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 Until the clause was eventually repealed in August 2015, men of power had found in it a blood-curdling loophole to seek light punishment for sexual assaults against minors by accusing the victims to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!)

Miniatures-in-Miniature: Early Experimental Kamishibai in the Cotsen Children’s Library Collection

By Tara M. McGowan

Kamishibai (紙芝居), literally “paper theater,” is a form of street-performance art that was first invented in Japan in the late 1920s as a way to both entertain and sell treats to children. Hailed as a precursor of animé and manga, it has been receiving increasing attention worldwide, as artists, educators, and performers of all kinds, inspired by the candy peddlers of the 1930s, strap stages to bicycles or otherwise transport them to schools, streets, museums and parks to entertain audiences of all ages. There are now international kamishibai festivals from Mexico to Slovenia and kamishibai workshops and symposia being offered from Australia to France. A French organization D’Une Langue A L’Autre (DULALA) will be initiating an international Plurilingual Kamishibai competition this year to promote multilingualism through kamishibaiIn the city of Numazu (Shizuoka, Japan), the 7th Annual Street-Performance Kamishibai Competition will be held this July, and contestants will be traveling from Brazil, Germany, and Mexico.

Figure 1. Seventh Annual Street-Performance Kamishibai Contest in Numazu Promotional Poster

With so much global interest, it goes without saying that the history of kamishibai and how it developed, as a miniaturized version of the “big screen,” has become familiar to many (McGowan, 2010; 2015). When silent film first entered Japan, it was never really silent because movie narrators, known as benshi 弁士, or katsudō benshi 活動弁士, were almost invariably standing alongside, explaining the (often foreign) films to avid fans (Dym, 2003). In some cases, the movie narrators were more popular than the movie stars!  Street-performance kamishibai cards were designed so that the images could be animated through dramatic transitions from one card to the next, as the performer pulled the cards out of the stage while narrating the soundtrack alongside. When talkies came to Japan in the 1920s, it is said that many of these film narrators took to performing kamishibai in the streets to make a living (Orbaugh, 2015).

Figure 2. Kamishibai Man by Allen Say. Houghton Mifflin, 2005. (Cotsen 151969)

The typical image of a kamishibai street performer (Fig. 2), popularized by illustrator and author Allen Say in his picture book Kamishibai Man (2005), is of a man selling candy to children off the back of his bicycle and then telling stories to a captivated crowd. Figure 3. “Kamishibai,” poem by Saijo Yaso, illustrated by Hatsuyama Shigeru. In Kodomo no kuni, Vol. 11, No. 14 (December, 1932). (Cotsen 30591)

Another depiction (Fig. 3), which was published in 1932 in the popular Japanese children’s magazine Kodomo no kuni (Country of children), however, paints a rather different picture and suggests a diversity of performance styles in this early phase of kamishibai’s development. In illustrator Hatsuyama Shigeru’s (1897-1973) distinctive geometrical style, this kamishibai man is depicted with the stage strapped to his chest and a box of candy (あめ), hanging from his hip decorated with a Japanese flag. He beats his hyōshigi 拍子木 (wooden clappers) to gather the children about him, while, on the left-hand side, a mother reaches into her purse to find some change for her impatient child. Other children, already sucking their sweets, watch him performing the Chinese classic of The Monkey King (or Journey to the West).

The poem translates as follows:

Chakkin, chakkin, he beats the hyshigi, gathering the children “Now Kamishibai is about to begin!”  Ha, chakkin, chakkin, chakkin na.

The candy peddler’s “Lloyd glasses” shine in the evening light; He coughs a big, big cough. Ha, chakkin, chakkin, chakkin na.

And now they appear: the Monkey King, Pigsy, and Tripitaka the monk, coming along, coming along, and coming along on their journey together, but then, here comes a monster! Ha, chakkin, chakkin, chakkin na.

Come here, little boys! Big boys, step back a little. Everyone must get along as you line up, line up, and line up kamishibai. Ha, chakkin, chakkin, chakkin na.

Chakkin, chakkin, the ginkgo leaves fall at the street crossing. Sweet-tooth, eat your candy, eat, eat and eat kamishibai. Ha, chakkin, chakkin, chakkin na.

The sound of the wooden clappers reverberates throughout the poem, punctuating the kamishibai man’s narration and grabbing the children’s attention on the busy street corner. The poem captures the multisensory experience of street kamishibai, where the audio-visual performance was combined with the sweet taste of candy and the cramped space shared with others!

Although not actually shown in the illustration, the reference to the kamishibai man’s “Lloyd glasses,” named for the silent film actor Harold Lloyd (1893-1971), connects the kamishibai man to the big screen and also dates the poem to the 1930s when these glasses became all the rage. What is unclear from this depiction is how the performer actually pulled the cards out of the stage while holding and beating the hyōshigi clappers with both hands. His stage is a simple frame with what appear to be actual cloth curtains blowing in the wind.  Standard kamishibai stages today open on the left side (from the audience’s point-of-view, see Fig. 2), and the movement of the cards is from right to left, as they are pulled out of the stage. In the early 1930s, however, this does not appear to have been fixed. There are photographs of early stages where the cards were pulled out of either side of the stage or even up through the top, as is depicted here on a small promotional fan, produced by the Sasaya bookstore.

Figure 4. Promotional fan, front and verso (5 inches in diameter), Sasaya Honten, circa 1940. (Cotsen 71689374)

In this instance, the kamishibai man is wearing the Lloyd glasses referenced in the poem and, just like in the earlier example, he holds clappers, one in each hand, suggesting that clappers played an active role in telling the story, as they do in the poem above. In this case, however, his stage is on the back of a bicycle with no candy in sight, and he appears to be telling a war propaganda kamishibai story. As will be described in greater detail later, kamishibai was used extensively for purposes of propaganda during Japan’s fifteen-year war, the period between 1931 and 1945 (Orbaugh, 2015), and in this image, we see a bomb going off in the foreground nearly missing the battle ship to the right, as fighter planes and Zeppelin circle in the skies overhead. The children practically have their noses up against the stage, which is consistent with photographs of performances from the time. In this instance, however, it seems clear that the cards are being pulled up through the top of the stage and not from the side, as has become common practice today.

What is not visible in the romanticized (some might even say sanitized) images of the kamishibai men above, is any evidence of the heated controversy, which surrounded street-performance kamishibai almost immediately; namely, kamishibai’s potentially corrupting influence on children. By 1937, kamishibai was so widespread that one survey claimed there were two thousand storytellers in the city of Tokyo alone and that around 800,000 children were watching these performances on a daily basis (Uchiyama & Nomura, 1937). Complaints from educators and parents about the salacious content of the stories, the lurid colors used by the artists, and the unhygienic practices of the candy peddlers started to reach the ears of authorities, and by 1938, the plot of the stories had to be marked on the back of the cards so that content could be monitored.

Some educators and religious leaders, however, recognized that the mesmerizing power of kamishibai and its evident popularity with child audiences could be channeled for more elevated purposes. It is hardly surprising that purveyors of children’s culture—advertisers, children’s magazines, bookstores and toy companies—would also want to cash in on this mania. From the 1930s to 40s, toy versions of the format proliferated so that children could entertain themselves or family and friends at home. The Cotsen Children’s Library has several fascinating examples of these miniatures-in-miniature that encapsulate forgotten moments of kamishibai’s history and shed important light on kamishibai’s evolving place in Japanese popular imagination.

Figure 5. Kamishibai ehon by Miyashita Fumio, front and inside cover. [Japan] : Kokkadō, between 1930 and 1940. (Cotsen 100694)

The first example is titled “Kamishibai ehon” (Paper theater picture book) (Fig. 5, left). It presents itself as a picture book, when, in fact, the cover doubles as a miniature kamishibai stage. A rectangle for the stage opening is punched out of the back cover and then folded to create a pocket to hold the cards (Fig. 5, right).

Figure 6. Kamishibai ehon by Miyashita Fumio, back cover, constructed as a stage with dimensions 7.5 x 10.5 inches and with an opening of 4 x 6 inches. (Cotsen 100694)

In this case, the user has followed the instructions which are visible on the back of the stage pocket (Fig. 6). There are no openings on the sides of the pocket, so the cards would have been pulled up out of the stage, one at a time, just like in the image on the fan above. The red string, which was originally meant to hold the stage open, has since been re-attached, most likely because of the torn left corner.

In spite of rough treatment, the stage exudes elegance with its red frilly curtains and, at bottom, a gold and red sign, which reads “Children’s Theater” (子供座). The ornate style is well suited to the accompanying cards, which are an adaptation of the Victorian children’s classic Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first serialized in Japanese translation in a popular girls’ magazine between 1890 and 1892 by Wakamatsu Shizuko. The style of the illustrations, however, suggest that this kamishibai version may have been more closely based on the hugely popular 1921 silent film version of the story, starring Mary Pickford, or the 1936 sound version, starring Dolores Costello.

Figure 7. Card 1, front and verso, of Kanashiki shōkōshi (Sad little Lord Fauntleroy) by Miyashita Fumio. (Cotsen 100694)

The kamishibai follows much the same story as the films, beginning when the main character Cedric Errol (Cedie), the only son of a New York widow, suddenly finds out that he is the Earl of Dorincourt’s sole heir. Cedie leaves his mother in New York City to take up residence with his grandfather, the Earl, who plans to turn him into an aristocrat. An incident with a fortune-hunting impostor, who tries to push her own son into Cedie’s place, makes the grandfather realize the virtues of Cedie’s real mother, and son and mother are reunited in the end.

Figure 8. Card 12 of Kanashiki shōkōshi (Sad little Lord Fauntleroy) by Miyashita Fumio. (Cotsen 100694)

The adaptation of this worldwide classic to the kamishibai format, and even the presentation of it as a “picture book,” reveals the publisher’s evident desire to elevate the medium in the eyes of prospective consumers — middle-class parents, who might otherwise associate kamishibai with unclean street-entertainment for children of the lower socioeconomic orders.

Another example of adapting the classics to miniature kamishibai format for middle-class children is this extremely rare “Invisible Ink Fairytale Paper Theater” (Aburidashi otogi kamishibai) set. The box the cards come in doubles as the stage with the opening again at the top. The image on the back of the box illustrates both how the invisible ink would have been made to appear through a process of exposing it to heat and how a kamishibai man might perform the cards in a similar (but much larger) stage for an audience of children.

Figure 9. Aburidashi otogi kamishibai. Dimensions 4 X 6 inches. (cards 3.5 x 5.5 inches) (Cotsen)

Here, the performer could easily be a school teacher, rather than a street-performer, because the performance appears to be occurring in an interior space with the stage perched on a table, and the children, who are neatly dressed Western-style clothing, are watching in orderly rows. The kamishibai man’s stage is designed exactly like the box with its flap up, suggesting that, like the toy, these cards would have been pulled up through the top in performance.

Figure 10. Aburidashi otogi kamishibai. Front of stage with curtain card displayed. (Cotsen)

The stage is complete with a curtain card, depicting faces of the main characters from all the stories, and the words, otogi kamishibai (fairy-tale paper theater) at the bottom. The set contains five Japanese classic fairy (or folk) tales of six cards each, including Momotaro (The Peach Boy), Issunboshi (The One Inch Boy), Kachi kachi yama (The Burning Mountain), Hanasaka jiji (The Old Man who made the flowers bloom), and Saru kani kassen (The battle between monkey and crab).

Figure 11. Aburidashi otogi kamishibai. Cards of “Momotaro.” (Cotsen)

It is unlikely, however, that these cards were ever performed. There is no text on the backs, and the process of making the invisible ink appear by holding the cards over the brazier has left them brittle and even burned in places. The pleasure of the toy may have been in seeing the images emerge and recognizing the familiar scenes depicted. It is truly remarkable that these ephemeral objects still exist as an almost complete set!

The smallest of the mini-kamishibai stages in the Cotsen Collection (2 x 2.5 inches, when constructed) is part of a promotional gift package distributed by Takeda Chōbee Shōten in 1940. The package was designed as an advertisement for medicine and other health products, as well as a celebration of the 2600th year (1940) since the founding of the Japanese empire by the legendary Emperor Jimmu. The decorative banner is made to look like a string of lanterns, on one side of which is written the characters for the celebration of 2600th year, as well as the slogan, “Let’s become strong children and give our best for our country.” On the other side, the lanterns are decorated with the Japanese flag and several different medications and supplements manufactured by the Takeda company.

Figure 12. Omiyage (Gift). Takeda Chōbee Shōten, 1940. (Cotsen 71687659)

The gifts also include a matchbox-sized wooden interlocking block set, a balloon, a card with a moveable image of a fisherman, a set of origami papers, a coloring book, and two cards depicting a miniature kamishibai with stage to be cut and assembled. The twelve miniature kamishibai story cards depict the series of victorious battles and events, starting with the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident at the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and ending with the founding of the puppet regime, the so-called Reorganized National Government of the Republic of China (1940-1945). The promotional pamphlets educate customers about the importance of vitamin B1, the availability of hormones for women, and how to maintain health from autumn into winter. All the gifts contain advertisements for Takeda products.

Figure 13, “Heitaisan yo, arigatau” (Thank you to our troops) in Omiyage, 1940. (Cotsen 71687659)

Oddly, the words for each card are printed in tiny blue characters on the right-hand side of each card, making it impossible for the performer to read them until they are removed from the stage. The dominant use of Chinese characters and difficult historical details suggests that this mini-stage may not have been designed for a child audience, and it may also explain why it remains uncut after all these years. The stage (Fig. 14) is decorated with a Japanese flag and military trumpet and the words, “Thank you to our troops” (Heitai san yo arigatau). As the instructions indicate at the bottom left, this is the only miniature stage of those in the Cotsen collection that is designed with an opening on the right-hand side (standardized stages today open on the left).

Figure 14. “Heitaisan yo, arigatau” (Thank you to our troops). Illustration of stage, when constructed. (Cotsen 71687659)

All of the above examples indicate that kamishibai as a medium was still in a fluid form during the 1930s and 40s that allowed for all manner of experiments with the format. During the war years when kamishibai was used as a mass media for propaganda purposes, experimentation with hybrid formats seemed even more popular. One of the most intriguing examples is this pop-up “kamishibai talkie,” which would have come with a record of the performer’s voice (now missing).

Figure 15. Kodomo chokin butai (Children’s savings corps), Kōa Bunka Rokuon Kabushiki Kaisha, between 1942 and 1945. An updated edition with narrative text. (Cotsen 102950)

Unlike a typical kamishibai set, these cards were performed without a stage and are actually bound together with tape at the bottom (missing in Fig. 15). The audience would place the cards on a surface and pull them up, one at a time, to reveal the pop-up (tobidashi, literally “pop-out”) character connected to the next scene. On the original version from 1942, there is no text, so the audience would have relied on the accompanying record for the story.

Figure 16. Kodomo chokin butai (Children’s savings corps). Card 1 with pop-up character, conducting the troop. The slogan 一億一心 (Ichioku isshin) is on his backpack. Note that the pop-up in the foreground is connected to both the front of Card 1 and the back of the next card so the cards cannot be separated. Kōa Bunka Rokuon Kabushiki Kaisha, 1942. (Cotsen 68469)

At the center of the story is a group of children, who are working together to save money for the Japanese armed forces, inspired by the nationally unifying slogan–ichioku isshin (literally, “one billion, one spirit”). A wealthy boy in town refuses to join their group, selfishly spending money on toys. When he falls ill, the children’s savings corps visits his sick bed and offers him money for a speedy recovery. He is so moved by their generous spirit that he joins with them. The 1942 edition is labeled Shinan tokkyo: Kamishibai tōkī, meaning “A new initiative with special permission: Paper-theater talkie,” indicating that it is most likely the first of its kind to be sanctioned by the Japanese government. By 1942, the military government tightly controlled and censored publication in any medium, and it actively produced kamishibai cards to educate the civilian population about the divinity of the Imperial lineage and other aspects of the war effort, such as how to construct bomb shelters and how best to support the troops. This “new initiative” kamishibai talkie must have been deemed a success because Cotsen also has a later edition, which has been labeled with the words “Endorsed by the Ministry of Finance, Citizen Savings Division” (Fig. 15 and 17)

Figure 17. Later edition of Kodomo chokin butai published between 1942 and 1945 with narrative text, Card 8. (Cotsen 102950) As the credits on the final card (lower left) indicate, by this time, there was a whole series of stories created in this format.

The innovative formats and variety of performance styles illustrated by these few examples of early toy kamishibai from the Cotsen Children’s Library collection are of interest today, as kamishibai experiences a renaissance around the globe and questions about what “traditional” kamishibai should look like come to the fore. There are many published explanations available for how kamishibai should be created or performed, but the question arises: who gets to decide what is traditional? Even this small selection of objects complicates the notion of a single “tradition,” in a period when so many different groups in Japan—storytellers, educators, advertisers, government officials, and publishers—were all actively appropriating kamishibai for different purposes. Whether it was for profit, pedagogy, propaganda, or even just for fun, artists and illustrators were experimenting with the format from the very beginning and continue to do so today. Rather than searching for one right or wrong way to perform kamishibai, these intriguing glimpses into the range of early experiments with kamishibai invite and challenge kamishibai performers and artists around the world today to look for ever more interesting and engaging ways to bring this interactive and dramatic format to new audiences.

Further reading about kamishibai (in English):

Dym, J. (2003) Benshi, Japanese Silent Film Narrators, and Their Forgotten Narrative Art of Setsumei: A History of Japanese Silent Film Narration (Edwin Mellen Pr)

Friends of Silent Film Association (2001) The Benshi—Japanese Silent Film Narrators (Matsuda Film Productions)

McGowan, T. (2010) The Kamishibai Classroom: Engaging Multiple Literacies through the Art of ‘Paper Theater.’ (ABC-CLIO)

McGowan, T. (2015) Performing Kamishibai: An Emerging New Literacy for a Global Audience (Routledge)

Nash, E. (2009) Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater (Abrams Press)

Orbaugh, S. (2015) Propaganda Performed: Kamishibai in Japan’s Fifteen-Year War (Brill)

Say, A. (2005) Kamishibai Man [picture book] (Houghton Mifflin).

Tara M. McGowan catalogs the Japanese collection at the Cotsen Children’s Library.