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The Medieval Cinderella

The Medieval Cinderella


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By Kathryn Walton

Popular culture has tended to imagine Cinderella through a Eurocentric, aristocratic lens. She is typically a white girl who uses her beauty, kindness, and a fairy godmother to marry a prince and move into a perfect European Castle. This image, however, looks nothing like the oldest surviving version of Cinderella.

The oldest surviving version of Cinderella comes from medieval China and is rooted in folk rather than aristocratic culture. Called Yeh-hsien it tells the familiar story of a mistreated orphan who finds a magical helper, loses a shoe, and marries a powerful man. However, it takes place within a community of rural “cave-dwellers,” features magical fish bones, presents a prince who is both violent and greedy, and stars a heroine who is much more disobedient and ambitious than the European version.

The Cinderella from the 17th century

The most famous version of the Cinderella story in North America today was published in the late seventeenth century by Charles Perrault in his Histoires ou contes du temps passé (1697). Called Cinderella; or, The Little Glass Slipper, Perrault’s classic tale tells of a beautiful, kind, and obedient girl who is mistreated by a wicked stepmother. Her desire to attend a ball is fulfilled by her fairy godmother, who provides her with all the right clothes and accessories. At the ball, Cinderella meets and charms the prince, loses her glass slipper, and ends up finding her “happily ever after” when she marries the prince. You can read Perrault’s version in full here.

This version was made famous by Walt Disney who drew on it directly for his 1950 animated version. His adaptation solidified a European image of Cinderella alongside certain European and aristocratic motifs: the fairy godmother, the glass slipper, the stroke of midnight, the pumpkin carriage, the handsome prince, and so on.

Cinderella and European, Aristocratic Culture

The version of the tale written by Perrault and transmitted by Disney is fundamentally rooted in European, aristocratic culture. Perrault himself was a member of the court of Louis XIV and adapted his tales to appeal to his aristocratic audience. He inserted tidbits on fashion, manners, and courtly behaviour to teach aristocrats, young and old, how to behave properly.

Disney’s versions of the tale – both the animated original and the recent live-action version– also draw on this culture. Everything in these films from the design of the castle, to the attire of the characters, to the horses and carriages, evokes an image of European aristocracy.

Thanks to Perrault and Disney, the story of Cinderella seems fundamentally grounded in European, aristocratic culture. The medieval version of the tale, however, reveals that this is not the case at all.

The Earliest Recorded Version of Cinderella

The oldest surviving written version of the Cinderella story appears in a book from 9th century China. It is important to note that this is not simply the oldest version of the tale. Because Cinderella is a folktale, versions of it would have circulated orally in many different cultures around the world for a long time before people started writing it down.

But the very first time the story was written down was in China by Tuan Ch’eng-shih sometime between 850 and 860. Tuan Ch’eng-shih lived from about 800 to 863 and was the son of an influential official. According to Arthur Waley, who produced an early translation of the text – which you can read here – Tuan Ch’eng-shih loved both hunting and collecting books. His passions took him far afield and he encountered many different people and many different communities. While hunting for animals throughout medieval China, he also hunted for stories. He eventually produced a collection of tales and knowledge.

The book is called Yu Yang Tsa Twu, which Waley translates to A Miscellany of Forgotten Lore. It contains, as the title suggests, all kinds of different things: stories from books, stories collected orally, information on foreign plants and perfumes, basically anything he found interesting. He encountered and recorded stories from various ethnic communities in China and also included stories from other countries. The version of Cinderella that he records, called Yeh-hsien, comes, as he says from “the people of the south” “before the Ch’in and Han dynasties.”

This is how it goes…

The Story

There was once a cave-master called Wu who married two wives. One of these wives died leaving behind a good and kind daughter called Yeh-hsien. The husband eventually died too, and the surviving wife treated Yeh-hsien poorly making her do all kinds of dangerous chores.

One day Yeh-hsien caught a special fish with red fins and gold eyes. The two became close friends. She kept it in a bowl of water until it grew so big that she had to put it in the back pond. Yeh-shien would visit the fish everyday and the fish would greet her and lay its head on the shore. She fed it with her leftover meals until it was ten-feet long.

Eventually, the stepmother saw how close Yeh-hsien and the fish were, so, she sent Yeh-hsien on a chore far away, tricked the fish into coming to shore, killed it, ate it, and buried the bones under the dung heap.

When Yeh-hsien found the fish was gone she was distraught and ran crying in the countryside. As she cried, a man with long hair and coarse clothes appeared from the sky. He told her that her stepmother had killed her fish and hid the bones in the dung heap. But, he said, if you “take the fish’s bones and hide them in your room. Whatever you want, you have only to pray to them for it. It is bound to be granted.” She did just that and furnished herself with all kinds of fine things: food, gold, pearls, dresses, anything she wanted.

Eventually, the time came for the cave-festival. Her stepmother and stepsister went to the festival, leaving Yeh-hsien behind. But she had no intention of staying home alone. As soon as they were gone, she put on the finest clothes that she had gotten from the fishbones and attended the festival herself. While she was there her stepmother suspected the beautiful girl was Yeh-hsien, so Yeh-hsien rushed off. She was in such a hurry to leave that she lost one shoe. The shoe was picked up by “one of the people of the cave.” That person sold the shoe in the nearby kingdom of T’o-han.

The ruler of T’o-han got hold of the shoe and was determined to find out who owned it. He had everyone he knew try it on, but it was far too small to fit anyone. All the women of the kingdom tried, but no one could get it on. Frustrated and angry, he went on a violent search to find its owner. He tortured the cave person who had found it and arrested all kinds of people who he suspected might know something or who had a woman’s shoe.

After a long while, he found Yeh-hsien. She presented herself in her beautiful clothes and was “as beautiful as a heavenly being.” So, she “began to render service to the king, and he took the fish-bones and Yeh-hsien and brought them back to his country.” There, he made her his chief wife.

In the meantime, the stepmother and the stepsister were stuck by flying rocks and died. They were pitied by the cavepeople who buried them in a stone pit, which they called “the Tomb of the Distressed Women.”

The king of T’o-han got a great deal of wealth from the fishbones, but eventually, he got too greedy and they stopped working. He buried them with honour by the sea. There they resided until one night they were washed away.

The end.

Folktales and Folk Culture

This tale has all the key aspects of the Cinderella story, which is why we identify it alongside Perrault’s, but like many folktales it is rooted in the culture of the “folk” of medieval China. Alan Dundes notes in Cinderella: A Casebook that the tale was actually told to Tuan Ch’eng-shih by his former servant Li Shih-yüan, who was, “originally a cave man of Yung Chow [who] remember very much about the strange stories of the south.”

A lot of work has been done to determine who exactly this servant might have been as well as who the “cave dwellers” mentioned in the tale were. Fay Beauchamp, for example, suggests that Li Shih-yuan might have been a member of the Zhuang ethnic group in Nanning, Guangxi Province in southern China. She also shows a number of other cultural influences on the tale. You can read her full article here. What is clear is that the original teller of the tale was a member of the servant classes, and that the tale circulated amongst those outside of the aristocratic elite.

So, in its oldest iteration, Cinderella (or Yeh-hsien as it should perhaps rightfully be called) is neither European nor aristocratic. The tale has no glass slippers, passive princesses, or charming princes. Instead, it is a tale of how a disobedient but ambitious cave dweller overcame bad circumstances to marry a violent ruler. I would personally love to see a film adaptation return to this older and grittier version of the tale.

Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.

Top Image: Fresco of a woman from the tomb of Madam Ch’i-pi, Tang dynasty. Public domain.


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