An ancient Cinderella story from China, first written down in about the year 860 in Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang by Duan Chengshi. Retold by T.Q. Townsend.
A chieftain of the people who make their homes in caves had two wives, and each bore him a daughter. But one wife sickened and died, and the chieftain followed soon after. The stepmother raised both the girls, but while she was loving toward her own daughter, Jun-Li, she was cruel to her stepdaughter, who was called Ye Xian. She made Ye Xian do the most difficult and unpleasant of the household chores, and the poor girl had only rags to wear. But even her lowly state could not hide the fact that she was kind, clever, and caring.
Ye Xian made friends with a fish that lived in a pool near her home. It was ten feet long and had beautiful golden eyes and gleaming golden scales. She did not know it, but the fish was a guardian spirit sent by her mother, who still watched over her. Although Ye Xian never had enough to eat for herself, she always managed to find something to feed her beloved friend, and her visits to the pond were her only source of joy.
One day Jun-Li followed Ye Xian to the pond and saw her talking to the fish. Angry that her stepsister should have any happiness, Jun-Li told her mother what she saw. The stepmother, also resentful that the girl should have anything pleasant in her life, tricked Ye Xian into giving her the tattered dress she always wore. By disguising herself in Ye Xian’s clothes, the stepmother was able to approach the fish. She drew out a knife and quickly killed it. The body of the beautiful golden fish was dragged back to the cave, where the stepmother Jun-Li ate it for supper.
Ye Xian was devastated when she saw what had become of her friend. She remained inconsolable until the spirit of an old man appeared before her and told her that she should put the bones of the fish in four pots and hide them under her bed. In this way, she could still communicate with her guardian spirit, and the bones would grant her wishes so long as she was wise about using their power.
Later on, the New Year’s festival drew near. This was a time when the young people of the village found someone to marry. But the stepmother forbade Ye Xian from going, fearing that her beautiful, kind, and hard-working stepdaughter might hurt Jun-Li’s chances of finding a husband. Ye Xian was ordered to clean the cave house while the stepmother and her daughter attended the festival.
Ye Xian, heartbroken, made a secret wish to the bones. Suddenly she found herself clothed in a gown of green silk and wrapped in a beautiful cloak made of bright blue kingfisher feathers. On her tiny feet were slippers made of gold. The bones told Ye Xian to go to the festival and enjoy herself, but to be careful to bring back all of the beautiful clothes she was given to wear. She walked to the festival, and when she arrived everyone was amazed by her beauty, grace, and lovely manners. Many whispered that she must be a princess. Ye Xian had a wonderful time at the festival until she saw the face of her stepsister, Jun-Li, who was beginning to think there was something familiar about the lovely maiden in the blue cloak of feathers. Ye Xian fled the festival, knowing that she must get home before she was discovered. As she ran, one of her lovely golden shoes slipped off her foot and was left behind. When she arrived home, she found that the fish bones were silent. They could not speak to her because not all of her clothes were returned, and so their magic was not complete.
The golden slipper was found by a peasant who traded it to another man who then presented it to the king of the To’Han islands. The king was amazed by the craftsmanship and beauty of the slipper. He decided that he must marry the woman who owns the shoe and ordered a search for her. Eventually the king came to the place where the cave-dwellers live, and each young woman was asked to try on the slipper. Ye Xian’s stepmother forced her to stay at home, hidden from the view of the king and his entourage. But of course the slipper fit none of the other young women, including Jun-Li. Devastated, the king put up a pavilion with the slipper on display inside in hopes of finding the mysterious maiden.
Late at night, desperate to regain her ability to speak to the bones, Ye Xian crept into the pavilion to retrieve the slipper. But she was discovered by a watchful guard and accused of being a thief. Ye Xian threw herself down and confessed everything to the king — about her miserable childhood, about the beautiful golden fish who was her only friend, about its cruel slaughter, and how its bones granted her wishes. The king saw that she was beautiful, honest, and well-mannered. He believed her and allowed her to depart with the slipper.
In the morning, the king came to Ye Xian’s home and saw that everything was as Ye Xian said. Ye Xian put her golden slippers on, and was suddenly clothed again in her beautiful jade green dress with the blue cloak of cormorant feathers. The stepmother sneered that Ye Xian was only a slave and that she had stolen the clothes from Jun-Li, the true owner of the shoes, but the king could see the truth. He told Ye Xian that he wished to marry her and take her to be the Queen of the To’Han Islands. She gives her consent and leaves with the king to live happily with him.
The stepmother and Jun-Li were left behind. The stepmother, having lost her slave, now forced her daughter to do all of the household work, treating her just as badly as she had treated Ye Xian. Jun-Li, having been raised to be as selfish as her mother, rebelled against this and the two women lived in misery until one day when they had a quarrel so violent that they caused their cave to collapse, killing them both.