Research Notes: The fun of fairy tales

I came across a fantastic set of textbooks today that I felt the need to write about. Like most of what I have been writing about lately, these were Language Arts textbooks, meant for younger elementary school children. These textbooks were also somewhat special to me since they were the series that my friend the librarian used when he was a child. The pictures he showed me (see earlier post "Overanalysis") made me eager to begin reading this series.

What made these textbooks so special is that they are from 1955 (thus post Communist revolution) and yet filled with magical fairy tales, or tales about children. Unlike the 1972 language books, these books did not mention the military, the war of liberation (except in passing) and shockingly, hardly mentioned Mao Zedong.

Instead the book is largely filled with morality tales. Some of them include children, some include animals, some even include personified sun, moon, and rainbows. Below, I will summarize some of my favorite tales.

In a story called 小猫钓鱼 (little cat goes fishing), two cats, an old cat and a little cat, go fishing. While the old cat sits and watches his fishing pole, the younger cat is distracted by a bug and goes to catch it. The little cat comes back empty handed, while the older cat has caught a fish. They both continue fishing for a bit when the younger cat is distracted by a butterfly, which he subsequently chases. He again comes back empty handed, while the older cat has caught a few more fish. The younger cat complains that he has not caught anything, fish or bugs, and the older cat explains to him that if he continues to do things half heartedly, he will never succeed. So the small cat sits and fishes diligently, and then ends up catching some fish.

In a story called 狗找同伴 (the dog finds a companion), a dog realizes he is lonely, so he goes about the forest looking for a companion. He finds a rabbit, asks him to be his friend, and the rabbit agrees. But in the middle of the night, the dog begins to bark, and the rabbit tells him to be quiet or the fox will find them and eat them. The dog then realizes that a fox would be a better companion because he is not easily scared, so he goes to find the fox. He finds the fox, asks him to be his companion, and the fox agrees. But in the middle of the night, when the dog begins to bark, the fox scolds him to be quiet because the bear might come and kill them. The dog then decides that the bear would be a better companion, so he goes to find the bear. The bear agrees to be his companion, but in the middle of the night when the dog begins to bark, the bear also scolded him, warning him that he may wake up the humans. The dog then leaves the bear in search of man, and when he finds the man, he also agrees to be his companion. In the middle of the night, when the dog woke up to bark, the man soothed him, which allowed him to finally sleep. This is why man and dog are best friends.

In the story 白胡子老公公的话 (the words of the old man with a white beard), a little boy runs away from home, very upset, and goes to sit on a bench with an old man with a white beard. The boy explains his troubles, that his sister will not share her crayons, that mother will not allow him to try food, and that brother will not take him on his sailboat. He explains that he has no choice but to run away. The old man tells him that he will teach him one word that will make him forget all of his troubles. After that, the boy goes home and tries asking his brother, sister, and mother again using the word "please" (请你) and then all of his problems went away.

In the story 太阳山, there are two brothers, the older richer brother, and the younger poor brother. The older brother had everything, but the younger brother did not even have a place to live. Once, the younger brother sat on a mountain until well into the night, and he was confronted by a phoenix who offered to take him to a mountain filled with gold and treasures. The phoenix warned him, however, that he must leave the mountain before the sun comes up, or he will die. So the younger brother goes with the phoenix to the mountain and fills his pockets with gold and jewels. He then returns home and buys himself a nice house and things. He continues to work, but not like he used to; he now has a comfortable life. But the older brother asks him how he affords such things, so the younger brother told him his story. Overwhelmed by greed, the older brother goes to wait at the top of the mountain, and is confronted by the phoenix, who heeds the same warning. The older brother goes to the mountain to collect treasure, even after he had more than he could ever use. The phoenix returned, telling him that his time was almost out, and that he needed to go back, but the older brother still wanted more. The sun came up, and the older brother died.

And finally, in the story 冬老太太生气了 (mother winter gets angry), the story of winter weather is told through a personified winter. Mother winter wants others to fear her, so she goes through the trees and blows wind so hard all the leaves fall. But the trees still do not fear her. She then goes to the forest and blows snow into the forests, but the animals still do not fear her. She then goes to the lake, blows and causes ice so that the river freezes over, but the fish do not fear her. Finally, she goes to blow snow and ice at children on a lake, but they simply continue to ice skate. Seeing that she cannot be feared, she begins to cry. When this happens, spring is right around the corner.

What I think struck me most about this story is that I felt that, despite the few stories about Mao and Lenin, this textbook could very easily had been American, complete with the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears (translated into Chinese, of course). The main values to be taken from this textbook were respect elders, don't steal or lie, don't be greedy, and more than anything, study hard. In fact, compared to other language textbooks, this seemed to replace the push to "follow the party in everything you do" with "study with everything that you have." No mention of making a better China, or the importance of standing up for the Communists.

I did expect the date of this series to make a difference, but I did not expect such a lack of emphasis on the revolution. In fact, many of the stories offered no moral guidelines at all (such as the story about mother nature). I guess this is just another journal that shows the plurality in the education system under the Communist system.

1 comment:

  1. Great posting Gina. In the documents I see from late 1940s here in Shandong it is also much the same. While some publications by the party are very "disciplined," as they might say, going back to the 1930s, at least up to the early 50s it seems like you could still find a lot of diversity and non-political content in what gets through to publication, especially before all the "rightists" who may have had more creative non-party backgrounds are purged.

    I see this also in early postwar North Korean documents, with noticeable increase in message "discipline" after 1947.