Chinese Folklore, Illuminated: Janie Chang’s The Library of Legends (Review)

Cover courtesy of HarperAvenue

Over the past two years, Janie Chang has become one of my favourite authors. (If you don’t believe me, check my Goodreads page – she’s on the list!) Each of her books transports the reader somewhere magical and, in our current global climate, I’ve never needed that healthy dose of magic more.

I started reading Chang’s novels back in 2018 during my undergraduate degree at UNB Saint John, when she was a featured author in the Lorenzo Reading Series. My first foray into her fiction was Dragon Springs Road (2017), the book that she presented at her reading – and it contained a story that instantly captured my imagination and my heart. With a child protagonist who makes her way through a dangerous world with the help of an ‘animal’ guide, it’s impossible to not reminisce about the fairy stories that we all encounter when we are young while leafing through that book’s pages. (Read my 2018 review of Dragon Springs Road here.)

I’ve always been a lover of fairy tales and folklore but, due to my European heritage and to growing up in a very white, very small town in rural New Brunswick, my exposure to tales of magic and whimsy was, until recently, limited only to the works of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson and, of course, as a child of the 1990s, Walt Disney Studios. Because of this cultural gap in my knowledge, I had no idea how bountiful Chinese folklore was until Dragon Springs Road landed in my lap.

Fox spirits, earthbound-stars, and dragon guardians – oh my! What Dragon Springs Road began, Chang’s latest novel The Library of Legends (2020) catapults to new heights. Rich with dozens of fairy and folktales from throughout Chinese history, the reader is left frantically taking notes so that they can refer back to all of these new tales later – or perhaps that’s an experience unique to me (as a graduate student penning a thesis on the adaptation of tales just like those that appear in Chang’s novel). Her exploration of how these legendary stories develop and survive the test of time is fascinating, and you don’t need to be writing a thesis to find The Library of Legends captivating.

Based upon true events, The Library of Legends takes place during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and follows three deeply engaging individuals: Lian, a young woman attending Minghua University when the campus is evacuated to avoid Japanese aerial bombers; Shao, an elder student struggling to find himself and choose a path in life as the war makes his formerly privileged future unclear; and Sparrow, a servant who is more than what she seems.

Our three protagonists and several of Minghua University’s students, faculty and staff are tasked with a very important job in the midst of their evacuation: to preserve the Library of Legends, an encyclopaedic collection of books that “records [Chinese] myths and folklore” (Chang 26).

“I want you to know our group bears a special responsibility,” [Professor Kang] continued, “because we carry with us something as valuable as your lives and just as irreplaceable. […] The Legends are part of our identity.” (25-26)

Juxtaposed alongside her historical narrative, Chang uses the presence and emphasized importance of the Legends to make a profound point: that fairy tales, folklore, and legends are just as critical to a culture’s identity as ‘history’ is.

Without art, beauty and faith, the world would be a terribly bleak place, and such is evident when one considers how dark The Library of Legends would be without its mystical undertones. Given the novel’s roots in war-torn China, complete with characters dying in air raids; characters being murdered for their left-wing politics; and the blackmail and betrayal of the young by elders in positions of power, it would be a very bleak story indeed – if not for the glimmer of magic shimmering just beneath the surface of Chang’s realism. It provides a light at the end of the tunnel when things seem darkest – starlight, to be precise. The tale of the Willow Star and her Prince is folklore at its finest and it lends an air of hope to the reader – especially now when the conditions in our own world seem to be growing ever grimmer. We need a taste of magic more than ever as illness and cruelty run rampant more than they have in decades – or, for a younger generation which includes me, more than they have in a lifetime.  

“Just thinking of the Star, the fact of her presence, filled [Professor Kang] with a quiet, incandescent joy. He was a small boy again, in the presence of wonder.” (52)

As a young woman with a heart full to the brim with fairy-dust and wonderment, I found Chang’s use of Chinese folklore within her novel to be nothing short of beautiful. Her narrative echoes a sentiment that I firmly believe to be true: “…tales alter over time, anyway,” Sparrow said. “In the marketplace or their own homes, storytellers shape narratives to suit their audience and the times. They add and remove details, even change the moral of the story. Yet each version is authentic” (121).

I, too, believe in the authenticity of adaptation. Fairy tales, despite being written down by those in privileged positions of literacy and power, have always and will always belong to the masses. Therefore, no interpretation of a fairy tale can ever not be authentic. Little mermaids can be black. Cinderella can be a trans-woman. The Willow Star and the Prince can be reincarnated as lesbians (120). A story must be shaped to ring true in the heart of the storyteller and their audience; that is the beauty of interpretation and adaptation. Every version is authentic, for it is an authentic representation of that group of people and their culture. And it is through these various interpretations that fairy and folktales survive and remain staples in global culture(s). For a story to remain, it must be read but, above all else, it must be told – and retold.

So I’d like to thank you, Janie Chang, for continuing with each of your novels to tell and retell the stories of Chinese folklore. Every word that you pen is beautiful and your tales are nothing short of illuminating. They shine as brightly as the Willow Star herself.

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