The Magic Love

Fairy Tales from Twenty-First Century China

by Juwen Zhang (Editor and translator)
©2022 Monographs XVIII, 230 Pages
Series: International Folkloristics, Volume 17


This book presents a unique collection of fairy tales from contemporary China, translated into English for the first time. Demonstrating the continuity of oral tradition throughout Chinese history, the thirty tales are selected according to the theme of "magic love." Many readers are familiar with European tales of love and family, but these Chinese tales have a very different emphasis. The structural differences are also striking: there are more tales with tragic endings, instead of the familiar "happily ever after," and often more tale types in one tale. They are fascinating to read and challenging in terms of both morphology and cultural symbolism. Unlike many collections of fairy tales, this book provides contextual information on the tellers, collectors, and time and location of collection, along with an introduction to the Chinese social and cultural background, and folkloristic approaches to fairy tale studies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Map of Locations of the Storytellers
  • Acknowledgments
  • Preface: Glimmers of the Past and Future in Twenty-First Century Chinese Tales (Jack Zipes)
  • Introduction: A Living Tradition of Telling Fairy Tales in China (Juwen Zhang)
  • Part one: The Role of Matchmaking
  • Tale 1: The Matchmaker Moon Man
  • Tale 2: Three Treasures
  • Tale 3: Kongji and Paji
  • Tale 3 Variant: The Crystal Shoes
  • Tale 4: Getting a Wife with One Penny
  • Tale 5: The Tofu Boy
  • Tale 6: A Paper Maiden Turned into a Real Wife
  • Part TWO: In Love with the Fairy for Family Life
  • Tale 7: I Can’t Reach It
  • Tale 7 Variant: Cowherd and Weaving Girl
  • Tale 8: The Lantern Festival in Yangzhou
  • Tale 9: A Good Marriage between Man and Snake
  • Tale 10: Three Blind Girls
  • Tale 11: The Toad Son
  • Tale 12: The Pine Tree Girl
  • Part three: Sibling Love and Rivalry
  • Tale 13: A Turtle Changed to a Snake
  • Tale 14: Brother as Bride in Disguise for His Sister
  • Tale 15: The Plum Phoenix
  • Tale 16: The Snake Bridegroom
  • Tale 16 Variant: The Snake and Three Sisters
  • Tale 17: A Little Gong
  • Tale 18: The Calf Got a Wife
  • Part four: In Love with the Supernatural
  • Tale 19: The Feather Cloak of a Hundred Birds
  • Tale 20: The Snail Girl
  • Tale 21: The Dragon Daughter
  • Tale 22: Sold for Burial
  • Tale 23: Little Cowherd and Treasure Ginseng
  • Tale 24: Seeking the Buddha in the West
  • Tale 25: The Girl with Golden Ball and the Toad with Three Legs
  • Tale 26: No Tear Dropping until Seeing Guan Cai
  • Tale 26 Variant: No Heart Dying until Seeing Yellow River
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliographic Notes on the Tale Types and Sources
  • Bibliography
  • Series index

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This volume of fairy tales from the early twenty-first century China completes the task begun in my work on fairy tales of early twentieth century China (Dragon Daughter and Other Lin Lan Fairy Tales, 2022), both of which are inspired, encouraged, guided, and prefaced by Jack Zipes. Without his mentoring, I would not have ventured into the fairy tale world thus far, nor would I have understood the principle of hope through fairy tales. For these and more, I thank him from the bottom of my heart!

Jiang Fan, Professor of Folklore at Liaoning University, China took me to visit the storyteller Tan Zhengshan in 2006, and both of them helped me not only with the tales in print and in telling, but also with my understanding of the significance of storytelling through their exemplary actions in preserving and transmitting oral traditions. I thank Professor Jiang for her long-time support, and will keep Tan Zhengshan, who passed away in 2011, in my memory with gratitude for his hospitality and telling us those amazing tales for hours. Nearly half of the tales in this volume were recorded from his telling.

The translation of the tales was, to a certain degree, representative of the kind of team work I have tried to build. Min Wei, an undergraduate student of Chinese Studies Major as my advisee in Willamette University, Dr. Bill Long, a versatile scholar with strong interest in Chinese culture, and I together ←xi | xii→translated five tales (Tales 6, 9, 13, 14, and 19). August Bergquist, another Chinese Studies Major student at Willamette University, and I translated two tales (Tale 7 Variant and Tale 17). I thank them for their hard work and sharing my interest in tales. Tale 6 is the only tale that is previously published (“A Paper Maiden Turned into a Real Wife,” Marvels & Tales, Volume 35, Issue 1, Spring 2021), and I thank the journal for allowing it to be included here.

The process of improving the early drafts to the current state of this volume would not be possible without the encouragements, constructive suggestions and comments from many colleagues and friends. Some of them must be thanked here: Mark Bender, Dan Ben-Amos, Jack Zipes, Simon Bronner, Cristina Bacchilega, Anne Duggan, and Miho Fujiwara in the US, and Liu Xiaochun, Liu Shouhua, Xiao Fang, Yang Lihui, An Deming, Lin Jifu, Huang Tao, Xing Li, Yuan Xuejun, and Liu Han in China.

Without the paremiologist Wolfgang Mieder’s discovering the value of this collection even when it was in its raw state, this book would have been in dark for a long time. He literally acted out the proverb “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” His vision of including this work into the International Folkloristics Series will surely be appreciated by many in the years to come. I thank him whole-heartedly. Philip Dunshea and his team at the Peter Lang Publishing, as well as the anonymous reviewers, are exemplary of their professionalism, and I sincerely thank them.

I want to thank my wife, Jing Liu, and our children, Andy and Teddy, for their support, especially during the past two years, when “time” has a different meaning. However, without Susan Blader, who magically brought me across the Pacific Ocean with a family, I would not have even dreamed of venturing into the fairy tale world and coming out with this book, which, I now dedicate to her!

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Preface: Glimmers of the Past and Future in Twenty-First Century Chinese Tales

Jack Zipes

Glimmer – there is no other word or term to use when describing the marvelous folk and fairy tales in Juwen Zhang’s collection of enlightening stories which he collected, translated, and edited in China during the early part of the twenty-first century. To do justice to Zhang’s work and the unusual narratives in this book, I have chosen the word “glimmer” instead of tale, story, narrative or anecdote because there are elements in contemporary Chinese storytelling suggesting that it is almost impossible to classify or categorize them narrowly according to Western classification systems as genuine Chinese. This is probably the case also in other cultures in which radical technological changes have brought together and mixed the motifs, themes, styles, and content of storytelling through different media in such a way that it is almost impossible to declare that a certain Chinese tale is ethnically Chinese, and yet, it is. The international mixture and borrowings today conceal and reveal at the same time the origins and significance of a tale for a particular culture. Zhang’s achievement in this Chinese collection can be seen in his astute sorting out the elements that sociologically and historically enable us to grasp what makes the tales universally illuminating and peculiarly Chinese.

If we accept that “glimmer” is the appropriate term nowadays to describe tales that deal with magical transformation of some kind, then we can more ←xiii | xiv→than appreciate the tales Zhang has edited and sent flying into the public sphere. We can also appreciate his desire and efforts to preserve these old tales for future generations, even in translation. So, let me qualify more clearly why I am using the term glimmer instead of fairy tale and how and why their Chinese aura can enrich our lives, broaden our experiences, and teach us that there are many differences that are actually similarities.

Tales of all kinds reach out for understanding in no matter what language they are spoken or written. What is most significant about the most pertinent fairy tales is the glimmer of hope that propels readers/listeners to recall past happenings while anticipating future possibilities reflected in the contents of the stories. A glimmer is indeed more than a text. A complete glimmer affords us illumination and enlightenment. Ernst Bloch, the great German philosopher of hope, maintained that fairy tales possess “anticipatory illumination” (Vor-Schein) that speaks to people of all social classes and in all the countries of the world. For instance, in the fairy tale genre the anticipatory illusion is constituted by the manner in which the small hero/heroine uses courage and cunning to overcome obstacles and defeat powerful oppressors. The protagonist’s triumph signals a revolutionary triumph, an example of the underdog’s potential to take charge of his or her life. The miraculous transformations in fairy tales produce glimmers into the unknown and reveal that life is a process of qualitative change in which the utopian element can emerge if people realize what their powers are.

Zhang has carefully divided his collection of fairy tales into four chapters that deal with matchmaking, marriage, the love of family, sibling rivalry, ethics, and the supernatural, and at the end of the book he provides background notes about the storytellers, tale types, and belief systems in China. Many of the tales do not have happy endings, and yet, as glimmers, they offer us a glimpse into the particular manner in which the Chinese have dealt and deal with conflicts. For instance, in his introduction he writes: “In understanding Chinese tales, it is essential to relate the symbols in the tales to the cultural values and beliefs in Chinese culture. Fundamentally, in contrast to the tales rooted in a monotheist belief system, which is exclusive and intolerant of different beliefs, Chinese tales are rooted in the polytheist belief system, which is inclusive and tolerant of different beliefs.”

My favorite chapter in Zhang’s book is the final one, “In Love with the Supernatural,” because the tales reveal what Zhang calls the essence of fairy tales: “creating an ideal world to counterbalance the pain and suffering in this world, so as to sustain the hope for people to live a meaningful life.” So, in ←xiv | xv→“The Feather Cloak of a Hundred Birds” a greedy and omnipotent emperor is executed by his own guards because he sought to exploit a fairy from a Willow Tree, who loved a poor woodsman. It was this young man who treated her kindly when she was part of tree that he protected, that is, a representative of nature. In “Seeking the Buddha in the West,” another unfortunate young man takes a journey to speak to the Buddha to find out why he is so unfortunate. Along the way he meets three other people who need help from the Buddha. The poor man agrees to speak to the Buddha on their behalf. In doing this, he cannot have his own quest fulfilled. Yet, because he is so kind and generous, he discovers that the people whom he helps repay his generosity and enable him to prosper from his journey. In effect, their generosity is the Buddha’s answer to the young man’s request.

As Zhang points out in his notes, similar tales can be found in many other different countries. However, we learn in the Chinese glimmer that they illuminate the connection to similar stories in other parts of the world, providing hope through anticipatory illumination.

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Introduction: The Living Tradition of Telling Fairy Tales in China

This collection represents the swan songs of the final generation of the singers/tellers of tales from the agricultural China,1 and is the first compilation that shows the continuity of the oral tradition of telling fairy tales from ancient China up to the early twenty-first century. Rapid urbanization and modernization have fundamentally changed the traditional social structure, among other aspects, based on age, gender, and occupational roles in the rural areas, and thus transformed the foundation of the oral traditions and their means of continuity in China. While tales and our need for tales and storytelling may never disappear, the traditional face-to-face storytelling event in small groups for the past millennia will never be the same, and the storytellers with repertoires of hundreds of tales passed down for generations through oral communication may have to face a new environment of transmission. ←1 | 2→


XVIII, 230
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (December)
Fairy Tale Magic Contemporary China Folklore Oral Tradition Storytelling Storyteller Folk Literature Genre Intangible Cultural Heritage Ethics Family Supernatural
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2022. XVIII, 230 pp., 5 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Juwen Zhang (Editor and translator)

Juwen Zhang (Ph.D. in folklore and folklife from the University of Pennsylvania) is Professor of Chinese Studies and Folklore at Willamette University, a Fellow of the American Folklore Society, and President of the Western States Folklore Society. His recent publications include The Dragon Daughter and Other Lin Lan Fairy Tales and Oral Traditions in Contemporary China: Healing a Nation.


Title: The Magic Love