Recycling and Rejuvenation: Literary and Artistic Traditions in Chinese Picture Books

It is notoriously difficult to find translated children’s literature in the US book market, more so for titles from developing countries than from Europe and Japan. The Cotsen Children’s Library recently received a donation of more than a dozen Chinese picture books published by Candied Plums, a children’s press newly established in Seattle in 2016. These are the Chinese-English bilingual versions or English translations of some of the best contemporary Chinese picture books, and are intended for children who are learning Chinese as a second language and those who are interested in Chinese culture. What these imports uniquely offer American readers is Chinese language and art that are built on a deep tradition and rejuvenated through cultural variations, borrowing, and hybridization. I will highlight three titles that have been distinctly enriched by evolving literary and artistic heritages of China.

Republican Bunnies in Little Rabbit’s Questions

Little Rabbit’s Questions (小兔的问题) by Dayong Gan (甘大勇); translated by Helen Wang. Candied Plums, 2016. (Cotsen N-000939)

Little Rabbit’s Questions is made up of a series of dialog between Mama Rabbit and Little Rabbit. Their interlocution reminds us of the loving contest between Little Nutbrown Hare and its daddy in Guess How Much I Love You, and is also a warm twist to the familiar, yet sinister Q and A between Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. Here is an excerpt from Little Rabbit’s Questions:

“Mama, why is your mouth so big?”
“So I can speak loudly.”
“Why do you need to speak loudly?”
“So I can talk to you when you leave home.”
“Won’t I hear you if you don’t speak loudly?”
“If you go far, far away, you might not hear me.” (Gan n. pag.)

Mama Rabbit explains why she has strong legs (to run after Little Rabbit when she misses the child); big eyes (to be able to see Little Rabbit when the latter grows up and “fly far away”); and other powers that will allow her to keep in touch with the child. At times Mama might have been perceived as being a tad too close to separation anxiety about a child who is growing up fast. In the era of helicopter parents and boomerang children, however, who are we to judge this loving mother? Father Rabbit is absent except appearing in family photos. The story may also reflect the exceptionally strong bond between a child and his/her single mother.

“One day you’ll grow up, but whatever you become, I will always recognize you by your scent.” Little Rabbit’s Questions.

The real treat that Little Rabbit’s Questions offers is illustrations that are influenced by the brush-pen cartoon art of Feng Zikai (丰子恺, 1898-1975), after whom the Chinese Children’s Picture Book Award <> is named. Feng applied Chinese brush painting to cartoon work, breathing liveliness into the tradition of high art and injecting a distinct Chinese flavor into a format that was introduced from the West. Feng’s favorite subject matter appears to be children. Portraits of Children (儿童相), a collection of cartoons first published in 1931, captures amusing and endearing moments in the lives of the artist’s own toddler children. Feng’s cartoons were so popular before World War II that, immediately after Japan’s defeat, his publisher received fervent requests to reissue Feng’s cartoon series. (His manuscripts and publisher’s printing blocks were both destroyed during the war, but luckily Feng was still in his prime years and able to re-do the drawings for the new edition.) (Feng 1-2)

Feng Zikai’s depiction of his son and daughter in brush-pen cartoons, collected in Portraits of Children (儿童相). 1st edition. Shanghai: Kai ming shu dian, 1945. (Cotsen 68800)

Gan’s paintings not only conjure up Feng’s brush-pen work, but they are also deliberately set during Republican China (1912-1949), the era when Feng created his signature style. Mama Rabbit dons the qipao dress that was popular among Chinese women during the first half of the twentieth century. Little Rabbit’s room is lighted by a cone-shaped pendant lamp with a rope switch, another giveaway of the setting. It was the plainest type of lamp that urban Chinese households owned as their first electrical appliance in the past century.

Little Rabbit’s Questions is set in the Republic of China (1912-1949), the time period when Feng Zikai established his Chinese brush-pen style of cartoon drawings.

Tails Are Not for Borrowing

Borrowing a Tail (借尾巴) by Songying Lin (林颂英); illustrated by Le Zhang; translated by Duncan Poupard. Candied Plums, 2016. (Cotsen 94419833)

Borrowing a Tail by Songying Lin is a story that is familiar to every Chinese school child, because it has been taught in elementary Chinese language classes for decades. Lin, a Shanghai-based children’s author who was disabled in teenage years, has been active since the 1950s and specializes in science stories. In Borrowing a Tail, a little gecko narrowly escapes a snake, but not before the predator bites off its tail for dinner. A distressed gecko asks around to see if it can borrow a tail from another animal. Nobody has a tail to spare, and instead each animal informs the gecko what important functions they are depending on their tails to perform. The cat needs its tail for balance; the woodpecker needs one for support; the fish needs a tail to push its body forward; and so on. (spoiler alert) When the gecko reaches home, sad and disappointed, it discovers that its tail has grown back! (The author conveniently neglects to tell young readers that the wandering gecko must have spent a month or two chitchatting with animal friends and soliciting tails before heading home.)

The surprising ending delights beginning readers, who easily empathize with a forlorn young fellow who has lost something and wishes to have it back. It also conveys a heartwarming message to all ages: after surviving losses and suffering rejections, you may learn something new about yourself—that you have underestimated your own capacity and resilience. Such is the enduring appeal of a simple tale, written at the level of second-grade Chinese, to generations of school kids. We could only guess if the story gave hope to the author himself, who, with disabled limbs since age sixteen, might identify with a powerless gecko searching far and wide for a replacement tail.

Chinese ink wash paintings grace this fresh edition of the old story, which has rarely been offered as a stand-alone picture book. The two animals that are depicted mainly in monochrome shades–gecko and fish–best exemplify the effectiveness of minimalist ink wash painting. The big-eyed gecko looks helpless, persistent, and ultimately likable. The nimble fish has a classic look of how the subject is portrayed in Chinese painting. In fact, enamel wash basins made in China used to have fish like this painted on the inner base and gave the illusion of a live fish when water was poured in.

Chinese ink wash paintings in Borrowing a Tail.

Borrowing a Tail is the type of story that I like most–it invites you to read twice in a row. The moment you finish, you want to flip to the beginning and start again, this time looking for the gecko’s tail on every page—how has it transformed over the course of the reptile’s quest? It is a perfect book to pair with Steve Jenkins’s visually stunning paper collage art in What Do You Do with a Tail Like This?, a nonfiction picture book on the function of animals’ tails.

What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

An Eerie Encounter in Who Wants Candied Hawberries?

Who Wants Candied Hawberries? (冰糖葫芦, 谁买?) by Dongni Bao (保冬妮); illustrated by Di Wu; translated by Adam Lanphier. Candied Plums, 2016. (Cotsen N-000944)

The main character of Who Wants Candied Hawberries? is an old man, a peddler of candied haw berries, who tries to sell enough of the sweets so that he can pay for wife’s medicine. The peddler dozes off in an eerily quiet, narrow alley named “Cat’s Eye Lane,” where he likes to leave food scraps for cats, and wakes up to find a flock of children scrambling to buy candied fruit from him. They seem to have appeared out of nowhere, and all wear what the old man takes to be a new fashion, with a fluffy tail hanging underneath each child’s winter coat. As the happy peddler leaves the alley with an emptied rack and a pocket full of coins, (spoiler alert) he catches sight of a clowder of cats sitting on the rooftops, each munching a stick of candied haw berries.

Who Wants Candied Hawberries? adapts familiar motifs from Chinese supernatural stories about encounters between humans (typically a young scholar or a weary traveler) and fox spirits, whose identity is given away by the tails they are unable to transform very well. Numerous stories about fox spirits can be found in Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (聊斋志异) written by Pu Songling (1640-1715) in the Qing dynasty. Fox spirits, like ghosts, are variously kind, helpful, deceitful, malicious, and vengeful in Pu’s imagination. The cat-loving old man and helpful kittens with a sweet tooth are an eye-opening twist to old tales, which often relate romantic or erotic relationships with fox spirits.

How many kittens do you spot in Who Wants Candied Hawberries?

The illustrations of the picture book make an excellent “spot-the-kitten” game. Images of cats and feline associations are everywhere on the pages, some straightforward, others whimsical, subtle, and occasionally requiring knowledge of the Chinese language. I have a quiz for you when you peruse the book: why are the children wearing cold weather mask over their mouths–is it solely because of the freezing day? What happens when one of them forgets to do so?!

Picture books translated from China open a window to Chinese literary and artistic traditions and innovations, which can be appreciated even if your reservoir of Chinese vocabulary so far only includes “feng shui” and “kung fu.”


Feng, Zikai. “子愷漫畫全集序” [Preface to Zikai’s complete cartoon anthology]. 兒童相 [Portraits of children], 1945. 1-3.


Thanks go to Helen Wang and Anna Gustafsson Chen, children’s literature translators, for their generous feedback to the first version of this post!

Encounters with Illustration Processes, or “What Did You Do on Your Summer Vacation?”

Remember being asked the, “What did you do on your summer vacation?” question at the beginning of each new school year?  And usually being hard-pressed to come up with a “good” answer?  Here’s a possible answer for one grown-up in 2017… Imagine being in a postgraduate-level class held at a leading American university with fellow professionals, some of them tenured faculty members, and making pictures of various types… And liking it…  And learning a lot in the process…

Original wood-engraved block used to print upper wrapper of McLoughlin Brothers’ “Little Pet’s Picture Alphabet” (ca. 1875) Cotsen 32858

No, this is not the Cotsen Blog’s April Fool’s Day posting!  And the classwork was definitely not quite as simple as “making pictures” either.  But in a recent class on “Book Illustration Processes” at “Rare Book School,” a program held each summer at the University of Virginia’s main Charlottesville campus, not far from the Thomas Jefferson-designed “Lawn” and Academic Village, we did get to make wood-engravings, metal-cut engravings, and drypoints, as a complement to five days of 8:30 am to 5 pm classes, lectures, and presentations, and lots of scholarly reading.  (Definitely not a leisurely “vacation”!)  And in the process of putting reading into practice, we did  learn a lot about the differences between these illustration processes (and other processes) that were widely used in books for both children and grown-ups from the earliest days of printing into the mid-eighteenth century (when Thomas Bewick began executing wood-engravings) and on into the early twentieth century, when manual illustration processes became supplanted by process-printing and photo-mechanical work.

It’s one thing to read about how a burin (a sharp, chisel-like tool used in wood-engravings) leaves characteristically different traces on a wood-engraved block than those made by a metal engraving graver on a copper or steel plate (most which can usually be seen only under magnification).  It’s another to wield these tools with your hands and feel how differently an engraving tool interacts with the wood or metal medium as it glides relatively smoothly through a soft metal surface — the incised engraved lines which will provide the basis of the intaglio engraving — compared with the sort of jabbing motion made by a chisel-like burin as you try to scoop out bits of the non-printing area on a piece of hardwood.  (Full disclosure: we actually used linoleum blocks, rather than hardwood, in the interests of conservation and safety, and zinc plates rather than a copper ones, in the interests of economy (copper is expensive!), but the basic processes used are still the same in the respective media.)

Let’s take a look at the faux wood-engraving I made (with apologies for the lack of artistry or wood-engraving skills) and a trial printing of it.  As you can see, parts of the block were cut away (using the burin), leaving the outline of the elephant illustration on the original level of the block’s surface.  (A version of the illustration had been made on the block as a guide for us to follow — as is always the case in wood engraving — but the goal was for us to leave the lines more or less intact and carve away the rest; the idea being that the printed surface would then replicate the guide illustration.  Vestiges of these lines have been obscured by the printer’s ink now, though.)  When the block is inked, these chiseled-away away sections — recessed below the printing surface — remain uninked and so appear as white space in the actual print — and also on the block itself, as you can see.  Wood-engravings tend to accentuate black colors, as you can see in this crude example.  In the hands of a real master wood-engraver, like Thomas Bewick or the Dalziels, the effect can be highly dramatic!

“Wood-engraved” block (actually a lino-cut block) at right, and trial print made from it (at left): note the black-white contrast and the “mirror images.”

Do you notice anything fundamentally different about the block and the print-out made from it?  The print image is reversed.  This doesn’t really matter in an illustration like this, except perhaps for a more aesthetic effect one way or the other, but imagine if the block depicted an actual landscape scene, a building, or included some lettering!  The wood-engraver would have to work “in reverse” in order for the actual print to have an accurate orientation.  Even if a mirror, or reverse-view guide-image was used, imagine how much harder this would make the cutting!  Hands-on work like this project really brought home the skill of the wood-cutters to all of us in the class — and also the sheer level of physical effort needed to engrave the block — and not obliterate the image by chiseling out too large a gouge (my elephant almost lost an eye that way, as you can perhaps see if you look closely).

Two printings from of the same block: one the whole block (left)vand the other with the background masked out by a paper frisket (right).

Take a look at the two prints above and see if you can spot the difference and figure out how that was done… The print on the left displays the entire block’s illustration — the elephant and the quasi-decorative border.  For the print on the right, I used a paper “frisket” to effectively mask off the background (it’s not perfectly done, as you can see on the right edge, but I hope you get the basic idea).  The frisket here was just a piece of paper cut to mask off the area outside the illustration outline, or any area you don’t want to print — Photoshop-style techniques done manually!   In a case like this, we might want to hide the border to make the illustration fit more harmoniously on a page with letter-press text above and below — or for the sort of small vignettes often seen on title pages or as head- or tail-pieces in wood-engraved books in the hand-press era.

A frisket could also be used to facilitate the printing of two-color illustrations (usually red and black), by first masking off the area to be printed in red, and then masking off the area already printed in black with another frisket when red was printed.  This allowed the page to be printed without unlocking the printing form or the whole illustration by just re-inking the added red color– a significant saving in time, effort, and money at the time.  The same basic approach was also used for red and black text on the same page, in many cases.

As so often happens, once you learn about something in one context, you seem to happen upon another related instance soon afterward.  Just days after returning to work at Cotsen Library after Rare Book School, we were looking at a wood-engraved block from the mid-nineteenth-century, used by McLouglin Brothers — the renowned New York publisher of children’s books, games, paper dolls, and paper-based toys of all sorts from the mid-nineteenth century- into the early twentieth century — to print the upper paper wrapper of their children’s publication, Little Pet’s Picture Alphabet, especially unusual since the block is housed with a copy of the actual toy-book-like publication now (Cotsen 32858).

Wood-engraved block (from McLoughlin Brothers’ publisher’s archives) and an example of one of the two-color paper wrappers printed from it (Cotsen 32858

You can see the “mirror image” relation between the block itself and the printed version again. I think that the essentially outline line-illustration and black half-circle backdrop around the children was printed upon red paper (or paper printed red), but I’m not certain.  The black area has the kind of “textured” irregularity usually found in solid black areas of wood-engravings or wood blocks; pure black was hard to to print smoothly via a woodblock, made from organic, naturally textured wood (in contrast to the smooth surface of an unworked metal plate used for intaglio printing).

Side view of the composite wood-engraved block, highlighting the lines between the different individual blocks.

You can also see the lines between different pieces of the composite wood-engraved block — it looks like seven separate blocks to me.  This enabled several engravers to render an illustrator’s artwork on different blocks at the same time — time was money in printing then, as now.  It’s also possible that separate interlocking blocks were somehow easier for McLoughlin to store and manage, and perhaps also to re-purpose individual blocks for other illustrations, as the firm often did.  (For large illustrations, of course several — sometimes, many — wood-engraved blocks would have to be used; how many trees do you see with smooth straight 11″ x 17″ — or larger — sections from which a smoothed block that size could have been made?  Large planks were in high demand in the hand-press era for things like ship-building for the navy and trade vessels too.)  And for wood-engraving blocks, which run across the grain, we’re looking for trees with that size as a usable circumference, not counting the bark, outer ring, and core.

This particular composite block was presumably originally comprised of six separate pieces — the seventh small one (on the left side) must have been a correction of a mistake, an unsatisfactorily-rendered detail, or a “quick fix” for a block damaged in printing, handling, or storage.  If you look closely, you can also see what looks like a crack in the upper center block, running into the smaller child’s head, reinforcing the idea that the block was damaged after being rendered, not due to an error during the original wood-engraving.  (Wood blocks can be repaired, or have small pieces added like this, while correcting pieces of missing or badly-damaged metal plates can be all but impossible.)

There’s a trace of the small block’s line in the black background area, but it doesn’t seem visible in the child’s face.  Either the touch-up was very good, or this further damage occurred some time after the wood-engraving was used to print the accompanying book that now accompanies it.  If damage to hand-rendered printing resources seems careless to you, remember that McLoughlin had literally thousands of these blocks to store and keep track of, and that they were often reused for later printing.  Proof-copies of many of the blocks were printed on sheets in large tome-like scrapbooks in the firm’s publisher’s archive — document and object management before the digital era!  (Cotsen has ten of these unique, publisher’s archives scrapbooks in its collection, which we hope to digitize in order to provide better access.)

Metal engraved plate: Note the residue of black ink in the grooves and incised lines made by a graver; these printed out as black lines in trial prints, with the unworked “surface” part of the plate not printing.

I may have been using the term “wood engraving” without really defining it or distinguishing it from “woodcut.”  What’s the difference?  Both wood-engraving and woodcuts are “relief processes” — that is, both print the surface area of a block, leaving the area unprinted (and usually white) where the wood has been cut away by a knife or burin. Woodcuts, the earlier-devised process, use smoothed blocks cut lengthwise along the grain like a plank, often softer wood that can be cut relatively easily with a sharp knives or similar cutting tools.  Wood engravings use blocks of hard wood (frequently boxwood) cut across the grain, using burins to chisel into the harder wood.  Wood engravings are generally more durable than woodcuts, as you’d expect, and can pick up a lot of contrast-adding texture from the inherent grain of the wood, at least when done by a master like Bewick. (By the way, the Tempest connection was based on an woodcut I seem to recall seeing some time ago in a fairly early edition of the play, with a similar scene, but the ship on the tempest-tossed sea.  “Full fathoms five” is part of Ariel’s song to the shipwrecked crew.)

As relief processes, both woodcuts and wood engravings are distinct from “intaglio”  processes, such as copper and steel engraving — or etching, mezzotint, or aquatint, for that matter (which use acid and chemicals instead of tools to render the illustrations), but we won’t get that far today.  (And, yes, the reuse of the term “engraving” for both relief wood engravings and intaglio metal engraving is confusing!)

In intaglio processes, the lines cut into the plate by the engraving tools are where the ink gathers during the printing process — these lines print black (in contrast to relief processes, where the incised, or cut away, sections remain unpainted). Tremendous pressure is needed to actually squeeze the dampened paper slightly into the grooves, where the paper picks up the inked impression. A roller-press is usually needed to achieve this level of pressure on a relatively think metal plate, and that’s what we used at Rare Book School to make our proof prints. (“Hands on” experience, to be sure!)

However our sub-journeyman engraver here (i.e. me) forgot a basic fact of printing when adding the text, didn’t he?  Take a look below!  The image prints in reverse of the plate!  So his “JB” monogram initials and and his brief quote, from the Tempest, are also printed in reverse.  Oops!  What to do?  Scratch out the text and try to doctor the plate somehow?  Weep in frustration?

Engraved metal plate (right), with inked outlines visible in the grooves, and a proof printing (left), which reverses the plate’s orientation of both illustration and text — making the latter illegible.

Mercifully, the course instructor and Grand Maester of Printing Processes, Terry Belanger, immediately had a solution — a “counterproof” print. We removed the plate and used-the newly-inked print (whose ink was still damp) to print another version of the illustration — in reverse of the print– on a new sheet of paper, which resulted in a correctly douple-reversed orientation of the engraved text.

“Original” print (right) and counterproofed, second print, reversing the illustration and text a second time — now the text is legible!

As you can see in the “print-counterproof print” comparison above, the counterproof reversed the engraved test’s orientation a second time, so now it’s legible.  This served the bill perfectly here, although it might not have been a viable tactic in a commercial printing establishment, even one with a limited printing run of 500-1000 copies. (And the sub-apprentice engraver avoided having his ears boxed by his master for executing poorly thought-out work!)  Not surprisingly, the counterproof printing is lighter than the first version, since it relied on wet ink from the print proof, and some of the toning from ink on the surface of the plate (visible below the sun in the first proof) is similarly missing.  But disaster was averted!  And the lesson also indubitably imprinted in my mind too.

The “reverse” aspect of letterpress type and relief and intaglio printing (like almost all illustration processes) is one of the aspects we always stress for students or others to whom we present rare printed books.  Imagine setting all the type, using thousands of individual pieces of individual metal type letters, set in reverse, and also set from the end of the lines to the beginning, in the First Folio or Gutenberg Bible!  And don’t forget about spacing or justifying type in the center of a page or column; this required flat (non-printing) metal spacers, a good eye, and sometimes adjustment of the spacers after an initial proof print was made. (Of course, large books requiring as much type and paper as the First Folio, were generally not all set in type at the same time — few, if any, printers had that much type on hand to use, even with borrowed type or in syndicated print jobs, nor could they afford to tie it all up in a single time-consuming book project like the First Folio; printers needed some type readily available for job printing, handbills, and broadsides in order to keep paying their bills!

“Drypoint” is another intaglio process we looked at closely in “Book Illustration Processes” and one at which we also tried our hands. In drypoint, a steel needle replaces the rougher  engraver’s tool and allows an illustrator to draw directly on a metal plate, with something vaguely like the experience of drawing on paper. Unlike graver or burin, which scoop the shaved metal bits out of the incised lines, the thin needle throws up a “burr” on both sides; sometimes this burr is removed and sometimes left intact “adding richness of line to the design when printed” (John Harthan: History of the Illustrated Book, p. 282).

For class purposes, we used thin, clear acrylic sheets for our drypoints — softer and easier to work than metal, easier to proof in a preliminary way, using very lightly inked paper run across the engraved surface to reveal details (or lack thereof!), and most important of all, the clear sheets allowed us to place a printed master image to copy right underneath the acrylic sheet and essentially use the needle to “trace” lines on the sheet — or attempt to.  A real illustrator wouldn’t need such a guide to follow and would probably also prefer the flexibility of drawing freely, which is one of process’s main points of attraction to artists.  No need for a “mediating” engraver with a drypoint.

Drypoint intalglio as executed on clear acrylic sheet (right), with proof print (left). Note the visible outline of the plate-mark on the print. Plate-marks are one of the tell-tale signs of intaglio illustrations processes — if you’re lucky… Sometimes, they can be faint or virtually invisible.

But what’s “wrong” with the picture above?  Remember the reverse image of the engraved metal plate and wood engraved illustration?  Why should drypoint be any different?  Well, it isn’t!  Since the acrylic sheet is transparent, I was able to photograph it “upside down” with the incised lines underneath, in the interests of facilitating comparison between the incised sheet and the print.  (The unmarked surface of the underside of the sheet also just seemed to photograph better too — something to do with quick-and-dirty digital photography, though, not the illustration process itself!)

I hope I’ve shared some of what I learned about illustration processes with you, and in a way that clarifies what can be murky abstract concepts with differences that can also be hard to explain without showing actual examples — good, bad, or indifferent in artistic terms.  Wood-engraving, intaglio metal cuts using both copper and steel plates, and drypoints were all important illustration processes in children’s books from the early- to mid-eighteenth century through the early twentieth century.  There were other processes too, such as mezzotints and aquatints, but all of these were non-colored processes, except where hand-coloring or stencil-coloring was used.

For color illustrations, we have to look at color-tinted wood blocks or wood-engravings, color lithography, chromolithography, chromoxylography (colored wood-engravings), and color processes like the Baxter and Nelson Processes.  And this leaves out process-printing, photolithographic processes, and others besides.  I hope to cover that in a later posting here on the Cotsen blog.  For now, perhaps I should put my “artistic” endeavors in illustration processes up on the mantle-piece with some woodblocks, color lino blocks, and prints of these that my daughter made a number of years ago, and see which ones people like more?  I have a bad feeling about that contest, though…