The Dragon Daughter
And Other Lin Lan Fairy Tales
Princeton University Press 2022
Pb, 240pp, £14.99, ISBN 9780691214412
In recent years the study of Chinese folklore has burgeoned after several anthologies of Zhiguai, often referred to in historical literature as “records of the strange”. These are a curious mix of accounts of paranormal incidents. Often personalised, they resemble Western tall tales of the FOAF (friend-of-a-friend) kind and, despite sometimes being quite ancient, can have an unnerving modernity, indicating some kind of eternal persistence.
There is another category of tales, Tonghua, which are usually regarded as purely fictional, the equivalent of Western fairytales. Juwen Zhang’s collection is of this latter sort, focusing upon the publications by Lin Lan that appeared in China in the mid-1920s, and which had its roots in the modernist movement.
In the little history that accompanies this anthology, Zhang shows that “Lin Lan” was a collective pseudonym which collected and retold stories from various regions, making an excellent comparison with the efforts of the Grimm Brothers.
The main motive of the original Lin Lan collective was to bring traditional stories into the modern era and was considerably influenced by their western peers. In this they succeeded wonderfully, resulting in more than 1,000 stories in 43 volumes which have in turn influenced popular Chinese culture to the present day, including the film industry’s thirst for supernatural plots and motifs.
This selection of 42 tales is divided into four groups: the joys (or more usually the tragedies) of falling in love with a fairy; love which is predestined or which tries to overcome fate; love and enmity among siblings; and a generally “weird” category.
A rich spectrum of familiar themes – misidentification and coincidence, jealousy and yearning, greed and envy; treasure found or lost; love that transcends the world or ends in tragedy; and more – are played out by a rich cast of characters: fairies, animals and objects that turn into humanoids and vice versa; supernatural beings from the high heavens and horrible hells; magic users and ghosts; sages and idiots; all presented with a very earthy sense of irony and humour. The whole is an exuberant celebration of humanity and translates beautifully into a joyously fresh read.