Take a guess: Is the following a German fairytale? Or is it a Taiwanese folktale?
Once upon a time, a beautiful girl was born to a terribly impoverished family. The family’s impoverishment meant that they could ill afford to keep the child. They were forced to give her up for adoption.
In her new home, her adoptive mother treated her with kindness. She was well fed, kept warm and loved. She was free and happy. There was, however, one absolute rule she was required never to disobey. In the centre of her new home was a mysterious room. The girl was instructed never to look inside. She gave her word and never gave it another thought.
One day, the adoptive mother went out on an errand. As the girl wandered about the house, she took notice of the forbidden chamber. Curiosity swelled up inside her. She crept toward the door and attempted to push it open. When she did, a loud creaking noise was produced by the heavy door. This greatly frightened the girl and she immediately forced the door shut. At precisely that moment, however, her adoptive mother returned.
The mother interrogated and berated the young maiden. But no matter what, the girl refused to own up to her transgression. Furious, the adoptive mother instructed the girl to leave. She became an exile and was alone in the wild. Fear and terror overwhelmed her. By the time the sun rose on the morning after her first night alone, her voice had been stolen by the terror. She had become mute.
At some point during her exile, her beauty caught the attention of a chief passing through the area. He proposed marriage to her and she accepted. She travelled to her husband’s village, established herself at her new home and a year later a baby boy was born. But soon after the birth of her son, her adoptive mother appeared before her. The maiden was asked once again if she had lied and broken her promise. Again, she denied it. As punishment, the newborn was taken away.
The same thing happened in each of the next three years. Each time a child was born, the maiden would be interrogated. She would deny everything and she would be stripped of her dear newborn. Eventually, her fellow villagers accused her of being a witch who devoured her own children.
Finally, in the fifth year, when the adoptive mother appeared, the maiden at last admitted to her wrongdoing. And just like that, she was forgiven and her dear children were restored to her.
This story is about the value of truthfulness and promotes a message of forgiveness and redemption.
A reader familiar with the works of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (the Brothers Grimm) would undoubtedly recognize it as a version of the German fairytale known as Our Lady’s Child. Yet, the above story is actually called The Mute Girl. It is found in the folklore of the remote and isolated Puyuma people of southern Taiwan.
The parallels are striking. The plot and message of the stories are virtually identical. In the German story, the adoptive mother is the Virgin Mary and her home is Heaven. In the Puyuma story, the tribal chief who proposed to the heroine replaces a passing German prince. The two tales are clearly related. How can that be? How can an age-old European tale have a near-perfect equivalent in the remote mountains of southern Taiwan on the other side of the world?
The above story reveals two intriguing insights into Taiwanese aboriginal history and the nature of folklore in general.
Christianity arrived in Taiwan in the 1500s and is Taiwan’s oldest organized religion. European traders, colonists and missionaries were among the first outsiders to make contact with Taiwan’s ancient Austronesian communities. Today, Taiwan’s Catholic Dioceses and the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan are the two most influential Christian communities on the island.
European Christians were the first to write down, using the Latin alphabet, the Taiwanese language (known as the Pe̍h-ōe-jī script) and numerous aboriginal Formosan languages (such as the Atayalic languages). These effective and unique writing systems are still employed today in Taiwan. Europeans also proselytized their faith among the indigenous populations—converting large numbers of natives to the Christian fold. Alongside traditional shamanistic beliefs and rituals, many aborigines today still practice forms of Christianity that incorporate some elements their ancient traditions.
It is likely that during these cross-cultural interactions, European fairytales were transformed into Austronesian folktales. German stories such as Our Lady’s Child probably found a willing audience among the aboriginal Puyuma people of Taiwan and subsequently entered traditional Puyuma folklore. This, in turn, sheds light on the intriguing nature of folklore in general.
Folklore consists of tales and traditions of the people, passed from generation to generation largely through word-of-mouth. The transmission of these stories readily crosses linguistic, ethnic, cultural and political boundaries.
Stories considered unique to one community or culture are frequently found to have close equivalents in entirely different cultures. Popular fairytales such as Cinderella, for example, are found not only in the folklore of Germany but also in those of France, Italy and even as far away as Nepal and China. The Twelve Dancing Princesses are found in English and German anthologies, but strikingly similar stories have also been discovered in the folklore of India.
Traditional tales easily adapt themselves to the cultures of new peoples they encounter. They quickly become an essential member of their adoptive homes.
What is in Germany a fairytale called Our Lady’s Child is in Taiwan The Mute Girl. The story’s European origin is impossible to deny, but neither is its essential place in the traditional folklore of Taiwan’s Puyuma people.