Friday, February 4, 2011

Shen of the Sea (1926)

Although entertaining, many of the stories in this collection do little to encourage industry or common sense, while at the same time rewarding the characters.  The first story, for instance, "Ah Mee's Invention," explains how printing came to be invented.  The main characters, a father, son, and uncle, through temper and intemperance accidentally invent printing and end up revered.  Another one, "As Hai Low Kept House," tells of how a man with no common sense whatsoever ends up, quite by accident, becoming king.  There are more examples, but I don't want to belabor the point.

Several stories showed great thinkers who got themselves and others out of a bind by using their heads.  The book's namesake story, "Shen of the Sea," is about King Chieh Chung and how he tricked the shen of the sea so that his city would not be flooded. ("Shen" means demon or demons, kind of like "sheep" is singular or plural.)  "Long he stroked his beard, pondering, grieving, praying." (p. 34)  We could benefit by being more like that--pondering and praying.

My favorite story was "Four Generals."  Prince Chang left home to see the kingdom, but was very inexperienced and so got into a few binds and was helped by a fiddler (Tang), a tailor (Wang), a shepherd (Mang), and an archer (Lang).  To each of them he promised a generalship when he became king, at which they each laughed, thinking Chang just a poor traveller.  The old king soon died, and Chang did indeed become king, and at the same time, enemy armies approached the city.  Chang sent for his new friends--Tang, Wang, Mang and Lang--and made them generals.

The first battle was won by General Wang, the tailor.  He had all of the tailors in the city make uniforms for the army, hundreds and thousands of uniforms.  The small army marched past the enemy in one uniform, quickly changed to another color of uniform and marched past again, and again, and again.  Each time in a new color of uniform.  The enemy, scared of such a huge army, retreated.

The General Tang won the second battle.  He played such a song on his violin that made all the enemy soldiers weep and long for home.  "Morning saw the hostile camp deserted.  Soldier after soldier had stolen away in the darkness, thinking only of home" (p.93-94) 

Then comes Mang.  General Mang outsmarted the enemy in the next encounter by running sheep through the their camp.  Tired and very hungry, the men chased after the sheep and while they were gone, Mang burned their empty camp.

General Lang, the last of the group to show his colors, asked the king to decree "that all cases at law be settled by a trial with bow and arrow." (p. 95)  He showed great wisdom in this, for all cases brought to court would be decided by target practice.  Hence, all those going to court practiced with the bow many hours to be sure they would win.  When the enemy came again, the kingdom had a large force of archers with which to defend the kingdom.  Enemy spies had seen the new army of archers and simply went home.  "Thus, without loss of a man, was the kingdom saved for Chang, by Wang, Tang, Mang, and Lang." (p. 97)

Shen of the Sea and Tales from Silver Lands were not my favorites.  I prefer books that have a narrative running throughout.  I'm sure that cultural differences also influence my opinion.  Both of these books contain good stories, but I found it difficult to put myself into the characters' positions.  And that is what really draws me into a book, being able to see myself in the people living in the story.

Chrisman, Arthur Bowie.  Shen of the Sea.  E.P. Dutton & Co., 1925.

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