Yeh-Shen is a charmingly illustrated and written story whose compelling spin on ancient themes will please adults and children.
Stepmothers and guardians often are cast in bad gal and guy roles. Stepmother-guardians of orphans confront the biggest child-raising challenges. Such is definitely the case in Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China, retold by Ai-Ling Louie (born 1949), illustrated by Ed Young (born 1931), and published by Philomel Books (1982) and The Putnam & Grosset Group (1996).
The story appears to be the oldest Cinderella story. It dates back to The Miscellaneous Record of Yu Yang by Tuan Ch-eng-Shih during the T’ang dynasty (618-907). The oldest known European version is Italian (1634).
The Chinese version begins before the Ch’in dynasty (221 B.C.-206 B.C.). The characters live in Southern China’s caves. Chief Wu’s two wives produce two daughters. Wu and one wife sicken and die.
Wu’s widow cares for both girls. But orphaned Yeh-Shen is more beautiful than the widow's daughter. So the widow keeps Yeh-Shen busy and hidden from view.
Yeh-Shen befriends a golden-eyed fish that rests its head on the riverbank to feed from her hand. The stepmother discovers the secret interaction. She dons Yeh-Shen’s coat and trudges to the riverbank while Yeh-Shen gets firewood.
The fish recognizes Yeh-Shen’s coat. The stepmother stabs him when the fish heaves onto the bank. She tosses the bones after serving the flesh only to her daughter and herself.
A very old man suddenly materializes. He reveals the fish’s fate. He speaks of the power of the fish bones to grant Yeh-Shen’s heartfelt desires.
The spring festival can be considered the area’s most important event. The stepmother dresses her daughter and herself up. Yeh-Shen must guard the family fruit trees.
With the bones’ help, Yeh-Shen goes dressed in an azure gown, feathered cloak, and gold slippers. Everyone loves the mysterious beauty. But Yeh-Shen leaves when her stepsister recognizes her.
Yeh-Shen loses a slipper which a villager finds and sells to a merchant. The merchant turns the slipper over to the king of T’o Han Island.
The king arranges for women to try the slipper. He is horrified to see raggedy Yeh-Shen’s foot fit .. until he sees her shimmering in azure, feathers, and gold. No one worries about Yeh-Shen’s stepmother and stepsister, who are killed by flying stones.
Yeh-Shen is an endearing story which draws readers of all ages through its appealing theme of the love of a king of the isles for a beautiful cave girl.