I have always had a soft spot for folktales. To me, one of the most wonderful and mysterious things about folktales is how after just one encounter, they usually stay with me. Though I am an avid reader, my memory is only ‘sticky’ like this for folktales. Maybe it’s due to their being peopled with deep archetypes and passed down via oral tradition. Folktales have been polished smooth by so many tongues, over so many years, that hearing them is like holding a comforting, rounded river stone.
Folktales play an important role in my debut novel, Peach Blossom Spring, which follows three generations of a Chinese family looking for a place to call home throughout the chaos and aftermath of the Sino-Japanese and Chinese Civil wars. Early in the story, my main character, Meilin, and her young son, Renshu, survive a terrifying aerial bombing from Japanese planes. During the attack, they become separated from the rest of their family and don’t know when and if they’ll meet again. Most everything they have held dear appears to be lost. Though surrounded by bleakness, despair is the last thing Meilin wants to offer her child. So, she takes out her only remaining treasure, an antique hand scroll, opens it to an illustration of a man and horse, and tells Renshu a folktale.
The story is about how within every misfortune there is a blessing and within every blessing, the seeds of misfortune. This first tale sets the tone for their experiences to come. It keeps them looking for the blessing when times are difficult and cautions them from sliding into complacency in times of ease. It’s a big idea to hand a small child – that the world is full of ambiguity. But Meilin cannot pretend otherwise. Instead, she offers this truth to Renshu in the form of a story he can hold. In the years to come, Meilin and Renshu will return again and again to the scroll for comfort, inspiration and more stories. Meilin’s tales offer wisdom and perspective, but they are also meant to make Renshu smile and maybe even laugh.
In the novel, I mostly chose Chinese folktales that feel like old friends. For several, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know them. I heard them once and my sticky memory kept them. The insights they offer have changed over time as I have grown. For example, the story of the Magic Pear Tree. Is it about greed and selfishness? Is it about trickery? Is it about respecting the stranger who asks for alms? Is it about being susceptible to fraudulence? Like a prism refracting light, it changes as I consider it from different angles. As with many of Meilin’s tales, it may seem like there is a single clear message to take away, but on reading again, other meanings emerge.
The story Peach Blossom Spring, which is also the title of my novel, is the only story that is attributed to a particular person: the poet Tao Qian (375-427 CE). That in itself I find interesting. It is as if the story is young enough to still have a name attached to it, while the others have been told so often that they can’t remember who first uttered them. It is also the only story I wasn’t already familiar with when I began writing the novel.
I found the story when researching the significance of peaches and peach blossoms in Chinese culture. When I first read it, I was astonished by the parallels between this story and the larger story I was telling in the novel. A few weeks later, in a conversation with a writer friend, I retold what I thought was the story of Peach Blossom Spring. When I got home and looked it up, I realised that I had, in fact, told a slightly different story. My ‘sticky memory’ had ideas of its own this time! Embarrassed, I wrote my friend an email, sending along Tao Qian’s version. ‘I liked your version of the story,’ my friend wrote back.
It made me think. Perhaps I’d use the alternative telling in my novel. Maybe it wasn’t so much that I told the story incorrectly, but I told the version that I needed to tell. Folktales can be like that; they shapeshift, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in large, depending on the need of each teller, each audience. They are almost like living creatures that way.
Above my writing desk sits this quote from Margaret Atwood: ‘In the end, we’ll all become stories.’ When I think about my characters and all that they lost, I wonder if Meilin would say, ‘In the end, all we have are stories.’ But this is no small inheritance. Stories are treasures that can’t be stolen or taken back. Once you are given a story, that is, once you read it or it is told to you, it is yours for life. If, in turn, you give it to another person, you haven’t lost it yourself. Like a wellspring, they are a renewable resource. Stories are starting points: They can give strength, summon courage, inspire laughter, share wisdom. What more could you want in a legacy?
(c) Melissa Fu
Peach Blossom Spring by Melissa Fu is published by Wildfire.
A free booklet of the Chinese folktales that appear in the novel is downloadable from here.
About Peach Blossom Spring:
With every misfortune there is a blessing and within every blessing, the seeds of misfortune, and so it goes, until the end of time.
It is 1938 in China, and the Japanese are advancing. A young mother, Meilin, is forced to flee her burning city with her four-year-old son, Renshu, and embark on an epic journey across China. For comfort, they turn to their most treasured possession – a beautifully illustrated hand scroll. Its ancient fables offer solace and wisdom as they travel through their ravaged country, seeking refuge.
Years later, Renshu has settled in America as Henry Dao. His daughter is desperate to understand her heritage, but he refuses to talk about his childhood. How can he keep his family safe in this new land when the weight of his history threatens to drag them down?
Spanning continents and generations, Peach Blossom Spring is a bold and moving look at the history of modern China, told through the story of one family. It’s about the power of our past, the hope for a better future, and the search for a place to call home.
Order your copy online here.