* The folktales are numbered with ⓿, ❶, ❷ and so on for readers’ reference when reading the folktales mentioned in the article.
When Chiu Cheng-Hung’s The Balcony came into sight for the first time, I naturally thought of the scene when someone looked out from behind a railing. To look out from a railing is differently from simply looking around on the beach. When one looked out from the railing on the balcony – even though the balcony was tilted and looked rather obtrusive as if it floated and stranded on the beach – once the person (whether deliberately or unintentionally) stepped onto this man-made object, his or her position became marked and mapped out. A passer-by would become an “observer” because the railing clearly separated the person and the vista before him or her — therefore, the person would be placed on the spot of a “narrator” in the storytelling of oral tradition, and become immersed in the real-time panoramic image. Looking around, the person would see people standing up from the shallow water, and the water dripping from their body had vivified their skin. The person would also see people playing and moving things with their hands and feet, feeling their smoothness, stickiness and roughness. The cloudless sky would become so bright due to the sunlight and moonlight reflected by the sea surface, and he or she would need to partially cover their eyes with hands. The person looked out into the Pacific Ocean, just like all the people on the shore of western Pacific Ocean region would do. In the same or slightly different time zones, everyone on the shore would in turn witness the rising/birth of the moon from the vast sea. How would they respectively interpret the sea and moon then? What vocabularies and existing descriptions are already in their mind? How would they associate the sight with the everyday experience and memory to explain the complex feeling arising from seeing the particular sight? In the end, as this person stepped down the balcony, these observations would be stored in different ways as images from a wide range of memories, and eventually became materials and settings for stories they would be telling. The distinctive features of the surrounding landscape as well as phenomena in various events would then be translated through story plots and incorporated into stories to be told.
Speaking of the moon rising from the sea (putting Zhang Jiuling’s poem aside), people on the seashore tend to think of childbirth when they see a glowing disc popping out from the horizon at the end of the sea—that is, the ocean becomes a mother giving birth to her glorious, sacred child. A folktale from the seaside region in Siberia describes newborns as “the baby with the moon on its forehead, or the baby with the sun on its forehead.” (⓿) A newborn child, like the rising sun and moon, indeed captures everyone’s eyes. However, there are more details in different folktales. People have noticed that the newly rising moon from the sea surface looks as if it were dipped in blood. According to Melanesians and Papua New Guineans, the newborn moon-child was placed on blood-soaked straw mattress, and therefore became red all over. The child consequently grew feathers from his body and turned into a red parrot before flying into the sky. The parrot moon-child, flying and perching from one palm tree to another, caused a problem one time and became hunted by people on the ground. The parrot moon-child kept running from one tree top to another, maintaining a certain distance from people. When he reached the last tree, the mother, hoping to save her child, cast the umbilical cord towards the moon-child, holding onto one end and asking her child to catch the other. Yet, the child grabbed the cord so hard that the mother was pulled up into the sky. Since then, the mother tied her child to herself, leading the moon-child with the umbilical cord in their procession. (❶)
The umbilical cord in the folktale, as a metaphor, is not simply a physical bond connecting the mother with the child. “To lead with the umbilical cord” indicates that one party moves in the direction dictated by the other party. The moving forward therefore is not a random and freewheeling action, but suggests discipline and order, and even being subject to external forces. In life, the mother’s leading her child is applied to explain the moving track of the rising moon in the sky. In a Korean folktale, the mother gave birth to the sun, moon, star and a nameless baby. After the last one got eaten by a tiger, the first three climbed up to a tall tree to avoid being eaten by the tiger. They implored the god in heaven for safety by asking him to “lower the silver gourd vines.” Being lifted into the sky, the three children then started to move in the tracks as they had been led. (❷) Who was this god that lower the silver gourd vines? In folktales from the Southeast Asian region, we often encounter rope-like objects being lowered to save the child, and it is usually the deceased mother that now resided in heaven. In addition to gourd vines, the cord can also be a gold chain, an iron cable or strong cotton rope. The child pulled up to the sky, who is later turned into the glowing object, becomes bound by the abstract mother-child cord in his glorious yet inescapable procession in the sky in the eyes of people in this world.
The newborn moon looks enormous and almost reachable; even if humans cannot reach it, it seems to be extremely close as well. The moon of the night between July 27 and 28, 2018 was farther away from the Earth and was said to be the smallest full moon. However, in the eyes of insignificant humans, the moon popping out from the sea horizon still seemed within reach. Under the clear sky, the dark-colored basalt rocks of the moon’s topography form visible dark spots, which have been sometimes described as rabbits or giant trees in children’s books. In addition to the well-known Vietnamese folktale, “Chú Cuội,” which is about a man that climbs a marabutan tree and reaches the moon, there is also a Tungusic folktale told in the seaside region in Northeast Asia: a mother asked her daughter to fetch some water from the seaside. The girl arrived at the shore with a wooden bucket and ladle but started playing water. The mother was waiting impatiently and called out the girl’s name; and the sea king therefore heard the girl’s name and brought the girl into the sea. The girl left her wooden bucket on shore, and could only struggle to stay on the sea surface by holding tightly to the ladle. Fortunately, the moon happened to be rising from the sea and not yet into the sky. Seeing this, the girl used the ladle to hook onto a tree branch stemming from the moon surface, and flied into the sky, eventually turning into a shadow on the moon. (❸)
Regarding the illusory tangibility of celestial objects, we also need to revisit the legend about “the extremely low sky in the ancient time” told in the regions of East Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceania. In the ancient Paiwan story from Taiwan, it is told that two Paiwan women saw that the two suns in the low sky made the day harsh and lasting. So, one of them struck and poked the sky with a pestle while the other splash boiling water to one of the suns. Since then, the sky was elevated, and the extinguished sun became the moon. (❹) Human beings see the sky as a physical “dome” because when the sun, moon and stars move in the sky, they appear to remain a fixed distance from the Earth’s surface.1 Furthermore, the moon’s acceptable brightness suggests an approachable temperature; so, the moon is often described as being hugged and touched in folktales. Before we talk about different 21st-century designer lamps in the form of the moon in various counties, let’s first discuss another topic; and we could circle back to the moon’s touchable, moveable image.
Reflection is an intriguing mediation, and serves as a buffer zone for human perception and experience between the seemingly conflicting opposites—“touchable celestial objects” and “far-away, unreachable celestial objects.” There is a wide-spread, witty story in East Asia, which is about a man that tries to “capture” the moon. He uses a basin, a bowl, a cup or other utensil that can hold water, and fills the utensil to the point that the reflection of the moon perfectly fills up the liquid surface. However, there is more to the element of reflection. When celestial objects slowly rise in the sky in these folktales, there always seems to be a constant element: the reflection on water surface. In Text ❶ mentioned earlier in this article, the parrot moon-child perched on the top of the tree, his brightness was reflected by the water surface of a well. A girl who came to fetch water saw the reflection of the glowing parrot in the well and jumped into the well to catch it, only to get herself wet and returned empty-handed. In Text ❷, the tiger saw the reflection of the child moon in the well and reached out its paw to catch it. Its attempt was of course futile. Therefore, we can see that “the touchable” and “unreachable” are both incorporated and unified in the story—as the desire to reach is denied when the reflection of the celestial object is touched, the unreachable sacredness of the celestial object becomes validated (even though this sacred celestial object is still bound by a cord). In this regard, it is a common approach to use “reflection” to introduce divine or sacred characters in the stories. In “Age of the Gods, Part II” in Nihon Shoki (or The Chronicles of Japan), it is recorded that “before the gate there was a well, and over the well there grew a many-branched cassia-tree, with wide-spreading boughs and leaves. Now Hiko-hoho-demi no Mikoto went up to the foot of this tree and loitered about. After some time, the Sea God’s daughter, Toyo-tama-hime, appeared and, pushing open the door, came forth. She at length took a jewel-vessel and approached. She was about to draw water, when, raising her eyes, she saw him.” 2
In folktales, covering is used as a way to understand the lesser brightness of the moon and its waxing and waning. In a Carolinean folktale found in Micronesia, a rich man intended to make trouble for two poor young men, and demanded them to “move” the moon into his mansion for his own entertainment. One of the young men followed his mother’s instruction and brought a Pacific golden plover (Pluvialis fulva), a rooster and bush twigs to catch the moon. As they reached the sky, the young man found that the moon was heavily guarded. So, he began telling the guards stories until one by one they all fell asleep. The young man then covered the moon with multiple pieces of fabric and sneaked it back to the ground while the plover and the rooster diverted the attention of their chasers and tripped them with bush twigs. After the young man brought the moon to the rich man, he warned him that he should never fully remove the fabric and uncover the moon entirely. Driven by curiosity, however, the rich man removed the fabric piece by piece, and the moon became brighter and brighter. When the covering fabric was removed entirely, the moon then floated back to the sky. (❺). Now, if we revisit the story in ❶, we see that sometimes the mother wraps her moon-child with cloth and puts him into a basket when she drags him across the sky. This causes the light to be covered, and leads to the waning of the moon; and sometimes, the moon-child tries to escape and jumps out of the basket, causing the moonlight to become brighter; hence, the waxing of the moon. One thing should also be mentioned again: the approachable quality of the moon – its being imagined as moveable and touchable – is associated with the “covering,” which is an action that humans can perform on reachable objects.
When discussing the covering of textile, one naturally thinks of the Paiwan legend told in kaviyangan tribe: the world used to have two suns. So, the ancestral god gave one of them a blanket and said, “sleep for a while.” In the context with one of the two suns turning into the moon, the latter is sometimes covered and consequently darkened by the covering of fabric, and sometimes poked (Korean folktale) or splashed with boiling water (❹) to decrease its brightness and heat. The covering and reduction, more or less, beckon at the acceptable brightness of the rising, glowing moon, as if there was once an incident that has caused the celestial object to be less harshly bright than when it was born. We are therefore reminded of our process of growing up when we might have, to a certain extent, covered and diminished ourselves so that people could feel at ease as we enter the social gaze. Contrarily, to completely remove the cover and shine brightly means the necessity to remain distant and secluded. People therefore need the mediation of “reflection” to balance the unreachable and the touchable to interact with such a glowing image.
1. Incidentally, the term “skyscraper” conveys the idea of “scraping” a solid surface, suggesting that the sky is a touchable surface.
2. Sakamoto Taro et al. The Chronicles of Japan. The Complete Works of Japanese Classic Literature. Iwanami Shoten Publishers, 1993.
note. In this article, folktale refers to a literary genre in oral literature. Folktales are recorded and recounted by professional or amateur storytellers after they hear the stories from other storytellers. The content of a folktale usually includes at least two incidents; and the story itself progresses in a relatively typical narrative frame, comprising multiple story plots.
That night, on the beach in Dawu Coast Park on Provincial Highway No. 9, I shared either fully or partially the folktales from these four aspects, accompanied by folk songs preserved in oral tradition. With his performance, dancer Liu Chun-De captured the transience of glistening sparks amidst the spoken words, whereas musicians Lee Shih-Yang, Lin Hsiao-Feng and Liao Pei-Yu interwove sounds into the linguistic tapestry to delineate a narrative site for storytelling. Incidentally, the night before the event of Folktales of the Sea and the Moon was a total lunar eclipse. Through livestreaming on my smartphone, I shared the well-known Southeast Asian folktale about the “moon-eating dog”—when the dog (or other predatory animals) devours the moon or sun, a lunar or solar eclipse consequently takes place. From this folktale, we can also see how the narrative of folktales separates the gradual change induced by fabric covering and the drastic change caused by devouring.
＊本文章中出現的民間譚（folktale）各文本，會在第一次出現時給予 ⓿、❶、❷ 等編號，以方便前後參照閱讀。
反射是個有趣的中介。它在「感覺天體可觸」以及「天體遠得不可觸」這兩個乍看衝突的特徵之間，於人類的感受和經驗中營造緩衝。在東亞有個流傳極廣的機智故事，差不多就是在說一個人以盆、碗、杯或其他盛水器具「摘」月的事情：讓月亮的倒影恰恰填滿容器中的液面。但其實尚不只如此，當天體相關的民間譚在漸漸升上高天的過程中，總是會出現「水面反射」的情節。在前面文本 ❶ 中，化為鸚鵡的月孩停息在樹梢，他光亮的身影投在井面，來打水的一個女孩看見發光的鸚鵡，立刻投身至井中要抓，結果弄得一身濡濕，又空手而回。於此同時，文本 ❷ 中，老虎看見月這個孩子的身影投在井面，多次以爪抓取卻徒勞無功。在此，我們可以看見「可觸」與「不可觸」在此情節中的調和：一個觸碰的欲望在接觸到水面的天體而幻滅的同時，天體本身神聖不可高攀的位置得以被確認（雖然此神聖天體仍得受到鏈鎖的拽引）。奠基於此，以「反射」將神聖的角色引薦至故事世界的做法，常見於神話當中。《日本書紀》〈神代下〉：「一書曰，門前有一好井。井上有百枝杜樹。故彥火火出見尊，跳昇其樹而立之。于時，海神之女豐玉姬，手持玉鋺來將汲水。正見人影，在於井中，乃仰視之。」2
遮蔽在民間譚中，用來理解月球何以亮度較太陽為弱，又何以盈虧。在密克羅尼西亞的加羅林語民間譚中，有個富有的人為難兩個窮小伙子，令他們去天上將月球「搬」到自己家裡去，以供賞玩。其中一個小伙子按照母親的指示，帶著鴴（此處指的是太平洋金斑鴴“Pluvialis fulva”）、公雞與灌木枝，冒險抵達天上。他發現月球被重重的守衛包圍，於是開始講起一個又一個故事，守衛們聽著聽著，逐一睡去。小伙子將月球的光線以布料遮蔽，偷偷帶回地面，追兵則分別被鴴、雞引開了注意，又被灌木枝絆住了腳步。小伙子將月球帶回後，勸告富有的人切勿將遮蔽月球的布料全都掀開。最後在好奇心驅使下，一片一片布料被揭下，月球變得越來越亮。當所有遮蔽被除盡時，月球飛昇回到天空（❺）。在這邊我們回頭看 ❶，當母親在空中拽著月孩前進時，有時會裹到布裡放到籃內，此時光線被遮避，為月虧；有時月孩掙脫出來，跳到籃外，此時光線大放，為月盈。此處我們還要想起稍早提及的：月球可搬運、可撫摸的近人特質，以便銜接「遮蔽」此一人類對身旁可及之物展開的動作。
本文收錄於《a firetime story》（「南方以南」群記），2021年3月出版。
This article is featued in the book, a firetime story (notes to The Hidden South), published in Mar 2021.
Photography Etang Chen