Chinese Folk Tales - Volume 1 adapted by Zhao Jie

Our daughter is now attending a Mandarin immersion school here in the Twin Cities, and each Friday is a library day. For this past week’s reading she chose this compilation of 8 short stories, printed in both Chinese characters and English. Published in 2005 in Beijing by Dolphin Press, this softbound book features full-color traditional illustrations on every page (which is why our sweet kindergartner chose it.)

These are legitimate and old folktales, although we aren’t told from when, what part of the country, or what religious/political order. They aren’t arranged with any particular theme or arc; each story is self-contained, and there’s no discussion by the translator or publisher to help non-native readers understand the context and “moral” of any story. Having read *some* Chinese history I can identify a few characters, but these stories just raise questions and leave me with nowhere to go to learn more.

The second issue is with the quality of the translation; this was clearly done in Beijing, in an academic setting, quickly, by someone (or a team of someones) who hadn’t spoken English conversationally with Westerners. The vocabulary swings from college-level to preschool-level without warning, phrases are awkwardly stuck together, and dialogue sounds like it came from the 1960’s. Characters are not clearly identified, and titles are not explained. Word choices are often dull: several stories refer to “devils” when we would use more-precise words to describe monsters, like demon, phantom, or satyr. Another story tries to explain how the Jade Emperor severely and negligently fouled setting up how the rain would fall, causing extreme flooding, but the words used literally make it sound as if he made a .03% accounting mistake.

The third issue with several stories is the almost random inclusion of implied or outright violence - political retribution, attempted assassination, and choking death. And let’s not forget the story of Yan Song, who basically prostituted his daughter to the Emperor’s court in order to gain political power (although that word isn’t used, the meaning is still there.) While I know Chinese society has adapted differently and is used to a different level of behavior - and that we can’t judge the past through today’s morals - the book is clearly intended for a Western audience.

Parents will need to pre-read each story before telling it with children - to use age-appropriate words, think up explanations and questions to get their child’s response, and to decide how they’ll phrase what goes on in certain scenes to still convey the main idea without getting dragged into explanations they don’t necessarily want to have at that time / age.

Was the book interesting? Yes, I learned more about a few New Year’s traditions, and heard a story about one of Taoism’s Eight Immortals that I found quite funny. But is this a book I’d recommend? No; for a casual read with kids, or to try to learn more about Chinese stories and customs, there’s just too much work for not enough insight.