Thursday, January 21, 2016

1926: Shen of the Sea

In 1926 for a second year in a row, the Newbery Committee recognized a collection of folktales as the most distinguished work in children's literature. Just as Charles Finger brought TALES FROM SILVER LANDS out of Latin America in 1925, Arthur Bowie Chrisman brought SHEN OF THE SEA out of China in 1926.

Arthur Bowie Chrisman developed a love of Chinese lore and culture while living in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1920’s. He befriended a few older Chinese men who told him stories. SHEN OF THE SEA is his collection of some of these stories, as well as a few of his own original tales snuck in for good measure. Many Chinese historians have not found any of Chrisman’s humorous tales to be grounded in any real Chinese folklore, so it’s difficult to tell which of the tales were told to Chrisman and which of the tales are from his own imagination.

SHEN OF THE SEA contains 16 short stories, told as Chinese folk tales. Six of the stories could be categorized as tales of invention, where characters haphazardly stumble upon the invention of random items. For example, in the story “Chop-Sticks,” Ching Chung and Cheng Chang were good friends. Ching Chung was charismatic while Cheng Chang was a fantastic cook. Ching Chung loved Cheng Chang’s roasted duck and promised him one day, if he was ever fortunate enough to be king, that he would make Cheng Chang a wealthy man. As luck would have it, Ching Chung was in fact named king but decided that Cheng Chang’s roasted duck was so good that he deserved to be king instead. Cheng Chang’s nasty wife begins abusing her power as First Lady by promoting her brothers to undeserved positions. When Cheng Chang denies her requests at dinner, her and her brothers toss silverware at him. Fearing for his life, Cheng Chang outlaws knives and forks and replaces them with two thin sticks, thus chopsticks are born.

Other stories detail the invention of the printing press, gunpowder, a kite, tea, and fine China, all in similar fashion. Most of the other stories in the book are humorous tales of irony where characters use their clever wit to escape from situations or simply learn lessons. For example, in the story “Many Wives,” an Emperor was tired of his kingdom always being threatened by attacks so he asked a wise old soothsayer what he should do. The soothsayer replied, “marriage.” So the Emperor set out to find a wife. He called for any potential wife to come live in the palace and he would choose the most suitable bride. Many women came to the palace, including Radiant Blossom, the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. Since the Emperor could not tell the women apart, he hired an artist to paint portraits of them. Ying Ning, the ugliest woman in the palace, bribed the artist to portray her as beautiful and Radiant Blossom as ugly, so the Emperor chose Ying Ning as his wife and assigned Radiant Blossom to be married to his enemy. As Radiant Blossom was being transported, she disappeared never to be heard from again. The Emperor learned the truth of what had happened and assigned men to search the kingdom for her, but she was never found.

I seem to be in the minority among Newbery Completionists, because I didn’t mind SHEN OF THE SEA, whereas others continually rank it near the bottom of Medal winners. The stories were humorous and entertaining and were for the most part, easy to read. Unlike TALES FROM SILVER LANDS, these stories actually resemble folk tales, and each story progresses with a moral discovery or lesson learned. I even think children today would find humor in these tales, if read aloud by a proper storyteller.

In researching a bit about Chrisman, I feel that history has been unnecessarily harsh on him and his work. He was open about where he heard some of these stories from and he was honest about adding some of his own original stories to the collection. He never claimed to have traveled to China. He just loved Chinese stories and this collection was an homage to the stories he had been told while living in San Francisco. In regards to what it set out to do, I think SHEN OF THE SEA accomplishes its goal rather well. And while some of the character names and themes in the book could poke fun at the Chinese culture, it’s obvious that it is a culture that Chrisman was genuinely passionate about.  

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