In 2019, Cathy Yue Wang published an article “Disappearing Fairies and Ghosts: Female and Child Characters as Others in Chinese Contemporary Children’s Fantasy” in which she examined two novels: “My Mother is a Fairy” by Chen Danyan and “Jiujiu from the Ghost Mansion” by Tangtang. I recently came across this article again. To be honest, I couldn’t remember what it was about (perhaps I hadn’t understood it). Previously, I used to read what I liked, and left books that I found unsatisfying or confusing. But, more recently, the books that I don’t know how to respond to (eg Bai Bing’s 白冰 picture book “The Flying Bullet” 一颗子弹的飞行) refuse to be forgotten. Re-reading Yue Wang’s article, I feel that she has opened my mind further to the amazing and experimental things that Chinese authors are doing in children’s books. Thank you very much, Yue Wang, for agreeing to this interview!
Please tell us about yourself. What would you like our readers to know about you?
My name is Yue Wang 王越 (she/her/hers), and I was born in Laizhou County, Yantai City, Shandong Province in the year 1989. My hometown is a beautiful coastal city with a population of 900,000. It is famous for seafood (especially crabs) and delicious apples. I came to Beijing after the Chinese college entrance examination in the year 2008, the same year as the Beijing Olympics. I studied at Beijing Normal University for 7 years, finishing both Bachelor and Master degrees in Chinese language and literature. In 2015 I went to Australia to do a doctorate at Macquarie University, under the supervision of John Stephens, Victoria Flanagan, and Sung-Ae Lee, and received my PhD in 2019. Afterwards, I returned to China, and in 2020 moved to Shanghai to start to work as a university lecturer.
I am a lecturer in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature, School of Humanities, Shanghai Normal University in China. I have published articles in journals such as Children’s Literature in Education, Asian Studies Review, and Series: International Journal of TV Serial Narratives. My first monograph, based on my dissertation and with the tentative title Feminist Adaptations of Traditional Tales in Contemporary Chinese Fantasy Narratives, is now under contract with Wayne State University Press, as part of its Series in Fairy-Tale Studies.
The article mentioned is one chapter of my dissertation. The dissertation focuses on the transformation and adaptation of traditional stories in contemporary Chinese fantasy narratives (including both children’s fantasy and adult ones). In other chapters, I also examine feminist retelling of Chinese folklore – for example, my paper “Chinese Folklore for Modern Times: Three Feminist Re-visions of The Legend of the White Snake” 白蛇传. I am also interested in the cinematic and animated adaptations of Monkey King and Nezha, both of which are Chinese mythical figures.
In addition to this project on the adaptation and retelling of old stories, my new research employs feminist and queer theories to examine BL (boys’ love) fandom in Chinese and East Asian contexts. I am currently working on an edited collection on The Untamed (陈情令) with Maria Alberto (University of Utah). I am also interested in examining Chinese children’s fiction depicting gender-nonconformist characters and queer relationships.
Could you tell us more about Chen Danyan and Tangtang, and their works?
Chen Danyan 陈丹燕 (born 1958) is a Shanghai-based writer, who writes fiction and non-fiction for adults and children. She is best known for her trilogy of biographical narratives: Shanghai Memorabilia 上海的风花雪月 (1998), Shanghai Princess 上海的金枝玉叶 (1999), and Shanghai Beauty 上海的红颜遗事 (2000), intended for adult readers. She later turned her focus to non-fiction: mostly travel essays about foreign countries and cultures. She is also famous for her introduction to, and appreciation of, Shanghai as a charming city, with non-fiction works such as Images and Legends of The Shanghai Bund 外滩：影像与传奇 (2008), The Maze in the Public Garden 公家花园的迷宫 (2009) and Being the Peace Hotel 成为和平饭店 (2012). For more about her adult fiction see Kay Schaffer and Xianlin Song, “Zhang Yihe’s Historical Memoirs and Chen Danyan’s Shanghai Trilogy”, in Schaffer and Song, Women Writers in Postsocialist China (London: Routledge, 2014), pp. 102-18.
Chen Danyan is a prolific and multi-talented writer, and became famous first as a writer of children’s literature. After studying Chinese literature at East China Normal University (1978–1982), she worked as an editor for the magazineChildren’s Epoch 儿童时代, and started to write for children. She was among the first generation of Chinese writers and critics who enthusiastically promoted fantasy writing for children. In a 1983 article titled “Let Life Rush into the Fairy Tale: The New Tendency of Western Modern Fairy Tales” 让生活扑进童话——西方现代童话创作的一个新倾向, Chen described these Western Modern Fairy Tales (actually children’s fantasy) as containing a “multi-sided depiction of a complex personality,” “the harmonious combination of the novelized realistic story and fairy tales,” and concluded that “they are half novel and half fairy tale, a hybrid of the novel and the fairy tale.”Chen also translated Stuart Little (1945) into Chinese in 1984. Her interests in this new genre persisted until 1998 when she wrote her own fantasy novel for children: My Mother is a Fairy 我的妈妈是精灵.
Published in 1998, Chen Danyan’s My Mother is a Fairy is regarded as one of the earliest and best-loved children’s fantasies in China. The novel tells the story of a young girl, Chen Miaomiao, who discovers one day that her mother is a fairy from another world. When her father finds out, he wants a divorce. Miaomiao tries to accept that she is the daughter of a fairy, and gradually comes to appreciate her mother’s fairy qualities, such as her ability to fly. However, divorce is far harder for her to accept. She makes several attempts to bring her parents together but all fail. Finally realizing that chaining them together causes unhappiness for both of them, she decides to let it go. The story ends with Miaomiao and her father saying goodbye to her mother as she returns to the fairy world.
This novel is a classic of Chinese children’s fantasy. It is very popular among readers and and well received by critics. Since its publication in 1998, it has been through dozens of reprints and editions, and 2019 saw its long-awaited sequel My Mother is a Fairy 2 (which Lidong Xiang also mentioned in her interview [no.112]).
For more than twenty years, My Mother is a Fairy has been loved by several generations. I think the reason is that although the novel is in the fantastic mode, it touches on a very realistic theme which many children must face, that is, how to deal with the divorce of your parents. Since the 1990s, China has undergone huge transformations and changes. The rapid development of capitalism and commercialism has not only improved citizens’ living conditions but has also changed their minds and ideologies. Released from traditional constraints and freed by market mantra, divorce and premarital and extramarital affairs have become a common occurrence. The destabilization of family structure offers new dimensions to the loneliness and crisis of children and adolescents, and no other novel gives a better description of the loneliness and insecurity felt by children whose parents decide to separate.
My Mother is a Fairy is a personal favorite for me, although I first read it as an adult. Because my parents divorced when I was very young, the novel touches me deeply. I can’t help crying every time I reread it. In the novel, neither the father nor the mother is bad and blameful, and they both love Miaomiao very much. It is just because their love is over, and they have to separate. Several months ago, I recommended this novel to a colleague. She told me she finished the novel overnight in tears. She said although her parents didn’t divorce, theirs was not a very good relationship, and when she was young, her parents’ quarreling worried her a lot. Miaomiao’s feelings resonated with her. I think this may explain the everlasting popularity of My Mother is a Fairy.
Apart from children’s fantasy, Chen also writes realistic children’s fiction. In 1986, she wrote the novella Death of a Schoolgirl 女中学生之死, based on a real event that happened in Shanghai in the 1980s – the suicide of a 15-year-old middle school girl. Chen incorporated the dead girl’s diary into this beautiful yet heartbreaking novella.
In 1990, Death of a Schoolgirl was translated into Japanese ある15歳の死 and the following year was chosen as one of the world’s 100 best children’s books by the Japanese Association for Children’s Literature.
Chen’s autobiographical novel A Girl 一个女孩, dealt with her childhood experiences of the Cultural Revolution. It has been translated into German as Neun Leben. Eine Kindheit in Shanghai (Nine Lives 九生), which received the 1997 UNESCO-Prize for Peace and Tolerance and was nominated for the 1996 German Youth Literature Prize (Jugendliteraturpreis).
I view Chen Danyan as one of the best Chinese authors writing for children. The subtlety, tenderness, and lyrical language and the focus on the emotional lives of adolescent girls render her special. She is not afraid to explore thorny issues such as youth suicide and the Cultural Revolution.
Tangtang 汤汤 (the pen name of Tang Hongying 汤宏英), was born in 1977, almost twenty years after Chen Danyan, and was previously a primary school teacher. She began to write fairy tales in 2003, and her works have been published in journals such as Children’s Literature 儿童文学 and Juvenile’s Literature 少年文艺. Her fairy tale collections include Hide Inside Your Heart 到你心里躲一躲 (2010) and Do Not Go Five Centimeters Away 别去五厘米之外 (2012). Jiujiu From the Ghost Mansion 来自鬼庄园的九九 (2010) is Tangtang’s first children’s fantasy.
Both Chen Danyan and Tangtang’s fantasy writing for children blends Chinese traditional tales with Western fantasy tropes. In Tangtang’s case, she draws on Chinese ghost-lore tradition, of which Pu Songling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio 聊斋志异 (1740) is the epitome. I would not define the works of Chen and Tangtang as experimental or avant-garde – for me, these two authors write novels and short stories of high literary quality and innovation, and therefore keep a distance away from more popular and commercial works, which tends to be formulaic. They are successful and well-regarded by both readers and scholars and have received many mainstream children’s literature awards.
Far more children’s books are translated from English into Chinese, than from Chinese into English. Does this impact on your research? If so, in what ways?
This imbalance bothers me. Since I examine Chinese novels and write in English for academic publishing, I have to translate myself the quotations and excerpts I need in my dissertation and journal articles. And it is hard. I am not trained as a professional translator, and translating Chinese into English is challenging for me. There is an abridged English translation of Chen Danyan’s My Mother is a Fairy by J.J. Jiang, published by Better Link Press in 2006. But most works I have examined don’t have English versions.
Last year I wrote an article on Huang Beijia’s 黄蓓佳 novel I Flew 我飞了 (2002), and I took great pains to translate some sections of this novel. Even the title was hard for me. I am always confused about the tense in translation, and with this title, I don’t know whether it should be “I have flown” or “I flew” or “I can fly”. The novel is great and the language is beautiful. But the more beautiful the language, the more difficult it is to translate. It features the ripening of friendship between two boys, the effeminate and sensitive Du Xiaoya and the callow and lively Shan Mingming. Xiaoya suffers from fatal leukaemia, which is the cause of his physical weakness and effeminacy. He has been bullied because of his diversion from conventional masculinity. Xiaoya and Mingming form a genuine friendship at school, and the friendship even transcends the tragic death of Xiaoya. After death, Xiaoya becomes a transparent angel visible only to Mingming. From a queer reading perspective, the effeminate masculinity, the disease, the death, as well as the invisible angel which Xiaoya becomes, are all imbued with significant symbolic meaning. I wish some Western publishers and translators might be interested in translating this novel.
As far as I know, only works from a few award-winning authors such as Cao Wenxuan (who won the Hans Christian Andersen Award) have been translated into English. Female authors such as Chen Danyan and Huang Beijia have written brilliant novels for children, and they deserve to be better known and read by more readers.
Could you tell us about your own childhood reading?
Before I could read, my mom told me bedtime stories about Sun Wukong 孙悟空 from Journey to the West 西游记. I was fascinated and asked my mom for immortality pills which were mentioned in the story. My mom gave me some vitamin tablets and told me these were immortality pills she asked from Sun Wukong for me. It was such a shock and disappointment when I finally realized there were no such things as immortality pills! During my primary school years (seven-twelve), I read Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, as well as Dream of the Red Chamber 红楼梦. Dream of the Red Chamber is not suitable for children, but I loved it so much that I read it several times. My favourite tales from Andersen were The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen. The Chinese translation by Ye Junjian 叶君健 is very beautiful. I can still remember the opening sentences of The Little Mermaid, whose Chinese name is 海的女儿：
Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower and as clear as crystal.
I had no idea what a 矢车菊 (cornflower) was then, but the name fascinated me. Years later, when I was in my undergraduate years, I attended a lecture presented by a biologist who specializes in plant taxonomy. He told the audience that it was the opening sentence of Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and the magic word 矢车菊 that had intrigued him and led him into the field of plants. How interesting!
Follow Yue Wang’s work on