Or: The ballad of Niu Lang and Zhi Nu
Deep in the Chinese countryside a poor boy called Lai lived with his older brother and his wife. They just had a small piece of land where they managed to grow just about enough food for the three of them to live on, and they only had one cow.
Lai didn’t get treated very well, but he never complained. It was Lai’s responsibility to look after the cow. Every morning he took her to the foothills of the mountains, where the cow grazed on the long grass and leafy bushes. Every night the cow would give them a little milk.
Lai was quite lonely, his brother and sister-in-law only spoke to him when they wanted something, and he’d taken to talking to the cow. The cow never said anything back to him, of course. Lately, the main topic of conversation between Lai and the cow had been Lai’s longing to find a wife.
He felt he was old enough now to start his own family, but they were so poor, he knew they would not have enough food to feed another person.
One fine day Lai was sitting on a rock under the hot sun, watching the cow and pondering his fate. The cow looked up from her grazing, and looked at the boy.
She came walking up to him. “Listen, boy” the cow said softly, “maybe I can help you.” The boy jumped up, and looked around, expecting to see somebody behind him. There’s nobody there! Just he and the cow, and a few birds flying over the meadow.
“It’s me!” the cow spoke again. Lai shook his head and took a step back, ready to run away. The cow lifted her head. “Don’t worry, boy,” she said, “only you can hear me speak.”
“But how is this possible,” asked the boy, quite astounded and still pretty scared. “You’re a cow! You can’t speak!” The cow let out a long mooo.
“I don’t know exactly how it works, she started, but you’re always very kind to me, and maybe there is a way I can help you fullfil your dreams.”
Lai had to sit down again. He realised there was some kind of magic going on, he certainly didn’t understand it, so he asked “How do you know what my dream is? And how could a cow help me? Are you going to turn into a beautiful young woman?”
The cow shook her head. “You know the lake where you take us to drink sometimes? The other side of the meadow there?” Lai nodded. He knew the place well.
The cow continued, “This afternoon some fairies will be there, bathing and swimming. You should go there. Make sure they don’t see you, but look around for their dresses. You should take one of the dresses, one only, mind you, and hide it. Something good will happen.”
The boy shook his head again. “You want me to sneak up to the fairies and steal their clothes? That’s not a very nice thing to do! How could something good come from that?”
The cow mooed again. “Trust me”, she said, “if you do as I suggest, something good will happen. You should go now, by the time you get to the lake, the fairies will be there.” Having said that, the cow turned around and walked away. She started grazing again.
The boy scratched his head. “Cow!” he shouted, and ran after her. “How come you know all this? How come you can suddenly speak?” But the cow just carried on grazing. The magic had obviously worn off.
For a few moments the boy wondered what to do. The only thing he could think of was hat some friendly spirit had taken over the cow for a few minutes. Maybe there was somebody or something in the land of the spirits who wanted to help him.
It was true, as the cow had said, that he always tried to be kind and gentle. Not just to the cow, but to his brother and his wife and the other people in the village as well. It was just possible that somebody wanted to reward him , even though he himself thought it was just his duty to act like that.
But what did he have to lose? He reckoned he could reach the lake in less than half an hour; if there was nothing there, he could be back here in an hour at the most. He patted the cow.
“Very well, my good friend,” he said softly, “let’s go see if you really want to help me. I’ll be back in an hour. Don’t wander off!” With that, he turned around and started running across the meadow, in the direction of the lake. The cow just carried on grazing.
Lai ran and skipped and tumbled. His heart beating in his throat. His curiosity mounted by the minute, as did his anxiety. Eventually he reached the long grassy dunes that surrounded the lake. He slowed down and moved tentatively.
He thought he could hear something, singing? Someone singing? Or was it just the birds. No, now he could definitely hear voices, singing, he was sure now.
Gingerly, he climbed to the top of the dune, and peeked over it. There in the lake he could see several figures swimming and cavorting in the water.
What an amazing sight! There were about six or seven of them, he’d never seen anything so breathtakingly beautiful in his life! He remembered what the cow had said about the clothes.
He started searching for them, taking care to stay out of sight. Then he spotted them, seven neatly folded dresses, side by side. He crept closer and grabbed the nearest one, then ran and his behind the first tree.
A few minutes later the singing voices came nearer, and he peeked from behind the tree trunk. He could see the fairies picking up their dresses and putting them on, then flying up into the air, still laughing and singing.
But of course one of them stayed behind. The poor fairy looked everywhere for her dress. Lai could see she was getting more and more distressed and he felt sorry for her.
He came out from his hiding place, carrying her dress. When the fairy saw him, her first reaction was to run away. But then she saw that he was carrying her dress.
“What are you doing with my dress!” she shouted at him. The poor boy couldn’t speak. He had never seen such a beautiful creature, and he’d fallen head over heels in love with her.
“Well?” the fairy spoke again, “what have you got to say for yourself?” “P-p-please don’t b-b-be angry,” Lai stuttered. “I-I-I-…,” but he couldn’t finish his sentence.
The fairy stood there looking at him, but of course, being a kind and gentle creature herself, she couldn’t stay angry for very long. She began to feel a little sorry for this poor shy boy.
As well as being kind and gentle, fairies can see right through people, and she could see that this boy was so shy because he was falling in love with her.
Finally, Lai found enough courage to explain himself. “I didn’t mean to upset you,” he started, “but my cow told me that something good would happen if I took your clothes.” At first the fairy wanted to laugh. “I see,” she said the, “this must be a very special cow indeed. We’d better go and have a word with her.”
She took her clothes from Lai and they set off together, to the meadow where he had left his animals grazing. On the way there she told him her name was Qi Xianv, which means the Seventh Princess, and he told her all about his life, about his brother and sister-in law and their meagre existence, and the fact that they were so poor that he couldn’t possibly afford to take a wife.
When they reached the meadow, the fairy could see immediately that a friendly spirit was living in the cow’s body, who wanted to make the boy’s life better.
She looked at Lai again, and realised that now she is beginning to fall in love with him. Ouch!! This was a big problem for her, because fairies are not allowed to fall in love with mere humans.
The long walk and the conversation they had seemed to have given Lai more courage. He asked Qi Xianv if she would consider marrying him. She knew she should say no, and that she should just fly away and join the other fairies.
But against her better judgement, she said “Yes!” They embraced there and then in the meadow. That’s how the poor cowherd and the beautiful fairy came to live together as man and wife.
They set up home together and Qi Xianv started weaving cloth. She turned out to be quite good at it, and they were able to make enough money to live on. After a while Qi Xianv gave birth to a healthy baby boy, and the three of them lived a happy, peaceful, life.
One day the cow got very sick. Lai looked after her as well as he could, but the cow got sicker and sicker. Even the fairy couldn’t do anything about it.
Since that one day in the meadow, the cow had never spoken again. One day, however, when Lai was bringing some fresh water into the shed, she spoke to him again.”My dear boy,” she said. “this old cow’s body is getting too fragile. Soon I’ll be gone. But if you do as I tell you, I can leave you some protection.”
Lai nodded, “I’ll do whatever you say,” he said. “After I’m dead, keep my skin in one piece. Keep it in a safe place, and you’ll find it will be very useful in an emergency,” spoke the cow. Lai promised to do so. A few days later, the cow passed away. Lai hid her skin in a secret place beneath their little house.
In the meantime, in Fairyland, where all the fairies lived, the goddess in charge of the fairies was very unhappy. She had been very upset when the fairies came back from their little excursion to the lake without their sister Qi Xianv.
She’d sent the fairies out again to look for her, time and again, week in week out, they had been searching for her all over China. They searched in the forests. They searched on the plains. They searched in the mountains. They searched in the rivers. They searched in the villages and the cities. They searched all along the coast. But they always came back empty handed.
They just couldn’t find her anywhere, and the goddess got more and more miserable as time went by. But the fairy goddess was very determined, and she kept sending out new search parties.
Some of the other goddesses were poking fun at her that she kept losing fairies. She just could not afford to give up.
So one sad day, yet another search party of fairies was flying over the countryside, when one of them spotted a fair figure tending a vegetable patch.
She alerted her companions and they swept down to get a closer look. They recognised their missing sister, and without asking for explanations they took held of Qi Xianv and pulled her up into the sky with them.
Later that afternoon, Lai came back to the hut from the forest where he’d been gathering herbs, to find his son, sitting all by himself, crying for his mummy.
His wife was nowhere to be found. His son pointed up to the sky, and flapped his arms about. Lai realised that the fairies must have come for his wife. At first he was totally despondent, and broke out in tears.
Then he remembered the cowskin. He took it from its hiding place and wrapped it around himself, like a cloak. Immediately he felt a strange new power inside himself. He picked up his son, and started to run.
To his amazement he found himself flying! Up they went, higher and higher. He had no idea where they were going, but his cowskin cloak seemed to know the way. It took them over mountains, over valleys and over rivers. It took them way beyond the clouds.
Eventually, Lai saw a strange golden arch in the distance. It looked like some kind of a gate, and he thought it must be the entrance to Fairyland. He was right, and the guard fairies at the gate had spotted him approaching.
They alerted their boss, the fairy goddess, and she flew into a rage. How dare this little simple human peasant come all the way up here! She would stop him there and then!
Using all her considerable magic powers, she conjured up a torrential stream in the sky between Lai and the gate to Fairyland. Lai’s cloak came to a halt. Lai could see there was no way he could get across or around this torrent.
He cried out in despair. On the other side of the gate, the fairies had gathered together to watch this amazing piece of magic, Qi Xianv among them.
She could just make out the figures of her husband and son on the other side of the water, and she also started screaming. Some of the other gods and goddesses who lived nearby came to see what the commotion was all about.
They saw the crying fairy at the gate, and the crying man with his crying son at the other side of the river that had just appeared there out of nothing. “What’s going on,” they demanded to know,” why are you keeping these lovers apart?”
The fairy goddess explained the whole situation to her colleagues. “The law of the fairies is quiet clear,” she concluded, “fairies are not allowed to associate with humans, and the law must be upheld!”
All the gods were agreed that the law is the law, but some of them looked at the poor separated pair and felt there should be some room for compromise.
“Show some mercy!” shouted one of the gods, “let her go back to him!” The fairy goddess shook her head. “No! No! No!”
“Let the boy live in Fairyland,” suggested another. The fairy goddess shook her head. “No! No! No! That is quite impossible!” “I know,” said yet another goddess, “Each year you could allow the fairy one day to be with her husband!”
All the other gods and the fairies who were watching thought this was a terrific suggestion, and they all started clapping and shouting their approval.
The fairy goddess looked at Qi Xianv, and she looked at Lai, and she said: “All right, this is what we’ll do.” She summoned all the fairies, and told them to round up all the birds they could find in the sky.
As they came back with thousands and thousands and thousands of birds of all shapes and sizes and colours, the fairy goddess arranged the birds in such a way that they formed a bridge over the torrential stream she had created.
She told Qi Xianv that she could cross the bridge of birds and stay with Lai for that day. Once she returned to Fairyland in the evening, the birds would be sent back to wherever they had come from.
And from that day onwards, on every anniversary of that day the fairy goddess summoned all her fairies to gather together all the birds in the sky to form the bridge which made it possible for Qi Xianv and Lai to meet.
Jin Lou told this story to Frans Timmermans