It is not easy to predict which readers will best appreciate this little book of wisdom. Modern audiences
think themselves so sophisticated that it will be difficult to persuade many of them even to look inside, such is the simplicity
of the presentation – a stark white cover with the title in the plainest of typefaces and a small one-colour sketch
of a "typical" Chinese landscape on the front.
It would be a pity if they were put off, because Mary Ng has gone to some trouble to re-tell these traditional
fables, many of them quite ancient in their origins, successfully adapting them for a 21st-century readership.
She hopes that "anyone who wants to learn about Chinese culture" will appreciate the book, but does not make what seemed to
me the obvious suggestion that children might also enjoy it. I think this is because she does not talk down to the reader,
but presents the fables as stories that are a little more complex than what we are used to from Aesop.
Take the fable of The Frog in the Well, for example. I have read something very like this before,
in the form of Voltaire’s Histoire d’un bon brahman (which just goes to show that there is such a thing
as a universal truth) and it gives pause for thought. The moral, in fact, is "Ignorance is bliss, but who wants to be ignorant?"
(or something along those lines. Could a child be expected to understand this? A teenager, perhaps, might, but probably not
a child of primary age. This is presumably why Ms Ng aims her book at "parents and teachers", who will, she hopes, be able
to interpret the tales in an appropriate form of words.
I think I would have liked her to be more ambitious. This book, as presented, falls between two stools. It
is neither colourful and inventive enough to attract children (or their parents, who, let’s face it, buy most of their
books for them) nor focused enough to inspire adults – with the exception of the minority who genuinely are interested
in Chinese culture.
If you look more closely at this last category, the potential is considerable. In parts of Canada, where
the book was published, there are Chinese communities whose members, in the second and third generation, may well look favourably
on it, and this should also be true in the USA and even parts of the UK. As far as the general public goes, however, I fear
that Chinese Fables will not pick up as many readers as it deserves.