What Can We Chinese Learn from Hans Christian Andersen?

Today, when the Chinese people, no matter whether they are men or women, old or young, meet with Danes in China, they will naturally speak with one voice: "I know Denmark because I have heard about the world famous writer Hans Christian Andersen and I have read his stirring tales." The Chinese people have read Hans Christian's tales since the first book of H. C. Andersen's tales was translated into Chinese by Chen Jialin and Chen Jiadeng and published in Shanghai in 1918. After 1949, more and more of Andersen's literary works have been translated and published in China. According to statistics compiled by the Foreign Literature Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Science, Andersen's tales have been published in more than 30 different editions. More than 130 commentaries about Andersen's literary works have been published in many newspapers and literary periodicals all over China. His works have been translated not only into Chinese, but also into the languages of Chinese minority nationalities, such as Uygur, Kazakh, Mongolian, and Zhuang. Since the 1950s, H. C. Andersen's tales have become obligatory in text books for primary and middle school students in China.

Apart from the tales, Andersen's poems also enjoy great popularity. Hans Christian Andersen's literary works are full of marvellous dreams, humour, and charm. His poetry has far-reaching significance and is the precious cultural heritage of mankind.

Now in China, H. C. Andersen's literary works comprise 168 tales, his biography has already been translated into Chinese, a travelling exhibition of H. C. Andersen has been shown in twelve Chinese cities and it will continue to be seen by Chinese readers in other provinces. The exhibition has already attracted many Chinese visitors.

Why do hundreds of millions of Chinese hail H. C. Andersen? Why have his literary works won universal praise in China? As one Chinese professor noted: "H. C. Andersen showed sympathy for the people who encountered misfortunes and enriched the people's imagination." As a translator of H. C. Andersen's biography, I propose to give a detailed account in the following presentation:

The influence of Hans Christian Andersen's tales on the creation of modern Chinese tales

Chinese children's literature has a long history. Among the ancient Chinese works of folk literature, there are many folk tales which are good for children to read. We can take them as the ancient Chinese tales. But there were no specialized or professional artistic tales for children created by Chinese writers at that time. Only after some foreign tales, especially Andersen's, had been translated into Chinese and introduced into China, did Chinese writers begin to create artistic tales.

Liu Bannong was the first Chinese writer who translated H. C. Andersen's tales into Chinese. Liu's translation of "The Emperor's New Clothes" was published in the 7th issue of the literary magazine named "Chinese Novel" in 1914. In 1917 Sun Yuxiu's translation of "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" and "The Little Mermaid" were edited to make up the "First Selection of Tales" which was published by Chinese Commercial Publishing House. In 1918, Zhou Shuren, the brother of Lu Xun, the great Chinese writer, translated "The Little Match Girl" into Chinese, and it was selected in the first issue of the 6th volume of the magazine named "New Youth" which was published in January 1919. At the same time, China Book Administration published the first selection of H. C. Andersen's tales named "Nine out of the Ten". Six H. C. Andersen's tales were edited in this selection. In August and September 1925, 22 of H. C. Andersen's tales were published in the Chinese literary magazine "Novel Monthly" edited by the editor-in-chief, Zheng Zhendou.

With the influence of H. C. Andersen's tales, the Chinese children's writers started to write artistic tales and opened up a new chapter in the history of Chinese tales. Ye Sheng Tao was the first important Chinese writer to create artistic tales in China. He said himself: "Of course, I began to write tales under western influence. After the May 4th Movement in 1919, the tales written by Grimm, Oscar Wilde, and H. C. Andersen were translated and published in China. At that time, I was a primary school teacher, and I paid great attention to fiction which was good for the children to read. Therefore, I decided to make a try myself." (Extracted from "I Myself and the Children's Literature".)

Yan Wenjin, the most famous Chinese writer oftales, was also deeply influenced by H. C. Andersen's tales. He mentioned in his article named "How Did I Begin to Write the Children's Stories?": "I began to read the famous foreign literary works when I was 16 years old; I read Aesop's Fables, Sherazade and some other foreign tales at the age of 16 to 17. But H. C. Andersen's tales touched my heart most deeply. H. C. Andersen's tales which I read at an early age were "The Nightingale", "Picture Book without Pictures" (at that time the name of the translation was "What The Moon Said"). Although the two tales are full of fantasy, they are not very odd or bizarre. I was deeply moved by the strong and poetic flavour. It made me think deeply. What a wonderful literary form the fairy tale is! It can convey so many deep feelings and lofty ideals." In the postscript of the book named Nan Nan and his Bearded Grand-Father, Yan Wenjin wrote: "I became acquainted with H. C. Andersen when I was very young. For many people, H. C. Andersen is always a giver."

The main manifestations of the ideological influence of H. C. Andersen's tales on contemporary Chinese tales are as follows:

  1. To expose the evils in society and to sympathize with the lower social strata:
    Such a theme was expressed in tales like "She Is Good For Nothing", "The Little Match Girl" and "What Old Johanne Told". Influenced by H. C. Andersen's tales, many of the contemporary Chinese tales created in the early stage also manifested such themes by exposing the reality in the dark old society and sympathizing with the tragic experiences of the labouring people, such as "The Straw Man" by Ye Sheng Tao, "The Kingdom of Golden Ducks" and "The Baldhead King" by Zhang Tianyi, "A Real Story" by He Yi and "The Red Mask" by Jin Jin.
  2. To sing the praises of the true, the good, and the beautiful, to castigate the false, the ugly and the evil:
    The theme of singing the praises of the true, the good, and the beautiful can be found in H. C. Andersen's tales like "Thumbelina", "The Little Mermaid", "The Ugly Duckling" and "The Ice Maiden". But such tales as "The Emperor's New Clothes", "The Nightingale" and "The Evil Prince" expressed the theme of castigating the false, the ugly and the evil. Under the influence of H. C. Andersen's tales, the Chinese children's writers also attached great importance to this theme after the May 4th Movement. For example, Ye Sheng Tao described the sincere and friendly affection between the people and depicted the beautiful scenery in his first fairy tale "The Small White Boat". In the fairy tale "Three Butterflies", He Yi recounted how the three butterflies living in the dark world pursued their bright future. It is really a song praising the true, the good, and the beautiful. The fairy tale "Nan Nan and His Bearded Grand-Father" written by Yan Wenjin praised the strong will and the brave and indomitable spirit, and also expressed the feeling of longing for the bright future. Influenced by H. C. Andersen's tales, Ye Sheng Tao also wrote a fairy tale named "The Emperor's New Clothes". Judging by the content, it is a sequel to H. C. Andersen's fairy tale. The theme of castigating the false, the ugly, and the evil can also be seen in contemporary Chinese tales such as "Ever-Lasting Pagoda" by Ba Jin, "The Fairy Tale Writer" by He Yi and "The Red Mask" by Jin Jin.

The main manifestations of the artistic influence of H. C. Andersen's tales on contemporary Chinese tales are as follows:

  1. The perfect combination of bold imagination and reality:
    Before H. C. Andersen's time, many tales were based on folk legend. They were far from reality and neglected by society. H. C. Andersen was the first to explore themes and material from the social reality and let the tales take roots in the soil of people's life. This is the great and immortal contribution made by H. C. Andersen to children's literature everywhere. Under the influence of H. C. Andersen's tales, great progress has been made in the creation of contemporary Chinese tales compared with the folk tales in the old days. Chinese writers do not only pay more attention to imagination, but also attach great importance to the combination of fantasy with reality. For instance, the fairy tale "The Experience of the Locomotive" written by Ye Sheng Tao in 1936 reflected the students' petition movement before liberation, and the fairy tale "One Hand" reflected the workers' movement in the past.
  2. He portrayed the fairy tale figures with their own characteristics and features:
    Many fairy tale figures portrayed by H. C. Andersen are full of vivid details and true to life. For example, "The Ugly Duckling" was portrayed as the personal experience and ideal of H. C. Andersen. Under the influence of H. C. Andersen's tales, a tendency to attach importance to making up a story while ignoring the figures in the old folk stories has been changed in the creation of contemporary Chinese tales. Chinese writers also pay more attention to portraying the figures' characters, for instance, Zhang Tianyi portrayed a number of vivid fairy tale figures in his tale "Da Lin and Xiao Lin" such as Da Lin, Xiao Lin, Ha Ba and Shi Shi Ge etc.
  3. He combined the poetic conception with poetic language:
    True feeling and rich imagination are the soul of a poem. H. C. Andersen's tales have both characteristics at the same time, and H. C. Andersen was a good poet. Actually many of his tales are fine prose poems. The artistic characters of H. C. Andersen's tales exerted great influence on the creation of contemporary Chinese tales, especially on Yan Wenjin's tales. Yan Wenjin always takes the tale as "a kind of poem, a special poem for the children". Most of his tales are full of poetic flavour and inspiration, such as "The Wind in Four Seasons", which has the special, pleasing quality of a lyric poem.
  4. Combination of humour, artistic exaggeration, and satire:
    H. C. Andersen had a special command of humour, exaggeration and satire, for example, he skilfully handled the means of artistic expressions in tales like "The Emperor's New Clothes" and "The Princess on the Pea". Such artistic expressions left a deep impression on the Chinese fairy tale writers. There are many examples of such deliberately exaggerated descriptions in Zhang Tianyi's tales like "Da Lin and Xiao Lin", and "The Baldhead King", which are very charming.

H. C. Andersen's tales did not only leave a deep impression on Chinese writers of the 1920s and 1930s, but also exerted great influence on contemporary writers from then on. His tales are the valuable spiritual treasure of the Danish people, the Chinese people and the people of the whole world. We shall cherish the memory of H. C. Andersen and learn from him. We should take H. C. Andersern's words: "Winning over the future generations!" as our life-work and create more and better nourishment for the mind of both children and adults.

Why has H. C. Andersen become so popular in China, especially from the point of view of adults? It is because the social themes he explored are of such relevance even to the life of today that H. C. Andersen remains vital to us all. I would like to illustrate with three examples:

In the fairy tale "Fyrtøiet", H. C. Andersen examined the function of money in the class society. Money can change a man's social position. The fairy tale is a satire with a decadent view: money makes the world go round. It is a portrait of the social life of that time, but it can be equally true now. Today in China, a few people still believe that with money you can make the devil turn the millstone; they are money worshippers. In order to get money, they can be utterly devoid of conscience and do whatever they like, by hook or by crook, even violate law and discipline. At the same time, there is a common sight in society: if a man is powerful and influential today, many villains lick his boots and his friends are always together with him like body and shadow comforting each other; if the man becomes poor or loses his power, the villains will run away and his friends will never show up.

H. C. Andersen described an industrious gardener who cultivated new varieties of fruits and a master who had blind faith in things foreign in his fairy tale "Gartneren og Herskabet". The master thought that the new fresh fruits put on his dining-table must be imported from foreign countries. Actually the new fresh fruits from his own garden not only enriched the master's dining-table, but were also spread to foreign countries. We can see that the old gardener made his contribution to the art of gardening in the world. He is an ordinary man, but also a great patriot. His master - maybe an influential official - is really an insignificant fellow. It is not unique, but has its counterpart. Today in China some people, including a few officials and young scholars, worship and have blind faith in things foreign. They underestimate the capabilities of the Chinese people, and even think that the foreign moon is brighter and rounder than the Chinese. For example, the Peking Opera, Chinese painting and Chinese traditional medicine are three quintessential aspects of Chinese culture. We should keep alive the good traditions under the guidance of "Let a hundred flowers blossom, weed through the old to bring forth the new". But some people say that these traditions are outmoded and out of date. They think that western abstractionist painting is the most fashionable form of art, that disco-beat is much better than the Peking opera, and that western medicine is more efficacious than Chinese. In one word: they stand for total westernization. Each culture can learn from the wisdom of H. C. Andersen.

Finally, Hans Christian Andersen criticized the outworn concept of arranged marriage in the fairy tale "Hyrdinden og Skorsteensfeieren". This tale is very interesting to us, for the key figure in the tale is Chinese. In the old society the Chinese had their own social customs, concepts and ways towards their sons and daughters. In the rural areas the farmers stood for arranged marriage and in the towns, the citizens attached importance to being well-matched socially and economically. Although this kind of bad custom and out-dated convention is forbidden by the government marriage law, unfortunately it still remains in the rural districts, especially in remote areas. Many young girls and boys cannot break the bonds of "tradition" and are forced to accept arranged marriages. Of course there is no love, no happiness, but only tears and grievances in their family life. Some young lovers cannot accept the arranged marriage, they have to elope, but public opinion is unfavourable to them, they live under pressure, their life is difficult and the future of their marriage is also dark.

Of course, unhealthy tendencies like the above are not the main trend of present-day social life in China, but they do corrode the people's spirit and pollute the social environment. We must always guard against the corrosive influence and get rid of the bad unhealthy tendencies.

H. C. Andersen is popular here in China because he has seen through society and its roles. His intelligence transcends cultural boundaries, for Andersen deals with human themes. Perhaps it is fitting that his stories were aimed at children, for it is they who often see most clearly.

Bibliographic information about the text:

Dehua, Guo: "What Can We Chinese Learn from Hans Christian Andersen?", pp. 346-52 i Johan de Mylius, Aage Jørgensen & Viggo Hjørnager Pedersen (red.): Andersen og Verden. Indlæg fra den første internationale H. C. Andersen-konference, 25.-31. august 1991. Udgivet af H. C. Andersen-Centret, Odense Universitet. Odense Universitetsforlag, Odense 1993.

(Bibliografisk kilde: HCAH)