The King of Hide-and-Seek: A Chinese Picture Book about Mental Disability by Zhang Xiaoling and Pan Jian

The King of Hide-and-Seek [躲猫猫大王] / written by Zhang Xiaoling 张晓玲; illustrated by Pan Jian 潘坚. Jinan, China: Ming tian chu ban she, 2008. (Cotsen N-000732)

When I first came to the United States and lived in a campus town, I was struck by how often I encountered people in wheelchairs—maneuvering coolly on the street, wheeling onto buses that knelt gracefully before letting down a ramp, shopping in the store, and studying in classrooms and libraries. “Why is there a higher rate of disability in the US than in China?” I wondered for a moment before realizing my mistake. The accessibility-compliant public facilities and educational services in the university allowed more people with disabilities to carry on active, and visible, social and academic lives.

When I think back to the rural town in China where I grew up, I can recall hearing bits and pieces about children who were physically or mentally “different”—family members of a distant relative or of an acquaintance whom my parents knew. I hardly ever met those children, who might or might not have been hidden in the same manner as Ariana Dumbledore has been by her family in Godrics Hollow. When children with disabilities appear in Chinese literature and media, they fall into tropes. As Melissa A. Brzycki observed about Chinese children’s stories from the early 1970s, first, there is a scarcity of mental disabilities represented in them. Second, books that are primarily concerned with physical handicaps model how disabled children should be strong and how “normal kids” should extend kindness and support to them. Thirdly, people with disabilities who have made extraordinary achievements are portrayed as role models for the rest of the population to look up to and emulate. In stories published during the Cultural Revolution, Maoism is the spiritual source of strength for children, who overcome danger, fear, and disabilities to contribute to the revolution. Yet those empowering messages can be just as endangering for children with hero dreams. In several nonfiction accounts of real-life heroines, heathy young girls were maimed as a result of following the Communist slogan “Fear Neither Hardship nor Death,” thrusting themselves into perilous circumstances in order to protect communal property or save lives (Brzycki, “Fear”). These resolute girls came from a long line of self-sacrificial female figures, who, in feudal China, practiced the Confucian virtue of placing the interests of their fathers, husbands, and sons above their own; and, in Communist China, submitted themselves to Chairman Mao Zedong, to the Party, and to communes.

The King of Hide-and-Seek, unpaged.

Given the sobering history of representing disabilities in Chinese children’s materials, The King of Hide-and-Seek, a picture book published in 2008, is a refreshing take on the topic. Written by Zhang Xiaoling and illustrated by Pan Jian, the warm yet poignant story tells about a rural Chinese boy named Xiaoyong and his playmates. An unnamed girl, his neighbor and best friend, is the first-person narrator of the story. Xiaoyong lives with his grandfather, a fish seller who is out in the market all day, and the boy is often at home by himself. He and a bunch of preschoolers love to play hide-and-seek around the house, but he is terrible at the game and always the first one to be found.

One day, the girl comes up with a clever plan to help Xiaoyong, making sure that neither of them will become “it” and giving her just enough time to conceal the boy in ingenious spots. Xiaoyong’s happiness from winning the game for once is palpable. His playmates make a crown out of grass and twigs and call him “the King of Hide-and-Seek.” Left to his own devices, however, Xiaoyong is as easy to be found as ever.

One by one his playmates start school. For reasons unknown to the girl narrator, Xiaoyong doesn’t. He can’t help his grandfather in the market either, because he cannot tell one-yuan bank notes from ten-yuan ones. It is at the funeral of Xiaoyong’s grandfather that the girl overhears a comment on the boy, “This is a dim-witted child. Grandpa is dead and he doesn’t even know to cry.”

A few days later, a man who introduces himself as Xiaoyong’s father comes looking for the boy. Xiaoyong is supposed to leave the village with him, but is nowhere to be seen. The boy’s old playmates form a search party. They look around the house; they try the clever spots which have helped Xiaoyong win the game; they search all over the village, but can’t find him this time. Finally, someone suggests calling out the phrase that ends a hide-and-seek game, “Xiaoyong, come out, come out. I guess you win!” Slowly the boy emerges from the vegetable field where he has been hiding, “his eyes so puffed up that he could only squint through slits in the sunlight.” He leaves with his father, but not before casting a last look at his friends. Their parting chorus “Xiaoyong, you rock! You are the King of Hide-and-Seek!” brings a smile to his face once more.

Through the girl narrator’s innocent eye and nonjudgmental voice, it gradually dawns on an adult reader that her best friend likely has mental disabilities. Young readers, however, will first recognize Xiaoyong as a good-humored playmate and relate to his emotions—great joy at being crowned the king of hide-and-seek, quiet content at accompanying a good friend, loneliness and sorrow that he is unable to express with words. This is not a book about disabled angels or saintly helpers, but about irrevocable losses we all experience as we grow up—loss of friends, of family, of blissful unawareness of a challenging life, and of pure joy from the simplest offering. Zhang’s language is subtle, poetic, and rhythmic. Pan’s earthy yellow palette immerses us in a poverty-stricken Chinese village, the drabness of which is broken only by the bright faces of the laughing children.


Brzycki, Melissa A. “Fear Neither Hardship nor Death: Stories of Disabled Chinese Children in the Early 1970s.” Cotsen Children’s Library Blog. November 6, 2015.


Thanks go to Helen Wang, children’s literature translator, for her generous editing work of this post!

The Good Things That Come out of Collisions: A Chinese Picture Book by Yadong and Maikexiaokui.


Paopao Zhen / written by Yadong; illustrated by Maikexiaokui. Jinan, China: Ming tian chu ban she, 2015. (Cotsen N-000731)

In a small town named the Run Run Town, everybody likes to run fast. They run and run, and “Wham!”—it is inevitable that they will collide into each other.

So begins The Run Run Town 跑跑镇, a Chinese picture book written by Yadong 亚东 and illustrated by Maikexiaokui 麦克小奎 (Tomorrow Publishing House, 2015). What happens after every collision is a playful rendition of the idea of “combination,” which, as the author points out in the afterword, is important in everything from the origin of life to written language, human imagination, science discoveries, and inventions. He gives two great examples: atoms combine to form molecules; combinations lead to innovations and the majority of patented inventions.



How the porcupine fish got its spikes, explained by a “collision theory.”

Some of the “combinations” in the picture books are whimsically fun. A cactus pot scuttles. A small fish rushes. They collide into each other right around the street corner and, voilà, a porcupine fish appears! A princess collides into a dolphin. Guess what we get? A mermaid! In the Run Run Town, even mountains are restless and don’t like to stay put. When a fire-breathing dragon crashes into a wandering mountain, a volcano is born.



How the owl got its night vision, explained by a “collision theory.”

Some combinations are inspired by Chinese language and culture. Why would the collision of a cat and an eagle produce an owl? Because in the Chinese vocabulary, “owl” is “mao tou ying 猫头鹰,” or “cat-headed eagle.” Steamed bread (馒头) and meat balls bump into each other head-on, and delicious steamed buns (包子) are ready to be served. If you are familiar with dim sum, you will appreciate that steamed buns with savory fillings are more popular than plain steamed bread.


跑跑镇Other combinations are based on science. A blotch of blue and a blotch of yellow rush to each other and merge into a splash of green, reminding us of Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni. A young man and a young woman dash towards each other, and, on the last page of the book, a happy nuclear family of three is born.

跑跑镇 跑跑镇What collisions would you imagine if you are asked to add a picture or two to the book? When I tried to answer the question myself, I was tempted to come up with impressive invention ideas, but could not. So instead I will share cases of combinations I have found elsewhere.

The Classic of Mountains and Seas 山海经, a Chinese classic text that first appeared as early as the fourth century BC, describes mythical beings, gods, and deities. The creatures and stories in the book fascinated young people before children’s literature was intentionally produced in China at the turn of the twentieth century. (Lu Xun 鲁迅, regarded as China’s greatest modern writer, was a famous fan from boyhood.) There is a Chinese version of a “mermaid” in The Classic of Mountains and Seas: residents in a nation called Diren (氐人) are described as having human faces, the bodies of fish, and no feet (Chapter 10). The deity Yingzhao (英招) is another example among the numerous outlandish beings that are imaginatively formed by combining features from familiar species. This deity has a human face, the body of a horse with the stripes of a tiger, and a pair of wings (Chapter 2)—akin to griffins and centaurs found in Western mythology.

Depictions of Diren and Yingzhao in an illustrated edition of The Classic of Mountains and Seas published in the 17th century. (courtesy of the East Asian Library TC368/46.zggk)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J.K. Rowling; attributed to Newt Scamander. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2001. Purported to be a textbook copy owned by Harry Potter and having been written on by him and his two best friends. (Cotsen 58436)

The ancient method of combination has been used to create “fantastic beasts” from the fourth century BC to the twenty-first century. The Classic of Mountains and Seas and J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, first published in 2001, bear astonishing similarities in both being a descriptive catalog of mythical creatures and strange beings.

A bowtruckle, a niffler, and an occamy in the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), the latest addition to Harry Potter’s wizarding world. Image sources:,,

Next time you spot those magical beings on the movie screen, you will be able to reverse engineer them and understand how they come to be—the niffler, which has its eye on glittery objects always; the bowtruckle, whose sharp fingers are good at picking locks; the occamy, which fiercely guards its eggs in pure silver; and many more. Combination is not for imagining fantastic creatures only. Isn’t the briefcase carried by Newt Scamander, the Magizoologist, a cross between Pandora’s box and a magical portal like the wardrobe in Narnia? Credence Barebones, the nervous and scared teenager who obeys an oppressive mother, can find his forebear in Hitchcock’s creation—Norman Bates, the young motel manager who has turned mother’s suppression into an uncontrollable destructive force.


Wu, Renchen 吳任臣 (annotator), and Shu Ya 舒雅 (illustrator). Shan Hai Jing Guang Zhu. Shan Hai Jing Tu 山海經廣注.山海經圖. China, between 1667 and 1722.

Yadong 亚东, and Maikexiaokui 麦克小奎 (illustrator). Paopao Zhen 跑跑镇. Di 1 ban. Jinan: Ming tian chu ban she, 2015.


Thanks go to Helen Wang, children’s literature translator, for her generous editing work and feedback to the first draft of this post!