The Strange and Beautiful Stories of Cinderella from Asia

The Cinderella story is a tale of serendipity and love – both of which are universal themes. These themes are perhaps the reason why the story seems to transcend time itself and became one of the world’s go-to princess tales, recognized all over the world albeit under different names. While there are many variants of the story, they commonly feature a young woman in unjust and oppressive circumstances whose fortune are remarkably and unexpectedly changed with the assistance of divine elements such as magical animals and fairy godmothers (or godfathers). More than 500 versions of the same story have been found in Europe alone. The two most famous of which are the French version of Cinderella, by Charles Perrault (1628 – 1703), and the 19th century German version by the Brothers Grimm. In Asia, a survey of Chinese folk literature in 1990 revealed that there were over 70 versions of the Cinderella story in China circulating among twenty-one different ethnic groups.

"Aschenbrödel" by Carl Heinrich Hoff (1860s)
“Aschenbrödel” by Carl Heinrich Hoff (1860s)

Perhaps one of the most recognizable Cinderella tale in Asia is the tale of Ye Xian. It was first published in the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD) by the poet Duan Chengshi. In 853, the story of Ye Xian appeared in Yǒuyáng Zázǔ  (“Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang”), which focuses on various legends, reports on natural phenomena, short anecdotes, fairy tales, as well as notes on medicinal herbs and tattoos. There are also many other Cinderella stories from many other parts of Asia. Among them are the Malay-Indonesian tale of Bawang Merah dan Bawang Putih (“Shallot and Onion”) Merah tale and the Vietnamese story Tam Cam (Rice Germ and Rice Brand). The theme of divine assistance also receives various treatments in Asia. In the Korean version of Cinderella, “Kongjwi and Patjwi” from the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1897), Kongjwi is helped by an ox, a turtle, hundreds of sparrows and a fairy. In the Indian version of Cinderella, Cinduri receives help from a Godfather snake to finish her household chores. He gives her, not glass slippers, but diamond anklets.

Pierina Legnani in the title role of the ballet Cinderella. (1894)

The Ancient Chinese Story of Ye Xian and Her Magic Fish

In China, long before Charles Perrault  wrote his version of Cinderella, there was Ye Xian. The story of Ye Xian was written during the Tang dynasty the poet and writer Duan Chengshi. The story of Ye Xian is set sometime between the Qin and Han Dynasties of China (221-206 BC and 206 -220 AD respectively).  Her father, Chief Wu,  had two wives. Each wife gave Wu a baby daughter. However, one of the wives, Ye Xian’s mother, fell ill and soon died. Soon after, Chief Wu also died leaving Ye Xian in the care of his other wife, Ye Xian’s stepmother. Ye Xian’s stepmother despised her for her goodness, porcelain skin, and bright eyes, all which both she and her own daughter lacked. In her jealousy, she treated Ye Xian poorly through giving her backbreaking, demoralizing chores to do around the house.

Fresco of a young girl holding a fan from the early T'ang dynasty tomb of An Yüen-shou (607-683).
Fresco of a young girl holding a fan from the early T’ang dynasty tomb of An Yüen-shou (607-683).

Ye Xian is left with only one friend, a golden fish with big, bright eyes. However, when her stepmother discovered the friendship between Ye Xian and the fish, she caught the fish and served it for dinner out of spite. As Ye Xian sat crying for her only friend, and old man appeared before her. He told her to save the fish’s bones and ask them for help when she was in trouble. As time goes by, Ye Xian takes comfort in speaking to the bones of her fish as if it were still alive.

The yearly Spring Festival fast approached and young men and women from the village hoped to meet their future spouse. Although Ye Xian wanted to go to the festival, her stepmother had different plans and forces Ye Xian to stay home. After her stepmother and stepsister left for the festival, Ye Xian asked the bones of her fish for help and immediately found herself wearing a beautiful feather gown with golden slippers.

Ye Xian went to the Spring Festival, but when she saw her stepmother and stepsister looking towards her direction, she became frightened and ran home. While running, she lost one of her precious golden slippers. A villager later found the unusual golden slipper and sold it to a merchant who, in turn, presented the beautiful slipper to the king. The king marvelled at its beauty, and became determined to find the woman to whom the shoe belonged. He puts the shoe in a little pavilion by the side of the road where any woman can come to try it on. Everyday hundreds of women came to try on the shoe, but their feet were always too big.

Tang court ladies from the tomb of Princess Yongtai in the Qianling Mausoleum, near Xi'an in Shaanxi, China.
Tang court ladies from the tomb of Princess Yongtai in the Qianling Mausoleum, near Xi’an in Shaanxi, China.

Ye Xian was determined to get her golden shoe back to finally return it to the spirit of the fish bone. One night she slipped away to the pavilion to try to steal back the shoe, but she was caught by the king’s guard and brought to face the king. The king noticed her tiny feet and let her go home with the shoe. However, he and some of his guards followed her home. Unaware of the spies, Ye Xian happily walked home. She was about to hide both slippers in her bedding when she heard a pounding at the door. It was the king’s guard and the king himself. The king asked her to try on both slippers. When she tried both shoes for the king, Ye Xian’s dirty rags transformed into the beautiful dress she wore on the Spring Festival. Seeing her beauty, the king fell in love and asked her to marry him.

The Southeast Asian story of Shallot and Garlic

Bawang Merah dan Bawang Putih (“Shallot and Garlic”) is a popular traditional folklore originated from Nusantara (an old Javanese term which literally means “the outer islands”, the Indonesian/Malay name of Maritime Southeast Asia). The story centres on a pair of sisters named Bawang Putih (“Garlic”) and Bawang Merah (“Shallot”). As the original folktale was passed on orally, different variations of the story exist. Sometimes the story involves a magic pumpkin, and sometimes the story involves a magical fish.

 Bawang Merah, Bawang Putih, flyer for an Indonesian 1953 film based on the  legend
Bawang Merah, Bawang Putih, flyer for an Indonesian 1953 film based on the legend

A widow lived in a village with her two beautiful daughters. Bawang Merah and Bawang Putih had opposite personalities. While Bawang Putih was diligent, kind and honest, her elder sister Bawang Merah was lazy, proud and jealous. As their mother favoured and spoiled Bawang Merah, her personality worsened as time went on. All the work in the house such as laundry, cooking and cleaning was left to Bawang Putih.

One day, when Bawang Putih was doing the family laundry, a piece of cloth belonging to her mother fell on to the river and was quickly carried away. Fearing that she would not be able to find her mother’s cloth, Bawang Putih kept looking. She walked along the river until she eventually saw that the river flew into a cave. When she entered the cave, Bawang Putih saw a very old woman. Bawang Putih asked the old woman if she had seen a cloth floating past. The woman said yes. She knew the whearabouts of the cloth. But she had a condition for Bawang Putih before she answered her question. She asked Bawang Putih to work for her – cleaning her cave, cooking for her and doing her laundry. As  Bawang Putih wass used to working hard, she happily obliged the old woman and worked hard for her. In the late afternoon, when she finished her chores for the old woman, the old woman handed her the cloth.  The old woman was so pleased with the Bawang Putih’s diligence and kindness that she offered her a gift of a pumpkin of her choice. She showed Bawang Putih two pumpkins. One of the pumpkins was larger than the other. Modestly, Bawang Putih chose the smaller pumpkin.

Malaysian movie of Bawang Merah, Bawang Putih (1959)
Malaysian movie of Bawang Merah, Bawang Putih (1959)

On her return home, Bawang Putih told her mother and sister all about her meeting with the old woman. When she showed them the pumpkin, her mother was furious as, not only was Bawang Putih late in coming home, she only brought one small pumpkin. Her mother smashed the pumpkin to the ground and broke it. However, inside the pumpkin were beautiful golden jewelry and diamond ornaments. Her mother and Bawang Merah were shocked at the sight. They soon realized that they could get very rich with that amount of jewels. But this knowledge did not make them happy. Greedy as they were, they became even more furious at Bawang Putih as she only chose a small pumpkin. Surely, the bigger pumpkin would contain a lot more jewels.

The next day, Bawang Merah retraced the steps told to her by Bawang Putih. She brought a bucket of laundry and willingly let her mother’s cloth drift away. She then walked along the river until she found the cave where the old woman lived. However, unlike Bawang Putih, Bawang Merah refused to do chores for the old woman and demanded that the old woman give her the large pumpkin. The old woman shrugged and gave her the large pumpkin. When she reached home, Bawang Merah and her mother smashed the large pumpkin to the ground. But instead of jewels, various terrifying venomous snakes appeared.

The Vietnamese Story of Rice Germ and Rice Bran

The Story of Tam and Cam is an ancient Vietnamese fairy tale about two half-sisters. The eldest sister is named Tam (“Rice Germ”) and the younger sister is called Cam (“Rice Bran”). Tam’s mother dies when she was little and, after her father remarried and Cam was born, her father also died. Tam then lived with Cam and her mother – Tam’s stepmother. However, Tam’s stepmother did not like her and makes Tam do all the housework, leaving the spoilt Cam to amuse herself at her leisure.

Native Vietnamese women c. 1900
Native Vietnamese women c. 1900

One day, the stepmother told Tam and Cam to go to the field to catch tép (tropical shrimps). She promised to give them a new red yếm (a Vietnamese traditional bodice) to whomever catches the most shrimps. Tam soon filled up her basket, while Cam spent her time playing in the water and caught nothing. Seeing that her older sister would be the one who will receive the yếm instead of her, Cam told Tam to wash her hair before going home, telling her that her mother will scold her if her hair  was muddy after catching all the shrimps. As Tam was carefully washing her hair, Cam moved all the shrimps from Tam’s basket to hers and went home.

When Tam realized that all the shrimp she had caught were gone, she feared the impending punishment that would surely come from her stepmother. However,  a wise old man appeared before her and asked why she cries. After she told him of her troubles, the old man told her to stop crying. He gave her a goby and told her to let the fish live in a well with her rice. He also taught her a special poem to call the fish.

Vietnamese dancers in traditional dress By Thomas Wanhoff, CC BY-SA 2.0
Vietnamese dancers in traditional dress By Thomas Wanhoff, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Tam followed his counsel, and the fish grew overtime. Delighted, Tam spent her time talking to the goby about her thoughts. Suspicious of her behaviour, Tam’s stepmother and Cam followed her to the well. They discovered the fish as well as the poem by which Tam summons it. One day, Tam’s stepmother sent her to graze their buffaloes from the nearby field. When Tam left, Cam wore Tam’s clothes and recited the poem to the well. Mistaking her for Tam, the goby approached. Tam’s stepmother then appeared and butchered the goby.

After she returns home back home, Tam called to her fish as usual, but she was horrified when she saw nothing appearing apart from blood. Then the old man who gave her the fish appeared before her again and told her that her mother and sister have killed and eaten the goby. But, do not despair, he told her to collect the fish’s bones, put them in four jars and bury them under her bed. Feeling a bit better, Tam did what the wise man tells her.

Soon after, the king invited his people to attend his festival, including Tam and her family. To stop Tam from coming with them to the festival, her stepmother mixed up the rice and bran, and demanded  Tam to separate them before daring to join them in the festival. As Tam sadly worked on her exhausting task, the old man reappeared and called sparrows to help her. After Tam’s task was finished, he told her to dig up those jars that she had previously buried. The first two jars included silk clothes, a scarf, and a red yếm. The third jar contained a miniature horse which enlarged into a normal horse when she took it out of the jar, and the fourth jar had a saddle for the horse.

Traditional Vietnamese Yem, By phalexanh2002, CC BY-SA 2.0,
Traditional Vietnamese Yem, By phalexanh2002, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Happily, Tam washed up and wore the clothing before going to the festival in the capital on her new horse. However, when she crossed a stone bridge, she unknowingly dropped one of her slippers into the river. Later, when the king crossed the same bridge, his elephant suddenly stopped and brushed its trunk on the ground. Curious, the king commanded his men to look in the water where they then found the slipper. With the beautiful slipper in his hand, the king told all the women in the festival to try on the slipper to find out the owner whom he shall wed. However, the slipper was too small for every woman in the festival. When Tam noticed her slipper on display, she  shyly approached to try it on. The slipper fitted her perfectly and she showed everyone the other slipper that matches the slipper on display. Tam married the king and left her stepmother’s house.

The Beautiful Orphan and The Queen of Tuesday

Once upon a time, there was an orphan who lived with her cruel stepmother. Every day, her stepmother gave her some cotton and commanded her to go to the desert, spin yarn, and graze their cow. However, the orphan was not a good yarn-spinner – no one taught her how! So every day she would come back with a terrible looking yarn and her stepmother would beat her.  One day when the orphan was grazing the cow, her cow suddenly ran into a cave. She followed her cow and saw a beautiful Bibi Seshanbe (literally means “The Queen of Tuesday”). The orphan came into the cave in and greeted her to show respect. Bibi Seshanbe addressed her affectionately and asked the orphan about her life. The orphan spoke sadly about her stepmother and her sufferings.  Bibi Seshanbe took pity on the girl. She said, “Come see me every day and I will bless you.  Let your cow eat the cotton. You can follow it and gather the thread.”

"Cinderella". Half-tone engraving by the Terry Engraving Company, Columbus Ohio.
“Cinderella”. Half-tone engraving by the Terry Engraving Company, Columbus Ohio.

After this encounter, the orphan began to come to the cave every day to greet Bibi Seshanbe and receive her blessings. After receiving her blessing, the orphan gave her the cotton to the cow, followed it, gathered the thread, and brought it to her stepmother. The stepmother was surprised and rather unhappy as she now had no reason to beat the orphan. However, one day the cow was killed. The orphan went to see Bibi Seshanbe crying in sadness for her friend and in fear of her stepmother, “What will I do now?” she said, “my  stepmother will hurt me.” Bibi Seshanbe comforted her and said, “Don’t cry, my child. Take the cow’s bones and bury them.”

The girl did what Bibi Seshanbe told her. One day, an akobir, a great man of the town, arranged a toy (a celebration) and called all townspeople to attend. To keep her occupied, the orphan’s stepmother gave her  corn and millet, and commanded her to separate them while she attends the toy. While the orphan sit and cried, a rooster came and sorted out the corn and millet for her. The orphan rejoiced and, having finished her task much sooner than expected, she went to see Bibi Seshanbe. But this time, Bibi Sesanbe was surprised to see her and asked why she came to see her today. The orphan answered that the town’s akobir was hosting a toy and everyone was attending, including her stepmother, so she had a chance to see Bibi Seshanbe for a blessing.

“O my child. Do not worry about me. If you wish to go to the toy, then go.” Bibi Seshanbe said to her. As she raised her hand to bless the orphan, angels flew down from the heavens bringing clothes and golden adornments. They dressed up the orphan and took her to the toy. Then they sent word to the akobir that the daughter of a Padishah (king) had come. The orphan was warmly welcomed and led to the palace where a rich and lavish table is set. From her seat, the orphan saw her stepmother sitting at the door and sent the dishes that was served for her to her stepmother as a mark of respect. But her stepmother did not recognize her.

18th China (Shouguang) International Vegetable Sci-tech Fair (2017), By Anagoria, CC BY 3.0
18th China (Shouguang) International Vegetable Sci-tech Fair (2017), By Anagoria, CC BY 3.0

When the orphan returned from the toy, she returned her borrowed clothing to Bibi Seshanbe and came home before her stepmother returned. Bibi Seshanbe allowed her to keep her golden shoes as keepsakes. But on her way home, the orphan lost one of her shoes.

Later, a man found and brought that beautiful shoe to the akobir. The akobir announced to all the townspeople that if the shoe fits any woman’s foot, he would marry that woman. But the shoes did not fit anybody’s foot. One day the akobir sent a man to the orphan’s house. The stepmother hid the orphan in the tanur (“oven”).  Suddenly the rooster outside of the house became agitated and began to sigh “to tanur.” Surprised, the man looked into the tanur and saw the beautiful orphan sitting there. The shoe was the right fit on her foot. The man quickly returned to the akobir to tell him the happy news and the akobir then went to the orphan to ask her to marry him. Their toy (in this case, a wedding) lasted for forty days and night.  

From A Child's Book of Stories by Penrhyn W. Coussens, illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith. New York: Duffield and Company, 1911.
From A Child’s Book of Stories by Penrhyn W. Coussens, illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith. New York: Duffield and Company, 1911.

The Story of Cinderella Does Not Always End Happily

The ending of the story of Cinderella that is most pleasant and familiar to us is that Cinderella dances with the prince at the ball. When the prince finally finds her again after his search for her, they marry and live happily ever after.

Ye Xian does not meet her prince in the festival. In fact, she does not meet the king until much later in the story.  Although Ye Xian later marries the king, the story falls short of giving us the happily ever after ending that a reader often looks for in romances and fairy tales. Instead, the author focuses the story back to the miraculous fish bones. After their marriage, the king took Ye Xian and her fish bones back to his country. In their first year living together, the king greedily asked for treasures from the bones and received unlimited supplies of riches. However, when he asked the fish bones for more treasures a year later, the fish bones no longer responded. Whether or not the king had any love for Ye Xian is now eclipsed by his relationship with Ye Xian’s fish bones. After the bones no longer responded to him, the king asked his people to bury the fishbone with hundreds of pearls by the seashore. Later, in the face of a mounting rebellion, the king tried to dig out the bones and use their powers to strengthen his force. But the bones never responded to him again and, in one evening, the king and his kingdom was destroyed. With the entire nation facing ruin, one reasonably wonder what kind of happiness Ye Xian could expect in her new life as a queen.

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