The Chinese Cinderella Ye Xian and Her Magical Fairy Fish

by Sankalan Baidya
Was Modern Cinderella Inspired by Ancient Chinese Cinderella Ye Xian

What if the story of Cinderella is just an inspired version that we have heard of and read about? What if a version of Cinderella existed thousands of years before we learned about the modern version? Well, these questions really bogged us and at first, we simply discarded this as an attempt to take all the credit of the Italian man who first created the version of Cinderella. It turns out that we were wrong and that the questions do have a base.

So, let us meet Ye Xian, the Chinese Cinderella who lived some 2,200 years ago somewhere between Qin Dynasty (221 BCE to 206 BCE) and Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE). But, before we begin, let us learn about the modern Cinderella with glass shoes that we know.

Who created the story of Cinderella?

We usually give the credit for Cinderella to Charles Perrault – a famous Frenchman who actually created the name Cendrillon. Over years, the name Cendrillon got twisted into Cinderella and we need to agree that Cinderella is far more charming name than Cendrillon.

However, Charles Perrault was not the original creator. Cendrillon was only a streamlined version given by Perrault in 18th century of an older version that was created some 100 years ago in 17th century. The original name of the character was Zezolla and not Cendrillon. The creator of Zezolla was a man named Giambattista Basile, a writer who hailed from Italy.

Was Giambattista Basile the original creator of Cinderella?

This is one really difficult question. We don’t really know but what we do know for sure is that before Cendrillon and Zezolla were created, there existed Ye Xian – a Chinese damsel who supposedly lived at a time between the Qin and the Han dynasties of China. In fact, Ye Xian (possibly and most likely a mythical character) is in fact the first known version of the popular Cinderella story. One can always argue that Giambattista Basile was not the original creator and that he just borrowed the concept from the Chinese mythical version.

Let’s learn the story of Chinese Cinderella

A little background of Ye Xian and her stepmother and stepsister

So, there was this girl named Ye Xian who lived somewhere in China. She was the daughter of the chieftain of some people who live in caves. According to the myth, the chieftain and his daughter hailed from a place called Wudoung. Ye Xian was a motherless child and her father married another woman. Her stepmother was evil and twisted by all means and also had a daughter whose name was Jun-li.

Jun-li was ugly and one hell of a dumb girl, full of jealousy but on the contrary, Ye Xian was not only beautiful girl but also had some brains. Unfortunately, Ye Xian was forced into household labor by her stepmother and stepsister. The whole idea behind this was a conspiracy of her stepmother and step sibling to make her sweat by seconds, minutes and hours so that her beauty gradually fades away.

In an unfortunate event, Ye Xian’s father died, leaving behind no male heir. Because the cave-dwelling people needed a male to lead, the rule of Ye Xian’s family ended with the death of her father. The position of a chieftain was taken by someone else from the tribe, who out of jealousy and who knows what, ensured the Ye Xian’s family was reduced to extreme poverty.

A magical fairy fish was Ye Xian’s only solace

Tormented by the evil step family and the evil tribe chieftain, Ye Xian felt all alone and lonely. However, close to her home was river where live a big talking fish. This chatty fish became friends with Ye Xian. They two talked and spent some good time. Actually the fish was none other than a heavenly guardian sent to look after Ye Xian by her mother who watched Ye Xian from heaven.

The brutal end of the fairy chatty fish

As expected out of every fairy tale, Ye Xian’s only solace, her heavenly fishy friend met a brutal end. One day, Ye Xian’s stepsister Jun-li found out about the fish and reported it to her mother. The evil stepmother of Ye Xian caught the fish and killed it by stabbing it to death by a dagger. The evil woman was not satisfied yet and cooked the dead fish and served it as dinner to Jun-li.

An ancestor’s spirit pays a visit to the Chinese Cinderella

Alright! That was a pretty awful end of a cherished friendship. Ye Xian was devastated by the brutal murder of her friend and the ruthless feasting on the corpse of her beloved friend’s body. Heartbroken, Ye Xian thought her miseries will never end but in an interesting turn of event, a benevolent spirit of one of Ye Xian’s ancestors pays her a visit only to reveal that the fairy fish’s body has been destroyed but her spirit continues to live, who can be summoned to do magical stuff. The secret of summoning was revealed to Ye Xian by her ancestor’s spirit who said that all Ye Xian needs to do is bury the bones of the fish at four corners of her own bedroom and call the fish’s spirit.

Ye Xian calls her friend’s spirit

The Chinese New Year was arriving. It was customary in the then China to celebrate its arrival with a festival. Everyone was busy prepping up for the great gathering. Women were in particular busy to make themselves look at their best. Ye Xian’s stepsister was not behind in the race. She wanted to look absolutely beautiful. Fearing that despite all hardship Ye Xian has went through, her beauty can still outshine that of Jun-li, Ye Xian’s stepmother forced her to stay back in the caves on the day of the festival.

Ye Xian wanted to be there and so she did exactly what her ancestor’s spirit told her to. She placed the bones of her dead fish friend in four corners of her bedroom can called its spirit. The fish’s spirit granted her wishes. Ye Xian was given a pair of golden slippers and a stunningly beautiful silk dress that was adorned with soft feathers. She went to the gathering where her beauty was the focal point. However, as the festival was nearing its end, Ye Xian was afraid that her truth may be revealed to her stepmother and stepsister. So, she decided to leave the place quickly. While running away, she accidentally dropped one of her golden slippers.

Someone found the slipper and after changing a number of hands, the slipper ended up at the hands of the king of To’Han islets (a large group of islands that included the place where Ye Xian’s family lived). It was a small slipper and during those days, it was thought that women with small feet are naturally beautiful.

The magical slipper let to a great woman-hunt by the order of the king. He wanted to find out the lady who wore the slipper. Every lady in the kingdom tried out the slipper but it did not fit properly. Finally he found the Chinese Cinderella, Ye Xian. It was only after Ye Xian narrated her whole life story that the king got captivated. He allowed Ye Xian to try the slipper and it was a perfect fit. What happened next? The king married Ye Xian and she became the queen and lived happily ever after.

So, now that we know the striking similarity between the modern Cinderella and the ancient Chinese Cinderella, the question is, was the story of Cinderella from the Italian man and the French man inspired by that Chinese version that kept floating around for thousands of years? Do let us know what you think of this through our comments section.

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