Xiangmiang: Trickster Tales of Laos

Many cultures have trickster tales: stories about a clever person or animal who plots to play tricks on others. Sometimes the tricksters have an undercurrent of danger, sometimes they’re mean, sometimes they’re foolish, and sometimes they’re just funny.

Anansi the Spider, Jack of stories like “Jack the Giant-Killer,” and Coyote are some tricksters your students may already know well. Try adding Xiangmiang for a new look at trickster tales.

Xiangmiang is a trickster in the folktales of Laos. While many tricksters are other kinds of animals, Xiangmiang is human. In this story (click the link for a video), Xiangmiang tricks the king. The king has offered a reward to anyone who can make him get into a pond. Xiangmiang, protesting his humility, says that he would not dare to try to make the king get into the pond, but he is sure he could make the king get out of the pond if he were already in it. The king gets into the pond to test Xiangmiang’s claim — and of course Xiangmiang has then made the king get into the pond.

In another story, Xiangmiang borrowed money from a friend for “two moons” — two months. After two months, his friend went to get his money back. “There’s only one moon,” objected Xiangmiang, pointing to the moon in the sky. Later, his friend tried to play the same trick on Xiangmiang. He borrowed money for “two moons.” After two months, XiangMiang went to get his money back and his friend said, “It’s still only one moon,” and pointed to the sky. But Xiangmiang pointed to the reflection of the moon in the water: two moons.

Start by reading one or more stories of this trickster. If you read it aloud, then “see-ung mee-ung” will sound pretty close to the correct pronunciation of “Xiangmiang.” You can find the books  Lao Folktales by Steven Jay Epstein or Lao Folktales by Wajuppa Tossa. You can also find a few of the stories online:

  • Vimeo Lao has the story of Xiangmiang’s birth being told in the traditional fashion, in Lao, with English subtitles.
  • NIU has a site with a collection of Lao folktales, including “Xiangming Outwits the King” and “Xiangmiang and the Snail.” There are also bilingual audio files.
  • MIT has an essay in a PDF file that discusses this story, and other Xiangmiang stories, in the context of Lao culture, and then in the context of cultural identity overall. This would be a good reading and discussion piece for older students.

Once you’ve heard, read, and understood the stories, have students reenact one or more.

Social Studies

  • The stories of Xiangmiang, like those of most human and many animal tricksters, show someone in humble circumstances tricking those who think themselves better than the trickster. Challenge students to write a trickster tale of their own showing this dynamic in their own community or school.
  • Study about Laos, the homeland of Xiangmiang. Lonely Planet has a nice gallery of photos and some basic information, and NIU has a wealth of resources.
  • Check out photos of Lao wildlife.
  • There are more than 400,000 Americans of Lao descent. If there are Laotian Americans in your community, try to collect more Xiangmiang stories as an oral history project.
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