Shelley Fu sorely resented her parents for making her study Mandarin after school. "I had temper tantrums when I saw my friends going out to play and I had to read and write Chinese lessons," says Fu, whose parents fled mainland China for Taiwan during the 1949 communist revolution and ended up raising her in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Those lessons included copying down classic Chinese folktales, which her mother often read to her at bedtime. Her favorite was the story of Ho Yi the archer, a god who kills several of the Celestial Ruler's sons in order to save the earth and becomes embittered after he and his wife are banished to the human realm as punishment. "He reminded me of the tragic heroes of Greek mythology, especially Hercules," says Fu.
Ho Yi's story is one of seven in Fu's new book, Ho Yi the Archer and Other Classic Chinese Tales, which begins with "Pan Gu and the Creation," a story that dates back to at least 1100 BC and is about "the first living human being figure, sort of the Adam in Chinese mythology." Fu did most of her research at home, at the Harold Washington Library Center, and at the Chinatown library (which, she says, is "an excellent resource for parents who want to teach their children Chinese").
She began studying literature by accident. She initially attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison on an engineering scholarship, and needed a 3.5 grade point average to keep it. "I wasn't doing that unless I took English classes," she says. "I'd get an A in English and that would pull me up to where I should be. I would watch all of these people who were talented at calculus and physics whizzing through classes. That's how I felt about English classes. I realized I should follow my natural talents, so I switched to the English department."
Although her scholarship was revoked, she finished college and went on to earn a master's degree in contemporary American literature from Marquette University (her thesis was on Ernest Hemingway, whom she admired at the time but now finds "a little bit overrated").
Over time she'd amassed an impressive collection of books--her favorite authors these days are Flannery O'Connor, Dostoyevsky, and Balzac--and a few years ago she was looking through them when she came upon the Chinese stories from which she'd copied as a child. "I started reading them and thought they were pretty good," she says. "I thought I could translate them and embellish them, and maybe somebody would want them.
"My hope is that people gain insight into Chinese culture and appreciate these stories--and most of all be entertained by them." To further these varied ends the book also includes a brief history of China, a bibliography, a pronunciation guide, a list of characters, and an explanation following each story--making it one of the most comprehensive works in English on its subject.
"I had to compile all the versions and resolve some of the discrepancies," she says. "Most were historical accounts, which were very dry, because a long time ago the Chinese thought of these myths as actual history, and so they wrote them as history. I had to do some adding of dialogue, and I put myself in the characters' heads so I could add some color to it, and some feeling."
She had research help from her father, a retired English professor who's an expert in Chinese history. "I would E-mail him with a bunch of questions, and he'd E-mail me back these detailed answers," she says. "That was a great help." He also did the calligraphy for the book, and a friend of her mother helped her find a publisher. A coworker at the environmental engineering company where she works as a technical writer did the ink drawings.
As for her parents, says Fu, "I'm sure it wasn't easy on them either, but I think they're glad they forced me all those years ago to learn Chinese."
She'll read from and discuss her book Friday, December 14, at 7:30 at Barbara's Bookstore, 1350 N. Wells (312-642-5044).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.