Introduction from the Book

Editor:  Neil Philip




The first thing to say bout these stries is that they are not Chinese. They come from China,via Chinese,but they were all collected among minority peoples. The translator, He Li-yi, is himself a Bai, from Yunnan in southwest China. Three of the tales, all telling the story behind a place-name,are Bai in origin. Most of the rest were collected from other minorities in Yunnan: the Yi,Naxi,Tulong,Thai and Zhuang. "The Tibetan Envoy" is a Tibetan story from neighbouring Szechwan; "The King and a Poor Man'is a Kazak tale from the far northwest, and "A Woman's Love',"The Princess's Veil" and "A Golden Fish" are all Uighur stories, again from the province of Xinjiang in northwest China.


All of these peoples lead very different lives,with different customs and different languages.  What they have in common is that they do not belong to the Han Chinese who dominate Chinese culture. There are over owelve million Zhuan in the provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi(now the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region); there are just over four thousand Tulong.


Three language groups are represented: Tibeto-Burman - Yi,Naxi,Tulong,Bai and Tibetan; Altaic(Turkie)- Uighur and Kazak;Thai - Zhuang and Thai. The different structures of these languages, as well as different social structures,mean that story-telling traditions vary, as does the flavour of the stories told.Much of this variation has inevitably been ironed out in the many transitions these tales have been through since they last left a storyteller's mouth.


Many of the minorities have no script for their languages, or only a rudimentary one reserved for prayers and the like.  These stories have been written down and published in Han Chinese, in a form approved(and probably "improved") by official Chinese folklorists,then translated by He Liyi,then lightly reworked by me. This last proces,taking us even further from the words actually spoken, seemed to me to be justified only in so far as it served both the explicit purpose of He Liyi and the implicit purpose of the original oral storytellers: to give pleasure by telling a good story well.


My changes have been of three kinds:simple corrections of mistaken English; clarification of storyline when it was obscure;and minor alterations to inject vitality when I felt that the tales had been unduly battered somewhere in the chain of transmission.  The aim has been to produce idiomatic and fluent stories which will appeal to English readers, while maintaining an alert respect for the originals and retaining as much as possible of He Li's idiosyncratic but flavoursome English.


As the biographical note shows, He Liyi's study of English was interrupted for nearly thirty years,during which time he was afraid to buy or even listen to a radio, had no books, and no opportunity to practise the language. Unsurprisingly, his English is sometimes stilted and sometimes incorrect. Nevertheless his use of the language has powerful attractions.  Some of his sentences make one smile out of mere quaintness; "Every now and then they were often found to be short of this or that."  These instances I have, sometimes regretfully, removed. Just as often, his English has the freshness of our first taste of something new.  No native English speaker would have translated the monk' injunction to his novices in "Green Dragon Pond" into He Liyi' tumbling monosyllables - "Just go, go, go, both of you go down to buy" - and no native English speaker could better them.  His textsd were remarkable most of all for their rhythmical felicity, and for their manipulation of sound.  In "A Stonme Sheep" for instance, I could not bring myself to delete his line, "Her feet were seriously pierced by stings," The meaning is clear, and the edge of strangeness reminds us that, despite familiarity, these tales come from cultures very unlike our own.


For the stories are, of course, familiar.  Their components - impossible rests for hopeful suitors, terrible trials for faithful lovers, magical aid for honest toilers - their outcome - the dream-like unfolding of the logic of images, not events - are those of folktales the world over.


At the junction of that familiar content and unfamiliar approach, a keen pleasure lies in wait.


Neil Philip




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