Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Chinoiserie and 1920s-Style Multiculturalism

The Newbery medal-winner for 1926, Shen of The Sea: Chinese Stories for Children, by Arthur Bowie Chrisman,is another Newbery winner that would never see the light of day had it been written in contemporary times, unless it were as one of those thousands of self-published opuses on Amazon that few ever read. The quality of the book itself isn't really the problem, at least not when judged strictly by literary terms. The sixteen tales in Shen of the Sea are written in competent if not fine prose and are even quite inventive and fun in spots. In true folktale tradition, the clever and good, or sometimes the merely simple and persistent, repeatedly and delightfully defeat the mighty and cruel. The plots are so standard for such tales that I hardly need worry about spoiling them for you: the simple beggar boy proves himself worthy to be the son of a king, powerful demons are tricked into a pickle bottle, and the exquisitely beautiful and virtuous young maiden escapes an unworthy bridegroom. We are also presented with some pourquoi tales for the invention of fireworks, china, printing, tea, chopsticks, the kite, and gunpowder.

Like the 1925 Newbery winner Tales from Silver Lands by Charles Finger, the U.S.-published Shen of the Sea is a collection of stories set in another land and culture from those belonging to its American author. However, unlike Finger, who collected the stories for his book on his travels through South America, Chrisman never even visited China. His stories may not have either. Chrisman studied Chinese literature and history as a hobby (one wonders just how many books and periodicals on the topic would have been available to a non-academic of very modest financial means in the 1920s), and the closest he seems to have gotten to experiencing Chinese culture himself was talking to a Chinese storekeeper he met while travelling in California. The storekeeper may have given Chrisman some of these stories, but it's equally possible that Chrisman made them up himself. These stories, far from being authentically Chinese, are actually a bit of chinoiserie, a cultural appropriation of Chinese culture by someone whose understanding and knowledge of it seems to have been slight and imperfect. Even the illustrations in Shen of the Sea are of a piece with Chrisman's faux Chinese efforts. The book contains 50 silhouettes by Danish artist Else Hasselriis. The silhouette style seems to have been chosen because it was meant to reference Chinese shadow play, but as you'll see from the Wikipedia article on shadow play, the silhouette art form does not look anything like Chinese shadow puppets, though it does look quite a lot like the French version of shadow puppets that arose after French missionaries who worked in China brought the art form back to France in 1767. The illustrations do have considerable charm, but, like the text, are a foreigner's conception of Chinese art rather than actual Chinese art.

In the 1920s, any effort to learn about and show appreciation another culture would have been progressive for the time, and I am sure the 1926 Newbery committee had nothing but good intentions and honestly considered this book to be broadening and educational for children. However, in the Age of Information, we do expect our information to be more reliable and authoritative than that provided by Chrisman (unless, of course, we subscribe to any Rupert Murdoch-owned news publications or channels). The bar for those writing about a culture not their own is much higher now, and rightfully so. We don't need misinformation and misrepresentations that purport to be truth clouding people's minds and self-perpetuating until they create generations of misguided citizens, especially when those who have absorbed misinformation about an issue tend to cling to their beliefs and refuse to entertain the possibility that what they believe to be true is not actually true after all, even when presented with evidence.

Not that I'm comparing Chrisman's book to, say, the anti-vaccination campaign launched by a certain few educationally challenged celebrities. I doubt that Shen of the Sea has done China's relations with the rest of the world any measurable level of harm. The book at least represents Chinese culture as being interesting and worthy of the attention of outsiders. I can't speak to the accuracy of the information about Chinese culture, though I will say I found Chrisman's use of Chinese names that read as jokes in English (i.e., Ah Mee, Ah Fun, Hai Lo) and certain other comic touches to be cringeworthy. There is also definitely a dearth of female characters. They are always supporting characters even when the tale is named for them, they seldom speak or do anything of note, and they all fit into one of a few archetypes: beautiful, desirable maiden or princess; nagging or silently suffering wife, or witch. To be fair, the same could be said of many old folktales.

But as careful as I've been to temper my criticisms of this book with mitigating factors, I doubt I'd ever give or recommend this book to a child. Shen of the Sea may have been the best English-language children's book about Chinese culture available in 1926 but, happily, these days we have better options.

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