Ye Xian – Storytelling for Everyone

Chinese Cinderella

Illustrations of Stephanie Pui Mun Law

The Beginning of Ye Xian’s Story

The protagonist of the tale, Ye Xian, is the motherless daughter of a cave-dwelling chieftain in an uncertain region of Southern China called Wudoung. The other primary characters of Ye Xian’s tale all fall into a very similar role to that of the European “Cinderella”: There is the cruel stepmother, one of two wives of Ye Xian’s father; an unkind stepsister called Jun-li, whose age varies depending on the translation; a supernatural wish granting figure; and—of course—the royal man who will whisk Ye Xian away from her difficulties. 

Ye Xian is mentally and physically juxtaposed with her stepsister Jun-li. While Jun-li is considered unpleasant to look upon and is an incredibly envious girl, Ye Xian is described as stereotypically beautiful, kind, and clever.

With the death of her father, Ye Xian is forced to become the servant to her stepfamily, as much to destroy her beauty as to degrade her. Furthermore, since her father was a Chinese chieftain without male heirs, this allowed another man to take control of the tribe, thus regulating Ye Xian and her family to poverty.

Ye Xian’s Magical Protector

Ye Xian’s only relief comes from her acquaintance with a very large and talkative fish living in the river near Ye Xian’s home. The fish, as it turns out, is a guardian sent from the sky by her ever-present mother, and helps Ye Xian through her dark home life. That is, until Jun-li spies on Ye Xian with the fish and Ye Xian’s stepmother stabs it with a dagger and eat it for her and Jun-li’s dinner.

However, just as the fairy godmother of the better known maiden Cinderella has extraordinary magic, so does Ye Xian’s magical fish. Its role in Ye Xian’s future does not end with this mishap.

Following the murder of her only friend, Ye Xian is visited by the spirit of an old ancestor who informs her that while the shell of her friend might be gone, its spirit is still alive. Through the burial of the fish bones in the four corners of her bedroom, Ye Xian can still harness the power of her spirit guide as one would a genie—whatever Ye Xian wishes for will come true.

A Happy Ending for Ye Xian

As the festival to celebrate the coming of the New Year arrives, Ye Xian is left alone in her cave home as her stepmother fears Ye Xian’s beauty is still capable of outshining Jun-li. With the aid of the fish wishing bones, Ye Xian manages to attend the great gathering in secret, dressed in a beautiful, feathered silk dress and a pair of golden slippers.

Ye Xian is the star of the party, praised for her outstanding beauty and grace. But the presence of her stepfamily threatens her identity. When she fears they might have recognized her, she flees and leaves behind one of her valuable golden shoes. 

Through a series of intelligent trades, the golden slipper ends up in the hands of the king of the To’Han islets, a large kingdom encompassing numerous islands. The shoe’s small size intrigues the man, as small feet were (until recently) considered a sign of ideal female beauty, and demands to find the shoe’s owner. No woman, of course, is able to properly fit her foot in the shoe.

The story ends as one would expect: Despite all odds, Ye Xian makes her way to the location where the slipper is kept—on display in a pavilion—convinces the king that it is her shoe, and tells him the circumstances of her life. The king becomes captivated by her, and rescues her from her horrid stepfamily, setting her up in To’Han as both his wife and queen.

Shortly afterwards, the wicked Stepmother and her daughter were killed in an avalanche of flying rocks. The villagers buried them in a grave marked ‘The Tomb of the Regretful Women.’


Source: First published in the Tang dynasty compilation Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang written around 850 CE by Duan Chengshi. The Ye Xian, a story similar to the fairy tale Cinderella, appears in Chapter 21. The story was allegedly told by Duan’s servant Li Shiyuan, a native from what is now Nanning. It is set during the late 3rd century BCE. The exact location is unknown, but the most likely candidate is Guangxi, where the shoe eventually found its way to a king from an island.

Note: Long before the European Cinderella fairytale cycle, there was Ye Xian, the tale of a young Chinese girl living sometime between the Qin and Han Dynasties of China (221-206 BCE and 206 -220 CE, respectively). Ye Xian or YehShen is a Chinese fairy tale that is similar to the European Cinderella story, but predates it and is one of the most well-known of the Cinderella tale type (ATU 510A).

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