There is something about a particularly good fairytale that makes it resonate in the hearts of people who hear it, regardless of age, gender, or race. One such example is that of the classic story of Cinderella. Made popular by the Disney animated film, the story nevertheless has roots stretching back much farther than the early 1990s. The first “Cinderella story” that can be traced actually hails from China, rather than the “Disney-fied” version by the French-born writer, Charles Perrault.
In Yeh-hsien, first told during the T’ang Dynasty from 618-907 AD., the heroine is good at making pottery and is keenly intelligent, though she is treated badly by her stepmother. Yeh-hsien takes care of a fish and is kind to it; her stepmother ultimately kills the fish, eats it, and hides the bones. An old man came down from the sky, told her where to find the bones, and instructed her to wish for whatever she wanted – Yeh-hsien wishes for some nicer clothing. She followed her stepmother and stepsister to a festival one day. When they recognized her, she turned and fled, leaving behind one of her shoes. The shoe was sold to a neighboring King, who became entranced by its small size. He searched for the owner until he found Yeh-hsien, and took her and the fish bones to live in the palace. She served him for a time, and then became his wife. The story differs slightly from other Cinderella tales in that the King became so greedy after a time that the magical fish bones quit answering his wishes.
It does, however, contain all the elements of a typical Cinderella tale, which can be found in any of the versions. A heroine, usually noble and kind, is insulted by a stepmother and made to perform chores. The heroine is aided by some kind of mystical creature (be it a fairy godmother, man from the sky, fish, or tree) to dress nicely and go to a festival or celebration. The heroine catches the eye of a King or Prince, and loses an article of clothing, usually a shoe, while departing. The King/Prince orders a search for the owner of the shoe, who is always the heroine, and they marry. Depending on the culture, the stepsister(s) and stepmother meet various fates.
The stories vary, as proven with Yeh-hsien, according to the culture. In China, women used to (and still do, to some degree) bind their feet so as to make them smaller – therefore, when the king finds the tiny shoe, its size is indicative of the owner’s dedication to tradition and nobility. In the Russian version, called The Wonderful Birch, the heroine is helped repeatedly by elements of nature, such as a birch tree. The stepmother here is also an actual witch, going back to Russia’s rich history of magical fairy tales. With the Scottish tale of Rashin-Coatie, it is a red calf that helps the heroine, in keeping with the tradition of raising cattle for a living in that country. Finally, in the Irish story Fair, Brown, and Trembling, the heroine is actually a princess, and, as with any good Irish tale, there is a nice amount of combat and royal appearances scattered throughout the story.
The “Cinderella story” has not yet stopped evolving in modern times. The Disney film closely followed the French version, but spin-offs of the story continually unfurl. The movie “Happily N’ever After”, while following the basic Cinderella plotline, added in modern concepts of romance such as dating, rather than automatically marrying a Prince, American culture references, and employed a more rambunctious tone. The same holds true for other Cinderella retellings, such as Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine, in which the heroine is spirited, rebellious, and yet still recognizably Cinderella. It can safely be assumed that some part of the story resonates with people all across the globe, and will continue to entertain and delight generations for many more years to come.
For more information on the original story of Cinderella, or for the different versions of the story from around the world, you may wish to peruse the following links.
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