Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China
Retold by: Ai-Ling Louie
Illustrated by: Ed Young
For ages 4-8
The story of Yeh-Shen, one of the oldest versions of Cinderella, dates from the T'ang dynasty in China (618-907 A.D.). It even predates the oldest European version of Cinderella, which is an Italian story from 1634.
Yeh-Shen is an orphan who lives with her stepmother and stepsister. She is given the heaviest and most unpleasant chores and not enough food to eat because her stepmother resents how Yeh-Shen is much more beautiful than her own daughter. Yeh-Shen's only friend is a fish in a pond. Her stepmother kills the fish and cooks it for dinner. An old sage reveals to Yeh-Shen that the bones of the fish are filled with a powerful spirit. Whenever Yeh-Shen is in serious need, she can kneel before the fish bones and they will grant her heart's desire.
One year, Yeh-Shen longs to go to the village spring festival, but her stepmother will not allow her. Yeh-Shen kneels before the fish bones and wishes to go to the festival. Immediately she finds herself in an azure blue gown, kingfisher feather cloak, and gold slippers. At the festival, people wonder who Yeh-Shen is. She is so beautiful that she seems like a heavenly being. When her stepsister sees her, Yeh-Shen runs home and loses one of her gold slippers along the way.
A villager finds the slipper and sells it to a merchant who in turn gives it to a king. The king is so fascinated by the tiny slipper that he searches for its owner. The slipper is placed in a pavilion by the road and many women, including Yeh-Shen's stepmother and stepsister, try it on in the hopes of claiming it. Yeh-Shen doesn't go to the pavilion until very late at night and when she takes the slipper, at first the king thinks that she is a thief. Then he notices that Yeh-Shen is beautiful and has the tiniest feet he has ever seen. He follows Yeh-Shen home and asks her to put on the slippers. As soon as Yeh-Shen is wearing the slippers, she once again finds herself in an azure blue gown and a kingfisher feather cloak. The king falls in love with her and they live happily ever after.
Yeh-Shen's story may seem even more fantastical than the Disney version of Cinderella, but because of Ai-Ling Louie's prose and storytelling skills and Ed Young's illustrations, readers young and young at heart will eat this book up. The watercolor and colored pencil illustrations are uncannily both detailed and impressionistic. They are sublime, as per usual with Young's illustrations.
What I found most interesting about Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China is how it depicts certain elements of ancient Chinese culture: the desirability of tiny feet on a woman and the association of fish with good fortune.
Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China is a must read for every fan of Cinderella or fairy tales in general.