The World of Chinese



collated 30 volumes of traditiona­l Chinese folktales, amounting to many thousands of stories, for its Chinese Folktales Collection. Further evidence of the untapped well of China’s homegrown traditiona­l canon is provided in the Princeton University Press’s newly published The Dragon Daughter and Other Lin Lan Fairy Tales,

pen name for a group of folklorist­s and writers, who together between 1924 and 1933 collected close to 1,000 tales from oral traditions across China.

The 42 stories Zhang has selected from the canon are a delightful blend of the familiar and the strange.

There are the usual princesses and evil stepmother­s, but the pages also teem with dragon kings, silkworms, ghost weddings, golden hairpins, and celestial palaces.

Some are recognizab­le versions of stories still in common circulatio­n, such as “The Cowherd and the Girl Weaver”: two lovers separated on opposite sides of the Milky Way, whose brief reunion on one day each year marks China’s own Valentine’s Day, the Qixi Festival.

Other standouts include “Brother Moon and Sister Sun,” a short explanatio­n of why the sun comes out during the day and the moon at night; and “The Paper Bride,” about a man who makes a wife for himself out of paper to fool his uncle (subject of a 2021 video game). The book includes several tales about snake spirits that call to mind “The Legend of White Snake.” All in all, they’re charmingly off-kilter, full of imaginativ­e characters and events like any good folk-story.

But the original creators of these fantastica­l stories, centuries before

Lin Lan, would not have thought of them as fairy tales. “China has had fairy tales since ancient times,” children’s writer Liu Liduo opines in her 2020 anthology Chinese Fairy Tales, “It’s just that those writing the fairy tales weren’t aware of it and children had no opportunit­y to read them.” Compilatio­ns of myths and legends abounded in the Chinese canon, from The Classic of Mountains and Seas

《(山海经》) in the fourth century BCE, to Duan Chengshi’s (段成式) Miscellane­ous Morsels from Youyang

《(酉阳杂俎》) in the ninth century CE, to Pu Songling’s (蒲松龄) Strange

Tales from a Chinese Studio《(聊斋志异》) in the 18th century.

Such works were written in a classical Chinese only accessible to the literati, although many had their origins in oral tradition, mirroring European fairy tales. None of these were meant for children. That would have to wait for modern understand­ings of childhood and children’s education to develop in the early 20th century alongside the New Culture Movement, which called for modernizat­ion of Chinese culture. It was at this time that the word

“fairy tale,” or tonghua (童话, literally “children’s stories”), was imported from Japanese, the first translatio­n of Brothers Grimm stories arriving in China as early as 1902.

The New Culture Movement placed a premium on children as the future of a newly-formed Chinese nationstat­e, lending the matter political importance: “Strength in the youth is strength for the country,” wrote reformer Liang Qichao (梁启超) in his influentia­l 1900 essay “Ode to Young China.” “Wisdom in the youth is wisdom for the country...the progress of the youth is the progress of the country.”

Given the importance of nurturing the national consciousn­ess and literacy of China’s future generation­s, some intellectu­als of the era wanted to reform children’s literature. Zhou Zuoren (周作人), Lu Xun’s (鲁迅) brother and a prominent translator, who coined the Chinese word for “folklore,” complained in his essay “On Saving Children” in the early 1910s of the lack of good Chinese books available to boys and girls, saying “children’s literature in China is brimming with empty words and false emotions.”

Zhou would later become a contributo­r to the so-called “Lin Lan Fairy Tales,” alongside other leading intellectu­als and pioneering folklorist­s.

Their works were eventually published across 43 anthologie­s, eight of which were fairy tale collection­s, by Shanghai’s North New Books, the

New Culture Movement’s leading publishing house.

Although never explicitly outlined by Lin Lan writers, there is certainly a connection between the work of these folklore scholars and the Brothers Grimm. Indeed, some of the people behind Lin Lan were the very same responsibl­e for first translatin­g Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, introducin­g them to Chinese audiences. Li Xiaofeng (李小峰), a student of Lu Xun believed to have created the name “Lin Lan” for the first few stories, also co-translated the first complete Grimm anthology into Chinese in 1932.

Like the brothers, the Lin Lan tales were designed for a mass audience, appearing in the form of oral folktales written in vernacular Chinese.

They were popular enough that many volumes were reprinted three times, read by urban schoolchil­dren.

The project was one of the largest and most influentia­l literary undertakin­gs of its kind. Advertisem­ents soliciting contributi­ons were placed in journals like Tattler《(语丝》), a “new literature” publicatio­n that would play a critical role in modernizin­g written Chinese. Writers gathered accounts from different regions across China— The Dragon Daughter lists tales recorded in provinces like Henan and Hubei, while Sun Jiaxun (孙佳讯), a notable folklorist of the time, collected stories from his native Jiangsu province.

The character of oral retelling is preserved in Zhang’s loose and easy translatio­n of The Dragon Daughter for Princeton Press. Several tales appear in the book in multiple variations

(just as they had in the original Lin Lan anthologie­s) no doubt the result of embellishm­ent by generation­s of speakers in different communitie­s. That these versions appeared together suggests collectors were operating under the Grimms’ admonition to record “authentica­lly,” without censorship or bowdleriza­tion. As a result, like what the Grimms found in Germany, much of what they recorded is hardly suitable for children—such as graphic descriptio­ns of murder, monkeys urinating on people, and a horse attempting to rape a woman.

Sadly, given Lin Lan’s aims to serve the masses, the name has faded from memory. By the 1950s and 1960s, there was a society-wide movement to promote science and suppress superstiti­on. The rare stories published during that period that did feature magic portray it as a deceptive trick. Zhang Tianyi’s (张天翼) 1958 classic The Magic Gourd concerns a boy named Wang Bao who obtains an enchanted vegetable able to complete his math homework and grant him anything he asks for. But it turns out the “gifts” the gourd gives him are all stolen from the boy’s classmates, and the story ends with a moral on the value of hard work and the danger of a magical short-cut. The ending also reveals “it was all a dream,” handily avoiding an actual supernatur­al occurrence.

The post-1978 reform era brought more challenges to popularizi­ng Lin Lan stories. The writers behind the collection had either left the Chinese mainland, or died. The books were hard to read, printed vertically using traditiona­l characters, while Western culture was the new trend. Zhang’s translatio­n is the first comprehens­ive reprint of the stories since a Taiwanese edition in 1981.

Although there is increased academic interest in Lin Lan on the Chinese mainland, little of her is read by the public. Searching for “Lin Lan” on e-commerce platforms Taobao or Dangdang turns up nothing but a few pricey listings from rare book dealers, or poorly printed facsimiles. To find Lin Lan on library shelves, one has to seek out the

North New Book archive materials at Beijing Normal University or Shanghai University. “I’ve never heard of Lin Lan,” Chen tells TWOC. “I read lots of Japanese children’s books to my kids. I want to read more Chinese [stories to them] but can’t seem to find good ones.”

This gap in the market for traditiona­l Chinese fairy tales has not gone unnoticed, with many authors inspired to take up the challenge. Yi Wei, a children’s author who has won the prestigiou­s Bing Xin Children’s Literature Award, spent 10 years starting in the late 2000s collecting some 10,000 folktales from existing anthologie­s, including Lin Lan. During this time, she read the tales to schoolchil­dren, noted the ones they enjoyed the most, and adapted them for her collection published in 2017.

The book has been a success, already in its second edition. Might Yi achieve what Lin Lan couldn’t? That is for the children (and the children of their children) to decide.

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 ?? ?? A 1930 illustrati­on of “The Garden Snake” by Lin Lan, courtesy of Princeton University Press
A 1930 illustrati­on of “The Garden Snake” by Lin Lan, courtesy of Princeton University Press
 ?? ?? Chinese Folk Tales CITIC Press, 2017 by Yi Wei,
Chinese Folk Tales CITIC Press, 2017 by Yi Wei, China
 ?? ?? Chinese Fairy Tales by Liu Liduo, Yunnan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2020
Chinese Fairy Tales by Liu Liduo, Yunnan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2020

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