Deep Dive: The Story of Hedgehog Girl (Han provinces, China)

Thanks to Fred Lobb, the English teacher and collector/translator of Chinese-language folktales from southeastern china and the sole contributor to https://chinesefolktales.blogspot.com. Mr. Lobb was kind enough to grant us permission to share this story, whose English version was only made possible by his hard work, and we encourage you to visit his website and read more of these wonderful stories.

The video for this Deep Dive transcript.

First, let’s synopsize the story. These overviews are really just intended to jog your memory, you shouldn’t listen to these deep dives without first hearing the story because it provides much more information about the characters and, more importantly, the context we base these discussions on. Links are in the description, the story is about 20-minutes long.

The story opens on a husband and wife have an argument about the husband’s younger brother. The wife believes it is time for DeeDee, the boy’s name, to take a wife and move out of the house. When the husband disagrees, the wife threatens suicide — forcing him to submit.

The husband then takes DeeDee out away from the village and parts ways with him, giving him half of all his wealth and wishing him luck.

Before long DeeDee comes upon a hut and is happy to find a hunter within it who is kind enough to provide him shelter from the coming night.

Once inside Deedee notices a hedgehog leashed to a post. He asks why and the hunter informs him that he’s going to skin it, eat it, and use its hide in trade to buy wine. The boy pleads with the hunter and pay him all of the money his brother gifted him in trade for the hedgehog’s life.

The boy releases the hedgehog outside and it runs into a bush. Not too soon afterwards the hedgehog re-immerges as a beautiful woman and marries DeeDee. The two then return to DeeDee’s home town.

Through a series of displays of magic the Hedgehog purchase, constructs, and furnishes a home for the two of them and they live there for a few years together.

Eventually the Hedgehog girl tells DeeDee he must take another wife because they’ve not yet had children and she needs to return to the life of a hedgehog. DeeDee is very reluctant here but after speaking with his uncle he heads to a nearby town and finds a beautiful woman whose father demands many carts of silver for her hand in marriage.

DeeDee reports this to Hedgehog girl, she manifests the money, Deedee uses it to buy his new bride, and they return home married.

The next morning Hedgehog Girl is gone and a year later the new wife gives Deedee a child and the family lives happily ever after.

In the Aarne-Thompson-Uther classification story I believe The Story of Hedgehog girl would fall under 300–749 Tales of Magic

400–459 Supernatural or Enchanted Wife, Husband, or Relative

400–424 Wife

402 The Animal Bride

Other stories in this vein could include The Princess Frog (Russian), the Three Feathers (German), or Dolley the Grass (Norwegian).

Motifs in the story, using the S. Thompson Motif-index, include:

B310 “Acquisition of a helpful animal”

B312.4 “Purchase of a helpful animal”

B360 “Animal grateful for rescue from death”

cB542 “Animal carries man through air”

B651.5 “Marriage to a person in hedgehog form”

And quite a few others we probably don’t need to include. There’s a lot going on in this story it seems so let’s take it scene by scene.

In the first scene we learn that the husband is the laborer and provider for the home, and we expect this because of the age of the story — this is normal. We also see that there’s an expectation of what “Men” do when they reach a certain age… in this case: they move out and they take a wife. Again, this seems pretty standard. Finally, there’s a strong showing of male-to-male familial ties. The husband does not feel his younger brother is ready to be on his own and he is protective of him and worried about him.

Quickly we see a deviation from what we would expect when, as the husband seems not to be taking her side, the wife threatens to kill herself right there in front of him with a carving knife. Instantly the husband is reduced to a helpless character and he submits to his wife. Now things are interesting.

Before I go on I want to interrupt myself and say that, from a modern point of view, I believe this is a phenomenal story about growing up and how certain children need certain influences in their lives, guidance from teachers and protection from the real world, until they can navigate the life on their own. For some it takes longer and for some it takes barely any time at all, but all children need this. Something incredibly important to the understanding of this story, again from a modern perspective, and more importantly MY personal modern perspective, is mentioned only once, towards the middle of the story, and only in passing: this boy is an orphan. His brother is his father and his sister-in-law his mother.

Keeping this in mind let’s re-examine the opening scene:

How long have the parents been gone or dead? Since birth or only recently? Is the sister-in-law a wicked selfish person or someone who is unexpectedly raising a child she didn’t ask for? The fact that DeeDee is an orphan creates a plethora of new vantage points from which to consider the story so let’s keep that in mind as we continue because I think the most teachable aspect of this story is how a complete upbringing is critical to a child’s success in life.

The older brother tricks Deedee by offering him clothes and telling him there off to see the world. From my 21st century perspective I can look at this gift as foreshadowing as in many cultures the gift of clothes and provisions before a long journey is somewhat commonplace. I can also ask myself, “Is this a hint at DeeDee’s immaturity? Should he have seen this gift as a clear indication of his departure from the family home?” But even from the 8th century perspective, I think this could have been, in that time period, a sort of tongue-in-cheek joke about how easily the boy is fooled because of how young and inexperienced he is.

When the jig is up and the older brother tells Deedee what’s really going on, we can see immaturity even in Deedee’s response: “You don’t want me any more?” He doesn’t see this as the expected ejection from his family home at the right age, he sees it as a personal attack on his worth. And remember, Deedee was adopted, imagine how this must have felt. Further, perhaps this was the right age but the absence of parents has set him back in his preparedness for independence. Things to think about.

When Deedee approaches a cabin in the wilderness we all cringe at the unsavory characters that may be living in that cabin and what terrible things they may do to him, but it turns out the Hunter is a kind of True Neutral and doesn’t wish the boy any harm… unless you consider his accepting of all of his money as taking advantage of the boys glaring ignorance of financial value. Again, immaturity, approaching a stranger’s home in the middle of nowhere, giving up all of his money for a hedgehog, being unable to accept that hunters hunt and hedgehogs die, that life is a cycle, that everything has an end and so on and so forth. But it is at this point that the narrative begins to shift.

DeeDee’s innocence, immaturity, and child-like heart have now landed him in very fortuitous union with the very beautiful and wealthy Hedgehog Girl. From this point forward we see the story stop giving examples of DeeDee’s immaturity and start providing opportunities for Hedgehog Girl to step into his life as a replacement for his mother and to finish raising him to manhood.

There may be some uneasiness with the idea of Hedgehog Girl as both Deedee’s wife and mother but let’s jump ahead and consider something. The two had been together for three years without having a child before Hedgehog Girl sent Deedee’s to find a second wife. My suspicion isn’t that either of the two characters were infertile, rather that Deedee had no understanding of what it meant to be a husband or a lover. Hedgehog Girl wasn’t his bedmate, she was his guardian, his teacher, and while he may have thought her beautiful, what child doesn’t think their mother is beautiful? We could perhaps re-enforce this by considering their journey back to Deedee’s home town after they first met and married.

Deedee had to close his eyes, cover her with a blanket, and keep his eyes closed until they landed. Of course this may have been because she didn’t want him to see her as a hedgehog but, he already had. What if it was because the transmutation from human to magical flying hedgehog required her to be nude during the process? This is something mothers have their children do all the time during inappropriate scenes in a movie or life. If Deedee isn’t ready for nudity, I doubt he’s ready for consummation.

The moment their relationship begins, Hedgehog Girl is doing everything she can to help Deedee become a man. First she encourages him to return home and make a place for himself, be his own man. Then she steps in on negotiations for land on which to build a home, then she constructs the home and furnishes it so as to give him all that one needs to stand on their own two legs without support from others. Their home had furniture, food, even horses! Everything a man living in 8th century China comes to be able to provide for himself as an adult.

Finally, when Hedgehog Girl deems him ready, she tells Deedee that he must find another wife and provides all the money necessary for him to gain approval from that new wife’s father for her hand in marriage.

At the end of the story we see Deedee, a man. He has a home, a wife, a child, and (the implication of, I think) money. Hedgehog Girl has finished the job of raising DeeDee and has saved him from a life of vulnerability as a naïve and ill-prepared orphan.

So what does this story teach us? What can we use from it to start meaningful discussion with the children and adults in our lives?

First, if you feel that someone isn’t ready, perhaps you should trust your judgement — especially if that lack of readiness stirs frustration in you. It may have only taken you 5-years to figure something out, but that doesn’t mean the person for whom it takes 7-years will be any less competent in their practice of whatever IT was by the time they figure it out. Push a baby bird from its nest before it is ready to fly and it will walk its whole life.

Second, as a parent, guardian, or big brother or sister, don’t underestimate your role in shaping people who rely and look up to you. If, as a parent for example, you hope for a reality where your son moves out at 18 and goes off to college with straight A’s, don’t underestimate how large a role your involvement plays in the realization of that hope.

And lastly, what about being kind to others? A sad and defenseless thing in harm’s way, even if that harm is natural or the way of the world, can still be, and perhaps should more often be, saved. Often times actions like this can enrich us, grow our hearts, and enhance our empathic drives and motivations. The world could always stand to be a bit more kind.

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