In the heart of the Stone Forest, a remarkable limestone formation about 60 kilometers from Kunming, is a very special stone called the Ashima stone. Legend has it that this stone was once a beautiful woman named Ashima, which literally translates as “more precious than gold”. How did she become a stone in the Stone Forest?
There is a long epic poem that tells the story. It is hundreds of years old, but was first written down in 1813. The legend of Ashima figures into local marriage customs, and was the subject of the first color movie made in China, in 1964. The best English synopsis I was able to find comes from the University of San Francisco; it reads as follows:
Once upon a time, a girl was born in a poor Yi family. Yi people were one of 56 of the nationalities in China. The parents hoped the girl would be as beautiful as flowers and as shiny as gold. They named her Ashima.
When Ashima grew up, she was very beautiful. Many young Chinese men were attracted by her singing and dancing. But Ashima was in love with Ahei, who was a brave and wise young man. They were engaged to each other at one of the torch festivals for Yi people.
One day, when Ashima was on the market, she met the son (Azhi) of the village leader. Azhi thought Ashima was very pretty. He wanted Ashima to marry him instead of Ahei. Azhi was very rich, and Ahei was very poor. Still, Ashima loved only Ahei and wanted to marry him.
When the fall came, Ahei had to leave the village to work in the field. When he was gone, Azhi kidnapped Ashima and forced her to marry him. Ashima cried and insisted she loved only Ahei. This made Azhi very angry. He whipped Ashima until her whole body hurt. Still, Ashima believed Ahei would come to rescue her.
When Ahei heard about Ashima’s kidnapping, he rode his horse home without delay. When he got to Azhi’s door, Azhi would not let him in to see Ashima. Then, Azhi proposed a song contest with Ahei. The contest lasted for three days and three nights. Ahei won the contest, and Azhi had to open the door for him.
After the contest, Azhi asked Ahei to stay overnight in his house. He promised to let Azhi leave the next morning and take Ashima with him. However, it was a trick. During the night, Azhi unleashed three tigers to kill Ahei. But Ahei was ready for the attack, and killed the three tigers with three arrows. The next morning, when Azhi found all the dead tigers, he allowed Ashima and Ahei to leave together.
But Azhi did not give up. He wanted to kill Ashima since he could not keep her. When Ashima and Ahei were playing by a river, Azhi used his power to flood the river. Ashima was drowned. Ahei could not find her. He kept calling Ashima’s name, but he heard only his echo.
Ashima was turned into the river stones. Later, whenever Ahei missed Ashima, he would face the stones and call out Ashima’s name and talk to her. He always heard the echo of a response. In this way, Ahei lived with his beloved Ashima forever.
I am very much looking forward to visiting Ashima when we go to Kunming. Who knows; maybe she will talk to us.