Saturday, March 22, 2008

17. Shen of the Sea

by Arthur Bowie Chrisman

This 1926 Newbery winner contains 16 stories told in the style of traditional Chinese tales. “Shen” is the Chinese word for a spirit and “Shen of the Sea” is the title of one of the stories. The book is illustrated with more than 50 detailed silhouettes by Danish artist Else Hasselriis (her work is better shown by the older cover below, which is similar to the illustration on page 202). The subtitle of the book is “Chinese Stories for Children,” but that is at least partly a misnomer.

Chrisman said in an autobiographical sketch in The Junior Book of Authors (1935) that “while working on a story involving an Oriental character, I went to a Chinese shop to inquire about the foods my character should eat. This lead to an acquaintanceship with a Chinese gentleman who gave me much aid. I was soon deep in a study of Chinese history, and at last brought out one of the stories appearing in Shen of the Sea. I was also able to secure the aid of a translator to help me along in my work. Nevertheless, I let seven more years pass between the writing of that first story and the completion of my book.”

According to various contemporaneous articles in The New York Times around the time the book was awarded the Newbery, “Many of the stories and legends in Mr. Chrisman’s book were told him by a Chinese whom he met while living in a boarding house in San Francisco’s Chinatown” (Oct. 22, 1926, p. 20). A November 1929 article in the Peabody Journal of Education notes, “Mixed with the true Chinese folk tales are some creations of Mr. Chrisman…. the author has been clever in writing his own chapters in the same vein as those told him by the orientals…The student of folklore, however, wishes there was a definite defining line. Chrisman says, ‘So that is Shen of the Sea, half thine and half mine, O, Wang and Woo, and Wing Sam Wen.’* But which is which?” (Marjorie Thomas, “Some in Velvet Gowns,” p. 142).

In her April 1994 School Library Journal article “Chinoiserie in American Picture Books: Excursions to Cathay,” Margaret Scrogin Chang, a librarian and adjunct college instructor in children’s literature wrote,
Chrisman had never been to China, did not read Chinese, and claimed to be aided by two Chinese speakers, but gave no sources for the stories in his book. Modern readers can only conclude that the charm and dash of the exotic won Chrisman the Newbery medal, for the stories are travesties: Chinese are shown drinking milk, greedy for jam, and eating with a knife and fork. Slangy, staccato spoken Chinese is rendered in convoluted, distant language. Again, the emphasis is on the exotic and fanciful.

Chang (who, with her Chinese husband, went on later that year to publish the first of three picture book retellings of Chinese folktales) gave Shen of the Sea as an early example of chinoiserie, stories that describe Chinese culture from an outsider’s point of view:
According to the 0xford Dictionary of Art, this French term is used by art historians to define a style of European art "reflecting fanciful and poetic notions of China." …China was so far away that its people might as well have lived on another planet. Europeans freely used Cathay, the China they imagined, as a setting for philosophical fantasies and fables, exploring ideas of concern to Europeans. …Though chinoiserie and its vision of Cathay no longer informs European art, it is alive and well in American picture books for children, influencing both text and art in fractured traditional literature and original stories set in Cathay.

I could not find any definitive evidence on which tales might truly be Chinese folklore. You would think, in the last 80 years, that someone would have stepped forward and identified them, which makes me think that it’s likely all the stories are either Chrisman’s inventions, or the original folktales have been so altered as to be unrecognizable.

So, what’s to like about Shen of the Sea? The 16 stories are easy to read – they are at early fifth grade reading level on most scales. The stories would make good read-alouds for younger children, partly because of Chrisman’s use of rhyme and alliteration, and partly because the opportunity to use different voices for different characters would help reduce the confusion of similar names (Cheng Chang and Ching Chung, for example). Some character names give hints about their traits: Ah Mee and Ah Fun are impish and disobedient, and Hai Low tries unsuccessfully to meet his brother’s expectations. The princess who invents china dishes is named Chin-Uor (get it?).

Some of the stories are similar to “pourqoui” (French for “why”) tales in that they humorously explain the beginnings of chopsticks, printing, tea, kites, gunpowder, and china dishes. Others are “noodleheads” (aka “sillies,” “drolls,” or “numbskulls”) in that they center on a character’s foolish blunders. Many are fable-like in that they include a moral, often in the form of a rhetorical question.

Older children might appreciate the use of Chinese phrases (some translated, some not), examples of irony and the ridiculous, and references to Western folklore (which is further evidence that not all of the tales could be authentic Chinese). The book could be used to teach about types of traditional literature (fables, pourquois, noodleheads) as well as examples of various literary devices.

There are doubtless better examples of Chinese traditional literature out there, but this book could be used as an example of how folklore from other cultures was presented in the early 20th century in children’s books (i.e., as chinoiserie). From a historical standpoint, I also found it interesting that the book was promoted in December 1942 as a way for U.S. schoolchildren to learn more about our wartime ally (Dallas Morning News, “Facts and Features: Study of China”, Dec. 12, 1942; and Minnie Rugg, “In the Four Seas All Mean Are Brothers,” The English Journal, Dec. 1942).

*This is a good example of Chrisman’s style of writing in this book. This particular quotation comes from Chrisman’s “How A Book Was Born,” an article in the November 10, 1926 issue of Commonweal, which had not yet arrived through interlibrary loan at the time this review was written. I am curious to see if it sheds any more light on the origin of the tales in this book. Chrisman was apparently a bit of an odd duck: he died at age 63 in February 1953 “in apparent poverty in a debris-littered shack in the [Arkansas] Ozarks…His body was found there…He used a pile of pine needles and a burlap bag for a bed,” yet he “left an estate of at least $12,000 cash” (Dallas Morning News, Feb. 25, 1953).

[This review is also posted at The Newbery Project and referred to at Karen Edits.]

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