A Chinese Snapshot

If you want to gain insights into a different culture’s, well, culture, there are a variety of ways to go about the process.  For some people, it involves trips to museums while traveling in a new city.  Others read ferociously about their destinations. While some brave souls simply choose to wander the streets of their temporary neighborhood blindly taking in the sites, smells, and experiences that can provide a gritty, textual awareness.

For me, though, if you really want to get at what makes the heart of a culture beat, you have to go to something that isn’t actually seen or experienced.  Instead, you have to do a bit of investigating, and discover a basic element of how people are raised.  Quite simply, you have to read their folklore and their fairy tales.  American fairytales aren’t all that original.  The vast majority are actually stories that have come to us from other nations, other cultures.  Many of these revolve around princesses in trouble, who are saved by a dashing prince. These stories and the recent phenomena of “princess mania” have begun to come under fire by parents who (possibly rightly so?) believe that they reinforce traditional ideas of female dependence upon men.  These stories, and the response by many of today’s parents, I think, speak volumes about the evolution of the American experience and character.  The ideas that are adopted from stories can be seen in other cultures, too.

Fairy tales can reflect cultural ideals, and can be both a snap shop of where a culture is at the moment and where it came from.  For example, also from America, the folklore stories of the giant, Paul Bunyan, relay the notions of American exceptionalism.  In Germany, it is common to see statues of horrific trolls, meant to be the symbol of the creature said by parents to be living under the bridge.   These stories served the parents’ need to keep children from getting too close to the water’s edge, and perhaps tells the foreigner how far the parents, and the culture would go, to keep the children safe.  In the Netherlands, Christmas tales of Sinter Claes and Zarte Piet (or Santa Claus and his slave, yup, his slave) speaks volumes about traditional Dutch views on race.  This is especially disturbing to the American that happens to be in the Netherlands in the weeks before Christmas.  The sight of adults running around in full black face in the 21st Century is both challenging and insightful.  However, it was in China, while at a museum in Badaling, at the Great Wall that I learned a most unique, a very Chinese folktale.  It’s a story that is both romantic, and awful, and seems to serve a purpose in the culture to teach people from a very early age that love is important, but that one should be content with whatever life hands you. The story, as it was relayed to me via a translator, a terrible 1970’s movie, and an equally disastrous laser light show is as follows:

Once upon a time, a beautiful peasant girl married an equally handsome farmer’s son.  They were very much in love, and sang longingly in each other’s general direction daily (or at least they did in the film).  Anyway, one day the order came from the emperor that all able bodied men must go to work, building the Great Wall, and in a great fit of crying, the young couple separated.  Weeks passed, and the weeks turned into months, and the young girl decided that she simply must see her husband (again, she sang this, so she may have been simply singing to the rice patties, and then decided to leave, but it’s more romantic to think she went after him -without subtitles, I can’t be certain.)  She traveled to the construction site, and asked about her husband.  She was told that she had just missed him, and that he was working at the next tower down the wall.  So the poor dear walked along the wall to the next tower, and again, was told that he had moved further along.  This happened over and over again, each time she was told to walk on to find her beloved, and each time she did.  After months of this, she came to the end of the Wall, having walked nearly its entirety.  The wall ends abruptly on a cliff overlooking the sea.  Realizing that her husband must have died somewhere far, far behind her and that her epic journey was all for naught, she threw herself over the edge of the cliff to her death in the waves below.  THE END.

Seriously?

The end?

Huh?

Can you imagine Disney trying to turn that tale into a cartoon?  Can you even consider that psychological damage that would occur and the years of therapy that would result should a western parent tell this story to a child just before bedtime?  Yet in China, this tale, and many variations of it, are common.  It is difficult to determine from such stories, what the Chinese culture stresses, and what exactly it places an importance on.  Maybe it’s a way to discourage people from asking too many questions, from seeking out happiness by moving too far from outside your realm of experiences.  Maybe it’s simply a sad story in the vein of Romeo and Juliet.  Happiness, sadness, romantic longing, epic adventure, and tragedy, are all threads woven into the story, and perhaps, reflect the world of rural China, yesterday and today.

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