Cinderella is unconquerable when accounting for the number of retellings, adaptations, variants and popularity. Most of these adaptations focus on the Charles Perrault version of Cinderella (The Little Glass Slipper) when there are many other variants to choose from! One of these variants called “Yeh-Hsien” is the earliest recorded Cinderella tale, written in c.850 C.E by the poet Duan Chengshi. You can read that story here. Instead of Ye-Hsien, we are exploring the tale of Beauty and Pockface.
“San-ko yuan-wang” or Three Wishes, was recorded in 1933 by Lin Lan. This Cinderella story has similar tropes and plot points to Yeh-Hsien, but is less well-known and to put it bluntly- bat-shit crazy. Our understanding of this story comes from “Folktales of China” collected by Professor Wolfram Eberhard in 1937, and Professor Juwen Zhang’s “The Dragon Daughter and Other Lin Lan Tales” from 2022.
The authors of the tale, Lin Lan, are not widely known in the Western world but are regarded as the Brothers Grimm of Modern China. Professor Zhang sheds light on this folklore movement which saw many authors, publishers and series written under the name “Lin Lan” and “Lady Lin Lan.” To read more about the Lin Lan movement, head to the “Five Fantastic Finds” at the end of the summary!
Beauty and Pockface: Kindness rewarded, Evil Punished
There were once two stepsisters. One was known for her beauty, while the other had a heavily pockmarked face. Since this is a fairytale, and people, in general, can be cruel to kids, their nicknames were Beauty and Pockface. Beauty’s mother died at some point before the start of this story, however, instead of passing away and joining the graveyard of fairy tale mothers, she turned into a yellow cow! As a cow, she was able to discreetly guide her daughter whenever she was mistreated by the Evil Stepmother.
Anyone unfamiliar with Asian or South Asian cultures might find these nicknames horrific or simply a literary trope. Sadly, the reality is there are lots of cases where nicknames are based on unflattering physical attributes. For example, children born with fair skin might be called ‘angels,’ while chubby children might be nicknamed ‘fatty.’ In this case, Pockface not only has an unfortunate nickname, but her stepsister has a directly contrasting one. She is literally called the ugly one!
One day, the Stepmother took her daughter to the theatre and told Beauty that she could go next time if she separated all the hemp in the house first.
Before we get confused, hemp was one of the earliest crop plants in China. In the Record of Rites, or the Li Chi, there is a description of hemp as ‘the cloth of the masses.’ It was a textile, so they would use the bast fibre of the plant to spin into yarn and weave cloth.
Spurred on by this promise, Beauty tried to separate the different parts of the plant, but the task felt endless. Eventually, she turned to her mother for help. The yellow cow asked Beauty to bring her the hemp so she could eat it. Unsure as to how making the hemp disappear would solve her problems, Beauty did as instructed. After chewing, the mother cow spat out the plant and arranged it in piles. A neat party trick that the Stepmother did not appreciate.
If you have been listening to us for a while, this particular story beat may sound familiar. Vasilisa from Slavic folklore also needed to separate grains and could only accomplish this with a blessing from her mother. To hear how that went down, check out one of our earliest episodes: Vasilisa the Podcaster. You can find the episode on our home page.
The next day came, and once again Beauty asked to go to the theatre. Her Stepmother replied that she would need to split the sesame seeds from the beans first! Again, Beauty tried to complete the task but found it tedious. She turned to her mother for help once more. Her mother called her a stupid girl and told her to use a fan! Using her mother’s trick, she soon separated the seeds and waited for her Stepmother to come home.
When her Stepmother saw the task done, she grew annoyed. How did Beauty keep getting the tasks done? She asked Beauty, “How can a servant girl be so clever? Who helped you?”
Shockingly, Beauty answered that it was her mother, the yellow cow. The Stepmother (who we can only assume had no idea her husband’s ex-wife was a cow living in their garden) simply smiled.
The next day, the Stepmother served them fresh beef for supper. Beauty knew at once that this was her mother and could not bring herself to eat. Instead, she watched as her Stepmother and Pockface stuffed their faces. After dinner, she took the cow’s bones and hid them in a pot. Sad, lonely, and helpless, Beauty no longer had the energy to complete the impossible tasks, so she watched every day as the other two went.
Li Xiaolin’s painting shows the solar term Frost’s Descent and a meal made of beef and turnip
One day, Beauty grew violently angry and smashed everything she could touch. In her anger, she threw a clay pot to the ground without realizing it was the one holding her mother’s bones. As soon as it hit the ground, a mighty crack sounded, and a horse, dress and shoes appeared out of nowhere. At first, Beauty was cautious (after all, these items could be her mother), but after investigating, she realized the items were not related to her and safe to wear! So, she did what anyone else in her situation would do and threw on her new clothes before riding away into the sunset on her new horse (no blood relation).
Bones are a massive part of most cultures because they are related to death rituals and prophecy. In some areas of East Asia, there is a practice called ‘bone collecting’ where the family of a deceased will return to a grave after five years and collect the bones to be turned to ash or placed somewhere else. There are also Chinese oracle bones that originate from the Shang dynasty, three thousand years ago. These bones were used in divination rituals by etching requests on ox or tortoise shells. The bones were later thought to be dragon bones, but that hoax was quickly debunked.
Beauty’s Second Wish
As she rode off, her shoe slipped off in a ditch. Now, if she got off the horse, then her dress and the remaining shoe would also get dirty, but she couldn’t leave it either. She didn’t want to pull a Jason from Greek mythology and wander around with a single shoe.
Beauty was debating her issue when a fishmonger came by. She asked if he would help her get her shoe, and this random man said he would, but only if she married him. Beauty became very cross and asked who would marry him? Fishmongers were stinky!
Next, a rice broker came by and offered the same deal. Beauty made a face and asked who would marry him? Rice brokers were always dust covered!
Then an oil merchant came by who had the same proposition. She sighed and asked who would marry him? Oil merchants were so greasy! Beauty is a master of generalizations and honestly, after her Stepmother ate her mother, seems not to have the empathy and kindness that characterizes the modern Cinderella archetype.
The fourth man that appeared was a handsome Scholar, and he offered her the same deal. This time, she had nothing bad to say, and so she agreed. He picked her slipper up and placed it back on her foot in the symbolic Cinderella moment. Afterwards, they rode to his house and were married.
A few days later, they went to Beauty’s house to pay their respects to her mysterious travelling father and her suddenly gracious Stepmother. When it was time to leave, the Stepmother and Stepsister implored Beauty to stay, and Beauty, believing their kind intentions despite the fact they ate her mother, agreed to stay.
What happens next will shock no one and everyone. The next morning, Pockface invites Beauty to come to see their reflections in the well! As Beauty is leaning over, her step-sister pushes her in and covers the top. Beauty loses consciousness and drowns.
Meanwhile, the Scholar missed his new wife, and after a few days, he began asking about her. The Stepmother writes back and says that Beauty has fallen ill with smallpox, but as soon as she is better, she will come home. After two months, she sends Pockface home to the Scholar, and when he expresses his outrage, she cries that her face became disfigured by smallpox and she will die if he disowns her! The poor Scholar accepted her as his wife and apologized for his words.
Sparrow: I wanna say I feel sorry for this guy, but his relationship with Beauty was pretty shallow, to begin with. He found her at the side of a road and married her the same day in exchange for picking up a shoe. They spent, what, 3-4 days together?
If you thought this story was already weird, well buckle in because it is about to get weirder! You see, as the daughter of a mystical yellow cow, Beauty also possessed the power of animal transfiguration. She had returned as a Sparrow!
Chinese mythology has a complex and diverse relationship with the afterlife. It can be traced through the different periods based on writing about the soul and spirit. Post-Buddhism, the afterworld changes drastically to heavily include reincarnation, however, in most cases the purpose of reincarnation is to wipe clean the memory of the previous life by drinking the Goddess Meng Po’s soup! I will explore this in-depth later on during the Five Fantastic Finds!
Sparrow-Beauty would spend her days sitting next to Pockface and singing, “comb once, peep; comb twice, peep; comb thrice, up to the spine of Pockface.” Pockface would repeat the song, and the poor Scholar’s confusion only grew when he happened to overhear this exchange.
One day, he waited for Pockface to leave and found the sparrow. He asked if the sparrow was his wife, and if she was, she needed to chirp three times. What was he planning to do with his bird wife? Well, his master plan was to put her in a golden cage and keep her as a pet.
Pockface was upset, and since she had no problem killing Beauty as a person, she had no issues killing the sparrow and tossing it out the window. The Sparrow’s body fell, lifeless in the garden. Suddenly, bamboo shoots began growing wildly until all that was left of Beauty was a small bamboo forest.
Pockface and the bamboo
The next day, greedy Pockface saw the bamboo and had them cut down at once. She cooked her stepsister, but when it was time to eat, the shoots gave her horrible mouth ulcers.
Suspicious, Pockface had the rest of the bamboo chopped down and used for a new bed. Thinking she had removed her sister, she lay down snugly. All of a sudden, it felt as if needles were pricking into her skin. She jumped up, screaming and cursing.
Bamboo in snow from the ‘Ten Bamboo Studio Manual of Painting and Calligraphy’, Hu Zhengyan 胡正言 in 1633
Instead of setting fire to the possessed bed, she had the bed thrown on the side of the road where an old lady found it. As it turns out, next to the Scholar lived an old lady who sold money bags. When she saw the bed, she wondered why the family would throw away such a fine bed. Thinking back, she realized no one had recently passed in that household, so she dragged the Beauty-bamboo-bed home with her.
When someone dies, there are lots of public displays to announce the loss. One such ritual includes a white cloth hung across the doorway and a gong placed by the entryway.
The next day, the old woman woke up to the smell of food cooking in her kitchen. Hesitantly, she made her way through her house to find a fully prepared breakfast waiting for her. She stared in awe at the food but eventually succumbed to the generous spirit and happily ate the meal. Over the next few days, all of her meals were prepared and ready for her, but she could never catch the culprit.
Could it be a hungry spirit? She resolved to get to the bottom of this mystery and came home early one day. There, in her kitchen, was a dark shadow washing rice. Terrified but brave, she confronted the shadow and asked what the spirit wanted with her!
Startled, the shadow spoke and told the old woman her sorrowful tale. The shadow said it was the spirit of the wife of the Scholar next door. She was murdered by her sister, who was now assuming her identity. The shadow asked for a rice pot as a head, a stick as a hand, a dishcloth as entrails and fire hooks as feet.
The old woman hurried to get all the bits and bobs together for her, and as she did, a beautiful girl appeared. The girl begged her to go pretend to sell her bag to the Scholar next door, and the old woman obliged.
Upon seeing the bag, the Scholar immediately knew it was Beauty’s and was overjoyed to hear that not only was she alive, but she was also next door! He rushed over and brought her back home, to the dismay of Pockface. Pockface immediately accused her sister of being a spirit and not a real woman. She demanded they do a trial to determine between the false bride and the true one. Beauty agreed, safe in the knowledge that she was the true bride- and also that she had just been murdered four times previously.
Beauty’s Third Wish
Pockface schemed and came up with three tasks. The first trial was to walk across eggs and see who broke them. The second task was to walk up a ladder made of knives, and the third was to jump into a cauldron of hot oil. There is about as much logic here as there was in the Mediveal practice of drowning witches.
Pockface failed the first two trails, but she persisted in the hope that Beauty would surely die after jumping into the cauldron. After watching an unharmed Beauty emerge from the oil, Pockface still jumped in! She never surfaced.
Either as revenge or closure, Beauty placed her sister’s bones in a box and sent them to her Stepmother. When she received the box, her Stepmother thought the servant said “carp flesh” instead of “daughter’s flesh” and was quite excited to dig in. As soon as she opened the box, she knew it was human bones. She let out a horrified scream and dropped down dead where she stood.
1. Invisible Parents
As with most renditions of the Cinderella story, the father in this tale is useless. He is mentioned at the start of the story to introduce the wicked stepmother, and he is then promptly forgotten. We can assume he is still around, seeing as he’s never mentioned again, but we cannot be sure. For all we know, he straight-up died and is reincarnated as a blade of grass outside Beauty’s room. This type of absentee parent trope is referred to as the invisible parent. This is a common trope for kid-centred stories where the parents have little to no relevance to the plot. They are mentioned, rarely seen and often incredibly useless.
Think of Mabel and Dipper’s parents from Gravity Falls, Hermione’s parents from the Harry Potter series or most of the parents of the students in Assassination Classroom. In the Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley game series’, your characters regularly receive letters from their mother, but that is the only evidence she exists. No one else speaks of her, and you can’t write back!
These parents are not necessarily bad, but it would break the flow of the story if these parents were more involved in their children’s lives.
2. LIN LAN
A massive Chinese cultural movement occurred in the 1920s- 1930s with a surge of interest in folklore, fairy tales and legends.
According to several articles and books by Folklore Professor, Juwen Zhang, the phenomena of Lin Lan and Lady Lin Lan began with a single writer, Li Xiaofeng, on July 12th, 1924, but quickly expanded to include many writers collecting oral folktales directly from the source- following the footsteps of the Brothers Grimm. Like the Grimm collection, these stories were used to create a national identity of the people, but unlike the Grimms, Lin Lan did not edit in a specific religious background or focus solely on old tales. Many Lin Lan tales were retold from the historical record, and many were contemporary stories.
Throughout Chinese history, there’s a rich record of story collections, fairy tales, fables and folklore, and the Lin Lan movement helped continue the tradition (Zhang 2020). Zhang’s collection, “The Dragon Daughter and Other Lin Lan Fairy Tales” examines over forty different tales. As mentioned earlier, our version of the story comes from Professor Eberhard. There is renewed criticism for his collections relation to the Lin Lan series. The issues arise from the credit given to Professor Eberhard for “collecting” the works instead of simply translating them. There is also little to no reference to Lin Lan as his modern source, despite being one of the leading movements of the time! The movement helped cement fairy tales and folk tales in the collective folk consciousness of China. It established the various Chinese variants of stories as being rooted in China instead of being transplanted from other regions.
3. Dead Person Impersonation – Trope
Initially, Pockface kills Beauty out of spite and jealousy. However, her mother comes up with an ingenious plan to swap Beauty and Pockface. Glaring plot holes aside, this is the Dead Person Impersonation trope, and is exactly as it sounds. But this trope is not always malicious. It’s pretty common to see this trope played up as a big misunderstanding, with the imposter keeping up the charade to avoid the repercussions of their facade.
A good example of this trope in action can be seen in Heath Ledger’s character, William, from A Knight’s Tale. He is a poor peasant that finds a dead knight who would have entered the final round of a jousting tournament. Figuring he can have a quick, easy payday, he takes the Knights place in the tournament and wins a big cash prize. The rest of the movie builds on him having to maintain the lie, so that he can keep the money and new title.
Creed Bratton from the Office (U.S TV series) also fits this trope. He tells the audience this straight up in the episode Crime Aid:
“Nobody steals from Creed Bratton. The last person that tried- disappeared. His name? Creed Bratton.” Creed Bratton (season 5, episode 5)
4. Reincarnation in Chinese Stories
Chinese religious beliefs are heavily influenced by local customs, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and cultural elements. The relationship between the living and dead is complex, with mutual responsibility upheld between both parties. The living have to honour the Dead through complex and often continuous rites, festivals, offerings and prayers. In turn, the Dead would rest peacefully and watch over their ancestors. Failing to honour the Dead would cause wrathful retaliation from the spirit, some of whom would become ‘hungry ghosts’ that went on to attack entire communities.
Now, in Chinese mythology or folk religion, there is an underground world with a bureaucratic system of punishment, sometimes called Diyu. After a soul has received its punishment, they are sent to Meng Po in the 10th court for reincarnation. On the Bridge of Forgetfulness, she gives them soup to make them forget their past lives before they are reborn. In the case of Beauty and her mother, they are not reborn in the classic sense, but they inhabit the bodies or forms of different creatures.
5. Walking on Eggshells
“Walking on eggs” or “walking on eggshells” are common phrases used to mean “tread lightly”. The symbolism is quite clear, as eggs have thin shells and seem delicate. To apply pressure to them without breaking them requires skill, psychics and prayer.
But is it actually difficult? Honestly, it’s not as impressive as one would think. While eggs easily crack under uneven forces, like the edge of the mixing bowl, they are sturdier in other regards. The three-dimensional arch shape of the egg is architecturally very sturdy and excellent for evenly distributing pressure across the whole egg. So, as long as Beauty or Pockface were not wearing heels and were being cautious of how their weight was distributed, this challenge would be doable.