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Sunday, 3 November 2013

When 15-Year-Old Girls Highlight Issues with Traditional Canon and Academia

By: Liberate Zealot

In class my students had to perform a summary and theme analysis of Chang'e and the Archer, a Chinese myth that is also known as the Moon Lady. It's the story of an immortal couple punished and sent to earth through the husband's attempts to save the people of earth.  His wife is upset and he goes in search of a way to become immortal again.  Versions of the myth disagree on wether it was a pill, potion, or magical apricot, but he gains one of these from the Queen Mother of the West. and it should be strong enough for both of them to return to heaven as immortals.  However, the archer doesn't tell his wife of this, instead he hides the pill/potion/apricot away because it must wait to mature, or be taken on a cloudless night.  He leaves and Chang'e finds the pill/potion/apricot and eats it.  However, she overdoses, or the night is cloudy, and instead of going to heaven she flies up to the moon instead.

Traditionally this story is meant to warm about the dangers of curiosity, taking things that don't belong to you, or warn women to be obedient.  However tradition is often most influenced by men.  My students, who generally don't have much experience in traditional critiques or theme analysis, and a girls raised in an increasingly feminist society, interpreted the myth quite differently.

Instead of being a lesson for Chang'e the morals were directed at her husband or men in general:
"Women will always find what you try to hide."
"Be honest with your partners."
"Don't hide things from you wife."

When it was a moral directed towards Chang'e it was about "don't allow yourself to be punished for someone else's actions."

And I know in so many classes or places my students would have been called wrong.  The morals they found were so far off from the "traditional" that many wouldn't pause to consider their validity.  Despite their answers being text based and ones they could argue and support such interpretations go against centuries of (male) thought that they must be wrong.

This ties into issues with academia, tradition, and interpretation in general. For so long the literary canon has been decided by the people with power in academia.  The proper interpretations of this canon were decided by these same people.  Centuries of traditional and academic correctness have been built by the values and ideas of these people.  And the vast majority of the time these people are men, mainly white men, who come from the upper and middle classes.
I'm a feminist, and I like to think I challenge such hegemonic and kyriarchal structures, but the truth is I was brought up in accordance to this structure.  I was brought up to accept the literary ideas of this culture, and I was brought up to articulate ideas in line with the culture.  And I was good at this.

But these black teenaged girls, from a poor city, who most would consider under-served by the educational system came up with interpretations that were more complex than the moral messages of tradition.  And in hindsight, I think their interpretations are also more correct.  Because why should a wife be punished for something her husband did that she had absolutely nothing to do with?  And what decent parter gains access to a powerful and potentially dangerous substance and doesn't warn their spouse?

Sure, "don't eat things when you don't know what they are" is an important lesson to teach.  But do we have to use grown women to teach lessons that most children learn by the time they're three?