In a small town named the Run Run Town, everybody likes to run fast. They run and run, and “Wham!”—it is inevitable that they will collide into each other.
So begins The Run Run Town 跑跑镇, a Chinese picture book written by Yadong 亚东 and illustrated by Maikexiaokui 麦克小奎 (Tomorrow Publishing House, 2015). What happens after every collision is a playful rendition of the idea of “combination,” which, as the author points out in the afterword, is important in everything from the origin of life to written language, human imagination, science discoveries, and inventions. He gives two great examples: atoms combine to form molecules; combinations lead to innovations and the majority of patented inventions.
Some of the “combinations” in the picture books are whimsically fun. A cactus pot scuttles. A small fish rushes. They collide into each other right around the street corner and, voilà, a porcupine fish appears! A princess collides into a dolphin. Guess what we get? A mermaid! In the Run Run Town, even mountains are restless and don’t like to stay put. When a fire-breathing dragon crashes into a wandering mountain, a volcano is born.
Some combinations are inspired by Chinese language and culture. Why would the collision of a cat and an eagle produce an owl? Because in the Chinese vocabulary, “owl” is “mao tou ying 猫头鹰,” or “cat-headed eagle.” Steamed bread (馒头) and meat balls bump into each other head-on, and delicious steamed buns (包子) are ready to be served. If you are familiar with dim sum, you will appreciate that steamed buns with savory fillings are more popular than plain steamed bread.
Other combinations are based on science. A blotch of blue and a blotch of yellow rush to each other and merge into a splash of green, reminding us of Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni. A young man and a young woman dash towards each other, and, on the last page of the book, a happy nuclear family of three is born.
What collisions would you imagine if you are asked to add a picture or two to the book? When I tried to answer the question myself, I was tempted to come up with impressive invention ideas, but could not. So instead I will share cases of combinations I have found elsewhere.
The Classic of Mountains and Seas 山海经, a Chinese classic text that first appeared as early as the fourth century BC, describes mythical beings, gods, and deities. The creatures and stories in the book fascinated young people before children’s literature was intentionally produced in China at the turn of the twentieth century. (Lu Xun 鲁迅, regarded as China’s greatest modern writer, was a famous fan from boyhood.) There is a Chinese version of a “mermaid” in The Classic of Mountains and Seas: residents in a nation called Diren (氐人) are described as having human faces, the bodies of fish, and no feet (Chapter 10). The deity Yingzhao (英招) is another example among the numerous outlandish beings that are imaginatively formed by combining features from familiar species. This deity has a human face, the body of a horse with the stripes of a tiger, and a pair of wings (Chapter 2)—akin to griffins and centaurs found in Western mythology.
The ancient method of combination has been used to create “fantastic beasts” from the fourth century BC to the twenty-first century. The Classic of Mountains and Seas and J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, first published in 2001, bear astonishing similarities in both being a descriptive catalog of mythical creatures and strange beings.
Next time you spot those magical beings on the movie screen, you will be able to reverse engineer them and understand how they come to be—the niffler, which has its eye on glittery objects always; the bowtruckle, whose sharp fingers are good at picking locks; the occamy, which fiercely guards its eggs in pure silver; and many more. Combination is not for imagining fantastic creatures only. Isn’t the briefcase carried by Newt Scamander, the Magizoologist, a cross between Pandora’s box and a magical portal like the wardrobe in Narnia? Credence Barebones, the nervous and scared teenager who obeys an oppressive mother, can find his forebear in Hitchcock’s creation—Norman Bates, the young motel manager who has turned mother’s suppression into an uncontrollable destructive force.
Wu, Renchen 吳任臣 (annotator), and Shu Ya 舒雅 (illustrator). Shan Hai Jing Guang Zhu. Shan Hai Jing Tu 山海經廣注．山海經圖. China, between 1667 and 1722.
Yadong 亚东, and Maikexiaokui 麦克小奎 (illustrator). Paopao Zhen 跑跑镇. Di 1 ban. Jinan: Ming tian chu ban she, 2015.
Thanks go to Helen Wang, children’s literature translator, for her generous editing work and feedback to the first draft of this post!