The Chinese myths are the most valuable part of Cyril Birch’s book. The images of P’an Ku as a superman and of Nü-kua as the overmother are associated with the human power of creation. They also share the same spirit of sacrifice. P’an Ku gave up everything, including his breath, to create the universe. Nü-kua died of exhaustion from mending the sky. The other two myths develop around the conflicts between sons and fathers. When the ten sons (suns) ignored an order from their Supreme Father and came out to play all at once, the world suffered disaster. Yi, under the order of Emperor Yao, shot nine sons. The killing signifies the ultimate triumph of the father over the son. Similarly, Kun was punished with death by his grandfather, the Yellow Emperor, for stealing the Magic Mould to stop the flood. His own son, Yü, could harness the flood only by abandoning Kun’s rebellious spirit and observing the codes of obedience to the Yellow Emperor. Comparing this outcome with the Western myth of Prometheus, who was punished for stealing fire for humankind, it seems that Chinese myths, as told in this collection, are much influenced by Confucian ideology. The heroic deeds of Yi and Yü are dimmed by their obedience to authority.
The fairy tales, ghost stories, and magic adventures reflect universal moral concerns: The good and the kind will be rewarded, and the bad and the evil will be punished. These stories, like the myths, are also pervaded by...
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Published in 1961, this collection was one of the earliest introductions to Chinese myths and fantasies for juvenile readers in the West. Cyril Birch is a well-known scholar of Chinese literature. The Peony Pavilion (1980), Birch’s translation of T’ang Hsien-tsu’s Mao-tan t’ing, is among the best lyrical translations in English of a Chinese play. It is not surprising that Chinese Myths and Fantasies benefited from his erudite knowledge and lyrical talent. It has contributed to understanding of the Chinese fantastic imagination.
Because of this collection’s early publishing date, however, further readings in this field are highly recommended. Since the 1980’s, Chinese scholars have shown great interest in the origins of myths. They have discovered many versions of creation myths in different regions. It has been recognized that China was matriarchal in its first historical stage, and consequently the myth of Nü-kua appeared much earlier than the myth of P’an Ku. There are two modern trends in the study of Chinese myths: First, some poets and writers rewrite the myths in new historical contexts, as Lu Hsun did in the early twentieth century; second, some critics use feminist, Freudian, and other approaches to reinterpret old myths. The Western interest in Chinese myths and fantastic tales has been maintained by English translations of P’u Sung-ling’s Liao-chai chih-i (1766; Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, 1880) and by Yuan Ke’s Dragons and Dynasties: An Introduction to Chinese Mythology. The former is a masterpiece of supernatural tales, and the latter is the best version of Chinese myths from the extant text Shan hai ching. Nevertheless, Birch’s collection, with its superb storytelling, remains the best introduction for young readers.