The Origin of Ants - as the Teochews tell it

A MAN had a wife who berated him because he did not earn enough to support her and her boy. She told him that, if he could not get work near home, he might better go far away and stay there until he could provide for his family. So he went abroad, seeking employment, but he found nothing to do, and was so homesick that he soon returned to his native village. Fearing the taunts of his wife when she should know that he had no money, he lingered outside his house, and there he overheard a conversation between her and her son, about what she had that morning bought in the market. He heard the cupboard-door open and shut, as she put away the provisions; and he thought he should much like to dine with his family.

After a while he took courage and went in, but the only greeting he received was an inquiry why he had come back so soon. He replied that, while abroad, he had discovered that he had a supernatural sense of smell, and so thought that he would return and exercise his gift among his friends. His wife scoffingly called on him to at once give proof of his smelling powers by telling her what there was to eat in the house. 

He sniffed the air, and said there was chicken, dressed, but not cooked. She exhibited surprise, and he sniffed again and said there was pork also, somewhere near the chicken. She appeared interested, and he sniffed again, and said there was fish, which he thought must be carp, and two kinds of vegetables at least, and some bean-curd. She was so mollified by this display of a remarkable sense in her husband, that she gave him his dinner affectionately, and then went out to tell her neighbors what a talent he had for smelling things out. Her story spread, and grew apace, until it came to the emperor's ears that in a certain village there was a man who could trace any missing article by its scent.

As it happened, the emperor had just lost a jade seal, and as it was of importance that he should recover it, he sent for this man and told him that if he found the seal he might have any office below the throne. The poor fellow, conscious that he lacked the power ascribed to him, sat down and began to consider how he should escape punishment for imposture. The more he meditated the more he feared, and he soon became so absorbed in his misery that he forgot his surroundings, shut his eyes, and groaned and muttered: “Ah! this is sharp distress! This is a dire calamity!"

The courtiers thought he had fallen into the trance which usually precedes the exercise of superhuman faculties, and they watched and listened, at a little distance, for the outcome. Suddenly he felt his sleeve pulled, and two of the courtiers secretly besought him not to betray them. They promised that if he would not again mention their names, they would lead him to the well in which the seal was hidden, and would give him a present in addition to the reward he would get from the emperor.

Following the indications of the two courtiers, who were named Sharp and Dyer, and who supposed his groans had been oracular and referred to them, he went sniffing to the well, and declared the seal to be at the bottom. It was lifted out, and the emperor offered him the promised reward. He declined office, and chose instead a coverlet of toffy which he thought his wife might-nibble at o’nights, and be thus diverted from the curtain lectures with which she was wont to disturb his sleep. 

The emperor thought his choice a strange one, but had the toffy coverlet made for him, and he took it and went home. HIS wife awaited him, expecting riches and honors; and when he told her that he had found the seal, and, in lieu of an office, had chosen a toffy coverlet for her, she made his life miserable with recriminations.

Soon after he left the capital, the empress heard how the emperor's seal had been recovered, and, wishing to see for herself an exhibition of such a wonderful sense of smell, she called the man to her palace. She put a kitten, wrapped in raw cotton, into a closed basket, and, calling her household around her, had the man brought in, to divine what the basket contained. He gazed at the basket, and as he could think of no one thing that seemed more likely than another to be hidden there, he persuaded himself that he should soon lose his head.

He began to consider whether he could escape by flight; but the doors were guarded, and there was someone at every step who might seize him. In his terror and despair, thinking only of himself, he exclaimed "The bagged cat dies." The empress, hearing his utterance, hastened to open the basket, and discovered that the poor kitten was indeed dead, stifled by the cotton in which it had been too closely packed. All the people of the court, having this new proof of his power of smelling, averred that he was a god, and that his proper abode was in the skies. So they all took hold of him, and tossed him into the heavens.

He went so high that when he came down he was dashed into dust, and the atoms were scattered everywhere over the earth. The dust all turned into ants, and so it comes to pass that, to this day, whenever anyone has anything that is good to eat, the ants discover it from afar, and make their way to it by the sense of smell.

This is only one of forty Teochew folklores collected by AM Fielde in Chinese Nights' Entertainment: Forty Stories told by Almond-Eyed Folk Actors in the Romance of The Strayed Arrow. Is it a story you heard as a child? Do you know of other Teochew tales that you'd like to share to the rest of the community? If yes, contact us today!
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