Here is another fabulously illustrated book I would like to share with you: Dana and Milada Stovichkova’s “Chinese Fairy Tales” illustrated by Eva Bednarova. This is a treasure of a book.
Some of the stories are funny, some pretty, some hauntingly beautiful, and some tragic. One of my favorites is “The Red Maple Leaf”, about young Jade Blossom who is traveling with her lover Shih-t’un. She drinks from a strange red stream, and so comes to the attention of the Red Faced Ghost who wants her for his wife. Here is an extract from the story:
“When the sun rose, the horses stopped by a well in the grass. Shih-t’un and Jade Blossom were astonished to see that its calm surface shone as red as a ruby. From it flowed a spring of clear crimson water, and around it grew a carpet of small red flowers, filling the air with a heavy scent.
Jade Blossom sighed in wonder and Shih-t’un lifted her off her horse, setting her down amidst the red flowers. “It is time to take a rest,” he said.
For a while Jade Blossom watched the hungry horses crop the red flowers, then she walked to the well and stood looking down into the crystal-clear red water. She bent down, scooped up handfuls of water and drank her fill. The water tasted delicious and made her glow inside with a pleasant warmth; all weariness was forgotten.
Jade Blossom smiled at her husband, who marveled at the sudden glow turning her cheeks to peach blossoms. Just then one of the horses gave a cheerful whinny; Shih-t’un turned round and started in surprise. Instead of the skinny nags, now fiery horses were standing amidst the red flowers and briskly tossing their manes. Shih-t’un was seized by a shudder. He could see that Jade Blossom was just as alarmed. “I dont like this,” he whispered. “We must leave here at once.”
The story has a happy ending, but somehow a sad one too. And here is a illustration from another of my favorites, San – lang and the Dragon Princess:
San-lang is a poor boy who is plays the flute so well that “even the stone lions weep”. He gets thrown into the sea by jealous neighbours, but is rescued by Mrs Octopus, the nurse of the Dragon Princess who lives under the sea. He learns how to create gold fish, and in the end gets to marry the Dragon Princess and teaches his jealous neighbours a good lesson.
Eva Bednarova’s pictures work perfectly with the text. I cannot tell what the medium is. They look like monoprints or lithographs on fine paper, or paintings on silk. Here is an image of the “Maids in the Mirror”, a story of three brothers who go out into the world to find wives:
Many of the stories are very sad. The most tragic is the story of Meng Ch’iang-nu whose husband is captured and is forced to help build the Great Wall of China. She follows him, traveling with only a crow for company, but he dies before she can find him.
And then there is this story, called “Tears”, which tells of a poor peasant boy called Wen P’en, who lives under the harsh rule of a man called the Black Tiger. Wen P’en is rewarded for his mercy to a remarkable talking fish, and is given a great black pearl as a gift. The pearl brings great luck and fortune to Wen P’en and his family, but when the Black Tiger hears of it, wants it for himself. Wen P’en hides the pearl in his mouth, and accidentally swallows it.
“ I can’t quench this terrible thirst” he cried, rushing towards the river. His mother ran after him, wringing her hands and weeping. The boy reached the bank and flung himself to the ground. He drank and drank until he had emptied half the river. All at once black storm clouds covered the sky and a sharp wind arose. hte woman stiffened with fear, because suddenly, before her eyes, Wen P’eng was turning into a dragon.
“My son!” she shouted, catching hold of his foot. But it was too late. The boy had become a dragon with one human foot. “Where are you going, child? ” She wept. “Must you leave me? ”
“Oh Mother, I must. It is not in my power to stay”, whispered the dragon in a voice hoarse with pain. Another gust of wind rose and bore the dragon hight in the air. “Look back, my son! Look at me once more” cried the unhappy mother. The dragon looked back and a hot tear dropped from his burning eye, falling by the side of the river.
“My Son, look back once more! ” implored the woman. And another tear dropped to the ground. Four and twenty times the mother called, and four and twenty times the dragon turned round, dropping a tear each time. And that is why to this day there are four and twenty small lakes in the bends of the river, and why people call them tears.