How Chinese myths have influenced children's literature
Updated: Dec 11, 2020
A few years ago, I chanced to read this wonderful children’s literature “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” series written and illustrated by the author Grace Lin. The second book is “Starry River of the Sky” and the third “When the Sea turned to Silver”.
The plot (first book) revolves around a chirpy and inquisitive girl named Minli. She lived in a village located near an ancient fruitless mountain. Every night her Ba (father) used to tell her interesting tales which enhanced little Minli’s imagination. There was one recurring question that bothered Minli - “Why is her family so poor”?
Minli was told by a magical golden talking fish that there lived a wise ‘Old Man’ on the top of the ‘never-ending’ mountain who answered one question correctly at the end hundred years. Minli ventured on a quest seeking this answer. On her way, she met a friendly Dragon on her way who also had a question- “Why he couldn’t fly”?
The book captures the adventures of Minli and the Dragon. How both of them find the answers to their questions from the “Old Man of the Moon” and live happily ever after…
Why does the “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” book series excite me so much?
Grace Lin has wisely weaved many ‘Chinese folktales’ throughout the book series in such a unique manner that these stories formed a part of the original plot of the books.
One of the Chinese Folktales Grace Lin has used is of the “Magical Paintbrush”. This legend of Magical Paintbrush is about a young man called Ma Liang. He had a magic paintbrush which brought everything that he painted alive. In Grace Lin’s story, Minli’s Dragon friend was painted on a portrait with a magical brush. With the last stroke of the painting; the Dragon came to life and flew away.
The writer has also used some ancient Chinese Mythical creatures like ‘Dragons’ ‘Longma’ etc. Her books also feature the ancient legends of ‘Moon Goddess’ ‘Warrior Hou Yi’ ‘Old Man of the Moon’ etc.
While Grace Lin has intelligently used these Chinese Mythical characters in her stories; she has also maintained the original essence of her plot. She has introduced these myths to the readers in a way that makes it an intriguing read.
How has Grace Lin used Chinese Dragon myths in her stories?
Dragons exist in ancient Mythologies. Dragons are the most widely written and explored. Our legends are most rich with stories of dragons capturing fair maidens of the kingdoms; evil tricksters; guardians of treasures etc.
In Chinese Mythology, dragons are, however, seen as ‘creators’ of the Universe. Chinese believed that their emperors were ‘progenies of Dragons’. Dragon has the power to control natural phenomena like rains, water, wind, thunderstorms as they can store water in their stomach.
James Frazer in his book “The Golden Bough” describes how the Chinese used to make a paper dragon and call it the ‘rain-god’. They would carry this dragon on the streets in a procession praising the ‘rain god’.
According to the book, “Dragons- Myths, legends, and lore” – Doug Niles has described that in antiquity, people used to associate the occurrence of lightning which flickered in the heavens with the dragon. The ‘mysterious explosions’ in the sky (thundering) were also attributed to the dragon. Even the winds were believed to create by the flapping of wings of the mighty mythical beast or sometimes believed to be the breath of the dragon. As a dragon is typically believed to be fire breathing in many cultural myths; fire is considered to be its powerful strength. According to Neil, every culture has a mighty creature that is much more powerful and full of wisdom that surpasses a human’s capability.
Grace Lin wisely used the “dragon myths of Rain control”. The friendly Dragon that Minli meets was the son of the “Jade Dragon”. Jade Dragon used to bring rain to the Mountain. He lost his Dragon son (Minli’s Dragon friend) many years ago. In the grief of having lost his dear son, the Jade Dragon stopped the rains in the village and hence the mountain became barren and fruitless. At the end, when the Dragon learns to fly again, he returns home to his father the Jade Dragon. Jade Dragon then happily brings rains to Minli’s village.
Many pictures of Chinese dragons often show a shining pearl under their chin or in their claws. The pearl is associated with spiritual energy, wisdom, prosperity, power, immortality, thunder, or the moon.
At the end of the story, Minli’s Dragon friend, gifts Minli a precious rock to take with her. This rock was the “Dragon Pearl”.
How does the author Grace Lin use the myth of “Moon Goddess” in her book?
According to Chinese Mythology, the Moon Goddess Chang’e was the wife of immortal warrior Hou Yi. The legend describes how Chang’e was forced to fly away to the moon and live a lonely life without her husband Hou Yi.
Author Grace Lin, in “Starry River of the Sky” has sketched the character of the ‘Moon Lady’. According to the plot of the story, there was a never-ending mountain that disappeared. This mountain supported the moon. Because it disappeared, the moon fell down on the earth. Hence the “Moon Lady” had to wander on the earth.
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