Can a tailor make a good general? Can an orphan buy a father? How was gunpowder invented? When did people begin to drink tea? Answers to all these questions and more, with a Chinese flavor, are found in Shen of the Sea by Arthur Bowie Chrisman.
Published in 1925, and winning the Newbery Medal in 1926, Shen of the Sea collects sixteen short stories, billed as “Chinese Stories for Children.” In fact, the stories aren’t really Chinese–they’re just set in China. I’m not very familiar with Chinese folklore, so maybe some are retellings of real Chinese stories, but you shouldn’t read this book looking to learn about Chinese folklore.
The stories are a mixed bag. Some, like “Four Generals” and the titular “Shen of the Sea”, are very entertaining. Others, Like “Ah Mee’s Invention” and “Ah Tcha the Sleeper”, are fairly boring. Most are somewhat amusing, but not too memorable.
The stories fall into two major categories: origin myths and stories of wit, if you’ll excuse my poor naming. The origin myths tell how something came to be, like the invention of printing or gunpowder. Some of those stories are okay, but they’re mostly kind of dull. The stories of wit tell how someone overcame an obstacle by using their cleverness. Those stories are pretty uniformly fun, and all the best stories in the book are of that sort.
As an example, the story “Ah Mee’s Invention” tells how Ah Mee, a very naughty child, son of Ching Chi, would always cause trouble, making his poor father’s life very hard. His doting father never punishes Ah Mee, though. His father is a masterful engraver, making great wood carvings. Eventually, Ching Chi’s skill is noticed by the king, and he is made very wealthy, carving plaques for the king. But Ah Mee uses some of these plaques as plates, spreading jam on them to eat. When Ching Chi returns and sees what Ah Mee has done, he is furious, throwing the plaques against the wall. Ching Chi’s brother, Ching Cha, sees that the impression of the plaque is printed on the wall in jam, and so printing was invented.
Now, “Ah Mee’s Invention” isn’t terrible, but I just didn’t enjoy it, much. I saw no reason why Ah Mee or Ching Chi ought to have been rewarded, and the invention of printing wasn’t much a payoff for the end of the story. And that’s a problem with many of these origin stories: a reasonably interesting story is set up, and then it just ends by saying “and that’s how printing was invented” or “and so people started using chopsticks.” It doesn’t provide any closure to the story, and it’s not satisfying.
For the other kind of story, take “Four Generals”, which describes how Prince Chang, wishing to see how the people in his kingdom live, decides to set out on a journey, alone, to observe them. Along the way, he encounters all sorts of trouble, and is rescued, in turn, by a fiddler, a tailor, a shepherd, and an archer. He promises each that when he is made king, he’ll make them generals in his army. When his kingdom is repeatedly attacked, each proves his worth: the tailor has many sets of uniforms made, to fool the attacking army into thinking there are more defending soldiers than there really are; the fiddler plays such a sad song that the invading army becomes homesick and leaves; the shepherd tricks the army into chasing sheep, and they burn the enemies’ camp while they’re away; the archer requires that all cases at law be settled by a trial with bow and arrow, causing the citizens to practice and become so proficient at archery that no ones dares attack them.
“Four Generals” is excellent. Seeing how the generals each use their own skills to defend the kingdom is very amusing. You can really appreciate their cleverness, and cheer for them when they succeed. Because they deserve to win, on account of their wit. Stories like this are great.
In the end, I think that Shen of the Sea would be better off if the less amusing stories were excised. I especially recommend reading “Shen of the Sea”, “Four Generals”, “The Rain King’s Daughter”, and “High as Han Hsin”. A few of the others are worthwhile, but those four are not to be missed, in my opinion. The book doesn’t seem to be available in text form for the Kindle, but there is an audiobook available, if you’re interested in those. If you’re interested in classic children’s literature, give it a try.