COME HOME, YEH XIAN – Reclaiming Cinderella by Nury Vittachi

One of the world’s most famous princesses is an imposter, claims writer Nury Vittachi. So what are we going to do about it …

EIGHTY-FIVE people turned up for my creative writing class, and all of them were Chinese.

I asked them to tell me the name of the story about a girl who wins a prince because her foot fits into a tiny slipper.

“Cinderella,” they chorused as one.

And the name of the author?

“Walt Disney,” they trumpeted in unison.

And where was the girl from?

“America.”

CINDERELLA MEETS HER OLDER SISTER (Montage by Mr Jam includes material (c) Walt Disney Co., used for educational purposes as provided for in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 of US copyright law)
CINDERELLA MEETS HER OLDER SISTER (Montage by Mr Jam includes material (c) Walt Disney Co., used for educational purposes as provided for in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 of US copyright law)

I had the same conversation with my own three children, all of whom are Chinese and adopted, and they gave exactly the same answers.

In fact, the name of the girl with petite feet was Yeh Xian. She lived in China, the same country where my students and my children were born. She had black hair. The author was a man named Tuan Ch’eng-Shih. The story was anthologized in a Chinese short story collection more than a millennium ago. It was lifted by Western authors in the 1600s, making it one of the first notable examples of the piracy of creative intellectual property.

As a novelist living in Hong Kong, I spend a lot of time thinking about story structures. Anyone who knows tales from the east as well as the usual Western canon of folk stories cannot help but notice something about Cinderella. In Western folk tales, girls marry princes because they are beautiful, or clever, or both. In no Western story does a commoner win a prince because of a body part measurement (“Your tibia is 32.5 centimeters! Marry me and share my kingdom!”).

Yes, there are quibbles from folk tale historians about bits of the Cinderella story possibly being from even earlier sources here or there, but those are merely quibbles.

You only need to think about it for ten seconds to realize Cinderella could only have come from ancient China, where the smallness of a girl’s feet was a key factor in the measurement of her beauty. Only there does the story make any sense at all.

But let’s not make this just a dinner party observation, or a footnote in literary history. Let’s make it what it is: it’s a tragedy. Yeh Xian has been kidnapped and has been replaced by an imposter: a characterless Disney blonde. We need to rescue her. This actually matters.

My local newspaper here in Hong Kong, China, regularly reports that people are arrested in my hometown for piracy, which tends to mean the duplication of Western movies, which surely included Disney “princesses” such as Cinderella.

In 1999, Adeline Yen Mah wrote an autobiography called A Chinese Cinderella. No, Ms. Mah. You’re not a Chinese Cinderella. You are Cinderella.

Jacket of Adeline Yen Mah's Chinese Cinderella Published by Puffin Books
Jacket of Adeline Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella Published by Puffin Books

And the tale of the girl with the petite feet is not the only example. Many people know the story of the banquet in hell. The diners have a huge buffet and extra-long utensils. They can pick up the food, but they cannot get it into their mouths. The twist in the story is that the observer then goes to heaven and discovers that everything is the same, including the extra-long utensils–the only difference being that the diners feed each other. I’ve had this story quoted to me as being European, American and Russian. Actually, it’s a very old story indeed, yes, from Asia (originally Indian).

But the problem is not merely a historical holdover. Writers of children’s stories in Asia today are finding they have an impossible mountain to climb. Our stories don’t stand a chance against tales created in the West by firms with enormous marketing budgets. If we write stories of children who do magic, our audiences decide they would rather have ‘Hah-Ley Boh-Ta’, which is the Chinese transliteration of Harry Potter.

If I do what Asian parents have done for hundreds of years, and tell the 500-year-old Ming Dynasty story of Sun Wukong (The Monkey King), my audiences think I am ripping-off Mojo-Jojo from The Powerpuff Girls, a US cartoon which was, ahem, “inspired” by a Japanese cartoon called Sailor Moon.

And most humiliating of all is when storytellers follow the ancient Asian folk tradition of telling stories about talking animals in the jungle. The kids abandon our story-circles to head to the mall to buy lunchboxes emblazoned with pictures of the characters from Winnie the Pooh, a series of very English tales celebrating imbecility.

People on the Eastern side of the planet have long felt swamped by Western media, but the situation is turning into a crisis. Now we are losing the rights to our own stories. So what if we have treasured our older tales for millennia? So what if our newer stories are better for our children, because they are generated for a purpose, and they are right for the time and the place and the audience. We still lose the battle. How can we fight corporations who can spend US$200 million on marketing a single story?

But we must. Yeh Xian, the original Cinderella, represents the dramatic imbalance between the West and East; she sums up the way the right and wrongs of intellectual property have been turned upside down.

It’s wrong that I should have to worry about being prosecuted by Walt Disney for writing a book which tells a Chinese story about a Chinese girl to a Chinese audience. We’ve got to rescue Ms Yeh and put her back to where she belongs. What that means is that we have to find what’s wonderful, and unique, and creative, and magical, and traditional, about Asian stories, and we have to put it back at its rightful place, at the centre of our children’s vision.

Fortunately, there’s a wonderful treasure house of resources on which we can call. The Jataka and Panchatantra tales from ancient India are a good start. So are the folktales of China and Indonesia. And so are some of the lively modern stories coming out of east Asia, including Japan’s anime tales.

It’s not going to be easy. It’s all about merit. We are going to have to write stories better than the Harry Potter tales and the Narnia books and the Philip Pullman stories and so on; we’re going to have to make movies better than Shrek; we are going to have to draw comics better than Spider-Man; and we’re going to have to do it all and sell it all, without the huge staff or massive marketing budgets of Western entertainment empires.

The odd thing is that we are probably going to win this battle, in the long run. Look at the numbers and it becomes obvious that the odds are on our side. The vast proportion of the world’s creative endeavours, such as books, movies and music, come from the US, the UK and a very small number of other places. Yet there are 200 countries on this planet, containing 6.2 billion people, of which more than 60 per cent (that’s not a misprint) live in Asia. The thing about anomalies, or at least large anomalies, is that they eventually fix themselves. Earth is primarily an Asian world, and an Asian world is going to need Asian culture.

The creative powers in America have already realized this, and are working hard to make their products look and feel Asian. My three Chinese children are all hooked on a Chinese-looking television cartoon series called Avatar: The Last Airbender. How Eastern is it? It’s not Eastern at all. In fact, the series is American and was produced by a pair of bright graduates from the Rhode Island School of Design. It’s not an accident that it looks as if it belongs in China or Japan, nor is it chance that the title is an Indian word: Avatar.

When The Powerpuff Girls cartoon was launched in America, it was greeted as dazzlingly original: a cartoon series about girls in school uniform with round eyes and no noses battling monsters. But in east Asia, we could see it for what it was: a detailed lift of our own Sailor Moon series, from Japan.

Shows like those confuse our children, but at least show us that forces around the world are quietly enjoined in a huge battle for the hearts and minds of young Asian consumers of stories. It’s going to be tough to go to war against the giant entertainment corporations of the west, but Asian authors have no choice but to take up arms. If the shoe fits we have to wear it. Which brings us back to where we started.

Yeh Xian? Hang on in there, Princess. We’re coming to get you.

Photograph: Allstar/Disney Allstar/DISNEY/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar
Photograph: Allstar/Disney Allstar/DISNEY/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar  (Image used for educational purposes as provided for in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 of US copyright law)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nury Vittachi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Writers’ and Translators’ Association.   Follow Nury on twitter @NuryVittachi

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