Fairy tale transformations in the Chinese internet and the representation of women and girls

Ever since childhood I loved fairy tales and I still do so now. But only about a year ago I started searching for Chinese fairy tales online. I don’t know why it took me so long to also start checking out fairy tale and story telling apps, but I finally did it. I presented some ideas and mostly questions around those apps (and a game) at the “Age Agency Ambiguity – gender and generation in times of change” conference in Oslo this year.

The questions revolved around the digital telling of stories: How do fairy-tales and the telling and consuming of fairy tales change in the internet? Does story-telling differ much from reading fairy tale books, shows in the radio, theatre, comic strips, and films or do fairy tale apps (and also digital games) merely broaden or even enhance and combine all other forms of story telling? There is a long standing history of studying fairy tales alongside changing technology, and while fairy tales are very flexible and lend themselves to changes in presentation, they undergo transformations with changing technology. The presentation was based on a feminist approach to fairy tales, resting on a tradition of studying women and girls in mostly Western fairy tales, and the importance and neglect of women collectors and story tellers.

What I wanted to present in Oslo were first the princesses in fairy tales in China. However, most princesses in China are often Disney princesses and I found much more interesting characters: Little Red Riding Hood, The Girl With a Pin in Her Head from story-telling apps, and the most vicious bird in Chinese history in the game Ubume (in the Chinese game Yinyangshi, here’s her cosplay version). The apps I looked at were for children age below 5, and age 6-8. Apps for younger children are often audio-apps. The thumbnails attract a certain age and sex, but otherwise the stories come without pictures. In the reading apps anything is read, from Snow White (among the most popular fairy tales) to Journey to the West, to Frozen, a film that sparked a lot of discussion among researchers in the west, but also among women bloggers in China who found that the film’s value lies in that it promotes living on one’s own strength as a woman and not having to rely on men. Apps for older children included short films.

After providing historical background of feminist theories of and approaches to fairy tales and a brief account of fairy tales in China, I introduced the apps and the game and discussed how the fairy tales are visualized and told and how they changed in their digital forms. As a very preliminary conclusion I found that
1) fairy tales indeed undergo transformations when told in apps, and more interestingly so in games. The stories in apps – only spoken, visualized in films or static pictures like in a book – and the possibilities to switch between diverse stories in apps enables children to gain greater intertextuality abilities at a higher pace. Intertextuality is a necessity that helps to understand mostly visual but also textual clues that children and adults are exposed to in different media (including apps, films, TV shows etc).
2) Chinese stories are put into the category of fairy tales. While there used to be the consent that fairy tales are largely Western which found their way to China only in the beginning of the 20th century, app makers add Chinese tales under the category of ‘fairy tale’. Although under scrutiny, such stories indeed fall into the category of fairy tales, they have hitherto not been clearly categorized and studied as such; app-makers change this.
3) In visual terms, Chinese and Western (Grimm/Andersen) originated tales are told with different images to distinguish their origins (that includes the landscape background, e.g. typical Yangshuo-like mountains for Chinese landscapes; Dutch windmills to denote Western stories and the like).
4) Girls and women are depicted in international slender standards and with either cute large manga-style sprinkling eyes for good characters and certain make-up and sharp-edged clothing (and no sparkling eyes) for evil characters. Ubume, the evil bird character, is represented in a style that fits into modern youth culture of not abhorring ‘evil, but one can admire her vicious beauty and strength.

Much more needs to be explored in story-telling apps. For example, it would be interesting to see whether story app makers are more men or women and how this changes the story-telling and selection. As those 19th century men who wrote down and published the stories that became fairy tales inserted their male-centred world-view into the fairy tales, could contemporary women app-makers take the chance to reclaim the stories or are they bound by capitalist values?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Write a Comment

* Required