One of the world’s most famous princesses is an impostor, claims Asian novelist Nury Vittachi.
EIGHTY-FIVE people turned up for my creative writing class, and all of them were Chinese. I asked them to tell me the name of the story about a girl who wins a prince because her foot fits into a tiny slipper.
“Cinderella,” they chorused as one. And the name of the author?
“Walt Disney,” they trumpeted in unison.
And where was the girl from? “America”.
I had the same conversation with my own three children, all of whom are Chinese and adopted, and they gave exactly the same answers.
In fact, the name of the girl with petite feet was Yeh Xian. She lived in China, the same country where my students and my children were born. She had black hair.
The author was a man named Tuan Ch’eng-Shih. The story was anthologised in a Chinese short story collection more than a millennium ago. It was lifted by Western authors in the 1600s, making it one of the first notable examples of the piracy of creative intellectual property.
As a novelist living in Hong Kong, I spend a lot of time thinking about story structures. Anyone who knows tales from the east as well as the usual Western canon of folk stories cannot help but notice something about Cinderella. In Western folk tales, girls marry princes because they are beautiful, or clever, or both. In no Western story does a commoner win a prince because of a body part measurement. (“Your tibia is 32.5 centimetres! Marry me and share my kingdom!”).
You only need to think about it for ten seconds to realise Cinderella could only have come from ancient China, where the smallness of a girl’s feet was a key factor in the measurement of her beauty. Only there does the story make any sense at all.
But let’s not make this just a dinner party observation, or a footnote in literary history. In 1999, Adeline Yen Mah wrote an autobiography called A Chinese Cinderella. No, Ms. Mah. You’re not a Chinese Cinderella. You ARE Cinderella. Let’s make it what it is: it’s a tragedy. Yeh Xian has been kidnapped and has been replaced by an impostor: a characterless Disney blonde. We need to rescue her. This actually matters.
The rest of this article will be published in our first issue.