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From fairy tales to fantasy: Children's lit. grows up

By Li Liang | 2015-07-29 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The "Love Story Between Niu Lang and Zhi Nü" is a famous Chinese folk fairy tale. Niu Lang is an honest and kind-hearted cowhand and Zhi Nü is a fairy from the heaven. They fall in love and live a happy life with two children until the God of Heaven find outs and separates them with a billowy river. But their loyalty to love touches the magpies, so tens of thousands of magpies come to build a bridge over the river for them to meet each year on the seventh of the seventh lunar month.


As China set out on the long road to achieving a modern society in the early 20th century, intellectuals turned their attention to the education of future generation, seeking new ways to stoke creativity and imaginations. One of the most popular methods was through children’s stories.

In 1909, Su Yuxiu (1871-1922) launched the publication Fairy Tale, in which myths, legends, novels, parables, historical and scientific tales were all included. Originally, all stories intended for children fell within the genre of fairy tales.

Early stage
In the 1920s, Chinese scholars Zhao Jingshen (1902-85), Zhou Zuoren (1885-1967), and Zhang Zisheng (1892-1967) debated the concept, finally incorporating it into the civil discourse of national rejuvenation and emancipation of personality. Drawing upon theories of cultural anthropologists Edward Tylor (1832-1917), Andrew Lang (1844-1912), Edwin Hartland (1848-1927), Zhou argued from the perspective of folkloristics and defined the genre as “literature of primitive man” while stressing animistic philosophy in literary creation.

The 1920s and 1930s were a golden age of folk tales in China. Folklorist Lin Lan spent much time systematically collecting folk tales, demonstrating high-quality editing and writing skills as well as the latest and most radical ideas. In her eight-volume A Collection of Folk Tales, Lin distinguished fairy tales from other myths and legends by highlighting the genre’s animistic components. In addition, the collection truthfully reflected the demand for cultivation of personality and emancipation as well as the efforts of intellectuals to foster modern individuals.

Though scholars in the May Fourth era called for the "liberation of humanity" from feudal shackles, most of them soon embarked on the course of “reaching the common people.”

By contrast, Zhou and Zhao insisted on the pursuit of personalized voices, which was closely tied to their study of Western theories about fairy tales and children’s education. Lin’s collection can be viewed as a practical implementation of the theories of Zhou and Zhao, separating her work from other publications in terms of humanistic and classical quality.

Tale of reality
In the 1950s, the word "fantasy" replaced primitive mentality as the core concept that defined fairy tales. In 1954, a leading scholar of folk literature and arts Zhong Jingwen (1903-2002) said in a report to the Chinese Writers Association that folk tales can be divided into two groups based on how imaginative it is. A story that mostly originated from fantasy could be termed "magical stories" instead of "folk fairy tales," Zhong contended, with an extra note stating that these were "formerly called fairy tales."


Zhong also pointed out that in the past, fairy tales placed too much emphasis on primitive culture and belief at the expense of realism.

Fairy tale theory in the 1980s carried on the legacy of the 1950s with a focus on "fantasy" and "stories of ordinary people" to weaken the correlation between fairy tales and primitive culture while further strengthening the genre's relevance. Liu Shouhua said that primitive mentality is reserved for myths, whereas fairy tales transcend that mindset.

In sum, progress made in the 1950s and 1980s, to a certain extent, complemented the concept of the genre in the May Fourth period, when reality failed to be taken into account in theoretical research.

However, there is one more problem. Zhou and Zhao upheld primitive mentality for the purpose of encouraging individual personality through cultivating imagination and mental development. The abandonment of primitive mentality comes at the cost of dismissing the genre's most valuable essence. As a result, the connection of the fairy tale genre with childhood and collective unconsciousness is broken, depriving it of its colorful and grand connotations. More importantly, it lost its modern spirit in the name of respecting realism.

Fairy tale vs the fantastic
Fairy tale theory in the contemporary era shows the tendency to reflect on and integrate the theories put forward in the 1950s and 80s. In fact, theories at the time overemphasized reader's age, leading to a trend toward younger age distributions.


On the whole, fairy tales are regarded as literary creations based on national culture and human experience, so the literary value of the genre cannot stand on par with adult literature. Thus, fairy tales are reserved only for children.

Our understanding of children is somehow confined within the existing ideological framework, making it impossible to steer children toward the world of free aesthetics and respect each child's personality with an open attitude. Fairy tales, in this case, cannot truly satisfy children's spiritual demand.

The global fame and academic recognition of the Harry Potter series has prompted some Chinese scholars to propose the idea of the "fantasy novel" as an alternative to the all-encompassing fairy tale genre.

Wu Qinan, an author of children's literature, is quite doubtful about this new name and definition because he believes this format is ill equipped to address the lack of imagination. He wrote in Poetics of Fairy Tales: "It (fairy tale) is best at showcasing mysterious animistic thinking, but when applied to modern life, it has its limitations."

Also, Wu wrote: "The creation of fairy tales requires artistic thinking rather than the mindset for writing myth." Consequently, artistic thinking is considered to be an equivalent of a writer's conscious creation, whereas the unconscious part is largely neglected, meaning that primitive thinking is not given enough attention in literary and artistic creation.

Chen Qinjian expounded upon the relationship between primitive and artistic thinking in Literary and Art Folklore, saying artistic thinking includes three levels—primitive thinking, conscious figurative thinking and artistic thinking in a scientific manner—with the former serving as the basis for the latter two because it demonstrates the animistic philosophy and an unconscious artistic processing of memories, imagination and illusions.

The concept of primitive man and thinking that folklorists adopted is not restricted to a certain time period. Instead it is valued due to its cultural significance. As French anthropologist and ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) claimed, the "savage mind" does not refer to the "primitive" mind or to the mind of "savages." Instead, it describes the mind itself in its "savage" or natural state of classifying, distinguishing and ordering the world.

The animistic way of thinking in fairy tales proposed in the May Fourth period belongs not only to primitive societies but also to modern people. The wild primitive thinking will not disappear in modern life. Rather, it is bound to have a place in today's life, experience and artistic creation, which explains the adaptability and staying power of folk fairy tales full of primitive imagery and mindset.

Wei Wei proposed a view of fairy tales in the sense of a board literary circle in the History of World Fairy Tales (revised edition) that touches upon its significance for human beings. He wrote: "Fairy tales are marvelous stories spread in oral and written form that harmoniously preserve absurdity and authenticity, are particularly easy to be accepted by children, and stand to be one of the literary forms that can be shared throughout history and mankind.”

This concept is targeted at folk fairy tales as well as those written by professional authors, but judging from the conclusion of the book, Wei seems to prefer the latter while diminishing the significance of the former to follow a rigid structure. However, the stable structure of folk fairy tales is a good manifestation of the genes shared by mankind throughout  history.

Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp (1895-1970) analyzed the basic plot components of Russian folk tales to conclude that the narrative structures of fairy tales are analogous to rites of passage in primitive societies, proving that the fantastic is not groundless. Rather, the linear structure symbolizes the core value of human experience.

The most solid and core content of fairy tales is closely associated with primitive rites of passage. Only upon the completion of the rite can one be accepted as a member of society and fully participate in reproduction.

One milestone is getting married. Marriage signals adulthood and happiness, which is why it is a ubiquitous element of folk fairy tales. Before they reach this objective, characters must face important tests, such as obtaining treasure and answering seemingly impossible questions, or even undergoing death and resurrection, symbolizing the inner dramas and magical experiences one may encounter in the process of becoming a real man.

Though the rite no longer exists, experience gained in the process becomes fairy tales, composing a consistent narrative plot in folk tales. The plot changes constantly in accordance with new environments and events, so do the original images and scenarios. Some scenes might get particular attention so that they are emphasized and highlighted, such as episodes on the taboo and quests for treasure. Ultimately, the basic concern for “becoming a man” remains, which reserves a potential structure for folk fairy tales to establish communication with modernity.

In conclusion, folk fairy tales have long served as expressions of mankind’s free will and creativity with stable story lines and practical significance, prompting the earliest compilers and recorders to turn to the genre with the hope that national consciousness and human experience could be translated into inspiration for the modern nation and individual.

We should highly value a nation’s folk fairy tales because they not only provide an answer to the test of “becoming a man” but also represent resources from different historical and cultural situations, which is to say literary and national value.

Li Liang is from the College of International Education at Zhejiang Normal University.