Thursday, May 22, 2008

Asian Folktales

Caught in the truly remarkable global changes of the past twenty years, it is easy to lose sight of what has been accomplished as well as the fact that we have been down this road before. India and China in particular, having made the decision some twenty years ago to more or less unleash market forces, have wrought such change as to numb the senses. After several decades of centralized planning and international aid agency handouts and nothing to show for it but increased poverty and enervating famines, both countries have seen such staggering progress that, regardless of what the rest of the world is doing, by dent of their own efforts we are seeing global poverty falling at the fastest rate in living memory.

None of this is easy or predictable and the consequences are not, well, inconsequential - as we can see daily in the prices of food and energy. Taking the long view though, as much disruption as these changes and improvements wreak on all of our lives, the improvements in the lives, health and wealth of all people can only be a good thing in the long run.

How is it that we have been down this road before? Well, in the 1910's and then again after World War I in the 1920's and 1930's the world was surprisingly integrated within the constraints of technology as it existed at that time. Yes it took weeks to steam from Europe or North America to Asia but people were engaged in trade - trade of ideas, art, commerce. People in Europe invested in China and India building factories and railroads. Merchants in India and China exported cloth and steel and other goods around the world. A small handful of Indian intellectuals and artistic talents found their way to Europe and even into the top reaches of academia in Oxford and Cambridge. Some 200,000 Europeans lived in India. Thousands of missionaries worked in China.

You can see this engagement in some of the children's literature of the time with many stories either relating experiences of China, India or elsewhere in Asia (such as Lafcadio Hearn and his collections of Japanese folktales) or incorporating the experiences of having lived there (for example, Kurt Weise who illustrated Marjorie Flack's The Story About Ping, based on his experiences of having lived in China for a number of years).

And then things fell apart. The communist conquest of China, the Indian dalliance with socialism and a planned economy, World War II, etc. basically empoverished and isolated these countries and their wonderful cultures. And now, all of a sudden as it would seem - they are almost all back. The magic and mystery of the orient is again available for our children to explore. With any luck, the wheels won't come off this time.

So our children, I hope, have the prospect of needing (and hopefully wanting) to understand this great swath of the earth which has produced some of the most fascinating history and cultures. Just naming the countries and places evokes a sense of adventure and excitement - The Kingdom of Siam, the lost cities of the Khmer, the temples in Rangoon, the Yangtse River, the South China Sea, the princely Raj's of India, the delicacy of Japanese rock gardens, the Middle Kingdom, the Great Wall, and on and on. It is a veritable cultural smorgasbord, something for everyone and for every sense. Where to start introducing our children to this magical world?

There is nothing so basic in understanding a culture as understanding their language, their idioms and adages, and understanding their folktales.

Language presents some challenges. A number of years ago I was based in Australia and was asked to take on a regional role responsible for a number of practices across Asia. Having grown up in Europe, I was accustomed to an environment of many languages and cultures. I am unfortunately an anti-linguist; I forget (or mangle) languages faster than I can learn them. In Europe I had picked up a smattering of languages and whenever I found myself having to visit another country, I would pick up Berlitz type guide and brush up on the basics.

Having received this new role in Asia, that was my first instinct as well. I need to visit each of these practices in their countries and see what is happening on the ground. To do that I need at least a taste of the language. So down I trotted to the nearest Dymocks to pick up a few language guides. I will not ever forget the humbling sense of bewilderment standing in front of the shelves of local language guides - all were in the local scripts. I literally had no idea of which way was up or what I was even doing. It was a great reminder that the East is a mighty big place.

So, setting aside language as a bridge into another culture, how about idioms and adages? I find them fascinating but experience has taught me that flavoring a family dinner time conversation with idioms and adages and teasing them apart for what they might tell about a culture is a mugs game.

So that leaves folktales and there, fortunately, the pickings are much richer. There is always a challenge in that some folktales can be so far afield from one's own sense of reality, that they can become almost disorienting. As I think I have mentioned on this site before, we encountered this in Australia when reading aboriginal folktales to our kids. They enjoyed a good number of these but there were large swaths of folktales which would simply almost beyond comprehension. It wasn't that they didn't understand the words of the stories, simply that the unadulterated Aboriginal cultures were so fundamentally different that it was a challenge to fit ones' mind into the right perspective.

Fortunately this issue is not as prevalent in most of the major cultures of Asia where there have been fundamental parallels with much of European history which shaped our own folktales. Town versus Country, Rich versus Poor, War and Peace, Longing and Fulfillment, Quests; these are all common themes across the many cultures. In fact, it is fascinating to see some of the striking similarities; a Chinese version of Cinderella as well as even Little Red Riding Hood. Which is not to say that all the tales are familiar. Indeed, there are many that have no parallel at all. But they do tend to be comprehensible and accessible.

One of the wonderful things with these folktales, and the authors and illustrators response to demand for folktales, is that they also often incorporate the distinctive style of art and illustration of that culture as well. While there are good renderings of many folktales from the earlier period of engagement, in the past fifteen years we have seen an increasing volume of really good renderings of different Asian folktales sometimes told and illustrated by Asians, sometimes by Westerners and often by a mixed team one from one culture retelling the story and one from the other culture illustrating it.

Listed below are a number of primarily picture book renditions of folktales from across the many cultures of Asia. I hope you and your children enjoy these selections. Please let us know if there are other favorites we have overlooked.

Picture Books

The Monkey and the crocodile: a Jataka Tale From India by Paul Galdone Recommended

Stories from the Silk Road by Cherry Gilchrist and illustrated by Nilesh Mistry Suggested

The Weaving of a Dream: A Chinese Folktale by Marilee Heyer Suggested

Hush! A Thai Lullaby by Ho Minfong Recommended

I Once was a Monkey by Jeanne M. Lee Suggested

Beautiful Warrior: The Legend of the Nun's Kung Fu by Emily Arnold McCully Recommended

Little Oh by Laura Krauss Melmed and illustrated by Jim LaMarche Recommended

Stone Soup by Jon J. Muth Suggested

Basho and the River Stones by Tim Myers Suggested

The Love of Two Stars by Janie Jaehyun Park Recommendation

The Firekeeper's Son by Linda Sue Park Suggested

Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies by Moss Roberts Suggested

Filipino Children's Favorite Stories by Liana Romulo Suggested

Japanese Children's Favorite Stories by Florence Sakade Highly Recommended

In the Moonlight Mist by Daniel San Souci

Fa Mulan: The Story of a Woman Warrior by Robert D. San Souci Recommended

The Gift of the crocodile: a Cinderella story by Judy Sierra Recommendation

Asian Tales and Tellers by Cathy Spagnoli Suggested

Chinese Mother Goose Rhymes by Robert Wyndham

Nine in One Grr ! Grr!: A Folktale from the Hmong People of Laos by Blia Xiong Suggested

The Dragon Prince: A Chinese Beauty and the Beast Tale by Laurence Yep Suggested

The Emperor and the Kite by Jane Yolen Recommended

The Sons of the Dragon King: a Chinese Legend by Ed Young Recommended

Cat and Rat: The Legend of the Chinese Zodiac by Ed Young Recommended

Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China by Ed Young Highly Recommended

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting to hear of your experiences in asia. Can you recommend any children's books that would help to explain the cultural revolution to a ten year old?