor who informs her that while the shell of her friend might be gone, its spirit is still alive. Through the burial of the fish bones in the four corners of her bedroom, Ye Xian can still harness the power of her spirit guide as one would a genie—whatever Ye Xian wishes for will come true.

A Happy Ending for Ye Xian

As the festival to celebrate the coming of the New Year arrives, Ye Xian is left alone in her cave home as her stepmother fears Ye Xian's beauty is still capable of outshining Jun-li. Yet, with the aid of the fish wishing bones, Ye Xian manages to attend the great gathering in secret, dressed in a beautiful, feathered silk dress and a pair of golden slippers.

Anyone who is an avid reader of fairy tales, or who has seen the 1950 Disney version of "Cinderella" has a hint as to what happens next. Though her meeting with her royal suiter does not occur here, Ye Xian is the star of the party, praised for her outstanding beauty and grace.  But the presence of her stepfamily threatens her identity. When she fears they might have recognized her, she flees and leaves behind one of her valuable golden shoes. 


The parallel to Cinderella is striking and would be difficult to dismiss as coincidence. Almost all stories that have been handed down through time have a precedent. Hamlet = Amlohdi for example. Why do some stories survive and others not is perhaps because the survivors have deep meaning for us and form some kind of umbilical attachement to our ancestors..


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