The Wise Young Girl Becomes Head of the Household
Illustrated By: Suzie Chang
In China there once lived a father, his four sons, and three daughters-in-law. His three older sons had married within a few months of each other and all with young women from the same village. Recently these three new daughters-in-law had been brought into the house. Their new father-in-law's wife had died a few years before, and having no mother-in-law with them in their new home, and being lonesome and homesick for their former families, they constantly asked the old man for permission to visit their former village. For you see, those were the days when young women, after they married and moved into the homes of their new husbands, needed permission to leave the household.
Annoyed by the continual pleas of his three new daughters-in-law, the old father thought of a way to put an end to it. He gave the young women permission in this way, saying, "You are always begging me to allow you to go and visit your mothers', and you think I am very hard-hearted for not letting you go. Now you may go, but only upon this condition. When you come back, you must each bring me something that I want. One of you must bring me some fire in paper, the other must bring me some wind in paper, and the third music bring me some music in wind. Unless you promise to bring me this, you are never to ask me to let you go home. And if you go and fail to get these for me, you are never to come back."
The old man did not suppose that these conditions would be accepted. Of course they were hard to understand, much less to fulfill. But the girls were young and thoughtless, and in their anxiety to get away did not consider any of that. So they promised and made ready with speed. In great glee, they started off on foot to visit their mothers.
After they had walked a long distance, chatting about what they should do and whom they should see in their native village, a heel of one of their shoes came loose and fell off. They all stopped to fix her footgear, and in that pause they remembered what they had promised their father-in-law. At once, they all began to despair as they had no idea what the strange requests really were, much less how to fulfill them.
While they sat wailing by the roadside, a wise young girl came riding along on a water buffalo. She stopped and asked them what was the matter, and if she could help. They told her she could do them no good, no one could. But she persisted in offering her sympathy and inviting their confidence, till at last they told her their story.
The wise young girl on the water buffalo said that if they would go home with her, she would show them a way out of their trouble. Their case seemed so hopeless, and the girl on the water buffalo seemed so sure of her own power to help, that they followed the rider of the water buffalo back to her home. And there, she showed them how to comply with their father-in-law's demands.
How can the first daughter-in-law bring back fire wrapped in paper?
How can the second daughter-in-law bring back wind in a paper?
How can the third daughter-in-law bring back music in wind?
For the first one, she showed them a paper lantern. When lighted, there's a fire and its paper surface encompasses the blaze, so it's truly "some fire wrapped in paper." For the second, she showed them a paper fan. When flapped, wind surrounds the fan and thus satisfies the call for "wind wrapped in paper." For the third, she showed them a set of chimes that creates music in the wind.
The three young women thanked the wise young girl for her good ideas and went on their way rejoicing. After a pleasant visit to their home village, they took a paper lantern, a paper fan and a set of chimes, and returned to their father-in-law's house. As soon as he saw them approach he began to vent his anger at their light regard for his commands. But they assured him that they had perfectly obeyed him, and showed him that what they had brought to fulfill the conditions.
Much astonished, the father asked how it was that they had suddenly become so clever, and they told him the story of their journey, and of the girl on the water buffalo that had so fortunately come to their relief. He asked if the girl was married, and finding that she was not, he engaged a go-between to see if he could arrange for the girl on the water buffalo to marry his youngest son, the fourth. For you see, these were also the days when marriages were often arranged in just that kind of way.
Having succeeded in arranging a marriage between his fourth son and the girl on the water buffalo, she arrived at the house. The father told the rest of the family that as there was no mother in the house, and as this girl had shown herself to be possessed of extraordinary wisdom, that she should be the head of the household.
Some happy and prosperous years passed, the young wives bore many children, and all fared very well in the household, together.
"The Young Head of the Family" is based on a story of the same name from Chinese Fairy Tales by Adele M. Fielde (G. P. Putnam's Sons: New York, 1893) pp.60-69.
Adapted by Elaine Lindy. ©1998. All rights reserved.
Adele M. Field, author of "The Young Head of the Family", wrote the following description of a Chinese woman's role at the turn of the 19th century: "A Chinese woman was like a hen in a coop; though she ran ever so fast, she never reached a point from which she could see more than was visible from behind the bars of her prison. The best that could be hoped for, for any girl, was that she might naturally be endowed with such gifts as would give her a commanding position within her husband's house, as was the case with the girl who became the 'young head of the household.'"