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Chinese childrens’ literature

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Title: 好小子,喬比!
Language: Chinese
Author:
杏林子
Artist: 閒雲野鶴
Year: 2002

I received this book as a present from my good friend Ruby, because she knew I wanted to read more Chinese, and since she like the book (admittedly when she was younger), perhaps I would to. Generally speaking, reading books in Chinese is almost always good, because even though I sometimes don’t enjoy the story, characters or setting, I’m still learning a lot of Chinese so it feels more worthwhile.

Fortunately, learning Chinese wasn’t the only good thing about this book. The main character is a cat (a fairly special cat since we can follow his thoughts) and his life with two loving and caring humans. Then, one day, he can feel that something is wrong. People are beginning to treat him differently, he hears rumours about him having to leave and so on. It seems like his mistress is going to have baby, a real baby, a human baby. The cat naturally feels sidelined, realising that perhaps what he perceived as love wasn’t the real thing. Dispirited, he decides to leave on his own.

This book is written for children, but the contents are philosophical and serious. After reading the first few chapters, it feels like a no-brainer of a book, but that quickly changes. To be honest, I would be quite scared if I read this boook on my own when I was young, so perhaps in company of parents would be recommended. Reading it as an adult, however, this deeper level and more sad tinge make the book worthwhile. I can’t comment on the language, really, apart from saying that it was well within my capacity (I understood almost everything and never used a dictionary), but I can say that the contents where well worth the time it took reading the book!

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Title: 水滸傳
Translated title: Water Margin
Language: Chinese
Adaptation:
馮凌慧
Original: 施耐庵
Year: 2000

Water Margin is the second of the four great Chinese classical novels that I read in Windmill’s adaptation for children, the previous one being the Journey to the West. It tells the story of 108 outlaws and their various adventures during the  Song dynasty, but because of the extreme number of characters involved and the hurried plot, this book feels too much like the abridged version it really is.

My reading ability has improved a lot since I read the Journey to the West, which supposedly should be at the same level, but I still feel that this is almost too hard. This is strange, because sometimes I find this kind of reading harder than Chinese in textbooks I know for a fact should be more difficult. I think the main problem is that the story is a lot longer in the original form and the author who made the adaptation hasn’t done a very good job. For instance, the pages are virtually littered with names of people and places (a random check showed that three sentences contained over twenty names, which is far from uncommon). This makes it very hard to follow and remember who’s who.

Furthermore, the confusing style also doesn’t encourage me to read on, so i took almost a month to finish Water Margin meaning that I can hardly recall anything that happened at the beginning. I think I might read the other books in this adaptation series later, but only when I’m sure that I can handle this amount of names in Chinese more comfortably. I might even re-read this book, but let’s just say that I wasn’t very impressed the first time. If you’re looking for suitable books to improve your Chinese reading ability at the same time as picking up some knowledge about literature and culture (this was my goal), look elsewhere.

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Title: 諺語故事
English title: Proverb Stories
Publisher: 幼福文化
Year: 2008

More stories. Last time I reviewed a book like this (中國寓言), I said that I was a bit bored by reading very short stories about a multitude of topics, compiled into a book intended for children. I still think so, even though this book is far from as exaggerated as the previous one. For instance, the book contains only 24 stories, spanning a total of 150 pages or so, which means that the author(s) have the option to elaborate a bit and not only keep to the barest minimum of explanations. This is good. The stories themselves are also fairly interesting and the proverbs aren’t of a kind I’ve seen before (in Chinese, there are a dozen words that roughly translate as “proverb” or “idiom” into English and I’m still not exactly sure what is what).

The level seems to be the same as that of a lot of books I’ve covered recently, but that might be because I improve as the difficulty increases, but I don’t think that’s a significant factor. I estimate that there are some 38 000 characters in the book, which puts it on par with the longest books I’ve read in Chinese so far. I have lots left to learn before I’ve attained an acceptable reading ability, but I’m slowly getting there. In the future, I’ll try to read something else though.How about some more of Jimmy‘s books?

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Title: 中國寓言
Translated title: Chinese Fables
Author: 風車編輯群
Year: 2005

Once upon the time, I thought that the best way of reading some extra Chinese was to buy lots of fairly small books, presenting numerous even smaller stories of various kinds, often related to Chinese culture and history. At that time, I bought a truck load of those books, which means I still have lots of them, although I’m tired of reading them.

This book contains a huge number of stories, even compared to other books I’ve read recently. Each explains the meaning of an idiom and where it comes from, along with a story illustrating the main point. It feels good that I actually know quite a few of the stories already, meaning I’m beginning to get some grasp of what most Taiwanese children have read, heard or watched.

However, reading hundreds of disconnected stories is exhausting in the long run, I crave something more coherent. A book like this one would be perfect for classroom use or for reading just a few minutes before going to bed, but as serious reading, it really doesn’t work. To give you some idea of the diversity of the content, the book spans around 280 pages, averaging close to 120 characters per page, which means roughly 35 000 characters in all (i.e. not that much). Still, there are more than 130 stories in the book! The book is almost as long as the longest book I’ve read in Chinese, but due to the odd format, it felt a lot longer.

The level is okay, meaning I can understand most of the text without a dictionary, even though there are naturally a great number of adverbs and adjectives I have never even seen before. Still, the content is perhaps a little too close what I’m already familiar with, which isn’t necessarily the author’s fault, but which nevertheless forces me to set a rather low grade on this otherwise quite enjoyable book.

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Title: 中國歷史名人: 智勇雙全的軍事家
Translated title: Chinese Historical Figures: Wise and Brave Strategists
Language: Chinese
Author:
吳新勳
Year: 2009

It’s difficult to review books I don’t fully understand. If the problem isn’t language (like in Gravity’s Rainbow), it’s okay, but that is the problem, well, let’s say its hard to give the book a fair evaluation. Still, this is what I will try to do.

To begin with, the format of this book is quite neat. It’s the first of four books in a series portraying famous persons in Chinese history, giving each around twenty pages or so, with smaller stories of other characters interspersed between chapters. This volume deals with great generals and soldiers. Rather than focusing on the persons and their lives in general, though, the text depicts famous instances in which the person was involved. This is a book for children, so this kind of design might be preferable. In the chapter about Sun Tzu, little is mentioned about his impact on future generations, what he achieved during his lifetime and so forth: Instead, the emphasis is placed on the time when he first became a general and some episodes during his career. As a grown-up, I find this a bit unsatisfactory, since I would have like to know some more basic facts.

Sadly, my Chinese is too poor to fully appreciate this book. Indeed, I would have had to use a dictionary in almost every sentence to understand, which wasn’t something I was prepared to do at the time. As it was, I understood the general meaning of most passages, but seldom any detail. Here it what the book looks like:

Rating this book is perhaps stupid, but I will do so anyway, based on the parts I did understand. The idea is good, the stories are interesting and entertaining, which merits a good grade of say four snails or so. However, the pictures are fairly ugly and as I said above, I think the presentation lacks some basic presentation of the character in question. Settling for a rating of three snails perhaps doesn’t seem fair, but it does reflect my opinion of this book.

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?????? – ????

Title: 小故事大道理 – 童話故事
Translated title: The Little Stories – Folk Tales
Language: Chinese
Author:
吉林美術出版社
Year: 2005

This is the fourth book I read in this series, and, fortunately, it’s also the last one. I’m not sure if the steadily declining grades for these books are a result of my standards growing more exacting or if I just happened to read the best book first. The point here, though, is that this book isn’t worth very much. The stories are either already familiar to me (because they are very common in the West, such as the King Midas story) or utterly boring and pointless. It’s still worth something for language practice (the style and language is almost identical to the other volumes, but there are still plenty of characters I don’t know, but not enough to actually make it difficult to understand). The problem with books such as 小故事大道理 – 成語故事 is that apart from the language, there is simply nothing that attracts my attention. The subject matter of at least two other books dealt with phenomena or stories related to China or the Chinese language, but here, only a few stories are genuinely interesting.

I think I need to start reading books for slightly older readers. Right now, I’m reading a book presenting various famous soldiers and strategists throughout Chinese history, and it does look promising.

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Title: 小故事大道理 – 成語故事
Translated title: The Little Stories – Idioms
Language: Chinese
Author:
吉林美術出版社
Year: 2005

Not much remains to be said about this series, although I must say that this book confirms the origin of the stories’ importance for my appreciation of them. This one is about something genuinely Chinese, namely 成語. It’s not correct to translate this into “idiom” in English, but since there is no better word for it, that will have to suffice. A 成語 is a special idiom, always using exactly four characters and usually expressing a profound meaning which is sometimes not obvious only from looking at the characters. This book sets out to explain a number of idioms by presenting the stories behind them in a relaxed manner.

For instance, let us take the idiom 自相矛盾. Literally translated,自相 means “mutual”, 矛 means “pike” or “lance” and 盾 means “shield”, a combination of characters which is of course completely incomprehensible if read without any background information. The story behind this, however, brings it into a different light. In ancient times, a merchant was selling pikes and shields. Trying to attract people’s attention, he boasted that his pikes were of so fine quality that they could pierce anything, and that his shields could withstand any attack. An onlooker asked the clever question what would happen if one of the merchant’s pikes hit one of his shields. The merchant fell silent. Thus, these four characters nowadays represent something which is paradoxical or mutually contradictory.

There are thousands of these in the Chinese language, some of them very common, some of them fairly rare and only known by people who read a lot. They appear in everyday speech, text books, novels and news articles and learning a few of them is a must. This is quite a nice introduction to a few of them, and I enjoyed reading this book a lot! The Chinese isn’t too complex, but that isn’t the point here. I’m reading for enjoyment and quantity, and if I can learn something genuinely Chinese at the same time, that’s even better.

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?????? – ????

Title: 小故事大道理 – 寓言故事
Translated title: The Little Stories – Fables
Language: Chinese
Author:
吉林美術出版社
Year: 2005

I don’t know if this just happens to be a worse collection of stories than the previous one about folk tales or if my dissatisfaction simply stems from the fact that these stories appear duller because they are more familiar. I know very little about Chinese mythology, at least if compared to what I know about fables. Regardless of the reason, this book was hardly worthwhile.

Some of the stories are too simple and to repetitive (and no, this isn’t because of the language level, because the next book I will review shortly is in the same series and I read that one the day after I finished this, and I noticed no such tendencies). The manga style for the pictures also seems more suitable for Eastern stories, but feels a bit out of place illustrating Western fables. Of course, I still think the format is quite interesting and some stories also merit a couple of snails.

It was good that I decided to read this book now, though, because if I wait too long, this kind of book will be too easy, and since I’ve already bought the book, it would feel a bit wasted.  As I have already mentioned, I have already finished another book in this series, and after that, only one remains; expect more reviews in the near future! My quest for better reading comprehension and speed continues!

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??? (???) – ???

Title: 西遊記
Translated title: The Journey to the West
Language: Chinese
Author:
郭湘齡
Original: 吳承恩
Year: 2000

My first encounter with Journey to the West was in 2007, when I read it in a translation to first English and then again in Swedish for our course in East Asian culture and history. I enjoyed both the story and the translation immensely, so it felt only natural to choose Journey to the West as the first in a series of ten books presenting Chinese literary classics to young readers (I hesitate to specify age here, because I’m not sure).

Much of what I loved with the translation of the full version is lost here (such as the marvellous fighting scenes), but the main story and the characters are the same. My previous familiarity with the text also made it the ideal choice (I started reading Romance of the Three Kingdoms, also in the same series, but I decided to stop because it’s too difficult). On the other hand, these 250 odd pages is an abbreviated form of the original story (which is much, much longer) and therefore gives a better sense of completion.

One big problem is that Journey to the West is rife with deus ex machina solutions to problems. Most of the time it’s the bodhisattva Guanyin who save the day. As is often the case with this kind of plot device, not only does it ruin particular story, but it also makes the reader think that there is never a serious problem, because whatever happens, the bodhisattva will come and save them.

What about the Chinese, then? Most of the time I have no problem understanding the general meaning in this book, but there are lots and lots of words I don’t know, so returning to this text again later for further studying (not just reading for quantity and pleasure) seems like a good idea. My estimate is that this book contains roughly 40 000 characters, which is one third more than the previous longest book I read in Chinese. I think the level is more difficult, but that I was greatly helped by the fact that I was already familiar with the story and its characters. All told, this is good reading and I will definitely return to it later in my pursuit of greater Chinese proficiency!

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Title: 福爾摩斯: 綠玉皇冠
Translated title: Sherlock Holmes
Language: Chinese
Author:
風車編輯群
Year: 2008

This second book about Sherlock Holmes is of course very similar to the first one I read earlier this month (血字的研究), so for more detailed impressions, please refer to that entry. In the same way, it presents three short stories focused around the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes (according to the foreword, the children are supposed to learn something from reading about his deductive abilities, but to be honest, I can’t quite see how this is possible since Holmes’ abilities are more magical than anything else).

Still, the stories are simple enough for me to follow what’s going on, even though the level is still a little bit too high. Since each story is short, it means that there is less redundancy. Also, since a detective story by nature is a bit complicated (otherwise there wouldn’t be any mystery), it makes it a bit too difficult at times. For instance, I might understand what they do and what they say, but because I lack vocabulary here and there, I might actually miss the key ingredient of the mystery. I will probably buy the two remaining books and read them this summer, but I have more suitable books to read before that (a Chinese version of Journey to the West coming up soon).

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