3 Asian Folktales You Should Know

For possibly many of us, folktales have been a part of our lives. They could be the stories told at bedtime by our elders or the tales that were told around the campfires at night. Most importantly, folktales are the remnants of our past and of our culture. They represent one’s heritage and history thus making it an important piece in the representation of unique cultures. Here are 3 folktales from our Asian culture, hailing from China, Indonesia and Japan. 

1. CHINA: THE LEGEND OF THE WHITE SNAKE

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Dating back to the Tang Dynasty, this folktale looks at the passionate love between a white snake and a human, and the tumultuous events that follow their love. 

Deep in the mountains, there once lived two immortal creatures – a green and white snake. When they wanted to visit the human world, they turned into a pair of ravishing women and they arrived at the Broken Bridge at Hangzhou. That was where the white snake encountered Xu Xian, and fell in love with him at first sight. After much introduction, it was apparent that both the mortal and the white snake shared mutual feelings, which later developed into marriage. Now husband and wife, they managed a shop that sold herbal medicine. 

The trouble began when a monk, Fahai, paid a visit to the store. When Fahai told Xu Xian his wife was a demonic snake instead of a human being, Xu Xian denied it at first…until Fahai suggested that this special concoction could prove otherwise. Later on in the day, Xu Xian infused the potion into some wine, which his wife drank. The second she took on her snake form, Xu Xian collapsed and passed away from the shock. However, there was a way to bring him back to life – there was a magical herb that was located in the mountain, and she proceeded to embark on an adventure to acquire it. 

But it was not easy at first; in fact, she found herself head-to-head with the White Crane and Deer boys, the disciples of Shou Xing. Also known as the Old Man of the South Pole, Shou Xing was a deity part of Fu Lu Shou, the three lucky Gods of blessings, prosperity and longevity. His disciples fought against the white snake in the attempt to prevent her taking the magical herb. However, Shou Xing took sympathy and offered her the herb, thus, she returned home to save her husband. 

But the trouble didn’t stop there – when Xu Xian fluttered back to life, Fahai took him away to his temple and forbade her to meet him. A war ensued after, and the white snake decided to ask help from the Dragon King of the east. He was the Chinese deity of the oceans, dragons, sea creatures and the weather, so he summoned his sea goblins to fight against the powerful Fahai. Meanwhile, both the white and the green snake flooded the temple, but alas! Fahai won the war with the help of the heavenly deities above. 

The white and the green snake sisters eventually escaped and seeked shelter elsewhere. At the moment, the white snake discovered that she was pregnant fighting. Upon escaping the temple, Xu Xian found his wife. She decided to finally be honest with him, revealing her true form. Nevertheless, he did not care; he still loved her after all. Unfortunately, Fahai made an appearance once again, this time with a heavenly warrior. With a golden bowl, he captured the white snake while she was in the midst of labour, leaving her imprisoned under the Leifeng Pagoda for centuries. 

2. INDONESIA: THE GOLDFISH OF LAKE TOBA

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Located in North Sumatra, Lake Toba is one of the most picturesque, natural landmarks Indonesia has to offer. Formed within the caldera of a supervolcanic eruption, Lake Toba currently stands as the biggest lake in the archipelago, let alone the whole Southeast Asian continent. In fact, it’s so deep (450 metres) and so big (over 1,145 square km), that it may be considered an ocean instead. 

Fun fact: Lake Toba wasn’t exactly introduced to the map until 1850, for the Batak tribes living in Toba, the land was considered sacred to their heritage. On that note, with Lake Toba’s rich history, there are several myths and legends associated with such a site. While sources say the lake and Samosir Island was formed 100,000-75,000 years ago in the midst of two volcanic eruptions, a legend states that Lake Toba was formed by the explosion of a mythical mountain called Mount Tuhaweoba. This is how Lake Toba came to be. 

There was once a farmer who lived along the valley. When he went out fishing in the river, he caught a large goldfish, but the fish wanted to be released. However, it turned out that the fish was actually a lovely princess (named Toba) who was cursed to be this way, and later on, they became husband and wife. However, one was to know that she was a fish or else bad things would happen. 

A year later, they had a son (named Samosir) with a voracious appetite – to a fault. When the farmer asked him to bring him food, his son became hungry and ate his father’s food instead. In a fit of rage, the farmer cursed him as the “son of the fish”. The boy ran home to his mother who was surprised by her child’s tearful outburst but she soon came to know why he was crying. She told him to go to the tallest tree nearby, knowing the trouble that would come. While her child retreated to the tallest tree nearby, Toba started to pray. As the skies started to darken, she disappeared back into the same river where she met the farmer. Within seconds, the sky erupted into heavy sheets of rain, causing a stormy, heavy flood that turned the valley into the lake and the island. Today, they are Danau Toba and Samosir Island. 

3. JAPAN: MOMOTARO, THE PEACH BOY

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Also known as the “Peach Boy”, this Japanese folktale is a popular (yet adorable) story that talks about the unification of unlikely people towards change, even during a terrible crisis.

Here’s how it began: there was once an elderly couple living in the countryside. Since they didn’t have children of their own, they were lonely. On one fateful day, the couple dispersed to handle tasks of their own. While the husband dealt with gathering firewood, his wife sat down by the river to wash their clothes. Soon enough, an unusually massive and beautiful peach started to float down the river, so she picked it up and saved it for supper. But before they could even begin to cut the fruit open, a baby boy tumbled out and this split the peach in half. Very much delighted, the couple adopted the baby and named him Momotaro (hence, the name of this story). 

Fifteen years later, Momotaro proclaimed himself old enough to save his country from the ogres. For many years, these ruthless monsters would invade Momotaro’s island and bring hell upon the inhabitants. They would often kidnap people and steal their resources, even the golden treasures Momotaro intended to get back. After getting permission from his father, he embarked on his journey to the sea. While his father wrapped him in armour and gave him a sword, his mother fixed him dumplings. 

The first animal Momotaro encountered was an angry spotted dog that was close to biting him. But when he gave the dog a dumpling and talked to it about his plan, the dog agreed to come along. Then they met a monkey. At first, the dog and the monkey weren’t exactly best friends; the two animals fought until Momotaro pacified the primate with another dumpling and news of his plan. Once the monkey agreed  to join the team, they continued their journey. The whole thing repeats once again when they meet a pheasant, the third animal of this folktale. Once everyone was fine with one another, they reached the sea. Only then,did the Peach Boy work on constructing a ship to get to Ogre Island. 

Upon arrival, it was not a welcoming sight. Besides the multicoloured ogres (specifically red, blue, and green), the island was dominated by a powerful fort. Nonetheless, they were all ready to fight them. 

The pheasant pecked at their heads and eyes, the monkey clawed at all of them, the dog bit every ogre on sight, and Momotaro mercilessly spilt blood with his sword. Once they defeated the enemy, the ogres stooped low to their level and promised to never hurt their country again. Finally, the ogres brought the stolen treasure, and piled it onto the boat which then made its way home. Once they reached the land, Momotaro and his animal unit piled everything on the cart and returned to Momotaro’s home. His parents were so happy that their son made it home safe, and was very surprised at the sight of the treasure. Nevertheless, everyone lived happily ever after. 

Other than the cultivation of storytellers in the 21st century, folktales have evolved into something more than a cultural significance. In fact, these tales often reflect the human condition through lessons of moral virtues. By teaching the children these important lessons, they get a chance to learn what the world is about before they get first-hand experience as they step out into the real world as adults. 

By Natasha Effendy

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