Robin Redbreast

Robin Redbreast
Birds can represent the fluttering, darting thoughts of intuition. This is why little birds helped Cinderella help herself.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Cinderella #160 Bound (2004, Yeh-Shen Number Four)

Illustration by Ed Young
(From the story by Ai-Ling Louie)

Note: Contains violence. Once upon a time, in China, there lived a young girl. Her mother, the first wife, had died long ago.  The girls' name sounded like this, "Shing-Shing", when it was spoken. Now she "squatted by the water, silent and unmoving.  Her stillness was a prayer." She held her breath, hoping to see the "white fish with red fins and golden eyes." A moment later it "zipped a lotus leaf", and the girl laughed, delighted. Her mouth was unused to the sound: since her father, the potter Master Wu,had died. Instead, she kept her thoughts strangled inside her, pouring her tears out only when she knew that she was alone. Then she heard her stepmother's harsh voice. "Lazy One!" she yelled from the mouth of the cave where they lived. Second wife and her daughter, Wei-Ping, lived in the family cave now. It fell to Xing-Xing to do all of the hardest work, such as hauling water. Now, she drew her buckets up and ran back home.  Wei-Ping was waiting for her, and "grimaced with pain as she rubbed behind" her knee. She was slowly scooting her way across the floor of the cave, not on her feet, but atop small stools. "A tear escaped and ran down her cheeks. Her lips tightened into a straight line." Then she looked down at the colored silk bound tightly around her feet, and smiled. "Xing-Xing could tell Wei-Ping was admiring herself — an immodest act that one should avoid." She could not help looking down at her own dusty feet, bare and strong.  "No one cares about your feet.' hissed Wei-Ping", and ordered her sister to get another stool. Xing-Xing was one year younger than her half-sister.  No preparations were being made for her marriage, though they were well under way for her sister. Master Wu "didn't want his daughter's feet bound....He enjoyed the assistance of his daughters in his shop — and that work required them to have full use of the feet." Second Wife had tried to convince him to make Xing-Xing do all the work, sparing Wei-Ping.  But Master Wu loved his child, and would not force her into hard labor. But then he took a terrible fall, and, before Xing-Xing had quite understood what was happening, she was slave in all but name.  An orphan girl in the care of an unloving stepmother, with little care shown for her comfort and safety. Then she had seen the fish. At first she had kept in in a bowl, the most beautiful one her father had made. She remembered that afternoon, when "sunlight danced on the bowl's enamel, where brilliant yellows and greens and reds played out the legendary story of the carp at Dragon Gate." She remembered her mother laying on her death bed, telling her that "her hun, her spirit, would always protect Xing-Xing. And she had asked her daughter for one promise, and one promise only: that Xing-Xing would take care of her father's needs" for the rest of his life.  Then her mother had died, and, too soon, her father as well. Now there was no one to look fondly on her. Her heart ached as she recalled her father teaching her calligraphy, a skill normally reserved for boys. But her father had been a practical man, and provided his daughter with lessons in writing and poetry. Sometimes she still scratched the characters in the mud, composing poetry to remind her of her parents. One day while she waited for the fish to appear she used a stick to write," Fins like red clouds at sunset, Eyes like gold tears of joy, sparkling wet White fish in cold water, happily met."Most days passed slowly with hard work, and caring for Wei-Ping.  She grew more and more listless, and cried out now, in her fevered sleep. Soon, Second Wife realized that something must be done. She sent Xing-Xing on an errand: find the lang zhong, the wandering doctor, and bring him home.  Her stepmother could not tell her where this man might be, or where to find him. But she threatened to chop the girl's nose of with a cleaver if she did not return with medicine for Wei-Ping's feet, so Xing-Xing had no choice. She set off, with a bag of green dates to trade for the medicine.  She soon found herself pursued by every man on the path. After a near miss, and determined to arrive safely, Xing-Xing slides into the river, there to be out of sight. But "her teeth were clamped down hard on the strings of the date sack that was hanging over her shoulder. She was in water from her chest down, but her hands clung to bits of bramble that allowed her to hug the bank. She heard a cart pass on the road...She hardly dared breathe....At any moment, she could get washed away and drown in the Han River." That is when Xing-Xing sees a bramble leaf float past, just at eye level. As she studies its veins, she realizes that "a principal of order guided the veins on that leaf. In every leaf. In everything on earth." Grasping hold of the bramble vine, she "pulled herself out, sopping, on the riverbank.  She lay there for several minutes, the date sack at her side now, letting the fact that she had escaped, that she was still alive, become real for her." At long last, Xing-Xing stumbles into the  village where the lang zhong has set up a clinic. Making her way through the crowd, she is suddenly confronted with this sight: "A dried spotted serpent coiled like a rope around the neck of one very fat man who shaking a ring-shaped hollow rattle.  Beside him lay a big, black dog, asleep on its side in the dust. Behind him was a cart with little bells hanging from the corners, filled with pieces of small cloth sacks and rows of porcelain jars like the ones she'd seen at Master Tang's house. His face was wide, with a square chin. This was a lucky face." When it is her turn to speak with the lang zhong, he eyes her up and down and says," You're not sick. So what's the message, Wet Girl?"  Xing-Xing remains with the man for several days, sleeping with his dog, and accepting three meals a day from Yao Wang, or Medicine King, as he asked to be called. This seemed rather conceited to Xing-Xing, but he was kind to her. When she had eaten and slept enough to tell her story, he gave her liniment for Wei-Ping, and careful instructions on its use. Xing-Xing faces another lonely, frightening journey home. When she arrives, she finds that catastrophe has struck.  It is up to her to tend to both her stepmother and stepsister, and she does so with strength and kindness. But Stepmother repays this with duplicity: she buys Xing-Xing a fine dress, telling her that she can wear it to the Cave Festival that the entire region will soon be celebrating. Casting off her ragged cotton clothing, Xing-Xing dances off to compose poetry for the contest to be held at the festival. That's when her stepmother puts on the old dress to disguise herself as Xing-Xing. She creeps down to the river, tricks the beautiful white fish into surfacing, and then kills it.  Xing-Xing, on her way back from the woods, stops at her old tutor Master Tang's house to borrow ink and brush to write the poem down.  When he tells her to thank her stepmother for the gift of a large piece of fish, she guesses what has happened. Now  the gloves come off as Stepmother ridicules Xing-Xing and plots to be rid of her, even as she arranges a marriage for Wei-Ping.  The two leave the girl at home, with orders to stay there or face a beating, and they go off to the Cave Festival. That is when Xing-Xing, feeling the caress of her mother's spirit in the wind, is inspired to gather the fish bones out of the dung heap, and hide them in her father's old storeroom.  There, she suddenly notices a stone projecting from the floor. When she lifts it, she finds a large space under the floor. Thinking to hide the bones there, she instead finds  a letter, addressed to herself, from her mother. It describes the treasures which are hidden in the hole, and gives her mother's instructions for her. "My cloak and dress and pearls and little things [are here]. If you are an adult woman, then then the things in this hole are to add to the treasures of your life. If you are still a child, then these things are to be used in whatever way you need. Ornament yourself, if that makes sense. Sell these things, if that makes sense. My spirit will always be with you." Xing-Xing does ornament herself, and she does go to the Cave Festival.  But Stepmother recognizes her, and so she flees...losing one of the small golden shoes that belonged to her mother. Much later, when the Prince has found the shoe and undertaken a search for the maiden who can wear it, he comes to Xing-Xing's family cave.  Predictably, Stepmother tries to pass her off as a raving, crazy girl, too dirty to speak a word in the Prince's presence.  When she gets the chance to speak, Xing-Xing so impresses the Prince with her wit that he teasingly calls her "Impertinent One", then asks whether he has not seen her before, only wearing a green silk dress and cape of kingfisher feathers? She asks him to be patient, then runs to change clothes. Upon her return, dressed as she was at the festival, he says,"And now, Impertinent One, will you show me whether you are, instead, the truly pertinent one?' A man who liked puns. Xing-Xing's hand responded of its own accord, holding out one gold and sacred shoe. 'If you give me the other shoe, I'll have a matching pair." said she. And the rest, as it is said, is history. 
From Bound, by Donna Jo Napoli (2004) New York: Simon and Shuster
Notes: This novel of 184 pages does for Yeh-Shen what the Newbery Honor Book, Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine, did for Cinderella. It is a fully realized story, set during the Ming Dynasty, which began in 1368. It offers a unique window into daily life in that time and place. The descriptions of plants and animals, clothing, kinds of food prepared, etc. stem from the author's academic background. She writes in her notes that she spent the summer of 1997 teaching literature at Capitol Normal University in Beijing. 
Montessori Connection: History/Medieval Times/Eastern Civilization
1. Read Bound and know that it takes place around the year 1368.
3. Read another Cinderella novel from China: Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society
4. Read a European Cinderella novel: Ella Enchanted