Silk Brocade

Grade Level: 
9, 10, 11, 12
Keywords: 
Asia
Caring
China
Folktales
Generosity of Spirit
Silk Brocade (The)
A Chinese Tale: A woman’s sons set out in search of the cherished silk brocade she has woven. When the two eldest sons refuse to follow the instructions to retrieve the stolen brocade, the youngest son fearlessly accepts the challenge. A magical reward is given to him and his mother.

Tell me a story...

Long ago, there lived an old widow and her three sons. They led a modest life, and each member of the family worked hard. The sons tended a small vegetable patch and took odd jobs, while their mother collected firewood and wove silk. The old woman was famous for her skill in weaving brocade. Her work was so fine and detailed, the colors so bright and well chosen and the scenes she wove so lifelike, that she had hardly finished one brocade when it would be sold and she would start on the next.

One day, as she made her way to the marketplace to sell one of her brocades, the old woman passed by a small shop. Inside the shop, she caught sight of the most enchanting picture she had ever seen. It depicted a grand house set in a beautiful garden, with fruit trees and beds of brightly colored flowers. There was a small fishpond and a vegetable plot, with chickens and ducks pecking the ground. As the old woman looked at the picture, she felt a great sense of peace settle on her.

That night, as the family sat eating their meal, the old woman told her sons of the beautiful picture she had seen.

"Imagine living in a place like that," she sighed. "How happy I would be!"

The two older sons smiled. "Perhaps, Mother, when we die, we shall be reborn in such a place."

But the youngest son felt only joy at seeing his mother so happy. "Mother, why don't you weave the picture yourself?" he said. "Then you would have it always to look upon."

In her excitement, the old woman rushed at once to her loom and began to weave the picture that she had seen. And as the shuttle passed to and fro, so did the days. The days became weeks, the weeks became months, and the seasons turned, but still the old woman sat and still she wove.

The eldest sons began to complain that she had not made any brocade for the market for months. But the youngest son defended his mother. "Let her be," he said. "Can't you see how important that picture is to her? She has been a good mother to us all. Don't begrudge her this."

Slowly, under the skillful hand of the old woman, a picture began to take shape in the brocade. In the first year, tears fell from the old woman's eyes on to the brocade, forming a crystal-clear pool where golden fish swam and lotus flowers tripped across the surface. In the second year, a gray hair from her head formed a wisp of smoke that curled from the chimney on the tiled roof of the grand house. And in the third year, drops of blood fell from her hard-worn fingers and formed a brilliant red sun that shone down upon the trees, upon the rice fields that seemed to sway in a breeze and upon the beds of nodding flowers, so lifelike you could almost smell them.

Finally the brocade was finished. It was so detailed and beautifully woven that it seemed like a doorway framing the entrance to another world.

The three sons carried the brocade to an open window so that they could admire the colors in the sunlight, when, all of a sudden, a gust of wind snatched the cloth from their hands and whipped it out of the window and into the sky, where it disappeared from sight. The old woman dashed outside and stared hopelessly into the sky. Her sons rushed to comfort her. But the old woman could say nothing: her eyes glazed over with tears.

"Come inside, Mother," called the older sons as the stars began to sprinkle the night sky and the air became crisp and cold. But the old woman just stood and continued to stare upward, the tears rolling down her face.

"Mother, we will find the brocade for you," promised the youngest son, and, taking his mother's hand in his, he led her inside.

But the old woman would not eat or drink, and there was nothing that her sons could say or do that would comfort her. Finally the eldest son declared, "I will go forth, Mother, and bring back your brocade."

The son passed through many towns and villages and at each of them inquired about the brocade, but no one had seen such a wondrous thing as he described. After many days, he reached the foot of a huge mountain, where he found a small cave. At the mouth of the cave grew a tree laden with red berries. A stone horse stood under the tree, and beside the horse sat a toothless, white-haired old woman. "What brings you here, my son?"

"I am looking for my mother's brocade," he replied. "It is the most beautiful piece of cloth and took three years to weave. But a strange wind arose and snatched it from us, and now I am trying to find it.

The old woman grinned. "I know the brocade of which you speak. It was so beautiful that it caught the attention of the maidens of the Sun Mountain that lies to the east. They have stolen it for themselves."

"I must ask them to return it," said the son. "Please tell me if you know how I may reach the Sun Mountain."

"Ah," said the old woman. "It is a difficult journey. First you must knock out your two front teeth and place them in the mouth of my stone horse. After the horse has eaten red berries from the tree, you must climb on its back. Your way to the Sun Mountain lies through a valley of fire, where the flames will roar and crackle about you, but you must show no fear or you will be burned to a cinder. You will then reach a wide, wild sea, where the waves will tower above you and the wind's breath will strike through you like a dagger of ice. You must not cry out or the ocean will swallow you up. Once you have crossed this ocean, you will reach the Sun Mountain."

When he heard the old woman's words, the eldest son shivered.

"My son, I see that you are afraid. Such a journey is clearly not for you," said the old woman. "Why don't you take this gift from me instead?" And she gave the young man a fat pouch of gold.

The eldest son accepted her gift but he never returned to his mother. With his pockets lined with gold, he headed south, thinking fortune would follow him.

Months passed and the eldest son did not return. Seeing his mother still so pale and silent, the second son stood up and announced: "Some misfortune must have befallen my brother. I will go forth and find your brocade for you, Mother." And he, too, set off toward the east.

Again, fate led him to the foot of the huge mountain, where the toothless, white-haired old woman sat with her stone horse. And when she spoke of the valley of fire and the cruel and icy ocean, he, too, shuddered and accepted instead her gift of gold. Ashamed of his fear, he, too, chose a path that led away from his home.

By now the old widow woman had taken to her bed. Her eyes, lacking hope, had grown dull and her skin looked gray. It broke the youngest son's heart to see his mother so unhappy and ill.

"Mother, let me go and look for your brocade. I would rather search this world over than to see you so unhappy."

With that, the youngest son kissed his mother goodbye and set off in the direction he had watched his brothers take. Finally he reached the foot of the huge mountain, where the old woman sat.

"Ah, your two brothers passed this way," she said. "And they each left with a pouch of gold. You may have one too if, like them, you cannot face the journey to find the brocade."

"Gold would be a poor price for my mother's brocade," replied the boy. "Besides, I fear that if I do not return with it soon, then she will die. And what use is gold to the dead?"

So again the old woman repeated her instructions. At once the boy picked up a stone and knocked out his two front teeth. He placed them in the mouth of the stone horse, who tossed her mane and ate the red berries. The boy climbed on her back and the horse sprang forward.

Through the valley of fire they passed, and though the flames licked about the boy and his skin and hair were scorched, not a flicker of fear showed on his face. Over the cruel, churning ocean they galloped, where the waves towered high and thundered about them and the wind whipped the youth's skin raw with its sharp, icy breath. But he neither shuddered nor cried out. Then, looming ahead of them, he saw the Sun Mountain at last, rising golden and glowing on the far shore.

On the slopes of the Sun Mountain lay a grand palace. As the horse drew nearer, the youngest son thought he could hear tinkling laughter and musical voices. He dismounted and stepped inside the palace, where his eyes fell at once upon a group of sun maidens. They were the most beautiful women that he had ever seen. Like shafts of light they danced about the hall, their gentle laughter echoing sweetly.

Then he saw something hanging on the far wall that caused a wave of joy to sweep over him. It was none other than his old mother's brocade!

"I have come to fetch the brocade," he explained to the sun maidens, who were surprised by the boy's sudden appearance. "It belongs to my mother from whom it was stolen. At this very moment she lies wrapped in a grief that eats away at her for the loss of her brocade. Once it brought her such joy, but now, without it, she will surely die."

"You may return the brocade to your mother very soon for our work is almost completed," said one of the maidens. "We never meant to keep the brocade, only to copy it. We, too, were spellbound by its beauty."

The youngest son looked about the room again and noticed for the first time a silver loom standing in the middle of the hall. On it was stretched a copy of his mother's brocade.

"If you will spend this evening with us, tomorrow we shall return the brocade," continued the maiden.

The sun maidens ushered the youngest son to a table at one end of the hall. Sweet fruit and cool wine were brought to him. He was hungry and ate quickly. The wine made his head heavy and soon he fell into a deep sleep.

While the boy slept, the maidens continued to work on into the night. A large pearl hung from the ceiling and they worked by its pale glow.

One maiden worked more quickly than the others. She completed her part of the brocade and stood back to admire it. But as her eye moved from the copy to the original brocade, her heart sank. For it was clear that the old woman's handiwork was far superior.

How wonderful it would be if she could live in a place like the one in the brocade, the maiden thought to herself. Picking up a needle and thread, she quietly approached the old woman's brocade. Then, while no one was looking, she embroidered a figure standing by the pond—a girl just like her, with a bright pink dress and long black hair.

Much later that night, the youngest son awoke. He was surprised to find the hall empty. But there, by the light of the pearl, he could see his mother's brocade and not far from it the uncompleted work of the sun maidens.

The boy walked over to his mother's brocade. He stood there running his fingers over the silky fabric. He thought of his poor, ill mother and how pale and frail she had looked when he had last seen her. Fearing that she might die before he returned with her precious brocade, he suddenly snatched up the cloth and ran from the hall. The horse was waiting for him patiently outside. In the dark of the night, the two of them stole quickly away.

Back across the icy ocean and the valley of fire they flew until they were once again standing outside the cave at the bottom of the mountain.

They were greeted by the old woman. She reached up and helped the youngest son dismount from the horse. Then, taking from the horse its two front teeth, she replaced them in the boy's mouth. Instantly the horse turned back into stone. Finally she presented the youngest son with a pair of deerskin moccasins, wished him well and sent him on his way.

Before he knew it, the magic shoes had whisked the boy straight to his own front door. He ran into the house and up to his mother's bed. "Mother," he whispered, holding her hand. "Mother, I have your brocade."

The old woman's eyes slowly opened and in them the boy caught a glimmer of joy. He placed the fabric in her hand. "Here, Mother, let me carry you into the sunlight so that you may see it better," he said as he lifted her gently and carried her through the door.

Outside, he carefully laid his mother down and held up the brocade for her to see. But as he did so a wind suddenly caught the cloth, but gently this time. Instead of blowing away, the fabric merely billowed and grew. It doubled, it tripled in size. It wrapped itself around the youth and the old woman and, lo and behold, the two of them found themselves standing in the most beautiful garden. All around them were fruit trees, richly laden, and flowers grew like a carpet beneath their feet. There in the distance was a beautiful house and standing near the pool was a young woman.

"Greetings," she said, her voice like shimmering silver. "I am one of the sun maidens. Forgive me, but I so loved your fine work and this beautiful place you have created that I knew I could not be happy unless I lived here myself. Please may I stay with you in this fine house and garden?"

The mother and her son agreed at once. Now that her brocade had been returned to her, it wasn't long before the old woman became well again. Nor was it very long before the youngest son and the sun maiden were married. All three of them lived contentedly in their woven paradise.

One day two beggars passed by, the scruffiest sight you ever did see. They were none other than the two older brothers, fallen on hard times. But when they looked in at the garden and saw their brother and his beautiful wife and their mother, her eyes bright with happiness, they felt so ashamed that they slunk quietly away, never to return.

 

“The Silk Brocade.” Batt, Tanya Robyn. The Fabrics of Fairytale: Stories Spun Far and Wide. New York: Barefoot Books, ©2000. pp. 30-38.

Used with the permission of Barefoot Books, Inc.