As an American-born Chinese, I grew up in a small, southern town in North Carolina and spent my summers off in Shanghai, China. In our house, when my sister and I weren’t watching Nickelodeon, we were watching Chinese dramas like Huan Zhu Ge Ge, or “Return of the Pearl Princess.” Even though I couldn’t understand what most of the characters were saying until I was much older and had received more formal Chinese-language education, elements of Chinese culture became deeply rooted in my personal identity – the history, the traditions, the music and the most famous of stories.
I like to say that culture is what connects people, while our individual experiences set us apart. The more questions we ask about the world, the more we boost our mental capacity to learn from others who are different.
That is why I’ve written this two-part series comparing Chinese and western fiction with personal commentary from readers of different ages who have a Chinese perspective but have also been exposed to Western culture. In part one of this article, I talked about some of their reactions toward Western romance novels and books that are known for their historical and political implications, such as “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding. In this post, we’ll take a look at the differences between the portrayal of fantasy and magic in literature from both cultures.
Do You Believe in Magic?
Karen Xue, a native of Shanghai who now studies in Boston, was brought up to believe that everything happens for a reason. To her, that may be why stories like Harry Potter are just too unreal to be interesting.
She started out reading the first few chapters of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” but ended up skipping most of the parts that dealt with magic and the wizarding world.
“It’s too fake in a sense,” says Xue, 27, who preferred to focus on the relationships between the characters in “Harry Potter” instead. Similarly, the romantic relationship between Bella Swan and Edward Cullen kept her reading the “Twilight” series by Stephenie Meyer, rather than the paranormal features of the book.
As an atheist, Xue finds that it’s easier to simply acknowledge the idea of magic without necessarily believing in it. Many people she knows also grew up non-religious.
In modern China, about 85 percent of people practice a religion or at least hold some religious beliefs, while only 16 percent identify as atheists, according to the Chinese Spiritual Life Survey. Buddhism, which combines several nontheistic beliefs and traditions, remains the most common religion in China.
Though traditional Chinese literature does include stories featuring Shangdi (“supreme god”), mythical beings and characters with special powers, Christin Guo, a college student in Beijing, says they’re often detached from the ‘real world.’
“In my opinion, Western ideas of magic always set these roles who have magic or supernatural power close to our daily life. They dress the same as normal people. Maybe a buddy of ours is one of them,” says Guo, who agrees with Xue that the love story in “Twilight” was the most intriguing part of the book, though the vampiric characters made it even better. “[With] Chinese ideas of magic, people with magical powers don’t live with us. They live in the sky, in the sea or under the ground. They are always dressed in ancient Chinese clothes, much different from the clothes we are wearing now.”
One exception, however, is the wu da pian film and wu xia fiction genres, which involve ancient Chinese tales of swordsmen and swordswomen who are highly skilled in martial arts and possess superpowers. Unlike wizards and witches who only have to recite a few words to conjure spells from their wands, wu da pian and wu xia rely on theoretical principles of energy and nature.
The Psychology of Reading
While magic is often used simply as a plot device and fantasy worlds as whimsical settings, there are some – in fact, many – people who take it seriously.
A 2013 Gallup poll showed that 42 percent of Americans believe in ghosts, 36 percent believe in UFOs and 26 percent believe in witches. While it’s difficult to calculate the exact number of believers in China, owing to its population of more than 1.35 billion people, ghost legends, superstitions and belief systems like feng shui are still incredibly popular.
So what’s the effect of reading stories about the supernatural when you’re a believer? Beijing residents Fred Wei and Marina Li – who identifies as being superstitious and believes in “forces beyond human control” – say your reading experience might be enhanced, due to personal ties with the subject.
“A non-superstitious person will read ghost stories like an outsider from a certain distance, drawing no connection between the story and themselves,” Wei says. “A superstitious person may project themselves into the story and has a more involved reading experience, like being genuinely scared.”
He says a book that contains some supernatural elements – such as “Green Mile” by Stephen King – can be enjoyable as long as it’s not excessive.
Most of the Chinese literature Wei has read was written hundreds of years ago during feudalism. Classic Chinese short stories are comparable to Western parables in that they often contain overt moral themes, such as the lesson that foul play will lead to karmic retribution.
“These stories set out to tell people how to live an upright and happy life according to traditional Chinese thinking by showing them the consequences of straying from the straight and narrow,” Wei says. “Sometimes there’ll be a short poem before or after the story is told that encapsulates the morals of the story. It’s like a code of behavior illustrated by stories of what might go wrong if you violate it.”
He also says many of the Chinese stories on his “have-read list” remain linear in plot, while Western books such as “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier are filled with flashbacks.
In addition to literary content, Guo adds that other differences between Western and Chinese literature might include writing styles and narrative techniques, not to mention the sentence structure. In some of the more traditional books, the words are written in vertical columns rather than horizontal lines, to be read from top to bottom.
Whenever Wei reads a book in English, he compulsively translates the words into Chinese, reducing his reading speed. What’s most challenging, though, is having to “shake off my Chinese upbringing” and enjoy the stories for what they are without trying to make cultural comparisons.
“I have to suspend the Chinese set of morality and culture before I can be fully open to a Western book,” Wei says.
As a recent graduate of UNC School of Journalism, Wendy Lu has written for a variety of print and online publications, including China.org.cn, The Daily Tar Heel, Raleigh Public Record and Chapel Hill Magazine’s The WEEKLY. In college, she served as the managing editor of UNC’s Blue & White Magazine and print co-editor for The Durham VOICE. Wendy is also a former publishing intern at Sleepy Hollow Books and a NaNoWriMo 2008 winner. Learn more about Wendy at http://wendyluwrites.com