I started this blog post with zero knowledge about Chinese folklore. Fortunately, WPPL has a great selection of both traditional tales and modern adaptations! I was soon acquainted with The Jade Emperor; Xi Wangmu, Queen Mother of the West; the rabbit on the moon; and the beasts who run wild in Diyu. Further reading rounded out the cast of folk heroes and important mythological figures. And, of course, there were plenty of dragons!
Award-winning author and artist Grace Lin has been centering Chinese characters and themes long before the movement for diverse books really took off. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (2009) is one of the first mainstream Chinese-inspired fantasy stories for juvenile fiction. In her afterword she writes,
Over time, I began to embrace my roots. I visited Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China and was able to steep myself with the vastness of those lands; the [Chinese folklore] stories that I had read and imagined seemed to come alive again. But the stories continued to deviate, tinged with my Asian-American sensibilities…Grace Lin
I invented storylines for one-sentence legends, created histories for nondescript mythical characters, and pictured a Chinese girl free of real-life cultural limitations as a spirited heroine. And these are the stories and characters that make up Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. It is a fantasy inspired by the Chinese folktales that enchanted me in my youth and the land and culture that fascinates me in my adulthood. I hope there is magic in it for you as well.
This emphasizes the fact that no true folk tale is set in stone. Stories are meant to be shared, and they evolve along with the people who tell them, even after being carried across an ocean.
In fact, the American immigrant experience is present in many of these modernized folk-inspired stories. The Legend of Auntie Po takes place in a logging community in 1885. The others are set in the present day, with fantastical elements. Zarchary Ying acts as an exciting crash-course in Chinese folk heroes, while Winnie Zeng, Theo Tan, and Winston Chu all learn to navigate newfound powers, animal companions, and saving the world. In a subtler vein, the much-lauded American Born Chinese (2006) leverages the tale of the Monkey King to explore the emotional journey of a Chinese-American boy in one of the first notable graphic novels for young readers. Heritage and identity are very present themes in most of these books.
You can’t get very far into Chinese folklore without running into some dragons! Chinese dragons are much more serpentine than the fantasy dragons of the west. They play a key role in creation stories, and are often associated with rivers and rain. Many are depicted with a “dragon pearl.” Though they fly, they don’t have wings, are are more likely to control the weather than breathe fire. Specifics aside, they are powerful beings, not to be trifled with.
Tales of the ferocious Nian monster are told during Chinese new year celebrations. Legend has it that the beast dislikes loud noises and bright lights (thus, fireworks). WPPL has several stories about the quick-witted villager who scares off the monster for good. The Moon Festival is also well-represented in folklore inspired tales, as the moon itself is important in a number of folktales. I was introduced to another occasion, the Ghost Festival, through the brand-new graphic novel Ghost Book.
I am happy to see the ever-growing list of diverse books, and Chinese folklore in particular seems to have enjoyed a significant boost. All of these stories put their own spin on traditional tales, introducing a new generation to the stories of the past. The variety I found in this single library is astounding. As it should be with folklore, there’s something for everyone!