If the Shoe Fits: Comparative Folklore and the Cinderella(s) Story

East, West, North, South. Strike out in any direction and one is sure to find themselves a tale of such an event. So-and-so meets so-and-so, fates and starstruck, forbidden love and yet it’s meant to be… From Strabo’s Greek servant who finds herself marrying the pharaoh of Egypt to Japan’s “Middle Captain Princess,” whose parallels with Perrault’s Cinderella, while limited, express still the proper functions meant to serve its audience. In other words, “The achievement of the hero is one that he is ready for and it’s really a manifestation of his character.” (Campbell, Joseph: The Power of Myth. Chapter 12) The following essay is an analysis on the functions, characteristics, and mythology of two such cases. First, that of the standard European folkloric narrative of Cinderella. And second, the legend of Ye Xian, the fantastical Chinese peasant-gone-princess from a millennium earlier, the 9th century. and equally entrenched with magic. Despite elephantine differences, cultural variants, language barriers, and psychological distances readers of these tales observe their commonalities. For herein lie the richest gifts of storytelling: to relay the most human of desires; to define urges; to express feelings in such a way that is universally recognized. For those of us in the West we approach Cinderella from an insider’s point of view, or as Victor Turner would say, from an “exegetic” perspective (Introduction to Mythology). In this case we are removed by several centuries and distinct, yet recognizable cultural difference. Whereas we approach Ye Xian as complete outsiders, or as Turner termed from an “operational” perspective. The story of Cinderella, all its variations, complexes, prejudices, heroes, and heroines, strikes a resounding chord for all those listeners of her tale. And for this very reason: the story of Cinderella remains the most human and ripe for plucking. This is a story so ingrained in the collective mind that one can’t help but find themselves absorbed in the narrative. For it is the origin tale of the underdog: the one who overcame injustice: the one who got away. Whose patience and virtues paid off either by luck or karma.

Rites of passage, anxiety, the loss of adolescence. The challenges of this family romance are many. But the heroine inevitably comes out ahead, sometimes in life, other time’s through a meandering network of reincarnations.

Daughter of the Tang Dynasty: The Legend of Ye Xian

The legend of Ye Xian comes from a collection of folktales from the Tang Dynasty (9th century) referred to as the Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang, authored by Duan Chengshi. Wherein Ye Xian’s mother dies in childbirth and is left in the care of her father’s second wife, Jun-Li, whose negligence and demands are equal to those of Cinderella’s stepmother. Likewise Ye Xian’s beauty far surpasses her stepmothers whose bitter envy manifests via demanding, menial chores, jests, and backbreaking work. Unlike the story of Cinderella, Ye Xian is severely mocked and bullied. But one day while out fetching water Ye Xian encounters a fish. This is not just any fish but the very lively and very vocal manifestation of her spirit guardian (Ye Xian’s mother’s spirit/comparable to Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother) whom is meant to guide and protect her. Yet one day, the stepmother Jun-Li catches Ye Xian communing with this mysterious fish and becomes enraged. She returns in the dead of night and creeping up the pond she stabs the fish with a dagger and eats it. Shortly after Ye Xian is left to mourn as her stepmother attends the royal ball. In her misery Ye Xian is visited by yet another spirit, an ancient guardian spirit who restores her faith revealing that her mother’s energy lives on. Performing a magical burial ritual, Ye Xian’s mother is conjured in ghost-form and tasked with granting her daughter one wish: to visit the royal gala. Thus, Ye Xian manages to escape the gloom of her cavernous quarters for just one night, magically endowed with a gown and slippers. Immediately following her admittance, she becomes the life of the gala, everyone infatuated with her. That is until seeing her stepmother whereupon Ye Xian flees and in so doing loses a slipper. This lone tiny golden slipper is discovered by the king who sets out to make the owner of such an ornate and small piece of footwear his bride.

Thus, by luck, by action of external forces, and by divine intervention, Ye Xian is liberated, married to the king, swept away and rescued from the clutches of her wicked stepmother.

The similarities are many, but more interesting are the differences peppered throughout Ye Xian’s story which undoubtedly cast intqigue upon Western audiences. Whereas Cinderella’s liberation comes via fairy god mother, Ye Xian is liberated by an an ancestral spirit. Whereas Cinderella befriends mice, Ye Xian befriends a lovely koi (her mothers reincarnated form). And while Cinderella’s

The symbology of Perrault’s Cinderella range from shapeshifting pumpkins to ungodly felines while the motifs of Duan Chengshi’s tale reflect the symbolic thinking of an Asian audience: embracing the spirit realm, polygamy, and the significance of foot-binding (intoned in the prince’s desire of the woman with “tiniest feet.”). Curiously Cinderella and Ye Xian are both passive observers of their fate, playing a rather meek existence whose process of individuation is achieved mostly through the effort of others. Whether that’s being “discovered” by the prince of either tale or being coaxed by a fairy god mother, or ancestral spirit into taking the journey in the first place. These are simply surface level assessments. To fully appreciate the significance of “Cinderella’s” cultural variations and likewise similarities it is important to focus our attention upon specific insights.

The stories of Ye Xian hail from deep antiquity yet as a major function of folklore suggests a proper analysis of this tale will reveal cultural, historical, and metaphysical insights into 9th century China. Such that modern audiences are opened a window into the Tang Dynasty.

Cinderella, the Unconscious and her Symbolism

“We should understand that dream symbols are for the most part manifestations of a psyche that is beyond the control of the conscious mind. Meaning and purposefulness are not the prerogatives of the mind; they operate in the whole of living nature. There is no difference in principle between organic and psychic growth. As a plant produces its flower, so the psyche creates its symbols. Every dream is evidence of this process.”

C.G Jung, Man and His Symbols

To view Cinderella/Ye Xian as a product of the collective unconscious we must reflect upon the more recent Cinderella Complex (Collette Dowling. 1984) as a very real phenomenon. This modern term defines the precise trait shared between all “Cinderella” stories: they feature a heroine as a passive observer – rather than active participant of her own fate. With this in mind we can take a modern approach to the Jungian analysis which requires an assessment of the narratives characters, their structural components, and functions as manifest.

The individuation of Cinderella/Ye Xian begins with the call of action by external forces. The meek young girl with a father that is either absent or dead is abused by her stepmother (shadow figure), and is motivated by supernatural forces, either fairy godmother or talking fish/Spirit Mother (shadow figures) to challenge her circumstances and free herself from oppression resulting in a noble marriage and ultimately the reversal of all her hardship. The shadow figure in both stories is manifest in the stepmother and to a lesser extent, the stepsiblings. As for the contrasexual embodiment of the animus we see the ancestral guardian in Ye Xian’s arch as the male personification of her psyche. This spirit serves to drive Ye Xian further along her rite of passage when she becomes all but stalled by the death of her mother’s reincarnation, the talking fish. Ye Xian comes to terms with her shadow as her stepmother is outwitted by her attending the ball, and thus if officially challenged for the first time, initiating the scene of the lost slipper, and ultimately resulting in her marriage to the King. The inner psychology of the times in all variations of “Cinderella” reveal the universal truths which reside within the collective unconscious since time immemorial. It is noteworthy our human urge to value those who overcome suffering by all manner of plot, so long as they achieve their individuation by successfully navigating their rites of passage and entering adulthood.

Cinderella: A Big Romantic Family

“For the whole consequence of evolution from blind impulse through conscious will to self conscious knowledge, seems still somehow to correspond to a continued result of births, rebirths and new births, which reach from the birth of the child from the mother, beyond the birth of the individual from the mass, to the birth of the creative work from the individual and finally to the birth of knowledge from the work.”

Otto Rank, 1976

The history of man has run a rather linear course from tree-dwelling ape to gather-hunter rising ultimately to urbanite. Myths come to us from times immemorial, passed orally through the ages, altered to fit the times. I can’t help but wonder about the “Cinderella” that must have existed before recorded history. That said the “family romance” is certainly one which must stem from our primitive ancestors most fundamental instincts.

In 1909 Otto Rank (1884-1939) defined the “mythotype,” or “hero archetype” as a term used to collectivize patterns found throughout folktales regarding their heroes/heroines (Introduction to Mythology). Kinship and tribal roles have always played an important role in our lives, and familial relationships are as important as ever. Thus I find it noteworthy to consider Rank’s views on projection, which reconfigure the Oedipus complex in a sort of role-reversal so that it is the parent, not the child, acting in rebellion: a representation of the hostility and “powerlessness” felt by the child coming of age (Introduction to Mythology). Cinderella’s father and mother come into question in a Rankian analysis. The formers negligence, as an absentee parent and the latter, having passed away to be replaced by an “evil stepmother.” Themes of birth and regeneration are also in the story of Ye Xian, featuring various scenes of reincarnation, spirit manipulation, and divination. Both

Analyzing Myths and Folktales as Historical Manifestos

As much as we may syphon off the ephemeral minds of ancient writers, myths also offer a healthy serving of stimulating historical insights. For instance, in the stories of Ye Xian one may find details specific to the the Tang Dynasty. Of significant beliefs, household norms, and discernably 9th century traditions. This is true too of Cinderella’s 17th century Europe. In the former we’re dropped into the Golden Age of China. A world of sophisticated clocks and gunpowder. A time of great scientific breakthroughs and artistry. An empire heavily influenced by Confucianism and Taoism. The Tang Legal Code with its 500 codices and the laws of the Kojiki. Ancestor worship and the Incorporation of Buddhism (Chan(zen)) too. The Tang Dynasty witnessed a wealth of foreign cultures, economic diversity, and dominance over great swaths of geography as the kingdom grew larger in size, beginning to resemble China as modern audiences would recognize it. But what might we specifically draw from this folkloric China? Perhaps most striking is the significance of Ye Xian’s slipper. Not for its design, nor for the girl to whom it belongs, but rather for its size – the size of her feet are the sole concern of the kings appeal. The “Chinese Cinderella” is not measured by her beauty nor grace but the size of her most delicate stray slipper which symbolizes rather prominently the importance of foot-binding in the Tang Dynasty China. Thus, the story reflects significant marks of nobility and refinement which are traits not found within the European variations of Cinderella. From the European tradition, Cinderella is subservient, beautiful, and measured first by these traits, not her lineage nor commitment to cultural tradition. She is later pursued by the prince who seeks her based upon their prior meeting, not because of her shoe alone, but because the slipper belonged to her

Thinking Animal + Feeling Animal = Folktales

Folklore manifests in endless variation. That said, the tales, legends, and myths comprising such lore follow rather precise patterns inherited by the collective. When considering the importance of this tradition we shall consider William Bascom’s Four Functions of Folklore:

“Folklore lets people escape from repressions imposed upon them by society.

Folklore validates culture, justifying its rituals and institutions to those who perform and observe them. Folklore is a pedagogic device which reinforces morals and values and builds wit. Folklore is a means of applying social pressure and exercising social control.”

-William Bascom, Journal of American Folklore

Thus, it goes without saying, folklore is that device which grants individuals a place in this world. And doing so presents myriad paths of which they may choose to follow as fits one’s needs, desires, tendencies, and instincts. Folktales ultimately arise for a number of reasons beyond this inherent need direction. Distinct cultural variations occur for aetiological reasons, making orderly an otherwise mysterious and chaotic world. Even in this time of advanced quantum physics. For every answer we’re presented with more and deeper mysteries. The only lack we face in modernized society is that commitment to folklore. This is evident in the apathy and widespread listlessness sweeping America.

Cinderella’s Once and Future Selves

As readers of “Cinderella” we find “unconscious expression of ourselves” (C.G. Jung). It is no wonder these legends continue to be told. Their insights shed light upon the universal truths of what it means to be human. Our anxieties and desires alike. Stories arising from the collective unconscious meant to illustrate our inherited right to self-individuation. While at the same time offering guidance as to how one might go about such a dramatic transformation. In all her various forms from Cinderella to Ye Xian, Chujo-Hime (Japan) to Strabo’s Rhodopis (Greece/Egypt) we find these insights right true to their time, their place, and their humanity. Perhaps most enchanting and valuable of all is the fact that in a globalized world we may digest even greater insights from these legends than ever imagined. As our world grows smaller, as cultures blossom, the folktales they share shall become ever more present and more understood. To say any particular version of “Cinderella” is more relevant to me, or more fitting for my (hypothetical) child is to prejudice one for another and I simply cannot do such a thing for the various experiences, trials, and tribulations of all her adventures, in Europe, through Asia, the Classical World and the New World, hers is a remarkable and noteworthy tale. Through all her faults (passivity), and her strengths (daring to dream), “Cinderella” strikes a chord for all those coming-of-age, young or old. What matters is how the story is inherited. The various insights, motifs, and symbols learned in this semester will guide the way I share stories. Will shape the way I talk about the world, near and far. I am deeply grateful for the clusters, units, hours, and weeks we invested in the art and science of mythology.

Works Cited

  1. Joseph Campbell et al. “The Power of Myth” Turtleback Books, 2012.
  2. Bascom, William. “‘Four Functions of Folklore.’” Journal of American Folklore , 1954.
  3. Dowling, Colette. = The Cinderella Complex: Women’s Hidden Fear of Independence. Mikasa Shyobō, 1984.
  4. Jung, C. G., et al. Man and His Symbols. Stellar Classics, 2013.
  5. Rank, Otto. The Myth of the Birth of the Hero: a Psychological Interpretation of Mythology. Read Books Ltd., 2013.
  6. Thury, Eva M., and Margaret Klopfle Devinney. Introduction to Mythology: Contemporary Approaches to Classical and World Myths. Oxford University Press, 2017.
  7. Turner, Victor. Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. ROUTLEDGE, 2017.

Published by Nicholas Andriani

Multi-genre writer and explorer with a background in archaeology. Currently diving into memoir, literary fiction and children's books.

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