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Siobhan McDermott on the Chinese Myth and Folklore That Inspired Paper Dragons

Posted on 1st February 2024 by Anna Orhanen

An incredible adventure to an underwater realm, Siobhan McDermott's Paper Dragons – our Children's Book of the Month for February – follows orphan Zhi Ging as she becomes an apprentice to the Immortals. In this exclusive piece, the author talks about growing up in Hong Kong and how the presence of Chinese folklore and mythology in her childhood sowed the seeds of the story she tells in Paper Dragons. 

A distinct golden strand of storytelling weaves itself through centuries of Chinese mythology: the quest for immortality. Folktales passed down through generations are filled with countless sweeping epics of both immortal heroes and those determined to achieve their own immortality, by whatever means necessary. At its core, Paper Dragons is another adventure that follows this rich tradition. It’s this chance at immortality, rather than a promise of wealth, power, or land, that drives the six province rulers across Wengyuen to push their children into competing for places at Hok Woh, the underwater realm of the immortal Cyo B’Ahon.  

Growing up in Hong Kong, many Chinese legends had a strong presence in my life, their shimmering influence shaping core memories throughout my childhood. From Mid-Autumn Festivals spent leaping over glowing, candle-filled sand pits on the beach at Discovery Bay, ribbons of light trailing behind us as my cousins and I swung lanterns in the air, to birthdays filled with both cake and freshly steamed lotus-seed paste buns. My childhood was all the richer for living in a city where folktales and myths were reshared each year not just through words, but through celebrations of spectacle and sound. Many of the characters across Paper Dragons, particularly those who have already achieved immortality, have been given names that double as subtle nods to some of the most recognisable and retold tales in Chinese mythology. 

Sintou, the secretive Head of the Cyo B’Ahon, is named after the peaches of immortality — also known as longevity peaches. The original myth shares the story of a goddess who cares for an orchard filled with peaches that only ripen once every few thousand years. Any guests lucky enough to be served these peaches at her banquet will gain the gift of immortality. Some retellings of this legend double the guests’ fortune, seeing them blessed with both immortality and eternal youth — a legacy which has been translated in Paper Dragons into the Cyo B’Ahons’ ability to ageshift at will, regularly returning to their former younger selves. 

While the most famous story about peaches of immortality is undoubtedly found in Wu Cheng’en’s 16th century novel Journey to the West, the appearance of these mythical fruits isn’t simply restricted to folktales and legends. Instead, symbolic longevity peaches can be found across Chinese art, sculpture and even at wedding banquets. A personal favourite is bamboo steamers piled high with sau tou bao, steamed buns shaped to resemble peaches of immortality. These soft dessert buns are brushed with a delicate pink colouring and filled with an unbelievably moreish lotus seed paste that gives the buns a distinct, luxurious nutty flavour. Served at important moments of celebration, a steamer filled with these buns is the first dessert Zhi Ging enjoys at Hok Woh when, for the first time in her life, she finds friends amongst her fellow apprentice immortals.  

Reishi, the Scout who invites Zhi Ging to Hok Woh, is named for a species of mushroom native to East Asia which, according to Chinese legends, give those who eat them the ability to achieve immortality. Just like the peaches of immortality, they can be found across Chinese art, with images of immortals and gods painted surrounded by clusters of these mushrooms. Another common artistic pairing for these mushrooms is cranes. In Chinese mythology, certain immortals travel on the backs of cranes while others have the ability to transform into the long-necked birds themselves. Because of this, cranes have become a common symbol of longevity and immortality in Chinese culture. There really was no other possible name in Paper Dragons for the home of the immortals than Hok Woh, which translates as ‘crane’s nest’.

Yuttou, a crew member on Zhi Ging’s dragon boat team, is named after a minor character in one of the most beloved of Chinese legends: the story of Chang’e. There are many variations of this legend retold every Mid-Autumn Festival, but the version passed down to me tells of Hou Yi, an archer, and his wife Chang’e. The story is set during a time when humans suffer under the oppressive, blazing heat of ten suns that fill the horizon. Hou Yi succeeds in shooting down nine of these suns from the sky and is rewarded by a god with two elixirs that, once drunk, would grant both he and Chang’e immortality on earth. 

However, this is not where this tale ends. Chang’e wants the power for herself and, while her husband is away, steals the two elixirs and drinks them both. As soon as she finishes the second potion, she gains celestial powers and floats up towards the heavens. The god who gifted the elixirs banishes Chang’e to the moon for betraying her husband. There she spends the rest of her days accompanied by yut tou, a rabbit who works hard at creating batches of immortality elixirs. The next time there’s a full moon, particularly a supermoon, make sure to step outside and try to spot the outline of yut tou hard at work with a mortar and pestle — once you spot this rabbit contrasted against the moon’s glowing surface, you’ll never unsee it! 

For those who have finished reading Paper Dragons, Chang’e’s desire for immortality, her hunger for powers not attainable by mere humans, casts a shadowy eclipse across the motives of this story’s main antagonist.  

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