Margaret A. Chang


Speaking Time and Room No.: 2006-9-22 14:00-15:30 Room II

Speaker: Margaret A. Chang(USA)


A Child, a Monkey, plus Dragons and Evil Demons:

One Reflection on the Harry Potter Phenomenon by

Margaret A. Chang, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts,

North Adams MA, U. S. A.

The sensational success of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has encouraged American publishers to flood their market with lengthy fantasy adventure novels aimed at older children. Many come in series; some are aggressively marketed. While most of these new fantasies rely on archetypes from European myths and traditional literature, a few are based on Chinese mythic patterns. Using Laurence Yep’s “Dragon Quartet” published well before the Harry Potter books, as my touchstone, I have chosen to examine two such “post-Harry” fantasies. Each book has themes in common with the Harry Potter series, notably a grand struggle between good and evil and an epic sweep characteristic of high fantasy.

The action in Laurence Yep’s “Dragon Quartet” twists and turns with the speed of kung-fu fighting. Its basic thread is the Dragon Princess Shimmer’s quest to return the waters that, centuries ago, were drained from her clan’s home, an inland sea. In the first chapter of the series, Shimmer, transformed into a wandering beggar woman, meets the boy Thorn, an orphaned slave in a village inn. In books one and two, their adventures are recounted in first person, mostly from Shimmer’s point of view, with occasional chapters told by Thorn. Prickly and proud, pathetically protective of her royal dignity, Shimmer is an unreliable narrator. The Chinese dragon, master of rain, mist, and bodies of water large and small, is famously able to enact transformations with the aid of a magical pearl, usually hidden in its forehead. To create Shimmer’s character, American-born Yep draws on traditional Chinese dragon lore, as well as his own experience with his Chinese-born elders, portrayed in his realistic fiction as constantly critical, unwilling to express overt affection, yet deeply loyal to friends and family.

Before the first book is over, Shimmer and Thorn have joined forces with Monkey, the trickster-hero from Chinese traditional literature who stars in a sixteenth-century novel, Journey to the West, as well as opera, puppet plays, live action and cartoon films. This insouciant, unscrupulous character narrates the two final books in the series, in which Shimmer and her friends accidentally release the Boneless King, a supremely evil demon who sends his soul into the body of the human tyrant Butcher and becomes their formidable antagonist. In the end, the Boneless King is dispatched into chaos, the time before time, Shimmer’s kingdom is restored, with the help of some heavenly beings, and Thorn is revealed to be a lost prince whose throne Butcher usurped. The non-stop action, the clever strategies, and the energetic characters who bond through humorous insult recall kung-fu action movies and their ancestors, serial picture books. These indigenous art forms were in turn influenced by two enormously popular Chinese novels from the Yuan Dynasty, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Shui Hu Zhuan, a title with varied English translations. I prefer The Marsh Heroes. Yep does not set his story in a specific time and place, and names his characters with English nouns, rather than Romanized Chinese names. Yet details like an entombed body covered in lavender jade rectangles and his incorporation of elements from Chinese folklore place his stories in China’s mythic past. In an article for Horn Book Magazine, Yep argues that Monkey’s development of a social self that puts the good of the group before personal feelings represents Chinese culture. He contrasts Monkey with hobbit Bilbo Baggins, who develops a personal self that makes him distinct from other hobbits, and thus represents Western culture.

Martial arts student L. G. Bass, a pen name for the American editor Laura Geringer, acknowledges her primary source for Sign of the Qin, the first in a projected trilogy, “The Outlaws of Moonshadow Marsh” as The Marsh Heroes, with additional elements from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, and numerous kung fu films. She takes her title, describing a distinctive mark found on all the good guys, from the name of the cruel, ambitious emperor who unified China in 221 BC and obsessively sought immortality. With some historical license, Bass sets her story in a specific time and place: Shandong Province during the Song Dynasty. Her story shares many elements with Yep’s “Dragon Quartet,” though it is darker, more violent, and aimed at an older audience. The gods in heaven, the human outlaw rebels living in the Marsh, and their evil opponents from the Netherworld are all moved to action by the birth of Prince Zong, the Starlord destined to replace his emperor father’s corrupt regime with a time of peace and plenty. Like Harry Potter and Thorn, Zong is a child with hidden gifts.

Dragons play a part as well. There is a traditionally Chinese guardian of water, who seems to side with the good guys, as well as a Western-style fire-breathing creature called a Land Dragon who sides with the supremely evil Lord of the Dead. The characters Bass calls the “King of Heaven” and “The Lord of the Dead” play a much more active role in controlling the actions of the human antagonists than do the god figures in Yep’s quartet. Monkey enters the story when the King of Heaven asks him to guard young Zong from his murderous father, the emperor. Bass weaves Monkey’s most famous scenes from Journey to the West into her narrative.1

Monkey shares guardianship of Prince Zong with the mysterious Tattooed Monk, whose skin is inscribed with moving, prophetic images. The Monk’s liaison with the Starlord’s human mother introduces a more adult theme that runs through Chinese folklore: the love, usually disastrous, between mortals and immortals. Yet the most pervasive influence on Sign of the Qin must certainly be kung fu films and the lore of martial arts, with its secret brotherhoods and superhuman feats of fighting. Bass tells her story in dramatic prose, using third person omniscient, creating compelling characters we come to care about. The violence and physical traumas they endure made painful reading for this tender-hearted critic.

Australian author Carole Wilkinson tells a gentler story steeped in Chinese dragon lore in Dragon Keeper. She sets her story in an historical Chinese Dynasty, early Han, but posits that actual dragons lived on earth. In a remote palace, far to the west, Ping, a slave girl of unknown origin, escapes with the last remaining dragon when he is pursued by a villainous dragon hunter eager to turn his body parts into magical remedies. Danzi the Dragon is determined to carry his precious purple stone, which seems to represent the traditional Dragon’s Pearl, to the ocean. As the two journey east across China, Ping develops plausibly from a terrified, abused child into a confident young woman, who truly deserves the title of Dragon Keeper. Beset with self-doubt, often making mistakes, she slowly becomes aware of her innate powers, which include second sight. Danzi encourages and teaches her with sayings from the founding book of Daoism, Dao de Jing. Monkey is notably absent from Wilkinson’s story. When Ping and Danzi reach the ocean at last, we discover that Wilkinson has reinvented the Dragon’s Pearl as an egg. Danzi departs, leaving Ping to raise a newly-hatched dragon.2

From my rapid survey, it is clear American writers and publishers seem to favor aspects of Chinese traditional literature, namely martial arts and Chinese dragon lore, most familiar to Westerners.3 Other recurring themes from Chinese traditional literature are noticeably absent. For example, only Yep’s Boneless King is able to move his soul into another body, something that happens frequently in Chinese traditional literature, especially the Liaozhai zhiyi of Pu Songling.4 Another idea missing from the novels I surveyed is “eternity in a moment.” A character will pass into a dream state, live a whole lifetime, and wake to find that only minutes have passed.5

Books written about China in the West, for a Western audience, must necessarily draw on what is familiar. The child with hidden talents and the epic struggle of good and evil are themes Westerners can easily recognize. Still it seems to me that American children look through a window with too many distortions. I wish we could offer them translated books from China. Are there any fantasies based on Chinese folklore aimed at an audience of Chinese children? If so, have any been translated into English? I would welcome answers to these questions from my IBBY colleagues.



1. Bass shows Monkey trying to steal the peaches of immortality at a heavenly banquet, or leaping across the universe, only to find himself contained in the hand of the King of Heaven.

2. A sequel, Garden of the purple Dragon, has already been published in Australia, and is due out in England in February 2007.

3. Two other books published in the wake of Harry Potter are Jeff Stone’s The Tiger (New York: Random House, 2005), first of his “Five Ancestors” series, and Da Chen’s Wandering Warrior (New York: Delacorte, 2003) draw exclusively on the kung fu tradition. Both emphasize action over character and coherent theme, and the first is so poorly written that I would never recommend it.

4. Curiously, the British author Gillian Cross bases her “Dark Ground” fantasy trilogy on this concept. See her title, The Black Room (Dutton, 2006).

5. Ed Young, the Chinese-born American artist, introduced this notion in his picture book Night Visitors, (New York: Philomel, 1995) but as far as I know, it has not been used in fantasy novels aimed at an American audience.


Works Discussed

Bass, L. G. Sign of the Qin: Outlaws of Moonshadow Marsh, Book One. New York: Hyperion, 2004.

Wilkinson, Carole. Dragon Keeper. New York: Hyperion, 2005.

Yep, Laurence. Dragon of the Lost Sea. Harper, 1982. Dragon Steel. Harper, 1985. Dragon Cauldron. Harper, 1991. Dragon War, Harper, 1992. (All New York) The series is still in technically in print in the United States, although the two middle volumes are slipping out of print. Phoebe Yeh, Yep’s editor, wrote in an email dated 1 August 2006, “Although our publishing decisions for this series were not affected by the success of the Harry Potter books (dragons are truly a perennial!) I think it would be fair to say that the fantasy genre and readership have been indirectly influenced by the popularity of the Harry Potter books.”

Yep, Laurence. “Fantasy and Reality.” The Horn Book Magazine, 54:2. April 1978, pp. 137-149.


English Editions of Chinese Works Mentioned

Lo Kuan-chung. Three Kingdoms; China’s Epic Drama. Translated and edited by Moss Roberts. New York: Pantheon, 1976.

Pu Songling. Strange Tales from Make-Do Studio. Translated by Denis C. and Victor H. Mair. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1989.

Wu Cheng-en. Monkey; A Journey to the West. Retold by David Kherdian. Boston and London: Shambala, 1992.