How do parents and teachers talk to young children in China about sex? They most likely did not, unless you counted the sparing information shared with children around puberty, until recent years. Amid an avalanche of news reports on child sexual abuse in 2013, China’s Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Public Security, the Communist Youth League, and the All-China Women’s Federation conjointly issued guidelines on the prevention of sexual violations against children and youth, and recommended an increase in sex education.
To be clear, sexual violations against minors were nothing new in China, but intense media attention to the crime indeed was. The last time China witnessed indignant public condemnation of sex crimes was when Japan’s sexual enslavement of Chinese women and girls (euphemized as “comfort women”) during World War II was uncovered by historians and journalists at the turn of the twenty-first century, just before the last survivors passed. It is an uncomfortable shift for the Chinese to move their glare away from “foreign devils” of a long gone past–who were “unlike us” and whom we secretly relished hating–and to confront evils of our own.
China’s callous legal environment for girls’ sexual wellbeing was betrayed by the so-called “soliciting underage prostitutes” clause in Chinese Criminal Code. Until the clause was eventually repealed in August 2015, men of power had found in it a blood-curdling loophole to seek light punishment for sexual assaults against minors by accusing the victims to be prostitutes.
Once again fear feeds the impulse that China’s sex education movement needs. Fear carries persuasive power and legitimizes a topic which people are perfectly happy to avoid otherwise. In the wake of Republican China’s diplomatic failure and loss of territory to Imperial Japan at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, Chinese intellectuals pleaded for breaking the silence about sex, convinced that through sex education and eugenics a new generation of healthy babies would be born to cure the nation’s military impotence and save compatriots from a bleak future of foreign enslavement. Nearly a century later, threats to youngsters’ personal safety, health, and happiness gave Chinese authors and publishers motivation, justification, and economic incentive to broach what was and still is a tabooed subject for children.
Cotsen’s acquisition of contemporary Chinese sex instruction books, some of which cite the aforementioned official guidelines on sexual safety and sex education, reflect China’s boldest effort thus far in imparting information about human sexuality to youth. Among the publications are informational books and illustrated books for children and teens, parenting books, and lesson plans for sex instruction. Most remarkable of all are dozens of picture books published after 2010. This is the first time in the history of Chinese children’s literature that sex education books speak directly to an audience as young as preschoolers. Previously progressive Chinese parents had relied on picture books translated from Japan, Europe, and North America to talk to their children about eggs and sperm. The most influential title is arguably British author Nicholas Allan’s Where Willy Went…: The Big Story of a Little Sperm!, introduced to Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China in 2004 and 2008 respectively.
Let’s take a look at contemporary Chinese books for children’s sex education.
Who wrote/published sex instruction books for Chinese children?
The debate over who are most qualified to offer sex instruction to youth is as old as China’s earliest sex education initiative launched a century ago. Pioneer sex education reformers weighed the pros and cons of trusting the delicate task to parents, teachers, school nurses, physicians, male or female instructors, married and mature grown-ups or (gasp!) lonely and frigid spinsters. Contemporary sex instruction materials embrace multiplicity, acknowledging that shared reading with parents, classroom instruction, and children’s independent information-seeking through age-appropriate publications are all important. The new question is, who are writing sex instruction books for young readers and what credentials do they have?
The creators of juvenile literature and parenting books for sex instruction fall into three categories: children’s writers, researchers and college professors, and popular science writers. Ideally, the best sex instruction books should be prepared by people with their combined expertise–domain knowledge in human sexuality as well as skills in presenting the information through language and visuals in an accurate, engaging, and developmentally appropriate manner. Gong Fangfang龚房芳, author of two picture book series that provide sex instruction and girls’ safety education, is an award-winning children’s writer, excelling in stories and rhymes for preschoolers in particular. Zhu Huifang朱惠芳, author of The Story of Life (2016), a picture book series about life, death, and reproduction, is a preschool teacher turned writer of fairy tales. Hu Ping胡萍, author of a parenting series on sex instruction, is a former pediatrician and an independent researcher on children’s sexuality. Gou Ping苟萍, co-author of You Are Not Allowed to Harm Me (2017), a comic book about girls’ sexual safety, is a college professor in social psychology and teacher education. One picture book, How Did Dad and Mom Get Me? (2012), has received blessing from Li Yinhe李银河, China’s foremost sexologist, whose endorsement appears on the back cover. Where Are You from, My Friend (2015), a comic-style sex instruction book for ages 3-13 hopes to win parents’ trust with the statement that its author Zheng Yuanjie郑渊洁, China’s most famous fairy tale writer, prepared the manuscript originally to educate his own son.
China’s booming children’s book market has lured a promiscuous range of publishers to scramble for the coveted pie called kids’ books. Among the publishers of children’s sex instruction books are not only traditional juvenile houses such as Hope Publishing House (Taiyuan, China), but also those specializing in fine arts and sciences, as well as university presses. Rural Readings Publishing House, an official affiliate of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, is worth mentioning. Rural or “left-behind” children, so-called because their parents are away in cities as migrant workers, are found to be at high risk for abuse. Rural Readings issued Do Not Speak to Weird Uncles (2014), which teaches self-protection against sexual predators. The actual reach of the book among rural children, however, is unclear. (Priced at RMB 29.80, the book is not easily affordable and needs to rely on rural libraries to make it widely available.)
“Where do I come from?”: Cataloging myths of childbirth
Never mind the legend of baby-delivering storks–most Chinese parents are not familiar with that European folklore. Sex instruction books that explain pregnancy and childbirth ease readers into the topic by revisiting a growing list of competing myths before debunking them, with humor and sympathy for children’s confusion, irritation, and sense of betrayal when they inevitably suspect a lie. A catalog of childbirth myths culled from picture books and comic books demonstrates that the Chinese have been resourceful and creative when it comes to fending off children’s oh-so embarrassing question, “Where do I come from?” Those stories can be traced to traditional tales and contemporary popular culture. Modern life and technology also contributed to myth-making, paradoxically.
The most romantic version: babies burst out of rocks just like the birth of the beloved Monkey King in Journey to the West.
The crassest version: they are picked up from trash bins. Chinese parents are most fond of this explanation–perhaps because it provides a natural segue to tell their ungrateful offspring to be grateful!
They grow from a tree. This version, too, might have been inspired by Journey to the West, which describes a mythical Ginsengfruit tree that yields infant-shaped fruit.
They grow from bottle gourd vines like the magical Calabash Brothers, protagonists of the eponymous animated television series released in 1986.
They are hatched from eggs.
They are purchased from stores by weight.
Here are the modern touches: babies are sent home by shipping companies or received as promotional gifts from recharging cellphone plans.
They are given away by beggars on streets. (To be more precise, I was, according to my own family lore. This version is not cited in any of the books, so its traumatizing effect must have been restricted to yours truly, thank goodness!)
While replacing childbirth myths with the meet-up story of eggs and racing sperms, a few picture books seem unable to resist slipping in new, if minor, myths. Or they have taken slight liberties with biology, embellishing facts with emotive narratives to which a preschooler can relate. In Where Am I From?, a baby is born when it wishes to meet its parents, so it “crawls” (Ding long wen hua 33) out of mother’s belly after having stayed there for ten months. In How Did Dad and Mom Get Me?, a baby is eager to “squeeze” itself out of mother’s narrow corridor of vagina because her belly house has become too cramped (Sheng and Shi 28). According to the tale spun in Where Are You from, My Friend, a ten-month-old fetus yearns to clip its nails lest they hurt mother’s belly, so decides to come out and to tell mother how much it loves her (Zheng 9)!
The bonus of teaching the fact of childbirth? You can even slip in an old-fashioned lesson on filial piety, traditionally upheld as the most esteemed value in Chinese children. The message is blunter in an earlier title, Where Am I From? (2011): a little girl learns about the stress of pregnancy and pain of labor, and understands why she should pay filial piety to mother when she grows up. Newer works send a subtle message on gratitude. In Gong Fangfang’s Here I Am (2016), after a cast of mammal characters learns about childbirth, a piglet imagines how painful it must be for mother to deliver him, and a puppy rushes home to give his mother a kiss.
Let’s call a spade a spade
If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. —The Analects
The first step to demystifying human sexuality and reproduction is to call generative organs by their proper names, as opposed to shrouding them with silence and shame. Anatomical terminology, nicknames, similes, and anthropomorphism are all employed to illuminate concepts for a young mind, taking advantage of what the Chinese language specifically has to offer. Womb/Uterus子宫 in Chinese literally means “child’s palace”—how cool is that! Vagina阴道, or “the yin passage,” is variously compared to “a corridor,” “the life passage,” and “a secret path leading to the palace.” Where Are You from, My Friend elaborates that the palace takes eighteen years to build, and it had better not be opened before then (Zheng 4). The book “perfects” a sophisticated figurative system, which may not appeal to every adult’s persuasion and sensibility (e.g., what are the lock and key to the palace?–Er…hymen and penis.) (24). The process of fertilization is cleverly framed in the classical fairy tale trope of minuscule princes (sperm) competing to win a beloved minuscule princess (the egg) (4).
The frequent occurrence of homophones in the Chinese language is a source of (occasionally comical) misunderstanding. Where Are You from, My Friend plays with the term “reproduction” (sheng zhi生殖), which is pronounced like “rising value” (sheng zhi升值). In an episode depicted in comic strips, a boy wonders about the “reproduction organ” he overhears on TV, thinking it is some sort of device that helps his father’s “stock” (investment) grow (Zheng 23).
Sexual predators are often nicknamed “weird uncles” in these books, “uncle” being a generic term of courtesy used by Chinese children to address men of their fathers’ generation. Many make it clear, though, that the nickname is shorthand for criminals who can be male or female, young or old, acquaintances or strangers. Where Are You from, My Friend refers to sexual predators as vampires, presumably because both like secrecy and darkness (Zheng 152).
Sex and art: Depicting reproductive organs, intimacy, and sexual violations
Visual elements, whether appearing in picture books, comic books, or illustrated juvenile literature, are helpful for clarifying concepts. They also pose challenges. What is the line between depicting sexual intimacy and porn? How do you illustrate sexual harassment without reproducing images that can be actually used to harass minors? Is there a problem with teaching about respecting private body parts while depicting those very parts you are supposed to cover? Although this is by no means a comprehensive survey, I tend to notice sensitive touches in the works of female artists more often than in those of male ones.
Shi Huanhua施欢华, a female painter, officiates a union between artistic imagination and scientific diagrams. The female reproductive system is anthropomorphized with a dreamy face, so that the strange bundle of tubes and oval balls projects a friendly vibe. The journey of daddy’s sperm to mommy’s egg (described as “pretty, sweet as fruit candy”) (Sheng and Shi 25) is portrayed metaphorically as a disorienting and treacherous adventure through a maze. (To Shi’s credit, I eyeballed the maze, trying to map out the path, and instantly got lost like numerous other unlucky “tadpoles.”) A symbolic X-ray view of Daddy and Mommy’s intimacy that leads to fertilization avoids nudity and steers clear of voyeurism.
If you are thinking what I think you are thinking, then…um…you are right. In I Have Wronged Daddy, a girl walks into parents’ bedroom and is horrified to find her dad “bullying” her mom, who assures her that is not the case. The girl learns that parents have needs for privacy and intimacy. Undoubtedly a valid and valiant message to deliver, the particular scenario is, however, more suitable to be as a topic in a parenting book than the subject of a picture book. The confrontational awkwardness of the cover image defeats the purpose of children’s sex instruction books—they strive to help readers feel comfortable about the topic (more for the sake of adults than children, though).
The biggest challenge lies in depicting sex crimes in order to help youth recognize threatening situations. Images run the risk of being too graphic and subjecting viewers to harm by simply demonstrating what sexual violence, abuse, obscenity, voyeurism, exhibitionism, etc. look like. You Are Not Allowed to Harm Me不许伤害我, for girl readers of 6-13 years old, is illustrated in the style of comics by Wang Yansong, a male college teacher of animation. The book has no qualms about showing the full frontal naked body of a girl on the cusp of puberty taking a shower, a peeping Tom looking gleefully from behind (Gou and Wang 6). Surely no one has to goggle at an explicit representation like that in order to understand what a voyeur does?
As an example of more thoughtfully executed works, Do Not Speak to Weird Uncles不要和怪叔叔说话 also adopts comic-style art, but focuses on the language that sexual predators use to groom children. The title phrase “Do not speak to…” is somewhat misleading, because speech bubbles supply examples of firm language children can use to rebuff the advances of “weird uncles” (Wen). Indeed, child sexual abuse involves seemingly innocuous but ultimately ensnaring language from acquaintances much more often than sudden bodily attacks out of a dark corner. Given children’s disadvantage in physical strength, commanding discourse–identifying suspicious words and having ready retorts–is their first line of defense and best bet.
The allure and limits of animals and foreign children
Mother’s Breasts utilizes the transcendent power of art to give shapes and colors to intangible feelings and sensations. In the book, a mother explains to a toddler girl about babies and breastfeeding, telling her that being suckled is at first itchy and sometimes hurts (hint: gratitude education). In the accompanying picture, colored dots give the breasts the animated look of fish or ducklings. Portrayed against a background of blue ocean water, they are kissed by tiny colorful fish, but jellyfish-shaped beings lurk nearby (Zhu and Mu mian 8).
Early Childhood Sex Education Enlightenment Picture Books series (2016) employs a big cast of anthropomorphized animal characters–frogs, ducks, piglets, monkeys, etc.–fully clothed and living in spacious suburban houses awash in watercolor. Stories of bipedal rabbits and talking foxes teach about sex differences, sexual feelings, reproduction, private body parts, and privacy.
Early sex education literature used to incorporate the fertilization of flowers and the mating and breeding of animals into instruction on human sexuality. As Margaret H. Sanger advocated in What Every Mother Should Know; Or, How Six Little Children Were Taught the Truth, the objective of a biological-ladder approach to sex education was to impress children with the truth that “they are only part of nature’s great and wonderful plan” (47). The indirect approach has been considered unnecessary and discarded by contemporary Western children’s books. By setting stories in a fictional animal society–a middle-class one nonetheless–the Chinese series on the one hand hopefully achieves Sanger’s goal, implying that there is nothing uniquely strange about the sexuality of the human species; on the other hand, it manages to miss the opportunity of informing preschoolers about human reproductive organs. Parents who intend to expose children of this age to the names and structures of private body parts need to look elsewhere.
Five of the titles in The Story of Life series, intended for ages 3-6, are illustrated by a company named the Cotton Tree Painting Workshop. They portray either talking animals or non-Chinese characters who sport curly golden hair. Aside from Caucasian-looking main characters, Mother’s Breasts and Why Don’t I Have a Little Chicken feature a black baby and girls of different hair colors donning outfits that suggest variant cultural origins (Zhu and Mu mian). Between showcasing the diversity of animal species and highlighting the racial other, these books seem to achieve one thing in common–avoiding images of Chinese bodies.
The notable exception is I, Too, Want a Baby, illustrated by Kou Lan寇岚, a female college teacher of design. Portraying a dark-haired Chinese family in collage art, her illustration offers a straightforward depiction of how a baby comes into the world through a passage in the mother’s body, if only there were a bit more attention paid to where the gutter of the picture book lies (Zhu and Kou 20-21). A second-grader recently asked me where a baby comes out of its mother’s belly, or whether a doctor cuts it open. Sensing my professionalism put to the test and reminding myself to practice what I preach, I gritted my teeth and pointed, perhaps a little too vaguely, at my own body as I explained. Kou’s lucid picture would have satisfied that boy’s curiosity.
Disquieting messages to Chinese girls
Who has the upper hand in…peeing?
Children notice sex differences from sex-segregated public toilets and the different ways boys and girls urinate. Sex instruction books frequently acknowledge their bewilderment before explaining genital and urinary differences between sexes. However, several books, almost all by female writers and illustrators, send a clear message to girls that being unable to pee while standing (without soiling their pants) is an inconvenience, disadvantage, or inferiority. The negative message has perhaps been internalized by adults who grew up before modern sanitation facilities became common in China.
In How Did Dad and Mom Get Me? a boy’s privileged way of peeing is symbolized in his towering over frantic ants and deliberately aiming at them, sending the insects scattering for shelter from the unwelcome pouring “rain.” Juxtaposed to the conqueror’s power posture is a girl perched on a toilet, sitting with a slouch and looking as miserable as the powerless ants (Sheng and Shi 8-9).
In contrast, Zheng Yuanjie’s (a male writer) Where Are You from, My Friend turns the narrative around on one occasion at least. A boy is curious why there are no urinals in women’s bathrooms. He is informed that, because girls don’t have penises, they don’t need the fixture to prevent splashing (35). Thank you, Zheng Yuanjie, for telling the truth.
“What was she wearing?”: Victim-blaming and re-traumatization
Rates of sex crimes rise once the summer kicks in, and that has a lot to do with women’s attire…
When a female is dressed properly and gracefully and walks down the street, even a lusty guy will not harbor improper desires towards her. (Zhou 210-211)
The most chilling messages for Chinese girls are found in informational books for school-age readers. Girls, You Need to Learn to Protect Yourselves is marketed, according to its cover, as a “safety manual” that “good parents” can present to their daughters. The safety instruction quoted above is oblivious to findings about the criminology of sex offenses, and instead parrots pernicious myths that all but absolve perpetrators of sexual violence. The Secret of Sex in the Flowering Season花季性秘密 (2004; reprinted in 2012) was published by the China Population Press, an official affiliate of the National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China. It likewise warns girls that they must not wear clothes that are too revealing and body-tight in summer, because such attire increases improper male desire and the risk of harassment (Chen and Chen 137). Had anything unfortunate happened to the young female readers of these books, regardless of what they have been wearing, their outdated teaching would only have inflicted wounds of guilt, shame, and self-blame, infesting long after physical injuries have healed.
Prevention of Sexual Violations was published by the People’s Medical Publishing House, another affiliate of the National Health Commission. It introduces school-age readers to the notion of “secondary trauma” (Hao and Tao 109): some parents would treat child victims of sexual violations badly and even chide them, hurting them further. If they have been sexually violated, the book advises, children must first decide if their parents would inflict further trauma, and not tell if the answer is yes. Such disturbing advice against seeking protection from one’s own parents is a sad reminder of the reality of Chinese society: children are not always believed and may very well be on the receiving end of blame. The idea of “secondary trauma” caused by one’s own parents is foreign to previously mentioned picture books, which always model concerned and understanding mothers (and, less often, fathers) who are attuned to the health and safety issues of children’s sexuality.
A section on bullying from Where Are You from, My Friend encourages girls to be strong. But the reason? According to the wisdom of the male author, three female attributes attract boys’ unwanted attention, harassment, and bullying more than others: one, attractiveness; two, owning “interesting stuff” that boys want to check out; three, having a weak personality (Zheng 89). The focus is on girls’ own “problems” (being beauties, show-offs, or pushovers) rather than on what is wrong with perpetrators.
Who are good at what?: Gender roles and stereotypes
While seemingly showing equal concern for the wellbeing of both genders, post-2010 Chinese sex instruction books sometimes take two steps forward and one step back by reinforcing stereotyped gender roles. In an episode titled “Girls Are Awesome Too” from Where Are You from, My Friend, a girl wishes to join a soccer game and is rejected by her twin brother, who asserts that she is not fast enough and can referee only. She wins admiring approval, however, by demonstrating caregiving skills when a playmate gets injured (Zheng 119).
How Did Dad and Mom Get Me? describes two generations of girls. When the mother was little, she smiled quietly, loved thinking and reading, and was a little timid. Her daughter breaks certain old-fashioned expectations for a “good” Chinese girl. She laughs loudly, runs fast, and aspires to be a scientist, but she is also a little timid (Sheng and Shi).
In Why Don’t I Have a Little Chicken, a boy and a girl are each given a doll of their respective sex, so that the boy, too, has the opportunity to be a caregiver. The two children play with their dolls, but then they engage in activities that conform to gender stereotypes. The boy and his doll make origami airplanes and practice martial arts; the girl and her doll make paper flowers and dance together (Zhu and Mu mian).
Chinese sex instruction books, especially those in the format of picture books and illustrated works, have made giant strides towards openness about human sexuality with a young generation. Though individual titles are not without their flaws and limitations, as a whole they offer age-friendly language and visuals to introduce children to a wide range of topics that include sex differences, reproduction and childbirth, sexual attraction, intimacy, the reproductive and urinary system, private body parts, the identification of sex predators, prevention of sexual abuse, and verbal skills for self-protection. Lurking amongst them–like the jellyfish in Mother’s Breasts–are also sexist gestures and misguided “safety instructions” for girls. Works that break the dichotomous view of sex, gender, and sexual orientation or reflect non-traditional family structures are still far and few between.
Rural children of migrant workers are widely understood to be most vulnerable to sexual abuse, and thus they should have benefited most from sex instruction literature in the absence of their parents. Their socioeconomic status and living circumstances are, however, nowhere to be found in picture books, which typically portray nuclear families living comfortably in cities as well as educated mothers who are physically and emotionally available for children’s curiosity, distress, and protection. Chinese picture books, after all, have been tailored for the consumer power, values, and parenting practices of middle-class families.
Chen, Yijun陈一筠, and Jingqiu Chen陈静秋, editors. 花季性秘密 [The Secret of Sex in the Flowering Season]. Beijing : Zhongguo ren kou chu ban she, 2004.
Ding long wen hua鼎龙文化. 我是从哪里来的 [Where Am I From?]. Taiyuan: Xi wang chu ban she, 2011.
—. 我错怪爸爸了 [I Have Wronged Daddy]. Taiyuan: Xi wang chu ban she, 2011.
Gong, Fangfang龚房芳, and Taikongwoniu太空蜗牛 (illustrator). 我来啦 [Here I Am]. Changchun: Jilin mei shu chu ban she, 2016.
Gou, Ping苟萍, and Yansong Wang王岩松. 不许伤害我: 女童性侵害防范彩色绘本 [You Are Not Allowed to Harm Me]. Beijing: Ke xue chu ban she, 2017.
Hao, Yanyan郝言言, and Hongliang Tao陶红亮, editors. 防范性侵犯 [Prevention of Sexual Violations]. Beijing: People’s Medical Publishing House, 2012.
Sanger, Margaret H. What Every Mother should Know; Or, how Six Little Children were Taught the Truth. New York: Rabelais Press, 1914.
Sheng, Shilan盛诗澜, and Huanhua Shi施欢华 (illustrator). 爸妈怎么有了我? [How Did Dad and Mom Get Me?]. Hangzhou: Zhejiang ren min mei shu chu ban she, 2012.
Wen, Yong文甬, and Shen xing dong man神行动漫 (illustrator). 不要和怪叔叔说话: 儿童防性侵必备画册 [Do Not Speak to Weird Uncles]. Beijing: Nong cun du wu chu ban she, 2014.
Zheng, Yuanjie. 你从哪里来我的朋友 [Where Are You from, My Friend]. Tianjin: Tianjin ren min chu ban she, 2015.
Zhou, Shuyu周舒予. 女孩, 你要学会保护自己 [Girls, You Need to Learn to Protect Yourselves]. Beijing: Beijing Institute of Technology Press, 2015.
Zhu, Huifang朱惠芳, and Lan Kou寇岚 (illustrator). 我也想有个小宝宝 [I, Too, Want a Baby]. Nanchang: Jiangxi gao xiao chu ban she, 2016.
Zhu, Huifang朱惠芳, and Mu mian hui hua gong fang木棉绘画工坊 (illustrator). 为什么我没有小鸡鸡 [Why Don’t I Have a Little Chicken]. Nanchang: Jiangxi gao xiao chu ban she, 2016.
—. 妈妈的乳房 [Mother’s Breasts]. Nanchang: Jiangxi gao xiao chu ban she, 2016.
(Edited by Jessica Terekhov, graduate student in the Department of English. Thanks also go to Wenqi Wang and Guangmei Li of the East Asian Library for making special efforts to acquire the books for Cotsen!)