Laurinda’s Rating: 3/5
Shen of the Sea: Chinese Stories for Children was a surprisingly entertaining read. The author, Arthur Bowie Chrisman, put together a diverse collection of stories. Most explain either how items were invented or why they are named as they are. Mixed in are a number of myths/fairy tales. Dragons, shen (demons), and witches all appear, as do familiar tropes like the boy who cried wolf (though, this boy instead imitated the sounds of animals).
A couple of characteristics really made this book stand out for me. First, there are female characters! Some are even intelligent protagonists who better their own lives and the lives of those around them. My favorite story was “The Rain King’s Daughter”. Princess Chai Mi one day discovers a parchment detailing enemy invasion plans. She takes it to the King, who marches off to confront the enemy. The invaders slip around the King and prepare to hit the defenseless city. Clever Chai Mi musters several thousand women, arms them as men, and, dressed as a man herself, forces the enemy leader to surrender, saving the day. In another story, a princess insists on making mud pies instead of playing with gold dolls. When a dragon’s breath fires the clay into china, the pies create a system to warn against the depredations of the dragon.
Many of the protagonists rely on cleverness to prevail over their opponents, which makes for readable, entertaining stories. In “Four Generals”, for example, a king makes generals of four men who helped him during his travels. A fiddler, a tailor, a shepherd, and an archer all deploy their unique skills against an invading army. The tailor sews many colours of uniforms in which to dress soldiers, tricking the enemy into overestimating the strength of the king’s army. The fiddler’s playing makes the invading soldiers homesick and increases desertion. The shepherd leads giant flocks of sheep through camp, prompting the hungry soldiers to chase the madly fleeing sheep far beyond the battlefield. Finally, the archer declares that legal judgments will be awarded to whoever is a better archer, prompting all citizens to take up archery and thus building a strong army.
The creation stories are also amusing, as, often as not, someone’s laziness leads to a new invention. Gunpowder came about after a lazy son threw his father’s medicines in the fire and sent his father flying through the air. Tea was invented by a poor man who wanted to serve his guests something but only had leaves and hot water. So on and so forth. Some of the stories will leave you laughing, while others are so implausible/unexpected that you’ll groan instead.
I would actually, gasp, recommend this book. The stories are quick read individually and nearly all are entertaining. They’re a nice mix of fables and myths, which kept me engaged. The illustrations/woodcuts are also well done, adding emphasis to scenes from the book. While it’s not exactly one that I’ll reread, it was my favorite book thus far.