Extra by Yiyun Li Short Story Analysis

“Extra” is a short story by Chinese-American author Yiyun Li. Deborah Treisman and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum discuss this story in 2021 at the New Yorker Fiction podcast. This was the second story Yiyun Li published anywhere. “Extra” was included in Li’s 2005 debut collection A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers.

Brilliant and original, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers introduces a remarkable new writer whose breathtaking stories are set in China and among Chinese Americans in the United States. In this rich, astonishing collection, Yiyun Li illuminates how mythology, politics, history, and culture intersect with personality to create fate.

From the bustling heart of Beijing, to a fast-food restaurant in Chicago, to the barren expanse of Inner Mongolia, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers reveals worlds both foreign and familiar, with heartbreaking honesty and in beautiful prose.

CHARACTERS OF ANY AGE CAN ‘COME OF AGE’

When we think of a ‘coming-of-age’ story we generally think of teenagers and young adults. Yiyun Li’s “Extra” is a good example of a coming-of-age story about a character who is in many ways a metaphorical newborn but not young in years.

As the story opens Granny Lin has just lost the job she worked at for her whole life. She is about to describe the experience as a dream. Yiyun Li could have chosen to interweave prior experience into Granny Lin’s story of the present, but did not. Granny Lin is an excellent example of a truly in statu nascendi character. Another author who wrote like this was Modernist short story writer of the early 20th century, Katherine Mansfield.

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

“Extra” is a wonderful example of a short story which avoids giving the main character backstory. This isn’t just done to keep the short story short. There’s a narrative reason for it.

As an aside, the author has claimed that at time of writing she barely knew what a backstory was, a good example of how authors don’t necessarily need to know all the theory and literary terms before writing an excellent story. Some do, of course. Margaret Atwood can talk at length about storytelling as a craft, linking it to history, politics and myth.

Readers don’t realise until after the reading experience how adeptly Yiyun Li transitions between summary and scene. Sarah Shun-lien Bynum points out, “We barely notice the shifts between summary and scene because the routines of her life and the habits she creates are all summarised, but the summaries are rendered as visibly and palpably as a scene would be.”

The descriptions of routine — technically flashbacks — are so vivid and engaging that we don’t realise we’re not in the present time.

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A Sheltered Woman by Yiyun Li Short Story Analysis

“A Sheltered Woman” is a short story by Chinese-American writer Yuyun Li, and a subversion on the trope of the domestic suspense story. In a subcategory of these stories, an unstable woman enters the family home and threatens the family unit.

These domestic suspense stories — in which the woman a mother trusts most turns out to be a homicidal killer — have been around for a long time, but found a new lease of life with The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992) about an evil nanny.

After her humiliated husband kills himself, an embittered pregnant widow loses her child, and embarks on a mission of vengeance against a woman and her family.

Logline of The Hand That Rocks The Cradle

Domestic suspense was already back in fashion with the 1987 success of Fatal Attraction. Some commentators have no ideological issues with the Hand That Rocks The Cradle, and consider the opening scene of molestation followed by miscarriage an accurate insight into the lack of agency afforded women during the period of time around childbirth. Writer Amanda Silver inserted some feminist talking points and the story was taken as feminist (a trick utilised later by Gillian Flynn for Gone Girl, cf. The Cool Girl paragraph).

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Chinoiseries and Picture Books Analysis

Illustrators of fairy tales frequently choose styles that evoke the periods of history not particularly related to the tales but that they perceive to share the values they find in the tales.

Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

Children’s picture books draw from a great number of traditions. One of those is ‘chinoiseries’, a European mimicry of Chinese art.

Walter Crane (1845 - 1915) 1875 "Death of the Magician" illustration for his own book "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp"
Walter Crane (1845 – 1915) 1875 “Death of the Magician” illustration for his own book “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp”
William Worcester Churchill (1858 - 1926) The Chinese Vase
William Worcester Churchill (1858 – 1926) The Chinese Vase
Owen Jones Grammar of Ornament Chinese No 3
Owen Jones Grammar of Ornament Chinese No 3

Chinoiserie: a decorative style in Western art, furniture, and architecture, especially in the 18th century, characterized by the use of Chinese motifs and techniques.

The word ‘chinoiseries’ denotes a European art style dominated by pseudo-Chinese ornamental motifs evoking a romanticized or fairy-tale East. [… This] style exudes a longing for a newly romanticized medieval “Cathay”.

Objectifying China*, Imagining America: Chinese Commodities in Early America by Caroline Frank

(In earlier eras, Northern China used to be known in English speaking areas as ‘Cathay’, from ‘Catai’. The south was called ‘Mangi’.)

A standout example of chinoiseries are the popular engravings of French artist Francois Boucher (1740s onwards).

Boucher borrowed details from:

  • Chinese woodblock prints
  • a Turkish designer
  • Arnold Montaneus’s 1671 Atlas Chinensis. Montaneus was a Dutch teacher and author.
In 1929, Bathrooms with an Asian Motif became the rage for "Middle" & "Upper Class" New Yorkers
In 1929, Bathrooms with an Asian Motif became the rage for “Middle” & “Upper Class” New Yorkers

Japan Work (late 17th century — 19th century)

This term referred to pseudo-lacquered furniture featuring chinoiserie decorations actually applied in Europe. It also referred to tin-glazed earthenware pottery, metalwork and textiles with the same decorations.

Furniture which has undergone this treatment is said to be ‘japanned’.

James Jacques Joseph Tissot - Young Women Looking at Japanese Objects
James Jacques Joseph Tissot – Young Women Looking at Japanese Objects
Illustration for Alexander Pushkin's 'Fairytale of the Tsar Saltan', 1905 (colour litho), Bilibin, Ivan Jakovlevich, influenced by Japanese art.
Illustration for Alexander Pushkin’s ‘Fairytale of the Tsar Saltan’, 1905 (colour litho), Bilibin, Ivan Jakovlevich, influenced by Japanese art.
Le Lotus Bleu, 'Les Aventures de Tintin reporter en Extrême-Orient ' 1936 chinoiserie, Herge
Le Lotus Bleu, ‘Les Aventures de Tintin reporter en Extrême-Orient ‘ 1936 chinoiserie, Herge. When Westerners attempt Chinese characters they usually get it very wrong. It’s unclear what this is meant to say. Perhaps an attempt at ‘fish leg rice’? Probably intended nonsense, a bit like the faux-Japanese song Yama Yama.
Ramon Casas (Spanish, 1866-1932)
Ramon Casas (Spanish, 1866-1932)

Modern Chinoiserie

Perhaps you have some examples of chinoiserie in your own environment?

Atkinson Grimshaw - Summer
Atkinson Grimshaw – Summer (1875)

Features of Chinoiseries

  • Tropical exoticism is exaggerated
  • It is based on a fanciful European interpretation of ‘Chinese’ styles which may not be Chinese at all, but from Japan, Korea or Turkey. In earlier eras (and into the present) Westerners were unable to distinguish between different parts of the East. It was simply ‘exotic’. If it’s Western art inspired by Japan, then some use the word ‘japonaiserie’.
  • Chinoiserie was most popular during the rococo period (1750-70), a movement known for its light-heartedness but also for its heavy detail.
  • It’s not really Chinese or even Asian art, because the materials required to create it weren’t available in Europe or America.
  • Dragons, exotic birds, ‘Chinamen’ and women dressed in traditional Chinese clothing, fu-manchu beards, ponytails, multi-tier structures with those pointed, sweeping up roofs (pagodas), pink and white lotus leaves, bamboo plants, weeping willows and other Chinese vegetation, blue-and-white ware, hump-backed bridges, water gardens, misty mountain-scapes
  • Chinoiserie may contain shapes such as this:
modern-oriental-shapes

CHINOISERIE AND CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

The standout example of fake Eastern stories influencing the views of Western children are Tales of the Arabian Nights.

I was given an anthology of Arabian Nights as a kid and this thick book sat on the shelf right beside the Grimm fairytales. My edition was more modern, but it was Walter Crane who came out with the first picture book on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp. These were coloured lithographs. The story was ostensibly about a Chinese boy and set in China, though Crane was actually influenced by Japanese woodcuts, especially those by Hiroshige.

Other examples can be found among the illustrations of Hans Christian Andersen’s pseudo-Chinese “The Nightingale”. The art in an edition illustrated by Nancy Ekholm Burkert is a mixture of chinoiserie and art nouveau.

Header painting by Austrian Carl Moll, artist of the Art Nouveau era (1861 – 1945).

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The Story About Ping Picture Book Study Analysis

Despite the Chinese setting, the author of The Story About Ping (1933) is American, born on Long Island, in fact.

I’m reminded of the work of Margaret Wise Brown in that both Wise Brown and Flack had the uncanny knack of including the most unlikely details, which they somehow knew would appeal to young children. While Brown is writing a story about saying goodnight to all of the things in and outside a bedroom, Flack just knows to put eyes on the boat.

Basically, The Story About Ping is an adventure story with mythic structure. The journey takes place down a river.

First published in 1933, it belongs to the first golden age of children’s literature. This applies in both year of publication as well as in morals: Children in this first golden age were expected to take ill treatment on the chin and face up to their infractions of rules set by (supposedly caring) adults in authority.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

The illustrator, however, did live in China for six years as a young man. (Kurt Wiese is German.) He lived in a variety of different countries. It’s interesting, therefore, to look at his choice of colour palette, which is quite unusual. For him, China is cast in a yellow hue.

about-ping-yellow-cast

Asian Dust (also yellow dust, yellow sand, yellow wind or China dust storms) is a meteorological phenomenon which affects much of East Asia year round but especially during the spring months. The dust originates in the deserts of Mongolia, northern China and Kazakhstan where high-speed surface winds and intense dust storms kick up dense clouds of fine, dry soil particles.

Asian Dust, Wikipedia
yellow-dusts-beijing-2010

The colour palette of The Story About Ping was replicated a decade later by illustrator Carolin Jackson who created “The Story of China” for children, published 1945. According to the mid-20th century conceptualisation of China, the place features a lot of primary yellow.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE STORY ABOUT PING

PARATEXT

Ping was an adventurous duck who lived on a beautiful wise-eyed boat on the Yangtze River. He liked his life on the riverboat just and liked his large family and his kind master. He didn’t like to be the last in line to board the boat at night, for that unlucky duck got a loud spank. So what did Ping do when it seemed that he would be the last on line? What else but set out on his own to explore the fascinating world of life on the Yangtze River.

The Story about Ping is one of the best-loved and enduring children’s books, both for its spirited and irrepressible hero and for its beautiful evocation of a distant land and way of life. Every child can sympathize with a dawdling duck who wants to avoid a spanking, and share his excitement and wonder as he sails down the river.

MARKETING COPY

SHORTCOMING

Ping’s shortcoming is that he doesn’t pay attention to home time. And when he realises he’s late to get back onto his boat he ‘chickens out’ of going home at all — he is too scared to face the whipping he’ll get for being the last.

DESIRE

But after a night in the reeds he is lonely and wants to find his way back to his family.

Here the reader looks over Ping's shoulders. This encourages us to identify with Ping.
Here the reader looks over Ping’s shoulders. This encourages us to identify with Ping.

OPPONENT

A boy falls overboard and finds him. The mother is the main opponent; she wants to cook Ping up for dinner.

PLAN

The boy is the one with the plan. (In a picture book this often happens — the dual role of ‘hero’ of the story is shared between an animal character and a human character. Hence, the story steps switch to the human character at some point. The boy plans to release the duck before his mother can cook him. He comes very close to death, because dusk is falling outside the basket and he’s trapped inside.

BIG STRUGGLE

Ping walks the gang plank back onto his boat but he suffers a whip.

ANAGNORISIS

He realises that even if he’s late, being whipped is better than being without his family.

NEW SITUATION

Back with all his family…

Home again on the wise-eyed boat on the Yangtze river.

THE POPULARITY OF PING

I didn’t grow up with this story. In New Zealand we were listening to Badjelly The Witch every Sunday Morning on Radio New Zealand with Constable Keith and his Alsatian, Sniff. (The dog was actually a stiff puppet.) We also had plenty of The Little Engine That Could, and a story I wish I could find now about some slugs who loved the ‘nice juicy lettuces’ (read in a beautifully deep voice), though shows that focused on reading weren’t part of 1980s broadcasting, unfortunately. The closest we had were the picturebooks shared on Playschool.

Meanwhile, in a different part of the world:

Ping has appeared on television since the 1950s. Actor Sterling Holloway or possibly Captain Kangaroo (or his friend Mr. Greenjeans) read Ping once a week on his show for seventeen years, while displaying its colorful illustrations in stark black and white on the screen. Only Stone Soup, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, and The Little Engine That Could had longer runs on the show.

What’s not said is that this refers to ‘American’ television. (We can assume an American bias in most Wikipedia articles, I suppose.)

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Asian-Australian Children’s Literature

There are only a small number of Asian-Australian authors writing about Asia in children’s/young adult fiction and there are very few books where the first-person narrator or main character is Asian or Asian-Australian.

Also surprisingly, there are very few Australian works with Asian content that have been translated into an Asian language – translations are primarily made up of award-winning or well-known Australian authors (such as Pamela Allen and Mem Fox) and works that invoke iconic imagery of Australia such as the bush and the Anzac legend.

While anime and manga are growing in popularity globally, there are very few such works published in Australia or by Australian writers for children or young adults. Queenie Chan and Madeleine Rosca have written original English language manga, and Emily Rodda’s Deltora Quest has been adapted into both anime and manga, so it will be interesting to see what the future holds with respect to these issues.

How Children’s Literature Shapes Attitudes To Asia, The Conversation

Here are a few examples:

  • The Little Refugee by Ahn Do
  • The Tale of Temujin by Sarah Brennan
  • Samurai Kids by Sandy Fussell