Ex Libris: Chinese Fairy Tales & Fantasies

Mythology and fairy tales are frequently the first avenues of introduction to the wonders of international travel for children, spiriting them far away into the traditions and stories of another culture. Even more exotic are the legends from eastern lands that offer different types of motifs and magic from the traditional tales that most grow up reading in Western culture.

A book that I recently enjoyed with potential for any age group is The Folio Society’s beautifully illustrated collection Chinese Fairy Tales & Fantasies. While these stories are primarily suited for adults and are an ideal method for expanding your knowledge of Chinese culture and philosophy, young readers, especially young adults who are interested in foreign folklore, will also find this volume engaging and be entranced by unusual and alluring tales of magic.

Whether depicting an insect coming to the rescue, a poor family’s plight to outwit a corrupt government official, or the wisdom of a sagacious judge, each magical story in this collection offers both entertainment as well as insight into the Chinese tradition. Interlacing the lives of mortal men with those of the animal kingdom and the spheres of spirit, specter, and deity, these tales range from didactic fables to myths of enchantment.

Spanning two millennia of storytelling, these legends illuminate the beliefs and traditions that have shaped Chinese society, and each reflects one of their three core philosophies: Confucianism, Taoism, or Buddhism. Many of the stories themselves are the works of great philosophers, such as the revered P’u Sung-ling of the Qing Dynasty, who opposed the rigid orthodoxies of Confucianism. The Confucians perceive inherited status as vital to social order; not surprisingly, the imperial family occupied the highest stratum, with women, children, and finally animals at the lowest levels in the hierarchy. Their tales illustrate that stability and justice are achieved when civil obligations are properly entrusted and performed. Translator Moss Roberts explains that 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. “Sublimation of the latter into the former is a major goal of the benevolent authoritarianism of Confucianism, which affirms the superiority of man over animal,” he explains.

More than 20 tales are included by the Taoists Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu, who were the most important followers of Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism. They expanded his foundational principles and believed in the equality of all things, thus rejecting the hierarchical perspective of Confucius. Conversely, their stories promote respect for the lesser beings and imbue both animals and women with agency and authority. They also serve as foils to the Western fables of Aesop, who depicted human failings through anthropomorphized animals, by instead illustrating in them human virtues.

Similar to the Taoist stories, the Buddhist stories defend a compassionate stance towards all life, viewing human and animal forms as fluid and interchangeable.

Moss Roberts shares that the purpose of this collection of stories is two-fold: it gives readers a sense of the ways in which imaginative fiction reflect each of the three teachings of Chinese civilization, and it shows how fairy tales give voice to the injustices inflicted on subordinated and exploited groups. It also offers enchanting, magical stories from a distant land that will enthrall any lover of fantasy.