Opium, Gospel, and the Conquest of the Babel

Quiz: What is the language of the text on this page?

A) German
B) Latin
C) Chinese
D) Turkish

When Professor Matthew Grenby, a children’s literature scholar from the University of Newcastle, first brought our attention to the above book held in the Rare Books collection of the Princeton University Library, I was stumped by the scripts, which did not immediately spell into anything sounding familiar. The book surfaced when Professor Grenby was conducting a search for primers, catechisms and other kinds of ephemeral, educational texts for children, but we were not sure what we were looking at. The thin volume, printed on frail yellowed paper, carries no title page or publication statement. With the help of fading cursive text inscribed on its brown wrapper, a skeleton bibliographical record, several reference books, and multiple experts knowledgeable in different domain areas, I gained a clearer idea of who published the book when, where, why, and even how, but have just as many questions unanswered. With this post I am inviting more informants who can enrich our understanding of the unusual book.

A mid-nineteenth century primer of the Ningbo dialect

Image source: Wikiwand.com

The answer to the quiz that opens this post is C–Chinese. To be precise, the text is in the dialect of Ningbo, China transcribed in the Roman letterforms. To explain the origin of the book, we may well begin with the First Opium War (1839-42), which broke out between the Qing dynasty and the British Empire, after the former launched a campaign to ban opium trade and the latter dispatched its Royal Navy to protect British opium dealers’ interests in China. Prior to the war, China was nearly entirely closed to foreigners, confining foreign trade within an enclave on the outskirts of Guangzhou (Canton) and outlawing missionary activities due to conflicts–perceived irreconcilable by both Pope Clement IX and the Kangxi 康熙 Emperor–between Christianity and the Chinese tradition of ancestral worship (Pruden 2009, 22). After the war, a defeated and waning Qing government signed a series of treaties first with Britain, then with other Western powers, and granted foreigners enormous freedom in port cities. Ningbo, a long-coveted city sitting at the midpoint of the Chinese coastline, was among the first five “treaty ports” opened by the “Treaty of Nanking” in 1842. By 1845, the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA) had set up mission stations in Canton and Ningbo (PCUSA 1879, 61).

Missionaries immediately devoted themselves to learning the dialects of local residents. As William Alexander Parsons Martin (丁韙良, 1827-1916), an Indiana-born Presbyterian minister stationed in Ningbo in the 1850s, described in his memoir, “The spoken language of China is divided into a babel of dialects” (1897, 53). Back in the 19th century, the rate of literacy was abysmal except among the elites, and Mandarin was not standardized or universally acquired as it is today. To spread the Gospel, missionaries must first master the tongue of local heathens.

And master it they did. There were no written materials to guide the learning of the spoken language, which cannot be accurately represented by written Chinese characters on a one-to-one basis. Martin (1897) initially relied on a local teacher’s “object-lessons” and “mimicry” (52) to pick up words. To speed up learning, he hired a second tutor, enabling himself to study from morning to evening (53). Soon “the mists began to rise” and learning the Ningbo dialect became “a fascinating pastime” for him (53). By January 1851, Martin came up with a phonetic system based on the “German, or rather Continental, vowels” (54) to record the sound of the Ningbo dialect. He taught the notation system to his teacher Lu, who within a week composed a letter in the dialect written in the Roman letterforms, which Martin easily decoded to be an invitation to his family for lunch (55).

Martin and other missionaries worked on finalizing the notation system over the years, publishing somewhere between 42 and 52 titles of books written in the Romanized Ningbo dialect (Su 2018, 390). A bibliography of publications by Protestant missionaries in China shows that the contents of the works range from sacred scriptures to gospel harmony, theology, catechisms, prayers, hymns, the secular topics of geography and mathematics, as well as materials that teach the Ningbo dialect (Wylie 1867, 328-330). Among them are an eight-leaf spelling book (undated) and a 92-page Primer of the Ningpo Colloquial Dialect 宁波土话初学 (1857). Though credited to the Rev. Robert Henry Cobbold (哥伯播义, 1819-1893) and the Rev. Henry Van Vleck Rankin (兰金, 1825-1863) respectively, both titles were the fruition of collaborative, successive development by multiple missionaries (Wylie 1867, 183 & 194). Princeton’s copy was gifted by John Luther Rankin (1869-1959)–Henry V. Rankin’s nephew–in 1904. A member of the Princeton class of 1892, J.L. Rankin was a regular donor to the Princeton University Library.

Lacking access to Rankin’s 1857 edition of the primer, I have tentatively dated Princeton’s copy in between 1851 and 1857, hypothesizing that our leaner volume might be one of the earlier works that enriched the fuller version. On its wrapper is inscribed “A primer, the first Romanized colloquial Chinese book, prepared chiefly by Mr. W. Martin’s teacher. Cut in blocks.” The handwritten account differs noticeably from the Presbyterian bibliography, which neglects to mention the contribution of local Chinese to such dialect books. The aforementioned teacher Lu might well be the said chief author. By Martin’s (1897) account, Lu was converted and later became a preacher (even his mother, once a devout Buddhist, became a zealous Christian) (67-68).

Men and God’s creation

The volume, which I have tentatively entitled A Primer of the Ningbo Dialect, begins with monosyllabic words, then moves on to two-syllable ones, then three- and four-syllable words, followed by eight chapters titled “One Man” “One Tree” “One Ship” and so on. I enlisted the help of two native Ningbo speakers, Fengming Lu and Lidong Xiang, with decoding the chapter “One Man.” With some patience and an English-Ningbo dialect dictionary compiled by the Rev. William T. Morrison (睦礼逊惠理, ca. 1835-1869), “the mists began to rise” like it did for Martin and we were able to comprehend the gist of the chapter (the length of one paragraph).

A primer of the Ningbo dialect, likely printed by the Chinese and American Sacred Classic Book Establishment 华花圣经书房 in Ningbo, between 1851 and 1857. Chapter “One Man,” annotated with close semantic or phonetic equivalents of the Chinese characters, p. 19-20. (Princeton Rare Books 2014-0211Q)

The chapter “One Man” read aloud in the Ningbo dialect by Lidong Xiang.

One Man

This is an educated man in a foreign place, with a book tucked under his arm. People differ by level and type. There are good people, bad people, smart ones, and stupid ones. In some places people’s skin is white; in some places their skin is yellowish; in some places people’s skin is truly inky dark. These differences are caused by water and soil in all kinds of places. Even though people may be black or white, with varying looks, they are all from one ancestor. Where do you think was the very first ancestor from?–was made by the True God. That’s why, regardless of where you are from, we are all of the same family, just like brothers. All these people have a body and a soul. The body will die, and the soul does not. The body is like a house, and the soul is like the people who live in it. When the body dies, it is like the house collapses, but the people in there are still intact and alright. They just change to a different dwelling, like how people move. If a person has done good, their soul will surely go to a very nice place and enjoy the blessing. If a person has done bad, their soul will then go to a most horrible place, where they suffer punishments. These are the definitive rules.

The text introduces the diverse skin colors of human beings, tracing them all to God’s creation but building the idea upon “ancestors,” which were both familiar to and revered by Chinese. Similes further help to get across the concept of the body versus the soul. The idea of heaven and hell is not articulated though alluded to, and one cannot help noticing the semblance between the overly simplified “definitive rules” of Christianity and Buddhist karma. The plain style of the vernacular language differs drastically from earlier translations of Bible texts, which were in classical Chinese (Tam 2020, 45) and accessible to an elite audience at best.

God is referred to as “Tsing-Jing” (真神, or True God) in the passage. The correct Chinese translation for “God” was once a fiercely contested topic among Roman Catholic missions, but Protestants in Ningbo apparently decided not to waste their energy in splitting hairs and instead embraced a range of terms (Martin 1897, 34-35). In W.T. Morrison’s (1876) An Anglo-Chinese Vocabulary of the Ningpo Dialect, the entry “God” lists multiple Chinese translations that include Jing-ming’ 神明 (Deity), T’in-cü’ 天主 (Lord of Heaven), and Zông-ti’ 上帝 (Supreme Ruler) (202).

Who read the primer?

Primers of the Ningbo dialect served two functions. First, they provided missionaries with a much-needed tool to speed up language acquisition. Second, missionaries soon realized that locals could be taught the Romanization system and read religious and secular text written in their own dialect. Martin proudly reported the advantage of his system in instruction for the young and the old, and especially among the lower-class men and women, who were otherwise denied schooling:

The Chinese saw with astonishment their children taught to read in a few days, instead of spending years in painful toil, as they must with the native characters. Old women of three-score and ten, and illiterate servants and laborers, on their conversion, found by this means their eyes opened to read in their own tongue… the wonderful works of God. (Martin 1897, 55-56)

Photo taken in Yuyao 余姚 by an unnamed Chinese photographer. In Old Ningpo: Bulletin of Ningpo Station, Central China Mission of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Ningpo, Chekiang, China, 1919. Courtesy of the Presbyterian Historical Society.

The usage of such dialect books was documented in a rare photo taken in Yuyao, Zhejiang (a town neighboring Ningbo) in the 1910s. A class of Chinese women students, ranging from youthful-looking ones to elderly ones, were learning the Bible and hymns from Romanized Ningbo dialect books in a courtyard. Both Martin’s bragging and the photo reflect how missionaries vigorously reached out to the poor and the marginalized population to propagate the gospel, bringing, in tandem, educational opportunities to girls and poor women (see, for example, Nimick 2020).

The teacher, dressed in a dark full-length gown and standing in front of the class, appeared to be a Westerner, most likely a missionary’s wife. She probably had two assistants, one standing next to a large pictorial chart, and the other seated by a pump organ, no doubt ready to play the next hymn melody. The students had brought along babies and toddlers, who were held in the women’s arms, or sleeping in cribs, or simply hanging out by the desks. Though it is hard to imagine how the class managed on rainy days, not to mention the burden of moving heavy furniture in and out frequently, the family-friendliness of the setting deserves serious respect from 21st-century institutions.

How was the book printed?

It so happened that Princeton University Library has a hymn book in the Ningbo dialect, one of five other titles in Romanized scripts compiled by the Rev. Henry V. Rankin and donated by his son, Henry William Rankin (1851-1937). Born in China, the son graduated from Princeton University with a degree in literature in 1873 (Princeton University 1914, 26), and gifted his father’s works to the library in 1921. A comparison between the hymn book, dated 1860, and the previous primer, helps us imagine how missionaries explored ways to print Roman letterforms in China.

Tsaen-me S. = 赞美诗 [A hymn book], compiled by Henry Van Vleck Rankin. Nying-Po, 1860. (Princeton Rare Books N-003610)

The Ningbo Mission set up a printing press, the Chinese and American Sacred Classic Book Establishment, the same year the station was established in 1845 and published books in both Chinese characters and Roman letterforms (Su 2018, 328). Both traditional Chinese woodblock printing and moveable type printing had been utilized to publish Ningbo dialect books. Martin (1897) described how the first primer was printed:

Causing a set of letters to be engraved on separate pieces of horn, I taught a young man to use them in stamping the pages of a primer. This was roughly engraved on wood, in the Chinese manner, called “block-printing”… (55)

The Book Establishment published three Romanized books in 1851, apparently with movable type, because in its annual report, the Ningbo Station reported that the hired Chinese typesetters were slow due to unfamiliarity with alphabets (Su 2018, 381). By 1853 the press had produced 25 titles in Romanized scripts, and over half of them were printed from woodblocks, because there were not enough printing presses (389).

The mixed use of printing technology explains why the primer and the hymn book appear different. Both were printed on folded leaves, and the hymn book in particular was stitched in thread in the elegant pre-modern Chinese style, but their semblance stops there. The text of the primer is in such a fat, bold font size that one short paragraph takes up four full pages of an oversized book! Noticeably, it follows the convention of woodblock-printed books, outlining a text box on each side of the folded leaves. (Illustrations placed at the top of the chapter titles occasionally bleed over the edge of the text box or overlap with the letters, suggesting that the illustrated pages were printed in a two-step process.) In contrast, the hymn book, with text in a small, neat moveable type font and without boxes, can well blend in with any Western Roman-language book.

Conquerors of the Babel

W.A.P. Martin (1827-1916)

W.A.P. Martin (Image source: Wikimedia.org)

W.A.P. Martin served in Ningbo for ten years from 1850 to 1860 and went on to have an exciting life and an illustrious career in China. Guangxu 光绪, the penultimate emperor of the Qing dynasty, appointed Martin as the inaugural president of the Imperial University of Peking in 1898 as part of his reform to revive the dying empire. The short-lived reform failed, but China’s first modern national university survived and became the predecessor of the renowned Peking University. Martin was the translator-adapter of the first English version of the “Ballad of Mulan” (Dong 2011, 93), publishing it under the title “Mulan, The Maiden Chief” as an appendix to The Chinese: Their Education Philosophy (1881), a collection of his observations of formal and informal education in China.

The earliest English translation of the “Ballad of Mulan,” by W.A.P. Martin, published in a bilingual form in The Chinese: Their Education Philosophy (p. 316-319). London: Trübner, 1881. Page image from Google Books. (See also Princeton University Library DS709 .M384 1881)

The Rankin Family

Henry Van Vleck Rankin (Image source: Wikimedia.org)

Henry V. Rankin (1825-1863) came from a New Jersey family intimately involved with the Presbyterian Church or Princeton University. He was born to William Rankin, Sr. (1785-1869), who ran a prosperous hat-manufacturing business in Newark, New Jersey (Wheeler 1907, 267). He graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary and, in 1848, was appointed by the Board of Foreign Missions as a missionary to China, where he compiled no fewer than eight titles of Romanized Ningbo dialect books. Rankin’s health deteriorated in the early 1860s, but, partly due to the ongoing American Civil War, he chose not to go home (Rankin 1895, 296). He visited Teng-chow 登州, Shandong Province for rehabilitation and died there on July 2, 1863 (297). Susan Rankin Janvier (1858-1943), one of his daughters, married into another big missionary family–to Caesar Augustus Rodney Janvier (1861-1928) of the Princeton Class of 1880–and with her husband served mission in India (Presbyterian 2015; Ingram 1929, 513).

Henry’s eldest brother, William Rankin, Jr. (1810-1912) lived to be a centenarian, who served as the treasurer of the Board of Foreign Missions of the PCUSA for 37 years. In that role he wrote an account, preserved in the University Archives, of the arrival of the first three Japanese students who enrolled at Princeton circa. 1871 (“Meet” 2014). One of the sons of William Rankin, Jr. was Dr. Walter Mead Rankin (1858-1947), who received his Master of Science degree from Princeton in 1884 and later taught biology at Princeton from 1889 until his retirement in 1923. He founded the YMCA Town Club in Princeton in 1908, the predecessor of the still-thriving Princeton Family YMCA in town (“Dr. Walter” 1947; Princeton YMCA 2017).

Another of Henry’s brothers was the Rev. Edward Erastus Rankin (1820-1889), whose son presented the primer to Princeton. Edward served in Presbyterian churches in New Jersey and New York for decades. He contributed a 12-page narrative detailing Henry’s life in Memorials of Foreign Missionaries of the Presbyterian Church U. S. A. (1895)–edited by the Treasurer of the Board, i.e., their elder brother William.

Unintended Fruit

Foreign mission’s endeavor in China lasted over a century after the Opium War, yet it failed to convert the “Middle Kingdom” into a Christian country. The work it put into spreading the gospel, however, had a profound impact on the education, culture, medicine, and science communication of the Chinese society. Thanks to the inspiration of the Romanization systems built by Martin and his fellow missionaries for spoken dialects, Chinese standardized the pinyin scheme that represents the pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese, greatly easing the learning of written characters since the second half of the 20th century. The fact that people can bang on the same QWERTY keyboard to make Chinese characters pop up on a computer screen can be traced all the way back to the conquerors of the Babel hacking Chinese dialects with the Latin alphabet.

Children’s Epoch 儿童时代, October 1958, page 14-15. (Cotsen 35519) A double spread in the popular children’s magazine Children’s Epoch uses visuals to teach A-Z alphabets. Each animal is “contorted” into the shape of the initial letter of its pinyin pronunciation. (Only two of the animals would share the same initial letter in pinyin and in English.) Both pinyin and “Bopomofo,” an alternative system of phonetic symbols introduced during Republican China, are printed, but pinyin would prevail in mainland China, and Bopomofo remains in use in Taiwan.

Henry V. Rankin’ books form part of Princeton’s collection of late-Qing-dynasty dialect books from various regions, scriptures in ethnic minority languages of Southwest China (Heijdra 1998), as well as global mission publications in indigenous languages (such as this bilingual Luther’s Small Catechism in Munsee and Swedish prepared in Pennsylvania during the mid-17th century), preserving clues to the pronunciation and vocabulary of spoken languages before the advent of audio-recording technology.


[A Primer of the Ningbo Dialect]. 1851-1857. Edited by W. A. P. Martin, Henry Van Vleck Rankin. [Ningpo: Chinese and American Sacred Classic Book Establishment]

Dong, Lan. 2011. Mulan’s Legend and Legacy in China and the United States. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

“Dr. Walter Mead Rankin, Princeton Ex-Professor.” 1947. New York Herald Tribune, May 26, 1947, 18.

Heijdra, Martin. 1998. “Who were the Laka? A Survey of Scriptures in the Minority Languages of Southwest China .” The East Asian Library Journal 8 (1): 150-198.

Ingram, George H. 1929. “Princeton in the Nation’s Service, VII: A Man Who made a Distinct Impress in His Every Work.” Princeton Alumni Weekly, February 1, 513-514.

Lowrie, Walter M. 1854. Memoirs of the Rev. Walter M. Lowrie, Missionary to China. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication.

Martin, W. A. P. 1881. The Chinese: Their Education, Philosophy, and Letters. London: Trübner.

Martin, W. A. P. 1897. A Cycle of Cathay, or China, South and North. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Oliphant Anderson and Ferrier.

“Meet Mudd’s Jarrett M. Drake.” 2014. Mudd Manuscript Library Blog. Last modified June 18, 2014. https://blogs.princeton.edu/mudd/tag/digital-archivist/

Morrison, William T. 1876. An Anglo-Chinese Vocabulary of the Ningpo Dialect. Revised and enlarged ed. Shanghai: American Presbyterian Mission Press.

Nimick, Thomas G. 2020. “Missionary Women’s Outreach to Poor Women in China; Origins of the Industrial Class Strategy.” The Journal of Presbyterian History 98 (1): 4-17.

PCUSA. 1879. The Forty-Second Annual Report of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. New York: Mission House. https://books.google.com/books?id=KAggoYGMiooC

Presbyterian Historical Society. 2015. “Guide to the Janvier Family Papers.” Last modified [November 18, 2015] https://www.history.pcusa.org/collections/research-tools/guides-archival-collections/rg-190

Princeton University. 1914. Directory of Living Alumni of Princeton University. Princeton, New Jersey: The University. https://books.google.com/books?id=UaJBAAAAYAAJ

Princeton YMCA. 2017. “History.” Last modified [December 2017]. https://princetonymca.org/about/history/

Pruden, George B. 2009. “American Protestant Missions in Nineteenth-Century China.” Education about Asia 14 (2): 22-29.

Rankin, Edward Erastus. 1895. “Rev. Henry V. Rankin.” In Memorials of Foreign Missionaries of the Presbyterian Church U. S. A., edited by William Rankin, 288-299. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-Schoolwork.

Su, Jing 苏精. 2018. 铸以代刻: 十九世纪中文印刷变局. 北京: 中华书局.

Tam, Gina Anne. 2020. “A Chinese Language: Fangyan before the Twentieth Century.” In Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860–1960, 35-71. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wheeler, W. O. 1907. The Ogden Family in America, Elizabethtown Branch, and their English Ancestry: John Ogden, the Pilgrim, and His Descendants, 1640-1906.

Wylie, Alexander. 1867. Memorials of Protestant Missionaries to the Chinese. Shanghae: American Presbyterian Mission Press. https://books.google.com/books?id=jRQQAAAAIAAJ

Appendix: Bibliography of Ningbo dialect books compiled by Henry V. Rankin

Ah-lah Kyiu-cu Yiae-su-go Sing-yi Tsiao shu. S-du pao-lo-go Shü-sing = 阿拉救主耶稣的新遗诏书: 使徒保罗的书信 [New Testament: Epistles of Paul]. Nying-Po, 1859. 61 pages. (Rare Books N-003608)

C’ih Yiai gyih = 出埃及记 [Exodus]. Ningpo. 72 pages.

Foh-ing tsaen di = 福音赞帝 [Synopsis gospel harmony]. Ningpo. 6 pages.

Gyiu-yi tsiao-shü. Tsʻông-shü kyi = 旧遗诏书: 创世记 [Old Testament: The Book of Genesis]. Nying-po, 1859. 72 pages. (Rare Books N-003594)

Meh-z Loh = 默示录 [Book of Revelation]. Nying-Po? 1859? 34 pages. (Rare Books N-003609)

Nying-po t’u-wô ts’u-‘ôh = 宁波土话初学 [A primer of the Ningbo colloquial dialect]. Ningpo, 1857. 92 pages.

S-du Pao-lo sia-peh Lo-mo Nying-go Shü-sing = 使徒保罗写给罗马人的书信 [The Epistle to the Romans]. Nying-Po? 1859? 30 pages. (Rare Books N-003607)

Sing jah djün shü = 新约传书 [New Testament] by William Armstrong Russell and H. V. Rankin. Revised edition. Ningpo. 260 leaves.

Tsaen-me S. = 赞美诗 [Hymn book]. Nying-Po, 1860. 156 pages. (Rare Books N-003610)

Tsʻông-shü kyi = 创世记 [The Book of Genesis]. Ningpo. 86 pages.


Professor Fengming Lu of the Australian National University and Lidong Xiang, PhD candidate at Rutgers University–both natives of Ningbo, China–worked on puzzling out the 160-year-old Romanized Ningbo dialect. Thank Lidong Xiang for reading aloud a chapter of the primer in her native tongue for us.

Professor Thomas G. Nimick, Ph.D. *93, of the United States Military Academy, West Point generously shared his research on women missionaries’ work in Ningbo and brought my attention to the photo of women’s class using Romanized Ningbo dialect books in the 1910s. Natalie Shilstut, Director of Programs and Services at the Presbyterian Historical Society, kindly made the photo available for this blog post.

Professor Ling Yiming of the Academy of Rare Book Preservation, Tianjin Normal University, and Dr. Eric White, the Scheide Librarian, helped with discerning the printing technology of the primer.

Stephen Ferguson, a rare books expert, deftly traced down the provenance of the primer after I hit more dead ends than I care to admit.

Last but not the least, thank Professor Matthew Grenby of the University of Newcastle for discovering the mysterious scripts in Princeton’s collection!

(Edited by Stephen Ferguson)

How to Make a Toy Pencil Dispenser in Five Steps

Three decades later I can still see in my mind’s eye that sad pile of splintery scrap wood of various shapes and sizes. Gathered loosely by a length of pink, plastic cord, the bundle leaned against the wall in a dark corner, seemingly in perpetuity. How could I possibly foresee that it would take a once-in-a-century global pandemic for an adult version of me to finish the project?

It was during one of my summer breaks from middle school. One bored afternoon I chanced upon a book about how to make toys and was instantly hooked. Its spine peeling and pages frayed, the paperback was published in the “ancient” time when my parents were still teenagers. Many of the Chinese characters in it appeared in the traditional style, which was in use before the language reform, but were occasionally accompanied by a pronunciation guide in pinyin for the benefit of readers as young as elementary school kids. I flipped through the preface, impatiently scanned the chapter titled “Preparation Work,” and couldn’t wait to make my first toy!

“Two Cubs Sawing a Log” in Mechanical Toys 机械玩具 by Lin Youyu 林有禹. Beijing: Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she, 1964. (personal copy)

The toys in the first section looked simple enough. Like most of the projects cataloged throughout the book, they demonstrated the possibility of harnessing the energy of elastic bands to generate motion. I was immediately drawn to a cute pair of bears log bucking a hefty tree trunk and I felt eager to bring them to life. To make this toy, aptly called “Two Cubs Sawing a Log,” you actually needed wood and a handsaw for cutting out the parts. I had no wood, nor did I trust myself to wield a thin blade of metal with razor-sharp teeth. Neither of these deterrents curbed my ambition. I unfolded the paper carton of a tube of toothpaste, drew the bears and parts on the blank side, slowly cut them out with a pair of scissors, and assembled everything with no more than a few pieces of wire and a rubber band. A bastardized version of what was pictured in the book, no doubt, it worked just fine for me. As I pulled the handle and released it, the smiling ursine buckers, each holding one end of their efficient tool, appeared to be happily sawing away at a log. I recently dug out the diary I kept that summer and discovered that my boxboard cubs suffered a crippling leg injury in the rough hands of a neighbor’s child, their log cutting career abridged abruptly. (I had no recollection of the incident, but–according to what I jotted down in the diary entry–I cried.)

“The Goose-Head Boat” in Mechanical Toys

The next toy I attempted to make was the “Goose-Head Boat”. At first I tried cheating with my cardstock trick, believing that a layer of candle wax could keep the structure afloat, but I had no luck this time. My cardboard goose made a nosedive into the creek and escaped from view. This regrettable outcome didn’t dampen my enthusiasm the slightest bit. I searched around the house and managed to rescue a boat model out of a pile of discarded odds and ends. I adapted the propeller–made of two interlocking slips of plywood wound up by a rubber band–for the tiny wooden barge. We didn’t have a camera in those days, but I found in my diary an illustration that documented my finished work, viewed upside-down from the bottom of the boat.

My illustration of the paddle boat.

To set sail, one would wind up the propeller until the rubber band was twisted tight. When released, the spinning prop would cause the boat to chug along “with a bone in its teeth,” water splashing merrily at its tail.

The Greatest Temptation

There were other interesting and intricate toys in the book. The section “Toys on Wheels” taught children the application of eccentric disks; “Toys that Turn” contained instructions for building a zoetrope (an illustration of this ingenious pre-cinema animation device is available at Princeton’s Graphic Arts Collection blog) and a spinning carousel. In addition to the paddle boat, the book covered varieties of moving vehicles, farm machinery (for example, a miniature “row builder” that could plow through sand or saw dust to raise a neat ridge) and bamboo copters. For reasons I can’t explain, the toy that fascinated me most wasn’t anything that spun or ran or flew, but rather something stationary–or more precisely, stationery: a pencil dispenser. It was a box with a coin slot and a simple switch mechanism, dispensing pencils at the price of two cents each. Its instructions were clearly the lengthiest of all, running eight pages long. I gazed longingly at the cross-section drawings and finished look of the machine, itching to build the toy and watch pencils rolling out at the push of the button. The dispenser called for plywood of different sizes and thicknesses, metal sheets, a metal spring, nails, and so on. Even with the materials in hand, it would be complicated to make the parts.

“The Automatic Pencil Dispenser” in Mechanical Toys

Looking back, I have to be impressed by my blind youthful optimism. I paid my classmate Lifen, the daughter of a local wooden toy factory owner, a visit. She cheerfully provided me with a stack of plywood–leftovers collected from her dad’s factory floor. For as long as I sustained my fantasy of creating the pencil dispenser, the scrap wood stubbornly occupied a corner of the kitchen. The pink cord remained untied.

Fast forward to two years ago. I met Mr. Peter Hollingsworth, the retired parent of a recent Princeton alumnus. Pete, as he is known, pursued carpentry as a serious hobby. I lived next to his workshop, where he and his brother, a former Princeton researcher, were busy building a boat that spring to celebrate their major birthdays. As I witnessed large pieces of ordinary-looking plywood carried back from the local big-box store transform, week by week, into a 22-foot-long, gleaming rowing shell for two, I decided to ask Pete how he became a master wood worker and boat builder. At one point I mentioned the pencil dispenser that I once dreamed of making as a child. I’m certain that Pete didn’t understand what he was about to get himself into when he agreed to take a look at the diagrams of the toy.

Mechanical Toys by Lin Youyu. Beijing: Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she, 1964. (personal copy)

The problem was, I couldn’t recall the exact title of the book — was it “Wooden Toys” or “How to Make Toys”? And I had no idea who the author was, even though I would have no problem recognizing its subdued yellowish green cover, with the diagram of the log-sawing bears in the background. After some tenacious online sleuthing, flexing my professional research muscles, I was able to locate a copy of what was called Mechanical Toys at the Stanford University Library, the only institution in the entire United States with such a title in its collection. The copy arrived at Firestone via interlibrary loan. I studied the chapter on the pencil dispenser for two nights before fully understanding how it worked–how the parts interconnected to accomplish a series of motions, initiated by the drop of a coin into a slot and ending with the release of a pencil. When I showed the instructions to Pete, he raised his glasses above his brow, squinting his discerning eyes at the photocopies I made, and nodded with instant understanding. He didn’t need my translation from traditional Chinese scripts into English, after all.

Clockwise: Pete Hollingsworth, master wood worker; the Hollingsworth brothers and their newly built rowing shell on Lake Carnegie. Photos courtesy of Dr. Andrew Hollingsworth.

A few months after the Hollingsworth brothers launched their sleek red boat in Lake Carnegie, I unexpectedly received two boxes from them. My jaw dropped at the sight of what was inside, for multiple reasons.

Mr. Hollingsworth produced over fifty parts, with additions and enhancements of his own, required to make the pencil dispenser.

First, Pete had made the parts of the pencil dispenser for me–two sets, no less, in case I needed practice with assembly! I was and still am afraid to ask how much of his time and mental effort I gratuitously claimed, even knowing that he’s no rookie carpenter. Second, it wasn’t until I held the actual parts in three dimensions and examined them against Lin’s pages and Pete’s assembly instructions that I fully absorbed the complexity of the project. The fluid motion of the coin, push button, shuttle device, and pencils all depended on a precise execution of the design, so that no part would get stuck in the middle of selling you a pencil at five cents apiece. (Two-cent coins were out of circulation in China, so it was necessary to raise the price to one US nickel, which was conveniently identical to the former in diameter.)

Pencil dispenser under construction in Pete’s shop. Photo courtesy of Pete Hollingsworth.

Adding to my awe, Pete had made alterations to almost every part in the original design, gluing a slim bar here, attaching a square block there, and cutting a groove yet elsewhere. His revised version contained more than 50 parts, not 35, as in the book. All this tinkering would stabilize the structure, enhance precision and performance, and bring added aesthetic and safety benefits, preventing nails from protruding through the front board. Unlike my cubs, with words like “anticavity” and “gum protection” tattooed on their backs, this box was going to withstand good pushing, prodding, and commotion and still reliably deliver the next pencil even if my old neighbor’s child’s child showed up to play with it.

Lastly, I was floored by Pete’s handwritten assembly instructions, which exceeded the chapter in the book at ten pages long. The instructions, meticulously phrased and accompanied by helpful 3D illustrations, broke the process down into digestible steps. (If IKEA were to hire Mr. Hollingsworth, no one would ever fail at putting together any furniture.)

Mr. Hollingsworth’s assembly instructions, which could easily be titled “The Pencil Dispenser for Dummies,” were as compelling as comic strips in certain parts. He hand drew all the illustrations, using no ruler, compass, or CAD computer software.

In case you wonder what this robot-like image is about, it demonstrates how to mount a key freely-moving component in the box.

So I immediately set to work and assembled the parts with great excitement and no glitches. Voilà! I had a pencil dispenser. My childhood dream came true. The end.

Except, alas…that fairytale ending wasn’t true. The truth of the matter was that I committed my established sin of inaction. I dutifully purchased all the materials and tools listed in Pete’s instructions, but wouldn’t start. Christmas came and went in 2019; the parts remained dormant in the boxes, which stared down at me from my bookshelf day in and day out. For a good while it seemed that they might suffer the same fate I unjustly assigned to the plywood I had solicited from the good-natured toy factory owner so many years ago. Was it the side effect of finally comprehending how complex the project was and how unforgiving the device would be to my clumsiness? Was it the laughable silliness of being intimidated by my unfamiliarity of carpentry? “12” Trigger clamp, such as DeWalt DWHT83140,” the fourth item on Pete’s You Will Need list, vaguely recalled a machine gun, and I hadn’t given much thought to how it was to be used. “Carpenter’s glue, such as Titebond II”–how good must I be with this stuff in order not to ruin any of the precious parts?

Then came January 2020. The world was suddenly distracted by a city named Wuhan.

Early February. On two separate days I experienced awful, unexplained symptoms and received a negative flu test result. The university health service was sure there were no suspected cases of Covid-19 on campus. Feeling 49% reassured at most, I holed up in bed and self-quarantined–still wondering to this day what I had.

Mid-March. I converted a corner of my bedroom into an office space, just for one week, you know, until we would be allowed to return to campus.

One week stretched into a fortnight, a month, a season…

I couldn’t pinpoint any particular stimulus, but my sense of guilt before Pete and disappointment at my procrastination must have tipped over to outweigh my usual apprehension of mistakes and failure. One evening after work, instead of sinking into the couch and continuing my compulsive doomscrolling, I reached for a box of parts, reviewed the ten-page handwritten instructions, and set to work. It took me two nights to put together the pencil dispenser while carefully taking note of the abundant reminders and precautions Pete had laid out for me.

I put the lid of the dispenser on, slipped a nickel into the slot, and pushed the button. A pencil rolled out of the box, clanking down the slide, just like in the mesmerizing scene I had played out in my head so many summers ago. The tween-age me wasn’t nearly imaginative enough, though, to picture a grown-up version of myself sanding and painting the box, looking practically legit with one of my last KN95 masks on, at a time when I couldn’t invite any friend to play with the toy. My only option was to share a video clip.

Having completed a project I initiated three decades ago (with great success, you might say), I am happy to share the five crucial steps required to make a toy pencil dispenser:

Step 1: Never give up on your childhood dream.

Step 2: Two options are open for this step.

Option A: keep honing your carpentry skills;

Option B: if Option A isn’t feasible due to an allergy to metal saws or a lack of manual dexterity or both, opt to hone research skills instead–like I have prudently done by pursuing the (almost) equally useful trade of library and information services. This way you may have the diagrams available when you are so lucky as to encounter a carpenter generous with his talent, skill, and time.

Step 3: Receive ready-made, fine-tuned parts of the toy.

Step 4: For extra at-home time, wait for a global pandemic.

Step 5: Assemble.

The Toy Book and Its Author

Mechanical Toys was published by the China Juvenile and Children Publishing House in 1964, issued as one of the installments in the “Handbook of Science and Technology Activities for Youth” series. Other topics covered by the series included how to grow grains, oil crops (soybean, sunflower, etc.) and cottons. The first half of the 1960s–sandwiched between the disastrous Great Leap Forward and the yet more disastrous Cultural Revolution–was considered a period of readjustment, when China shifted its preoccupation from ideological fervor to agricultural and industrial recovery. The handbook series reflected China’s aspiration to equip the next generation of citizens for advancing the nation’s science and technology. This, by the way, was the same period when the classic editions of One Hundred Thousand Whys [Cotsen 32611], the hugely influential popular science book series for children, were published by the Shanghai-based Juvenile and Children’s Publishing House.

Lin Youyu, the 102-year-old retired science teacher at his home in July 2020. The cover of Mechanical Toys can be spotted among the piles of educational publications by Lin (Image source: https://kknews.cc/)

Curious about who could possibly deem the pencil dispenser a craft project suitable for children, I did a little research about Lin Youyu, the author of Mechanical Toys. (Okay, that doubles as a veiled expression to airbrush my ineptitude for thirty years at building a toy from a book intended for readers as young as those who still needed help with reading words like “earthworm” 蚯蚓 and “jolt” 颠簸.) Lin was an elementary school science teacher in Shanghai when his book was published. He was in charge of one of three “science and technology stations” that loaned science curriculum equipment to the Shanghai school system. Lin made hundreds of specimens, models, wall charts, and pieces of laboratory equipment himself. He turned 102 years old in 2020 and made news after zoological specimens he built in the 1960s were restored by the Shanghai Natural History Museum and put to use again in his old school.

In Praise of an Unreliable Memory

One big surprise of my saga with the pencil dispenser was how I did and didn’t remember the summer I spent with Mechanical Toys. To my adult mind, it involved the joy of discovering a fun book, the triumph of bringing the bears to life, the luck of cobbling together a functional paddle boat, and the unsatisfied desire for something so tantalizing but too cleverly designed for me to master. My diary told a different story, one I hadn’t revisited for so long that I had to trudge far down memory lane to ensure I didn’t make the details up. I learned that it was a tense time for my family and I seemed to be miserable a lot. Early in the summer my brother took the high-stakes national college entrance exam, which at the time was the only social ladder for average Chinese citizens to climb out of menial, sweated, and poorly-paid labor. While my family awaited the result and dreaded the worst, it managed to mutate into a cluster of explosives. Everybody was in a bad temper; everybody–i.e., everyone older than me–was taking it out on someone else. I was constantly on the receiving end of scolding, whether I deserved it or not. Miraculously, I had almost no memory of the gloomy, nerve-racking side of this summer, but never forgot the glowing moment of pulling Mechanical Toys off the shelf. The book lit up my small, mundane life like other beloved childhood readings. It transported me to an alternate world that was both more intricate and more straightforward, a world where I found myself not at the capricious mercy of other people’s moods, where bears were amicable partners and boats were respectful of the rules of physics, and where drama didn’t result from harsh words but a resilient loop of rubber band.

Which brings me to the question of how I will remember the year 2020. I realize I can’t fully control how it will be recorded and recalled in my brain, but if I have learned anything from “the summer I made toys,” I know which part of my 2020 is good to keep. It isn’t the moments when I was in pain, worried, panicking with a relentlessly rapid heartbeat, lonely, despondent, and mired in self-pity, but the parts where I opened my front door to a care package from colleagues during my self-quarantine; where I reconnected with old friends despite–or because of–the lockdown; where I had the good fortune of fully appreciating an artisan’s craftsmanship. 2020 was the year I finished making the toy pencil dispenser* and realized my cherished childhood dream!


I recently remade “Two Cubs Sawing a Log,” this time upgrading my material from toothpaste box to cardstock paper. I am as big a fan of the work ethic and collaborative ethos of the bears as I was when I first set eyes on the pair. If you, too, are tempted to bring the cubs to life–and like me are the type to avert a saw except when it is made of toothpaste box–you may print this revised diagram on letter-size cardstock paper and connect the joints with small staples (No. 10).

Materials and tools you will need:

  • letter-size cardstock paper
  • 1 rubber band (2.5 inches long)
  • 9 staples (No. 10)
  • scissors
  • sewing needle to punch small holes
  • pliers and (optional) flat head screwdriver to bend, unbend, and flatten staples

* Thanks least to my own doing…but I was hoping you don’t like to read footnotes.

Edited by Jessica Terekhov.

I thank Dr. Andrew Hollingsworth and Pete Hollingsworth for providing feedback on this essay and enriching it with accurate technical terms–on top of enabling me to finish the toy pencil dispenser project!