The Mermaid’s Muse: The Legend of the Dragon Boats

A poet named Qu Yuan, advisor to the King of Chu, is falsely banished to a far off island where the inhabitants really respect his wisdom. A dragon falls in love with him, and changes to a young woman, who asks him to come and live with her under the sea. The villagers assume, when they see him on the dragon, that he is going to be killed and they row out in their boats to save him, banging on the water to scare the dragon, throwing in rice cakes to distract the dragon, and attacking. The dragon refuses to fight back. The poet eventually changes himself into a dragon and says, “Do not believe everything your eyes will tell you.” After that, each year, the villagers celebrate the two dragons, and eventually come to celebrate with their own dragon boats.

David Bouchard, Raincoast Books, 1999, ISBN 9781551922485

Author: Dave Bouchard
Dave Bouchard is a former school administrator and teacher in BC. He has a school named after him in Ontario. He has received the Governor General’s medal and written many books. Three of his books are of Chinese folktales: The Mermaid’s Muse, The Dragon New Year, and The Great Race. Nine of his books reflect his Metis heritage which he discovered as an adult including I am Raven (click for teaching ideas).

Pourquoi Stories: How Things Came To Be
Pouquoi is French for “why”. This is a pourquoi story of how it came to be that there are dragon boat races and festivals around the world. Students could be asked to write their own imaginative, “how it came to be” story. One possibility is how the name of their school came to be, or the name of their town. Another is just an ordinary object such as an orange and how it came to be. Most pourquoi stories have a humorous element.

For example, I went to General Currie Elementary School in Richmond in grade one. We children believed that it was named after an American General (because that seemed more possible than a Canadian General) who had retired in Canada after the American Revolution. As an adult I discovered that he was the first Canadian commander of an all Canadian military division.

Art: Drawing the Dragon
There are many YouTube videos to teach students to draw important Chinese symbols, including the dragon. One I particularly like is How to Draw a Chinese Dragon by Paolo Morrone (below). Be prepared to stop the video at regular intervals so that students can catch up.

For more creative writing ideas, click The Mermaid’s Muse to download.

The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes

Emperor Ming Da is only nine years old, but he knows his minsters are corrupt. To obtain the money to help his people he convinces his ministers that burlap bags are really magic New Year’s clothes. Honest people will see splendour and the dishonest will see burlap sacks. Fooled, they claim to see the perfection of the clothes, until in the New Year’s parade a boy calls out that they are wearing burlap sacks.

Ying Chang Compestine ©2017, Abrams Books, 978-1-4187-2542-5

Comparison
The story is an obvious variation on The Emperor’s New Clothes as written by Hans Christian Anderson. Read that story to the class, asking them to note as many similarities as they can think of to The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes. Tell them you are going to introduce them to the SECRET for writing a “good enough” comparison every time.

  1. List 3-5 ways they are similar.
  2. List 3 ways they are different.
  3. Start with a basic introduction, “The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson and The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes by Compestine are variations on the same story…”
  4. Write your 3-5 ways they are the same. Start with your best example, end with your second best example, put the others between.
  5. Start with However, the two stories have quite a few differences. Then explain your 3 differences, starting with the strongest, ending with your second strongest, with the other(s) in between.
  6. Write a conclusion; perhaps your opinion of which is the better version and why.
  7. Re-write your first sentence to be more interesting. “Without Hans Christian Anderson’s original Emperor’s New Clothes there would have been no version set in China.

The Author
Compestine has had a diverse career including being a food advisor for Martha Stewart. She has also written many children’s books including: The Story of Chopsticks, The Story of Kites, The Story of Noodles, The Runaway Wok, The Runaway Rice Cake, and many more. You can visit the her website here or listen to her life story in this keynote lecture below.

For more creative writing ideas, click on The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes to download.

Lon Po Po: A Red Riding Hood Story from China

A good woman went to visit the granny of her three little girls and told them to be very careful to close the door tight and latch it. Soon they heard a voice claiming to be their granny and when they let her in, they recognized him as a wolf by his tail and his claws. The little girls climbed a tree claiming that the ginkgo berries on it would help you live forever. When the wolf couldn’t climb, they offered to lift him in a basket. Once they had him to the top of the tree, they let him go and he died in the fall.

Ed Young, Macmillan Books ©2007 ISBN 9781435204533

Comparison
Using a Venn diagram, students can prepare a chart comparing how this Little Red-Riding Hood story is the same as, and different from, the European version. Decide whether to read them a picture book, or show them the Disney version which is short and available on YouTube.

A simple method is to ask students to first write a rather pedestrian opening sentence such as: This is a comparison of the classic European Cinderella with the Lon Po Po version. They then choose and write about at least three ways in which they are similar and at least three ways in which they are different. They conclude by stating whether they are more similar or more different. At this point, they re-write the opening sentence to be more dramatic and interesting, and also write a conclusion that has pizzazz. Voila! It may not be amazing, but it is serviceable and can be used for a “decent” B mark throughout their student life.

Kim’s Game
In this story, observation skills are very important to the survival of the girls. In Girl Guides and Boy Scouts and other youth organizations, the observation game, Kim’s Game, is very popular. Select about 20 random objects and create a visual you can project. Give students 20 seconds to observe. Then project a visual with one object removed and ask them to try to remember and write down what is missing. The name is derived from a book called Kim, written by Rudyard Kipling in 1901, in which Kim plays this game to train to be a spy.

Extreme Writing Topics
There should always be three prompts for an Extreme Writing inspiration. Otherwise students waste time making a decision. For a complete description of the process, see my book, The Power of Extreme Writing, or visit Extreme Writing.

The children were very trusting at first; tell stories of times when you trusted someone or something and how it worked out. The children lifted the wolf; tell stories of things you have lifted and carried. Stories of any encounters with dangerous animals (dogs, crows, raccoons, coyotes, cats, bees) and how it turned out.

For more creative writing ideas, clock on Lon Po Po to download.

Cat and Rat: The Legend of the Chinese Zodiac

Cat and Rat and The Cat’s Tale are both about the origin of the Chinese zodiac which was established in a race the Jade Emperor set up. I like the Ed Young version the best, because he is such a great illustrator and his story has more dialogue in it. On the other hand, The Cat’s Tale is in the first person which provides an opportunity to teach point of view.

Ed Young, ©2019, Macmillan Books, ISBN 9780805060492

Pourquoi Stories:  How Things Came To Be
The literary name for the stories of how things originated is the French word for “Why” which is “Pourquoi”. This is an example, among several, of stories of how things originated. Students could write their own pourquoi story of how ordinary things in their environment came to be: stop lights, bananas, a park, etc.

Stereotypes of Animals
There are specific stereotypes that are basically agreed to from one culture to the other. A matching activity with qualities on one side and the name of the animal on the other will help reveal to students how widely we agree on these stereotypes. For example:

  • Owls are …
  • Pigs are …
  • Oxen are …
  • Mules are …

Fair
Here’s an important question in life: What is fair? Is this race fair? Is the Jade Emperor rigging it? What about the actual competing animals—should the Jade Emperor intervene? Is this a good way of deciding priority?

For more creative writing ideas, click Cat and Rat to download.

The Dragon’s Robe

Kwan Yin intends to create a dragon robe for the Emperor but on the way she meets an old man, guardian of the Emperor’s dragon shrine. He asks for a favour and she does it, but Lord Phoenix and Lord Tiger who come on the next days steal from the old man. A dragon appears and turns Lord Phoenix into a phoenix, Lord Tiger into a tiger, and for good measure floods out invading tartar armies. The old man then reveals that he is the emperor himself and rewards Kwan Yin.

Deborah Norse Lattimore, ©1993, Harper Books, ISBN 978-0064433211

Comparison
If you wish, students could look at how this story pattern is somewhat similar to a classic European fairy tale. We have an orphan girl, with a simple skill (like Cinderella who cleans), she meets a character in disguise (like in Beauty an the Beast), things happen in threes, the “bad guy” gets his/her comeuppance, the girl succeeds in becoming wealthy and successful. etc. Oh, and the moral of the story: honesty, kindheartedness, and hard work pays off.

Vocabulary
China had emperors—and one empress. Ask students to brainstorm words that mean “a person exercising government over other people.” Add to their list when they have exhausted their own options—it sometimes helps if we name places: “What is the head of Japan called?”

Here are 20 words that mean “a person exercising government over others”: king, ruler, president, tsar, prime minister, dictator, monarch, president, potentate, Caesar, caliph, kaiser, oligarch, sultan, shah, chief, etc. Perhaps ask them to find out in which countries these titles tend to be used. Which are the oldest to newest titles historically? What about power—which are the most powerful (ruler of largest area, most power over life and death, able to raise the largest army? Which are the most likely to e used in a democracy? etc.

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The Dragon Prince

A Chinese Beauty and the Beast Tale
A poor farmer with seven daughters is on his way home from his farm when a dragon seizes him and says he will eat him unless one of his daughters marries him. Seven (who makes money for the family with her excellent embroidery) agrees and they fly away to a gorgeous home, wonderful clothes, a great life…and he reveals he is a prince in disguise. She misses her home, and while there, Three, who is jealous, pushes her in the river and steals her identity. Seven is rescued by an old lady and uses her wonderful sewing skills to make clothes and shoes they can sell in the market. The prince, realizing something is wrong, seeks his real bride and finds her because he sees her embroidery in the market. Happy ending all around—except for Three.

Lawrence Yep, ©1999, Harper Collins, ISBN 978-0064435185

Figures of Speech (Simile)
There are many many similes…well, I counted 9, but there may be more. This might be a good time to teach what a simile is. Perhaps read the story to them first, and then read the story to them a second time, asking them to identify the similes.

  1. The dragon raised a paw with claws as sharp as daggers.
  2. The lakes became silvery sequins.
  3. The Milky Way…like an endless bolt of the whitest silk.
  4. The moon…shone like a giant pearl upon the sea.
  5. I could crush you like a twig.
  6. His scales gleamed like jewels in a golden net.
  7. His eyes shone like twin suns.
  8. Curling his body as easily as a giant.
  9. Moon…like a school of fish darting.

A Craft: Embroidery

 

 

 

You might be able to purchase small embroidery hoops at a local dollar store. Choose a simple pattern, perhaps of a dragon, transfer it to simple white cotton, and have students embroider it in a single colour. There are many times in Chinese stories that silk, embroidery, etc. are a turning point in the story. One of these is The Silk Princess, another is The Dragon’s Robe, and of course, The Dragon Prince.

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Yeh Shen: A Cinderella Story from China

Yeh-Shen was the orphan daughter in her stepmother’s home, but the stepmother favoured her own daughter. Yeh-Shen’s friend, the fish, would come out of the water, rest on the shore, and she should feed it from her scarce resources. Her stepmother put on Yeh-Shen’s coat, lured out the fish, and killed it. As Yeh-Shen grieved, an old man appeared and told her to retrieve the bones, for they had power to grant wishes. Yen-Shen then wished on the bones for food. When the spring festival arrived (where young men and women could find partners), Yeh-Shen was not allowed to go. The bones of the fish made her an azure gown, a kingfisher feather cloak, and shoes of solid gold. When it looked like her stepmother would recognize her, she fled, leaving behind one gold slipper. In searching for his “bride”, the king noticed Yeh-Shen’s tiny feet, and when she tried on the slipper, her spring festival clothes reappeared on her. Ta da!

Ai-Ling Louie, illustrated by Ed Young, ©1982, Philomel Books, 978-0-399-21594-0

Comparison

Using a Venn diagram, students can prepare a chart comparing how this Cinderella story is the same as, and different from, the European version. It is your decision whether to read them a picture book, or count on their knowledge of the Disney version.

A simple method is to ask students to first write a rather pedestrian opening sentence such as: This is a comparison of the classic European Cinderella with the Yeh-Shen version; then they choose and write about at least three ways in which they are similar. Begin with the best idea for a comparison, end with the second best, put others between. Next, they write about at least three ways in which they are different then follow the same process of beginning with their best idea, ending with the second best, and putting the others between. They can conclude by stating whether the two stories are more similar or more different. At this point, the students can re-write the opening sentence to be more dramatic and interesting, and also write a conclusion that has pizzazz. (From analyzing the similarities and differences between the story of Yeh-Shen and Cinderella we may conclude that the tale began in China.) Voila! It may not be amazing, but it is serviceable.

Mutilating the Body

Another mini-research project topic could be customs that involve altering the body to create “beauty”, such as the custom of foot-binding in China. Customs, such as foot binding, actually distort the body to such an extent that it can even be crippling. A discussion with students, about potentially not making any changes to their body that cannot be reversed would be fruitful.

  1. Extending the ears (Inca, Tutankhamen, Africa, etc.)
  2. Tiny feet (China)
  3. Elongated necks (some African tribes where if the rings are removed the person suffocates).
  4. Teeth blackening (in Elizabeth I’s court she had eaten so much sugar that her teeth were black, so some women as a fashion statement blackened their teeth)
  5. Cranial binding (the head to create a shape. Very common in Incas)
  6. Facial Scarring (Sudan, Papua New Guinea, Aboriginal tribes in Australia, Karo people of Ethiopia)
  7. Teeth sharpening (Mayan, Vietnamese, Balinese, Africa)
  8. Lip plates (Ecuador, Sudan, Ethiopia, Central America)

CBS Storybreak: Yeh-Shen

CBC Storybreak has a really quite nice fully animated version of Yeh-Shen based on the book, but with more elaborated characters.

For 8 creative writing ideas, click Yeh Shen: A Cinderella Story from China to download.