Book Excerpt: “The Legend of Prince Golden Calf in China and Korea” by Wilt Idema

“This book—the first on the historical development of the legend of the golden calf—is yet another contribution to the extraordinary list of important works that Professor Idema has analyzed and translated into English for a global readership.” Anne McLaren of the University of Melbourne wrote this of Wilt Idema’s The Legend of Prince Golden Calf in China and Korea. Below, read an excerpt from the introduction, in which Idema discusses the origins of the legend of prince golden calf:

In how many stories is a newborn baby replaced by a cat by jealous cowives? In how many stories is an infant swallowed whole by a vicious cow? And in how many stories does a foreign princess insist on marrying a calf? These and many more equally extraordinary episodes make up the legend of Prince Golden Calf. Starting from the tensions inherent in a polygynous household, the story proceeds to the affectionate bond between master and animal, to culminate in yet another marriage of a beauty and a beast. Needless to say, as in all fairy tales, this story too has a happy ending.

The legend of Prince Golden Calf was especially popular in early modern times in Korea, where it circulated in both Chinese and Korean versions. These versions have attracted considerable scholarly attention in Korea for quite some time, as the legend was long believed to have originated in Korea from as early as the late Koryŏ period (fourteenth century or even earlier). But we actually first encounter the tale in China, in a Chinese version of a (presumably) foreign tale. Probably at the end of the sixth century an anonymous author produced the Foshuo xiaoshunzi xiuxing chengfo jing 佛說孝順子修行成佛經 (The sutra on how a filial and obedient son achieved Buddhahood by self-cultivation, preached by the Buddha). This text was listed under several titles in a number of catalogues of Buddhist scriptures from the early seventh to the ninth centuries, but all of these listed the work as an apocryphal sutra; that is, a work that was not a translation of a Buddhist work in a non-Chinese language but a work that had been originally written in Chinese in China. While that may be true, the story most likely was based at least partly on non-Chinese materials; it also belongs to a tale type that is encountered all over the Eurasian continent from East to West. When the anonymous Chinese author wrote the story up as a sutra, he adopted the format of a jātaka; that is a story of one of the prior lives of the Buddha Śākyamuni, and so the sutra ends with a paragraph in which the Buddha explains the present incarnation of each of the characters in the story. Probably because all catalogues were unanimous in classifying this sutra as an apocryphal work, it was not included in any of the printed editions of the Chinese Buddhist Tripitaka of the last millennium. Actually, the text of the Foshuo xiaoshunzi xiuxing chengfo jing is only partially preserved in three fragments of a single manuscript from the second part of the eighth century from Dunhuang, an oasis town on the border of Gansu and Xinjiang. The Dunhuang manuscript fragments were discovered in 1900 and soon thereafter dispersed all over the world. It was not until the very last years of the twentieth century that these fragments were studied and identified.

The Legend of Prince Golden Calf in China and Korea is in the Cambria Sinophone World Series headed by Victor H. Mair (University of Pennsylvania).

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