Story Cue Card
Bibliographic Information: Wyndham, Robert. “The Young Head of the Cheng Family.” Tales the People Tell in China. New York: Julian Messner, 1971.
Ethnic Origin: Chinese
Running Time: 10 minutes
Power Centers: 1. Daughters-in-law despair. 2. Sense of accomplishment with Precious Jade’s cleverness. 3. Sense of success and achievement as Precious Jade gets the better of the merchant. 4. Feelings of triumph when Precious Jade outwits the great Mandarin. 5. Peace and prosperity for the Cheng family.
Characters: Precious Jade, Plum Blossom, Peony, Old Cheng, Sons, the Mandarin
Scenes: 1. Old Cheng and two daughters-in-law discuss their visit to home. 2. Daughters-in-law meet Precious Jade on the roadside. 3. Precious Jade instructs the three sons in their daily duties. 4. Precious Jade and a merchant haggle over the pile of rocks in the courtyard. 5. The Mandarin and Precious Jade engage in a battle of wits in the courtyard of the ancestral hall.
Synopsis: Old Cheng is annoyed that his two daughters-in-law keep asking him for permission to visit their homes, so he devises a way to keep them from leaving. They can only go on the condition that they will bring him “fire in paper” and “wind on paper” when they return home. The girls agree but on their journey realize the difficulty of the condition and begin to despair. They meet a clever, young girl named Precious Jade who solves their problem by providing them with a lantern and a fan. On their return home, Old Cheng is much astonished by Precious Jade’s cleverness and arranges for her to marry his youngest son. He makes her the head of his household. As one of her duties, Precious Jade instructs the men in their tasks and soon the Chengs begin to prosper. In the spring the men gathered the stones from the fields and piled them in the courtyard. A merchant passing by noticed a large piece of jade in the pile and decided to purchase it for a bargain. He told Precious Jade that he wished to build a bridge with the rocks and offered a low sum of money. Precious Jade was suspicious and countered his offer with a very high sum. He agreed and she was even more suspicious. She realized there must be something precious in the pile and persuaded Old Cheng to entertain the merchant and bring the conversation around to “how to recognize precious gems among ordinary rocks.” Precious Jade hid behind a screen in the dining room so that she could discover the secret. The next day with her newfound knowledge, Precious Jade was able to drive a hard bargain with the merchant. This increased the Cheng’s wealth so much that they were able to build a beautiful ancestral hall and Precious Jade had the words “No Sorrow” inscribed over the entryway. This saying attracted the attention of a Mandarin who decided to fine Precious Jade for her impudence. He demanded that Precious Jade “weave him a cloth as long as the road,” “make as much oil as in the sea, “ and “tell him what he was thinking.” Precious Jade countered these commands with logic and sense and the Mandarin realized his own foolishness and left the Cheng family in peace.
Special Flavor: Asian symbols such as paper fans and lanterns, jade and a Mandarin. The smooth rhythm and flow of the story are also characteristic of Chinese tales.
Audience: According to Piaget, school age children often have the perception that they are smarter than adults. Charlotte Huck also suggests that ten and eleven year olds are beginning to challenge adult authority. In this respect, the story of young Precious Jade getting the better of Old Cheng, the merchant, and the Mandarin would appeal to them.
Bibliographic Information on Versions and Variants: Kuo, Louise and Yuan-His Kuo. “The Clever Wife.” Chinese Folk Tales. Millbrae, CA: Celestial Arts, 1976.
Vo-Dinh, Sung. “The Fly.” The Toad is the Emperor’s Uncle: Animal Folktales from Vietnam. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970.
Wiggin, Kate Douglas and Nora Archibald Smith. “The Young Head of the Family.” The Fairy Ring. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1967.
Comparison: “The Clever Wife” is similar in content to “The Young Head of the Cheng Family” except that there is only the one episode of the Mandarin questioning the family’s success. Also, the wife is behind the scenes at home and her husband goes out to deal with the magistrate. This story is not as suitable for a school age audience because there is no opportunity to have empathy for a young person outwitting an adult. The strength of the story is in the clever “woman” outwitting a man. This may not have great appeal to a child. “The Clever Wife” would be easier to tell in some ways. It has simpler language and is just one short episode. However, the narrative does not flow as smoothly as does “The Young Head of the Cheng Family.” The three episodes provide a kind of rhythm with which to build upon the quiet triumphs of each episode.
“The Fly” is a Vietnamese variant of “The Young Head of the Cheng Family.” While it has a similar motif, its content renders it almost completely different. The characters consist of a young boy, his parents and a wealthy moneylender. The boy’s parents are in debt to the moneylender. One day when the moneylender comes to collect, only the boy is home. The rich man tries to find out where the parents are but the boy answers him with riddles – “cut living trees and plant dead ones” and “selling the wind to buy the moon”. Finally the rich man promises to forgive the debt if the boy will tell him the answer to the riddles. They designate a fly as a witness and the moneylender is delighted to be fooling the boy. The man returns to demand the payment of the debt from the parents but the little boy says he has forgiven it. The matter ends up in court before a magistrate where the young boy outwits the moneylender and the debt is forgiven. Children would certainly be able to identify with a child outwitting an adult so I think they would really enjoy this variant. It has a fun pace and many opportunities for developing the characters and emotions of the story with facial expressions, gestures and voice.
“The Young Head of the Family” is a version very similar to “The Young Head of the Cheng Family.” It varies little in content, but is quite different in “tellability.” The tale is somewhat stilted and does not flow smoothly. The story has very little variation in the power centers and ends without a sense of triumph or great accomplishment.