Sunday, June 22, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 232: Lafcadio Hearn, The Legend of Tchi-Niu (#232)

Lafcadio Hearn, "The Legend of Tchi-Niu" (1885) from Lafcadio Hearn: American Writings:

At first glance, a reworking of a Chinese tale: a father dies penniless after working very hard to educate his son; so the son sells himself into slavery in order to afford the funerary rites; and he's so pious that, when he becomes sick and close to death, a magical woman appears to be his wife; she then goes on to feed and care for him, as well as make lots of money with her silk weaving; so that one day, she can afford to buy the man's freedom, along with lots of land; and on top of that, she gives him a son, too.

So everyone lives happily ever after? Well, not quite. The woman Tchi reveals that she's actually the spirit-goddess Tchi-Niu, and was only given to him as a reward for a while because of his piety. And now that everything is good with him, she disappears. Which curiously resets the story: instead of poor father and son--as we had at the beginning--we have a rich father and son.

As far as folktales goes, it's not terrible: "boy who sacrifices for others gets repaid" is a heartwarming trope, even if the coin of his repayment is in the form of a magical woman. At least, we can comfort ourselves, she's not a real woman given to him against her consent on the orders of another man--she's a spirit-woman given to him on the orders of a male-figured deity.

In short, if you wrote this story today, you would probably have the internet fall on your head and point out how you did wrong. And: you would hopefully learn from that lesson.

But the LoA page goes on to note that Lafcadio Hearn hadn't even been to the mysterious Orient when he wrote this story; and that the "traditionalness" of it is a little suspect. That is, Hearn took a single paragraph summary and elaborated it into this story, all while still working as a journalist in America. Which, whatever you think of the story, is an interesting task he set himself. Hey, let's all take paragraphs from other culture's books and turn them into stories!

(And yeah, if you do that clumsily--filling your story with poorly researched images of the foreign culture or relying on stereotypes--you would probably call the internet down on your head again. Whatever else we want to say about Lafcadio Hearn, he was genuinely interested in foreign cultures and put his research-time in.)

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