When I was in undergraduate, I wrote a fun essay about a Freudian interpretation of Jack and the Beanstalk, based off a book we read for class called The Uses for Enchantment: Meaning in Fairy Tales, by Bruno Bettleheim. Basically, I took from this book ideas about how to interpret various fairy tales and argued that Jack and the Beanstalk implicitly communicates with young boys that it is ok and healthy to explore their sexuality and sexual urges. Instead of thinking of Jack and the Beanstalk the way we normally do, a young boy becoming a hero, he is instead a child who must leave his mother on a quest of his own sexuality, and after he climbs the beanstalk (doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to see the symbolism there) he comes back a man, ready to take care of his mother and move into the world of adult sexuality. As any good analytical essay should, mine included an acknowledgment of counterarguments to my thesis. The most important one was that I was simply overinterpreting the story; it really is as simple as a heroic magical tale that children enjoy for reasons that have nothing to do with adolescent confusion about sex.
I thought of this today while having a conversation with the librarian at the Publishing House.When I am finished with a stack of books and leaving for the day, I give the librarian a new list, and he gets them for me either after I leave or before I arrive the next day. When I walked in today, ready to sift through a large stack of 语文 (language) textbooks from the 50s, 60s and 70s, he sat me down and said with excitement that I had requested the book he used when he was in primary school in 1959. He told me he recognized the cover, and then proceeded to show me his favorite parts of the book. He showed me a bright colorful picture of a fox and a hen, telling me about the 童话故事 (fairy tale) it depicted (below), and then showed me a picture of a medieval looking Chinese hero riding a phoenix over a pile of brightly colored jewels (seen to the right). It has been 50 years, he said, since he had seen these books, but he immediately remembered the pages where his favorite stories and pictures were. I told him I thought these books looked much more interesting than the ones I had been thumbing through before; the librarian scoffed and said "of course! Those are from right after the Cultural Revolution (pointing to a set of textbooks from 1972) of course they will be boring!"
The way he remembered so vividly these fairy tales, and the excitement with which he showed me the pictures from his old elementary school textbooks, made me think about my old essay. I spend so much time trying to analyze how various stories, pictures, and textbooks, create a certain sense of identity, nationalism, and selfhood. And while I would like to think that my research is not completely useless, maybe sometimes I overemphasize the meanings and impact of textbooks and propaganda. The pictures at the beginning of the textbooks of Mao helping children, or the pictures of Tian'anmen, equally colorful, didn't stick out in his mind; instead it was the fantastic fairy tales that have nothing to do with Communism or the revolution. And come to think of it, I'm not sure I would recognize my old grammar books from elementary school, but I remember exactly how I felt when I read Roald Dahl's The Witches, and how for my book report I spent hours making a puppet with a wig that could come off and shoes that hid square toeless feet. I don't think The Witches had any strong impact on my identity, national or otherwise, but I still remember that book, and the picture of the Grand High Witch without her mask.
I don't know why it is that these fairy tales stick out in our heads more than what the government perhaps wants us to remember; or maybe it doesn't. Maybe the reason is as simple as children like fantastic stories, not stories about red army members crossing a bridge and being national communist heroes. And maybe the librarian is not like every child. I guess this just taught me that maybe sometimes, I should just relax and not try to over analyze everything; some things are just as they are at face value.