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.”

Reference

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.

Acknowledgment

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

4 thoughts on “Recycling and Rejuvenation: Literary and Artistic Traditions in Chinese Picture Books

  1. Candied hawberries, geckos, cats, and rabbits that ask pesky questions! What a wonderful selection of books. Thanks Minjie, for picking out and explaining little details that readers help who don’t know much about life in China better appreciate the stories.

  2. Very interesting series of posts. Do you know of any contemporary books about girlhood or girls lives?

    • Great question. A few fiction titles by contemporary Chinese children’s writers come to mind:
      –Sister by Peng Xuejun
      –Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan
      –The Cassia Tree by Cao Wenxuan
      –Short story “Demon-Reflecting Mirror” by Yan Ge, but seemingly available in Chinese and Italian only at this point

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