William Dolby

Classical Chinese Translations and Research

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Little Sister Reed


A Heilungkiang folk-story

by William Dolby

Publication date: 2002 (estimated)


In ancient times, there lived on the banks of the River K’uerhpin an old huntsman, aged sixty or more. He’d only got one son, whose name was Yenchiao Maluken.

One day, in the fresh of the early morning, Yenchiao went shooting. With his first arrow, he hit a white bird that was flying up among the clouds. It fluttered and floated down into the river. But by the time he’d chased up to the spot, the racing waters had washed the wounded white bird away. Yenchiao felt most downcast.

Just then, on the opposite bank of the river, there appeared a young girl. She had red poppies stuck in her hair, and was carrying in her hand a birch-bark bucket, as she came down to the edge of the river to draw some water. After she’d filled the bucket, she gazed over at Yenchiao, and sang a song:


Oh, hunter of the River K’uerhpin,

Why so bowed-down and crestfallen? You’re stronger than old eagle even, Joy and cheer will be yours for certain!


Yenchiao uttered no reply. He drew his bowstring, and with one shot sent his arrow right through that water-filled birch-bucket.

“Do you think that’s clever?” said the girl, stopping the arrow holes with her hands, “If you really want to show off, go and find your father’s Seven Storey Stirrup Horse. Ride that, and then I will admire you!”

With those words, the girl walked away, off towards the big blurred grey mountain.

Yenchiao went back home.

“Father!” he asked his old man. “You know that great Seven Storey Stirrup horse of yours? I’d like to find it, and have a ride on it.”

“Don’t talk rubbish!” said the old man, “- It’d throw you off smartly, and kill you. I haven’t dared touch it for many years now.”

Yenchiao kept on at him.

“All right,” said his dad, “you go and have a look for him then. Go to the top of a Yellowstone Hill with lots of ridges, beyond three mountain ranges, and there you’ll find a wooden trough. If there’s no water left in that trough now, go to the grassy embankment at the foot of the hill, and search for the horse there. But for goodness sake, whatever you do, take care!”

Yenchiao had no sooner got up onto the Yellowstone Ridges, than the great horse, having drunk all the water from the wooden trough, came walking towards him. Suddenly catching sight of it, he saw that it’s hooves were bigger than prams, and its mane trailed to the ground. Compared with that horse, Yenchiao seemed no more than a tiny suckling baby. He couldn’t help stepping back a few paces. But he thought to himself:

“I’ve come here just so’s to ride it, haven’t I? No good just being scared!”

So he moved forward, to close in on it. The great horse whisked its long mane, and wouldn’t let him come near. It looked as if it was about to run off into the distance any minute. So Yenchiao circled the grassy embankment, and climbed up into a tall pine-tree. And as the great horse passed below him, he jumped with one leap onto its back.

The horse glared in fury and whinnied away, the noise shaking the mountains till they buzzed. Yenchiao grabbed its mane tightly. The great horse reared up with its front hooves, and stomped with its back legs, bucking ferociously and springing wildly. But no matter what it did, Yenchiao still stuck to the horse’s back, as if fixed there. By the time the sun dropped into the hills, the horse was steaming all over, its nostrils snorting loudly, and tamely, it bore Yenchiao homewards.

When they’d nearly reached the river edge, they saw the girl with poppies in her hair drawing water there again. Once more, Yenchiao sent an arrow at her birch-bark bucket. The girl raised her head.

“Oh,” she said in a calm and leisurely fashion, “you found the horse. Well, that’s nothing much. If you really want to cut a dash, go to the bank of the River P’anku two thousand miles away, and look for a girl called Little Sister Reed. She’s waiting for you there. If you can stand the hardships and dangers of the journey all that way there, that girl would marry you, and help you look after your old father. How about it? Think you could manage it?”

So saying, she walked off once more towards the big blurred grey mountain. Yenchiao went home.

“Father,” he said to the old man, “on the banks of the River P’anku there’s a girl called Little Sister Reed waiting for me to go and marry her, so she and I can look after you in your old age. Will you let me go there, eh?”

But the old man at once waved his hands disapprovingly when he heard him ask this.

“You can’t go there!” he said. “It’s an impossible road. So many people have got half-way then run back scared. If you’ve got nothing better to do, you can go down to the riverside and catch rabbits, and let somebody else go and marry Little Sister Reed, eh! Well, it’s getting on - time for bed. Do not go thinking any daft wild thoughts, now!”

Yenchiao gazed at the stars filling the sky. They all seemed to be crinkling up their eyes and laughing at him for showing himself up so useless before a water-carrying girl. The more he thought about it, the more it left a bad taste in his mouth. And when the horizon clouds had just turned pink, and seeing his father was in the sweetest of sleeps, he stealthily mounted the great horse. And, like a puff of smoke, he was galloping fast for the River P’anku.

Crossing over the River K’uerhpin, Yenchiao later came to the foot of that big grey blurred mountain. That was odd! There wasn’t a single tree on it! And as he went nearer to look, the mountain seemed able to move! Hey! Why, that big grey mountain right there before his very eyes, was in fact a huge, writhing earth-dragon! Hastily, he retreated onto a nearby rocky cliff. Looking from there, he saw that the earth-dragon was coiled in a circle, surrounding thirty-eight young women. Seeing

Yenchiao astride his noble steed, those girls all sang together:

Fine he-man, on your big horse you ride:

Don’t just do nothing! Don’t stand aside!

We’re nigh on fretting to death, penned in here,


When will we return to those near and dear?


Oh, huntsman, with your bow and arrow,

Don’t just do nothing! Don’t stand aside!

The wicked magic dragon whisked us here, drove us, And though we’re not your own flesh-end-blood sisters, Surely you can’t just look on! Surely you can’t leave us!


Most moved by their pleas, Yenchiao sang back:

Dear young ladies, dear sisters, no I can’t bear

To see you suffer, in his coils, trapped there. If I shoot, but the dragon won’t die, I implore: Please, whatever else, don’t blame me sore!

Yenchiao gave his bow a fierce pull, aiming at the dragon’s head. Whizz! Like a

shooting star the arrow sped, and struck the earth-dragon’s temple.

Yenchiao urged his horse towards the girls.

“Hurray!” he shouted. “I managed it! I’ve saved you!”

But at that moment, the earth dragon, in its strugglings and writhings, gave a weird cry, and a stream of black liquid spurted from it onto Yenchiao’s breast. He tried to dodge it, but was too late.

“Oh, terrible!” he shouted, “It’s so burning!”

No sooner had the word “burning” left his lips, than he tumbled down from his horse. And there he lay, at the horse’s hooves, like a dead man.

The girls stood around Yenchiao, thinking of all manner of ways to save him. From out of ’the dragon’s temple they fished a sparkling pearl. This they placed on Yenchiao’s breast, and over his head they sprinkled pure, fresh spring-water. Holding hands in a circle, they then went around and around him, singing:


Oh, wake, oh wake, brave hunter,

Who’ve saved the lives of us thirty-eight!


For should you die, and all for our sake,

How wretched distressed we’d feel at your fate!


Yenchiao slowly opened his eyes. His breast rose and fell, and the pearl rolled off. The girls helped him up, and gazing round, he noticed them all smiling sweetly at him. Being a young lad, he felt shy, and inclined to escape right away.

“You can’t run away!” they cried. “You absolutely must let us repay you for your great kindness, for your saving our lives!”

“Your great deed for us,” said one of the girls who was a little the elder of the others, “leaves us but one way of expressing our gratitude: We ask you to choose from among us one who pleases your heart, and to make her your wife.”

“No,” said Yenchiao, “please don’t trouble yourselves for me. Little Sister Reed from by the River P’anku is waiting for me. It’s only because of her that I left home and am travelling so far.”

“Forget your Little Sister Reed, won’t you!” said the girls, “The earth-dragon gathered up all the best girls in the world and brought them here. So why go searching anywhere else?”

Failing to fob them off with any excuses, Yenchiao glanced around. His look fell on one of the girls, and she at once lowered her head. He felt that she looked very familiar. And he found himself saying:

“Very well. She’s the one I want.”

The girl wrapped up the precious pearl in wheaten-flour dough, and kneaded the dough into the shape of a horse. Then she pulled some hairs from the mane of the great horse, and stuck them on the wheat-flour dough horse. As the wind blew against it, it changed bit by bit into a big high-necked horse, the image of a real one. The other girls let the girl have it, as the best of gifts, and she and Yenchiao said goodbye to all, slapped their steeds, and set off.

They came to a stretch of land where strawberries were growing everywhere.

“Tell me,” Yenchiao said to his companion, “Are you that girl who was carrying

water by the banks of the River K’uerhpin?”

“Oh,” laughed the girl, “there are so many people who look alike in this world: Me, I’m not anybody but me.”

“No,” said Yenchiao, “I don’t think you do look like her, that girl had red poppies stuck in her hair.”

As they spoke, they had come into an empty glade in the middle of a forest. The girl couldn’t suppress a laugh.

“What do you think of me?” she asked.

He looked her up and down.

“Mmm...,” he said, “Mighty pretty!”

“You really are a fool!” the girl said earnestly. “Now you’ve got me, why do you have to go rushing off after that Little Sister Reed, who you don’t even know?”

“Don’t blame me, will you!” said Yenchiao. “I should never have changed courses mid-stream!”

“Never mind,” said the girl, “if you wish it, we two can be like elder brother and younger sister to each other. All right?”

“Oh yes, my little sister!” replied Yenchiao. “That would be fine! And when I’ve got you a sister-in-law, I’ll without fail pick you some lad to your liking.”

“I thank you in advance,” she said, “But I’m just afraid that when it comes to the time, in the joy of all your own doings, you’ll clean forget all your promises!”

As they came out of the thick forest, there right before them lay a great rolling river. It had a single-plank bridge stretching across it from a cave in the rocks on the opposite bank.

They both gave their horses a slap, and swam them across the great river. As they reached the mouth of the cave, the horses backed strongly away. No amount of whipping would make them step forward, either.

Yenchiao dismounted, and looked inside the cave. Inside he saw eight fierce, vicious-looking, monstrous men, drunk as lords, and pillowing their heads on a big log that had its other end stretching away into the heart of the river. And by the mouth of the cave, there was a thin delicate woman in a big cangue and chains, burying her face in her hands, and weeping softly to herself. As she heard Yenchiao coming, she turned and looked him over a while.

“Young man!” she said then. “How can you dare linger here! These eight creatures here are demons who waylay people and eat them. If they smell the scent of humans, they’ll quickly awake, and pounce on you in a frenzy..... Look! That pile of human bones behind the cave is already nearly as high as the tall pine-tree.” “Who are you?” asked Yenchiao. “How did you come to be here?” The woman let out a sigh.

“I’m called Nuominchiao,” she said, “And one day when I came down to the river to gather some shells for my child, the demons seized me, and forced me to go and cook for them. If I’d refused, they’d have cooked me, too!”

Yenchiao stood rooted there with anger.

“Little Sister,” he said, “we must do something about this!”

At that moment, the chief demon, nearest the end, gave a groan, and Nuominchiao hurriedly pushed Yenchiao to the mouth of the cave.

“Quickly:” she said. “Go to the foot of the big pine-tree behind the cave, and dig up the precious magic axe that’s there. Otherwise you’ll never master them if there’s a fight.”

The instant that Yenchiao had left the cave, he heard the demon chief inside it call out:

“What’s that smell of another human here?”

“Oh, that!” replied Nuominchiao hastily, “That’s my younger sister. She came all this way to bring some presents. Don’t you like this purse?”

Yenchiao got so tired digging, that his eyes were seeing stars all the time by the time he’d at last dug out the magic axe. Then, not wasting a second, he raced back to the cave. He’d already chopped the other seven demons into fourteen slices before the demon chief discovered his presence.

“Quick, dodge!” Yenchiao suddenly heard Nuominchiao shout.

But before the sound of the words had died away, the demon chief had scurried up behind his back, and was squeezing his windpipe, trying to force him to drop the magic axe.

Yenchiao was in such pain that sweat was streaming all over his face. His ‘little sister’ swiftly pulled the red-hot poker from the fire, and planted it like a branding- iron on the demon chief’s back. The moment that the demon chief loosened his grip, Yenchiao struggled free, and chopped him in half with one blow.

Then he took Nuominchiao’s cangue and chains off her. She was infinitely grateful, and she gave her sweetly scented purse to him as a present.

“Elder Brother,” said his ‘little sister’ to Yenchiao, “you ride ahead on my magic pearl horse, will you. I’ll use your great horse to see this lady part of the way along her road. Otherwise she might go astray.”

“All right!” said Yenchiao. “Anyway, it’s not far to the River

P’anku now. To find me, you just follow the trail of my horse’s hoofprints, eh?”

Yenchiao reached the top of a mountain. No sooner had he done so, than dark clouds gathered dense-packed across the sky, completely hiding the sun’s light. Although right on noon, it was like midnight. In the storm of wind and rain that followed, the tall, powerful magic-pearl horse collapsed to the ground. There it bit by bit grew smaller and smaller, until, at last, there was nothing left of it but the sparkling magic pearl.

Yenchiao squatted down under an oak-tree, deciding to wait for his “little sister”. A long, long time passed. Still seeing no sign of her, he decided to go down from the high mountain. He didn’t know - not surprisingly! - that at the foot of the mountain there was a bog. And its edges were beyond the reach of his out-flung arms. He sank deeper and deeper into it. And surrounding him were swarms of gnats, in clouds as thick as the heaviest fog. Enough to devour alive even the stoutest of hunting- horses!

He’d gone no more than three steps, when he was buried up to his belly-button. Another step, and he was up to his chest in it. He tried to shout out, but felt too weak by now. And stuck all over him were the gnats, bigger than cow’s eyes. They were viciously stabbing into his flesh with their poisonous stings over two inches long.

Shooing the huge gnats away from his eyes, Yenchiao noticed that there was a patch on him where they hadn’t alighted. It was on his chest, around the gift purse. Quickly, he opened the purse, and scattered the perfume from inside it all over him. The gnats flew off, well away from him. But they hummed and buzzed the whole night through before they dispersed.

The sun was very high in the sky when, down from the top of the mountain, came the sound of horse’s hooves.

“Halloa! My silly Elder Brother!” Yenchiao heard his ‘little sister’ shout. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. And why! here you are having a bath! Must be cool and refreshing in there, eh?”

“Come off it!” said Yenchiao. “Only wild boars like this kind of bath!”

“Then why did you have to keep pushing on ahead through it?” asked his ‘little sister’. “You could’ve just stepped back up onto this high mountain, couldn’t you? What harm would that have done?”

“Do you think the River P’anku’s up there on the mountain?” answered Yenchiao grumpily. “Anyway, if it’d been you instead of me, you’d probably have sunk in even deeper!”

“Dear Elder Brother!” said his ‘little sister’, full of feeling. “If I were Little Sister Reed, I could never love you enough, loved I you all my livelong days! Let’s go quickly now! Perhaps Little Sister Reed’s given up waiting by now!”

The two of them riding together on that one great horse, they sped across ninety- nine miles of mudpit. Then, coming over a small stretch of hills, they caught sight of the cooking smoke from an encampment down on the bank of the River P’anku.

“Here we are!” announced his ‘little sister’. “You hurry on down, will you. I’ll stay and wait for you here.”

Most grateful for his ‘little sister’s’ thoughtfulness as to his dignity, Yenchiao stepped down to the bank of the River P’anku ....

The sun was very high in the sky when, down from the top of the mountain, came the sound of horse’s hooves.

Everybody’d said that Little Sister Reed’s dad, Yierhka, was a dangerous man to annoy. So Yenchiao took extra care as he performed the courtesies of greeting.

“Young man,” said Yierhka, weighing up this young lad who’d come to him from so far away, “a lot of men have come here, only to have me put a spoke in their wheel! But if that warning still doesn’t douse your ardour, let me put you to the test, to see if you’d please my daughter’s fancy.”

“Maybe I won’t suit her,” said Yenchiao, “but I can’t have come all this way for nothing! Please call your daughter out here, and let me have a look at her, will you.” “Don’t get impatient yet!” said Yierhka. “You’ll get to meet her easy enough! But first you’ll have to accomplish three things. Come along with me, out over there.”

A coin the size of a copper pence was fixed on the bow of a fully caparisoned, tawny yellow horse. The old man gave the horse a vicious lash of his whip, and it galloped off.

“You go and chase after it!” said Yierhka, when the horse was a few hundred yards away, “And try and shoot an arrow through that peppercorn-sized hole in the coin.” Yenchiao gave his great horse a slap, then scrambled up onto it from behind, over its crupper, and into the saddle. In the wink of an eye, his arrow could be seen butting

swift into the wind, towards the saddle-bow of the tawny horse.

In a trice, the yellow horse, of its own accord, ran back. Stuck through the coin on its saddle-bow was the arrow.

“Hm,” said Yierhka, plucking down the arrow, “your archery’s not bad. Now it’s late in the day, and getting dark. So, for now please come and take some rest in this little wooden hut, if you will!”

The moment Yenchiao had stepped inside, the old man banged the door fast behind him.

“Young man!” he announced from outside. “If you can’t stand the buzzing, just tell me! I’m of no mind to scheme you any tragedy!”

Looking about, Yenchiao realised it was too dark in the hut even to see his palm if he stretched out his hand! He took out the dragon’s pearl, and shone the light of it around. The hut was filled with gnats and enormous gadflies! They were crowding in on him like starving demons. But he was an old hand by now, and knew just what to do. He quickly opened the purse, and scattered its perfume all over him. Then he lay down, and straight away went to sleep.

Well after dawn, Yierhka, hearing no sound of any movement from inside the hut, hurriedly flung open the door and looked in. The young lad had the sheen of sleep perspiration across his face, and was leisurely stretching his limbs! The starving gnats and gadflies covered the floor in one black blur. Yenchiao sat up.

“Thank you for getting ready this guest-room all for me,” he said, smiling, “It’s been lovely here. Much nicer even than if I’d slept in some pelt-tent or birch-bark tent.”

“No need to thank me!” said Yierhka, embarrassed. “Just a little something I thought up for you. Well, now let me test you to see if you really do love my daughter.”

Coming out of the little hut, Yenchiao saw, sitting on a high, high platform, a girl with red poppies stuck in her hair. All around the platform were set up wooden bowls with flames pouring from them. The fire of the flames was so baking, that people who’d come to watch the excitement had backed well away from them.

The girl sang a song, in a pure silvery voice:


Hunter from the River K’uerhpin,

Elder Brother Yenchiao, so brave is he! So many hardships you’ve undergone, And all for the sake of me!

Come now, my dear, the moment is here! And when you and I are together,

My heart will know such joy and cheer.


Looking carefully at her, Yenchiao saw that she was none other than the girl who’d been carrying water by the River K’uerhpin. But her smile was unmistakably that of the ‘little sister’ he’d rescued from the earth-dragon! What an earth was it all about?

“Who are you?” shouted Yenchiao in a loud voice. “Tell me! Quickly!”

The girl plucked one of the red poppies out, and threw it down to him.

“Elder Brother Yenchiao!” she called. “Come to me now. Little Sister Reed is me!

I’m the Little Sister Reed you’ve been wanting to find? Do you understand now?” From his horse’s saddle, Yenchiao untied the magic axe. And lifting the axe  high, he rushed towards the flaming barrier of fire.

As he hacked himself a path in to her, the girl leaped down from the platform, and the scarlet flames shone on the joyful smiling cheeks of the two of them. He took her in his arms, carried her off, and placed her on his great horse.

“Wait a moment, Elder Brother Yenchiao!” said Little Sister Reed. “Let me say goodbye to my father.”

Yierhka had realised that for certain he would hardly find another such son-in-law in this world.

“Just tell me what dowry you want, whatever it is!” he asked his daughter. “If it’s within my giving, I’ll certainly not grudge you it!”

“I’ve already got it ready myself,” said the girl.

So saying, she took out from her room the two birch-bark buckets with the arrow- holes in them.

At the sight of these, Yenchiao at once snatched them from her.

“Little Sister Reed!” he complained. “Since you love me, why did you still make me suffer so many horrible things!”

“Yenchiao!” replied Little Sister Reed. “Surely you wouldn’t have had me rush blindly into marriage with you. Without first looking to see what kind of a man you are? Am I right to think you wouldn’t?”

“Yes, I understand now!” said Yenchiao. “My clever, wise Little Sister Reed!”

At that moment, the great Seven Storey Stirruped Horse started up with its full- throat neighing. Yes, it was time for them to return home.