Some thoughts on Chinese children’s literature—A student’s perspective

Zoe is a current MPhil student on the children’s literature course. She enjoys reading and writing stories.

Feng Zikai Kites
Children flying kites after school while the east wind is smooth, painted by Feng Zikai[1]
This picture is an example of Feng Zikai’s depictions of Chinese children in the early twentieth century. As a writer and artist, Feng Zikai’s creative universe had often been populated by children. In his drawings, children play games in courtyards, siblings sit together and read, small girls cling to their sister’s sleeves, and little boys observe the passing birds with amusement and curiosity. A touch of realist humor also characterizes his works, and the subtle truths of childhood seem to flow effortlessly from those artistic images. In fact, Feng Zikai had always been interested in children and their lives, and such interest informed the way he approached his art. He once wrote:

This child has taught me a lesson tonight! He knew better to cast aside the tangling web of cause and effects which has imprisoned mortal beings, and to see things as they truly are. He is the creator, he can give life to all. The child is the master in the Kingdom of Art. Aye, I must learn from him! (Inspirations from the child, 1926)[2]

Feng Zikai is not the only Chinese author to have gained inspirations from children. Bing Xin, often considered one of the pioneers of Chinese children’s literature, wrote letters to children when she studying in the United States, which was later published as Letters to My Little Readers. In those letters, she rhapsodized about her love for children, expressing her pride to have been a child, and to remain one still. She addressed children in a tone of near-worship, as she effusively wrote:

[…] Pray think of me, your loving and loyal friend from afar, who, alone in this miserable weather, will not have the good fortune to enjoy the sweet pleasures of family reunions. If you should think of me, please offer me your innocent and caring wishes, which should already grant me with infinite happiness and comfort. And pray forgive me if I do not manage to correspond with you regularly, for I would never dream of writing to you with the heavy heart of an adult, and should only take up my pen when my heart is filled again by the truth and simplicity of childhood. Therefore, I sincerely ask you to understand my plight. […] I am afraid I have to stop here, my dear little readers. I am overwhelmed by inexplicable emotions right now, and I feel extremely privileged to make your acquaintance. (Bing Xin, 25 July 1923)[3].

Both Bing Xin and Feng Zikai’s works represent a view of childhood that has begun to emerge in China after the May Fourth Movement. They were one of the first authors to initiate a recognition of the idea of childhood, and the need to produce works specifically for children. Since then, many scholars and literary critics have also started to grapple with the complex ideas of ‘the child’ and ‘children’s literature’, which is why many people see the May Fourth Movement as the beginning of modern Chinese children’s literature.

Despite the flourishing development of children’s literature in China since the 1920s, few critical works on this topic have been published. Farquhar’s influential 1999 study seemed to be first and one of the most detailed survey to date, tracing the literature written for children in China from 1919 to 1976. Later critics like Lijun Bi, Kate Foster, Dorothea Scott and Xu Xu contributed new insights into how children’s texts were constructed in specific time periods in China, and how children and childhood is perceived in ancient and popular Chinese literature. In 2006, Bookbird created a special issue for Chinese children’s literature[4], its contents ranging from historical overviews to vibrant discussions on the advent of children’s science fiction and the future of Chinese children’s publishing.

As a student who is just getting to know children’s literature as an academic discipline, I am constantly reminded of how much I still don’t know about this dynamic field, so I hesitate to make any claims that might seem arbitrary. While I wish to avoid making overarching assumptions, I find it hard not to notice the gap between Chinese children’s literature (scholarship) and that of the West. The word ‘gap’ is by no means used in a pejorative sense—it denotes instead a lack of communication and contact. Even when national and international, global and local boundaries have become increasingly porous in this era, Chinese children’s literature and its scholarship stilled remain quite unexplored and unfamiliar to many. And as the development of Chinese children’s literature accelerated since the coming of the 21st century, it is more difficult to cast newly appeared, hugely diverse texts in a critical light, not to mention sifting through them and translating them for an international audience.

In recent years, however, the gap is gradually closing, as more translations of Chinese children’s texts are being published and received worldwide. For example, British translator Helen Wang introduced many novels and short stories by Chinese children’s author Cao Wen Xuan’s into the English-speaking world. A growing number of picturebooks created by Chinese authors and illustrators have been translated or adapted into English. In the past few years, academic works such as Representing Children in Chinese and U.S. Children’s Literature edited by Claudia Nelson and Rebecca Morris brought together children’s literature scholarship from China and the West, examining how and why children’s literature circulates internationally. In Nelson and Morris’s book, for instance, we could see how Chinese and American scholars approach children’s literature differently, as well as demonstrate different emphasis when it comes to formulating critical arguments. As a Chinese student studying children’s literature in the U.K., I feel inspired and encouraged to see exciting ways in which literature, culture and criticism between different countries meet, interact and engage with one another, creating a dialogic space where new forms and ideas are only just waiting to be born.

This is perhaps why I often return to Emer O’ Sullivan’s book on comparative children’s literature. Her book may have been written more than ten years ago, yet many of her observations remain, in my opinion, quite relevant today. While reading, I feel that O’ Sullivan’s comparatist approach gives voice to individual children’s literatures from different cultural areas, and allows for more detailed discussions on issues such as translation, adaptation, mediation and reception across cultural borders and within the international exchange of children’s literature. O’ Sullivan also reminds us to place our analyses in specific contexts, and to avoid taking up theoretical positions and apply them as if they hold universal validity. While some of her arguments may not hold true today, I am deeply moved by the way she not only embraces the multitude national and global forces that shape children’s literature as we know it, but also proves that these forces are worthy of critical attention. O’ Sullivan uses the word ‘compare’ throughout her work, but I believe that the true meaning of comparison is not about setting a text from one culture against a text from another culture, but about creating a means of understanding, interpreting and appreciating the commonalities and differences between these texts. It is about critically evaluating the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘the other’, the familiar and the unfamiliar, domestic and foreign, without indulging in solipsistic worldviews and the comfort of established theoretical grounds. Her comparatist approach may not be perfect, yet it paves the way for a view of children’s literature criticism characterized by communication, diversity and openness.

In fact, O’ Sullivan’s arguments have a profound influence on how I think about the development of children’s literature criticism as a whole. Not only should there be more discussions on the cultural-specific status of children’s literature/views of childhood, there must also be more attempts to combine (or bring in) theories from different linguistic areas and critical traditions, a view O’ Sullivan proposed early on in her book (O’ Sullivan, 2005, p.11). Achieving this goal requires more efforts from translators, who are vital to the dissemination of texts and ideas across languages and cultures, and from scholars, who could potentially enrich their analyses by drawing from theories and critical tools from their own culture.

When I first decided to write this blog post, I was nervous about the prospect of addressing topics as complex and significant as Chinese children’s literature and children’s literature criticism. To cover the breadth and depth of these topics requires not one, but many book-length studies. Later on, I realized that however tentative my discussions may seem, words, voices and ideas remain some of the most powerful tools to bolster communication and diversity in literary, cultural and academic contexts. Words inspire words, voices bring forth voices, ideas breed ideas. Therefore, I feel grateful knowing that, as a student, I am given the chances to learn the critical language that allows me to partake in the making of new words, voices and ideas, and ultimately, to contribute to the larger conversation of children’s literature in my own way.

 

Key References:

Farquhar, MA (1999). Children’s Literature in China: From Lu Xun to Mao Zedong. New York: ME Sharpe.

Nelson, C., & Morris, R. (Eds.) (2014). Representing Children in Chinese and U.S. Children’s Literature. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

O’Sullivan, E (2005). Comparative Children’s Literature (A. Bell, Trans.). London: Routledge.

Go here for a detailed and entertaining read on Chinese children’s literature. 


[1] Picture retrieved from: http://news.takungpao.com/mainland/topnews/2015-06/3034155.html

[2] My translation; original quote retrieved from: http://news.xinhuanet.com/book/2016-05/31/c_129030098.htm

[3] My translation; original quote retrieved from: http://www.bingxinwang.com/bingxindezuopin/141.html

[4] Bookbird: Special volume on children’s literature from China, Bookbird, vol.44, no.3 (2006).

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One comment

  1. Hello Zoe, this was a really interesting read, thank you for sharing! I’m a research fellow based in Cambridge, working on representations of infants and children in ancient Chinese and Greek philosophy. I couldn’t find your contact details but perhaps you could drop me an email so that we can continue the conversation? My CRSid is jz292. Looking forward to hearing from you! 🙂

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