1001 Cinderellas: How They Told The Beloved Tales in Asia

By IYWP Intern Camellia Pham

What happens if you drop your slipper in… Asia?

*Disclaimer: this is not a guideline for traveling to Asia*

We have been told about Cinderella. Everybody, at least once or even more, in their life sitting under the sky, listening to the tale of the little glass slippers, marveling at these magical glass shoes fitting nicely on her dancing toes.

We heard much about the fair Cinderella of the Grimm brothers and watched different versions of Cinderella of the reputable Disney, from their 1950s animation to the 2015 romantic fantasy film featuring Lily James. What about the other part of the world?

What have people in Asia had in store for Cinderella? Is she gorgeous? Is she magical? Does she also… drop her slipper on her run-away from the grand ballroom?

Depiction of Cinderella and Fairy Godmother based on the Grimm Brothers’ Cinderella

Our One Upon A Time all starts with a girl, a shoe, a fairy, and a prince. Still, from rag to riches, the stories of oriental Cinderellas are not merely about how a poor girl takes her magical leap to get out of the cinders, overcome familial and societal hurdles, and find her own Happily Ever After. From the foot-binding custom in China to the veneration of the dead in Vietnam, or the significance of the Spirit of Virtue in Khmer folklore, beyond the reefs of the beloved fairy tales lain lessons about the rich, long-enduring histories, cultures, practices, and beliefs in Asian countries that we are always eager to know.

What 2200-year-old Cinderella has to say about the Lotus Foot in China?

Chinese Cinderella: The Story of Ye Xian

Ye Xian is the oldest known variant of Cinderella, back in the Tang Dynasty. The story plot is pretty familiar, but somewhat even more magical than what we’ve been used to. Ye Xian’s mother died when she was a baby. After Ye Xian’s beloved father passes away, she lives with her abusive father’s second wife and her stepsister, Jun Li She later befriends a golden eye fish that she caught on a lake near her home, which turns out to be the spirit guardian sent by her mother beyond the grave.

Artwork from Once Upon A Blog

Jun Li found out that Ye Xian has made a new friend and enjoys her confidante. Jealous of Ye Xian’s happiness, Jun Li and her mother schemed a plot to kill the fish and have it for dinner. When Ye Xian finds out about her best friend’s death and mourns for it, an old man’s spirit appears up in front of her, warning her to bury the fish bones in four pots and shove them in the corners of her bed frame. After reminding her to talk to the bones when she is in need of help, the spirit disappears.        

It is that time of the year where spring readily creeps into the breath of the air. Every household prepares to find husbands for their daughters and maidens on the New Year Festival. Ye Xian is forced to stay at home and clean the cave. Still wishing to attend the festival, Ye Xian makes a wish to her fish bones and suddenly, sea-green silk, a cloak of kingfisher feathers and a pair of tiny golden slippers are already adorned on her body.

Artwork from Once Upon A Blog

As she goes to the festival on foot, when she realizes that she is almost recognized by her stepsister Jun Li, she hurries her way back home and leaves behind a golden embroidery slipper. The slipper is found by a local peasant. After multiple tradings the slipper is up to Han king’s hands. As much as he is amazed by such a small shoe size, he calls upon his people to find out the girl whose feet fit into the beautiful slipper. When Ye Xian arrives at the king’s palace to retrieve the slipper, the king demands verification. She then talks about her lost father, her lost friend, and now her lost slipper. Moved by her beauty and good nature, the king decided to marry her off the poor life back in the cave, where her stepmother and stepsister are forced to live in their destitute village forever.

Artwork from Jasmine Tea and Jiaozi

From the very distinguished take on Cinderella of China, we started to realize why the emperor was always in their scalding search for the women whose feet fit into those tiny little slippers. The tiny lotus feet in Chinese culture at one time was considered a symbol of beauty, deviated from the story of Pan Yunu, a favorite consort of the emperor Xiao Baojuan. She danced barefoot with her delicate feet so beautifully on a golden lotus designed floor that the emperor showered her with a panegyric: “lotus spring from her every step!” Lotus feet and small shoes were an embodiment of the femininity, elegance, and dainty. Women in ancient China bound their feet to develop strong muscles in their thighs, hips, and buttocks that facilitate a peculiar refined movement, seen as physically attractive to the Chinese men. As a result, women with lotus feet were likely to enter a prestigious marriage.

The golden lotus shoes of ancient China

At the same time, foot binding is conducted through an excruciating process, which creates permanent pelvic pain and imbalance in mobility. Chinese girls typically bound their feet at the age of 5 up to 8. They used long strips of cloth to reshape their feet within 3-4 inches, which restricted further growth and produced a pronounced arch. In China particularly, the collective practice of foot-binding reflects through the thread of the story as the Ye Xian; the practice was long-lasting up to a millennium.

The story of Cinderella in China, hence, not only to tell fairy folklore of magic and wonders. Settling beneath the surface of a happily-ever-after is a painful process that Chinese women used to endure, which signifies a standard of beauty and a symbol of attractiveness, and at the same time, a life-long disability inflicted on women themselves.

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