Ride an Elephant and a Happy Lunar New Year

This Saturday, January 25, is Chinese New Year. Happy Year of the Rat!  To celebrate this holiday, we invite you to read a post from 2013 explaining all the auspicious symbols in a Chinese New Year print in the collection.

The Cotsen Library is home to an international poster collection that depicts children and reflects childhood from diverse historical periods, geographical areas, and cultural backgrounds. Through a pilot project in 2012, the Cotsen Library enhanced catalog records of a small set from its Chinese-language poster collection to allow researchers to search for posters by title, creator, or publisher information in both Chinese characters and pinyin phonetics. Subject headings were standardized to bring consistency to terms that describe the posters. A brief summary of the visual content is also provided.

The small set of about 50 posters dates from the early twentieth century through the mid-1980s. They cover a delightful variety of subject matter, including nianhua (年画, New Year prints) that decorated people’s homes, instructional wall charts for classroom use, and Communist propaganda posters that sent political messages to children and adults alike.

An untitled and undated New Year print gives us a glimpse of multiple facets of Chinese art, culture, history, and political dynamics. The only text in the picture is a red stamp of “Tianjin Yangliuqing Painting Shop” (天津楊柳青畫店), a press based in one of the most famous production centers of Chinese New Year prints. Traditional Yangliuqing art was known for the so-called “half printed, half painted” woodblock New Year prints: combining mass production and original folk art, pictures were first printed in monochrome outline, and each piece was then hand-colored by artisans. The Costen’s copy was printed and painted on a sheet of xuanzhi (宣纸, Chinese rice paper), measuring 30 x 20 inches.

Catalogers occasionally find themselves facing the little-envied job of coming up with titles for library materials that carry no such information. This New Year print posed such a task. How would you name an image portraying three children on the back of an elephant? The old catalog record suggested a title about celebrating the harvest. In order to justify that theme, one might have expected to see depictions of abundant grain overflowing from containers. However, could the basket of fruit in the young Chinese girl’s hand be an Eastern equivalent of cornucopia?

New Year print: [Ji xiang ru yi] (吉祥如意, An auspicious and wish-fulfilling year). Tianjin, China: Tianjin Yangliuqing Painting Shop, circa 1958-1980. Cotsen Children's Library, call number 64129

New Year print:
[Ji xiang ru yi] (吉祥如意, An auspicious and wish-fulfilling year).
Tianjin, China: Tianjin Yangliuqing Painting Shop, circa 1958-1980.
Cotsen Children’s Library, call number 64129

Boy on the back of an elephant. A common pattern for traditional Chinese folk art. (Image source)

Boy on the back of an elephant. A common pattern for traditional Chinese folk art. (Image source)

It is unclear whether this New Year print was made around 1958-1959, when the Yangliuqing Painting Shop was established but not yet merged into the Tianjin People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, or around 1974-1980, when the shop name was restored.1 The picture is a fascinating manifestation of how tradition underwent adaptive transformations and survived a new political environment under the Chinese Communist regime.

Traditional Symbols and Communist Twists

Chinese New Year prints traditionally employ visual symbols and homophonic riddles to convey good wishes for the coming new year. Young children are among the favorite subject. Often portrayed with pink cheeks and chubby torsos, healthy-looking youth symbolize the success of family reproduction and a hopeful future. It is important to point out that images of children in Chinese New Year prints did not denote a child audience, but were intended for all viewers, particularly adults who wished to accomplish the foremost Confucian virtue and goal of raising a large family with sons and grandsons. Children were nonetheless an important part of the viewing experience. Superstitiously believing that children’s naïve voice carried some realizing power, an adult would engage a child in observing and talking about the pictures on the morning of the New Year’s Day, hoping that those lucky words from a child’s mouth would make happy things happen.

This New Year print from Cotsen is both a continuation of that “baby-loving” tradition and a departure from certain age-old characteristics. In a society that favored sons over daughters, boy figures dominated the subject of traditional New Year pictures. The presence of two young girls in this post-1949 picture, however, reflects an adherence to the idea of gender equality promoted by the Chinese Communist Party. All three children wear red scarves, indicating their membership in the Young Pioneers, which is a school children’s organization that answers to the Chinese Communist Party. (Former Chinese president Hu Jintao was the national leader of the organization in 1983-1984.)

Giant-sized peaches, shown in the basket on the right, are a traditional symbol of longevity in Chinese culture. The golden pineapple on the left also conveys wishes for good things, because the name of that fruit and the word for “prosperity” are homophones in southern Fujian dialect. Another homophone is played on the elephant. In the Chinese language, qixiang (骑象, riding an elephant) and jixiang (吉祥, auspicious) sound similar. The visual motif of elephant riding can actually be traced to the popular depiction of Samantabhadra, a bodhisattva often seen perched on an elephant in Chinese art and sculptures.

A final point of interest is the blossoming branch held high in the girl’s hand on the left. Traditionally, a more common object held by the elephant rider would have been an expensive-looking ruyi (如意). The term literally means “wish fulfillment,” and, according to popular belief, it has originated from the use of the handheld object as a self-sufficient backscratcher. Ruyi made from precious metals and stones used to be royal possessions. In Communist China, it would likely be a distasteful object associated with wealth, power, and privilege, and thus wisely avoided by the anonymous folk artist of this picture. The position of the girl’s arms, and the way she tilts her head closely resemble what we see in a ruyi-holding boy in traditional depictions. Is the pink flower branch an earthly substitute for rich men’s ruyi for political safety?

A ruyi decorated with pearls, made during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Collection of the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. (Image source)

A ruyi decorated with pearls, made during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Collection of the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. (Image source)

An auspicious and wish-fulfilling year

You may find this picture in our library catalog by its new title: “Ji Xiang Ru Yi” (吉祥如意, An auspicious and wish-fulfilling year). Attesting to the flexibility and resilience of a folk art tradition, “Ji Xiang Ru Yi” has merged old and new, catered to both popular and political tastes, and wished for another new year of good luck to come.

(The author thanks Mr. Don Cohn for offering insightful cultural information about Samantabhadra.)

Note:

1. Tianjin Yangliuqing hua she. (n.d.). Retrieved May 23, 2012, from http://www.tjwh

Best-Selling Potty Training Books

This post from 2016 was inspired by the idea that the successful potty-training books must sell almost as many copies of Harry Potter.  Probably almost no one will remember having one read aloud during the critical period, so it seems fitting to rerun this tribute to the secret bestsellers of toddlerhood.   Next week we’ll run one more oldie but goodie and resume posting new material in February.

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Find the baby on the close stool! From the manuscript, “The Life of a Baby,” by A. B. ca. 1839. (Cotsen 46434).

In theory and practice, the non-fiction picture book can play an important teaching skills and competencies in a concrete way. Picture books have been drafted into the late twentieth-century campaign to make the critical transition from messy blithe incontinence to conscious, hygienic elimination trauma-free. While it no longer seems desirable to motivate gaining control over bodily functions by associating it with shame or guilt, the attempt to be upbeat about a semi-taboo subject can be interesting.

Japanese author-illustrator Taro Gomi took a strictly factual approach: every living thing eats, so we’re one big happy family when it comes to getting rid of the by-products. First published as part of the “Masterpieces of the Friends of Science” series in 1977, the English-language translation rights to Minna uchi were acquired by Kane/Miller in 1993. Gomi’s truthful but slyly humorous approach caused a stir when Everyone Poops came out in the United States, but once the initial shock wore off, it become something of a cult classic. Cotsen has the English- and Chinese-language translations, but not the Japanese original.

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Double-page spread from Taro Gomi, Everyone Poops. Translated by Amanda Mayer Stinchecum, Brooklyn, NY: Kane/Miller, 18th printing, c1993 (Cotsen 24016).

When Israeli writer Alonah Frankel was a young mother with a son, she wrote a book to help other parents toilet-train their boys. The first of her many children’s books in Hebrew, “Sir ha- Sirim” [The Potty of Potties] became an instant best-seller in Israel when published in 1975. It was issued in 1980 under the title Once Upon a Potty in the United States and after that went on to find an international audience. In the 1990s, the version for girls, audible, audio-tape, and cartoon versions have bolstered sales in the US. Written from the point of view of the mother, who has to do the dirty work, she nicely but firmly demonstrates all the steps in the process.

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What’s going to happen next? Alonah Frankel, Sir ha-Sirim [The Potty of Potties], Tel Aviv: Masadah, 1984, 18th printing (Cotsen 7519).

A friend gave Mr. Cotsen a copy of the original Hebrew-language book and his note explains something important that was lost in English translation.

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Note to Mr. Cotsen laid into Cotsen 7519.

But Gomi and Frankel aren’t to everyone’s taste. Some people are more comfortable with a less clinical approach, and lots of authors and illustrators have risen to the occasion. The most obvious ploy is to let a cute baby animal stand in for the nah-saying toddler. Little bear Bartholomew feels pangs of distress after running out to play without going first like his George daddy bear suggested. I refuse to believe that the choice of a bear cub alludes to the well-known and slightly rude rhetorical question meaning, “It sure do!” to cheer on discouraged parents.

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From the board book version of On Your Potty! by Virginia Miller. Cambridge, Mass.: Candlewick Press, 2000. (Cotsen 87638)

What if a writer tries to convince the unwilling party that a toilet is a perfectly designed object for the use of human beings by showing why no other animal could find it convenient?

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Andrea Wayne von Konigslow, Toilet Tales, Willowdale, Ontario: Annick Press, c.1987, 5th edition 1990. Gift of Jeffrey P. Barton. (Cotsen in process 7386230).

I happen to think this is pretty funny, but it’s easy to imagine von Konigslow’s whimsical strategy backfiring with a child who believes there are monsters under his bed. After looking at this opening, the suggestible pre-schooler might come to the sensible conclusion that there are really nasty things in the plumbing that might surface in the toilet at any time hunting for something tender to nibble. So why would you sit on it ever?

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Alternative uses for the spurned potty chair.

One of the best-known euphemisms for the toilet seems to have inspired Tony Ross to create a toilet-training picture book that is much more imaginative than practical. A toddler princess (crown, but no frilly dress) who wants to get rid of her nappies puts up quite a fuss when the Queen Mummy tells her “The potty’s the place.” But the gist of the story is how the princess’s request for her plastic throne throws the court into hysterics…

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Tony Ross, I Want My Potty, London: Andersen Press, c.1986 (Cotsen 86775). I assume the “L” stands for “loo.”

Some authors would rather bring to life the comic dimensions of the battle between generations during toilet training instead of offering tips. Littlesaurus leaves piles of poop everywhere in defiance of his elders’ efforts to civilize him, singing an obnoxious ditty to celebrate his independence. Finally his exasperated Daddysaurus yells he doesn’t care if Littlesaurus ever uses the potty, so the contrarian dino decides to give it a try, only to be caught in the act and given a taste of his own medicine by his beloved family…

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Revenge is sweet… Colin MacNaughton, Potty Poo-Poo Wee-Wee! Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2005 (Promised gift). Would a publisher have touched this manuscript if the characters had been human beings?

In researching this post, I’ve come to the conclusion that the collection needs more specimens of this underappreciated genre of picture book to more fully document a) modern anxieties about toilet-training and b) portable potty design.

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A tasteful tailpiece.