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Where the West and China Find Common Ground

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14.05.2022

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., $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........

© Foreign Policy


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