Linked Pictures: A Genre of Chinese Illustrated Books


Before she catches sight of a waistcoated, watch-wearing rabbit popping down a hole, a drowsy Alice famously questions, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Mr. Lloyd E. Cotsen apparently agreed with Alice’s wisdom. Cotsen, a 1950 Princeton alumnus whose family library for his own kids seeded the Cotsen Children’s Library, made illustrated works the focus of this special collection of international and historical children’s materials.

“Linked Pictures” for All Ages

Among Chinese materials, which make up the largest non-English language collection at Cotsen, are more than 1400 heavily illustrated story books. The Chinese term for such books, particularly those with images on nearly every page, is lian huan hua (LHH, 连环画), literarily meaning “linked pictures.” LHH books were not born as children’s literature, but were intended to entertain all ages when the format took shape in Shanghai in the 1920s. China’s population was poorly educated during much of the twentieth century. Semi-literate adults relied upon visuals to comprehend stories and avidly consumed LHH, just as children did. When Italian journalist Gino Nebiolo travelled on a night train in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), he noticed that every passenger received a copy of LHH along with hot tea from the stewardess, and that workers, petty officials, and peasants were “all completely absorbed in their reading” (Nebiolo viii). (The modern urge to seek entertainment and distraction from handheld touch screens during any idle moment is not an invention by Apple, after all.) It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the “one-format-fits-all” model of print-entertainment began to disintegrate, owing to the steadily rising Chinese literacy rate, access to broadcast media, and the influence of Western- and Japanese-style “linked pictures” such as comic books and picture books.

The World Turned Upside Down (天翻地覆). 上海: 东亚书局, [19–] 13 x 15 cm. (Cotsen 31152) An early LHH work from the Republic of China.

Dated between the 1920s and 1940s, The World Turned Upside Down is one of the earliest LHH works held at the Cotsen Children’s Library. It is an illustrated story based on a Chinese creation myth. The publisher cleverly uses the cover to advertise its other LHH titles, which include Chinese mythology and folktales, kung fu stories, romance, and historical fiction, typical for early LHH works. Pre-1950 LHH copies are rare today, partly due to the ephemeral nature of flimsy paperbacks produced for the mass market, and partly due to recurring censorship campaigns launched by the Communist regime after 1950.

小旅客(1974) Little Passengers (小旅客) / adapted by Wang Tao; illustrated by Xu Ping (徐屏) and Lin Yixiang (林亦香). 浙江人民出版社, 1974. 60 pages; 11 x 13 cm. (Cotsen 74914)

One panel from LHH Little Passengers offers a close illustration of Nebiolo’s report. Dressed in then-fashionable military uniform, a fifth-grader reads an LHH story about the soldier Lei Feng to a little boy he meets on the train. LHH was arguably the most popular and accessible reading format for Chinese children until the mid-1980s and was frequently referenced in the text and images of children’s books.

Layout and Art Styles

The Cotsen collection offers plenty of examples to help us appreciate the diverse visual styles, text-image relationships, subject matter, and intended audiences of Chinese “linked-picture” books. The prevailing layout of LHH includes one image on every page, horizontally oriented, accompanied by a short text along one side of the panel. Because most LHH art comprises black line drawings, it is tempting to equate Chinese LHH with comic books. Unlike in Western comics and Japanese manga, though, conversation balloons are not a persistent component of Chinese LHH. In fact, the 1970s saw a tendency to do away with speech balloons, which were thought to ruin the integrity of the pictures (Fei 474). Compared with comic books familiar to the West and Japan, most Chinese LHH from the twentieth century rely more on text than on sequential art for storytelling. This particular style of “linked pictures” would eventually give way to comic books, characterized by a tighter complementary relation between the text and visuals, and color picture books, which are better suited for beginning readers.

总路线图画唱本(1958) The General Line for Socialist Construction: An Illustrated Libretto (总路线图画唱本). 上海: 上海人民美术出版社, 1958. 31 pages; 10 x 13 cm. (Cotsen 72229)

An LHH booklet on an adult palm.

Although the page size of LHH books varies widely, those produced during the heyday of the format are typically palm-sized, measuring in the neighborhood of four by five inches. Miniature-size LHH works, defined as under 10 centimeters tall, were clearly designed with young readers’ small hands in mind. As shown in another post “Fresh from China,” some miniature books were thoughtfully constructed accordion style on thick paper to accommodate children’s limited motor skills.

Although LHH is most often associated with black line drawings printed on horizontal booklets, the umbrella term is inclusive of a wide array of visual and storytelling styles. Let’s showcase some examples.

A Little Iron Boy (小铁汉) / adapted by Lu Yuan; illustrated by Hu Zhenxiang. 上海: 春秋书社, 1953. 26 pages; 18 cm. (Cotsen 66253)

Part of a “Children’s Linked-Picture Story”(儿童连环图画故事) series, this title from early People’s Republic of China very much resembles beginning reader books found in today’s market. The brief text is thoughtfully printed in large font and with generous line spacing. Set in Tiên Lãng, Vietnam in the midst of the Indochina War, A Little Iron Boy is presented as a true biographical story of a ten-year-old Vietnamese boy who would rather endure torture than reveal the hiding place of three Viet Minh cadres to the French military.

One subgroup of LHH is movie spin-offs akin to what would be called “photonovels” in English. The format consists of film stills with captions, making it a most satisfactory proxy for moviegoing long before video tape players entered Chinese homes in the 1990s.

Lei Feng (雷锋) / adapted by Wen Piao. 北京: 中国电影出版社, 1965. 177 pages; 11 x 13 cm. (Cotsen 32682)

The booklet is based on a black-and-white 1963 movie by the same title. Lei Feng is the soldier hero whom the two boys are reading about during their train ride in the aforementioned Little Passengers. He has been featured in numerous LHH editions as a self-sacrificial role model.

放学以后(1972) After School (放学以后) / 上海电影制片厂《放学以后》摄制组编画. 上海: 上海人民出版社, 1972. 39 pages; 13 x 15 cm. (Cotsen 154541)

After School is a spin-off of a 1972 anime movie directed by Yan Dingxian (严定宪). In this bright-colored anime story, children battle against an old candy man’s evil attempt to corrupt the politically upbeat message of their jump-rope rhymes. Numerous children’s stories from the 1950s to the end of the Cultural Revolution pit politically precocious children against regressive adults. Quick to embrace new and revolutionary ideas, children in fiction and nonfiction accounts accomplish feats beyond their tender age: a breakthrough in agricultural experiments that have been dismissed by older peasants; detecting a former land-owner’s sabotage of the collective property of the commune; or facilitating the arrest of an anti-revolutionist who might even be an authority figure in the child’s own family.

The Old Bean’s Birthday Party (老豆儿过生日) / written by Wang Yaoying (王耀英); illustrated by Chen Qingzhi (陈清之). 上海: 少年儿童出版社, 1961. 21 unnumbered pages; 15 x 19 cm. (Cotsen 67992)

The Old Bean’s Birthday Party is a picture book that introduces the versatile industrial uses of soybeans. An elderly soybean is celebrating his birthday. His “offspring” (i.e., various soybean products) show up in all shapes, colors, and states of matter. From the left to right are: soybean oil, the elderly bean, a baby soybean, a soybean-based tire, soy sauce, soy milk, soy paint, and a bar of soap—an adorable and playful one at that. Imaginative and endearing anthropomorphic color images, text with pinyin phonetic guide, and relatively large page size make this book a friendlier offering for beginning readers than most LHH works.

Regretfully, many exquisitely illustrated picture books seem to have eluded critical attention and are little known today. Here are two examples.

Porridge for the Eighth Day of the Twelfth Moon (腊八粥) / by Wu Zhongxiong (吴仲熊). 成都: 四川人民出版社, 1980. 1 volume; 15 cm. (Cotsen 68245)

A folktale that explains how the Chinese custom of preparing a ceremonial congee dish on the eighth day of the twelfth moon originated.

日月潭的传说(1981) The Legend of Sun Moon Lake (日月潭的传说) / text by Zeng Dehou; illustrated by Li Bangyao (李邦耀) and Cao Xiaoqiang (曹小强). 湖北人民出版社, 1981. 33 pages; 15 cm. (Cotsen 68250)

An adaptation of an aboriginal Taiwanese folktale that explains the origin of the famous Sun Moon Lake in Central Taiwan.

Where is My Inkstone (砚台呢) / text by Ji Hong (嵇鸿); illustrated by Chen Liping (陈力萍). 上海: 少年儿童出版社, 1957. 1 volume; 13 cm. (Cotsen 72188)

Where is My Inkstone is a humorous wordless picture book that portrays a sloppy boy’s frantic search for his inkstone, without which he cannot do his homework. By relying solely on visuals to narrate the plot, wordless picture books are the quintessential manifestation of “linked pictures” or “sequential art.”

Western-style comic books and strips make up a small portion of domestic LHH works.

Tibet Back to the Big Family of the Homeland (回到祖国大家庭的西藏) / illustrated by Rui Guangting. 北京: 北京书店, 1952. 4th ed. 28 pages; 19 cm. (Cotsen)

A cross between Chinese-style LHH and Western comics, this edition of Tibet Back to the Big Family of the Homeland is dated about one year after the People’s Liberation Army entered Lhasa on October 26, 1951. This informational book covers the geography, history, social life and customs, religion, politics, and current affairs of Tibet. It presents a warm and collaborative relationship between the new People’s Republic of China and religious leaders of Tibet. The 1959 Tibetan Uprising, which led to the fourteenth Dalai Lama’s exile to India, was still years away. Unlike the treacherous dissident he would later be portrayed as in Chinese official media, this Dalai Lama (upper-right panel) is simply introduced as Tibet’s religious and political leader, at an impressively young age of eighteen sui (meaning seventeen years old).

The Adventure of the King of Grossness (邋遢大王奇遇记) / text by Ling Shu (凌纾); illustrated by Yan Shanchun (阎善春), etc. 上海: 上海人民美术出版社, 1986. 102 pages; 19 cm. (Cotsen 154540)

Notice how dirty-looking the book cover of our copy appears? Well, the protagonist of this comic book is a boy nicknamed “the King of Grossness” for his shameless neglect of personal hygiene. We shudder to think what type of young readers this copy has attracted! The book is the basis of an immensely popular thirteen-episode anime show by the same title released in 1987.

For Instruction and Entertainment

In his classic Understanding Comics Scott McCloud (20) points out that comics have been recognized as an excellent communication tool. The following examples show how the format of “linked pictures” has been utilized for literacy education, political socialization, and information dissemination among the general Chinese population and among specialized audiences.

收音机(1958) The Radio (收音机) / adapted by Wang Huanwen and Da Wei; illustrated by Fan Zhiquan. 上海: 上海人民美术出版社, 1958. 45 pages; 11 x 13 cm. (Cotsen 32681)

The Radio is part of a Become Educated LHH series, which, according to an advertisement page at the end, uses simple language to help illiterate and semi-literate readers learn Chinese characters and advance literacy skills.

The General Line for Socialist Construction: An Illustrated Libretto (总路线图画唱本). 上海: 上海人民美术出版社, 1958. 31 pages; 10 x 13 cm. (Cotsen 72229)

A preoccupation with the literacy and education of the Chinese population is reflected in another title, also dated 1958. General Line paints a utopian picture of a prosperous China in the near future, promised by the “General Line for Socialist Construction” adopted by the Chinese Communist Party in May 1958. One page shows each member of a three-generation family being engaged in reading, music, art, and science. Notably, the grandma, who is dressed no differently than an elderly peasant woman, is playing the piano. In reality, the General Line policy heralded the reckless Great Leap Forward campaign and the massive famine of 1959-1961. To what degree should rosy pictures like these be held accountable for fanning people’s frenzy over what turned out to be a disastrous campaign?

中华人民共和国惩治反革命条例: 图解通俗本(1951)
Regulations of the People’s Republic of China for Punishment of Counter-Revolutionaries: A Popular Illustrated Edition (中华人民共和国惩治反革命条例: 图解通俗本). 上海: 华东人民出版社, 1951. 56 pages; 11 x 13 cm. (Cotsen 71295)

This title exemplifies perhaps the most sobering use of comic art. Published within three months of the enactment of “Regulations of the People’s Republic of China for Punishment of Counter-Revolutionaries,” it reprints all twenty-one articles of the ordinance, offers paraphrases in plain language and definitions of legal terms, and supplies visuals characteristic of political cartoons. The image above illustrates Article 3, which metes out death penalties or life imprisonment to those who “collaborate with imperialism and commit treason.” The colophon page indicates a staggering print run of 1.5 million copies. An LHH rendition of the first marriage law passed by the PRC in 1950 was also available by the same publisher.

防原子, 防化学, 防细菌常识(1971) Basic Knowledge on Defense Against Atomic Bombs, Chemical Warfare, and Germ Warfare (防原子、防化学、防细菌常识) / 沈阳部队”三防”宣传组编绘. 1971. 85 pages; 13 x 19 cm. (Cotsen 71509)

On a no less serious note, this LHH has been published by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to teach basic defense knowledge against atomic, chemical, and biological weaponry attacks. Its title page indicates the book as “training material for internal distribution,” meaning it should not be made publicly available. It is always a question how widely such semi-classified “internal publications” actually circulated. Bibliographical records suggest that the Office of the Deputy Chief of the General Staff for Intelligence, Ministry of National Defense in Taiwan managed to procure another LHH that trains militia on defending against the same types of attacks. In 1972, when the Chinese and Taiwanese governments remained in a state of war, the latter’s intelligence office made a facsimile of that book but labelled a derogatory “Communist bandits’” to the beginning of the title (Guo fang bu).

高举毛泽东思想伟大红旗, 彻底批判"十万个为什么"漫画集 A Cartoon Collection (高举毛泽东思想伟大红旗, 彻底批判”十万个为什么”漫画集) / 少年儿童出版社批判文艺黑线联络站. [not before 1966] 29 pages; 13 x 19 cm. (Cotsen 70172)

This LHH is a collection of satirical cartoons that criticize One Hundred Thousand Whys, a wildly successful children’s popular science series published by the Shanghai-based Juvenile and Children’s Publishing House in the early 1960s. Mathematician Zhang Yitang, who was born in 1955 in Shanghai, mentions the series as his favorite reading from childhood in an interview (“Mei” 1). The best-selling series came under harsh condemnation and was banned during the Cultural Revolution for allegedly sending feudal, capitalist, and subversive messages to youth. The LHH allows us to witness how, even in the case of lively children’s books on science (a seemingly neutral political zone), there was no escape from the snare of power struggles and ideological wars.

“Linked Pictures” for Speakers of Other Tongues

Chinese LHH have been released in multiple languages to reach an international audience and ethnic minority groups. During the Maoist era, the aim was not to maximize profit, but to spread Communist and revolutionary gospels to the non-Chinese world.

Sister Double Happiness = 双喜嫂(1977) Sister Double Happiness = 双喜嫂 / written by Kiangsu People’s Publishing House; drawings by Ku Tseng-ping (顾曾平). Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1977. 95 pages; 18 cm. (Cotsen 99597; photo curtesy of the RBSC Photoduplication Unit)

An English translation of a Chinese LHH story set during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).

Un Campesino y Su Caballo = 老乡的马 / text by Lu Bing (鲁兵); illustrated by Liu Siung (刘熊). Pekín: Ediciones en Lenguas Extranjeras, 1962. 2a. ed. 18 pages; 19 cm. (Cotsen unprocessed)

A Spanish translation of a Chinese LHH story, which is also available in an English edition titled The Peasant and His Horse.

Un Campesino y Su Caballo = 老乡的马(1962)
Ley Fengneng Balaleⱪ Xaƣe = 雷锋的少年时代(1974) Ley Fengneng Balaleⱪ Xaƣe = 雷锋的少年时代 / adapted by Liw Hanzhen (刘含真); illustrated by Qian Guysun (钱贵荪). 民族出版社, 1974. 55 pages; 12 cm. (Cotsen unprocessed)

A Kazakh translation of a biographical story about the childhood and adolescence of the aforementioned hero Lei Feng. The Latin alphabet used in the book has become obsolete and been replaced by the Arabic script currently used by the Kazakhs in China.

Hameleon = 变色龙 / by Chen Zunsan (陈尊三). 民族出版社, 1980. 30 pages; 13 cm. (Cotsen unprocessed)

A Uyghur edition of Anton Chekhov’s short story “A Chameleon” in color LHH. The Uyghurs are among the top five largest Chinese ethnic minority groups. Likewise, the Latin alphabet used in the book is now obsolete. The Uyghurs in China have also adopted the Arabic script for their writing system.

Hameleon = 变色龙 (1980)

Travelling Children's Library (1949)
Travelling Children’s Library / photographed by Sam Tata in Shanghai, 1949. (Image source:

This photo shows an open-air rental stall for LHH, where readers could hire the booklets at a cheap price. The renting business model was highly successful in maximizing the accessibility of LHH for the poorest consumers. Upon close examination, the title “Travelling Children’s Library” is a misnomer for the photo. Engrossed in their reading are a little girl, an adolescent boy, and an adult, plus a curious toddler who is likely tagging along with his big sister, getting a healthy dose of interest in reading for fun.

The modern multiplication of publication formats, broadcast media, and digital communication tools means that the Chinese will not return to a time when linked-picture booklets served as the prevailing platform to inform and entertain the general populace. Given their immense popularity and wide influence, LHH open a vivid window into the literature and art, childhood, social life, and political dynamics of twentieth-century China. Cotsen’s LHH collection has not been systematically reorganized, but the bibliographical records of most titles can be located by keyword searches for “comic books” or “lian huan hua,” with a limit by language to Chinese.


Fei, Shengfu费声福. “谈谈连环画的图文并茂.” 中国连环画艺术文集. Eds. 林敏 & 赵素行. 太原: 山西人民出版社, 1982/1987. 470-475.

Guo fang bu Qing bao can mou ci chang shi國防部 情報參謀次長室. 共匪民兵”三打””三防”知識畫冊. 臺北市: 情報參謀次長室, 1972.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. 1st HarperPerennial ed. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.

“Mei li xin ling美丽心灵: 访数学家张益唐.” 小枇杷 3.3 (May 2015): 1.

Nebiolo, Gino. “Introduction.” The People’s Comic Book: Red Women’s Detachment, Hot on the Trail and Other Chinese Comics. Tran. Frances Frenaye. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1973. vii-xvi.

(Edited by Miranda Marraccini)

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.

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)

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.

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)