The Tiger King’s Skin Cloak
March 5, 2011 in World Stories
|Long, long ago there lived in the Land of the Khans a poor Alad [a serf or a herdsman in the days of feudalism]. His wife bore three children, but unfortunately they all died. No further children were born to the couple and they lived a solitary and wretched life.
Then unexpectedly one winter’s day the Alad’s wife gave birth to a boy. The couple were overjoyed, but, they began to wonder how they were going to raise their child. Except for a cow and two mountain goats they had nothing of any value. What were they to do?
Though distressed they nevertheless went outside their tent to milk the cow for the baby.
The child grew not by the day but by the hour. Before evening he had grown taller and sturdier than a man. Husband and wife were both astonished and delighted. They named their boy Ku-nan, which means Ancient South.
On the very first day Ku-nan ate up a whole goat. On the next day he ate up the other one. The old couple were filled with dismay. One more day, they thought, and even the cow will be done for! And then what will we have to live on?
On the third day Ku-nan said to his mother, “Ah-Ma, we are so poor and we have only a cow left. Let me go and find some work to do. I’m afraid I’ll fall ill if I stay at home any longer.”
She looked at her son’s tall and robust figure and, taking his big hand in her, said in a tearful voice, “My son, what work can you do? Hai! You may perhaps go to the Khan. He may have some work for you.” Ku-nan pondered for a while, then agreed.
After taking leave of his parents, he fared forth on an empty stomach. Half way he met with a hungry wolf. As soon as it saw him it jumped on him, but Ku-nan immediately tackled it and killed it. He then skinned it and, making himself a bonfire, roasted the meat and ate it. Having done so, he continued on his way and at dusk reached the Khan’s yurt.
The sly old Khan thought of testing Ku-nan’s strength. He had a whole cow roasted and invited the lad to eat it. Ku-nan not only ate up all the meat, but gnawed the bones clean, too. The Khan then kept him in his yurt as his personal attendant and bodyguard.
Ku-nan often went with the Khan deep into the forest to hunt, and every time they came home with a full bag. One day, when the two of them, together with some of the Khan’s servants, went hunting in the deep reaches of the forest, a huge tiger suddenly leaped out upon them. The Khan was so frightened he broke into a cold sweat. Without a thought for Ku-nan’s safety he whipped his horse into a gallop and tore off down the mountain. The Khan’s servants fled helter-skelter, covering their heads with their hands. But Ku-nan did not stir. As the tiger sprang upon him he calmly dodged to one side, grabbed one of its hind legs, and swung the beast against a big tree. There was a crash, and the tree leaves fluttered to the ground. The tiger lay motionless on the ground with its stomach ripped open. Ku-nan put the carcass on his back and strode off after the Khan.
When the Khan reached his yurt, he was still in such a state of fright he could not dismount from his horse. Luckily his servants, who had taken to their heels when the tiger appeared, came to his aid and lifted him off his horse. At this moment Ku-nan arrived. When the Khan saw the tiger on Ku-nan’s back he panicked. He rushed into his yurt and barred the door. “Hurry! All of you,” he bawled. “Defend the door! Don’t let the tiger in!” Later when he heard it was a dead tiger Ku-nan had brought, he mustered his courage and came out of his hiding place. Foaming with rage he cursed Ku-nan, using all the foul words he knew, and took the tiger’s skin into his yurt.
Once the Khan had the tiger’s skin as a mattress, he decided he wanted a cloak made of the Tiger King’s skin. Thus he commanded Ku-nan to catch the Tiger King within three days. If he were to fail in his mission the Khan would have him executed. Ku-nan felt very dejected. Where was he to find the Tiger King? It was said that the Tiger King lived in a remote cave in the Northern Mountains, and that there were lots of tigers there in the vicinity. But no one had even been known to reach the place.
The skies grew dark, and Ku-nan returned home feeling very unhappy. He told his parents of what had happened. The old couple were in a quandary. If they were to prevent him from going, they were afraid the Khan would really put their son to death. But if they were to let him go, who could guarantee his safety?
Husband and wife sat facing each other and wept. They made such a to-do that Ku-nan found it hard to come to any decision. Suddenly an old Alad came into their shabby little cottage.
“My lad,” he addressed Ku-nan, “don’t be downcast. The Tiger King is afraid of a brave man. As long as you keep your native land and your dear ones in mind, you’ll be able to overcome any hardship. Go, my lad. I’ll give you a dappled pony to ride on. Good luck to you!” The old Alad lightly kissed Ku-nan on his forehead and disappeared. When Ku-nan went outside he saw a dappled pony neighing in his direction.
The skies gradually grew light, and Ku-nan bade his parents goodbye. Taking his bow, arrow-bag and dagger, he mounted his charge and set off on his mission. At first the pony trotted along at a normal pace, but later it broke into a canter, and then a gallop. Faster and faster it went, so fast that Ku-nan could only see the yurts along the road in a blur. After a while the beast slackened its speed. Just then Ku-nan saw near a yurt a wolf just about to attack a little girl. In the nick of time he slipped an arrow into his bow, and let fly. The wolf instantly fell dead on the ground with the arrow in its head.
An old woman ran out from the yurt. When she realized that Ku-nan had saved her grand-daughter’s life, she invited him in for a bowl of milk-tea. Before his departure she gave him a sheep-bone and said, “Take it, lad, it’ll be of some use to you in the future.”
With her gift in hand, Ku-nan vaulted upon his pony and continued his way northwards. As he trotted along the road he found his way blocked by a broad river. Suddenly the water rose and formed great billows. A huge turtle emerged and swam to the river bank. “My lad,” it croaked, “you had better turn back. You’ll never get across this river.”
“Oh, surely,” replied Ku-nan. “All difficulties can be overcome.”
“Oh, well then, brave lad,” the turtle said, “please help me. My left eye aches so badly, I want to have it taken out and replaced with a new one. Please, help me, take it out for me.”
“All right, I’ll help you.”
As soon as Ku-nan looked in his hands. The eye had turned into a pearl! A glowing, flawless precious pearl. After looking at it Ku-nan’s eye-sight became very sharp, he could even see a group of yurts in the far distance. Ku-nan then remounted his pony. As though understanding its master’s intention, the beast plunged into the water. What a miracle! No sooner had the water touched the precious pearl than it divided to form a transparent wall on either side, leaving a dry path through the center. Ku-nan rode across to the opposite bank of the river without further difficulty. The water then flowed its usual course as if nothing had ever happened.
Ku-nan soon reached the yurts he had seen in the distance. An old shepherd was softly weeping there. He was a pitiful sight. Having dismounted from his pony, Ku-nan addressed him. “Grandpa, what makes you so sad?” he asked. “Please tell me, perhaps I can be of some help to you.”
The old shepherd wiped his eyes and sighed. “Young man, even if I tell you, I’m afraid you won’t be able to help me. Yesterday my only daughter was carried off by the Tiger King. I don’t know whether she’s alive or dead now….” The old man again broke into heart-rending sobs.
“Grandpa, don’t lose heart,” Ku-nan consoled him. “I’m sure your daughter isn’t dead. I’m looking for that Tiger King. I’ll go there and rescue her.”
The old shepherd cheered up. He invited Ku-nan into his tent to have some tea. After his tea, Ku-nan thanked the old man and left.
Before dark Ku-nan arrived at the place where the Tiger King lived. From afar he could see a stone cave up on the mountain. At the entrance were more than ten tigers on guard. As Ku-nan neared the cave, he fished the sheep-bone out of his pocket and threw it to the tigers. He then entered and found the shepherd’s daughter. She told him that the tiger King had been out since early morning, and that he had not yet returned, but probably would soon. She thought of hiding Ku-nan, but he refused, suggesting that he first rescue her and take her home. She agreed, and the two of them rode the dappled pony out of the cave. The tigers outside were still fighting over the bone. Ku-nan flourished his whip, and the pony dashed down the mountain like a whirlwind.
Suddenly a gust of wild wind blew from the north. Riding on a yellow cloud, an ogre with the head of a tiger and the body of a man, all covered with golden hair, came chasing down. Ku-nan turned round and let fly an arrow, which pierced the ogre’s left eye. The Tiger King roared furiously. He reached out a huge paw and yanked Ku-nan off his charge. Then with a single blow he drove him waist-deep into the ground. Ku-nan instantly wriggled out. With one stroke he smote the ogre neck-deep into the ground, and, without waiting for him to free himself, he swiftly unsheathed his dagger and thrust the blade deep into the ogre’s pate. Ku-nan thus ended the Tiger King’s life.
He pulled the carcass out of the ground and, dragging it by one leg, caught up with his pony. He and the girl then returned to her home. When the old shepherd saw that Ku-nan had rescued his daughter, he was very happy, and gave him her hand in marriage.
Ku-nan stayed the night in their yurt and, when day grew light, again set off with his wife on their pony. But just as they were preparing to leave they heard a howling wind approaching from the north. Ku-nan turned to look and saw ten or so tigers coming in hot pursuit. They were those he had left fighting over the sheep-bone the day before. Ku-nan hurriedly sent his wife into the yurt. He shot an arrow and killed the tiger in the lead. Then he unsheathed his dagger and strode forward to meet them.
A furious combat ensued. In one breath he slayed seven or eight of them, but the remaining three attacked him with even redoubled fierceness. Ku-nan felt himself utterly exhausted. Just as he was on the point of collapse, the old shepherd, at the head of about ten young lads, rushed to the rescue. They brought with them poles for breaking in horses. They helped Ku-nan catch the three tigers and thus relieved him from danger. He thanked them for their help and gave them all the tigers he had slain. Taking his wife he remounted his pony and proceeded home.
When the Khan saw that Ku-nan had slain the Tiger King and had brought home a beautiful wife besides, he felt very happy and at the same time envious. He ordered Ku-nan’s wife to make him a cloak out of the Tiger King’s skin, and not to miss a single hair of the pelt. Ku-nan’s wife did as the Khan bade her and let her husband take the cloak to him.
When the Khan saw the cloak he was extremely pleased. He thought of showing himself off in his domain in all his majesty. He wanted everybody to know that he, the Khan, possessed a precious cloak made of the Tiger King’s skin.
A platform was erected in front of the Khan’s yurt. He invited the officials from all over the land of the Khans to eat and drink and carouse. A little way across stood a great multitude of people who had come from every corner of the land to see the Khan’s Tiger King cloak.
After a while amidst the blare of music the Khan ambled across the platform with a self-satisfied air. He made a sweeping gesture with his hand, and a well-dressed servant climbed up, bearing a yellow bundle. He opened it up and took out the glistening golden colored cloak made of the Tiger King’s skin. He paraded it for everyone to see, then helped the Khan to put it on. No sooner had the Khan put on the cloak than he turned into a fierce motley-colored tiger. It made a deafening roar and bounded off the platform and attacked the throng, biting and wounding many people. The officials were so scared they leaped onto their horses and made off for all they were worth.
At that moment Ku-nan fortunately arrived on the scene. When he saw a tiger chasing people and mauling them, he was horrified. He thought of shooting the beast with his arrow, but unluckily he had left his arrow-bag at home; even the dagger was not at his girdle. As he was fumbling helplessly, the tiger suddenly charged in his direction. He stood his ground and waited till the beast had come within reach. Then with the swiftness of an eagle he grabbed its tail, jerked it into the air and in a single breath smote it ten times upon the ground. The tiger lay bruised, maimed and bleeding and soon died. Because the beast was formerly the Khan, people went to bury it.
From then on Ku-nan went out hunting every day, riding his dapple pony, and on his return he would share his kill with poor Alads around the neighborhood. Besides, he often cured the poor of their eye diseases with his precious pearl: as soon as old people looked at it, their dim sight would become clear; as soon as the blind rolled it round the orbit of their eyes, they would be able to see. Thanks to his help the poor Alads began to sing their joyful songs again and their lives became very pleasant.
Source: Folk Tales from China, fifth series (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1960), pp. 46-57. Recorded by Sai Yeh.