I will be posting a series of Tibetan folktales on the blog in the coming days. Tibet has enjoyed a very close relationship with South Asia despite being part of the East Asian cultural sphere. The two neighbors are separated from one another by the mighty Himalayas. That has not prevented either cultural exchange or commercial relations between the two. The religion of Buddhism created a strong bond, one that endured both its disappearance from the land of its birth, and the current bout of hostility between Delhi and Beijing. The stories I am going to post are taken from the book ‘Tibetan Folk Tales’ compiled by Albert Leroy Shelton (1875-1922), an American missionary from Indiana. The book was published in 1925.
Having studied medicine at the University of Kentucky, Shelton moved to China in 1903. He established a mission in the town of Batang (in present day Sichuan), lying on the frontier between China and Tibet. He traveled extensively, collecting not only the folktales that would go into his book but also cultural artifacts and photographs (that he sold for a fortune in the United States). Batang is located in the Kham Region, on the eastern wing of the Tibetan Plateau, an area then contested by the Dalai Lama and the Qing Emperors. Shelton died on the outskirts of the town when ambushed by brigands while on his way to Markam. Given below is the first story from the collection he put together:
The Wise Bat
A long time ago, a very long time ago, when men and animals spoke to each other and understood the languages of one another, there lived a very powerful king. He lived far off in a corner of the world and alone ruled all the animals and men in his jurisdiction. Around his grounds and palace were great forests and in these forests many birds and animals lived. Every one seemed happy, except the king’s wife, and she said that so many birds singing at the same time made such frightful discord that it worried her. One day she asked the king to call them all in and cut off their bills so they couldn’t sing any more.
“All right,” the king said. “We will do that in a few days.” Now, hanging under the eaves of the palace, close to the queen’s room, was a little bat, and though he seemed to be asleep, he heard and understood everything the queen had said. He said to himself, “This is very bad indeed. I wonder what I can do to help all the birds.” The next day the king sent letters by runners into every corner of the kingdom, telling all the birds that by the third day at noon–and it mustn’t be forgotten, so put this word down in the center of their hearts–that all of them were to assemble at the palace.
The bat heard the order, but because he was very wise and understood everything he sat very still thinking and thinking about what the queen had said and didn’t go to the king’s audience on the third day, but waited until the fourth. When he entered, the king said angrily: “What do you mean by coming on the fourth day when I ordered every one to be here on the third day!” Oh, he was very angry indeed.
The bat replied, “All these birds have no business and can come whenever the king calls, but I have many affairs to look after. My father worked and I too must work. My duty is to keep the death rate from ever exceeding what it should be, in order to govern the sex question, by keeping the men and women of equal numbers.” The king, much surprised, said, “I never heard of all this business before. How does it come that you can do this?”
The bat answered, “I have to keep the day and night equal as well.” The king, more surprised, asked, “How do you do that? You must be a very busy and powerful subject to attend to all these matters. Please explain how you do it.” “Well,” the bat replied, “when the nights are short I take a little off the morning, and when the nights are long I take a little off the evening and so keep the day and night equal. Besides, the people don’t die fast enough. I have to make the lame and the blind to die at the proper time in order to keep the birth and death rate in proportion. Then sometimes there are more men than women, and some of these men say, ‘Yes, yes,’ to everything a woman asks them to do and think they must do everything a woman says. These men I just turn into women and so keep the sexes even.”
The king understood very well what the bat meant, but didn’t allow him to know it. He was very angry with himself because he had agreed to do so quickly what the queen had asked, and thought perhaps the bat might change him into a woman. “I am not a good king,” he thought, “when I listen to a woman’s words and yield so easily, and I am terribly ashamed to have given this order. I’ll just not do what my wife asks, but send these birds all back home and not cut off their bills.”
So he called the birds all to him and said, “Heretofore, men haven’t known how to mete out punishment and laws for you, but now I am going to make the Cuckoo your king, and what I called you up to-day for is this: I wanted to ask your King and the prime minister, the Hoopoe, to rule wisely, judge justly, and not oppress the people. If big or little come to you in a law-suit you must judge rightly between them and not favor either rich or poor. Now, you may all return to your homes.” But the king in his heart was still angry at the bat because he hadn’t obeyed him and came the fourth day instead of the third, and to show him he was the ruler and to be instantly obeyed he gave him a light spanking for his disobedience and then turned him loose.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a Japanese woodblock color print, ‘Bat Before the Moon’, by the artist Biho Takashi. It dates back to 1910. It is preserved in the Brooklyn Museum of New York City.