Thursday, 19 January 2023

From Guan Yin to Xuanzang - a road trip through Chinese myth and history by Maisie Chan

I’m Maisie Chan, the author of award-winning Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths. I’m going to chat with you today about a couple of books - Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu and Bedtime Stories: Amazing Asian Tales from the Past and how they feature some famous Chinese mythical and historical figures.
I’m known for humorous family tales set in the UK that feature British Chinese characters. Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu is about a girl who looks after her grandfather who is acting strange. He tells her stories about his favourite goddess Guan Yin (also spelt Kwan Yin, Kuan Yin and Gwan Yin). She is a Chinese deity that people in East and Southeast Asia still pray to.
She is the goddess of compassion and mercy. She features in many stories, sometimes they are fantastical and often they have a moral tale. In my novel, I retold four Chinese stories that feature Guan Yin. One of the stories that Guan Yin appears in is The Journey to The West – it is the most famous Chinese novel written by Wu Cheng’en; published in the 16th Century. It’s about a monk called Tripitaka (which is his Buddhist name) who is given a set of misfit companions by Guan Yin. They’re his protectors as the journey is full of demons and obstacles. His most famous companion is the mischievous Monkey King.

By coincidence, Scholastic asked me if I wanted to write a story for Bedtime Stories: Amazing Asian Tales from the Past. They had a list of historical figures - I chose Xuanzang. He travelled from China to India because he wanted to translate and return to China with updated Buddhist scriptures. This is the real life person that Wu Cheng’en was inspired by when he began writing The Journey to the West!
Xuanzang became a Buddhist monk before he was an adult. He followed in his brother’s footsteps. His life up to his teenage years were not easy. His parents had passed away, his country was experiencing civil war and he and his brother had to find refuge in a new city. When reading the Buddhist scriptures Xuanzang found they were incomplete or did not always make sense because of the poor translation. He decided that he wanted to go to India himself, learn Sanskrit and go on an adventure.
However, Emperor Taizong forbade him from leaving. Xuanzang made the decision to sneak out because he felt it was his destiny. It was a big risk for him to go without the proper travel passes. He travelled the Silk Road with merchants. But he encountered quite a few obstacles. He was abandoned by the merchants, had to cross tough terrain and in one town, a King wanted to keep him there FOREVER. But Xuanzang had a mission, he needed to make it to India. He persuaded the king to let him go. After more treacherous travel he finally made it.

He did what he set out to do, he learned Sanskrit. And in AD 645 decided to head back to China with newly translated Buddhist scriptures. His writings were the foundation of Buddhism in China where it is one of the most popular religions.

When I wrote Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu I was thinking about her road trip as an inner journey as well as an external one of getting to Blackpool to have some fun. I wondered how she and her friends would be changed by that trip? And who or what might stand in her way. I think of road trips in stories as a great way for the main characters to learn something about themselves, other people, and the world around them.

Writing exercise:
Think of a historical figure. Write a contemporary story about a road trip with this person and you, or a character you make up. Where would you take them? Who would you meet on the way? What would happen once you got there?

Maisie Chan is a children's author whose debut novel DANNY CHUNG DOES NOT DO MATHS won the Jhalak Prize and the Branford Boase Award in 2022. It was also shortlisted for the Blue Peter Book Awards and Diverse Book Awards 2022.

Her latest novel KEEP DANCING, LIZZIE CHU is out now with Piccadilly Press. She also writes the series TIGER WARRIOR for younger readers. She has written early readers for Hachette and Big Cat Collins, and has a collection of myths and legends out with Scholastic. She runs the Bubble Tea Writers Network to support and encourage writers of East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) descent in the U.K. She has a dog called Miko who has big eyes. She lives in Glasgow with her family.

You can buy Maisie's books here.

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