Home News Chinese Fairy Tales Represent a Shared Folkloric Tradition With the West

Chinese Fairy Tales Represent a Shared Folkloric Tradition With the West

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With their cannibalistic witches lurking in spooky forests, beanstalks leading to real castles in the air, and disagreeable gnomes bent on making treacherous bargains, fairy tales have a coefficient of weirdness so high that they can seem like one-offs, singular inventions rooted in one specific time and place. There’s the classic French “Sleeping Beauty,” the British “Jack the Giant Killer,” and the German “Snow White.” Then along comes the translation of a collection of Chinese fairy tales written down nearly a hundred years ago. And, presto, it becomes clear that Little Red Riding Hood is not a French or a German invention, but a universal child wearing different disguises as she makes her way through a wilderness, always the innocent target of a monster with an outsized appetite for young flesh.

The publication of The Dragon Daughter and Other Lin Lan Fairy Tales marks a seismic shift in the English-speaking world’s understanding of the fairy-tale repertoire. It features 42 tonghua, or fairy tales—most translated into English for the first time—chosen from more than a thousand stories published under the pseudonym “Lin Lan,” a name first used in 1924 by Li Xiaofeng, a writer who recruited colleagues to collect fairy tales from across China.

Although Chinese fairy tales have trickled into the West over the past century, they have yet to receive much scholarly attention. And stories by the Brothers Grimm, along with those by Hans Christian Andersen, are still among the most widely read fairy tales in both East and West. This is a direct product of European, British, and Russian scholars publishing monster anthologies of folklore in a push to consolidate national identity in the 19th century, collecting everything they could get their hands on, and thereby establishing the fairy-tale canon as we know it today, with all its geographical limitations.

With their cannibalistic witches lurking in spooky forests, beanstalks leading to real castles in the air, and disagreeable gnomes bent on making treacherous bargains, fairy tales have a coefficient of weirdness so high that they can seem like one-offs, singular inventions rooted in one specific time and place. There’s the classic French “Sleeping Beauty,” the British “Jack the Giant Killer,” and the German “Snow White.” Then along comes the translation of a collection of Chinese fairy tales written down nearly a hundred years ago. And, presto, it becomes clear that Little Red Riding Hood is not a French or a German invention, but a universal child wearing different disguises as she makes her way through a wilderness, always the innocent target of a monster with an outsized appetite for young flesh.

The publication of The Dragon Daughter and Other Lin Lan Fairy Tales marks a seismic shift in the English-speaking world’s understanding of the fairy-tale repertoire. It features 42 tonghua, or fairy tales—most translated into English for the first time—chosen from more than a thousand stories published under the pseudonym “Lin Lan,” a name first used in 1924 by Li Xiaofeng, a writer who recruited colleagues to collect fairy tales from across China.


The Dragon Daughter and Other Lin Lan Fairy Tales, edited and translated by Juwen Zhang, Princeton University Press, 240 pp., .95, March 2022

The Dragon Daughter and Other Lin Lan Fairy Tales, edited and translated by Juwen Zhang, Princeton University Press, 240 pp., $19.95, March 2022

Although Chinese fairy tales have trickled into the West over the past century, they have yet to receive much scholarly attention. And stories by the Brothers Grimm, along with those by Hans Christian Andersen, are still among the most widely read fairy tales in both East and West. This is a direct product of European, British, and Russian scholars publishing monster anthologies of folklore in a push to consolidate national identity in the 19th century, collecting everything they could get their hands on, and thereby establishing the fairy-tale canon as we know it today, with all its geographical limitations.

Scholars like Juwen Zhang, the collection’s editor and translator, are trying to change that. Lin Lan, Zhang believes, should be recognized, for two reasons, as the “Brothers Grimm of Modern China.” Lin Lan urged contributors to record stories drawn from indigenous oral traditions (just as the famed German scholars had done) but also welcomed the idea of adding a European touch to the tales. The result is almost unprecedented in mixing tropes from multiple cultures in pleasantly disorienting ways to a Western reader. A Chinese Cinderella is ordered to sort buckwheat hulls, wheat, and mung beans. Steamed buns substitute for porridge; flutes are made of bamboo. A jujube tree stands in for what is usually a juniper tree in European folklore. We are in a fairy-tale universe animated by silkworms and snake spirits rather than by enchanted frogs or cats sporting boots.

Instead of thinking in terms of a cultural heritage captured by 19th-century philologists and antiquarians, it may be time to investigate how fairy tales form what William Wells Newell, founder of the American Folklore Society, once casually referred to as a “golden net-work of oral tradition.” Rather than dividing us along national lines, fairy tales show exactly how connected we all are in the stories we share about what it means to be a part of a family, to leave home, to face down villains, and to secure a happily-ever-after, reminding us of just how porous the boundaries between East and West have long been.



An illustration from Lin Lan’s The Three Brothers (1929) from a collection at the Beijing Normal Library.

An illustration from Lin Lan’s The Three Brothers (1929) from a collection at the Beijing Normal Library. Courtesy of Princeton University Press

Much as we embrace diversity and difference today, there has always been a tug in the direction of finding what the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss called “unsuspected harmonies” in our collective belief systems around the world. In the mid-20th century, Lévi-Strauss urged us to consider how bards, griots, and other storytellers made sense of the world by turning abstract binaries (raw vs. cooked, herbivores vs. beasts of prey, nature vs. nurture) into human actors battling it out in symbolic worlds that resemble each other across cultures.

For the American writer Joseph Campbell, who worked in comparative mythology, the search for a “shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story” would yield a bond connecting what he called the “mumbo-jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo” and the “sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse” with “an argument of Aquinas” or a “bizarre Eskimo fairy tale.” The underlying racism that seeped into Campbell’s inventory is undeniable, but his assertion reminds us of the powerful drive to find kinship and affinity in mythical confabulations. Today, our use of the terms “meme” and “trope” reflects an understanding of how the narrative world is knit together by what were once referred to as themes, archetypes, and motifs.

It never dawned on either Lévi-Strauss or Campbell to turn to the repertoire of so-called old wives’ tales rather than grand epics as a source for understanding the symbolic worlds we construct to manage the cultural contradictions in the human world. Yet fairy tales, told around the fireside, in spinning rooms, and in sewing circles, are as much a part of the fabric of civilization as the epics, myths, and fables of times past. They pass on ancestral wisdom, entertain adults, socialize children, and do the heavy-lifting cultural work of helping us process and navigate the real.

When the German Sinologist Wolfram Eberhard published Folktales of China in 1937, his work was a precursor of multiculturalism, an effort to acknowledge non-Western traditions and celebrate their distinctive cultural value. Other volumes followed, with titles like Chinese Fairy Tales and Legends and Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies, suggesting that, although Chinese folklore is still “virgin soil” for Western researchers, as Eberhard insisted, China possessed a rich repertoire of tales taken from oral storytelling traditions. The Lin Lan fairy tales expand that repertoire in unexpected new ways. That previous Western collectors neglected to document most of the collection’s stories is nothing short of astonishing.

In the sensational Lin Lan collection, the domestic turmoil at the heart of tales known in the West is configured somewhat differently, but sibling rivalry and child-parent conflict fuel many of the plots, as do poverty, famine, and the loss of parents. In “The Toad Son,” a woman longs for a child, even if it looks like the creature in the story’s title, and—as in some European tales—she gives birth to exactly what she wished for. There are tales of two brothers, one a cruel skinflint, the other generous and kind, harking back to an ancient Egyptian story. And we find stories of boys who, like Aladdin of The Thousand and One Nights, have lost their fathers and are lazy, refusing to earn a living, much to their mothers’ exasperation. Throughout the tales, we learn about tables that set themselves, magical pursuits, and impossible tasks. Sound familiar?

“The Shedding Winter Plum,” like many of the stories in this collection, upends our understanding of a tale type like “Cinderella” even as it reminds us that, for women, labor and good looks are what it once took to succeed. Its heroine spins cotton, swings from trees, herds cows, and plays tricks on people. A free spirit, the pockmarked girl with sparse yellow hair and raggedy clothes turns at last into a beautiful woman with hair that is “thick and black,” a face that “shines,” and “splendid” clothes. “With people surrounding her, she gave [her] horse a kick and went on her way.” Save for the fairy-tale transformation, Winter Plum resembles Pippi Longstocking as much as she feels like a Cinderella figure.

A story akin to the French “Beauty and the Beast” tells of a snake who marries a woodcutter’s youngest daughter. By the end of the story, there are echoes of the Grimms’ “The Juniper Tree” when the snake’s wife returns from the dead as a bird that haunts her duplicitous sister.

Readers will discover in this collection displays of violence in its most unforgiving forms as well as repeated tributes to beauty and its seductive power. In “The Flute Player,” a boy named Abo plays his instrument with such charm that everyone stops to contemplate the music. “The Human-Bear’s Death for Love” unfolds scenes of such heartbreaking beauty that the hero forgets about everything, “even eating.” Bookending these moments are scenes of grotesque violence, with monkeys dumping a bag containing a boy named Gege and “all the pee and poop” he has released. “The Weird Brothers” (based on the same tale retold in Claire Huchet Bishop’s now controversial 1938 Five Chinese Brothers) stages 10 failed executions, in contrast to the many scenes of swift, successful reprisals in other tales.

These tales enact revenge in its most unforgiving form, with what the Dutch German critic André Jolles called a naive form of morality—one that relies on our instinctive sense of justice, showing us the world as we want it to be rather than as it is, with its complex social arrangements and protracted judicial procedures. In the world of Lin Lan tales, a traumatized blacksmith’s wife steps forward and stabs a tyrant to death. A vengeful ghost is dispatched with glee by the ruler of a land. “Little Bald” manages to conjure a spell and kill the wife planning to murder him.

These stories do what fairy tales do supremely well: signaling virtue with alluring markers and staging punishments as a strategy for purging the world of evil. Like European tales in their unbowdlerized form, they promote a cult of radiant beauty and indulge in displays of stylized, theatrical violence. The aesthetics of the fairy tale are as primal and problematic as its ethics, always giving us something to contest, debate, and talk about.



An illustration from Lin Lan’s fairy tale The Garden Snake.

An illustration from Lin Lan’s The Garden Snake (1930) from a collection at the Beijing Normal Library. Courtesy of Princeton University Press

The question remains of the extent to which the tropes in these stories belong to indigenous lore or are drawn from other traditions. In the introduction, Zhang, a Chinese studies professor at Willamette University, writes that many of the tales are hybrids of European folklore and Chinese oral tradition. Yet we are faced with something of a chicken-and-egg problem, never quite clear about who borrowed from whom, especially since it is impossible to source an original version of a tale from oral storytelling traditions that predate print and visual culture.

In a letter to a collaborator, the original editor of the Lin Lan volumes affirms that the tales must be “loyal,” presumably to the words of each teller. “Polishing” and “editing,” we learn are “taboo,” and a hands-off policy when it comes to editing appears to be strictly enforced. These stories may, then, be closer to the unvarnished truths of oral storytelling than Western fairy tales, which were famously diluted when they were repurposed for middle-class children with the advent of print culture.

An appendix to the collection makes important points about how the stories were collected, even if it leaves us longing for more information about the principles guiding the work of the Lin Lan network in the 1920s. We learn about an “ailing mother” who tells a story called “The Garden Snake,” and how it is recorded “in her tone”—an anecdote that makes us wonder if the informants for these stories were predominantly women, as they were in the European tradition.

Are these tales indeed capturing the voices of those working in the domestic sphere, the women who told stories to children and to each other while carrying out repetitive household chores? If all local variants of a story belong to a global “myth,” as Lévi-Strauss told us, it is all the more important to unearth these tales (which have long been overshadowed by the sacred literature so well documented in Chinese studies in the West) and let the voices of women and the common folk be heard.

Despite all that remains unknown, the Lin Lan fairy tales, like their European counterparts, remind us that the domestic sphere matters, and it matters deeply. Family life carries an urgency that finds outlets in gossip, storytelling, chatter, and a range of expressive tools to help process and heal trauma. If happy families are all alike, as Leo Tolstoy wrote, and unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way, then fairy tales enact that unhappiness with an agonizing bite of the real.

Much as fairy tales are wired for weirdness with idiosyncratic twists and turns added when new raconteurs tell an old story, giving it their own particular spin, there is clearly something at the core of these tales—whether it takes the form of navigating the perils of family conflicts, searching for romance, or using your wits to turn the tables on the rich and powerful—that resonates with us all.

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