Notes from a Summer Traveler in China and Great Britain

Part I: Children’s Literature Symposiums

At the invitation of Ocean University of China, I traveled to Qingdao, Shandong Province and attended an international children’s literature symposium held in June 4-5, 2016. The trip kicked off a refreshing journey of witnessing a global engagement with children’s books and materials. In Part I of “Notes from a Summer Traveler,” I will share my experiences at two children’s literature meetings held in China and UK; In Part II, I will present a photo album of my delightful encounters with children’s materials in China and elsewhere.

Qingdao, China

View from a seashore park in the coastal city of Qingdao. Once a German colony, Qingdao is famous for its beer industry. People who are not familiar with the word “Qingdao” may recognize its alternative spelling “Tsingtao” on emerald beer bottles from the city.

The International Symposium for Children’s Literature grew out of a biennial “China-U.S. Children’s Literature Symposium” that began in Qingdao four years ago. It has yielded two conference proceedings, Representing Children in Chinese and U.S. Children’s Literature (Ashgate, 2014) in English and The Image of the Child in Chinese and American Children’s Literature (China Social Sciences Press, 2015) in Chinese. The 2016 symposium attracted children’s literature scholars as well as Chinese educators from teachers colleges and K-12 schools. (Chinese children’s librarians were regretfully not involved, a reflection of the situation that Chinese library schools generally do not provide professional training in youth services at this point.) Presenters included Cao Wenxuan, He Weiqing, Li Xuebin, Nie Zhenzhao, Tan Fengxia, Tang Sulan, Wang Lijun, Xu Yan, and Zhu Ziqiang (China); You Peiyun (Taiwan); Okiko Miyake (Japan); John Stephens (Australia); Claudia Nelson, Eric L. Tribunella, Joe Sutliff Sanders, Karen Coats, Marilynn Olson, Mark I. West (USA); and myself. Their papers addressed the theme of the symposium, “Children’s Literature: Theory and Practice,” from multiple perspectives; reviewed the history and latest development of publishing for children in China; investigated the relationship between children’s literature and education; ventured into the intersection between children’s literature and sexuality; and put nursery rhymes, poetry, picture books, fiction, nonfiction, and family films under the critical lens of feminist studies, reader response theory, cognitive science, cross-cultural studies and other theories.

Cao Wenxuan

Professor Cao Wenxuan presented on children’s literature and Chinese language education. (photo courteous of Ocean University of China)


Children’s fiction by Cao Wenxuan: The Straw House.

The most popular speaker at the symposium was Cao Wenxuan, both a children’s author and a professor from the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Peking University. Cao won the 2016 Hans Christian Andersen Award in April, making him the first Chinese winner of the prestigious international children’s literature award since it was first given sixty years ago in 1956. (Not a minute passed without a young starstruck graduate student of Ocean University requested to have a photo taken with the professor.) Cao is a fascinating writer who has articulated unusual and intriguing ideas about the mission of children’s literature. He does not think children’s literature should necessarily amuse young readers, but it should cultivate aesthetic sensibilities in them, shape their characters, and strengthen their resilience. Parents and educators are not obligated to hand over happiness to children; instead young people should be taught grits to endure suffering and setbacks in a graceful manner. In his novels he dares to adopt a slow pace, write dialogs sparingly, and describe nature and environment at length–all the features that would have seemed to be the enemy of children’s attention span. In a world that is full of distractions flashing from screens of every which size, Cao creates a calming literary space that invites meditation from those readers who are able to stay with his subtle narratives.

The House of Sixty Fathers written by Meindert DeJong and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Harper, 1956. (Cotsen 39317)

Claudia Nelson gave an insightful feminist reading of The House of Sixty Fathers written by Meindert DeJong and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. (Incidentally, DeJong and Sendak were the first American winners of Hans Christian Andersen Award for writing and illustration respectively.) First published in 1956, the Newbery Honor title is still in print but has received sporadic critical attention. The story is set in wartime China. A Chinese boy is separated from his family and, as he desperately tries to flee from the Japanese-occupied territory, meets an injured American fighter pilot. Nelson analyzed how male and female characters in DeJong’s book do not conform to gender stereotypes. Instead, regardless of their age and gender, each transitions fluidly among different roles–savior, protector, caregiver, adult, and child. The House of Sixty Fathers thus deviates from those American children’s texts of the 1950s that model “appropriate” gender roles. The book is an anomaly in another dimension. DeJong based the story on his experience of serving in China during World War II as historian for the American Composite Wing of the Fourteenth Air Force. Among the limited number of American juvenile novels that are set against the backdrop of the Sino-Japanese conflict, this is a rare title that was released during the Cold War, when US and Japan were close allies against Red China.

Sanger, April 1922. Image source:

A photo taken during American sex educator Margaret Sanger’s visit to China in April 1922, when she was invited to give lectures on birth control. Her writings on how parents should teach children about sex were highly influential during the Republic of China. Accompanying her in the photo were Dr. Hu Shi (left) and Dr. Zhang Jingsheng (right), a pioneer Chinese sex educator.

My presentation was titled “Theory and Practice of Sex Education for Youth during the Republic of China (1911-1949).” Using primary materials housed at the Cotsen Children’s Library and digitized texts that were increasingly available, I traced China’s sex education movement that began in earnest during the 1920s. The driving inquiry of this project was how theories and ideas in sex education were (or failed to be) translated into information sources targeting youth.

The Reproduction of Living Things by biologist Zhou Jianren. Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1935. Intended for fourth-grade readers. Zhou was the most prolific writer and respected voice on sex education during the Republic of China. (Cotsen N-000418)

Threatened by Japan’s escalating aggression toward China in the 1890s and after, Chinese elite intellectuals pleaded for drastic social changes in order to strengthen national defense. The need for producing healthy babies and physically strong citizens became the fundamental drive in the sex education movement of the Republic of China. Theoretical literature on sex education imported a vast amount of Western and Japanese learning on the topic, and agreed upon an agenda that was deeply concerned with the physiology and hygiene of reproductive systems, control of sexual impulse, and ethical sexual behavior. My study of children’s textbooks, magazines, and books, however, found that numerous finer points present in theoretical discussions were lost in practice. Though far from being satisfactory, juvenile literature proved to be a nimbler carrier for sex education information than curriculum materials, responding to the earliest appeal and providing richer, more accurate and engaging health information than a child would learn in school.

Leeds, UK. “Free Wifi” indicated on the front window of the double-decker, so I knew this was not the Knight Bus it made me think of at first.

At the invitation of the University of Leeds, I attended Children’s Literature Day, a symposium hosted by the White Rose East Asia Centre, and gave a keynote speech on the past and present of Chinese children’s literature based on much of Cotsen collection materials. It was an inspiring meeting with a vibrant community of people who were dedicated to teaching and translating Chinese fiction. The British national curriculum has promoted the use of “authentic sources” in language and literature classes, raising interests in foreign language texts and their English translations. One goal of the meeting was to generate a list of recommended works of Chinese children’s literature for general interest, for translation, and for teaching. The symposium was organized also partly in the wake of the Hans Christian Anderson Award for Cao Wenxuan.

Among the speakers was Dr. Helen Wang. When she was not curating East Asian money for the British Museum and busy writing about it, Wang translated Chinese children’s books into beautiful English text so that young readers from around the world could enjoy the same story. Wang is translator of Bronze and Sunflower, a major work by Cao Wenxuan.

Bronze and Sunflower

The English edition of Cao Wenxuan’s Bronze and Sunflower, translated by Helen Wang. Walker Books, 2015.

Helen Wang

Dr. Helen Wang, Curator of East Asian Money at the British Museum and a prolific translator of Chinese children’s literature.

Speaker Anna Gustafsson Chen is a Swedish translator of Chinese literature, best known for having translated Nobel Laureate Mo Yan’s fiction. She is also a former librarian who worked with the international library section of the Stockholm Public Library. Chen’s talk was a rare opportunity to learn about publishing and translation of children’s literature in Sweden.


Waterstones, a bookstore in Leeds (photo taken on July 3, 2016).

How can one walk on the street of Britain without chancing upon anything relating to Harry Potter? While Helen, I, and an incoming doctoral student of Leeds took a walk we spotted this sign in front of a bookshop, which was well stocked with children’s books. Happy Release Day!

Japan’s “Last Living Ninja” Infiltrates the Cotsen Children’s Library in “The Art of Ninjutsu: Tiger Scroll”

by Tara McGowan

From frontispiece of Manga no Ninjutsu Manyū: Shōnen Shōjo Manga Tokuhon (A madcap cartoon tour of ninjutsu: a cartoon reader for boys and girls). / Kodomo otogi kai. Tōkyō: Shunkōdō, 1933. (Cohn200806)

Fig. 1: Detail of children battling from frontispiece of Manga no Ninjutsu Manyū: Shōnen Shōjo Manga Tokuhon (A madcap cartoon tour of ninjutsu: a cartoon reader for boys and girls). / Kodomo otogi kai. Tōkyō: Shunkōdō, 1933. (Cohn200806)

May 5th is Children’s Day (子供の日), a national holiday in Japan and a time when parents pray that their offspring will grow in strength and vitality, often symbolized even today by references to the samurai warriors of feudal times. The holiday is also referred to as Shōbu no sekku (Iris Festival) because shōbu (菖蒲—iris) bloom at this time of year and were thought to have medicinal properties. The word with different kanji is a homophone for shōbu (尚武—fighting spirit). On Children’s Day, girls and boys in Japan fold samurai helmets and roll up swords out of newspapers to play at battling (Fig. 1). Considering Japan’s militaristic past and tensions around violence in the media these days, this aspect of Children’s Day might seem alarming to some, but samurai warriors were not just associated with violence. Samurai continue to be admired for the strength of their spiritual/mental and physical discipline, and this is particularly true of the ninja, or “shadow warrior.”


Fig. 2: Sarutobi Sasuke. In Goketsu kagami (Paragon of heroism) / Enomoto, Matsunosuke. Osaka: Enomoto Shoten, 1917. (Cotsen 55052)

Few characters have caught popular attention around the globe as wildly as the ninja. Naturally, this fascination has the longest history in Japan, where ninjas have been stock characters in popular literature and cartoons since at least the early 1900s when Sekka Sanjin published “Sanada’s Three Heroes: Ninja Master Sarutobi Sasuke” (Sanada san-yūshi ninjutsu meijin Sarutobi Sasuke) (1914). Sarutobi means “jumping monkey,” and in 2016–the year of the monkey–it is important to note that the connection between monkeys and ninjas is not coincidental. According to legend, Sarutobi Sasuke—much like Tarzan—was brought up by monkeys, which accounts for his supernatural powers and unrivaled dexterity. In this 1917 picture book for children, titled “Paragon of Heroism” (Gōketsu kagami), we see him deep in meditation in the midst of a ninjutsu (ninja arts) power struggle (Fig. 2).

Fig. 3: Sarutobi Sasuke as Mickey Mouse. In Sanzoku seibatsu ikusa manga (Subjugation of bandits: manga comic) / Sugaya Yohe. Tokyo: Hiyoshido Honten, 1936. (Cotsen 55401)

Fig. 3: Sarutobi Sasuke as Mickey Mouse. In Sanzoku seibatsu ikusa manga (Subjugation of bandits: manga comic) / Sugaya Yohe. Tokyo: Hiyoshido Honten, 1936. (Cotsen 55401)

In this Japanese cartoon from 1936, entitled “Cartoon Battle to Subjugate the Bandits” (Sanzoku seibatsu ikusa manga), we see Sarutobi Sasuke again, this time using his magical ninjutsu to transform himself into a familiar “American mouse” (Fig. 3) The leader of the bandits—also a powerful ninja—combats Sasuke’s Mickey by turning into a giant cartoon cat, and the competition escalates until the bandit leader turns himself into an eagle, only to be shot by accident by one of his own retainers.

Exaggerated shape-shifting abilities are also the hallmark of this cartoon from 1933 called “A Madcap Cartoon Tour of Ninjutsu” (Manga no ninjutsu manyū) where a young ninja-in-training is taken on a series of adventures with a tanuki (raccoon dog), flying through the air on a hand-made ninja airplane (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Ninjutsu airplane. In Manga no Ninjutsu Manyū: Shōnen Shōjo Manga Tokuhon (A madcap cartoon tour of ninjutsu: a cartoon reader for boys and girls) / Kodomo otogi kai. Tōkyō: Shunkōdō, 1933. (Cohn200806)

Fig. 4: Ninjutsu airplane. In Manga no Ninjutsu Manyū: Shōnen Shōjo Manga Tokuhon (A madcap cartoon tour of ninjutsu: a cartoon reader for boys and girls) / Kodomo otogi kai. Tōkyō: Shunkōdō, 1933. (Cohn200806)

Fig. 5: Meeting the Monkey King.

Fig. 5: Meeting the Monkey King.

Eventually, they run into the Monkey King, who challenges them with various powerful ninjutsu techniques, like creating balls of fire out of thin air and clipping off the summits of distant mountains (Fig. 5).

Fig. 6: Ninjutsu tora no maki / Fujita Seiko. [Tōkyō]: [Hōbunsha], 1955.

Fig. 6: Ninjutsu tora no maki / Fujita Seiko. [Tōkyō]: [Hōbunsha], 1955.

With so much fantastical literature for children, depicting ninjas cavorting with characters from folktale and legend, it is easy to forget that there were actual, living and breathing ninjas in Japan’s not-so-distant past, but a recent acquisition in the Cotsen Children’s Library reminds us that ninjutsu was a serious and even scientific endeavor. The “Art of Ninjutsu: Tiger Scroll” (Ninjutsu tora no maki), written by Fujita Seiko, 14th Head Master of the Koga School of Ninja training, was published in emaki (picture-scroll) format as a supplement to the popular youth magazine “Baseball Boys” (Yakyū Shōnen) (Volume 9, April 1955) (Fig. 6). Fujita claimed to be the last living ninja in Japan, and the scroll format creates the sensation for young readers of opening a message from a “real” ninja from Japan’s feudal past.

At the outset, Fujita issues a warning to always be mindful of the fact that ninjutsu was designed for military detective work, or espionage, not for fighting or robbing people. Fujita is considered by some to be the last “real” ninja in the sense that the Japanese military government hired him as a martial arts instructor and strategist during World War II. Having published many books on the history of martial arts, Fujita is also recognized as a scholar, and, at his death, he bequeathed his extensive library to the city of Odawara. Fujita believed that ninjas were born, not made, so he never found anyone worthy of training as his successor. Nevertheless, he often wrote for popular audiences, and in “Tiger Scroll,” he displays his notoriously contradictory character by, on the one hand, attempting to dispel the exaggerated myths and legends of ninja lore, while on the other, capitalizing on the popular mystique.

Fig. 7: Sarutobi Sasuke’s escape in a moat.

It is easy to imagine the readers of Baseball Boys on Children’s Day in 1955 relishing all the practical tips Fujita offers for developing “real” ninjutsu techniques in their own backyards. He introduces the arts of the ninja by explaining that they are based on the five elements: water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. The first chapter of the scroll focuses on the water arts: “How to use water to disappear, how to walk on water, and how to stay concealed under the water.” Fujita shows how Sarutobi Sasuke, whom he treats as a historical figure, escaped from Tokugawa Ieyasu’s guards by creating a diversion with water in a pot nearby and then hiding submerged in the moat (Fig. 7).

Fig. 8: Floating geta.

He also reveals that there is no magic involved in walking on water if you have specially designed floating geta sandals (Fig. 8).

In the second chapter, he explains that, in addition to the “public arts” (表の術) of the five elements, there are the five “hidden arts” (裏の術) of humans, birds, mammals, insects, and fish. Fujita recommends having several live snakes, mice, and toads on hand for the right occasion. For instance, a castle guard might be getting sleepy by 2:00 am. When the ninja notices the guard yawning or rubbing his eyes, he knows it is the perfect time to let a mouse loose between the sliding doors. While the guard is preoccupied with chasing after the mouse, the ninja can get in to steal important documents or even the head of an unsuspecting daimyo (samurai lord). Drawing on popular culture, Fujita points out that Nikki Danjo—hero of theater and film—failed when he attempted the mouse arts so he had to resort to the fire arts, using firecrackers and gunpowder to distract his pursuers. Later in the scroll, he also includes under “fire arts” using the sun’s rays to blind ones pursuer, or, when that is not possible, having mirrors at hand to reflect the sun into their eyes.

Having just warned his audience that ninjutsu should not be used as an excuse for stealing, Fujita proceeds to explain how the legendary thief Nezumi Kozo Jirokichi—Mouse-boy Jirokichi (so named because of his ability to mimic mouse squeaks)—was challenged by a government official to steal his sword from his house without getting caught. As it turned out, the government official was moonlighting by making hair combs, and Jirokichi was able to mimic the rhythmical sound of the comb-carving, which also works to make people sleepy, to sneak in and steel the sword right out from under the official’s nose. When useful sounds do not present themselves, however, Fujita also mentions that it is possible to induce a deep sleep with a sprinkle of roasted wolf spider or silkworm powder.

Fig. 9: Projecting a giant toad.

My personal favorite art of the ninja is the manner in which you can use the shadow cast by a small toad placed strategically next to a lamp to create the impression of a giant toad (Fig. 9). There is also the trick of letting a snake go in the maids’ quarters so that the samurai on guard will have to investigate the source of their screams, and the ninja can get by their defenses. By the 1950s, it was unlikely that there were too many maids’ quarters available, but no doubt Fujita’s readers readily translated this trick to their sisters’ bedrooms! He concludes the section with the comment that there are also arts of insects, which involve impersonating centipedes, butterflies, and spiders, but for these arts he offers no explanation.

In the next chapter, he discusses how to use the sounds of grasses and trees to suggest to one’s pursuer that one is going in the opposite direction from what one actually intends, and then there are ways to hide in a hole in the ground and then release snakes and birds to reassure one’s pursuers that no one is actually there. The plant arts and soil arts also involve various forms of camouflage, which, as Fujita points out is no different from what the soldiers use in the military today when they want to blend into their surroundings.

Fig. 10: Priest Fudenbō.

Fig. 10: Priest Fudenbō.

In the second half of the scroll, Fujita shifts into various aspects of physical training that give the impression of flying. These include scaling the top of a five-storied pagoda by climbing quickly as a squirrel up a nearby pine tree and jumping to the roof of the pagoda from one of its branches or running up the wall and to the ceiling so fast that your pursuer can’t even see your legs move and then falling gracefully to your feet. The priest Fudenbō of Shiga Prefecture was famous for this ability, but Fujita claims that with practice, anyone can achieve this technique (Fig. 10). Ninjas are said to be able to jump up to 5 or 6 meters, and this feat is also achieved by a regular training regime. The method Fujita prescribes is to start with 2-meter high hemp or flax plants and by tying them together creating a high level to jump up on. If one practices every day, one won’t notice that the flax plants keep growing a little higher every day and before you know it, you will be jumping the full 6 meters!

Fig. 11: Ninja crab walk.

Fig. 11: Ninja crab walk.

In addition to flying like a squirrel, there are techniques for doubling the distance one walks in a day by walking like a crab. Fujita claims that this sideways walking technique, once perfected, allows the legs to stretch twice the distance of walking forwards, and it has the added benefit of allowing one to walk in and out of narrow passageways (Fig. 11).

Ninjas are also said to have hands like knives. This is achieved by intense training, initially forcing their hands up to their wrists and their feet up to their ankles in sand, then progressing to mud, and finally to soil. According to Fujita, this training also builds the muscles on hands and feet necessary for climbing nimbly across the ceiling like a gecko. Climbing across ceilings like a gecko can’t be easy when carrying the various costumes and paraphernalia Fujita recommends ninjas have at hand for all eventualities. For instance, ninjas typically wear special two-toned clothing to appear, when necessary, like more than one person, and some ninjas carry several women’s masks with them to pass as different women.

Fig. 12: Walking across a wet sliding door.

Fig. 12: Walking across a wet sliding door.

Fujita insists that not everyone is born to be a ninja. To achieve ninja credentials, students of the craft need to train themselves to hold their breath for up to ten minutes under water, walk across wet paper over sliding doors without leaving a mark, and practice shallow breathing by sticking cotton to the ends of their noses and keeping it still (Fig. 12). It involves both intense physical and spiritual training, which leads Fujita to his concluding remarks about the use of mudras and incantations (Fig. 13).

Fig. 13: Mudras used in ninjutsu.

Fig. 13: Mudras used in ninjutsu.

Everyone knows that when Sarutobi Sasuke disappears or transforms, he does a mudra with his hands and says some magic words (see Fig. 2), but Fujita explains that this is not actually magic. The mudra and incantation are used to focus the mind. In fact, Fujita argues that ninja training is not about magic at all. It just takes rigorous training and knowledge of science that is beyond the ken of regular people. Come to think of it, that is not unlike how magicians in the West describe their magic when sharing their secrets. The only difference is that magicians are usually talking about sleight-of-hand, whereas Fujita is describing sleight of the whole body!

Fig. 14: Origami newspaper kabuto helmets and other Children's Day decorations. Contributed by the author.

Fig. 14: Origami newspaper kabuto helmets and other Children’s Day decorations. Contributed by the author.

Of course, as tantalizing as all these techniques may sound, many of them take extensive training and are downright dangerous. Although Fujita does not provide any such caveats, I would suggest that a responsible adult should be present when attempting any of the foregoing suggestions. For those of us who weren’t born to be ninjas and can’t hold our breaths for ten minutes, jump 6 meters, or climb across the ceiling like a gecko, there is always the old standby of folding paper samurai helmets and rolling up newspapers into swords to play at fighting (Fig. 14). I invite you to develop your fighting spirit by transforming into samurai warriors this Children’s Day with these handy instructions for making origami kabuto (helmets). Happy battling!