Asian and African studies blog

16 March 2015

An alternative Cinderella: The girl with a kneading bowl (not a pearl earring)

Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 novel Girl with a pearl earring was inspired by the magnificent painting by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. Griet, the heroine of the Chevalier novel, always wore a distinctive white cap. Chevalier explained that behind Griet’s symbolic cap was an idea originally from the Bible, which considered women’s hair to be seductive and therefore subversive. Chevalier built upon that idea, as if Griet's cap served to shield the wilder and more sensual side of her persona that she did not want to reveal to others.

In Japanese folklore, more specifically the stories known as Otogizōshi 御伽草子,  we find another girl who always wore an impressive object on her head. This extremely odd piece of headgear led her to be known as “the girl with a kneading bowl” (Hachikazuki 鉢かづき).

'The girl with a kneading bowl' (Hachikazuki 鉢かづき), early Edo period (ca. 17th century). Naraehon manuscript. British Library, Or.12897.  noc

Otogizōshi is an umbrella term used to identify a miscellaneous body of Japanese short narratives, covering a wide range of subjects such as fairy tales, war epics, stories from Shinto myths, Buddhist legends, and so forth. These texts were produced from about the late Kamakura period (1185−1333) until the Muromachi period (1333−1568), but their popularity continued into the Edo period (1603-1868). Otogizōshi circulated in both manuscript form and printed versions. Between the late Muromachi and mid Edo periods they were often reproduced as fine manuscripts, called Naraehon 奈良絵本, which were enriched with colourful hand-painted illustrations elegantly illuminated with gold and silver foil. From the Edo period onwards, these stories also began to be circulated in various printed versions, most notably Otogi bunko 御伽文庫, a collection of 23 otogizōshi published in Ōsaka by Shibukawa Seiemon 渋川清右衛門 in the early 18th century. The British Library Japanese collection holds several Naraehon manuscripts and printed versions of otogizōshi, including various editions of the Tale of Hachikazuki.

'The girl with a kneading bowl' (Hachikazuki 鉢かづき), early to mid Edo period (ca. 17th-18th century). Naraehon manuscript. British Library, Or.12885, f. 24.  noc

The same Hachikazuki story in a woodblock printed version, Otogizōshi ( お伽草子), early Edo period (ca. 17th century). British Library, Or.75.g.15.  noc

It is possible to identify the basic storyline of Hachikazuki as a subspecies of the classic story of Cinderella. Hachikazuki loses her mother, suffers from the maltreatment of her wicked stepmother, and eventually meets a handsome young man with prospects who has all of the essential features of the ideal husband of her time.

In actual fact, the prototype of the Cinderella story originated in China. It is believed that this was first recognised by a renowned Japanese scholar of the 19th century. Minakata Kumagusu (南方熊楠 1867-1941) was a multi-talented researcher with many interests; amongst other things he was a naturalist, biologist and folklorist. In an article of 1911 (details below), Minakata compared European and Oriental folk stories in order to identify significant similarities in the story patterns. He was interested in  prior research by Pedroso on Portuguese folk-tales which had already categorised some stories of the Cinderella type, but which had overlooked the Chinese version.

The study by Pedroso mentioned by Minakata in his 1911 article: Portuguese folk-tales collected by Consiglieri Pedroso, and translated from the original ms. by H. Monteiro.  ([S.l.] : Folklore Society, 1882.) British Library, 7062.900000

In the year 853, during the Tang dynasty, the scholar Duan Chengshi (段成式) wrote a series of stories, some of them taken from legends and folk tales, collected together under the name of Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang (Youyang za zu 酉阳杂俎). It is in this work that the story of a girl called Ye Xian (葉限), set during the 3rd century BC, appears for the first time.

First page from an 1849 copy of the Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang, in the version called重刊酉陽 雜俎正續 (Zhong kan Youyang za zu zheng xu), by Duan Chengshi, published by小嫏嬛山館 (Xiao lang huan shan guan). British Library, 15297.b.14.  noc

The list of similarities between Cinderella and Ye Xian is quite extensive:
1) Both lost their own mother
2) Both were mistreated by their stepmothers
3) Both obtained or were given magical treasures to enable them to surmount obstacles   
4) Both met ideal husband figures
5) Both their future husbands found the girls by means of the right-sized shoe

The Story of Ye Xian, which Minakata highlighted, has been widely accepted as an early version of Cinderella. In contrast to the tale of Ye Xian, the tale of Hachikazuki is not always categorised as a Cinderella-type story because of two significant differences:
1) The method of obtaining her magical treasures
2) The method of proving she was the one her future husband was destined to marry

Hachikazuki obtained her magical treasures from her kneading bowl, which no one (including herself) had previously managed to remove from her head. It was her mother who had put the kneading bowl on to her daughter’s head just before she passed away. All she wanted to do was ensure the happiness of her daughter who she was leaving behind, and so she prayed to the Avalokiteśvara, and then acted in accordance with a revelation from the Avalokiteśvara. Hachikazuki had to endure wearing the kneading bowl on her head until the right moment eventually came. Although she found love with a gentle young man, she had to pass a test. This test was not fitting her foot into the right-sized shoe like Cinderella and Ye Xian. Instead, Hachikazuki had to convince her future husband’s family that she was a truly suitable bride for him. Miraculously, at this moment, the bowl fell off from her head, and she discovered that she possessed all the highly sophisticated acoutrements and attributes of a refined beauty.

Hachikazuki and her trousseau emerging from her kneading bowl. From 'The girl with a kneading bowl' (Hachikazuki 鉢かづき), early Edo period (ca. 17th century). Naraehon manuscript. British Library, Or.12897.  noc

The same scene in a different naraehon manuscript. 'The girl with a kneading bowl' (Hachikazuki 鉢かづき), early to mid Edo period (ca. 17th-18th  century). British Library, Or.12885, f. 36.  noc

The same scene in a woodblock printed edition of Otogizōshi (お伽草子), early Edo period (ca. 17th century). British Library, Or.75.g.15.  noc

Regardless of the differences and similarities between the stories of Hachikazuki and Cinderella, in both we can enjoy a traditional well-loved folk tale with a happy ending.


Tracey Chevalier. Girl with a pearl earring (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1999). For a description of Griet's cap, see p.11; see also 'Tracy Chevalier Q&A', Mail Online (July 5th 2002).

Minakata’s 1911 article: 南方熊楠「西暦九世紀の支那書に載せたるシンダレラ物語」『東京人類学会雑誌』26巻300号 (1911) is available online as a part of Minakaga zuihitsu (南方随筆) at Kindai Digital Library service, the National Diet Library.

With special thanks to:
Alessandro Bianchi, Asian and African Studies and PhD student, University of Cambridge
Sara Chiesura, Curator for Chinese

Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator for Japanese



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