Beyond The Dragon Daughter and Other Lin Lan Fairy Tales

Illustration by Andrea Dezsö

Beyond The Dragon Daughter and Other Lin Lan Fairy Tales

By Juwen Zhang

The lack of Chinese fairy tales in English translation has hindered not only academic studies of the fairy tale, but also the cross-cultural understanding of Chinese traditions in general. As a folklorist, I firmly believe that the translation of a body of literature, whether fairy tale or other literary genre, can support a positive public understanding people and culture.

The significance of the Brothers Grimm in collecting and publishing folk and fairy tales told by the common people has been well-recognized for the past two centuries, as has the influence of the Grimms in countries around the world. Fewer in the West are aware of a set of magical Chinese tales that are now acclaimed as the “Grimms of China.” The birth of the tales began in 1924, when one author, Li Xaiofeng, published a set of stories under the Lin Lan pen name, an alias that would eventually be shared by an editorial team. Because of Lin Lan’s deep and wide impact in China, some of the tales Lin Lan published in the late 1920s and early 1930s were introduced to the German-speaking and English-speaking readers as early as the late 1930s. However, the name of Lin Lan and the related context were not properly depicted. Thus, to re-introduce the critical role Lin Lan played as “the Grimms of China” is one of the goals of The Dragon Daughter and Other Lin Lan Fairy Tales.

Over the past two centuries, a variety of negative stereotypes concerning Chinese people and culture have emerged in popular culture (e.g., tales, jokes, and films) and throughout Western media. Unfortunately, these images have resurged in recent years. More than a hundred years ago, Chinese were frequently depicted as the “pig-tailed” and “slanting-eyed” “Yellow Peril,” stereotypes that ultimately led to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. More recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese people have been portrayed as the bat-eaters and the cause of the disease.

One thing is clear: we know that when a large number of the public believes in stereotypes created about others, it is because they lack access to factual and complex information about others. We know that stereotypes are spread over many years of misleading propaganda and perpetuated by certain ideologies. We also know that such derogatory stereotypes against others will eventually harm us all.

One of the most effective ways to build and strengthen positive cross-cultural communication is through telling/reading tales, for adults or children, whether through books or other forms of art. After all, understanding others through systematic education and entertainment is not only vital, but also useful for building a peaceful and just world. Unfortunately, thematic and updated Chinese fairy tales in English translation are so few that it is a difficult task to find such materials for teaching, or even for bed-time reading. Consequently, it is not surprising that the nineteenth century negative images of Chinese are continually used in public everyday life. It is my hope that this collection can help readers understand that the impact of “the Brothers Grimm” in China was no less important than that in Germany and throughout the West, and that fairy tales from one culture not only maintain the tradition of a people, but also connect people of different cultures around the world. I am grateful that Jack Zipes, who has always promoted such a humanistic communication and understanding through fairy tale studies, initiated the series of Oddly Modern Fairy Tales and encouraged me to put together this collection. I hope that my addition is meaningful in reconstructing public images of a people and its culture that are less familiar.

From a historical perspective, The Dragon Daughter is a demonstration of the direct impact of the Brothers Grimm on Chinese culture at the turn of the twentieth century, when China sought to build a modern nation in order to replace a semi-feudal dynasty and a semi-colonialized state. From a current perspective, collecting and studying fairy tales has contributed to the safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, an effort to promote human cultural diversity as seen through a series of conventions initiated by UNESCO in the recent decades.

While some collections of modern Chinese fairy tales are available, they are generally a collage of tales from classic Chinese literature and unsystematic, without relevant geographical, linguistic, and social contexts of the storytelling events, the audiences, and the tellers. In contrast, The Dragon Daughter provides not only thematic tales (the four themes are: Love with a Fairy; Predestined Love; The Hatred and Love of Siblings; Other Odd Tales), but also their historical and social contexts. For those who have specific interests in studying fairy tales, this collection also provides information on the tale types based on the ATU system, bibliographical notes about the original Chinese publications, biographical notes on the collectors, contributors, editors, and publishers. It thus engages in the academic discourse on oral narratives in general and the fairy tale in particular. Readers of this volume may also find that these tales were not just told in the early twentieth century, but are traceable to the earlier centuries. (see, The Magic Love: Fairy Tales from Twenty-first Century China, Peter Lang, 2021).

Among the forty-two fairy tales in this collection, most of them have been translated into English for the first time. I hope that this collection will connect readers to other aspects of Chinese culture that they have experienced through various folkloric forms such as jokes, proverbs, cartoons, films, and children’s picture books, and help them understand how the stereotypes against Chinese people and culture have been created. Above all, I hope readers will see how common the form of fairy tale is in expressing our human longing for a meaningful life, and how different beliefs and cultural values are expressed in similar tale types. Ultimately, I hope readers of this collection will gain a new understanding of how we can coexist in harmony while celebrating our different cultures.

Juwen Zhang is Professor of Chinese Studies at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon, fellow of the American Folklore Society, and current president of the Western States Folklore Society. In addition to his edited and translated collection of the fairy tales from the early twentieth century China, The Dragon Daughter and Other Lin Lan Fairy Tales, published by Princeton University Press (2022), he has also edited and translated The Magic Love: Fairy Tales from Twenty-First Century China (Peter Lang, 2021) and Epidemics in Folk Memory: Tales and Poems from Chinese History (OJP, 2021), along with his monography The Oral Traditions in Contemporary China: Healing a Nation (Lexington Books, 2021).

Also of Interest

Oddly Modern Fairy Tales is a series dedicated to publishing unusual literary fairy tales produced mainly during the first half of the twentieth century. International in scope, the series includes new translations, surprising and unexpected tales by well-known writers and artists, and uncanny stories by gifted yet neglected authors. Postmodern before their time, the tales in Oddly Modern Fairy Tales transformed the genre and still strike a chord.