The Four Great Folktales of China



I only knew a small grasp of Chinese culture and beliefs, which inhibited me from clearly understanding Chinese folklore and religions. Studying more into the culture, I found that Chinese folklore is rich with many ghost stories and tales that reflect the beliefs of the region. There are so many in fact, that to understand what the classic folklore in China are, I narrowed my research to what is known as The Four Great Folktales of China: The Cowherd and the Weaver Maid, The Butterfly Lovers, Lady Meng Jiang, and The White Snake. Each story tells of love and loss in complex scenarios that are deeply rooted in Chinese beliefs.

Interpreting the meaning and symbolism from the four stories is different from Western folklore. There are people and animals that are distinctly Chinese in meaning and portrayal with seemingly similar folkloric figures such as fairies and dragons. Colors also take on new meaning from the perspective of a Western reader, where the color white is a symbol of purity, but symbolizes death in the traditional Chinese culture. An understanding of China’s three main religions, Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, must also be understood in order to make connections with what is happening within the story, and with why the folklore is told in this way from a historical standpoint. My research consists of books of poetry of the folktales that date back to their conception, Chinese symbolism sources.

The four folktales were written during different dynasties in China. The Butterfly Lovers was written in the Tang dynasty. The Cowherd and the Weaver Maid was written dating back to the Song dynasty. Lady Meng Jiang was also written during the Song dynasty, but was written later because of the inclusion of the Great Wall of China. The Legend of the White Snake was then written during the Ming dynasty.

What connects the four myths together is in their themes of love overcoming obstacles. The Cowherd and the Weaver Maid fall in love despite their places in the universe, but they are separated because of the taboo of a celestial being in a relationship with a mortal, and are only allowed to visit each other once a year.

The Butterfly Lovers has a woman dress as a man in order to get a formal education, and falls in love with another student, but after she finishes her studies she is betrothed to another man, and her lover dies in grief, before she joins him in death and they both become butterflies.

Lady Meng Jiang takes winter clothes to her husband, who is forced to work on the Great Wall of China for years, only to find that her husband had died before she could visit him. Only when she cries in grief upon the massive pile of bones from other workers is she able to find her husband’s bones, and give him a proper burial.

The Legend of the White Snake tells the epic of a female snake who takes human form to repay a man who gave her the means to become human. The two are married and have a son, who helps save his mother from a tortuous, who blames the snake for disrupting his plan on becoming a human years ago.

The relevance of these tales were incorporated into popular consciousness. Films told the stories visually for audiences, and operas telling the story of the White Snake are popular. Tourists who visit the Great Wall of China will hear the tale of Lady Meng Jiang. The Qixi Festival is celebrated in honor of the Cowherd and the Weaver Maid, and is considered to be a Chinese version of a similar Christian holiday, Valentine’s Day.

These four stories are often grouped together, and so I decided to use the storylines, symbolism, and themes to create an narrative and gameplay for a video game pitch. The player would control an immortal who helps each couple with supernatural dilemmas, such as negotiating with the Queen Mother for the Weaver Maid and the Cowherd, and holding off Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi and his army so Lady Meng Jiang can find her husband’s bones. Making the player character an immortal would also help the player character interact with the couples throughout different dynasties.

I believe folktales, myths, and religion help shape and define a culture, and that focusing on a few closely held stories can help a foreigner understand people who are different from themselves. Incorporating them into a game would also not only introduce a culture to people in the gaming community, but to children for supplementary learning.


One thought on “The Four Great Folktales of China

  1. Julia Eddy

    The idea of a video game based off of these classic folktales is certainly an intriguing one. The way these tales have worked their way into the popular consciousness of China is similar to the way that Journey to the West has done so as China’s great epic. Journey to the West has successfully been adapted many times now and dispersed throughout many different cultures, making it’s way to the Western world. Some of the issues that have followed this though, are the fact that much of the original meaning, specifically the religious one of Buddhism, has been stripped away to make it more palatable for Western audiences. So while the idea of a video game teaching one culture about another is a good one, it would have to be done carefully if you wanted the original meanings of the stories to stay intact. At the same time, as we’ve learned about through studying the Silk Road, ideas will always transmute and that is the beauty of cultural sharing. The whole creation of Journey to the West was likely through oral storytelling and the trading of different ideas as the story of Xuanzang was slowly mythologized. So, while with the transmission and commodification of a piece of culture you run the risk of the actual intent being stripped away, there is also always the chance that it will plant the seed of the something new and grow in its new environment.


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