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Folktales and Social Structure: The Case of the Chinese in Montreal – Page 3

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Folktales and the Family

Because of the Chinese Exclusion Law (1923-47) which prevented the coming of women and children, there was an absence of family life among the earlier immigrants. Without a family life, there could be no transmission of traditions at home.

According to the Canadian Census, there were 48 Chinese females in Montreal in 1931; 200 in 1941; 259 in 1951 and 1,507 in 1961. There were not more than thirty Chinese families before the Second World War, according to an estimate by the Chinese themselves.

The absence of women and children indicated that there was an absence of family lore, children’s tales, games, children’s rhymes, lullabies, and celebrations of traditions in the family. Moreover, the tales brought over by the earlier immigrants were soon forgotten, as there was no opportunity to relate them to children.

Some folktales collected among the elderly women appeared to be related to marital devotion and fidelity. They stressed the values of patience and endurance. Some informants noted that they remembered the stories because there were long separations between them and their husbands. The following tale can serve as an example:

It was a story which described the marital devotion between a husband and a wife. G. Chan (interview, 1976) related that, “Once upon a time, there was a student who went to Peking to sit for an imperial examination. He passed the examination with great honour. One of the court officials was impressed by his achievements and wanted him to marry his daughter. The official requested the emperor to be a matchmaker. But the student Kao Wên Chü had been married in the village and refused. He was then ordered to get married with the official’s daughter Wen Chin. Kao wrote home and informed his wife that he had no love for Wen Chin. Unfortunately, the letter fell into the hands of Wen Chin who rewrote it. In the rewritten version, Kao was said to have been remarried and had one son and one daughter, and requested his wife not to waste her youthful life and to seek remarriage.

The letter reached Kao’s former wife Chen Chu who did not believe it. She decided to go to Peking and to find out the truth herself. She disguised herself as a sing-song girl, and sang all the way to Peking. She found out the address of her husband, and sang in front of the house one day. A servant girl came out and took pity on her. She later confided to the servant girl about her intention to meet her husband. With the help of the servant girl, the couple was thus reunited. They escaped from the house and lived happily ever after.”

With the repeal of the immigration law, more family members were able to come to Canada, and the families were united. Some tales collected from the current Canadian-Chinese homes also indicated such changes. The family tales are no longer the separation of husband and wife but also include some “light-hearted” family events. The following is an example:

There was a man who was celebrating his birthday. At the party he asked his three sons-in-law to write a couplet on a scroll. The one who wrote the best would have half of his wealth. There was one condition — the couplet should begin with the word “man” and also end with the word “man.”
The first son-in-law wrote, “Man hits you, you hit man.”
The second son-in-law wrote, “Man scold you, you scold man.”
But the third son-in-law whom everybody considered to be a fool and simpleton, wrote, “Man with a thief’s face, and a thief with the face of a man.”
The father-in-law then clapped his hands and approved the couplet written by the third son-in-law. He explained that the couplets by the first two sons-in-law were rather ordinary but “man with a thief’s face, and thief with the face of a man” described the truth of everyday life to the bone. He then gave half of his wealth to the third son-in-law (A. Louie, interview, 1976).

With more children being born and raised in Canada, some children’s tales also began to appear. Preliminary collection of some of these children’s tales in some educated and professional families indicated that they were related to some great men in Chinese history. The stories stressed the values of intelligence and hard work. The following four examples are illustrations:

(1) The story of Dr. Sun Yet-sen. Sun was clever and was serious in his work. He did not believe in god and superstition. One day, when he was young, he went to a village temple and beat up all the statues of gods and goddesses. He told the villagers, “If the gods and goddesses could not protect themselves, how could they protect you?” (G. Chan, interview, 1976).

(2) The story of Kung. Kung was a famous scholar in the Han dynasty. He knew how to behave and to follow the rules of propriety. One day, a basket of pears was passed around in the family. He picked up the smallest one for himself. People asked why didn’t he pick up the big one? He answered big pears were for adults and small ones for the children (T. Wong, interview, 1976).

(3) The story of Wên Yen Po. Wên was a scholar-official in the Sung dynasty. He was patient and intelligent. One day, a group of children were playing ball on the field. The ball later fell into the hole of a tree. None of the children could think of a way to take it out except Wên who quietly went to fetch a pail of water and poured it into the hole. The ball then flowed out automatically (G. Chan, interview, 1976).

(4) The story of Han Hsin. Han was a famous army general in the Han dynasty. He was very poor when he was young. The people used to bully him. One day, a strong man confronted him and said, “If you have courage, you can come and fight with me; otherwise, you better crawl through under my legs.” Knowing that he could not beat up the man, Han complied. Many people thought Han was a coward, not knowing that Han had great endurance and patience (G. Chan, interview, 1976).

Some of the stories were told to the children in English as they did not speak and understand Chinese. This may pose a problem in the future, as one informant noted that tales may be transmitted in English and the children may not understand some of the traditional cultural values underlying those tales.


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