Happy Chinese New Year!
Happy Chinese New Year to you all! To celebrate, this month we're publishing the wonderful Moon Princess by Barbara Laban – a stunning, magical debut set in Shanghai. Barbara has always had a fascination with China – here, she tells us why it's such a fantastic setting for a children's book.
Why study Chinese? is one of the questions I heard frequently when I was a student. Because I like to start things from scratch, I always answered. Many years later with a lot of career changes behind me, I think I have proved my point.
However, this is only half the truth. I was fascinated by all things Chinese even when I was a little girl. For example, take Chinese paper umbrellas: the small ones that you decorate your ice cream with. Unroll the little paper scrolls that are used to unfold the umbrella and you will find a secret message, written in Chinese characters. It took me a while to figure out that they are simply made out of old newspapers, and deep down I still believe in their mystery.
Or the bamboo scroll in my grandmother’s hall featuring Chinese mountains, a waterfall and a river. It made me want to travel to a place like this every time I looked at it.
I was nineteen when I first travelled to Taiwan on a student exchange programme. From the moment I arrived, I loved the contrast of old and new. The colourful temples among high-rise apartment blocks; the food stalls on roads heavily congested with traffic. I loved the stories my local friends would tell me, although sometimes they were so complex that they were hard to follow. Today, I still find Chinese mythology incredibly rich (and occasionally confusing), and there’s an infinite number of proverbs that arise from these very stories. As a foreigner studying Chinese, you never stop learning.
In China, no one shared my superstition of the number thirteen, but suddenly four was an unlucky number (in Chinese it is pronounced like the word for ‘death’); you were not allowed to give someone an umbrella as a gift (because the word ‘umbrella’ is pronounced exactly like the word for ‘break up’); and there were a number of fruit and vegetables to be eaten on certain occasions for good luck and health. I loved the fact that everything was totally different and yet still made sense. No wonder that – yet another career move – I thought China would be an amazing setting for a children’s book.
Writing Moon Princess gave me the chance to travel to the East in my mind. First to buzzing Shanghai, then to a more remote place: the Fragrant Mountain Temple in the province of Henan in central China.
Maybe the book will inspire some readers to look for mysteries in faraway places, or even closer to home. I still continue to look for messages in my paper umbrellas.
Find out more about Moon Princess!