by Donna Jo Napoli
Reading this retelling of the “Chinese Cinderella” story was a painful experience for me. I could not even tell if it is well told, as stories go, because I was so distracted by all the inaccuracies in Napoli’s portrayal of Chinese cultures, customs, characters, and philosophies.
Here are some examples of my understanding that does not coincide with Napoli’s text. Granted, I need to do more research and see if maybe my understanding is not universally correct..
A second wife of a man is not the “Stepmother” of his children by the other wife. She is the “auntie-mom” or “second mother.” A stepmother is the wife of a second, separate marriage after the first wife is no longer around.
Napoli’s misunderstanding of Chinese words is glaringly annoying: A Carp (li 3rd tone) and the word Advantage (li the 4th tone) look and sound completely differently — yes, in English, you see them both sound as “Li” — but their tones are different, and thus a Chinese speaker will not confuse these two at all. There is no way that Xing Xing (the main character) can paint/carve one of these two words to set up a “pun” in the ceramics she made. And would a Chinese native speaker say something like this, “‘Ming means ‘bright’ with a second tone. The word for ‘destiny’ sounds the same but with another tone.”????? If they are speaking Chinese (which they are supposed to be doing in the story,) there will be no need to point out the tonal differences because by SPEAKING them, the different tones are already apparent.
Also — homophones are the most common in Chinese language. All the following are of the same pronunciation (and it’s only 5 out of a possible 20 or so homophones): Ming = bright, Ming = name, Ming = bird call, Ming = remembrance, Ming = hell/world of the spirits. Yes, the Chinese do have word plays, and much of such plays relies on the confusion of homophones… but, the way Napoli wrote it, you can just tell that she does not really GET this language. This is the same throughout the book: reading it feels like reading a Chinese History 101 text, with pieces of a tale stuck uncomfortably on the margins. A most painful experience…