SUGGESTIONS FOR SUMMER READING
Review: Chinese Fairy Tales & Fantasies
In honor of summer reading, we will again this year be focusing our book reviews on fiction, for both children and adults, during these upcoming months. A book that I recently enjoyed with potential for any age group is The Folio Society’s beautifully illustrated edition of Chinese Fairy Tales & Fantasies.
My younger sister, Helen, was obsessed with mythology and fairy tales as a child … especially those from foreign lands that offered different types of magic and stories than the traditional ones we grow up knowing in American culture. While Chinese Fairy Tales & Fantasies are primarily suited for adults, there are selections that would please advanced young readers, or especially young adult readers, who are interested in foreign folklore. Each magical tale in this collection, whether depicting a wise judge, a poor family struggling to outwit a corrupt bureaucrat, or an insect coming to the aid of a human, offer both entertainment as well as insight into Chinese culture. Interweaving the lives of mortals with the animal kingdom and the realm of gods and ghosts, they range from fables to stories of enchantment and magic.
Spanning two millennia of storytelling, these stories illuminates the beliefs and traditions that have shaped Chinese society, and each reflects one of their three core philosophies: Confucianism, Taoism and/or Buddhism. Many of the stories themselves are the works of great philosophers, such as the venerable P’u Sung-ling, who opposed the rigid orthodoxies of Confucianism. More than 20 are by the Taoists Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu, who believed that all things are created equal, rejecting the hierarchical worldview of Confucius.
The Buddhist stories espouse compassion towards all living things, perceiving human and animal forms as fluid and interchangeable. In ‘Three Former Lives,’ the errant scholar Liu is reincarnated as a horse and then as a dog before finally, having atoned for his ills, being reborn as a man.
The Confucians, conversely, view social order in terms of inherited status. The imperial family occupied the highest stratum, women, children and animals the lowest. Tales such as ‘A Clever Judge’ reinforce this doctrine, illustrating that stability and justice is achieved when social obligations are properly assigned and fulfilled.
According to translator Moss Roberts, this collection of stories serves two purposes: it gives readers some sense of how imaginative fiction reflects each of the three teachings of Chinese civilization (Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist); and it shows how fairy tales, or as the Chinese call them, supernatural tales, give voice to the injustices inflicted on subordinated and exploited groups, namely, children, women, animals and foreigners. The boundary between the human and the animal is the boundary between the civilized and the barbaric, an issue of the utmost importance in Chinese culture.
Whether an adult wishing to expand his or her knowledge of Chinese culture, philosophy and folklore, or a child entranced by unusual exotic tales of magic and enchantment, these stories are sure to please!