Take a guess: Is the following a German fairy tale or a Taiwanese folktale?
The Mute Girl
Once upon a time, a beautiful girl was born to a desperately impoverished family. The impoverishment meant that the family could ill afford to keep the child and were forced to give her up for adoption.
In her new home, the child’s adoptive mother was kind. She was well-fed, kept warm and loved. This blessed child was happy and all was good.
There was, however, one absolute rule that the child was required to obey: In the centre of her new home, there was a mysterious room, which the girl was made to promise never to look inside.
One day, the girl’s adoptive mother went out on an errand. As the girl wandered about the house, she noticed the forbidden chamber and became curious.
As she crept toward the door and pushed at it, 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 child, but the girl refused to admit her transgression. Furious, the adoptive mother threw the girl out. The poor child was banished and alone in the wild. Paralyzed by her fear, the girl lost her ability to speak and became a mute.
One day, a passing chieftain who happened upon the homeless maiden was struck by her beauty. He proposed to her and she accepted. Together, they travelled to the chieftain’s village, where the maiden settled into her new home and. A year later, a baby boy was born.
Soon after the birth of her son, however, her adoptive mother appeared before her. The maiden was asked once again if she had lied and broken her promise. Yet again, she denied it. As punishment, the newborn was taken from her by the adoptive mother.
The same thing happened in each of the next three years. Each time a new child was born, the maiden’s adoptive mother would mysteriously appear to interrogate her. Each time, she would deny her transgression and be stripped of her newborn child. Eventually, no longer willing to bear the repeating cases of disappearing children, the villagers accused her of being an evil witch who devoured them.
Finally, in the fifth year, when the adoptive mother once again appeared, the maiden at last admitted to her wrongdoing. And just like that, she was forgiven and her dear children were restored to her.
Our Lady’s Child
This story, through rather bizarre means, taught the value of truthfulness and promotes a message of forgiveness and redemption—once an offender repents.
A reader familiar with the works of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (the Brothers Grimm) would undoubtedly recognize it as a variant of the German fairy tale known as Our Lady’s Child. Yet, the above story is actually called The Mute Girl and is found in the folklore of the indigenous Formosan 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 in Heaven. In the Puyuma story, the tribal chief who proposed to the heroine replaces a passing German prince. The two tales are undoubtedly related.
How can that be? How can a traditional European fairy 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 indigenous Taiwanese history and the nature of folklore in general.
Cultural Exchange: Taiwan’s European Past
Christianity arrived in Taiwan as early as 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 are the two most influential Christian communities on the island.
Christian Westerners were the first to write down, using the Latin alphabet, the Taiwanese language (known as the Pe̍h-ōe-jī script) and numerous native 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 indigenous Taiwanese today still practice forms of Christianity that incorporate some elements of their ancient traditions. It is likely that during these cross-cultural interactions, European fairy tales were transformed into Formosan folktales.
German stories such as Our Lady’s Child probably found a willing audience among the indigenous 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 fairy tales 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 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 fairy tale 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.