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)


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:

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.


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!

Celebrating Alice 150: The Colloquium “Alice in Many Wonderlands” October 7-8 at the Grolier Club

October 7th and 8th, Minjie Chen and I attended a colloquium exploring  Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland legacy as a classic of world literature.   After John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Alice is the second most frequently translated work of English literature.  Alice is by no means the only classic of children’s literature to have travelled so far beyond its culture and country–there is the parallel case of Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter, which has also been translated into a surprising number of languages.

Still, this very Victorian fantasy for children seems a peculiar candidate for the honor.  Carroll’s wordplay ought to be enough to put off any translator in his or her right mind.  One hundred and fifty years after Alice’s publication, so much of the book’s contents are rooted in a particular time and place that children have begun to have some difficulty entering into its world.  And how can the concepts of childhood and gender roles or the topsy-turvy relationships between Alice and Wonderland’s stroppy and peculiar residents be presented intelligibly but amusingly to  readers outside of the Anglo-American world?  Apparently the challenges are not obstacles to the translator who sees Alice as the profession’s Mount Everest. The fact that Wonderland is there means that linguists with a little George Mallory in their souls can’t resist trying to make the ascent.


George Collingridge, Alice in One Dear Land (1922). Cotsen 22814.


Andrea Immel

The audience waiting in the Grolier Club’s auditorium was brought to order by member Jon Lindseth, organizer of the two-day colloquium, master mind, and general editor behind  Alice in a World of Wonderlands: Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece a massive 3-volume bibiography documenting and analyzing the 174 translations of this fantasy, many commissioned for the book.  Before introducing the first speaker, Lindseth thanked all the people present who had contributed in some way to this remarkable project, which would not have been possible without the dedication, energy, and generosity of an amazing number of volunteers around the world.

Emer O’Sullivan, a specialist in German- and English-language children’s literature and translation studies at Leuphana University, delivered the keynote address, “Alice in Many Tongues 50 Years On.”  She provided invaluable context for the day’s proceedings which revisited the 1964 study of  Alice in translation by Warren Weaver, Alice in Many Tongues.  A mathematician by training, a science administrator by profession, and collector by avocation, Weaver was a pioneer of machine translation.  O’Sullivan cogently explained how translation studies has moved away from the paradigm of equivalence, or sense for sense translation, towards one that negotiates the complexities of two literary systems embedded in wider cultures.  Hence the centrality of  back translation to the Alice in Many Wonderlands project.  Back translation is the process by which a native speaker of the target language turns the translation back into the original’s language, then annotates the difficult phrases and tricky concepts that pose challenges.  The annotations allow a reader without competence in a particular target language–Slovenian, Turkish, Japanese, Swahili–to appreciate the solutions the translator devised to problems throughout the text that highlight the differences in world views those languages reflect.    PR4611.A73W4frontcover (2)


Warren Weaver in his library from the dust jacket of Alice in Many Tongues. ExParrish PR4611.A73 W4.

Juan Gabriel Lopez Guix, senior lecturer at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, spoke about translations of Alice into the six languages of Spain.  His discussion of the Catalan translation was highlighted by the analysis of its illustrations by the well-known artist Lola Anglada.  The architecture of her Wonderland was in the traditional style of the region, not, as is so often the case, a reworking of Tenniel.  Lopez Guix also regaled the audience with a wonderful account of  the chapter about the perfect horse with an Eton education invented and slyly interpolated by the translator into the work.  It has subsequently been accepted by many Spanish-speaking lovers of Alice as pure Carroll.


Alicia outgrowing a Catalan farmhouse by illustrator Lola Anglada. From the second edition of Alicia en terra de meravelles (Barcelona: Edicions Mentora, 1930). Cotsen 40594.


Alicia, the Duchess, the baby, and the cook in a Catalan kitchen with vegetables much in evidence. Alicia en terra de meravelles (1930). Cotsen 40594.

Endangered languages was the thread connecting the day’s final two presentations, which  I (Andrea) found unexpectedly moving for the pride both speakers communicated about the expressiveness of Scots and Hawaiian.  Derrick McClure, emeritus professor Aberdeen University and MBE for service to Scottish culture, began by noting that the demise of the ten Scots dialects has been confidently predicted for at least two hundred years and yet people still speak and write in them.  He read excerpts from translations of Alice into Shetland, one of the dialects of Insular Scots, Northern which is centered around Aberdeen, and West Central or the Scots spoken in Glasgow.  Keao NeSmith, professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and one of the two hundred remaining native speakers of Hawaiian, began with a welcome in his language.   He agreed to translate Alice in Wonderland (which he had never read before taking on the project) in order to increase the books for pleasure reading available to the growing number of people learning Hawaiian as a legacy language.  NeSmith has gone on to translate Through the Looking Glass and Tolkien’s Hobbit–and in the future, Harry Potter.   Hearing the sound of Scots and Hawaiian made this session especially memorable, even I could not understand what was being said.



Down the rabbit hole! Antje Vogel, Alice im Wunderland (Munster: F. Coppenrath, c.1984) Cotsen 1129.


Minjie Chen

Zongxin Feng, Russell Kaschula, and Sumanyu Satpathy, three scholars from China, South Africa, and India respectively, talked about the tribulations of Alice publications in varying socio-economical and political contexts. Their presentations detailed the challenges of enabling young readers whose native languages are not English to appreciate Alice’s adventure in Wonderland.

From Feng’s presentation, we learned that Alice in Wonderland was first translated into Chinese by Yuen Ren Chao (赵元任), a China-born and US-educated linguist, in 1922. (As an interesting connection, one of Chao’s daughters is Lensey Namioka, a mathematics major and a successful children’s writer in the United States.) Thanks to Chao’s pioneering work, Alice became a well-known story to Chinese readers and, until the establishment of the Communist regime in 1949, was also the source of inspiration for derivative children’s stories and plays, as well as allegorical writings and political satires for the general audience. During the first three or four decades of the People’s Republic of China, however, Alice was among the numerous Western publications that were censored. Reprints and new translations of Alice did not flourish until the 1980s.


阿麗斯的奇夢 = Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (abridged) / Lewis Carroll ; translated and retold by Xu Yingchang (徐應昶). (Shanghai: Shang wu yin shu guan, 1933) Cotsen 68440.


阿麗思的夢 [Alice’s Dream] / by Yu Zheguang. (Shanghai: Shanghai mu ou ju she chu ban she, 1935?) Cotsen 90246.


愛麗思夢遊奇境記 = Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland / Lewis Carroll ; abridged by Fan Quan (范泉). 5th ed. (Shanghai: Yong xiang yin shu guan, February 1949) Cotsen 75170.

The richness of linguistic diversity in Africa and India poses the first challenge for making Alice accessible to children in those areas. (2,000 languages are estimated to be spoken in Sub-Saharan Africa and 22 languages are officially recognized in India.) Kaschula addressed the question of why we should desire Alice in more language editions: being able to enjoy a literary text in one’s native language has a huge benefit for literacy acquisition. His and Satpathy’s presentations examined Alice in nine African languages and eleven Indian languages, focusing on how translators grappled with the often-times irreconcilable tension between fidelity and a friendly text to young readers. As Satpathy pointed out, particularly thorny cases were with names of food, dress, flora, and fauna specific to Victorian England, in addition to puns, parodies, and songs.

African translators’ localization efforts resulted in many creative solutions, replacing foreign food, animals, birds, and objects with indigenous ones in Africa. “Tea-tray” became “winnowing basket”; “treacle” turned into “honey.” Most fascinatingly, Kaschula explained that in the African context, the phrase “murder the time” (from the chapter “A Mad Tea-Party”) does not make sense. Time is conceptualized as being circular (as it is seasonal) as opposed to being linear and one-directional the way it is perceived in Western cultures. It is not something that can be killed. In respect to African storytelling tradition, some translations have also adopted the present tense for the book.


The White Rabbit in African dress late for his very important date from a translation into Swahili by St. Lo de Malet entitled Elisi Katika Nchi Ya Ajabu (London: Sheldon Press, 1966) Cotsen 33665.

Indian translators took no less liberty when it came to rendering the Alice story more intimate to local children. “Hat” became “topi”; through a rather convoluted or mysterious process, “wine” became “rice pudding.” Well, transformations are such a normal occurrence that Alice learns to embrace them by the time she finishes a bottle that is not marked “poison.” Therefore, we should not be surprised by these name swaps. Indeed, Alice herself transforms as she travels across culture. In illustrations of some African and Indian editions, she is depicted as either a delightful black girl or one dressed in a bright sari.


Elisi Katika Nchi Ya Ajabu. Cotsen 33665.


The conference closed with a linguistic feast offered by Michael Everson. He runs Evertype, a publishing company which has produced Alice in seemingly a myriad of languages and alphabets. Some of the more unusual examples are:

  • Alice in a font friendly to dyslexic readers, featuring rotund “bottoms” of each alphabet;
  • Alice in a font that simulates the difficult decoding experience of dyslexia, with the purpose of fostering empathy between non-dyslexic and dyslexic readers;
  • Alice in the International Phonetic Alphabet, an alphabetic system of phonetic notation frequently used by foreign-language learners.
  • Mr. Everson ended his presentation by reading aloud the scene of Alice’s encounter with the hookah-smoking Caterpillar in multiple languages and accents: Irish, Icelandic, Middle English, Old English, Latin, Ladino, Ulster Scots, Scouse, and Appalachian English. I (Minjie) had no idea what he was reading most of the time, but with the rise and fall of his dynamic voice, I seemed to understand everything.

The conference closed a round table discussion among the day’s speakers.   The proceedings closed with a festive dinner for several hundred people at the Cosmopolitan Club, where Michael F. Suarez, S. J., the director of Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, spoke after dinner on the subject of “Alice the Book: A World-wide Phenomenon.”

Cheers to everyone who participated in this marvellous two-day tribute to Alice and her devoted and ingenious translators.


The Anthony Groves-Raines tailpiece for one of the pamphlets of Alice parodies that Guinness produced as holiday keepsakes, Alice Aforethought: Guinness Carrolls for 1938. Cotsen 9049.