Hans Christian Andersen did not write stories for children. Sure, a few of his fairytales are sweet and innocent, but looking at the body of the man’s work, it is more blood, gore and punishment, than it is living happily ever after.
Professor Svend Hakon Rossel pauses. He looks at the students in front of him. Did they understand? The Danish professor knows more about Hans Christian Andersen than most people – apart from being the author of countless books on him, he also gives lectures to different universities, mainly in Germany and the US, about Andersen and his world of fairytales. Now, he faces an auditorium full of Chinese students at Fudan University in Shanghai. It is April 2nd, Andersen’s birthday, and both he and the former Danish ambassador to China, Christopher Bo Bramsen, are here to celebrate by sharing their knowledge on the subject Andersen with the students.
The message, Rossel wants to convey to the youngsters is, that beneath Andersen’s thin layer of three wishes and good fairies, lies a whole world of emotion and reflection. Something, they too, can benefit from today.
One girl raises her hand:
“When the girl with the red shoes dances, her feet are cut off! Why is that? That is very horrible to me,” she says.
The professor lights up in a big smile:
It is a story about vanity, he exclaims and proceeds: “Andersen himself was very vain – in fact, he would only let photographers take pictures of him from one side. Like many of his stories, Andersen puts in a bit of himself and the message here is: Don’t be like that. Keep an open mind,” he tells the girl and her peers.
He retires from stage, satisfied.
“I don’t think there is a big difference in between Scandinavians and Chinese, when it comes to fairytales. Andersen appeals to everyone,” he says.
This year, Andersen is extra relevant in Shanghai. The figure of The Little Mermaid – Denmark’s national symbol made by sculptor Edward Erichsen in 1912 – is on loan to Shanghai to participate in the World EXPO 2010.
The second speaker, former Danish ambassador to China, Christopher Bo Bramsen, has always been fascinated by Andersen, and in particular his little mermaid. He explains her symbolic value to the students and urges them to go see her at the EXPO in their city.
“It is connected to the theme of the EXPO this year: Better City, Better Life. The Little Mermaid is here to say that you cannot live in a city, if you do not have dreams,” he says.
After the lectures, the students gather outside the auditorium, because as well as there is no real life without some magic, there is no real birthday without cake.
21-year-old student Wu Yuqiong picks up a plate of Danish buttercookies. She does not like them. But she likes Andersen.
“Amazing Andersen. I like the story of the Little Mermaid the best, it is a beautiful tragedy, which has companied me through my childhood. I think, the mermaid can say a lot of good things to us here in China,” she says. Discreetly, she puts down her platter with cookies on the table, without having even finished one. But before she walks off, she carefully packs up and puts the notes she took about the Danish writer, in her bag.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Andersen.