A swamp turns into a castle. A princess shapeshifts into a squid of one pound and four ounces. An ugly toad by day transforms into a handsome young man at night. A betrayed sister reincarnates into a black bird to haunt who hurt her.
Metamorphosis is a core mechanism that regulates the Chinese folktales collected in The Dragon Daughter and Other Lin Lan Fairy Tales, edited and translated by Juwen Zhang, part of Princeton University Press’s “Oddly Modern Fairy Tales” series dedicated to “unusual” fairy tales of the world.
Zhang has chosen forty-two tales from a much larger corpus of more than a thousand, collected from oral storytellers all over China, and published between the 1920s and the 1930s as a multi-volume serial work, under the pseudonym of Lin Lan. Behind this name, Zhang’s research leads him to conclude, are at least three people, but most likely more. One is Li Xiaofeng, a writer of Chinese folklore legends (and student of Chinese literary giant Lu Xun) who, in the early 1920s had opened a small publishing house in Shanghai, New North Books, specialized in all things fairy tales. As the company gradually flourished, several people were known to be working at the publication of the Lin Lan tales, including Li’s business partner and brother-in-law Zhao Jingshen. When the series became popular, people started to demand to see the author, who was assumed to be a woman, based on the name; and that is how Li’s wife, Cai Shuliu—who also worked as an editor at New North Books—was chosen as the face of Lady Lin Lan.
As narratively interesting this biographical mystery might be, Zhang however maintains that it is no longer as meaningful to identify the actual people behind Lin Lan’s name; instead, it is more productive to focus on the symbolic significance this collective authorial identity had in promoting the fairy tale genre in a China moving toward so-called modernity.
In fact, the series came out at a time of great social and cultural change. The Qing empire had collapsed a decade earlier, and new ideas were circulating among the intellectual elite, which would eventually culminate in the May Fourth Movement, a turning point for China’s modern history. As Zhang explains in the introduction, it was during this period that the concept of “fairy tale” was introduced (together with other terms imported from the West, such as “folklore,” and “nationalism”), not least owing to the appearance of Chinese translations of European fairy tales. A new literary genre was created, which went under the name of tonghua, literally “children’s tales,” as its main goal was to promote children’s education.
But clearly there is more to fairy tales than pedagogy. In terms of cultural history, tonghua builds on China’s monumental archive of the written word (from the Book of Songs to the supernatural stories of the zhiguai genre) while also drawing from its rich oral storytelling tradition.
But it would be reductive to look at the Lin Lan series only as a Chinese phenomenon. In fact, Zhang frames these texts as part of a transnational system of world folklore, connecting paths and identifying symbolic founding fathers. For instance, the author argues that Lin Lan should be regarded as the “Grimms of China”, highlighting the major influence the Brothers Grimm had on the Chinese editors, and comparing the social and literary impact both collections had on their respective country. Just like their German counterpart, the Lin Lan tales contributed to the making of China’s national identity, by building a collective folklore repository of archetypal character, voice, and imagination of the Chinese people using the national language.
In terms of setting and characterization, the tales draw from Chinese traditional agricultural life. Their human protagonists are peasants, fishermen, cooking girls, and weavers, whereas the non-human creatures include fairies, ghosts and spirits, as well as such common farmyard animals as cows, dogs, horses, and pigs. In terms of narrative structures, patterns, and themes, some of these stories will seem familiar to readers that are acquainted with the western fairy-tale canon. For instance, one could recognize something of “Little Red Riding Hood” in the story “Old Wolf”, in which the titular protagonist shapeshifts into the poor old woman he just ate to try to devour her three daughters too. But the sisters soon realize that something is amiss:
“Mom, Mom! How come your voice is so husky?”
“The wind’s changed my voice…”
“Mom, Mom! How come your eyes are so swollen?”
“I’ve been struck by anger…”
“Mom, Mom! How come your nose is so high?”
“I hit it on a rock…”
Repetition is a frequently used device in fairy tales—it adds a certain amount of lyrical emphasis with regards to the word flow, other than being of crucial importance for memorization, as these stories were originally supposed to be passed down orally. The fact that the Lin Lan tales originate as oral texts is also evident in the little variations to common narrative motifs that these stories present; for instance, that of the “The Snake Wife” is a recurring theme in Chinese folktales, and in this volume Zhang reports two variants; in one of them, the final reckoning is more lenient toward the villain of the story, while in the other retribution is definitely more deadly.
Today, this fabulous textual archive is partially accessible to English readers for the first time, which makes The Dragon Daughter and Other Lin Lan Fairy Tales an invaluable contribution to the study of literary folklore, but also, thanks to Zhang’s highly enjoyable translation, the Lin Lan stories can (and should) be consumed for narrative entertainment.
Whether featuring the wife of a snake spirit or a poor peasant; whether set in a sumptuous palace under the sea or in a rice field, the Lin Lan fairy tales remind us that stories really are universal because they ultimately deal with matters of life and death and everything there is in between: envy, betrayal, deceit, destiny, love.