Comparing Brothers Grimm’s Cinderella and Yeh-hsien form a Chinese Tale

30.10.2019 in Comparative Essays
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The Two Cinderellas

The story about Cinderella is familiar to almost everyone. There are similar stories in different countries of the world, but the plot, tone, imagery, and characters differ depending on the culture of the country and the time of writing or retelling. One of the most famous versions of the story is the tale retold by German authors Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm in the nineteenth century which is to be compared with the Chinese tale about Yeh-Hsien created a thousand years ago.

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The first issue to be compared is the plot. Brothers Grimm’s Cinderella loses mother and suffers from the injustice and terrible treatment of the step-mother and step-sisters. They take away all her beautiful dresses and shoes and make the poor girl do all the housework from day to day. The main heroine regularly visits her mother’s grave and weeps there. When the ball is announced Cinderella does all the work in order to visit it but she doesn’t have a suitable dress and does not know how to dance. Finally, she finds the way out with the help of the tree, which she once planted near the mother’s grave. She visits the ball three times, spends time there with the prince and every time disappears in a strange way. The third time Cinderella loses her golden shoe and the prince decides that no one else should be his bride but the woman whose foot fits into the shoe. Both Cinderella’s step-sisters make attempts to pass themselves for the real bride but eventually, the prince discovers the truth and rides away with Cinderella. In the end of the story the two false sisters get what they deserve being punished for their malice with blindness.

The plot of the Chinese story is rather different, though there is a number of meaningful similarities. First of all, the mother of Yeh-Hsien dies similarly to Cinderella’s one and the Chinese girl is ill-treated by her step-mother as well. However, the attitude of Yeh-Hsien’s relatives to her is not as savage and cruel as Cinderella’s step-mother and sisters; and there is less emphasis on the labor performed by the heroine. Another plot similarity is the ball (in the Chinese version it is a festival), where heroines are invited to. Both Yeh-Hsien and Cinderella lose their shoes on their way home and are found eventually by the prince/the king after trying it on. Yeh-Hsien’s step-mother and step-sister are punished and the main heroine becomes the chief wife of the king.

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Although one may notice many similar details, the two stories have many differences regarding the plot. The first one is that in the Chinese tale Yeh-Hsien goes on the festival where there is no “prince”, and the festival is depicted as a usual event, typical for those times. The second different point is that Cinderella is not recognized by her relatives, while the Chinese heroine is noticed immediately. The third difference concerns shoe loss: while Cinderella loses her shoe because of the prince’s trick, Yeh-Hsien does this because of a hurry as she understands that she is recognized and is afraid that she will be punished for the disobedience.

The plot of Chinese tales is less romantic and fairy-tale. While the owner of the shoe in Grimm’s variant is looked for because the prince wants to find the girl he has spent a nice time with, the king of To-han kingdom wants to find a woman who could wear such a small shoe as the small foot in those times was a sign of femininity and beauty. And finally, the end of Cinderella’s story, namely the punishment of negative characters, is softer than in Chinese one, as Cinderella’s sister just becomes blind while Yeh-Hsien’s step-mother and step-sister are struck by flying stones.

Speaking about the characters of the two stories and characterizing them, we may single out some common heroes and those who are absent in one tale and are present in another one. First of all, in both variants, there is one main heroine who loses her mother and suffers from ill-treatment. Both Cinderella and Yeh-Hsien are made to do some hard work, however, Cinderella’s working routine is more severe and it is accompanied by grief for her dead mother.

The step-mother and step-sisters in the Grimm’s tale are depicted as more selfish and greedy. Yeh-Hsien has only one step-sister and she plays not so important role in the story comparing to Cinderella’s sisters. However, they are all depicted in a negative way and are punished in the end. Comparing the prince and the king, we may say, that the prince is less powerful and is simpler than the ruler in the Chinese version and his aim is to find his beautiful partner from the ball, while the king is amazed not by the definite woman but by the fact, that there is a woman somewhere, whose foot is smaller than anyone else’s in his kingdom. Among other characters are the birds that help Cinderella and the fish, which Yeh-Hsien looks after. These characters symbolize heroines’ sympathy and kind-heartedness.

The mentioned differences in the systems of characters point to the differences in the cultures and values of their representatives. Thus, positive characters of the Chinese story seem less romantic and more formal while negative ones are greedy and selfish.

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The imagery in both stories is vivid and helps the readers to imagine the events and to become passive participants of them. Brothers Grimm’s variant is overcrowded with strong epithets and metaphors. All the descriptions are exaggerated in a way and they underline the main idea of the story and the message that the readers have to get. For instance, on the mother’s grave Cinderella weeps but not cries; the girl receives help not from two or three birds, but from all birds in the sky; step-sisters of the main heroine are to cut off the part of their foot so immense their desires to be identified as a brides were, and so on. All these examples, as well as the other ones in the story, describe the main characters and reveal their role in the story.
In the Chinese tale the imagery is less expressive and it helps readers to create an image of the culture of those times and the values of ancient people in China, rather than the understanding of the feelings of the characters. The behavior of the heroes and descriptions of their lives help us understand that a thousand years ago people were concerned more about beauty, traditions and social status. In this way, ordinary people like Yeh-Hsien, her step-mother, step-sister and a man, who found the shoe, are depicted weaker and simpler than the king or his soldiers, and all the characters in the Chinese tale seem to be less active than those of the German version. Besides, the language of the first one seems to be more formal and that is why the story is more difficult to read and understand.

Finally, the last aspect which needs to be compared is the general tone of the story and, undoubtedly, tones in both variants have much in common. It is understood that the tone depends on the words used in the text and the general dynamics of the plot. The tone in Cinderella, written by Brothers Grimm, is rather ambiguous. It may be characterized as pessimistic and alarming in some parts of the story, but at the same time the scenes on the ball and the happy ending seems to be optimistic. The tone in the story of Yeh-hsien is calmer in this regard but along with that, it may be defined as a formal and serious one.

The story retold by Grimm Brothers is more dynamic and expressive and due to this the reader is kept in constant tension. For instance, Cinderella visits the ball three times and each time is more eventful than the previous one, every new dress on the heroine is more beautiful than the previous one and before the ball the girl is given hard work that every time gets more difficult than the previous one.

As it has been already mentioned, the tone of the Chinese story is calmer and more formal. The author pays attention to the actions rather than to feelings. This story has more definite composition and that is why the tension is not so strong. At the same time the tone of this variant of Cinderella arouse the same feelings as the one of the Grimm’s story.

It goes without saying, that a comparison of the Western version of Cinderella retold by Brothers Grimm to the Chinese story of Yeh-Hsien is very interesting. While reading the two retellings it is easy to notice many meaningful similarities and differences between them. The majority of the differences are the results of differences in cultures and times. After the reading it becomes clear that ancient Chinese definitely had different values and viewed many things differently comparing to Western Europeans. All the aspects of comparison (the plot, the characters, the imagery and the tone) are important for the understanding of the cultural differences and the messages of the stories. No matter what attitude we have towards Cinderellas from different versions, it is clear that the differences in the traits of characters and features, actions and deeds, the world around them and the general atmosphere tell the readers something about what each culture values and how it perceives the outside world.

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