December 08, 2023

#08-365: The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter

"He took the little Creature in his Hand." (Wikisource)

Note: Japanese literature is filled with old childless couples who find wonderful babies and grow rich as a result of their kindness. This is a good one.

Get Ready: Do you think generosity should be its own reward, or should people expect monetary return for their good deeds?

The Japanese folk tale "The Bamboo Cutter" shows some debt to the Chinese stories of Chang'e, the moon goddess. It is also produced in film and other media as Kaguya-hime, or Princess Kaguya. Others call her "Princess Moonlight."

In the Japanese story, an old, childless bamboo cutter finds a thumb-sized infant inside a stalk of bamboo. He and his wife raise the baby as their own. From then on, every time he cuts a bamboo stalk, the old man finds a gold nugget inside. The old couple becomes rich. The child, meanwhile, grows to be a beautiful woman in just three months.

Her beauty attracts many suitors, but she wants none of them. Finally, five noble members of court convince the old "father" to give them a chance, but the girl has other ideas. She sets an impossible task for each one.

The first, a Prince, is told to bring her the stone begging bowl of the Buddha. He presents her with a fake--it's just a blackened pot!--but she notices that it does not glow with holy light, as one would expect.

Another Prince must fetch a jeweled branch from Mount Horai (the Chinese Penglai Island of Immortals). He, too, brings forth a fake: he had the country's finest jewelers fashion a jeweled branch. But a messenger arrives at Kaguya-hime's house to collect payment for the work, revealing the subterfuge.

One government minister is to bring a robe made of the skins of Chinese fire-rats, a supernatural species which cannot burn. He purchases such a robe from a "friend"--a Chinese merchant--but is himself duped: when subjected to fire it immediately burns to a crisp.

A Grand Counselor should get a five-colored jewel from the neck of a dragon. He sends out all his men, but they fail; and when he goes himself, his ship is caught in a terrific storm and he gives up.

Finally, another counselor must bring a cowry shell that was born from a swallow. In attempting to reach the bird's nest, he falls to his death.

At last, the Emperor courts the girl, but she rejects him, too. She reveals to her foster father that she has come from the moon, and will return that autumn, at the next Moon Festival. Sure enough, messengers come to take her away. They explain to the old man that they had been placing the gold nuggets in the bamboo to pay for her care.


Practice: Match the term to its definition:

Term Definition
  1. cowry
  2. duped
  3. fetch
  4. foster father
  5. infant
  6. nugget
  7. stalk
  8. subterfuge
  9. suitors
  10. swallow
  1. fooled; tricked
  2. a type of small bird that builds its next in high places
  3. a very young baby
  4. a shelled sea animal similar to a snail
  5. an adoptive dad
  6. admirers
  7. a small chunk of something
  8. trick; ruse
  9. bring back
  10. stem; branch

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for December 8, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. d; 2. a; 3. i; 4. e; 5. c; 6. g; 7. j; 8. h; 9. f; 10. b