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Herrera shares Chinese tales

Posted: Thursday, Dec 13th, 2012

Julie Moss Herrera

Courier staff writer

ALAMOSA — When local storyteller Julie Moss Herrera visited China in 2008, she promised her hosts — and herself — that she would help others understand the Chinese people and their culture by sharing their stories with new audiences.

Four and a half years later, she’s continuing to fulfill her promise with the publication of a new book, “Old China Through the Eyes of a Storyteller.”

Herrera will be reading some of those stories this Friday, Dec. 14, with a book release party at Milagros Coffeehouse on Main Street from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Her anthology of more than a dozen Chinese folktales came about after a two-week trip that she and other storytellers made to Beijing, Shanghai and Guizhou Province, courtesy of the National Storytelling Network and People to People Ambassador Programs.

During that time, they met scholars, folklorists, storytellers, museum guides, schoolchildren and rural villagers — each of whom had their own stories to share.

Herrera, for one, found that the tour dramatically changed her own perceptions of China.

Before the trip, her opinions about the country were shaped in part by memories that her mother’s close friend disappeared during Mao Zedong’s so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Yet she quickly learned that Chinese people are basically the same as Americans are: They love their families and they work hard for a living.

While many local residents might not have the opportunity to visit China, Herrera believes that stories can help bridge the gap between the two cultures.

Readers shouldn’t have to search too hard to find universal themes in “Old China,” such as the idea that good will ultimately prevail over evil.

Sometimes, the moral of the story might be overt, but other stories carry more subtle messages, Herrera said.

“The Snipe and the Mussel” was the first story she learned to tell, with the help of Dr. Yang Lihui, a professor of folklore and anthropology at Beijing Normal University; it definitely falls into the overt category.

It’s the story of a futile dispute between a bird and a clam that doesn’t end well for either side.

The moral of the story is that it’s in the interests of both sides to reach a compromise — a message that Herrera considers to be every bit as timely as it was 2,300 years ago.

“As our world becomes more and more hazardous, this story tackles the need for us to look carefully at our confrontational attitudes,” she said. “Do we really need to escalate every encounter to a confrontation?”

Herrera had a much harder time mastering “The Legend of the White Snake,” which was recently adapted into a movie starring Jet Li.

Without spoiling too much, the story tells the tale of a man who unknowingly falls in love with an ancient spirit.

While it might not be appropriate for younger children, Herrera found herself drawn to the concepts of Qi, or energy flow, and shapeshifting.

Folklorists believe the story dates back to the Tang Dynasty, which ran from the Seventh to 10th Centuries. However, the legend changed over time as it passed down from one generation to the next. Eventually, it made its way from Dr. Kang Li of the China Folklore Society to Herrera.

Many other Chinese folktales followed similarly circuitous paths over the years, decades and centuries.

But amazingly, they survived the tumultuous years of the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s, when Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution upended Chinese society.

In those days, urban students, intellectuals and big-city professionals by the millions were forced to perform menial labor in the countryside; others ended up in “reeducation camps.”

At the same time, symbols of old China were denounced, destroyed or hidden away.

Life in China’s still-famished rural areas was by no means easy during the Cultural Revolution. But Herrera said that residents in the countryside managed to keep the storytelling tradition alive.

That’s partly because Mao idealized peasants — in theory, at least. As a group, then, they weren’t subjected to the scale of abuse that many urbanites endured.

The traditions also survived in some of China’s remote mountainous areas, where storytelling villages are now considered to be national treasures.

As Mao’s successors began to liberalize China’s economy, a storytelling renaissance soon followed in the mid- to late-1980s.

Today, Herrera notes that storytelling in China is widely accepted as an art form, as evidenced by the fact that it’s included in the curriculum at one school she and other tour members visited.

With the recent publication of her book, Herrera now hopes that local readers will have a chance to enjoy and learn some of those same stories.

Those interested in buying a copy of Herrera’s book can drop by Milagros between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Friday. For more information, go to: www.parkhurstbrothers.com, or contact Herrera at: 588-2583.

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