marina_bonomi: (book)
Some time ago I was in the mood for some light, fun reading, I happened across White Tiger by Kylie Chan, the blurb intrigued me, I went with the book and was hooked right from the start.

Let it be said immediately, it isn't a 'perfect' book (if such things even exist) there are moments in which I wish the editing had been tighter, sometimes the romance is a bit schmaltzy and the action feels a bit repetitive, but nothing of this mattered overmuch to this reader, because a whole lot of things felt absolutely right, and one of these is the outsider gaze of the main female character, Emma.

Wave in front of me a book, any book, set in China (in the wider sense, including Taiwan and Hong Kong) and I'll bite, but most of the time when those books are written by non-Chinese authors (mrs. Chan is not an ethnic Chinese) I end up throwing  them against the wall out of frustration (sometimes outright fury, thankfully those are few and far between) due to mistakes, misunderstandings, poor research, exoticizing, 'I want to show you how much research went into this' or anything in between. Not so with White Tiger and the other books in the series.

Emma, the female protagonist is an Australian expat living in Hong Kong, she works as a teacher in a kindergarten and, in her free time, as a nanny. In the same day she leaves her job and gets an offer from one of her private clients, a mr. John Chen, to become a live-in nanny for his daughter. John Chen isn't exactly what he seems and Emma finds herself catapulted in a world she didn't have an inkling about.

When I surfaced for air, having zoomed through White Tiger, Red Phoenix, and Blue Dragon I tried to find out what had me so enthralled in what basically is fantasy light reading, I found a few things.

The setting: as one could hope for, the author having lived there, Hong Kong comes alive in the trilogy, and not as the magical exotic city where magical things happen, Hong Kong here is  alive and concrete (pardon the pun), pollution and maddening traffic very much included.

The cast of characters is wide, but not exaggerated and they are, by and at large, well rounded.

The supernaturals in Hong Kong are mono-cultural (a nice change from the usual) and part of a whole system that is internally consistent and get explained little by little. 

The main thing, though, is Emma's gaze. She is a foreigner and an outsider, her closest friends are also foreigners (an American and an ethnic Chinese from Australia), at the beginning her relationship with the local people is just about work-only, she is adjusted, reads and researches but a lot of things go above her head while she has very present some matters that can directly impact her life ( the 'trophy Western worker' for instance as a way for a company to gain face),and this doesn't change all of a sudden  when she finds herself working for a shen (I'm trying not to spoil too much).

Some of the supernaturals like her from the beginning, some are very standoffish because they don't like the idea of a foreign woman in their midst and, in either case, when they talk and joke among themselves a lot of it is lost to Emma because she doesn't share either their cultural milieu or their common history. It is very well done, half a sentence there, a literary allusion buried in dialogue here, a joke that has somebody reacting strongly for no apparent reason someplace else, definitely not enough to bore a reader with no previous knowledge of Chinese myths (and the tasty morsels are explained in the author's note), but at the same time enough to give cultural dephth  to the whole and to startle this reader into delighted laughter more than once either because I got it or because I didn't and wanted to find out.

So, my compliments to mrs. Chan for the whole and, specifically, for using the outsider gaze as it should be used but too rarely is.

   
Here is the last 20-postcard booklet:

Auspicious Chinese Patterns (papercut)

cutout patterns

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But this time the whole ballad...

木 兰 辞
Mulan ci


唧唧复唧唧,木兰当户织。
Jiji fu jiji, Mulan dang hu zhi.
不闻机杼声,唯闻女叹息。
Bu wen jizhu sheng, wei wen nü danxi.
问女何所思?问女何所忆?
Wen nü he suo si? Wen nü he suo yi?
女亦无所思,女亦无所忆。
Nü yi wu suo si, Nü yi wu suo yi.
昨夜见军帖,可汗大点兵,
Zuoye jian juntie, kehan da dian bin,
军书十二卷,卷卷有爷名。
Jun shu shier juan, juan juan you ye ming.
阿爷无大儿,木兰无长兄,
Ah ye wu da er, Mulan wu zhang xiong.
为市鞍马,从此替爷征。
Yuan wei shi an ma, cong ci ti ye zheng.


东市买骏马西市买鞍鞯
Dong shi mai junma, xi shi mai an jian,
南市买辔头,北市买长鞭。
nan shi mai peitou, bei shi mai chang bian.

Read more... )






marina_bonomi: (book)
This is another of my favorite Chinese poems (actually the first stanza, but I want to translate it in full).

It is older than the Tang, in fact it dates from the Northen Wei dinasty (386-534 AD) although the original collection it was part of is lost, and the ballad survived in another, much later, opus. I find it remarkable in many ways.

木 兰 辞
Mulan ci



唧唧复唧唧,木兰当户织。
Jiji fu jiji, Mulan dang hu zhi.
不闻机杼声,唯闻女叹息。
Bu wen jizhu sheng, wei wen nü danxi.
问女何所思?问女何所忆?
Wen nü he suo si? Wen nü he suo yi?
女亦无所思,女亦无所忆。
Nü yi wu suo si, Nü yi wu suo yi.
昨夜见军帖,可汗大点兵,
Zuoye jian juntie, kehan da dian bin,
军书十二卷,卷卷有爷名。
Jun shu shier juan, juan juan you ye ming.
阿爷无大儿,木兰无长兄,
Ah ye wu da er, Mulan wu zhang xiong.
为市鞍马,从此替爷征。
Yuan wei shi an ma, cong ci ti ye zheng.


The Ballad of Mulan

Whirr-clack and again whirr-clack, Mulan weaves facing the door.

(But now) no sound from the loom is heard, only (our) daughter’s sighs.

“ Daughter, what are you thinking of? What are you brooding over?”

Nothing I’m thinking of, nothing I’m brooding over.

Yestereve I saw the army register, the Khan is levying the troops.

The register is twelve scrolls, each one bears father’s name.

Father has no first-born son, Mulan has no elder brother.

I wish to buy horse and saddle, soldiering in father’s stead.



Mulan is an enormously popular character in Chinese folklore, it all started from this ballad, composed about 1500 years ago. From here came a novel written during the Ming dinasty, more poems, theatrical plays, TV series, live-action movies and cartoons, including the Disney one that gave Mulan popularity in the West (the downside of it is that many schoolchildren over here think Disney invented Mulan).

I liked the Disney movie for many reasons, and honestly I don't mind the chronological mish-mash overmuch, after all in China beloved stories are told and retold and undergo many transformations, so long as the 'layering' is evident and the different strata are there if one digs, I have no problems with the process.

But I like the original better, and some of the reasons are right there in the first stanza. For starters, Mulan is no freak: no girl out of place trying to conform to the norms of society and failing. She enters the scene fulfilling the expected duty of an unmarried daughter, weaving for the family, but is pondering on a problem,the call to arms her family cannot answer, and comes up with her own solution.

Mulan doesn't steal out of the house during the night. She has a plan and executes it with the full knowledge and consent of her parents. The Northern Wei was a troubled time, historians say that it's very likely that women (specifically in Northern China where the ballad originated) received weapon training as a matter of course, in Wei statuary there are images of female warriors. So why is she passing herself off as a man? I think (and it's all speculation on my part, mind you) that it may depend on a technicality.
The ballad says that the army scrolls bear father's name and also  Father has no first-born son, Mulan has no elder brother, my guess is that a son could fulfill his father's duty if the latter was incapacitated but there was no written rule about a daughter doing the same, so Mulan assumes a man's identity (later works say she takes her younger brother's name) to avoid a possible refusal.


These days I found myself with an old, half-remembered lullaby in the back of my mind.
It's the one my maternal grand-mother used to sing to me, the soundtrack of my days in that old house in Valeggio.
As lullabies go, it was a failure, since the topic of the song was the tale of a cursed prince and I strove to stay awake to be able to hear the end of the story and know whether the prince would be freed from the curse.

On a whim, I googled what I remembered and...found a single result that matched my lullaby, it's here  (the link opens a pdf file), together with many other rhymes and tongue-twisters (as far as I know, all are traditional ones).

The version Grandma sang was slightly different, I don't know whether she got it from a different source or the differences are due to word-of-mouth transmission, here, based on what I and my mother remember is her version:

C’era una volta un re e una regina

E con loro anche un principin.
Bussa alla porta un giorno una vecchina:
Dice:“Datemi qualche soldin!”

Il re comanda: “Tosto sia scacciata!”

E la vecchina triste se ne andò.
“Perchè cattivi tanto vi mostrate,
Il reuccio la pagherà!”

Volle il reuccio trovarsi una sposa,

Cerca, cerca trovarla non può;
Tutte le belle chiede senza posa,
Tutte quante gli dicon: “No!”

Ecco al castello un giorno giunse un mago,
E svelò questo grande mister:
“In quel castello al di là dal lago,
Sta la bella dei tuoi pensier.”

Monta in barchetta, passa all’altra riva,
E s’inoltra nel grande salon;
Ma la sua bella da tanto che dormiva,
A svegliarla nessuno è buon.

Per risvegliarla intona una canzone,

Che dura un anno e forse anche di più.
Sveglia è la bella, oh che consolazione,
Parla e dice: “Il mio ben, sei tu!”

Translation and more )

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