In an age of politically correct hypersensitivity, a book like Shen of the Sea is more likely to be banned than given a prestigious award for children's literature. Fortunately, the 1920s were a little more forgiving and open-minded (though no less prone to pedaling liberal ideology to kids), and we still have Arthur Bowie Chrisman's delightful book of short legends set in ancient China.
Of Chrisman himself little is known. He lived half his life in Virginia and the last half in Arkansas, and as far as anyone can tell he never made it to China—though he may have visited the San Francisco Chinatown at some point. Where did he get his information about Chinese culture and mythology? Maybe he read a lot of books; maybe he talked to Chinese friends and strangers; maybe he just made it all up. Whatever the case, these stories are compelling, fun, and written as well as the very best children's books.
Each story is about reversal of fortune. Characters make and lose fortunes at the drop of a tea leaf, become kings and lose crowns because of the mistakes of others, marry lovely Moon Maidens, fight dragons, outwit bad guys, and escape jail time thanks to their propensity for pessimism. Here is adventure, romance, and intrigue in as great a quantity as any kid could want.
More importantly, here's humor of the best kind. Chrisman excels at slapstick descriptions of absurd events, but he excels even more at subtle wordplay. Readers who don't find themselves laughing out loud (or at least smiling) at little phrases like "It is not pleasant to have one's head chopped off." It's humor that kids and adults can both appreciate, and that is never offensive.
As for whether Chrisman accurately depicts ancient Chinese culture and beliefs, who can say? His language hovers between archaic and exuberant, giving us the impression of otherness and foreignness, but always highly readable. He invokes dragon legends, the use of magic, the existence ofshen (nature spirits), tea-drinking, etc. to create believable scenes and stories.
At the same time, the names of many of his characters are simply English-language puns (like Hai Low), making us wonder whether ooloong is really Chinese for "black dragon", and whether the tea has anything to do with warding off sleeping spells. In the end, however, the accuracy of Chrisman's anthropology is beside the point—he opens children's eyes to another world, and even if the glimpse isn't altogether true, it does awaken readers to the existence of foreign people and ways.
The stories in Shen of the Sea aren't just-so stories about the invention of elephant trunks or rat tails, and they aren't morality fables. People with good behavior are certainly contrasted to people with bad behavior, and evil rarely goes unpunished, but more than anything these are just fun tales of a different time and place that may or may not have ever been.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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