Notes from a Summer Traveler in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi

Part II: Children’s Books and Reading: A Photo Album

Part II of my travel notes annotates photos of my delightful encounters with children’s materials, reading, and entertainment outside the USA. I stayed in Shanghai for several weeks between two children’s literature symposiums that I attended in June and July. (The subtropical city oscillated between relentless, all-day rains and sweltering blaze. Unless part of your goal is to lose weight by taking long walks in what feels like free sauna offered by nature, I do not recommend these months as the best time for visiting Shanghai.) Thanks to the itinerary that was kindly arranged for me by the University of Leeds, I had the unexpected luck of spending a few eye-opening hours at Abu Dhabi International Airport during my connecting flight from Shanghai to Britain.

Shanghai, China

The Bund, Shanghai

A night view from the Bund, Shanghai (June 2016).

Shanghai is historically the center of the publishing industry in China. Except for the disruption of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Shanghai dominated the publishing of Chinese comic books and books for youth during the twentieth century.

Shanghai Library

Shanghai Library, Confucius

View from the lobby of the Shanghai Library through large windows into a peaceful back garden, where a statue of Confucius stands as a symbol of great learning.

Shanghai Library, Disney

An exhibition on the impact of the earliest Disney films on popular culture in Shanghai. Photo taken at the Shanghai Library, June 13, 2016.

The first Disney theme park in mainland China was opened in Shanghai on June 16, 2016, causing plenty of sensation among the locals. Drawing on its rich Republic of China collection, the Shanghai Library offered a timely exhibition on the history of how Disney animated films swept over Shanghai as early as the 1930s and became an integrated part of Chinese popular culture.

Shanghai Book City

Shanghai Book City

Shanghai Book CityShanghai Book City, as its boastful name promises, is the largest bookstore in Shanghai and takes up seven massive floors. The sixth floor is dedicated to children’s materials, offering books, toys, as well as game areas, programming space, and a newly opened fee-based subscription library of picture books. The most prominent format on display is large, colorful picture books, spreading over half of the entire floor. Text-oriented books for older readers and teens are tucked away on the side. The layout has reversed what it was like a decade ago, reflecting major growth in the translation, publishing, and consumption of picture books for preschoolers in China since 2000. Chinese children’s books used to target young independent readers mainly. Should a parent bring a toddler to the store ten years ago, they would have had to choose from only a couple rows of picture books shelved in a tight corner.

The Former Residence of Comic Artist Zhang Leping

Zhang Leping, Sanmao

Right: The Wanderings of Sanmao the Vagrant (三毛流浪记) by Zhang Leping. Shanghai: Min li shu dian, 1950. (Cotsen 91127876 Vol. 4)

Numerous Chinese authors and artists who wrote and illustrated children’s literature were based in Shanghai. Among them was Zhang Leping (1910-1992), arguably the most successful Chinese comic artist during the twentieth century. His former residence has been made into a modest museum free to the public. Adorning the yard of his house is a sculpture of Sanmao, the three-haired protagonist of Zhang’s nearly wordless comics series. The sculpture is based on a panel from The Wanderings of Sanmao the Vagrant, in which the orphaned and homeless boy is constantly in search for food, clothing, and shelter while trying to survive in a postwar Shanghai. He unknowingly joins a gang of thieves and receives an over-sized gown to cover his naked body. In the most economical visual language of comics, Zhang exaggerates the length of time it takes a scrawny Sanmao to finish buttoning the large garment. The boy’s visible awkwardness in putting on the gang member’s clothing, as the story unfolds, foreshadows how his kindness and empathy would make him an “incorrigible” misfit in the criminal group.

Zhang LepingThis is the study where the late comic artist Zhang Leping, dubbed “Father of Sanmao,” worked and received visitors after 1950. Interestingly, the two most important works of Zhang, Sanmao Joins the Army (三毛从军记, 1946) and The Wanderings of Sanmao the Vagrant (1947) were both created before he moved into this seemingly spacious and comfortable house. Not that the house was at fault, but perhaps more of an indication that even an enviable material condition for creative work could not mitigate the post-1949 constraints on intellectual and artistic freedom in China.

If you are as hapless a tourist as I was and will visit the museum in the unwelcoming hot season, I have a gentle reminder for you: arm yourself with mosquito repellent before entering the vicinity. The blood-suckers outside Zhang’s residence were so ferocious that the security guard had a free bottle of spray ready for visitors. The staff warmly told me to help myself with the chemical, because this was “on taxpayers.” The experience increased my admiration for Zhang Leping even more, as I imagined the artist might have had to endure the same attacks every long summer.

Folk Art

A Chinese shadow theatre at the Qibao Shadow Play Art Gallery, Shanghai. (photo courtesy of Dr. Yeojoo Lim)

A Chinese shadow theatre at the Qibao Shadow Play Art Gallery, Shanghai. (photo courtesy of Dr. Yeojoo Lim)

A small shadow play museum is located in Qibao Old Town, a tourist attraction in a suburban district of Shanghai. A spider web of metro system that has been continuously expanded over the past two decades makes the old town, once a remote part of Shanghai, easy to reach. The shadow play museum displays shadow figures and related artworks that were an important part of folk life in rural Qibao between the late Qing dynasty and the Republic of China. (Princeton University has held an exhibition of Chinese shadow figures and maintains a database of digitized shadow figures images.)

shadow figure, Monkey King

Shadow figure Monkey King from Journey to the West, exhibited at the Qibao Shadow Play Art Gallery.

dough figurine Monkey KingI could not resist another opportunity to document the prevalence of Monkey King in Chinese folk culture. This was an edible dough figurine of Monkey, freshly kneaded, shaped, and sold at a shop in Qibao. The dough should taste sweet, but I would not dream of gobbling up the trickster. He is famous for turning into a tiny mischievous bug and making you regret and consent to whatever unpleasant demand he shouts out gleefully from inside your belly–to surrender your magic heirloom fire-extinguishing fan, or to give him the password of your smart phone, for example.

Kids Still Read Today

young readers in a Shanghai district public libraryYes, they do. I spied on them in the children’s reading room of a district public library in Shanghai on a hot, hypnotizing Saturday afternoon in June. Children and teens read, took notes, did homework, and some of them also couldn’t stop checking their smart phones. The plastic chairs were hard; the reading tables were plain; and the seating was a bit crowded. A quiet afternoon in the cool public library, however, was still a pleasant escape for those lucky children who happened to live close by. Many Chinese families, even if they own air-conditioning at home, reserve the machine for the most unbearable heat waves. Free air-conditioning alone makes a trip to the public library worthwhile.

Children’s clay art displayed in the Minhang District Library, Shanghai.

young readers in the subway, ShanghaiThese two young school girls, engrossed in children’s books on paper in the subway, were in the minority among an army of adult passengers who were equally engrossed in (or possessed by) their smart phones.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Abu Dhabi was the first city where I stopped (at its international airport anyway) during my 30-hour, door-to-door journey from Shanghai, China to the University of Leeds campus. I didn’t expect to walk off the jet bridge into a library, newly opened in April 2016.

“Enjoy your favourite book at Abu Dhabi Airport Library.”

reading area, Abu Dhabi International Airport“This area is for reading only.”–A signage erected in the prime seating area of the airport, granting readers the privilege of enjoying comfortable chairs, shelves of books, and natural light.

board book in ArabicLet’s see what books we have got here. A board book features a Muslim woman on the page, and the Arabic text goes, “Mama said, ‘Tomorrow will be Eid.'”*

picture book in ArabicThe picture book might have been a translated work. (Forgive me for being illiterate in Arabic. Please share in the comment box what you know about the two books above.)

Read and RiseArabic-English bilingual slogan “Read and Rise” on a column. In the Arabic parallel text, “naqraʼ li-nartaqī,” there is alliteration at the beginning of each verb, and the roots of the verbs have similar sounds: qaraʼa and raqiya. Kudos to whoever designed the slogan for achieving alliteration in two distinct languages simultaneously. The literal meaning of the Arabic passage is “let’s read so that we may rise.”

quote from Sheikh ZayedA quote that puts great value in education, from the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who was the driving forces behind the formation of the United Arab Emirates and its first president, 1971-2004.

quote of Sheikh ZayedAnother quote of Sheikh Zayed, “The education of our people as a goal in itself is a great wealth in which we take pride, for knowledge is the wealth on which we are building our future.”

magic lampDue to a mistake I will not relate here, I failed to bring back a genie when the golden opportunity presented itself.

camelsI was also unable to bring back any of these desert friends, cheerful or aloof, as a reminder of my summer travel. Regardless, next time I see a chance to rate libraries, I will not forget to vote Abu Dhabi as the most hospitable airport library.

*Acknowledgment

My heartfelt thanks to Dr. Denise L. Soufi, a Middle Eastern expert, for graciously deciphering and explaining the Arabic text for me in preparation for this photo essay. All errors are mine.

Notes from a Summer Traveler in China and Great Britain

Part I: Children’s Literature Symposiums

At the invitation of Ocean University of China, I traveled to Qingdao, Shandong Province and attended an international children’s literature symposium held in June 4-5, 2016. The trip kicked off a refreshing journey of witnessing a global engagement with children’s books and materials. In Part I of “Notes from a Summer Traveler,” I will share my experiences at two children’s literature meetings held in China and UK; In Part II, I will present a photo album of my delightful encounters with children’s materials in China and elsewhere.

Qingdao, China

View from a seashore park in the coastal city of Qingdao. Once a German colony, Qingdao is famous for its beer industry. People who are not familiar with the word “Qingdao” may recognize its alternative spelling “Tsingtao” on emerald beer bottles from the city.

The International Symposium for Children’s Literature grew out of a biennial “China-U.S. Children’s Literature Symposium” that began in Qingdao four years ago. It has yielded two conference proceedings, Representing Children in Chinese and U.S. Children’s Literature (Ashgate, 2014) in English and The Image of the Child in Chinese and American Children’s Literature (China Social Sciences Press, 2015) in Chinese. The 2016 symposium attracted children’s literature scholars as well as Chinese educators from teachers colleges and K-12 schools. (Chinese children’s librarians were regretfully not involved, a reflection of the situation that Chinese library schools generally do not provide professional training in youth services at this point.) Presenters included Cao Wenxuan, He Weiqing, Li Xuebin, Nie Zhenzhao, Tan Fengxia, Tang Sulan, Wang Lijun, Xu Yan, and Zhu Ziqiang (China); You Peiyun (Taiwan); Okiko Miyake (Japan); John Stephens (Australia); Claudia Nelson, Eric L. Tribunella, Joe Sutliff Sanders, Karen Coats, Marilynn Olson, Mark I. West (USA); and myself. Their papers addressed the theme of the symposium, “Children’s Literature: Theory and Practice,” from multiple perspectives; reviewed the history and latest development of publishing for children in China; investigated the relationship between children’s literature and education; ventured into the intersection between children’s literature and sexuality; and put nursery rhymes, poetry, picture books, fiction, nonfiction, and family films under the critical lens of feminist studies, reader response theory, cognitive science, cross-cultural studies and other theories.

Cao Wenxuan

Professor Cao Wenxuan presented on children’s literature and Chinese language education. (photo courteous of Ocean University of China)

草房子

Children’s fiction by Cao Wenxuan: The Straw House.

The most popular speaker at the symposium was Cao Wenxuan, both a children’s author and a professor from the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Peking University. Cao won the 2016 Hans Christian Andersen Award in April, making him the first Chinese winner of the prestigious international children’s literature award since it was first given sixty years ago in 1956. (Not a minute passed without a young starstruck graduate student of Ocean University requested to have a photo taken with the professor.) Cao is a fascinating writer who has articulated unusual and intriguing ideas about the mission of children’s literature. He does not think children’s literature should necessarily amuse young readers, but it should cultivate aesthetic sensibilities in them, shape their characters, and strengthen their resilience. Parents and educators are not obligated to hand over happiness to children; instead young people should be taught grits to endure suffering and setbacks in a graceful manner. In his novels he dares to adopt a slow pace, write dialogs sparingly, and describe nature and environment at length–all the features that would have seemed to be the enemy of children’s attention span. In a world that is full of distractions flashing from screens of every which size, Cao creates a calming literary space that invites meditation from those readers who are able to stay with his subtle narratives.

The House of Sixty Fathers written by Meindert DeJong and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Harper, 1956. (Cotsen 39317)

Claudia Nelson gave an insightful feminist reading of The House of Sixty Fathers written by Meindert DeJong and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. (Incidentally, DeJong and Sendak were the first American winners of Hans Christian Andersen Award for writing and illustration respectively.) First published in 1956, the Newbery Honor title is still in print but has received sporadic critical attention. The story is set in wartime China. A Chinese boy is separated from his family and, as he desperately tries to flee from the Japanese-occupied territory, meets an injured American fighter pilot. Nelson analyzed how male and female characters in DeJong’s book do not conform to gender stereotypes. Instead, regardless of their age and gender, each transitions fluidly among different roles–savior, protector, caregiver, adult, and child. The House of Sixty Fathers thus deviates from those American children’s texts of the 1950s that model “appropriate” gender roles. The book is an anomaly in another dimension. DeJong based the story on his experience of serving in China during World War II as historian for the American Composite Wing of the Fourteenth Air Force. Among the limited number of American juvenile novels that are set against the backdrop of the Sino-Japanese conflict, this is a rare title that was released during the Cold War, when US and Japan were close allies against Red China.

Sanger, April 1922. Image source: https://pic.caixin.com/blog/Mon_1105/07399011305797645.jpg

A photo taken during American sex educator Margaret Sanger’s visit to China in April 1922, when she was invited to give lectures on birth control. Her writings on how parents should teach children about sex were highly influential during the Republic of China. Accompanying her in the photo were Dr. Hu Shi (left) and Dr. Zhang Jingsheng (right), a pioneer Chinese sex educator.

My presentation was titled “Theory and Practice of Sex Education for Youth during the Republic of China (1911-1949).” Using primary materials housed at the Cotsen Children’s Library and digitized texts that were increasingly available, I traced China’s sex education movement that began in earnest during the 1920s. The driving inquiry of this project was how theories and ideas in sex education were (or failed to be) translated into information sources targeting youth.

The Reproduction of Living Things by biologist Zhou Jianren. Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1935. Intended for fourth-grade readers. Zhou was the most prolific writer and respected voice on sex education during the Republic of China. (Cotsen N-000418)

Threatened by Japan’s escalating aggression toward China in the 1890s and after, Chinese elite intellectuals pleaded for drastic social changes in order to strengthen national defense. The need for producing healthy babies and physically strong citizens became the fundamental drive in the sex education movement of the Republic of China. Theoretical literature on sex education imported a vast amount of Western and Japanese learning on the topic, and agreed upon an agenda that was deeply concerned with the physiology and hygiene of reproductive systems, control of sexual impulse, and ethical sexual behavior. My study of children’s textbooks, magazines, and books, however, found that numerous finer points present in theoretical discussions were lost in practice. Though far from being satisfactory, juvenile literature proved to be a nimbler carrier for sex education information than curriculum materials, responding to the earliest appeal and providing richer, more accurate and engaging health information than a child would learn in school.

Leeds, UK. “Free Wifi” indicated on the front window of the double-decker, so I knew this was not the Knight Bus it made me think of at first.

At the invitation of the University of Leeds, I attended Children’s Literature Day, a symposium hosted by the White Rose East Asia Centre, and gave a keynote speech on the past and present of Chinese children’s literature based on much of Cotsen collection materials. It was an inspiring meeting with a vibrant community of people who were dedicated to teaching and translating Chinese fiction. The British national curriculum has promoted the use of “authentic sources” in language and literature classes, raising interests in foreign language texts and their English translations. One goal of the meeting was to generate a list of recommended works of Chinese children’s literature for general interest, for translation, and for teaching. The symposium was organized also partly in the wake of the Hans Christian Anderson Award for Cao Wenxuan.

Among the speakers was Dr. Helen Wang. When she was not curating East Asian money for the British Museum and busy writing about it, Wang translated Chinese children’s books into beautiful English text so that young readers from around the world could enjoy the same story. Wang is translator of Bronze and Sunflower, a major work by Cao Wenxuan.

Bronze and Sunflower

The English edition of Cao Wenxuan’s Bronze and Sunflower, translated by Helen Wang. Walker Books, 2015.

Helen Wang

Dr. Helen Wang, Curator of East Asian Money at the British Museum and a prolific translator of Chinese children’s literature.

Speaker Anna Gustafsson Chen is a Swedish translator of Chinese literature, best known for having translated Nobel Laureate Mo Yan’s fiction. She is also a former librarian who worked with the international library section of the Stockholm Public Library. Chen’s talk was a rare opportunity to learn about publishing and translation of children’s literature in Sweden.

Waterstone

Waterstones, a bookstore in Leeds (photo taken on July 3, 2016).

How can one walk on the street of Britain without chancing upon anything relating to Harry Potter? While Helen, I, and an incoming doctoral student of Leeds took a walk we spotted this sign in front of a bookshop, which was well stocked with children’s books. Happy Release Day!