Why is Embracing Local Story Traditions in Schools so Important?
By Tang Taminga
Children love stories. Globally there are some wonderful tales that provide lovely concepts and ideas. However, telling our children stories from the local culture should remain the main stay of the children’s story diet, as only these tales offer the child the imagery that can help them not only learn the psychology and values of the culture of the land, but also the spiritual wisdom. After all, stories have traditionally not been for children, but for adults who used these tales as entertainment to pass the long evenings as well as sources of wisdom: psychological, cultural and spiritual. Omitting these valuable and trusted sources for personal growth prevents children from discovering a deeper dimension of the self.
Taiwanese stories are a case in point. Though most children do know many Chinese stories, such as Fa Mulan, the stories of the festivals and the Chinese zodiac, the main stay of the Chinese children consists of cartoons and Disney-ized fairytales from the Grimm and Anderson tradition.
Taiwanese folktales are obviously not just Taiwanese. Over the centuries they have been influenced by Chinese stories and tales from the whole South East Asian region. Currently though the western cultural tradition has overtaken the shaping of the children’s imagination. This is unfortunate. “The folklore of a people is a window into its soul” writes Fred H. Lobb, one of the few teachers here who uses Taiwanese folktales in his classes. More even than the Western fairytales, Chinese tales teach children their place in the cosmos and how all life forms are interconnected. Below are some examples.
The Benevolent Universe
In “The Good Man and the Good Ox”, a man buys an ox destined to be slaughtered and keeps it at home. One night the ox starts to shout and dance, awakening the good man, who along with his family come out of the house to find out why their ox is making such a terrible noise. As they can’t figure out the reason, suddenly an earthquake takes place and causes their house to collapse. As the good man sleeps outside, he has a dream about his ox, who says, “Last time you saved my life at the market, today I saved your life from the earthquake.” The good man expresses his profound thanks to the ox in his dream and then asks, “But how did you know about the impending earthquake?” The ox answered that his grandfather is the ‘Earth Ox’, and warned him that he was about to turn over (causing the earthquake).
Superficially the story of the Good man and the good ox shows that good actions get rewards. It also shows the interdependence of nature and men and that the universe is fundamentally benevolent. One can connect to this benevolence through one’s benevolent actions and service. It also explains that while in western culture people refrain from horse, cat and dog meat, in Taiwan the older generation had an affectionate relation with its oxen that prevented them from eating their meat. In Taiwan, this story was common two generations ago. Today most people will be surprised. They have forgotten this source of living with reverence and thankfulness.
Nature and Man
The story of “The Umbrella Tree” can be seen as a simple moral tale where two brothers meet totally different fates due to their personality and fate. On a deeper level it explores the dependence of the human condition on a balanced ecology. A girl is sick because a frog’s home is blocked by a stone. There is no water because people didn’t remove a fallen tree. This natural intelligence is a gift to moral and inner-connected people. Learning through reference to natural wisdom may help us find reference for ourselves, as inner and outer ecology are inseparable.
Divinity as a Human Condition
All over the world stories show the importance of each and every action for building our future. Good begets good, bad results in bad. This moral connection is usually obvious in Taiwanese tales as well.
The real specialty of many of these Chinese folktales though is that morality can elevate one above the human level and helps achieve immortality, through the power of devotion and the close and intimate relation with God.
An example is “Chunmei’s Journey”. Chunmei lives with her precariously sick father on a small farm in the mountains. The people tell her to travel to a temple in the city to pray for her father’s recovery. The city is four days away and Chunmei can’t leave her father alone. As she can’t travel to the god, she decides to walk around the house for four days and then the fifth day pray fervently to the god and then walk again four days around the house as if she were walking back home.
During these days, a governor had ordered to be left alone in the temple in the city so that he could pray undisturbed. When he saw that he was not alone, but that a girl was also in the temple he got upset. He called the caretaker and asked them to chase away the girl. But when the caretaker looked around nobody could be found.
Meanwhile Chunmei’s father recovered. Everybody was surprised and attributed the cure to the temple’s god. The story of this spread far and wide and also came to the ear of the governor, who went to see Chunmei and her father himself. When he reached their house, he was surprised that the girl he had seen in the temple, was none other than Chunmei! He then realized that while she was unable to visit the god, her devotion had brought the god to her home!
The story of Chunmei shows that through sincere devotion, one can overcome one’s adversity and that the gods favor truthful sacrifice of the heart. The story of Guan Yin shows that one can join the ranks of the immortals through total dedication and personal sacrifice. The story of the Ten Suns show that divinity can be bestowed upon us through Divine Grace. From these stories we do get the feeling that immortality is an aspect of the human condition.
This again goes to show that what we call children’s tales today, in fact were sources of spiritual insight for adults who had no other means of sharing their wisdom in times that many people were excluded from government or academics. That many of these stories have found their way into temples and are celebrated today reflects the inclusive nature of the Buddhist and Taoist traditions which were open to all forms of worship.
Keeping these traditional stories alive in education is key to offering children the archetypical images that can help them develop their spirituality and inner wisdom.
In western cultures, there are many pre-Christian story sources which offer children the imagery that can similarly assist them in forming their spiritual nature. The Edda is an example. It is interesting that the church of the pre twentieth century was well aware of the spiritual importance of the traditional tales and therefore banned these as heretic and barbaric. In Europe, in what we now call fairytales, the peasants and uneducated found their sources of spiritual wisdom, something they were unable to get from the church services which were often conducted in Latin.
Today the major religions may be much more tolerant of traditional tales as they see these stories as ways of growing the spiritual nature of their members. Today the biggest threat to keeping local cultures alive is the overwhelming power of the market dynamics, and a gradually eroding awareness amongst teachers who are not aware of the need to embrace the local story tradition as a way of reconnecting them with their inner selves.