In a small town named the Run Run Town, everybody likes to run fast. They run and run, and “Wham!”—it is inevitable that they will collide into each other.
So begins The Run Run Town 跑跑镇, a Chinese picture book written by Yadong 亚东 and illustrated by Maikexiaokui 麦克小奎 (Tomorrow Publishing House, 2015). What happens after every collision is a playful rendition of the idea of “combination,” which, as the author points out in the afterword, is important in everything from the origin of life to written language, human imagination, science discoveries, and inventions. He gives two great examples: atoms combine to form molecules; combinations lead to innovations and the majority of patented inventions.
Some of the “combinations” in the picture books are whimsically fun. A cactus pot scuttles. A small fish rushes. They collide into each other right around the street corner and, voilà, a porcupine fish appears! A princess collides into a dolphin. Guess what we get? A mermaid! In the Run Run Town, even mountains are restless and don’t like to stay put. When a fire-breathing dragon crashes into a wandering mountain, a volcano is born.
Some combinations are inspired by Chinese language and culture. Why would the collision of a cat and an eagle produce an owl? Because in the Chinese vocabulary, “owl” is “mao tou ying 猫头鹰,” or “cat-headed eagle.” Steamed bread (馒头) and meat balls bump into each other head-on, and delicious steamed buns (包子) are ready to be served. If you are familiar with dim sum, you will appreciate that steamed buns with savory fillings are more popular than plain steamed bread.
Other combinations are based on science. A blotch of blue and a blotch of yellow rush to each other and merge into a splash of green, reminding us of Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni. A young man and a young woman dash towards each other, and, on the last page of the book, a happy nuclear family of three is born.
What collisions would you imagine if you are asked to add a picture or two to the book? When I tried to answer the question myself, I was tempted to come up with impressive invention ideas, but could not. So instead I will share cases of combinations I have found elsewhere.
The Classic of Mountains and Seas 山海经, a Chinese classic text that first appeared as early as the fourth century BC, describes mythical beings, gods, and deities. The creatures and stories in the book fascinated young people before children’s literature was intentionally produced in China at the turn of the twentieth century. (Lu Xun 鲁迅, regarded as China’s greatest modern writer, was a famous fan from boyhood.) There is a Chinese version of a “mermaid” in The Classic of Mountains and Seas: residents in a nation called Diren 氐人 are described as having human faces, the bodies of fish, and no feet (Chapter 10).
The deity Yingzhao 英招 is another example among the numerous mythical animals and outlandish beings that are imaginatively formed by combining features from familiar species. This deity has a human face, the body of a horse with the stripes of a tiger, and a pair of wings (Chapter 2)—akin to griffins and centaurs found in Western mythology.
My last example is a much more recent creation, a bird currently flying about on Chinese social media. The golden pheasant, ordinarily resident in Hangzhou Safari Park, China, has, since mid-November 2016, achieved international notability as a “Pheasant-Elect” (US News & World Report). Chinese visitors to the park seem to have decided that the male pheasant, with its blond coif and regular tweets, would be the outcome if a bird (perhaps a cardinal named Angry Bird?) should have an unfortunate collision with US President-elect in the imaginary Run Run Town.
Shan hai jing 山海经. July 2012. http://www.guoxue.com/?book=shanhaijing
Yadong 亚东, and Maikexiaokui 麦克小奎. Paopao Zhen. Di 1 ban. Jinan: Ming tian chu ban she, 2015.