The Meaning of Being a Good Chinese Girl over Two Millennia–From Biographies of Consorts to “Little Princesses” Series

How do you define a “good” Chinese girl? What moral standards, behavior, and mentality have Chinese girls and women been exhorted to adopt? Biographical stories, moral instruction books, fictional narratives, and school textbooks are among the genres that shaped the conduct of Chinese women and girls through text and image for two millennia.

This enduring tradition can be traced as far back as to Lie nü zhuan列女传, a collective biography of female historical figures written by Liu Xiang刘向 (ca. 77 BCE-ca. 6 BCE) of the Western Han Dynasty. Liu’s original manuscript did not survive, but its contents have been preserved by hand-copying and printing throughout the ages. Because the original work predates the wide adoption of paper, let alone printing technology, it was possibly first inscribed on bamboo/wood slips (if not on the more expensive silk), like this narrow wood slip discovered in Dunhuang on the Silk Road. Dated 75 CE, less than a century after Liu Xiang’s completion of the collective biography, the wood scrap bears the characters “Lie nü zhuan” and is among the earliest extant references to the work (Kinney xxxiv).

The title “Lie nü zhuan” is mentioned on a wood slip dated 75 CE. (Image source: The International Dunhuang Project, British Library)

Lie nü zhuan contains biographies of over a hundred remarkable women in early China. People who are not familiar with the title will be surprised that the collection is not exclusively about exemplary historical figures. Liu organized individual profiles into six types of virtues and one category of evil women–presented as cautionary historical cases. The work underwent a complicated history of changes, with the addition of text and reorganization of chapters by writers, editors, compilers, annotators, and publishers.[i] Illustrations, surmised to be part of Liu Xiang’s manuscript based on historical records[ii], remain a prominent feature of later versions and variations. The essence of the book persevered through dynastic turnovers and revolutions, its values reincarnated into new moral instruction books for females. Collective biographies of women became a staple genre and a powerful tool for instilling the ideology of proper female behavior.

Princeton University Library is fortunate to own pre-modern, woodblock-printed, illustrated editions of Lie nü zhuan. This post will first pay tribute to the “grandmother”[iii] of Chinese moral education books for girls, featuring a 19th-century copy from Princeton’s East Asian Library Gest Collection. It will then highlight a few later publications in Cotsen’s Chinese collection and demonstrate how they continued with or departed from the tradition of Lie nü zhuan.

Lie Nü Zhuan: A Collective Biography of Women in Early China

Authorship and Contributors

The many named and unnamed writers, editors, artists, engravers, and printers who contributed to the two-volume Gest copy of Lie nü zhuan spanned more than eighteen centuries. Liu Xiang, a (male) politician and historian, is believed to be the author of the first seven chapters of the collective biography. It is noteworthy how often women, amid an otherwise male-dominated world of literati, took an active part in Lie nü zhuan projects. A supplementary, eighth chapter of twenty profiles, again including both positive role models and negative examples, was added by Ban Zhao (ca. 49-ca. 120), who was the first known female Chinese historian.

Lie nü zhuan inaugurated the genre of collective profiles of women in Chinese literature. Ban Zhao herself was portrayed in a poem collection titled Lie nü tu (列女图, or Portraits of famous women), composed by another female scholar Cao Zhenxiu曹贞秀 in 1799 during the Qing dynasty. (Image source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Gest copy is estimated to be published in 1825, by Ruan Fu阮福, a book collector in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province. The Ruan family had a Southern Song edition of Lie nü zhuan, published by the Yu family in Jian’an, Fujian Province, likely during the thirteenth century. They produced this facsimile edition with woodblock printing technology. As stated in the publisher’s postface, Ruan Fu’s ninth younger sister Jilan季蘭 made a good duplicate of the illustrations with tracing paper, and her copy was transferred onto woodblocks for cutting and printing (Ruan 5)[iv].

The book states that the illustrations were originally done by Gu Kaizhi (顾恺之, ca. 344-ca. 405) of the Eastern Jin dynasty. One must not get overly excited by the prospect of seeing a great painter’s art in it, which I naively did. Gu Kaizhi, a resounding name in Chinese art history, no doubt lent attraction to the book to the advantage of publishers. Gu was known for having portrayed some, if not all, figures and stories from Lie nü zhuan, specifically the “benevolent and wise” women profiled in Chapter 3. Only an anonymous copy made of his original art, albeit considered a fairly faithful one, survives.

Illustration for “The Wife of Duke Ling of Wey” as found in–

(i) the anonymous scroll which duplicated Gu Kaizhi’s (lost) painting of “benevolent and wise” women profiled in Lie nü zhuan. (Image source: the Palace Museum in Beijing);

(ii) the 1825 edition book, which credits Gu Kaizhi as illustrator. (TB117/1078Q, courtesy of the East Asian Library)

Pictured above are Duke Ling of Wey and his wife having a conversation, one of the stories in Chapter 3. From the text we learn that Duke Ling of Wey and his wife were sitting together in their court dwelling one evening, but there is no textual description of the setting. The identical layout of the scene in the scroll and in the book was not coincidental. Either they shared the same source of inspiration or the latter was an imitation, a shadow of Gu’s detailed imagination materialized in fluid and elaborate brushstrokes.


As Kinney (xxxvii) pointed out in her authoritative study on Lie nü zhuan, Liu Xiang compiled the collective biography of virtuous and depraved women for a dual purpose. First, the book was presented to Emperor Chengdi, warning him how evil women favored by rulers could have a destructive impact on dynastic health. Secondly, Liu prefaced the stories of virtuous role models with direct messages to a female audience, exhorting them to follow the good examples. In Chapter 3 on “benevolent and wise” women, for example, he began with the promise, “Wives who cultivate these qualities/Will gain glory and renown” (Kinney 45).

The primary concern of Lie nü zhuan is to regulate the conduct of women close to imperial rulers, and a prominent portion of the historical figures profiled in the book are thus queens, empresses, and royal consorts; however, stories have been drawn from all levels of society. Unlike biographies of men, which clearly state a biographee’s name in the title of each story, only some of the exemplary women’s full names are provided. They are more likely to be identified by their family names and how they were related to a male figure who is named–wife, mother, sister, and daughter–in consistent with their peripheral position in the patriarchal society.

“The ‘Exalted-Conduct’ Widow of Liang” (Liu ch. 4) (East Asian Library TB117/1078Q)

Lie nü zhuan espouses six categories of female virtues as specified in chapter titles: The Maternal Models, The Worthy and Enlightened, The Sympathetic and Wise, The Chaste and Compliant, The Principled and Righteous, and The Accomplished Rhetoricians. Many stories glorify women who committed suicide and self-mutilation as means to preserve chastity. In “The ‘Exalted-Conduct’ Widow of Liang,” a beautiful young widow cut off her nose to repel pursuers and to be able to remain loyal to her dead husband after receiving a marriage proposal from the King of Liang (Kinney 83; Liu ch. 4).

In a polygamous China fidelity was a moral standard demanded from the female gender alone. Consort Fan earned a place in the chapter on “Worthy and Enlightened” women in part by actively scouring beauties near and far to present to her husband, King Zhuang of Chu. She did not let her self-interest get in the way of the benefit of the king, and presumably, that of the kingdom as well (Kinney 31; Liu ch. 2).

“The Principled Aunt of Liang” (Liu ch. 5) (East Asian Library TB117/1078Q)

Two thirds of the stories in “The Principled and Righteous” (Liu ch. 5) end with death. A wife willingly let herself be murdered to save her husband. A nurse let her own child die in place of the prince under her care. A consort committed suicide as her king was nearing the end his life, because she had made a promise to die with him. Another consort took her own life to demonstrate to the king that her advice was not motivated by self-interest. In two cases, wives killed themselves because they could not live with the shame brought on by their husbands’ moral failure. Women were bound by Confucian teaching to be loyal to masters, fathers, brothers, and husbands. When principled women were caught in dilemmas, they would rather extricate themselves by death than run the risk of betraying any of the parties.

The wife of the bow maker of Jin reasoned with the Duke and persuaded him to spare her husband’s life. She even taught the ruler a thing or two about how to shoot an arrow (Liu ch. 6). (East Asian Library TB117/1078Q)

Even though Lie nü zhuan earned notoriety for its female martyr stories, the book is not all about dead and good women. Plenty of women, including a girl as young as twelve and named Zhuang Zhi (Liu ch. 6), offered brave criticisms and sage advices to rulers. By articulating moral principles, using clever metaphors, and citing persuasive historical lessons they were able to exert moral influence on rulers, brought them to senses, helped them recruit better people and enact more benevolent policies. Some of the women managed to rescue their fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, and themselves from unjust punishments in the process. Stories like those, as empowering as they could be within Confucian constraints on females, explain part of the appeal of the book to women intellectuals and readers in premodern China.

Lie nü zhuan also pioneered the notion of “fetal education” (胎教), modeling how to be a good mother during pregnancy. When Consort Ren was pregnant with King Wen, founder of the Zhou dynasty, she would not gaze upon evil sights or listen to depraved sounds, exposing the fetus to good stimuli only (Kinney 7; Liu ch. 1).

Impact: The Case of Yuan Ji

Lie nü zhuan was a major title recommended for girls’ moral education, as demonstrated in Instructions Within Females’ Quarters闺门女训[v]. Written in the accessible rhyming texts and vernacular style, this book advised females to learn Lie nü zhuan and the chapter “Pattern of the Family” (内则) in Record of Rites, a Confucian classic. It cites the famous exemplary women featured in Lie nü zhuan, teaches how to treat family members (with a section on harmonious concubine relations), and emphasizes the value of filial piety, chastity, and fidelity. The impact of Lie nü zhuan on female conduct was pervasive, with a trickling effect on people who had never even been exposed to the book directly.

Instructions Within Females’ Quarters 閨門女訓 is written in rhymes. Late 19th century. (Cotsen 153017)

One of the tragic victims of the kind of sacrificial values internalized by Chinese women was Yuan Ji袁機, who died at age 39 in 1759. We know about her short life thanks to her brother Yuan Mei袁枚 (1716-1797), a scholar of the Qing dynasty and an affectionate sibling to his sisters. After Yuan Ji’s death, he wrote a biographical essay and an elegy in memory of her. When she was still a toddler, Yuan Ji was prearranged to marry into the Gao family, a friend of her father’s. When the friend realized that his son had grown into a violent monster, he wrote to the Yuan family to annul the arrangement, intending to spare Ji of harm. Ji, however, refused to break the agreement and willingly entered the doomed marriage. Ji was physically abused and tortured in the hands of her psychopathic husband, no matter how compliant a wife she strove to be. She was nearly sold to pay off his gambling debt when Ji’s father intervened and rescued her by obtaining a divorce. She lived a depressed life afterwards but still paid filial piety to her former-mother-in-law by sending clothing and food. When she became ill she would not seek cure.

Literacy and education do not equate immediate emancipation, and can be a tool for indoctrination. Yuan Mei wrote that when they were children his sister used to take lessons on classics with him. She loved stories of the “principled and righteous” (節義事) from ancient times and thus diligently emulated as an adult. The brother lamented in the elegy that, if his sister had not learned Odes–an authoritative work frequently quoted in Lie nü zhuan–and Book of Documents, she might not have subjected herself so resolutely to harsh circumstances. He found three chapters of collective biography of women she had compiled, as well as poems she wrote.

Yuan Mei did not elaborate on his sister’s depression. On top of the traumatic experience, Ji perhaps felt like a failure, not being able to morally convert a cruel monster into a gentleman of decency, which any of the worthy and courageous role models in Lie nü zhuan would had achieved. Short of taking her own life swiftly like those martyrs, Ji gave up her life in a slower fashion to disease.

The practice of honoring women who exemplified Confucian standards of chastity and fidelity died hard. In a bitter irony, Yuan Ji’s abridged life was profiled among exemplary women of the Qing dynasty in Draft History of Qing (清史稿 ch. 509). The book was published in 1928, when those inhumane restrictions imposed on female conduct were already under attack by the New Culture Movement in early Republican China.

Another sticky legacy of the book is Chinese society’s impulse to scapegoat the “seductive, manipulative, and evil” wives of political rulers when things go terribly wrong. Imperial Consort Yang Yuhuan and Empress Dowager Cixi were famously blamed for the corruption of the Tang dynasty and the decline of the Qing Empire, respectively. First Lady Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) was made to shoulder the main responsibility for the damage of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which her husband started and led. As late as the twenty-first century, public opinion and gossip would still casually cite the “crazy wife” of a disgraced authority figure as the cause of his downfall.

Radical Moral Teachings for Girls in the Twentieth Century

During the twentieth century China experienced the upheaval of revolutions, civil wars, world wars, changing political regimes, and cultural movements. Girls were exposed to radical moral instructions during this tumultuous time, as we shall see in the two examples below. They must not be viewed in isolation and mistaken for evidence of a linear social progress because progressive and conservative messages have been found cohabitating in the same book. As new ideas spread, old familiar teachings could linger or make a comeback, sending competing messages to young minds.

The Newest Textbook on Girls’ Moral Cultivation 最新女子脩身教科書 compiled by Xu Jiaxing 許家惺. Shanghai: Qun xue she, 1907. (Cotsen 91129203)

The Newest Textbook on Girls’ Moral Cultivation (1907), compiled by journalist and translator Xu Jiaxing (许家惺, 1873-1925), was intended for upper-elementary school girls and female teachers schools (equivalent to no higher than middle school) and to be taught over a span of two academic years. The name of its illustrator was not listed. By the publication of the textbook, a declining Qing dynasty–traumatized by a series of foreign invasions, peasants’ uprisings, forced war reparations, and cessions of territories–was only several years away from its demise. A nation in crisis and desperation wedged open the door to let in some refreshing or rebellious ideas. Xu wrote in the introduction that he had selected materials from girls’ moral instruction books in multiple countries in the East and the West.

The textbook adheres to the traditional linkage between female conduct of life and dynastic health, but it injects whole new meanings into how the linkage works. Chaste, principled, compliant, filial, and suicidal women still figure prominently in the book, although Xu dropped prenatal education and maternal models–two of the topics covered in Lie nü zhuan–deciding that they were not imperative for the intended age group (Xu 2). The lessons begin by stressing that women should get educated. Xu looked to the United States, other Western countries, and Japan as models of success, arguing that when both genders were educated the countries prospered. He considered females naturally good at teaching, so they should not only offer family education but also take up teaching posts in schools. Lesson 4 boldly dispels the myth that female brains are inferior than males’, as it also introduces stereotypes of what each gender excels at.

Women should get educated; plus, they are naturally good at teaching so should teach in schools. In The Newest Textbook on Girls’ Moral Cultivation. (Cotsen 91129203)

The study of physics allows humans to harness nature, explained in Lesson 114 “Dispelling puzzlement” (祛惑). (Cotsen 91129203)

In two lessons titled “Dispelling Puzzlement,” girls were taught that natural phenomena like lightening and solar eclipse are governed by physics, not by Heaven’s will as people used to believe. To illustrate how humans can harness nature with the knowledge of physics, the book depicts one girl driving an automobile and the other riding a hot air balloon. The fantastic image makes one wonder, by 2019, how close Chinese women are to the vision of freedom as imagined in the century-old textbook.

Lesson 5: Women are mothers of citizens of a country. Whether our compatriots are strong or weak depends on the fitness of the female gender. (Cotsen 91129203)

No fewer than eight lessons are devoted to women’s physical strength and exercise. Girls’ health and fitness assumed paramount importance as part of a solution to national defense. The science of human reproduction had just begun to be introduced to China. Enlightened intellectuals made the connection between reproductive health and the birth of strong babies who must grow into strong soldiers for the survival of the nation. Xu subverted traditional aesthetic standards for females, who, especially for those from the upper-class, were valued for a delicate and fragile look. He urged girls to take physical education and linked foot binding and other unhealthy practices to the peril of a weakened race and a nation awaiting its defeat by conquerors. In the above illustration for Lesson 5, a girl stands on her tiny crippling bound foot in the back, unable to join other girls who are lifting dumbbells. (Foot-binding would be officially banned in 1912, five years after the publication of the book.)

The book offered its most radical teaching by gently pointing out the deficiency of the “Three Obediences” rule, which are among the pillars of Confucian code of behavior for girls and women. Females are to obey: first, her father as a daughter; second, her husband as a chaste wife; and third, her sons as a widow. In a lesson titled “Self-Reliance,” Xu wrote,

Although the “Three Obediences” are not wrong they only cultivate Eastern women into good daughters, wives, and mothers. Women are just as smart and capable as men. Relying on the latter prevents women from achieving independence. In this increasingly competitive and warring world, many women are left without fathers, husbands, or sons. How could women survive without a profession of her own to be self-reliant? (Lesson 55)

Xu did not perceive any conflict between being a compliant wife and having her own career to support herself; but, by acknowledging women’s right to live–something for which Lie nü zhuan was never particularly concerned–he made a big departure from traditional principles.

A Clever Fight 智斗 written by Mou Huaike牟怀柯 and illustrated by Lü Jingren吕敬人. Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 1976. (Cotsen 32669)

Fast forward to the latter half of the twentieth century. A Clever Fight is a lianhuanhua (a format akin to comic books and with text-image layout aligned with the tradition of woodblock printed books) title published in December 1976, when the Cultural Revolution began to wind down. In the fictional story, the girl protagonist Little Red has a visitor, a great-uncle who has returned home from overseas. By Chinese custom Little Red addresses him as “grandpa” but she is instantly alarmed by the suspicious old man. With vigilance, cleverness, and courage, she manages to intercept the evidence of Grandpa’s espionage activities and turns him in.

Little Red tiptoed to the balcony and watched what Grandpa was doing. In A Clever Fight 智斗. (Cotsen 32669)

Politically precocious children versus reactionary or treacherous adults is a familiar tension found in children’s stories published during the Cultural Revolution. Little Red models at least two qualities for her fellow “Little Red Guards.” First, she turns the historically low social status of being a female and a child into an advantage in her clever fight against the old man–a traditionally revered status. Grandpa greatly underestimates her intelligence and political savvy, and Little Red gathers valuable information and evidence by running errands for him, even occasionally feigning childish and girlish peevishness.

Grandpa was arrested. In A Clever Fight 智斗. (Cotsen 32669)

Second, she exemplifies how the younger generation is purer and more progressive than adults, free from the baggage of traditional teachings. Little Red is immediately disgusted when Grandpa tries to gift her with a golden necklace, as if it were an insult to the red scarf she is wearing, symbolizing her membership in “Little Red Guards.” Her father, a university researcher, chats with Grandpa about the project he is working on even though he is not supposed to. Little Red, who is in the third grade, deliberately interrupts the conversation and gives her father a look. (Notably, her mother is just as alert and, too, steps in.) The father still wishes to carry on, contending that Grandpa is a family member, thus can be trusted. Unlike her father, Little Red has never for a second let traditional loyalty to family cloud her political vision, or let male authority figures bend her principle. Throughout the story she is never even troubled by the slightest discomfort of reporting a blood relation to the police. A Clever Fight replaces Three Obediences to male family members with allegiance to Chairman Mao, the government, and the country.

Little Princesses Series of the Twenty-First Century

Cultivating an Awareness of Self-Protection in Little Princesses series小公主自我保护意识培养, written by Gong Fangfang龚房芳 and illustrated by Liang Ximan 梁熙曼. Changchun: Jilin Fine Arts Publishing House, 2016. (Cotsen)

You Cannot Bully Me as You Like, written by Gong Fangfang in 2016, is part of a picture book series titled “Cultivating an Awareness of Self-Protection in Little Princesses” and specifically targets little girl readers. Other titles in the series are No Casual Kisses for Me, Do Not Unscrupulously Accept Food from Others, Do Not Let Yourself Be Duped, Do Not Go with a Stranger, and No Casual Touching of Me. Each title provides three fictional scenarios in which a girl protagonist gets herself out of danger or an unpleasant situation. Chinese girls have been taught many principles over two millennia: how to readily kill themselves to defend their reputation, how to sacrifice family for rulers and the state without a moment’s hesitation when the two are in conflict, and how to take care of their health for the sake of the nation’s military strength. A focus on girls’ bodies, their safety, and emotional well-being for their own sake is short of a revolution in Chinese books that regulate girls’ conduct.

You Cannot Bully Me as You Like 不要随便欺负我 written by Gong Fangfang and illustrated by Liang Ximan. Changchun: Jilin Fine Arts Publishing House, 2016. (Cotsen 92740701)

In each scenario in You Cannot Bully Me as You Like, Xixi, a young girl, encounters an unwelcome bully on the playground. She never engages in any physical confrontation but is the first to speak up. Other children quickly follow her lead, and a vocal group effectively turns the dynamics around, creating enough pressure to deflate the troublemakers. Xixi’s words are simple but powerful enough to bring some sense to the bullies. In one scenario she says,

“Stop it! We are playing a game together and it should have been a fun thing. Why must you create trouble?”

“That’s right, that’s right!” Kids echoed, and the boys shamefully retreated. (Gong 7)

In another episode, the bully boy is speechless and ashamed when Xixi demands, “Why did you treat me this way?” (Gong 29)

In Little Princesses series, girls like Xixi find out that both tears and compliance are useless to repel bullies. They learn to be assertive and vocal. They lead by being a positive influence on others. They utilize language as their first line of defense, saving themselves and friends from kidnappers, bullies, and unwanted touches.

From biographies of royal consorts to safety education for “little princesses,” Chinese moral education books for girls have come a long way. They have also come full circle. Lie nü zhuan has long been overshadowed by its portrayal of seductive evil women and virtuous suicidal widows, and one chapter that is least remembered is “The Accomplished Rhetoricians.” It features women who used reasoning and rhetorical skills to get their points across to powerful men. In fact, many other women outside this chapter appeared to be eloquent speakers too. Though both books stress females’ communication skills and the power of words, they do so with different preoccupations. In Lie nü zhuan good speakers helped men become better rulers, if very occasionally the women happened to save their own skin in the process. In Little Princesses girls develop verbal skills and a confident mentality that help to acquire a safe childhood and will serve their adulthood well too. If the girls also give a few good lessons to bullies — all the better.

(Edited by Dr. Mary F. Zawadzki, Cotsen Children’s Library)


[i] Anne Kinney (xxxii) analyzed how Liu Xiang’s Lie nü zhuan transformed over time.

[ii] See Kinney’s (xxxiii) discussion on how the title appeared in variations in History of the Former Han汉书. The lack of punctuation in classical Chinese texts also contributed to uncertain interpretations of whether the manuscript was originally illustrated or not, based on the way the title was recorded in China’s earliest extant bibliography, Yi wen zhi艺文志.

[iii] An even earlier text on female conduct, known by its conventional title “Instructions to Women” (教女), has been discovered on bamboo slips dating from the Qin dynasty. Thank Yuzhou Bai for informing me of its existence.

[iv] The Gest copy is missing the publisher’s postface, but the section is available in other institutional copies printed from the same woodblock.

[v] Undated. The copy was printed in lithography, a technology introduced to China in the late nineteenth century.


Kinney, Anne Behnke. Exemplary Women of Early China: The Lienü Zhuan of Liu Xiang. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

Liu, Xiang劉向. 新刊古列女傳. 揚州: 阮福, 1825.

Ruan, Fu阮福. “摹刊宋本列女傳跋.” 新刊古列女傳, 1825. 1-7.

Yuan, Mei袁枚. “女弟素文傳.” 小倉山房文集. Vol. 7.女弟素文傳

—. “祭妹文.” 小倉山房文集. Vol. 14.祭妹文

Titles of Interest:

何艳荣, and 杨苡. 我来学着把事做. 第1版. 上海: 少年儿童出版社, 1959. (Cotsen 92741998)

信誼藥廠, ed. 女子二十四孝彩圖. 上海: 信誼藥廠, 1941. (Cotsen 75832)

姜元琴. 姐姐的日記. 初版. 上海: 商務印書館, 1934. (Cotsen 18500)

戴克敦. 訂正高等小學女子國文教科書. 上海: 商務印書館, 1914. (Cotsen 94967)

抱娃娃的妈妈. 上海: 少年儿童出版社, 198-. (Cotsen 91129732)

柯岩, and 何艳荣 (illustrator). 照镜子. 第1版. 上海: 少年儿童出版社, 1965. (Cotsen 83099)

楊晉豪. 清潔的姐姐. 初版. 上海: 商務印書館, 1935. (Cotsen 94416789)

牟怀柯, and 吕敬人 (illustrator). 智斗. 第1版. 上海: 上海人民出版社, 1976. (Cotsen 32669)

王叔暉. 木蘭從軍. 第三版. 北京: 朝花美術出版社, 1956. (Princeton 5797/1126)

王惠. 禮儀概説. 上海: 商務印書館, 1947. (Cotsen 71723)

繪圖典故列女全傳. 上海: 埽葉山房, 1924. (Cotsen 30445)

許家惺. 最新女子脩身教科書. 三版. 上海: 羣學社, 1907. (Cotsen 91129203)

閨門女訓. 黄文正堂, 19–. (Cotsen 153017)

龚房芳, and 梁熙曼 (illustrator). 不要随便欺负我. 第1版. 长春: 吉林美术出版社, 2016. (Cotsen 92740701)

Let’s Talk to Kids About Sex…in Chinese Too

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.

The Chinese Educational Review released a special issue on sex education in August 1923 (Vol. 15, No. 8), which was among the earliest systematic endeavors to transplant a sex education movement from overseas to China’s soil. (Cotsen 35680)

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.

A Chinese edition of Where Willy Went by Nicholas Allan, translated by Li Xiaoqiang. Guiyang, China: Guizhou People’s Publishing House, 2008.

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.

Where Are You from, My Friend 你从哪里来我的朋友 by Zheng Yuanjie. Tianjin: Tianjin People’s Publishing House, 2015. (Cotsen)

The most romantic version: babies burst out of rocks just like the birth of the beloved Monkey King in Journey to the West.

Where Are You from, My Friend by Zheng Yuanjie (2015). (Cotsen)

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!

The Ten-Thousand-Year Ginseng Fruit 万年人参果. Cover art by Li Wenxia李文侠. Shijiazhuang Shi: Hebei Fine Arts Publishing House, 1982. (Cotsen 75036)

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.

The Calabash Brothers 葫芦兄弟 illustrated by Hui Zhongren. Beijing: China Film Publishing House, 1993. (Cotsen 48279)

They grow from bottle gourd vines like the magical Calabash Brothers, protagonists of the eponymous animated television series released in 1986.

Where Am I From? 我是从哪里来的 by Ding long wen hua. Taiyuan: Hope Publishing House, 2011. (Cotsen)

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)!

Where Am I From? by Ding long wen hua (2011). (Cotsen)

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.

The good

1) the female reproductive and urinary system

2) sperm’s metaphorical trek to the egg

3) intimacy and fertilization
In How Did Dad and Mom Get Me? 爸妈怎么有了我? by Sheng Shilan and Shi Huanhua (illustrator). Hangzhou: Zhejiang People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, 2012. (Cotsen)

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.

The debatable

Front cover of I Have Wronged Daddy 我错怪爸爸了 by Ding long wen hua. Taiyuan: Hope Publishing House, 2011. (Cotsen)

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 妈妈的乳房 by Zhu Huifang and Mu mian hui hua gong fang (illustrator). Nanchang: Jiangxi Colleges and Universities Publishing House, 2016. (Cotsen)

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).

Front covers of Early Childhood Sex Education Enlightenment Picture Books 幼儿性教育启蒙绘本series by Gong Fangfang and Taikongwoniu (illustrator). Changchun: Northern China Women & Children Publishing House, 2016. (Cotsen)

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.

From Chapter 1 “Mr. and Mrs. Buttercup, Their Home and Families” in What Every Mother Should Know; Or, How Six Little Children Were Taught the Truth by Margaret H. Sanger. New York: Rabelais Press, 1914. (Image source: Google Books)

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.

Front covers of The Story of Life 生命的故事 series by Zhu Huifang, illustrators vary. Nanchang: Jiangxi Colleges and Universities Publishing House, 2016. (Cotsen)

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.

I, Too, Want a Baby 我也想有个小宝宝 by Zhu Huifang and Kou Lan (illustrator). Nanchang: Jiangxi Colleges and Universities Publishing House, 2016. (Cotsen)

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.

How Did Dad and Mom Get Me? by Sheng Shilan and Shi Huanhua (illustrator) (2012). (Cotsen)

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

Girls, You Need to Learn to Protect Yourselves 女孩, 你要学会保护自己 by Zhou Shuyu. Beijing: Beijing Institute of Technology Press, 2015. (Cotsen)

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 防范性侵犯 edited by Hao Yanyan and Tao Hongliang. Beijing: People’s Medical Publishing House, 2012. (Cotsen)

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

Where Are You from, My Friend by Zheng Yuanjie (2015). (Cotsen)

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).

Why Don’t I Have a Little Chicken 为什么我没有小鸡鸡 by Zhu Huifang and Mu mian hui hua gong fang (illustrator). Nanchang: Jiangxi Colleges and Universities Publishing House, 2016. (Cotsen)

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.

Children’s Books

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!)