The World of Fables and Legends - 06

Popular Folktales from Far East

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Old civilizations such as Indian, Greece, Roman, Persian, Egyptian, Assyrian and Sumerian have several thousand years history comprising of kingdoms and dynasties, most of which were evolved independently over a long period from origins of great antiquity but vanished from the world map, except Indian culture and civilization, largely replaced by the dogmatic Abrahamic religions and way of life in the vast part of the world, including Asia, Europe, parts of Africa and Americas. These civilizations have, however, left behind ample ancient literature, inscriptions and archaeological evidences that speak volumes about some unique similarities as well as contrasts of their past glory. With the passage of time, many fables and mythological legends were apparently added in this genre of literature to make it more interesting and ethical to the common audience. Some of the West and India specific legendary tales were narrated along with the ethical and moral message intoned, if any, in the last two episodes.

Traditionally, the term Orient has been used to denote the Eastern part of globe since middle ages and oriental is often used to describe objects from this part of the world. Orient is largely a metonym for the continent of Asia, which is loosely categorized into the Near East, Middle East and Far East due to its sheer size in length and breadth. Originally, the term was evolved for the West Asia and parts Africa in relation to Europe, and later extended to South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia too. Geographically, the Far East is the region that includes the Russian East, and Eastern and South-eastern Asia. In the Far East, the Chinese civilization is considered to be one of the oldest civilizations in the world and along with Russia and Japan, it accounts for more than half of the geographical spread of the largest Asian continent with nearly fifty large and small countries. Like West and Indian civilizations, the countries in the Far East too had their own specific culture, quota of gods, demigods and other extraordinary supernatural creatures in the ancient age. Accordingly, in this part the author proposes to illustrate few legends exclusively from this part of the world.

I. Chinese Civilization

In the Far East, the Chinese civilization and culture is among the world's oldest civilizations originated thousands of years ago. The civilizational culture covered a vast geographical area in the East Asia with extremely diverse and varying customs and traditions among the different sub-geographical entities including provinces, cities, and small towns/villages as well. According to some scholars, the Xia dynasty is first known evidence of the civilization in China about 4,000 years ago and the first legendary ruler was Yu or Da Yu of this dynasty. However, the first fairly documented history starts with the Shang dynasty (1,600 – 1046 BCE), while much of the credible Chinese culture, philosophy and literature evolved during the Zhou Dynasty (1045 – 256 BC). Then from the Qin dynasty to the much later Qing dynasty (221 BC – AD 1840), the Chinese people have an illustrated history with society divided into four distinct classes i.e. landlord, peasant, merchant and craftsmen. The Chinese civilization mainly evolved around the Yellow River and the Yangtze River valleys during the ancient age with the former often known as the cradle of Chinese civilization.

The Confucianism and Taoism were two distinct and major religious and Philosophical traditions of the ancient China that largely guided and dictated the socio-religious and cultural traditions of the Chinese people till the advent of Buddhism in the medieval period and later the communism in the modern age. Confucius was a Chinese philosopher and politician during 551–479 BCE, who propounded Confucianism while Taoism rook its roots later in the 4th century BCE. Both have been described as religion, tradition and philosophy as also a way of life. Fundamentally, Taoism differed from Confucianism in as much as the former did not emphasize rigid rituals and social order. Historically, Chinese civilization being one of the earliest civilizations, it represents the dominant and somewhat representative religious and cultural traditions of the East Asia, including language script, architecture, ceramics, music, dance, literature, martial arts, cuisine, visual arts, festivities, philosophy, business etiquette, and so on around the world.

The Chinese mythology too has their own gods and goddesses but, usually, they are neither so presentable nor so kind unlike Indian and Western (Greeks and Romans) deities. For instance, among the chief ancient deities, Pangu is hairy and horned with a beastly appearance. According to the Chinese myth of creation, initially, the universe was in a nondual, featureless and formless, primordial state, which coalesced into a cosmic egg on the principle of yin and yang from which Pangu emerged symbolizing Taiji. Here the yin and yang represent the concept of the dualism while Taiji is the Chinese cosmological term for the “Supreme Ultimate” state of undifferentiated absolute or the oneness before duality. As per the cosmic legendary myth, Pangu was responsible for creating the world: He first isolated yin from yang with a swing of his giant axe leading to the creation of the earth (murky yin) and sky (clear yang). To keep them separate and distinct, he stood between the two daily pushing the sky up ten feet higher, earth ten feet thicker and himself correspondingly getting taller for eighteen thousand years. He shaped the earth by chiselling out valleys, stacking up mountains and all other features applying his knowledge of yin and yang - the inescapable principle of duality in things. In some versions, he was also assisted in his task of creation by another four beastly creatures, namely the Turtle, Qilin, Phoenix, and Dragon.

The other important Chinese gods and goddesses include Nuwa and Fuxi or Fushi, and characters such as Sun Wukong, Chang’e, Hou Yi and the Jade Emperor. Nuwa alias Nugua is the mother goddess and also sister and wife of Fushi, the emperor-god. She is the first being with the ability to procreate and thus the creator of all mankind. The ancient Chinese society is believed to have been fiercely matriarchal, hence Nuwa is considered very important deity of the ancient Chinese people. Similarly, Fushi is considered among the most kind and compassionate gods, as first male ancestor and cultural hero, who enriched humans with the skills of writing, fishing and domestication of animals. In some mythical tales, Fushi is described with a human body while in others he has the head of a human and the body of a snake. Also, he is regarded as the husband of Nuwa and together they were the creators of civilization. In all, supposedly 10 legendary kings or demi-gods guided Chinese people through their prehistoric beginnings say between three to two millennia BCE. Jade Emperor is one remarkable legendary character in the Chinese mythology, who was believed to be the ruler of heaven and first emperor of China. Xiwangmu, the wife of Jade Emperor, is another important female deity with control over the life and death.

The earliest known written historical records of China are in 1,250 BCE from Shang dynasty, which prospered around the Yellow River valley and much of the ancient traditional Chinese culture and literature belongs to the Shang and Zhou dynasties. Apparently, the mythical and legendary Chinese writings are from the early centuries of the Christian era. According to modern age scholars, the tales of the Chinese gods, demons and supernatural creatures are the product of the ideas of alchemy, Taoist and Buddhist superstitions. On the lines of the Western and Indian ancient civilizational cultures and traditions, the Chinese mythology too is intertwined with their history as also the tradition of storytelling has been in vogue from generation to generation. Also, most of the mythical tales date back to ancient ages, some even predating to the recorded history of the Chinese mankind. Two such Chinese legendary tales are briefly enumerated here.

1. Da Yu Rebuilds the Earth

The mythical legend of Da Yu is over four thousand years old: he was the first king or demi-god of the legendary Xia or Gia dynasty, who could easily change his shape into different forms such as a bear, dragon, or human. He is credited with the creation of the first dynasty of human civilization, namely Xia dynasty, which, however, does not have any archaeological or other sustainable evidence. Yu is considered to be the first to pass his status as ruler on to his descendants, creating the first dynasty. However, the narrative lacks any archaeological or other credible evidence. The story of his birth too is extraordinary from a man called Gun who stole some magic soil from the heaven to dam the water of the great flood. Consequently, furious Shangdi, the supreme deity of heaven, ordered his execution and after three years, his preserved body was cut open retrieving Da Yu, who later did hard work to rebuild earth making it suitable for human habitation by taming water.

In fact, several legendary tales are associated with Yu apart from creating the Xia dynasty. According to one legendary account, during those times in China the rulers and leaders were decided based on their abilities and not inheritance. Through his various ventures, Yu had proved his leadership, management and problem-resolving skills and abilities particularly during torrential rains and floods, hence he was chosen to rule the country. Then, he established the Xia dynasty around 2,070 BCE with Yangcheng (now Dengfeng, Henan Province) as his capital. He is also credited with the reorganization of the country in nine states for better management, dredging of water channels to tame water and large-scale levelling of soil for cultivation to augment agricultural produce. He is not only admired for his daunting task of fighting natural disasters but also for patronizing cultural development and building a strong army for the long-term protection and peace of the country.

Yu had succeeded his father in continuing the work of harnessing the floods. According to a legend, he had left his home to the regions severely affected by floods just four days after his marriage. For the next thirteen years, he was away from home visiting from place to place in all regions destroyed from the torrential floods. In ancient China, people used to suffer badly from the floods of the Yellow River and Yu led the people to dig vast channels to divert water into the sea. This experiment was a tremendous success and finally the floods were brought under control. His commitment and sustained efforts in taming the floods in China earned him the title of "Yu the Great". Subsequently, Yu also organized people to rebuild their homes destroyed in floods and develop agriculture by harnessing soil and water, and helped them to plant rice and other crops, fishery and breeding of the ducks and geese, making their lives happy and prosperous.

2. Legend of the White Snake

Lu Dongbin is a Chinese immortal demi-god, who one day disguises himself as a vendor in West Lake in Hangzhou and sells some tangyuan (a Chinese sweet of a ball of glutinous rice flour) to the boy Xu Xian. As after eating it, the boy does not feel hungry for days; so he revisits vendor to inquire into the reason. To this, Lu Dongbin simply laughs and flips the boy upside down to cause him vomit the tangyuan into the lake. A white snake spirit practicing magical arts in the lake eats it and acquires 500 years’ worth of magical powers. So, she feels grateful to Xu Xian and develops feelings for him. Few days later, the white snake saves a green snake from a man and the two treat each other like sisters. A terrapin (tortoise) spirit is envious with the white snake because he was unable to consume magical stuff instead.

After many years, the white and green snakes transform into young women with the name Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing, respectively, during the Qingming Festival. They meet Xu Xian again, who lends them umbrella while it was raining; eventually, they fall in love and marry him to settle down in Zhenjiang with a medicine shop. By this time, the terrapin has become more powerful, transforms into Fahai, a Buddhist monk, and plots to break their relationship. Fahai advises Xu Xian to make her wife drink realgar wine (an alcoholic drink) during the festival; unsuspecting Bai Suzhen drinks the wine and get transformed into her real self of a large white snake. Consequently, Xu Xian dies of the shock that his wife is a snake. Now Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing secretly travel to Mount Emei to fetch the magical herb that restored Xu Xian again to life.

Xu Xian continues to love Bai Suzhen after regaining life despite knowing her true identity. Fahai makes yet another effort to separate them this time by abducting Xu Xian and detaining at the Jinshan Temple. In the ensuing fight between two sisters and Fahai to rescue Xu Xian, Bai Suzhen flooded the temple and in a collateral damage even many innocent people too suffered. But she being pregnant with Xu Xian’s child and with limited powers, was unable to secure Xu’s release. However, later Xu Xian with his own efforts is able to escape and reunite with his wife at Hangzhou, where she gives birth to their son Xu Mengjiao. In a sheer vengeance, Fahai once again tracks them down, outsmarts Bai Suzhen and imprisons her in Leifeng Pagoda but Xiaoqing is able to flee vowing reprisal.

After another two decades, their son Xu Mengjiao earns the merit of zhuangyuan (top scholar) in the imperial examination and returns to home to reunite with parents. Around the same time, Xiaoqing, having refined and acquired more powers during these years, visits to the Jinshan Temple to confront Fahai yet again. This time she defeats Fahai, who flees and hides in the stomach of a crab; Bai Suzhen is freed from Leifeng Pagoda and reunited with Xu Xian and their son with a happy ending. The legendary white snake is also remembered as Madame White Snake and there is a Chinese saying that a crab's internal fat is orange as it matches with the colour of Fahai's kasaya. This Chinese legend is remembered as one of the four great Chinese folktales, the other three being Lady Meng Jiang, Butterfly Lovers, and The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl. Also, this has been a popular subject of many Chinese operas, films, and television series.

II. Japanese Civilization

Japan is the farthest island country in the Far East and in the modern age it is among the world’s few most advanced and prosperous countries. Apparently due to its limitations of geography and location, it did not have similar civilizational glory like ancient Indians or Greece and Romans but the available evidences suggest that the prehistoric period of Japan spanned roughly from about 13,000 BCE to 1,000 BCE, popularly known as Jomon period. During this time, Japanese civilization primarily comprised of the hunter-gatherer culture with considerable degree of sedentism and complexity over a period of time. The name Jomon (means cord-marked) was first used by an American scholar Edward Morse who discovered shards of pottery there in 1877. The Jomon pottery is arguably considered to be among the oldest in East Asia and the world too. Later bronze and iron was introduced to the Japanese archipelago apparently by the Yayoi people from Korean and Chinese mainland around 1,000 – 800 BCE. Ever since the rice cultivation, metallurgy, new woodwork, glassmaking, weaving and silk production, etc. also started leading to transformation of the civilization.


The ancient people in Japan followed a religion called Shinto, also called kami-no-michi before the advent of Buddhism. It was an indigenous and natural religion originated in ancient Japan itself, which was polytheistic comprising of the Kami supernatural entities/spirits (gods). Izanagi is considered the forefather of all gods as the first male and god of creation and life. He together with his wife Izanami was responsible for the birth of many other kami gods. To illustrate a few, Amaterasu-Omikami is considered as the primary deity of Shinto representing the goddess of Sun or the great kami that shines from heaven; Ame-no-Uzume (or Uzume) is the goddess of dawn and revelry; Kaze-no-kami (or Fuzin) was the god of wind; Yawata-no-kami (or Hachiman) was the god of war and divine protector of the Japanese people; and Inari Okami was the deity of fertility and rice.

The Japanese mythology and legendary tales are influenced by the country’s two main religions, namely Shintoism and Buddhism. As Buddhism had originated in India and spread around the world from there, the Indian and Chinese influence can also be observed in on the Japanese folklore. The ancient stories are particularly influenced with the Shintoism with associated magical creatures and spirits appearing in such tales along with the kami deities, the landscape and natural objects. Also. these folklores derive influence of other cultures beyond Shintoism and the stories feature yokai (monster spirits), yurei (ghosts), tengu (heavenly dogs), Kappa (river-child), and so on, in various categories and endings such as with love, kindness, ghost, sad, witty, funny, and greedy themes. The Japanese historical texts Kojiki is considered among the oldest book of history, legends and myths in Japan. Also, the majority of the Japanese mythical and legendary tales are associated with the kami deities and aforesaid supernatural beings; two such tales are briefly narrated here.

1. Minamoto no Yorimitsu

Like other ancient civilizations, Japan has its own share of numerous mythical heroes and warriors, and one of which was Minamoto no Yorimitsu, probably the most famous Japanese folktale hero. He was recovered by an old childless couple from a peach, when they split the soft fruit open. According to the popular version of the tale, Minamoto had descended on to earth inside a giant peach, which was found floating down the river by an old and childless woman while washing clothes at the banks of the river. Later the woman and her husband discovered the child Minamoto when they attempted to cut open the peach for the eating purpose. The child explained them that he was sent from the heaven by gods to be their son. Accordingly, the couple named him Momotaro; the momo implies peach and taro signifies the eldest son in the family. Later, as a teenager he undertook a long and dangerous quest to face a legion of demons with the help of few heavenly creatures.

Although many legendary tales are associated with Momotaro, but the most famous and common is one related to his battle with the ogre (demon) Shuten-doji. During the rule of the Emperor Ichito, Heian-kyo (Kyoto, once the capital of Japan, a city in the island of Honshu) was hounded by the monstrous ogre Shuten-doji. He used to kill many people in the city and ate the flesh of the victims besides abducting women to make them slaves. Under the command of the emperor, Momotaro and his retainers visited ogre’s place in disguise and sought transit lodging with him. Knowing ogre’s weakness for the rice wine, Momotaro offered him plentiful drinks which rendered the monster incapacitant. Consequently, while the retainers tightly held down the wicked monster, Momotaro decapitated Shuten-doji with his mighty sword. The sword used by him to decapitate Shuten-doji was renamed as Dojikiri, which literally means Ogre Slayer.

On yet another occasion, Momotaro had to fight another band of marauding ogres (demons) in a distant island. After commencement of his onerous journey, Momotaro met magical creatures, namely a talking dog, monkey, and pheasant, and befriended them as they agreed to assist him in his mission. With considerable efforts, Momotaro and his animal friends successfully penetrated the demons' fort at the island, defeated the band of evil demons and returned home with the demons' priced treasure and the demon chief as a captive. Even in today’s Japan, he is associated with many folklores and revered as a legendary hero along with four mighty retainers, who are collectively also known as the Shitenno or four guardian kings. In addition to his quests about ogres, Momotaro and his retainers are also remembered for the slaying of a monstrous tarantula (the earth spider). Momotaro still continues to be one of the most adored folktale heroes in Japan.

2. Urashima Taro

This is rather a sad story about the kind hearted fisherman called Urashima Taro. Long time back, the young fisherman lived in a small village in the vicinity of the sea in South Japan. He was a skilled fisherman with equally kind heart. One day, while returning from work, he noticed that a group of mischievous boys were tormenting a small turtle. Initially, they did not heed to Urashima’s request to spare the turtle but later they agreed to do it in exchange of some money. Urashima took the turtle to a safe place and released it in the water. After some time, he heard an aged turtle talking at sea shore that he was the one saved by Urashima from the children and now he wanted to return the favour by taking him to the king who lived beneath the sea. Urashima was initially hesitant but ultimately agreed to accompany the turtle, who then ferried him to the underwater kingdom of the dragon known as Ryugu. There the fisherman was showered with great affection and warmth by the beautiful princess Otohime and he lived a luxurious life in her company there for some period.

Eventually, Urashima got bored of the opulent life under the sea and desired to return home for a reunion with own family. Consequently, Otohime gave him a jewelled box as a parting gift while simultaneously warning never to open the box irrespective of the circumstances. On coming back to his village, young Urashima was surprised to find that everything in the village had changed and none of the inmates recognized him there. However, when he interacted with villagers, he realized that it has been ages since his departure and neither his parents nor other contemporary people have survived the time. He also learnt that nearly three hundred years have passed and none of the current generations even know his name. Thus, shocked and distraught young fisherman forgot Otohime’s warning and opened the gift box. Consequently, a cloud of white smoke emerged from the box engulfing Urashima and by the time the smoke dissipated, he was completely transformed into a white-haired old man.

II. Russian Civilization

History of the Russian civilization does not appear to be very old, usually it is linked with the East Slavs with traditional establishment of the Rus’ state in the north towards the later part of the 9th century (862 CE) ruled by Vikings. The East Slavs were Slavic people speaking the East Slavic languages, who later evolved into the Belarusian, Russian, Rusyn and Ukrainian people. The Vikings were the seafaring Norse people mainly from the southern Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway and Sweden), who from the late 8th to late 11th centuries pirated, raided and traded from their Northern European homelands across wide areas of Europe. Prince Oleg of Novgorod is credited with uniting the northern and southern lands of the Eastern Slavs in 882 under one authority after seizing Kiev and the state adopted Christianity towards the end of 19th century. Thus, Slavic tribes appear to be early ancestors of the modern Russians with the civilization having not much to boast about its antiquity like Greeks or Romans in the Western Europe.

However, early Slavic people believed in polytheism and followed natural gods and goddesses like other ancient civilizations of the West. For instance, Perun was the god of the sky, thunder and war, who looked like a warrior with muscles and an impressive copper beard armed with a sledgehammer and/or a bow and arrow, considered as the mightiest and highest god. Other significant gods were Dazhbog, Stribog, Simargl, Mokosh, Hors and Veles. Mokosh was the only goddess linked with the fate and child birth of people. Dazhbog represented sun and wealth of people, Stribog was the son of Perun and in-charge of the wind, air and sky, Simargl was the god of fire and fertility, Hors was associated with healing and sickness, and Veles the king of the underworld, harvest and cattle. Russian folklores are often associated with fairy tales, magical creatures and stories with animal personification; two such popular stories are briefly summarized here.

1. Baba Yaga

In Russian folklore, Baba Yaga is one of the most popular character in different narratives and stories. She is usually depicted as a witch, which is often found spooking and scaring people, especially children. In some illustrations, she is depicted as single and old spinster while in others found living with a daughter Marinka or Marina. Her abode is usually a wooden hut at the edge of the forest with no windows or even door in some narratives. The surrounding fence is often depicted with human bones and skull with one pole lacking it presumably waiting for the next victim. She is mostly shown as an ugly and unclean old woman with a huge distorted nose and long teeth. In this version, she is considered evil and dangerous who is even shown troubling people in various ways and even feasting on children.

Baba Yaga appears in several folklores with varying themes and avatars, and in some she acts like a guardian at the entry into the wild wood. She does not allow anyone to pass without teasing or testing their endurance and nerves. Those who pass her test and found worthy enough are allowed to have passage in the deep woods and even helped with her talisman while others failing her test are denied. Thus, she is neither good nor entirely evil. She uses her characteristic giant broom to travel or chase her victims or adversaries. Her most common antics is the magic of turning young from the old in a blink of eyes. Actually, this concept of witch is a very common and age old legacy particularly of the eastern Europe since ages; the term Baba usually denotes old woman or grandmother while Yaga appears to be a derived version of the old Russian verb "yagat" that means to abuse of find fault in someone. In a nutshell, she is a fantasy character frequently used as a subject in Russian books, films and children cartoons.

2. The Frog Princess

The Frog Princess is yet another fantasy folklore in Russian life since ancient times. The protagonist character is worthy of a perfect spouse, who is not only wise, beautiful and sensible but also very loyal, resourceful and frugal. However, the most remarkable feature of the Frog Princess is her skill in the magic arts and the fact that she is assisted by a battery of nannies, who are under her command and always willing to come for helping her in all situations. Her story has several fantasy elements with magical events including its variant. The tragic part remains that her annoyed father caused her to turn into a frog as punishment for a certain period and even compelled her to appear in the same avatar with the prospective groom – the crown prince Ivan. Also, when Ivan makes a mistake of burning her frog skin, he has to undergo an enduring trial to win her love interest back.

The story briefly goes like this. The king wanted his three sons to get married with worthy prospective brides; so, to accomplish this task, he organises a simple test to find brides. Each of the princes are asked to shoot an arrow and as per the protocol of the test, they would seek bride where their arrow lands; the youngest Ivan's arrow fetches a frog. Now the king assigns various tasks like spinning, weaving, baking, and so on to prospective daughters-in-law and the frog outperforms and outmanoeuvres other human brides in successfully accomplishing the assigned tasks; of course, her magical powers assist her to earn this feat so easily. Now the young prince is married to the frog but he remains ashamed of his frog bride until, one day, she shows her true personality of a beautiful princess.

Now this Frog Princess, named Vasilisa, turns into beautiful woman in the night and remains in frog skin during the day. She has to live under this forced nemesis for three years for disobeying Koshei. But one day when she sheds her skin, the impatient Prince Ivan burns it and, in the process, he loses her. Now to regain her, he is required to undergo rigorous test and trial. Henceforth, the story takes many twists and turns and there are many versions of the story with varying endings. During the process, he also has encounter with the famous witch Baba Yaga. After several failed attempts, Ivan finally succeeds and the story ends with a happy ending of the Frog Princess being freed from her curse and united with her husband to live ever happily again.

End Note

Since ancient time, many civilizations had evolved and developed in various parts of the world in isolation or with limited scope of communications and interaction those days. Notwithstanding these constraints, these civilizations had some unique analogies and contrasts with long lasting impact on the human generations in terms of their social and cultural life including associated moral and ethical codes of conduct and behaviour. These attributes and their long-lasting effects on the moral and ethical concepts of the civilizations in the West, Indian Sub-continent and Far East is reflected even in their traditional fables and legends. The common feature of the most of these civilizations, however, is that all of them believed in natural gods and goddesses, and supernatural and magical creatures, in a semblance and belief in the polytheism. The most striking contrast, however, appears in the Indian vis-a-vis other civilizations of the West and Far East in their basic attitude towards life.

While the Indian civilization put a greater emphasis on the spiritual progress and attainment since ancient times, the very focus of the other civilizations was on the materialism and consumerism. Indian ancient rishis and scholars attached a greater importance to the attributes like truth, benevolence and non-violence; consequently, ancient scriptures and other texts professed universal brotherhood and non-violence whereby animals were given recognition and protection as due. In Indian fables, one may find many talking animals in their original avatars but they are seldom shown in bad light and most such stories derive some morals for the human beings. On the other hand, due to very attitude towards life with focus on worldly luxury and enjoyment, even animals have been often depicted with shifting shapes and magical powers in other civilizations, particularly Chinese, to serve this human cause and quest. Also almost all Indian fables and legendary tales derive some moral for the human beings which is not so common in the corresponding tales of the West and Far East.

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More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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