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Folktales and Social Structure: The Case of the Chinese in Montreal – Page 2

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Folktales and the Community

As evident in most of the life history interviews conducted among the elderly, most of the earlier immigrants encountered social segregation and racial discrimination. They tended to look inward into their community for comfort and security. Community institutions were used as coping mechanisms to counter the tide of anti-Orientalism. These community institutions were based on the peasant values of trust, mythology, ancestral legends and folk beliefs. Agreements and informal sanctions were imposed by mutual respect and word-of-mouth, and the violations would meet with social disapproval.

To consolidate group identity and solidarity, communal festivals such as ancestral birthday, spring, ching ming and dragon boat festivals were celebrated. In the course of these celebrations, some folktales embedded in these communal traditions were retold for those who attended. Not surprisingly, most of the folktales collected from the earlier immigrants, who came around the turn of the century or before the Chinese Exclusion Law was proclaimed in 1923, were the ones related to these communal traditions. This was because there was no tale-telling tradition in the Montreal community as in China; and as most of the earlier Chinese had to struggle for a living, they had no time to get together for recreational needs.

Stories of ancestors were well remembered by members of their respective clan and lineage associations. The stories were usually transmitted by the celebration of ancestral birthdays and the association’s founding day; the following are examples:

(1) The Huang Clan Association acknowledges Huang Shiang Kung as its ancestor, a popular scholar-official in the Han dynasty. Huang, according to Jack Wong (interview, 1976), was a very clever, obedient and well-behaved boy. “He was known for his filial piety. He looked after his parents well. In the summer, he would fan the bed and make it cool for his parents; and in the winter, he would warm the bed instead. He should be a good example for all the Huangs.”

(2) The Chao Lun Kung So in Montreal is an association consisting of persons with five different surnames. It is believed that the ancestors of four of the surname groups were brothers, the Hsieh, Hsü, T’an, and T’an; and the family Yuan is related by feelings of gratitude and friendship. Two versions of the story were recorded:

(i) At one time in Northern China where there was constant war and invasion from the barbarians, four brothers from a family decided to spread out to different parts of China in order to preserve their family line. They all used the word Yen as a common identification mark in their new surnames, which were Hsieh, Hsü, T’an, and T’an. One day, one of the brothers was involved in a fight with others in the course of his journey. He was nearly killed but was saved by a person with the surname Yuan. The story was later known to all the other brothers, and the Yuan were regarded as a part of the family. This family obligation was observed from generation to generation (H. Hum, interview, 1976).

(ii) A famous Chinese scholar-official Chiang T’ai Kung was dissatisfied with the bureaucracy and returned to his village in retirement. But he had offended a powerful family who vowed to kill all the members of his family. One of his sons, five years old and very clever, was away when the army came and slaughtered all his family’s members. On his way home, he sensed something wrong and ran away to a Yuan family at the next village. The army followed and pursued. It was supper time. The boy, when arriving at Yuan’s residence, explained his dangerous situation. Chiang T’ai Kung was a friend of Yuan family. Mrs. Yuan quickly held the child on her lap and fed him with food as if he was her own son. When asked by the army, they claimed to have no knowledge about the child. The army left in disappointment, and the life of the child was thus saved. He grew up in the Yuan family and later got married and had four sons. Despite all these years, the army was still looking for him. So he decided to ask all his sons to spread out to four different corners of China, using different surnames as a cover but with a common identification mark. The word of Yen was chosen; and the four sons were known as Hsieh, Hsü, T’an and T’an. The Yuan family was regarded as a family which had adopted them; and whenever and wherever a member of Yuan was known to be in distress, they should provide help (C. Hsieh, interview, 1977).

(3) The Lung Kang Kung So is an association consisting of members with the surnames Liu, Kuan, Chang and Chao. The Liu, Kuan and Chang were “sworn brothers” and were respected for their loyalty, trust, righteousness and cooperation. They were all celebrated heroes in the tale, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” Many episodes and different versions of the story were collected in Montreal. The different versions resulted from different sources and from memory lapses. I would like to quote only one episode as an illustration:

Kuan Kung was well known as a righteous and loyal general. In a battle with Ts’ao Ts’ao, the leader of an opposing kingdom, he was defeated and arrested by Ts’ao. Ts’ao, impressed by his righteousness and courage, treated him well and asked him to serve in his kingdom. But Kuan was loyal to his elder sworn brother, Liu. He declined the offer and returned to Liu.

Many years later, Kuan was requested by his army adviser Chu Ko Liang to fight against Ts’ao. Knowing that Ts’ao was once kind to Kuan, Chu asked that Ts’ao’s life should not be spared if Kuan won the battle; otherwise Kuan would be beheaded instead.

Kuan went to war and defeated Ts’ao. In remembrance of the kindness and comfort given to him by Ts’ao before, he let Ts’ao go and prepared to be beheaded upon return. Impressed by his kindness and generosity, Chu spared “his head.” It was said that Chu, being a farsighted adviser, knew by fortune-telling that Ts’ao would not die in that battle; he sent Kuan there so as to test his righteousness and loyalty (K. Cheong, interview, 1977).

The celebration of the dragon boat festival helps to perpetuate the story of Chü Yüan. Again, many versions of the story were collected, with slight variations in details. One of the versions is as follows:

Chü Yüan was a well-known scholar-poet. He was loyal to his country and emperor. The country was weak, and the court officials were selfish and corrupt. The emperor was incompetent and did not listen to his advice. In despair and disappointment, Chü Yüan protested by drowning himself in the river. Later, the people realized that he was a loyal and honest official. In order to commemorate him, they rowed boats to where he was drowned, and threw rice to feed his spirit. However, the rice was eaten by the fish. The people then wrapped the rice with bamboo leaves and threw them into the river. The story reminds one to be patriotic to one’s country (G. Chan, interview, 1976).

The celebration of the Moon Festival also helps to preserve many versions of legends, myths and folk stories. One of the popular folktales collected was a revolutionary story concerning the overthrow of the Mongolians who ruled China in the fourteenth century. Moon cakes were used as a means to hide the message for uprising. So, on the fifteenth day of the eighth moon, the people rose and overthrew the Mongolian invaders (G. Chan, interview, 1976).

As seen from the above, the survival of certain folktales is related to the functional ethnic traditions in Montreal. Postwar changes in the structure of the Chinese community and the increase of new immigrants also impose changes on the ethnic traditions. As the community gradually disintegrates into the broader social order, and as the educated and the younger members assimilate, the function and the significance of the ethnic traditions also correspondingly change. Ethnic traditions are no longer used as a form of entertainment and as a device to communicate with the larger society. The celebration of the Moon Festival, for example, by associations based on the Western model may well be an occasion to eat moon cakes rather than a time to remember the overthrow of the Mongolians. From interviews conducted thus far, many younger and professional members of the associations do not know the details of the folktales embedded in these ethnic festivals. Sometimes there is also confusion as the informants tend to amalgamate different stories into one, especially the story of Chü Yüan and the revolt against the Yuan dynasty.

Already, there are indications that the folktales people remember are the ones related to their occupations. For example, the stories on folk medicine will be remembered by the herbalists; the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” by the restaurant workers, especially in restaurants where there are joint-partnerships, 1 and the stories of painting by the painters and gift-shop operators.


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