Bibliographic Information (best version for telling):
Kendall, Carol and Yao-wen Li. “The Living Kuan-Yin.” In Sweet and Sour Tales: Tales from China. New York: Clarion Books, 1978.
Po-wan scrapes out half of his bowl of rice for the starving beggar and despairs at his own poverty.
Po-wan departs from his third stop (at the rich man’s home) and sorrowfully realizes that he has agreed to ask three questions in addition to his own. He must grapple with the moral dilemma whether to ask the question he’s traveled so far to ask or to ask the three he’s promised to ask for others.
I have three related goals or “risks” I plan to take with this story concerning (1) language, (2) emotion, and (3) the introduction. In the introduction to the collection from which I’ve chosen this tale, its authors speak of the challenge they faced when translating Chinese folktales to English. Because Chinese tales are typically very “bare bones,” they found themselves walking a very fine line between fleshing out the tales and retaining their original format. Each of my risks pertains to this balance.
Both stories I’ve told previously this semester ultimately retained little of their cultural origins in the language of the final telling. Though I might have retained a word or two (“kaput” in Something from Nothing) or tried to paint a culturally-specific setting (the rocky cost of the northern British Isles in The Selkie Girl), the language I used generally stuck close to the English I use daily. In The Living Kuan-Yin I’ve tried diligently to retain a somewhat more Chinese “flavor” and not to resort to obviously modern language patterns and expressions. Though I obviously won’t be speaking Chinese, I hope that I’ve structured my speech to reflect the story’s origins rather than those of its teller.
Accordingly, the plot and characters of this story are somewhat sparse in keeping with their Chinese origins. My second challenge lies in retaining the feel of the original without adding in too many superfluous details. I will try to flesh out characters through emotion (both in voice and face) rather than words. Unlike the language risk, focusing on emotions is not a new risk for me (I’ve tried this my previous stories as well), but one that I’ve struggled with and want to focus on again.
Lastly, I have yet to fully utilize an introduction. I’ve recognized it as an important part of getting the audience warmed up for the story, but very weakly attempted one for my preschool story and eliminated it entirely for my young adult story. This tale is probably not what one might consider a “power story” at first glance, but when one looks deeper into the origins of the Kuan-Yin, deeper layers of meaning arise. I hope that my introduction will play a key role in rendering my tale relevant and meaningful to my audience and will become less a “cute” story and more one whose message may be more multi-layered that it at first appears.
1. After realizing his own poverty, Chin Po-wan sets off to ask the Living Kuan-Yin why he is so poor.
2. Chin Po-wan meets a snake and is asked to pose a question to the Living Kuan-Yin.
3. Chin Po-wan is given food by an innkeeper and is asked to pose a second question to the Living Kuan-Yin.
4. Chin Po-wan is given lodging and a meal by a kind rich man and is asked to pose another question to the Living Kuan-Yin.
5. Po-wan realizes that he has four instead of three questions to ask the Living Kuan-Yin but decides to ask those of his friends rather than his own.
5. Chin Po-wan asks the Living Kuan-Yin the three questions. As he walks back toward home, answers to each question leave him wealthy and married.
Chin Po-wan, destined to be rich, gives away all money and possessions he acquires to others in need only to discover he has nothing but the threadbare clothes on this back and half a bowl of rice to share with a beggar. He sets off to ask the Living Kuan-Yin (who will grant anyone the answers to three questions) why this is so. Chin Po-wan meets a snake who carries him across the river blocking his journey, yet requests that Po-wan ask the Living Kuan-Yin a question for him. Po-wan readily agrees. Chin Po-wan then comes upon an inn where the innkeeper gives him food to ease his hunger, yet he asks that Po-wan ask the Living Kuan-Yin a question for him. Po-wan again happily agrees. Lastly, Chin Po-wan is given lodging and a meal by a kind rich man, yet when he leaves the rich man asks him to pose a question to the Living Kuan-Yin for him. Po-wan agrees once again, yet as he walks away recognizes the dilemma he has before him. He ultimately decides to ask the questions of the snake, the innkeeper and the rich man instead of his own as he deems it more important to keep his promises than to pose his own question. After questioning the Living Kuan-Yin, he retraces his steps to relay the answers. Each answer further fulfills the prophecy that Po-wan is destined to be rich. By the end of the tale, Po-wan is wealthy and married to the formerly mute daughter of the innkeeper.
“A promise should never be made if it cannot be kept.”
“For after all, the Living Kuan-Yin allowed each person three questions, and he had but one of his own to ask.”
Audience (why is this story appropriate for the audience? developmental characteristics?):
Caroline Feller Bauer in her Handbook for Storytellers notes that adults have eclectic tastes and almost any story will work with an adult audience. She does, however, specifically list folktales as a story type of choice for adults. In choosing a Chinese folktale, I have purposefully chosen a story with subtle messages tinged in eastern thought which might be lost on younger children.
Bauer also cautions against the assumption that the “learned reserve” in adult audiences implies a lack of interest. In an attempt to rid adult audiences of any politeness and skepticism about storytelling, she recommends extra warm up time to “give your group ‘permission’ to react.” I hope that my introduction, an element on which I’ve specifically chosen to focus in this last performance, will help to draw in and relax my adult audience.
Looking specifically at the ways in which this story appeals to the developmental stages of adults, I turned to Erikson’s “eight stages of man” wherein he identifies two adult stages:
Generativity vs. Stagnation (middle adulthood)
The giving of oneself to the next generation: child rearing, productive work, caring for others.
Ego Integrity vs. Despair (old age)
Review of past life and consideration of its meaning and impact. Life's worth.
Though they can certainly be interpreted widely, each of these stages notes an emphasis on establishing meaning. In middle adulthood this manifests itself as “the giving of oneself to the next generation” and in old age as a consideration of life’s “meaning and impact.” The Living Kuan-Yin appeals to this adult-specific focus on self worth and giving as it presents Po-wan’s selfless giving and ultimate choice to keep his promises rather than serve his own interests.
Looking at another theory of development, adults in Piaget’s model have reached the formal operational stage of development wherein they are able to make sense of “abstract theoretical thoughts.” Obviously, the fully developed adult ability to think theoretically is important to making meaning of the themes in The Living Kuan-Yin. Lastly, I considered the developmental level of this story in light of Maslow’s list of basic human needs. Though Maslow’s needs are not age-specific, one can clearly discern the universal human needs appealed to through The Living Kuan-Yin and their adult-specific leanings. Thus, the story’s conclusion wherein Po-wan finds himself not only well taken care of physiologically due to his new wealth, but surrounded by love and affection in the form of a new wife appeals to distinctly adult variations of universal needs. The listener experiences the fulfillment of these needs vicariously through Po-wan’s success, but directly experiences the fulfillment of a spiritual (aesthetic) need through self-reflection on the messages of the story.
Bauer, Caroline Feller. New Handbook for Storytellers. American Library Association, 1993.
Erikson, Erik. Childhood and Society. New York: W. W. Norton, 1950.
Maslow, Abraham H. Motivation and Personality. rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.
Sturm, Brian. A Child’s Developmental Growth: Piaget’s Developmental Stages (web page). http://ils.unc.edu/%7Esturm/storytelling/childdev.html
Bibliographic information on other versions/variants:
Megas, Georgios A. (ed.). “Chance and the Poor Man.” In Folktales of Greece. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970), 143-144.
O’Sullivan, Sean. (ed.). “The Queen of the Planets.” In Folktales of Ireland. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966), 205-209.
Wang, Rosalind C. The Fourth Question: a Chinese Tale. New York: Holiday House, 1991.
Brief comparison of all versions/variants in terms of language, rhythm, "tellability," "flavor," content, etc. Stress the differences in style rather than those of content.
I expected to find numerous Chinese or Asian variants of this tale. I was only able to locate two, however, one of which I couldn’t find in any local libraries. By reading both Irish and Greek versions (and a somewhat watered down Chinese version) I gained an even greater appreciation for the eastern flavor of The Living Kuan-Yin which only reinforced my decision to tell this version. I chose The Living Kuan-Yin for its loyalty to the tale’s cultural roots in the sparseness of the plot and word choice. Further, of all the main characters in the versions I considered, Po-wan’s words and actions seemed to best reflect his innate goodness. It was this theme of selfless giving and keeping promises on which I wanted to focus. This was either altered or changed completely in the other versions. The tale has a direct, almost philosophical feel rather than the darkness of The Queen of the Planets or The Fourth Question. Lastly, no other version used Kuan-Yin as the wise person of whom the questions are asked. After researching the Kuan-Yin I found that her tale in itself embodies the tale’s central theme and would serve as an excellent introduction and hopefully as a prompt to further thought on the universality of Po-wan’s actions, the many motivations behind them, why his destiny is fulfilled, and what he will do with the riches he receives.
The Fourth Question by Rosalind Wang almost hits the reader over the head with the moral of the story’s ending, “Helping others and doing good deeds brought him happiness and rewards.” Such an ending makes explicit something that will be silently (and easily) acknowledged independently by an adult audience. The overall presentation is overly didactic and distinctly preachy. Perhaps this is the case because this version was written in picture book format for a younger audience as opposed to the other three versions addressed here which appear in larger un-illustrated collections. Regardless, The Fourth Question is not geared toward an adult audience. Further, it almost feels watered down in its failure to use the same lyrical language. The dragon (the serpent in the version I’ve chosen) calls out, “Hey, young man, why do you sit here with such a sad face?” Such language has a distinctly Americanized feel that undermines the tale’s Chinese roots. Lastly, whereas in The Living Kuan Yin the main character begins the tale as one who assumes he is rich, yet gives everything away, the man (here called Yee-Lee) in this version is very poor and goes to the wise man solely to find out why he works so hard and makes so little. Yee-Lee’s trip to the wise man is intended for personal gain unlike Po-wan’s motivations which may be self-serving, but are initially spurred by his inability to longer help others. The motivation as presented in The Living Kuan-Yin is important to the central dilemma of the story – without it the emotions connected to the main character’s ultimate decision are considerably less meaningful.
In contrast to The Fourth Question, Chance and the Poor Man is so stripped down that the characters lose their personalities. The main character, in response to a request that he ask a question of Chance, says only, “Very well.” This response seems terse and snobbish which is obviously out of context with his poverty stricken situation. In The Living Kuan-Yin Po-wan’s response to each request reveals his kind character through his ready willingness to please others and the ease with which he puts aside his own needs. “Very well” obviously implies none of this compassion. However, while I was not as taken in by this version and its characterizations as The Living Kuan-Yin, it definitely has an “Aha!” twist to it that I didn’t find in other versions. When the main character, the poor man, approaches Chance with his four questions, she sends him back home and tells him she will send him three occasions “when he might help himself become rich.” As he begins to leave he tells her of the others whose questions he hoped to ask (in this case a farmer, a king, and a fish). Chance tells him the secret causes of his friend’s troubles, yet when he subsequently reveals them to his friends and they offer him a part, he declines, preferring instead to head home and wait for Chance to send him the three occasions! This twist at the end sets up an entirely different message for the story, one which is important, but not the one on which I wanted to focus.
An Irish version, The Queen of the Planets, follows the same general plot outline, yet is quite different from the other three versions addressed here. A son sets off to find out why his father (a good man) received a stormy funeral day, while his mother (who had the blessing of no one) received a fine funeral day. While traveling to find the answers, the son meets various people who ask him to find out the answer to their own questions as well. The son is not merely terse as in Chance and the Poor Man, he is rude. When a widow asks him to pose her question as well, he states, “I have enough troubles of my own without taking more on my shoulders, but if I get word for you, I’ll bring it back.” His responses to subsequent question requests are much the same. Again, this man does not embody the message I want my story to center upon. Though the plot then strays considerably from those above, it ends with the queen of the planets similarly answering the questions of all those who asked. In regards to his own question, the man learns that the storminess of his father’s funeral day indicated rewards for him in his afterlife as he was a kind man whereas his mother’s (who “never got a blessing from a poor person”) indicated eternal purgatory. The message here is one of retribution and is tied up in religious undertones. Ultimately the man must throw an apple into the mouth of his mother (in mastiff form) turning her into a lump of jelly. It is a much darker and less philosophical version from those above. It was very far from the more reflective tone for which I was searching.