Picture Books Fresh from China

In the last two years, Cotsen has received a number of generous donations of Chinese-language books and magazines. Many of these acquisitions are picture books created by Chinese writers and illustrators in the past decade. China has at least a century-long history of publishing illustrated reading materials for the enjoyment of children, but these publications were not always the sort of picture books familiar to Western audiences. Indeed, it was not until the new millennium that short-length picture books with large, full-color illustrations began to be embraced by middle-class Chinese families.

Picture Books: A Luxury Read

Brave early attempts by Chinese publishers to produce pricey children’s content are preserved in the Cotsen collection. Lacking support from robust institutional purchasers and private citizens, however, these publications maintained only a tentative presence in the Chinese children’s book market.

Miniature accordion picture books published in China between 1955 and 1965.


Two books on an adult palm.

Accordion style.

(Right) Outside book: Bathing and Sleeping [洗澡和睡觉 Xi zao he shui jiao]. Shanghai, 1961. (Cotsen 94643)
Inside book: The Swallow and the Bumblebee [燕子和黄蜂 Yan zi he huang feng]. Shanghai, 1960. (Cotsen 94649)

These tiny accordion books are one such example, published for Chinese children during the 1950s and 60s. Their small size lowered the cost of color printing, all coming in under 3 ½ inches and selling for RMB 6-10¢ each. Still, this was no trivial sum for many Chinese families. In a letter of opinion published in the Shanghai-based Wenhui Daily (文汇报) in 1958, a reader applauded the innovative folded format but commented that the price of 10¢ was “still a bit expensive” (Yang 2). To put her complaint in perspective, consider lianhuanhua (连环画), the most popular book format for older children until the mid-1980s. These lengthier illustrated story books were typically palm-sized, featuring cheap black-and-white illustrations on thin pages, and each copy could be rented for 1¢ or less at neighborhood bookstands.

The accordion style was a clever and economical design for young readers who were learning to turn book pages; it was easier for unpracticed fingers to separate double folded pages than single sheets. Obviously intended for a child’s tiny hands, the format reveals the expectation that children, however young, would read the books on their own. The majority of these miniature books contain rhyming text, and some include pinyin—the Romanized, phonetic spelling of characters—to help with pronunciation. Most of the accordion books in the Cotsen collection are well-worn, having clearly entertained young children new to the pleasure of reading.

A board book dated 1978.

The Crow and the Fox (乌鸦和狐狸 Wu ya he hu li) adapted from Aesop’s fable by Yu (吕榆, aka洪汛涛, 1928-2001) and illustrated by Zhan Tongxuan (詹同渲, 1932-1995). Shanghai: Shao nian er tong chu ban she, 1978. 12 pages, 21 cm. (Cotsen 93898)

Caption: Hearing these words the Crow was overjoyed. It stretched open its wings and admired at them, feeling as if it were indeed prettier than a peacock.

The Crow and the Fox (Cotsen 93898) is a board book published by the Juvenile and Children’s Publishing House in Shanghai in May 1978. This date is remarkably early, as the country was just stepping out of the shadow of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) at the time. The book is a beautiful rendition of Aesop’s fable “The Fox and the Crow.” Color ink wash paintings by Zhan Tongxuan, a successful anime director and children’s illustrator, portray natural scenery with the elegance characteristic of traditional Chinese landscape painting. At the same time, he captures the lively personalities of animal figures with warm and playful brushstrokes. The inviting full-color visuals, brief text, and thick board pages make The Crow and the Fox suitable for the shared reading of preschoolers and their caregivers.

It is unclear what other board books Chinese children’s presses had issued at the time. What we do know is that board books were rare, and full-color picture books were not widely available in China for another two decades. The Crow and the Fox was marked at a steep price of 1.20 yuan in 1978. The publishing house was ahead of its time in producing high-quality materials when most Chinese families were not yet acquainted with early childhood literacy practices.

Imagination, Humor, and Lenient Parenting

Since the beginning of the 21st century, imported, translated titles have (re)introduced Chinese audiences to the full-color picture book. Inspired by these titles, Chinese authors and illustrators have begun creating their own works. The concept of shared reading is now continually encouraged by education scholars and parenting advocates. Cotsen’s new acquisitions reflect the latest changes and achievements in contemporary Chinese children’s literature. The new genre is nourished by a growing diversity of styles, themes, and subject matter. Particularly noticeable are the increasing number of titles intended for toddlers and preschoolers.

A peep-hole book dated 2014.
The Very Wonderful Little Pebble (好神奇的小石头) written and illustrated by Zuo Wei. Beijing: Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen 153830) The Very Wonderful Little Pebble (好神奇的小石头) written and illustrated by Zuo Wei. Beijing: Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen 153830)
The Very Wonderful Little Pebble (好神奇的小石头) written and illustrated by Zuo Wei (左伟). Beijing: Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen 153830)

If the title “The Very Wonderful Little Pebble” sounds familiar, you’re probably hearing echoes of Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The title is not the only part of the book that bears Carle’s influence. Every other page has a pebble-shaped hole, a stable element that introduces surprising visual transformations throughout the book. Each hollow pebble takes its color from the image on the next page, seen through the cut-out. As you turn the page and reveal the rest of the image, the gray pebble becomes the body of a gray mouse; the bright yellow pebble becomes the juicy body of an Asian pear; and so on. The text first invites the reader to observe the little pebble and its color and then asks for a guess of what the pebble’s next transformation will be. Each new object is then described in short and joyful rhymes. The use of repetition and rhymes, the invitation to participate in the guessing game, the teaching of color and object names, the fun of being surprised by the humble pebble’s many transformations, and not to mention the immense satisfaction that will soon come to a toddler from getting the answers right within a few repeated readings make The Very Wonderful Little Pebble an enjoyable picture book for preschoolers.

Who Took a Bite of My Pancake (谁咬了我的大饼) written and illustrated by Xu Zhijiang (徐志江). Nanjing: Nanjing shi fan da xue chu ban she, 2013. (Cotsen 154141) Who Took a Bite of My Pancake (谁咬了我的大饼) written and illustrated by Xu Zhijiang (徐志江). Nanjing: Nanjing shi fan da xue chu ban she, 2013. (Cotsen 154141)
Who Took a Bite of My Pancake (谁咬了我的大饼), written and illustrated by Xu Zhijiang (徐志江). Nanjing: Nanjing shi fan da xue chu ban she, 2013. (Cotsen 154141)

How terribly boring would it be if there were no humor in children’s books? Humor contributed to the immense popularity of many Chinese children’s stories published in the second half of the twentieth century, works which were otherwise didactic, nationalistic, and Communist. Humor continues to characterize contemporary Chinese picture books, which have been considerably de-politicized. In Who Took a Bite of My Pancake (Cotsen 154141), published in 2013, a good-natured piglet wakes to find a bite missing from his freshly made pancake. He begins asking around to identify the culprit. In order to prove their innocence, the suspect animals (a bird, a rabbit, a fox, etc.) take defiant bites from the pancake, so that their bite-marks can be compared to the first bite. One by one, the animals demonstrate that the first bite, which was shaped like a half-moon, could not possibly have been left by their beaks or teeth. The piglet resigns himself to enjoying what little is left of his pancake, still wondering who did it. On the last page, more perceptive readers will notice that the only bite that matches the first one is the piglet’s own. Who Took a Bite is a definite giggle-inducer. Toddlers will relish being the wiser as the piglet takes on his inevitably fruitless investigation. This flattering feeling of wisdom is not to be taken for granted at an age when everyone else in your life seems to know more than you do.

Is It Morning (天亮了吗) written by Xiao Mao (萧袤) and illustrated by Liu Xuebo (刘学波). Nanning: Jie li chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen 154239) Is It Morning (天亮了吗) written by Xiao Mao (萧袤) and illustrated by Liu Xuebo (刘学波). Nanning: Jie li chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen 154239)
Is It Morning (天亮了吗), written by Xiao Mao (萧袤) and illustrated by Liu Xuebo (刘学波). Nanning: Jie li chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen 154239)

In Is It Morning (Cotsen 154239), we meet a young rooster on the eve of his first cock-a-doodle-doo duty. Too excited to fall asleep, he stays up lest he miss the first sign of dawn. Over the course of the night, he mistakes the glow of fireflies, the sparks of fireworks, the radiance of a shooting star, and the glare of headlights for the break of day. After so many false alarms, he is exhausted. When dawn finally does arrive, as you might have guessed, our protagonist is fast asleep.

Is It Morning is part of a 20-volume toddlers’ series titled I Have Never Thought of That (没想到: 婴儿创意图画书) (2014), which intends to teach parenting skills in addition to amuse children. Each volume contains a one-page guide to sharing the book with a child reader, often spelling out the “moral” of the story for adult caregivers. These morals break away from traditional values such as self-constraint, modesty, and perseverance, and encourage self-esteem and assertiveness in children. Overall, they advocate a parenting attitude that is more tolerant and sympathetic to children. The shared-reading guide for Is It Morning points out that it is okay to make mistakes, especially on your first try, promoting a more positive view of failure. As the guide suggests, the young rooster will be able to respond to teasing and laughter by saying, “Yes, I have overslept and missed my crow duty, but last night I saw the dance of fireflies, beautiful explosions of fireworks, and the shining journey of a shooting star.”

Do I have to go to sleep when evening falls?

The owl, “No, I won’t.”

I Won’t (就不), written by Gong Ruping (巩孺萍) and illustrated by Dou Dou Yu (豆豆鱼). Nanning: Jie li chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen 154239)

In another title I Won’t (Cotsen 154239), the shared-reading guide warns that it is unhealthy for children to bottle up their feelings and remain constantly obedient, a message that is alien to traditional Chinese culture. The guide suggests that such repressive parenting strategies have the potential to cause estrangement in the long run. In I Won’t, a little girl finds a voice and an emotional outlet through “disobedient” animals who are not afraid of saying “no” to commands. Revolutionary as the message sounds, it reflects a shift of what children are most valued for–from being a source of material returns to that of emotional rewards.

Authors and Illustrators Renewed

A sign of vitality in the world of Chinese picture books is the even distribution of authors along the age spectrum. These new picture book titles are created by a range of writers and illustrators, including Wang Xiaoming (王晓明, born in 1945), a nominee for the 2004 Hans Christian Andersen Award for illustration, and a young, accidental author, Shao Yinjie ( born in the late 1990s). Shao and his mother got the idea for their picture book when he became disgruntled about eating “the same old breakfast” yet again (Shao).

The Big Cardboard Box (大纸箱), written and illustrated by Zhong Yu. Nanjing: Nanjing shi fan da xue chu ban she, 2013. (Cotsen 154137) The Big Cardboard Box (大纸箱), written and illustrated by Zhong Yu. Nanjing: Nanjing shi fan da xue chu ban she, 2013. (Cotsen 154137)
The Big Cardboard Box (大纸箱), written and illustrated by Zhong Yu (钟彧). Nanjing: Nanjing shi fan da xue chu ban she, 2013. (Cotsen 154137)

Zhong Yu (born in 1985) won a picture book award for her drawings of a girl’s imaginative play with a cardboard box. The girl’s resourcefulness and creative mind transform the box into an airplane up in the sky one minute and a fancy restaurant dining table the next. She might be able to offer a few tips to the contestants in the annual Cardboard Canoe Race at Princeton, wouldn’t you say?

Caption: [If you like grass for breakfast,] then you might be an ox, or a sheep, or a horse, or an elephant.
What Do You Like for Breakfast? (早餐, 你喜欢吃什么?), written by Yin Xiuhua (殷秀华) and Shao Yinjie (邵殷杰); illustrated by Zhou Xiang (周翔). Nanjing, 201-. (Cotsen 154138)

What Do You Like for Breakfast? (Cotsen 154138) plays with the food habits of animals, repeating the pattern “If you like X (e.g. fish) for breakfast, then you might be a Y (e.g. cat)” throughout. It also builds upon the deep-seated assumption that children naturally identify themselves with animals, or perhaps upon adults’ subconscious association of children with animals and lesser humans. The book seamlessly switches from describing various animals to describing a toddler at the end: “If you like bread, egg, and milk for breakfast, then you might be a human child.” If these foods are not the “authentic” Chinese breakfast you’d expect, it is worth knowing that they are common on the breakfast tables of contemporary urban Chinese families, a reflection of constantly changing and partially Westernized lifestyles in the country.

The Chinese picture book industry faces some of the same old hurdles it did more than half a century ago. Lacking the backing of strong institutional purchasers, most children’s books clearly rely on individual buyers and are kept at the low price of 8-10 yuan (under $2 USD). Nearly all have been issued in softback edition alone and are not ideal for a public library to collect and shelve. We can only hope that Chinese picture books are here to stay this time, bringing color, joy, and useful knowledge to children in 21st century China, as well as enriching children’s literature for the whole world.


The list of individuals, authors, publishers, and a peer library that made generous donations of Chinese children’s literature to Cotsen in the past two years is too long to appear here. Special thanks goes to the Dong fan wa wa (东方娃娃) magazine, Jieli (接力) Publishing House, professors Tan Fengxia (谈凤霞, Nanjing Normal University, China), Zhu Ziqiang (朱自强) and Luo Yirong (罗贻荣, Ocean University of China), Mei Zihan (梅子涵, Shanghai Normal University), Qi Tongwei (齐童巍, Hangzhou Dianzi University), and Hou Ying (侯颖, Northeast Normal University, China), and Yunhe (云和) Public Library of Zhejiang Province.


Shao, Yinjie. “《早餐,你喜欢吃什么?》诞生记” [The birth of What Do You Like for Breakfast?]. 2014. Web. http://baby.sina.com.cn/edu/14/2907/2014-07-29/2112275235.shtml

Yang, Xiaomei. “对新形式小画片的意见” [Criticism of Small Pictures in a New Format]. Wen hui bao: 2. 26 May 1958. Print.

(Edited by Melody Edwards)

The Children’s Educator: A Children’s Magazine (or “Publishing Platypus?”) from the Twilight of Imperial China

Even though there had been a long history in China of compiling primers for pupils, it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that, under a heavy Western influence, Chinese intellectuals began in earnest to publish magazines and trade books for the enlightenment and entertainment of children. Following the defeat of the Qing Dynasty by Britain in the First (1839-1842) and Second (1856-1860) Opium Wars, China was forced to end its isolationism and allow a vast increase of foreigners in treaty ports and inland areas. In May 1875, the Brooklyn, New York-based Foreign Sunday-school Association brought the Western practice of publishing children’s books to China and helped to launch The Child’s Paper (小孩月報誌異Xiaohai yuebao zhiyi), a Mandarin-language monthly religious periodical in Shanghai (“Notices” 235; “The Rev. Dr. Mitchell” 6).

Children’s magazines published by Chinese emerged during the 1890s. The earliest title that historians have found is The Children’s Educator (蒙學報Mengxue bao), launched in Shanghai by the Society for Enlightenment Education (蒙學會Mengxue hui) on the first day of the eleventh moon of the 23rd year of the reign of Emperor Guangxu (光绪) (Nov. 24, 1897). Unbeknownst to the members of the Society, Guangxu would be the penultimate emperor in Chinese history. China’s last imperial dynasty would be overthrown a mere fourteen years later in the Xinhai Revolution of 1911. However, an urgent sense of crisis regarding the feeble Qing Dynasty was at the heart of the creation of The Children’s Educator.

The Origin of The Children’s Educator

Two years before the launch of The Children’s Educator, a massive defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) shook China and proved that the self-strengthening reforms attempted by Qing officials in the aftermath of the Opium Wars were ineffective. The shadow of the humiliating loss to Japan looms large in the magazine. In fact, the geography section of the first issue lists tributaries and territories that China had lost to foreign powers throughout history from the reign of Emperor Daoguang (1820-1850) (道光) to the recent Sino-Japanese War. More importantly, the first issue begins with an essay titled “The Origin of The Children’s Educator” (蒙學報緣起), which articulates the concerns and motivations of its publisher. Written by Ye Lan¹ (葉瀾), the essay was directly influenced by, and frequently records verbatim, reformist Liang Qichao’s (梁啟超1873-1929) writings on elementary education (幼學youxue), which had previously been serialized in Current Affairs (時務報Shiwu bao) from 1896 to 1897.

In his essay (1897), Ye criticizes the ineffective and wasteful teaching methods of traditional Chinese education. He compares the relationship between a pupil and a teacher to that of “an inmate convicted of a felony” looking up at his warden. Studying, Ye writes, blocks a student’s brain and weakens his body. Traditional Chinese education was like sowing more than 400 million fine seeds (the estimated Chinese population of the time) and then exposing them to the elements. Western countries and Japan had new and useful teaching methods, but Chinese educators, even if they knew about them, were either unconvinced of their benefit or afraid of making changes. Ye announced that The Children’s Educator was established because its founding members desperately wished to disseminate this message to the public.

Ye’s criticism, borrowing further from Liang’s writings, goes into more detail. For Chinese children, language and reading instruction consisted of rote memorization of such abstruse Confucius texts as The Great Learning (大學Daxue) and The Doctrine of the Mean (中庸Zhongyong). These books put students to sleep as soon as they opened them. Then teachers would resort to coercion and severe physical punishment. Children could spend several years studying without understanding a single word. Thus, students not only failed to learn anything but also suffered harm to their bodies and minds. Their youth and their parents’ hard-earned money were spent in vain.

Extensively quoting Liang’s writings on the efficiency of Western and Japanese elementary education, Ye explains how young children in those countries were taught differently. According to Liang, Western children first learned single words, starting with words for common objects, discerned the meaning of the words, and then proceeded to make sentences and write compositions. Liang says that required subjects in the West included astronomy, geography, history, and current affairs. Children were glad to learn, because they were taught in ways like magic shows (演戲法yan xifa) and drum ballad story songs (說鼓詞shuo guci). Children learned several foreign languages at an age when their tongues were still flexible. They learned mathematics, which was needed by all trades. They learned music, which freed them from boredom. They learned gymnastics, which “strengthened muscles and bones and made everyone fit to be a soldier” (emphasis mine). Ye could not have emphasized more strongly the relationship between elementary education and national defense.

Ye also analyzes the complexity of Chinese characters and grammar, outdated and practically useless information in classical Chinese geography books like The Classic of the Mountains (山經Shanjing) and Tribute of Yu (禹貢Yugong), and the disconnect between historical Chinese terms for plants and animals and their Western equivalents. He explains how all these issues pose challenges to teaching and learning. However, the essay ends on an optimistic note. Ye sees young children as being free from preconceived ideas and thus more open to changes than adult teachers. If teachers could overcome their fear of the new and challenging and adopt appropriate teaching methods and accessible books, rapid progress would naturally take place. Within two or three years’ time, society would be more open to new ways of doing things. Thousands of years of pernicious influence would dissolve by itself, and 400 million “seeds of the yellow race” (黃種huangzhong) would be securely preserved. That was the responsibility of The Children’s Educator. (Note that Chinese intellectuals of the late Qing dynasty already comfortably identified their people with the “yellow” race, an imprecise term that remains neutral in the Chinese language and carries no derogatory overtone as it does in English.)

Ye’s introductory essay, in summary, ties the education of young Chinese to the destiny of an empire under constant threat and the survival of its people. The magazine’s ambition was to reform Chinese elementary education by introducing new methods and materials from the West and Japan, which its publisher believed would ultimately strengthen China’s defense of its land and people. The magazine was an immediate implementation of Liang Qichao’s ideas for elementary education, which he postulated with passion and patience in his “On Reform” (變法通議Bianfa tongyi) series in Current Affairs. Together with Wang Zhonglin (汪鍾霖1867-?), Wang Kangnian (汪康年1860-1911), Zeng Guangquan (曾廣銓1871-1940), Luo Zhenyu (羅振玉1866-1940), Tan Sitong (譚嗣同1865-1898) and Zhang Taiyan (章太炎1869-1936), Liang was among the earliest and most prominent members of the Society for Enlightenment Education. He would go on to become the foremost intellectual leader of China in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Publication Format

Scholarship has just begun to recognize The Children’s Educator as the earliest children’s magazine by indigenous Chinese, but an accurate and comprehensive understanding of the publication is wanting. Besides other contributing factors, it probably does not help that the format and content of this initial experimentation with children’s reading materials does not comfortably fit into established categories in modern publishing. Upon close inspection, The Children’s Educator is an unusual species–a “platypus” in the publishing world.

1) Newspaper or Magazine?

The Children's Educator (蒙學報), no. 3 (Dec. 8, 1897). 18 leaves in various foliations; 26 cm. Stitch-bound. (Cotsen 102594)

The Children’s Educator (蒙學報), no. 3 (Dec. 8, 1897). 18 leaves in various foliations; 26 cm. Stitch-bound. (Cotsen 102594)

The first confusion surrounds the title and format of the publication. The cover of the magazine carries both a Chinese title Mengxue Bao, literally meaning “The Paper for Enlightenment Learning,” and its title in English translation, printed as “The Childrens’ [sic] Educator” or “The Childens’ [sic] Educator” in various issues. In contemporary Chinese the character bao is commonly associated with newspapers, which are issued on loose and large sheets. In the early days of print media and journalism in China, however, the term was apparently used more broadly to include periodical publications. As we can observe from the physical copy of issue no. 3 held at the Cotsen Children’s Library (Cotsen 102594), The Children’s Educator was a bound publication and issued weekly–for a yearly subscription fee of “four yuan” (n.p.)–and thus qualifies as a magazine title.

2) Book or Periodical?

The Children’s Educator is in effect a cross between a periodical and multiple books. The numbering of leaves in a seemingly bewildering system betrays this amalgamation. In issue no. 1, nearly all the leaves are numbered leaf 1; in issue no. 2, nearly all are marked “leaf 2;” and so on. A close examination found that the magazine is divided into more than a dozen columns, each running the length of one to several leaves in one issue. The content of each column, often serializing a book translated from English or Japanese, is continuous from one issue to the next–it is not unusual that the text unapologetically pauses in mid-sentence to be continued in the next issue–and the numbering of leaves continues within the columns accordingly.

Later on, the magazine informed its subscribers that they could remove the stitches and re-sort the leaves by columns, thus assembling separate books out of the serializations (1899, no. 40, cover). Specifically, editors pointed out that the magazine was designed to enlighten children, and the re-bound volumes could be used as school texts. Still later, the publisher started selling The Children’s Educator series, which were books more or less the same as what the subscribers had been instructed to stitch together themselves out of past issues (Vol. 7, no. 1, Apr. 27, 1903). One book volume held at the Cotsen Children’s Library illustrates this flexible practice of bookmaking in the late Qing period. The Children’s Educator: Mathematics Part II (蒙學報: 算學下) (Cotsen 75995) is a book that teaches math to children between the ages of eleven and thirteen. Because this bound issue seems to miss no leaves and the stitching holes look neat and clean, it is more likely a formal copy from the publisher than a private collection sewn together by a studious subscriber.

The Children's Educator: Mathematics Part II (蒙學報: 算學下), not before 1904. 1 volume; 25 cm. Stitch-bound. (Cotsen 75995)

The Children’s Educator: Mathematics Part II (蒙學報: 算學下), not before 1904. 1 volume; 25 cm. Stitch-bound. (Cotsen 75995)

The question remains whether the book is exclusively a reissuing of what had been published in the magazine. The first three sections, all under the running title “Books and Papers for Enlightenment Learning” (蒙學書報), clearly mark the numbers of issues (no. 9-20 and no. 61-99) from which the leaves have been assembled. The last section not only appears under a different running title, “Enlightenment Learning Series” (蒙學叢書), but also the paper of most of the leaves differs from the rest of the volume. The folded sheets are slightly crispier and evidently in a yellower shade. Because it lacks issue numbers, it is uncertain if the content of the fourth section had been serialized before or was being released with the book for the first time.

3) Textbook or Children’s Literature?

The Children’s Educator straddles the categories of children’s magazine and textbook. Magazine, because of its mode of issuance. Textbook, because The Children’s Educator was intended as a collection of formal learning materials for children in accordance with Liang Qichao’s vision for new teaching methods. The arrangement of the content, as explained in “The Outline of The Children’s Educator” (蒙學報條例) in its first issue, suggests the careful and extensive planning process that engendered the magazine.

According to the Outline, the magazine planned to offer multi-level elementary learning materials to three age groups: 5-7, 8-12, and above 12. Contents were to be divided into six main columns, roughly covering language and literature, mathematics, ethics, history and events, geography, and natural science. The columns were aligned with the school subjects that the Society was advocating for reformed education. Each column was further divided into sub-topics suitable for different age groups. For example, under the column for language and literature, “learning Chinese characters” was intended for ages 5-7 and “texts translated from Japanese readers,” for ages 8-12.

The magazine systematically translated and serialized children’s learning and reading materials from the West and Japan. The two main translators of the magazine, Zeng Guangquan (for Western languages) and Kojō Teikichi (古城貞吉1866-1949, for Japanese), detailed what topic areas were to be offered in translated sections and how they would support educational reform. A telling passage by Zeng highlights how this weekly magazine is intended for use as children’s textbook material:

Translations are published in the same order as the contents are arranged in the original Western-language books, proceeding from easy pieces to difficult ones. This paper is published every seven days, thus each issue supplies children with readings for seven days’ worth of lessons. (本報均依西文原有之書,依其次序,分課譯出登報。約照本報七日之期,使兒童足為七日課讀爲止。) (1897, no. 1)

Illustration for "The Weaver Girl and the Fairy," an entry in the section "Laughable Stories for Children," in The Children's Educator, no. 3, 1897.

Illustration for “The Weaver Girl and the Fairy,” an entry in the section “Laughable Stories for Children,” in The Children’s Educator, no. 3, 1897.

Even though The Children’s Educator can be easily characterized as a textbook in the disguise of a children magazine, it contains patches of soil congenial for the flowering of text and images that meet the modern definition of children’s literature. A curious section offered by the magazine is called “Laughable Stories for Children” (兒童笑話ertong xiaohua), which claims to target ages 8-12 and, for lack of a finer classification, is a sub-category of the history and events column (史事類). The entries tend to be translations from Japanese publications; one source was given as The Adolescents’ World Paper (少年世界報Shōnen Sekai) (1897, no. 1). Animal stories are common.

In “The Weaver Girl and the Fairy” (織女及仙姬), two beauties get into an ugly fight out of jealousy and end up disfiguring each other (1897, no. 2). In another story, a cat is tricked by rats into getting drunk. He then makes a spectacle of himself and fails to perform his duty (1897, no. 4). Mildly comical at best, these stories are essentially fables meant to convey moral messages, as opposed to “jokes,” which is how the Chinese word xiaohua is translated today. As in a fable, the Japanese translator Kojō attaches a moralizing commentary to the end of a few entries (1897, no. 2). Might we argue that a conscious offering of “laughable stories” suggests the editor’s effort to entertain child readers–to engage them in a moral lesson by eliciting a laugh?

Besides fable stories, a second noticeable aspect of the magazine is its emphasis on illustrations and images. Illustrated books for children were not exactly new or foreign in late-Qing China. Long before 1900 there had been centuries of tradition of illustrating The 24 Filial Exemplars (二十四孝), stories that teach Chinese children to pay filial piety. Textbooks that taught Chinese characters to children and adult learners, such as Miscellaneous Characters (雜字), were also illustrated. Even though these publications failed to spawn what could be called an industry of children’s literature in feudal China, the concept that pictures make a book more engaging and easier for child readers to comprehend seemed to be a familiar one. To give more legitimacy to the practice of including images in books, Ye’s introductory essay (1897) asserts that ancient books treat images and text with equal seriousness, but that good tradition was lost in later books–it was a common tactic for Chinese intellectuals to attempt to enhance the authority of a new idea by tracing its root to the revered Chinese tradition and classics. Ye then attributes the problem of confusing Chinese vocabulary for animals and plants to the lack of pictures in past publications. “Without having seen what the objects look like, it must be difficult for children (童子tongzi) to understand [the terms],” he points out.

Keen to practice what it preached, the magazine stresses its effort to provide illustrations in the aforementioned outlines and translators’ statements:

For contents that are translated from the aforementioned books and that would have been unclear without pictures, the magazine hires an illustrator and offers fine pictures to accompany the text, so that children will like and study them. (本報輯譯以上之書,其中有非圖不明者,另請圖繪人。每期按説繪圖,務極精工,以便兒童愛玩。) (1897, no. 1)

The science of physical health needs the assistance of illustrations for clarification. When the Western-language sources contain pictures, we invite well-known illustrators to faithfully transfer the images. (養生之學均須圖説方明。本報於西文書報有圖者,均延名手移繪無差。) (1897, no. 1)

"Promise." Translated by Kojō Teikichi from Japanese, in The Children's Educator, no. 3, 1897.

“Promise.” Translated by Kojō Teikichi from Japanese, in The Children’s Educator, no. 3, 1897.

The notion of “transferring the images” is not the same as “copying” or “duplicating.” There might be little room for cultural adaptation when it comes to duplicating a world map or images of plants and animals from a non-Chinese book. When humans are portrayed, however, Chinese illustrators seemed to have made inconsistent decisions as to the national identity of the subjects. For “Lifting a Heavy Man” (舉起重人), a brief entry on physics translated from an unidentified source in the Western language, the illustration shows Chinese people in a Chinese setting (1897, no. 1). In “Promise” (信實) and “Friends” (朋友), which are two entries on ethics translated from Japanese, people dressed in traditional Japanese garments are pictured sitting seiza-style on the floor of a Japanese-style residence, even though the text seems to be referring to historical Chinese figures (1897, no. 3).

4) For Children, Teachers, or Parents?

A final feature that makes The Children’s Educator an intriguing publishing “platypus” in the evolution of Chinese children’s literature is the multiple audiences it targets. In addition to being a magazine that children could read, study, and enjoy, as we shall see in examples below, it contains materials that were clearly intended for teachers and parents.

One of the changes Liang Qichao advocated in his “On Reform” series was to introduce normal schools (師範學校, schools for training elementary teachers) into China’s education system. During the Qing Restoration period (1860-1895), the Chinese government hired foreign instructors–paying them fat salaries that were several times higher than those received by Chinese teachers–for its language and military schools. Liang (416-17) observed the many flaws of relying on imported instructors: their foreign tongues were poorly comprehended by Chinese students, even with the help of interpreters, and they failed to adapt their teaching to Chinese students due to their poor knowledge of the Chinese culture and people. Liang learned about normal schools from the Japanese education system that was established after the Meiji Restoration. Reform, he pointed out, was not only about higher education, it must start with elementary schools as well as normal schools built to supply elementary teachers.

The Children’s Educator expanded Liang’s interest in teacher education by offering information on teaching methods and educational systems in the West and Japan, although not on a regular basis. One entry in issue no. 8 (1898) introduces Kindergarten education, which has been promoted by the German pedagogue Friedrich Fröbel. No. 1 (1903) is devoted to education system of the world and China. Topics range widely from education theory to compulsory education in Japan and France, women’s physical education in America, tuition waivers, and European and American elementary school teachers’ salaries and even their subsidized housing arrangements.

Another category found in early issues is called “Motherhood” (母儀muyi), a distinct offering for mothers on how to be good parents. The column does not seem to persist in later issues. The initial inclusion and subsequent abandonment of the category were perhaps a result of a conflicted view of women’s role in children’s education and the practical concern for how few literate adult Chinese women the magazine was able to reach. The Motherhood category of issue no. 2 (1897) contains two illustrated legends about the mother of Mencius. In these two well-known stories, the wise woman moves house three times before finding a location that she deems suitable for her son’s upbringing; when her son plays truant from school, she cuts the cloth she had been weaving, rendering it useless, to make a point about never stopping a task midway. A third entry, “Several Pieces of Instructions on Motherhood” (母儀數則), published in no. 3 (1897), has been translated from Japanese. It teaches mothers how to take care of a newborn. One rule discourages co-sleeping and was perhaps one hundred years ahead of China’s economic conditions: co-sleeping remained commonplace in Chinese families during the twentieth century because of limited living space.

Math Problems, Chinese Style

Mixed fractions

Mixed fractions

Complex fractions. In The Children’s Educator: Mathematics Part II (蒙學報: 算學下), not before 1904. (Cotsen 75995)

Complex fractions. In The Children’s Educator: Mathematics Part II (蒙學報: 算學下), not before 1904. (Cotsen 75995)

Perhaps no other subject area presented more visible challenge to Chinese language and symbols at the end of the nineteenth century than mathematics. Chinese scripts were written in columns from top to bottom and from right to left. Arabic numerals had not been adopted yet, so the digits appeared in the form of Chinese characters from zero to nine. As the pages here demonstrate, it was an awkward business trying to transfer horizontal mathematical formulas to a vertically-oriented Chinese page. To make things more complicated, these early textbook writers decided to invert the position of numerator and denominator in a fraction, so that numerators were placed under the fraction bar.


The cover of the first issue gives the publisher’s address as “Chaozong Fang” (朝宗坊) at the intersection of Sanmalu (三馬路, today’s Hankou Lu) and Wangping Street (望平街, today’s Shandong Zhong Lu) in Shanghai. A prominent location in the history of newspaper publishing in China, Wangping Street was once nicknamed “the street of newspaper offices” (Zhang) for the dozens of newspaper publishers that lined it. Today this neighborhood is home to the towering headquarters of Liberation Daily (or Jiefang Daily), the official daily newspaper of the Shanghai Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

(View in a larger map. Approximate location of the publisher of The Children’s Educator in Shanghai, China, near Shandong Zhong Lu, once nicknamed “the street of newspaper offices.”)

Significant People

Liang Qichao (梁啟超1873-1929): a native of Xinhui (新會), Guangdong Province. Liang was listed as the fourth member of the Society for Enlightenment Education in the inauguration issue of The Children’s Educator (Nov. 1897). He did not contribute to the magazine, but it was in effect his brainchild and a close implementation of his ideas on educational reform. His writings on reform eventually helped usher in the Hundred Days of Reform of 1898, a frustrated movement that attempted to introduce profound changes to the Chinese education system and government.

Wang Kangnian (汪康年1860-1911): a native of Qiantang (錢塘), Zhejiang Province. Wang was board director (總董zongdong) of the magazine and listed as the third member of the Society for Enlightenment Education in the inauguration issue. He and Liang Qichao were cofounders of Current Affairs launched in 1896, which carried Liang’s “On Reform” series that inspired The Children’s Educator.

Wang Zhonglin (汪鐘霖1867-?): alias Ganqing (甘卿), a native of Wuxian (吳縣), Jiangsu Province. Wang was general manager (總理zongli) of the magazine and listed as the first member of the Society for Enlightenment Education in the inauguration issue; later named editor and distributor (1903, no. 1) of the magazine. He was also responsible for editing and printing The Children’s Educator series (蒙學叢書), which were included in the magazine or issued separately as monographs.

Zeng Guangquan (曾廣銓1871-1940): a native of Xiangxiang (湘鄉), Hunan Province. Zeng was the translator of Western-language materials into Chinese for the magazine and sixth member of the Society for Enlightenment Education. Grandson of the eminent General Zeng Guofan (曾國藩1811-1872), he apparently acquired foreign language skills while visiting Europe with his uncle and adoptive father Zeng Jize (曾紀澤1839-1890), who was an envoy sent to Britain and France by the Qing government.

Ye Yaoyuan (葉耀元): a native of Wuxian (吳縣), Jiangsu Province. Given the magazine’s special emphasis on providing illustrations to engage child readers and help them understand the text, it is worth mentioning Ye, who was listed as the main illustrator in the first issue. Many drawings are not credited, and it is unclear if Ye made those pictures as well. Ye’s drawings range from portraits of Confucius and his disciples to celestial charts. He also wrote math sections that were included in The Children’s Educator series.


1. Chinese names follow the order of family name-given name.


Liang, Qichao. “Shi fan xue xiao.” Shi wu bao [Current affairs] 15 (1896): 415-19.

Meng xue bao [The Children’s educator]. (1897-1906) In “The Late Qing Dynasty Periodical Full-text Database (1833~1911)” (proprietary database)

Meng xue bao [The Children’s educator]. 3 (1897). (Cotsen 102594)

Meng xue bao [The Children’s educator]. Shanghai?: n.p., not before 1904. (Cotsen 75995)

“Notices of Recent Publications.” The Chinese Recorder and Missionary Journal. 1 May 1875: 235.

“The Rev. Dr. Mitchell…” The Independent. 14 Dec 1876: 6.

Zhang, Zonghai. “报馆街: 望平街.” 上海名街志. Ed. 上海市地方志办公室. 上海: 上海社会科学院出版社, 2004. Web. 15 July 2014. <http://shtong.gov.cn/node2/node71994/node71995/index.html>

(Edited by Miranda Marraccini and Mary Kathleen Schulman.)