This is another collection of stories I got to read for work—happy day! This one is full of ancient Chinese stories, not necessarily having any relation to Buddha stories. But still, the cultural differences between East and West are very apparent (I talked about this at length in my previous post, Twenty Jataka Tales.)
My favorite of the stories is the first one, the title story. In it, a wealthy widow arranges a marriage for her spoiled daughter Hsiang-ling when she is sixteen, but because Hsiang-ling is hard to please, everything that is bought for her dowry must be exchanged multiple times before she is happy. The last part of the dowry is the Chi’i-lin Purse, an embroidered bag with the legendary Chinese animal ch’i-lin on it. Hsiang-ling finally feels sorry for the servant who has to exchange it over and over and is content with the purse. Her mother fills the purse with presents but tells Hsiang-ling not to open it until she arrives at her new house.
She is being carried to her wedding in a sedan chair with drapes when rain begins to pour down. The wedding procession stops under a pavilion. There is another sedan chair there, shabby and with holes in the drapes, and the girl inside is crying. Hsiang-ling has her attendant give her ch’i-lin purse to the girl, not knowing what is inside, hoping to cheer her up since she is so poor. Hsiang-ling is happily married and has a baby boy a year later.
Six years later a terrible flood comes and washes away everything they own, and Hsiang-ling gets separated from her husband and child. She goes to a food distribution line, where she is the last person to receive porridge before they run out of food. The old woman behind her begins to cry, and Hsiang-ling gives the old woman her porridge, despite being starving herself. The server is impressed with her unselfishness and recommends her to his master, who is looking for someone to nanny his son. The master is kind and tells her she may go anywhere except into the Pearl Hall.
The son is spoiled and selfish. One day, the ball they are playing with goes into the Pearl Hall, and the boy cries so much that Hsiang-ling goes in after it. She finds her ch’i-lin purse on an altar and begins to cry at the memory of how happy she had been. Suddenly, Mrs. Lu, her master’s wife, appears. Mrs. Lu asks Hsiang-ling questions about the purse and her wedding, and as she learns the story she has a servant move Hsiang-ling’s chair into the place of highest honor. Mrs. Lu was the poor bride Hsiang-ling gave her ch’i-lin purse to, and she and her husband used the wealth inside it to start a business and have since become rich. The built the Pearl Hall to honor her, but they didn’t know who she was. Mrs. Lu insists on giving Hsiang-ling half of their property and sends out servants to locate her husband and son. The families become great friends. Hsiang-ling loves to tell this story and finishes it by saying to do good whenever you have the chance, and happiness will come back to you.
So the cultural values we see in this story are doing good to others—even those we don’t know—and doing good anonymously! Also, the taking care of elders is held up and rewarded (when Hsiang-ling gives the old woman her porridge). It also shown to be good to take into account the feelings of others, even those who are well below us on the social hierarchy (and hierarchy is a much bigger deal in the East than it is in the West).
As just a note of cultural interest, I think it’s really cool that the placement of chairs in a room and in relation to the host/hostess shows different amounts of honor to the guest. It’s very interesting to me.
I really could write a full blog post on almost every story in this collection, so I should stop, but if you get a chance, pick up this book! My other favorite in it is the final story, “The Royal Bridegroom.” (To pique your interest, I should tell you that the princess gets to her wedding chamber on her wedding night only to find out that she’s been mistakenly married to another girl, who’s been disguised as a man all her life…)