30 – A Cinderella Story from Ancient China

“Ye Xian” is a story first published over 1,000 years ago, but it follows the familiar pattern of Cinderella stories from all over the world. People often mistakenly think that Cinderella stories are just about pretty dresses, going to parties, and depending on a man instead of taking care of yourself. But what these stories are really about is social and economic power, featuring wise young women who make the best choices available to them to escape from a bad life into a better one.

This story contains many classic elements of a Cinderella tale — an orphaned young woman mistreated by abusive relatives, magical assistance to help her enter the world of the wealthy and powerful, and finally an escape from her desperate existence due to her own good virtues. There’s even a missing shoe!

The story can be understood easily by modern readers, but learning a little about traditional Chinese beliefs and the symbolism of certain colors and animals can help readers have a deeper appreciation for this charming story from long ago.

If your kids want to hear the story of “Ye Xian” on its own, it can be found on the Folk Tales page with other stories from around the world.

Activity: What Can Modern Builders Learn from a Yaodong?

As land grows more expensive, houses become more difficult and costly to build, and building materials have to be shipped ever longer distances,  home ownership becomes unrealistic for more and more people. We ought to consider ways that houses can be made less expensive, create less pollution, and cause less long-term damage to our world. Sometimes it helps to look back in order to know the best path forward.

The setting for “Ye Xian” is in an area where people lived in a type of home called a yaodong. The word directly means “house cave,” but these are not natural caves. They are comfortable homes cut from rock using very old and very effective engineering techniques. Students can investigate the ways a traditional Chinese yaodong might help builders create modern homes that are beautiful, comfortable, affordable, and don’t damage the environment.

Have students search for images of traditional and modern yaodongs. There are two styles, both usually cut from a kind of terrain called loess. The most common style is cut directly into a natural hillside. Another style involves excavating a square pit, shaping it into a courtyard, and then cutting caves into the walls. Students can research the engineering of both styles of yaodong, comparing the traits and advantages of each style. Students can learn about the following concepts in building:

Insulation – Cave homes keep a steady temperature because rock does not heat up or cool down quickly.
Energy efficiency – Cave homes use less fuel to keep people warm or cool because of the cave’s good insulation. This saves money and reduces pollution.
Soundproofing – Cave homes are quiet because sound waves don’t travel very well through rock.
Weatherproofing – Cave homes, when built correctly, do not let water or wind into the home.
Sustainable – Because cave homes are carved directly out of rock, very few building materials need to be brought in from other places. The excavated stone can be crushed into gravel for roads or used as building blocks for other structures. This saves money and means less pollution is created by making building materials and transporting them to construction sites. Fewer trees need to be cut down to build a yaodong, since wood might only be used for doors, window frames, or furniture.

The results of research can be shared in a written report, class presentation, video, or art project.

10 – A Ukrainian Folktale Turned Modern Parable

The Ukrainian folktale of “The Crow and The Snake” is not one that’s well known in the West. Very little information exists about it in English, and I’ve had trouble discovering anything about its origins or publication history. But it has turned out to be a remarkably poignant story in light of the current war being waged by Russia against the nation and people of Ukraine.

Corvus cornix, the Hooded Crow, which is commonly seen in Ukraine. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Original file found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Corvus_cornix_2019-08-02.jpg

“The Crow and the Snake” can be seen as a parable or allegory of the invasion and subsequent war, which makes it useful to parents and teachers who are at a loss for ways to explain what’s going on to their children.

You can hear the entire folktale here:

Activity: Should the Fox have helped more?

In “The Crow and The Snake” a Crow is attacked by her neighbor, a  Snake who eats up her children. The Crow never considers fleeing from her home, choosing instead to defend it. A passing Fox offers advice to the Crow, which ends up working, and the Snake is killed. The morality of the Fox’s actions are worth considering.

Have students engage with the following questions. This could be in a class discussion, in written essays, or in small group conferences.

    • Why do you think the Crow didn’t try to fight the Snake herself?
    • Why do you think the Fox gave advice to the Crow?
    • Can you think of any reasons the Fox should have offered direct help to the Crow?
    • Can you think of any reasons why the Fox would not have wanted to offer direct help to the Crow?
    • If you were the Crow, would you have abandoned your nest or stayed behind to fight for your home?

7 – How the Brothers Grimm Saved Folk Culture

Everyone has heard of the Brothers Grimm but usually the only fact people know about these men is that they were the authors of a book of fairy tales. And even this is only partly true. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected folk tales, and then they edited them into Kinder- und Hausmärchen, or Children’s and Household Tales, which became the heart of the fairy tale canon.

The Brothers Grimm were dedicated to preserving folklore at a time when war, economic change, and the loss of large, multigenerational families were destroying folk traditions. It would be nice to say that dictators with imperial ambitions no longer posed a threat to the unique cultures of smaller neighbors, but unfortunately the plight of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm is alarmingly relevant given the present-day war in Ukraine.

Activity: Collect and Preserve Folktales

Within your family, school, or community, have children think of sources for local legends and stories. Are there famous local sites? Notable citizens from the past? Family bedtime stories or songs? Have children record these bits of folklore. Then, decide who will edit and arrange the works. Consider which items have most value to preserving the folk memories of your family and community. Once the stories are assembled, share them in a way that gives free access to as many people as possible and encourages others to make new creative works based on this folklore.

I have written down and recorded a folktale from my own family. It’s called “Ricky the Racer” and was made up by my grandfather back in the 1950’s. This story has now been in my family for four generations as I am now telling it to my own children. You can listen to “Ricky the Racer” and learn the folk history of this tale here.