Chinese Fables, The Dragon Slayer and Other Timeless Tales of Wisdom
Chinese Fables is a picture book treasure for both the mind and the eye. In today’s global economy, it is increasingly important to better understand other cultures, especially those of the East. Shiho S. Nunes, a native of Hawaii, has gathered a collection of stories that I suspect is as much fun for the adults reading out loud as it is for the children being read to.
Most of us grew up with a book of Aesop’s Fables, but these Chinese tales, although certainly filled with wisdom, lack something familiar. These fables do not come with a moral, that instructional end piece ensuring the reader will get the point. They do, however, come with great humor, the price paid for the human condition of being, well, human. The characters are almost always people, not animals, proving humans do not always require stand-ins.
Exactly how different are East and West fables? Laura Gibbs, from U. of Oklahoma, is an online instructor in folk mythology and has much to tell us about the morphing of Aesop’s fables from their earliest versions into what we read today. Bearing much of her information in mind, I read and reread “Chinese Fables,” enjoying it more each time. The illustrations by Lak-Khee Tay-Audouard are refreshingly captivating and as whimsical as the tales they illustrate. These are not pictures of Chinese people as we in the West might imagine them. The art work is “inspired by Chinese folk art,” and the pencil and wash drawings, originally done on bamboo rag paper, have not lost their beauty on the printed page. In addition to the fine illustrations, the publisher has eliminated formal type. The stories appear as if written by hand, a device that is subtly appealing.
Even more appealing is imagining the conversations that might follow after reaching the end of each story. In one fable, a city falls to its enemies and a wealthy man returns to his great house to take away a huge and treasured bronze bell before looters can claim it. The bell is too heavy. He does not trust his family or friends to help him, certain that they, too, will want the bell. The man thinks. He decides to use a sledgehammer to take the bell away in pieces and sell the metal to start a new fortune. With the first whack of the hammer, the sound is so loud the man “nearly jumped out of his skin. He dropped the sledgehammer and wrapped his arms around the bell to silence it.” He thinks again, this time deciding to use rags to muffle the sound. He stuffs the rags in his ears and continues to strike the bell. End of story. The moral? I think what remains is a lesson in critical thinking.
There are some animals: monkeys that belong to a poor elderly man, a cat in need of a name, and a mother tiger and her cub who come upon two temple monks. That particular story has a meaning within the meaning. Chinese Fables is a wonderful introduction to some of the differences between East and West. It makes me wonder what it might have been like for young people in the West to have read Aesop without any moral admonishments. Chinese Fables is here in the nick of time, and kudos to Tuttle Publishing, whose timely motto is, “Bringing people together — one page at a time.” – Sunny Solomon