Chinese Myths and Fantasies Critical Context - Essay

Cyril Birch

Critical Context

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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.