Mermaids in Chinese fairy tales

By Li Hongrui ( ) Updated: 2016-02-22 15:11:36

Mermaids in Chinese fairy tales

A mermaid with four feet in a Chinese ancient picture. [File photo]

The Mermaid, directed by Hong Kong director Stephen Chow, has been smashing box office records in China since its debut on Feb 8. In one scene of the movie, an old mermaid tells a story about a man surnamed Zheng who saved mermaids many times 600 years ago.

Zheng might be a fictional figure, but descriptions and illustrations of half-human and half-fish animals have been recorded since ancient times in China.

Shan Hai Jing, an ancient Chinese text from at least the fourth century BC contains the earliest reference to a mermaid, calling the creature lingyu or renyu. It said lingyu has a human face and a fish's body and lives in the sea. According to the book, apart from lingyu, there were other kinds of mermaids, including chiru, diren and huren. In one chapter, mermaids are depicted as sounding like crying babies and have four feet. In addition, some mermaids have the ability to resurrect when they pass away.

He Bo, or Feng Yi, god of the Yellow River in Chinese fairy tales, is described as a man with a half-human and half-fish body. Shi Zi, a text book from the fourth century BC, relates that when Da Yu tried to end flooding on the Yellow River, a man with a fairy's face and fish's body gave him a book about the river and disappeared.

Sou Shen Ji, another Chinese book written in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), records mermaids named jiaoren living in the South China Sea. Their tears can become pearls. The cloth or silk made by jiaoren is called jiaoxiao or jiaosha, which is mentioned in many poems in Chinese ancient literature. In Dream of Red Chamber, Ling Daiyu also used jiaoxiao to describe the silk handkerchiefs given by Jia Baoyu.

Mermaids recorded in Cheng Zhai Za Ji, a book composed by Lin Kun in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), are more like humans. Without any fish-like features, they are beautiful females with fairy skin and very long hair.

Nie Huang, a biologist from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) also mentioned mermaids in his Hai Cuo Tu. With black skin and yellow hair, the mermaids in his book have two sexes, webbed hands and feet and human eyes, mouths and noses. Unlike the others mentioned, they have red wings on their backs.

Liao Zhai Zhi Yi, a famous novel by Pu Songling written in the Qing Dynasty, pictures a kind-hearted mermaid named Bai Qiulian. Bai becomes human and get married to the son of a businessman. But she has to stay in a lake from time to time to remain vigorous and fit.

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