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Maker of myth

Xing Yi
Updated: May 6,2015 9:22 AM     China Daily

[Photo/Provided to China Daily]

Hong Ying left her hometown, Chongqing, at a young age, but the novelist and poet returns to the southwestern city of China again and again in her books - from her well-known autobiography Daughter of the River to her latest work, The Legend of Liya.

[Photo/Provided to China Daily]

Published earlier this month, the story is the second installment of a fairy-tale series based on the myth of Ba, an ancient state that covered the area of what is now the Chongqing municipality, some 2,000 years ago. The Ba culture was passed down through generations mainly in the form of folklore, and this left a deep impression on Hong.

“On the eve of Spring Festival, our parents will make us leave the dining room and close the door before dinner, saying that the spirit of our ancestors will return to have a meal first,” says Hong.

The cover of the bilingual book. [Photo/Provided to China Daily]

“We are told that after a person dies, they will return on the third day and seventh day after death, and if you put coal ashes in front of the door, footprints will be found on it the next morning.”

The idea of writing a series of fairy tales came to Hong, who had not written anything in the genre before, when she told mythical stories to her daughter.

The first book of the series, The Girl from the French Fort, was published in August last year. “To my daughter, without whom this story would not exist,” wrote Hong on the dedication page.

“I want to represent and preserve the culture of our ancestors in a new form for our children,” says Hong.

Unlike traditional fairy tales that blur time and space, Hong’s story contains many historical details and vividly depicts Chongqing by the Yangtze River.

Hong Ying.[Photo/Provided to China Daily]

But the realistic approach doesn’t weaken the flavor of the fairy tale. In the story, Hong blends reality and magic, weaving the tale of a young boy, Sangsang, growing up in the 1970s, into the age-old mythical world of the Ba and life in the French navy barracks that was established in the 1900s, when the French colonized the city.

The main character is a way for Hong, who was born in 1962, to draw on her own childhood memories. “In a way, the boy is me,” she says.

The theme for the latest story is empathy, in which Hong writes about how the kindhearted but introverted Sangsang empathizes with an old lady who has lost her son. With the help and sacrifice of Liya, a witch of Ba, Sangsang helps the old lady deal with the grief of her son’s death.

“The old lady is a real person from my childhood who lost two sons in a gang fight during the ‘cultural revolution’ (1966-76),” says Hong.

She says when she was a child, no one talked to the old lady and people were indifferent to her great loss. The old lady had many books in her home and read books to comfort herself.

But Hong felt close to the old lady and one day when Hong asked about the books, the old lady gave her one, which opened a door of literature for Hong.

“I think memory is very important. It contains the things that people deliberately conceal and forget,” says Hong. “Literature can dig out the things that are buried deep in memory, and through it, I want to exemplify the good parts of humanity and pass them on so that a better world might rise.”

Hong plans to write seven installments for the series, each one dedicated to one virtue of man, such as gratitude, forgiveness and sacrifice, in contrast to the “seven sins”.

“Hong’s works open a window for Chinese children to an ancient Chinese civilization and culture of Chinese witchcraft,” says novelist Cui Manli. “It provides them an alternative to the popular Western fantasy with sorcerers on brooms such as Harry Potter and Lord of Rings, while it advocates for good merits and universal values.”

“I think the book is ideal for families. Through shared reading, parents and children can explore the history together,” says Wu Yan, an expert on children’s literature at Beijing Normal University. “Hong has merged folk literature into the story very well.”

Another key feature of the book is a set of illustrations. Cherry Denman, an accomplished British illustrator, provided the visual images for the book. Denman is married to a diplomat and splits her time between Beijing and London.

“In order to get the details right, Denman communicated with me a lot and asked me to do a lot of sketching,” says Hong. “I also gave her a picture book of Journey to the West (Chinese classical mythical novel) for her reference in creating the apparel and appearance of the ancient Ba people.”

Hong lived in the United Kingdom from 1991 to 2000. The book is printed in Chinese with an English translation in the back. The translation was done by Nicholas Smith, a British translator.

Mei Jia contributed to the story.

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