Chinese Myths and Fantasies Analysis
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 patriarchal Confucianism. “The Dinner That Cooked Itself” is a male fantasy about a perfect wife whose diminutiveness is well contained in a snail shell but whose diligence runs his house and results in delicious meals. The demands for obedience to patriarchal authority reach their culmination in the longest story of the collection, “The Revolt of the Demons.” The only female emperor, Wu Tse-t’ien, has been vilified as “a fox with nine tails” in history. In this story, Wu Tse-t’ien is reborn as the male rebel Captain Wang Tse. Aunt Piety, a fox spirit, married her daughter to Wang Tse. Although Wang became the rebel king with the assistance of the fox spirits, he was defeated by the imperial army with the help of Eggborn and the White Monkey. The Chinese emperor is traditionally called the Son of the Heaven. Thus, patriarchy rules Earth from Heaven. The female emperor Wu had to be defeated in the next life for her transgression.
Apart from this dominant patriarchal ideology, the book is indeed an excellent selection of Chinese myths, ghost stories, and fantasies. Because most of these tales were fragmented, Birch did not merely adapt them but re-created them with vivid imaginative details. He provides the reader with ideas for comparison between the Western biblical myths and the Chinese myths whenever he can. Birch also tries to capture the Chinese supernatural imagination from different angles. He strings several mini-tales into “A Shiver of Ghosts” to show how ancient Chinese people acted differently in the presence of ghosts. Sung Ting-po, a stalwart young man, even cleverly discovered what a ghost feared most and sold the ghost that he was traveling with as a sheep in the market.
This fine collection is a good sample of the Chinese fantastic imagination. It is culturally informative as well as intriguing and entertaining.