Yeh-Shen: The Chinese Cinderella

Yeh-ShenEveryone has heard the rags-to-riches story of Cinderella. The most popular version of this classic fairy tale was written by Charles Perrault in 1697. But, did you know the first written Cinderella story, called Yeh-Shen, was written in 850 A.D. in China? It’s over a thousand years older than the earliest known European version! And that’s not even the oldest version of Cinderella.

The story of Cinderella dates back to ancient Greco-Egyptian times. It is thought that the story emerged sometime in the first century. There are thousands of variations of this children’s tale around the world.

Here’s the Chinese version of Cinderella.

Yeh-Shen: A Chinese Cinderella Story

During the time of the Ch’in and Han dynasties, a cave chief named Wu married two wives and each gave birth to baby girls. Before long Chief Wu and one wife died leaving one baby, Yeh-Shen, to be reared by her stepmother. The stepmother didn’t like Yeh-Shen for she was more beautiful and kinder than her own daughter so she treated her poorly.

Yeh-Shen was given the worst jobs and the only friend she had was a beautiful fish with big golden eyes . Each day the fish came out of the water onto the bank to be fed by Yeh-Shen. Now Yen-Shen had little food for herself but she was willing to share with the fish. Her stepmother hearing about the fish disguised herself as Yen-Shen and enticed the fish from the water. She stabbed it with a dagger, and cooked the fish for dinner.

Yeh-Shen was distraught when she learned of the fish’s death. As she sat crying she heard a voice and looked up to see a wise old man wearing the coarsest of clothes and with hair hanging down over his shoulders. He told her that the bones of the fish were filled with a powerful spirit, and that when she was in serious need she was to kneel before the bones and tell them of her heart’s desires. She was warned not to waste their gifts.

Yeh-Shen retrieved the bones from the trash heap and hid them in a safe place. Time passed and the spring festival was nearing. This was a time when the young people gathered in the village to meet one another and to find husbands and wives. Yen-Shen longed to go to the festival but her stepmother wouldn’t allow it because she feared that someone would pick Yeh-Shen rather than her own daughter.

The stepmother and the daughter left for the festival leaving Yeh-Shen behind. Yeh-Shen wanting desperately to go asked the bones for clothes to wear to the festival. Suddenly she was wearing a beautiful gown of azure blue with a cloak of kingfisher feathers draped around her shoulders. On her feet were beautiful slippers. They were woven of golden threads in a pattern of a scaled fish and the soles were made of solid gold. When she walked she felt lighter than air. She was warned not to lose the slippers.

Yeh-Shen arrived at the festival and soon all were looking her way. The daughter and step-mother moved closer to her for they seemed to recognize this beautiful person. Seeing that she would be found out, Yeh-Shen dashed out of the village leaving behind one of the golden slippers.

When she arrived home she was dressed again in her rags. She spoke again to the bones, but they were now silent. Saddened she put the one golden slipper in her bedstraw. After a time a merchant found the lost slipper, and seeing the value in the golden slipper sold it to a merchant who gave it to the king of the island kingdom of T’o Han.

Now the king wanted to find the owner of this tiny beautiful slipper. He sent his people to search the kingdom but no ones foot would fit in the tiny golden slipper. He had the slipper placed on display in a pavilion on the side of the road where the slipper had been found with an announcement that the shoe was to be returned to the owner.

The king’s men waited out of sight. All the women came to try on the shoe. One dark night Yeh-Shen slipped quietly across the pavilion, took the tiny golden slipper and turned to leave, but the king’s men rushed out and arrested her. She was taken to the king who was furious for he couldn’t believe that any one in rags could possibly own a golden slipper. As he looked closer at her face he was struck by her beauty and he noticed she had the tiniest feet.

The king and his men returned home with her where she produced the other slipper. As she slipped on the two slippers her rags turned into the beautiful gown and cloak she had worn to the festival. The king realized that she was the one for him. They married and lived happily ever after. However, the stepmother and daughter were never allowed to visit Yeh-Shen and were forced to continue to live in their cave until the day they were crushed to death in a shower of flying stones.

By: Aai Ling Louie

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53 thoughts on “Yeh-Shen: The Chinese Cinderella

  1. Frafallina -Roam 2 Rome

    Beautiful story, then I reach the end and to my surprise it ends with “a shower of flying stones?” oh my!

    How did you come across this? Is this version of the story a common tale in Asia?

    Now that I remember grandmother as a child as she ironed she’d tell about 7 of us grandchildren stories and we sat there in awe… they were also regionalized older tales of what little kids would get on the Disney channel :)

    Reply
    • kiriyubel

      I think when they say “a shower of flying stones” they mean a “cave-in”. they did live in a cave after all, so the stepmother and stepsister kept living there until on day the cave collapsed, maybe in an earthquake.

      Reply
  2. globetrotteri

    I know. Isn’t it messed up? I wish there had been a little more elaboration there, but maybe it’s best there isn’t. And yes, this version is a common tale in Asia.

    Actually, I think this version of Cinderella is quite tame compared to other fairy tales. Perrault also wrote Little Red Riding Hood and Bluebeard. Think of those two gory fairy tales.

    Poor Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother is eaten by the wolf and Bluebeard is about a violent man and an over-curious wife. He gives the keys to a secret room to his wife. She opens it and discovers the dead bodies of his former wives.

    Flying stones don’t seem so bad now.

    Reply
  3. Christie

    I’m a college student trying to find the Yeh-Shen that was written by Tuan Ch’eng-shih. Is this the English translation, or an abstract?? I’m doing a research paper on how Disney fairy tales compare to the original versions, this original has been most difficult to find. Any help would be appreciated. Email me if you find it please mom2brownstarbaby@yahoo.com

    Thanks

    Reply
  4. globetrotteri

    Christie,

    This version of Yeh-Shen has been re-told Ai-Ling Louie. I can only supply the information from the links provided above. Good luck with your search.

    Reply
  5. Chevy Leonard

    This has been a really good story i am doing a power point at school for this story.I was not going to pick this one then i tought it would be fun ,and it turn out to be great thankyou for makeing this story!!!

    Reply
  6. Carrie Post author

    Hi Chevy,

    I’m glad you like it. I find it fascinating. It has piqued my interest in other Chinese fairy tales and folktales.

    Reply
  7. Pingback: Chinese Fairytales: The Story of Double Happiness

  8. sushi

    a bit strange dont you sort of agree? well, it’s nice, but then the end was a bit disturbing, “However, the stepmother and daughter were never allowed to visit Yeh-Shen and were forced to continue to live in their cave until the day they were crushed to death in a shower of flying stones.” ….. ok then, im off to finish my homework D:

    Reply
  9. sushi

    -sigh- I have to write an essay on this story: Yeh Shen…. :P how very not fun, but on the other hand, Yeh Shen is a very fun and interesting story. :D

    Reply
  10. Carrie Post author

    Hi Sushi,
    Thanks for stopping by. There are worse things to write an essay about, believe me. I think this is a great story to get into at school. Are you studying other fairy tales as well?

    Reply
  11. Carrie Post author

    Hi McKenna,
    What a great name! This is my favorite version of Cinderella as well. I kind of like the ending. When something that exciting and gruesome happens, you don’t tend to forget it.

    Reply
  12. Carrie Post author

    Hi Fireheart,
    I didn’t write any of these stories, but it’s quite easy to find if you’re interested. You just need to do google search of whichever fairy tale you’re interested in.

    Reply
  13. Aubrianna

    hi um ya I like just came across this when I was looking for what “bai shen lan” meant.. it is my chinese name… kool story…!

    Reply
  14. Kary

    This was a very interesting story and it was a lott more different then the American version to me.. But then again they had their similairities

    Reply
  15. Clairissa

    I was acually looking for the chinese version of cinderella for my research project so i am glad that i came upon this. I agree with Kary, it was kinda different from the American version but it is very exciting and totally worth reading. I am tooootally putting this website down for my ‘sources’! great story though. Very nice Cinderella :)

    Reply
  16. shemiyah

    I’ve always loved that story. I had no idea it was originally first before the actual Cinderella story. But i saw this story in animation when i was a little girl on The CBS Storybreak. And i have been trying to find that exact version again ever since.

    Reply
  17. Lauryn

    hello carrie
    -i love this story
    i thought it was very interesting and had a unike twist to it
    definetly not like american fairly tales
    haha

    Reply
  18. 닉 선생님

    Carrie, In your introduction to the story your write that this is the “first written Cinderella story”. However, the Greek historian Strabo (Geographica Book 17, 1.33) recorded in the 1st century BC the tale of the Greco-Egyptian girl Rhodopis, which is considered the oldest known version of the story. The story is even thought to go back to the days of Aesop. I came across your site and also this information while researching the many versions of Cinderella for a lesson.

    Reply
    • Carrie Post author

      Hello Chasing Rabbits,
      Thanks for your concern. However, if you read my post again, you’ll notice that I have already included this information. I stated that “the first written Cinderella story, Yeh-shen, was written in 850 A.D. in China. It’s over a thousand years older than the earliest known European version! And that’s not even the oldest version of Cinderella. The story of Cinderella dates back to ancient Greco-Egyptian times. It is thought that the story emerged sometime in the first century.”

      However, thank you for providing a little more information for my readers. Your comment is greatly valued.

      Reply
  19. JT

    The Discovery Channel produced a documentary series, Chinese Whisper, in one episode of which they traced the story of Yeh Hsien to a remote tribe in Southern China. They also tried to link the slipper with the Chinese custom of foot binding, which, upon some googling, I find to be dubious: the story is from the 9th Century, whereas foot binding was supposed to originate from the 10th. Nevertheless some form of fascination with small feet could have preceded the customary practice.

    Reply
  20. SK

    The story is definitely allegorical of foot-binding. Obviously the story itself didn’t set off the spark of foot-binding, but it speaks to the high value that was placed on small feet even before people started to actively try to reduce their foot size. I read a really well-preserved copy of the book about 10 years ago at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at UW-Madison, which is a great resource for anyone interested in children’s books.

    Reply
  21. katie

    Hello; ^___^ I just want to thank you so much. Sometime in the early 90′s someone made this story into an animated tale. I vaguely remember the story and have been dying to find out the title of the story again. It has been bugging me for over three years. so let me say thanks again.

    Reply
  22. N. I. Mirea

    The goriest version of Cinderella I have ever read states that the stepmother and stepsister had their eyes pecked out by sparrows at the wedding.

    Reply
    • Hannah

      @N.I.Mirea Yes, the brothers grimm fairy tales can be very disturbing can’t they?

      @Carrie. Hi! I’m studying this in school (we’re analyzing typical fairy tale conventions and stories from different cultures) but this version isn’t the same as the one in the school English book. I need to find quotes for my essay, but I’m doubting whether to use quotes from here because it is different. Can I? Is this version the one in the actual book by Ai-Ling Louie, or is just a summary? And thank you in advance if you help! :P

      Reply
  23. kourtney scherlitz

    omg this story waz amazing i want to read it every day all day its sad but exciting but i loved it all day

    Reply
  24. dakota

    her stepmom and stepsister deserved getting crushed by rocks. they were horible people.
    Plus it is time that there is something cool going on in this story. :)

    Reply
  25. jojo

    any one that has any questins please email me at “jojostallings@gmail.com” here is what i typed about the story and what i thought about it please rate it and telll me what you think

    I think that this story was good. It had many interesting things that taught me about the Chinese culture. This story was a lot like Cinderella because it talked about a girl who lived with her evil stepmother and step-sister. But this story is about a thousand years older than Cinderella so it is likely that Cinderella was based off of it. The part that I found really interesting was the end when the stepmother and her daughter, who were the antagonists, were squashed and killed by a boulder (more dramatic than Cinderella). This was a good end for them because they were mean to Yeh-Shen, especially the stepmother. The stepmother even thought that she was more beautiful than her own daughter which was wrong. On the other hand Yeh-Shen, the protagonist, got married to the king; they had children; and lived happily ever after. If I were to rate this story on a scale of one to ten, I would give it a 5.5. My reason for this score is that, although it is an interesting story, it was kind of predictable and very similar to stories I have read before.

    Reply
  26. Robyn

    well this helped my A LOT! i am doing a research paper of “Cinderelle” stories around the world, and this was a lot of help!! Thanks!!

    Robyn

    Reply
  27. Audrey

    i remember watching the 1980′s cartoon of this, and would love to get it for my daughters to watch…. but it’s only on VHS. thanks for sharing this with everyone!!!

    Reply
  28. kass

    hi im kass and i love this story.its so colorful and i like colorful things.who ever made this story nice imagination

    Reply
  29. bulldog

    i loved this fairy tale except for the ending it was really scary ” getting crushed by falling stones” but its a verry good story!

    Reply
  30. Gracie

    I believe you haven’t commented in over a year but I was wondering if you had any other versions of other fairy tales I could look up. I looked up Bluebeard, Little Red Riding hood, and Sleeping beauty by Perrault. I find them really interesting. :)

    Reply
    • Carrie Post author

      Hi Gracie,

      I don’t, unfortunately. I do find these stories interesting, though, and I would welcome any additional information that my readers have.

      Reply
  31. alex

    we had a version here in the Philippines that resemble that one…
    but the cinderella character has three stepsisters, the father murdered his wife to marry the stepmother, the prince meets cinderella at the ball, the midnight curfew, and the helper was a crab, which the stepmother killed and ate for dinner.

    Reply
  32. victor

    I’m 8years old. I’v already read to text book at school. I like this story. because there are magic sprit.

    thank you.

    Reply
  33. John

    this is an amazing story. I learned about the different cinderellas back in fourth grade, this was my favorite version then and still is, i have recently chose this for an art assisignment in which we must tell the story using paintings that we must paint ourselves. Im truley thankful for this story!

    Reply
  34. 雨欣(yu xin)

    I am Chinese,and I can’t believe that American people would like this story. (No offense) I like it too, but it is werid to read it in english.

    Reply
  35. kiriyubel

    I read the egypto-greek version of Cinderella, it was very nice. I figured there has to be a chinese version but I haven’t seen it untill now. very nice. but rags-to-riches is the kind of thing that can happen anywhere regardless of calture. and in the end we are all humans who share the same basic hopes and dreams.
    Also, I think when they say “a shower of flying stones” they mean a “cave-in”. they did live in a cave after all, so the stepmother and stepsister kept living there until one day the cave collapsed, maybe in an earthquake.

    Reply
  36. Kim

    Do you think killed by a stone shower could mean stoned to death? I know this is even more morbid, but I came across it in another version.

    Reply

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