Though little is known about Norman Hinsdale Pitman (1876-1925) today, his effort to bring Chinese folklore to Western readers continues to be influential. Indeed Pitman, who taught at Chinese colleges and authored several novels and short story collections, brought these ancient tales to a new audience much as the Brothers Grimm preserved the fairytales of central Europe for generations to enjoy. These tales, not unlike those gathered by the Grimms in Europe, are full of magic, mysticism, and a certain amount of gore.
Tuttle’s latest edition of The Chinese Wonder Book, originally published in 1919, includes the beautiful and highly detailed full-color illustrations by Li Chu Tang originally published in the book’s first edition and printed here on high-quality glossy paper. There is also an engaging foreword by Sylvia Li-Chun Lin, associate professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Notre Dame.
The tales include some of the best known fairytales of China, among them ‘The Golden Beetle or Why the Dog Hates the Cat’, ‘The Strange Tale of Doctor Dog’ and ‘The Talking Fish’. Many of the themes and even the plots and characters resemble those found in Western fairytales: but these are not your cleaned-up, Disneyfied stories. Happy endings are in short supply, and the brutality is every bit as intense as that of the original tales of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. At the same time, there is lighter fare to be found in stories such as ‘Bamboo and the Turtle’ and ‘The Mad Goose and the Tiger Forest’, stories which will be enjoyed by even very young listeners.
In these rich and exciting tales, virtue, including hard work and filial piety, is rewarded, and wickedness is punished, though the version of justice reflected in the stories is clearly of a particular time and place and may not resonate with children of today. For instance, it may seem of little consolation to be immortalized in a famous monument after an unjust death (‘The Great Bell’). On the other hand, when a lazy thief and would-be liar turns his life around rather than be turned into a duck (‘The Man Who Would Not Scold’), children and their parents will delight in the tale’s humor and theme of redemption.
The Chinese Wonder Book has served as an introduction to the folk tales of classical China for generations and remains Pitman’s best-known work. This lovely new edition will sit proudly alongside other folklore and fairytale collections and open up the world of ancient Chinese stories to today’s readers and generations yet to come.