Once upon a time, a girl was born to a middle aged couple living in the hills, surrounded by evergreen valleys and brooks. She was very tiny, almost the size of a pea. The couple was blessed with a child after innumerous prayers and she was their jewel. They named her Xiao. The couple had always thought that Xiao would grow up in size some day, but even at thirteen she had only grown to be the size of their thumb. She was very lively, full of spirit, and quite intelligent for her age.
Not a single chick would be left out of the coop and not a single egg was misplaced under her watch. Xiao had a way with money. Whenever she went to the local market with the eggs, she always got the highest price. Everybody knew Xiao in the village, and while she could be considered a bit different from the conventional, she was loved unabashedly. She was cheerful, and a thoughtful child. She always knew deep inside that she was different, right from childhood. And as her parents got older, she realized that she had to become their strength. She decided to go to the capital, to secure a more comfortable future for her parents.There was something out there that she was supposed to do, a destiny that she had to fulfill.
The next day she told her parents, “I’m going to the capital.”
“But you’re so small. You won’t be safe,” her parents asked worriedly.
Xiao knew it wouldn’t be easy. Her size was indeed an issue, anyone could trample her, unknowingly too. As was being a girl. Tiny, girl, Xiao. But she was determined.
The old couple sighed and watched their child set out on her journey; they could only give their blessings. Xiao’s mother packed her things in a new, shiny cloth tied at the top. Her father made her a fresh pair of straw sandals. The day to leave came soon. Xiao bowed to her parents, looked back at her mountain home adoringly, and set for her journey. She shared a boat ride to the capital, excited and nervous about the new life that awaited her.
The hustle-bustle of the capital was a stark contrast to her life in the mountains. Everyone looked busy. The mighty Wei River could be seen at a distance. It was the power of ‘words’ that had brought Xiao to the capital. She had heard of a learned monk who ran an academy which was open to all – boys and girls, rich and poor, and possibly – tall and tiny. She looked at herself. Xiao had enquired about the academy, it was at the centre of the city; but reaching there was a hard task in itself. She was practically invisible to the people walking around. The crowd pushed and shoved her. Xiao jumped over a straw sandal, and barely managed to survive a lady’s carriage procession. Next, she escaped the fatal fall of a toddler’s burnt sugar candy on her head. Xiao’s parents were simple folks, with kind hearts. They didn’t necessarily understand the depth of Xiao’s desire to learn; learn everything – from language to medicine, statistics to history. It wasn’t easy for her to convince them. Yes, there seemed to be millions of people out on the streets, it didn’t matter, because today she had to meet the monk! Xiao braced herself and continued onwards.
The Head monk sat in his study and looked at the unusual visitor who had come to his academy. Though the school had been long open, and to everyone; it was the first time a girl had come in to learn about ‘the power of words’. The girls usually came about to learn zither or embroidery.
The determined girl, about the size of his thumb, calmly sipping tea was quite a surprise. The monk appreciated those who sought their own destiny. Xiao was special, and he gladly accepted her as his pupil.
Born with a natural curiosity about everything under the Sun, Xiao excelled in all her studies: mathematics, poetry and governance. It wasn’t easy of course. The brush everyone used to write and paint was too heavy for her. The more her colleagues pointed out that it wasn’t fit for her, the more she felt that herself. She decided to make a brush with her own hands, from a young bamboo shoot. Her learning and her calligraphy got better. However, the problem was the brush. Writing itself was not hard for her; there were just no brushes which she could call her own. Xiao decided to make her own brush, by hand. She adjusted all the gigantic letters to her size and mastered the strokes. She copied scriptures and interesting books from older texts in the academy and wrote them by hand, adapting her style to them. Her tiny calligraphy started getting famous in the night market of the capital. People appreciated the strong, yet flexible calligraphy style that she had mastered. Notebooks and scrolls with her writing began circulating around.
The eldest son of the minister and the fourth son of the renowned merchant couldn’t take this news lying down. A thumb sized girl tried to steal their glory? She needed to be taught a lesson. They tip-toed in to her study room, opened Xiao’s desk drawer and poured half a bucket of colored water on her written submissions and scrolls. Seeing the dregs of paper floating around, they snickered and were smug. Early next morning, when Xiao went to the study to collect her work and head to the bookstore of the night market, she saw the mess. Although she was prepared for all kinds of obstacles, this incessant bullying by her own classmates disheartened her. Weren’t they all supposed to support and care for each other? She couldn’t understand what she had done to warrant such treatment. Still, she continued to persist.
After three years of her education and all the hard work she put in, Xiao passed the Imperial examination, only one of the two to get selected from her academy. The head monk blessed her and said, “You had a destiny to fulfill Xiao and you have successfully done that. You can now chart your own course, child.”
Xiao knelt in front of her shifu and kowtowed three times with tears in her eyes. If not for the monk who cared about all students, irrespective of any divide, it would have been a long, winding road for Xiao in the capital.
The top three scholars of the national examination were invited to the palace banquet by the emperor. Everyone at the banquet was excited to see this year’s top three students. Upon the entrance of the last scholar in the room, everyone quieted down, and in the middle of the huge hall stood Xiao, a thumb sized woman. How could a woman pass the imperial examination and such a tiny one at that? No one could believe their eyes, even the emperor strained his eyes to make sure he wasn’t mistaken.
The Emperor was intrigued, and asked Xiao, “You are a woman; what made you give the Imperial examination?”
Xiao was standing in the middle of the banquet hall, head slightly bowed.
“Replying to Your Majesty, there are no rules against women appearing for the examination. Anyone who passes the exam is a national scholar.”
The Emperor continued, “But women have never held any court positions.”
Xiao stood before the piercing gaze of the Emperor and replied, “Just because there haven’t been any in the past doesn’t mean there can’t be any in the future, Your Majesty.”
The hall burst into muffled whispers – a woman in an official position? This was unprecedented. Suddenly, the hall’s quiet shattered with the hearty laughter of the Emperor, who thought that this girl was indeed courageous!
Xiao stood her ground, among so many courtiers, and the Son of the Dragon eventually went on to become the Prime Minister of the Right. Her life is remembered in stories and in songs, which the people of the kingdom sung and narrated in classrooms, in theatres, on the streets, and even across the great land. This story of the thumb sized girl from the mountains and the first woman minister in His Majesty’s Court paved the way for more such stories of more such women who came after.
A Modern Folklore*
(*It is the thought behind the piece that’s modern here, written while remembering Ruth B. Ginsburg and Isher Judge Ahluwalia, stalwarts in their own fields and inspiration to women worldwide.)
Suyasha Singh spent her formative years in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, before moving to New Delhi. She is a graduate from Miranda House, Delhi University and is currently pursuing her Master’s from Jawaharlal Nehru University.