Category: Narrative/Verbal Art — Myth

Handbook of Chinese Mythology (World Mythology)

By Lihui Yang and Deming An (with Jessica Anderson Turner). 2005. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. 293 pages. ISBN: 1-57607-806-X (hard cover).

Reviewed by Lanlan Kuang, Indiana University, Bloomington

[Review length: 568 words • Review posted on April 28, 2006]

[Cover ofHandbook of Chinese Mythology]

What is a myth? How do Chinese people and Chinese mythologists perceive Chinese myths? How were myths used and reconstructed as an important cultural resource to serve people’s current interests? In The Handbook of Chinese Mythology, Yang Lihui, a Chinese folklorist who has conducted fieldwork and other research on Nüwa myth, and An Deming, a folklorist who has conducted fieldwork on living myths in villages in northwest China, go beyond trying to answer these questions. In addition, Yang and An do an impressive job of reintroducing to English-language readers Chinese myths that may have already appeared in Western scholarship.

Lihui and Deming are critical of scholarship that mixes “heterogeneous texts from ancient classics [and] mythical novels” and uses “the classical mythology of Greece and Rome as the criterion for comparison and analysis.” In The Handbook of Chinese Mythology Yang and An carefully avoid these pitfalls by drawing their references from archeological findings and fieldwork projects, and focusing on the transmission and function of myths within Chinese society. Well informed on the latest scholarship on mythology in China, such as the recent interpretation of “the historicizing of Chinese myths” by native Chinese mythologists, Yang and An bring to light the “living” characteristic of orally transmitted myths in China and re-situate Chinese myths in their historical, social, and cultural contexts. The Handbook of Chinese Mythology is a thoughtfully prepared and organized text on Chinese myths.

In this book, readers will find entries on various subjects including gods, goddesses, spirits, demigods, places of importance in mythology, important mythical animals and plants, mythological accessories, and mythical themes. Moreover, while The Handbook of Chinese Mythology provides a good introduction to some of the most famous myths among the Han people of China, it also directs its readers’ attention to the diverse ethnic cultures in China. Yang and An use myths of various ethnic groups living in China to illustrate the diversity of myths and people within China. For example, the entry on dragons, one of the most important mythical creatures in Chinese mythology, includes interpretations from the Han, Miao, and Bai peoples. Maps, illustrations, and photos taken in the field also enhance the concise yet vivid narrative. The translation of terms from Chinese into phonetic pinyin and English is done in a simple and effective style which Yang and An exploit throughout the book, albeit with a few errors. In the section on “Inventing Musical Instruments,” for instance, one of the five notes of the ancient Chinese five-tone scale, jue, is mispronounced and thus mistranslated as jiao. (This character, ?, may be pronounced jue or jiao depending on the context. In the case of the ancient Chinese five-tone scale, it should be pronounced jue, as recorded in the ancient Chinese work Shiji: “???,???????.”)

Overall, The Handbook of Chinese Mythology is an important and interesting work that will appeal to popular audiences. It would be of greater interest to academic audiences if it included theory-based analysis. To make this handbook more accessible to scholars in East Asian studies, it would also be helpful if the index included the titles and names in Chinese characters instead of only pinyin.

The Handbook of Chinese Mythology is the first Chinese mythology book written in English by Chinese mythologists (with assistance by Indiana University’s Jessica Anderson Turner). In this and many other regards, it is a significant contribution to the study of mythology, folklore, and East Asia.

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