The Five Chinese Brothers
Posted by Tracy Poff on August 30, 2011
In China lived five brothers, each in appearance exactly like the others. Each, too, had a special ability: the first could swallow the sea; the second had an iron neck; the third could stretch his legs very far; the fourth couldn’t be burned; and the fifth could hold his breath indefinitely. When a young boy is drowned while collecting shells from the sea bed after the first brother had drunk up the sea, the first brother is sentenced to be killed. However, his brothers’ special talents may be just what is needed to save him.
The Five Chinese Brothers is a picture book, written by Claire Huchet Bishop and illustrated by Kurt Wiese. I enjoyed it greatly as a child, though, looking back on it as an adult, there are some problems with it.
The problem is with the illustrations. They are lovely and entertaining, but they are also sadly stereotypical of Chinese people. I’d hesitate to call them racist, but they certainly reflect the time the were published, back in 1938. The Chinese people in general, and not merely the identical brothers, are all drawn as being essentially identical, with yellow skin, closed eyes, and hands together in their sleeves. Usual, I suppose, for the time, though such illustrations would be fairly offensive today–the book would probably not be published.
I understand that there’s a more recent retelling of the story by Margaret Mahy, with illustrations by Mou-Sien Tseng, called The Seven Chinese Brothers, which may lack these problems and so be preferable, but I’ve not read it, so I can’t comment.
Even with its problems, The Five Chinese Brothers is a great book. If it should, perhaps, be read by parents together with their children, in order to ensure an appropriate understanding that the book doesn’t accurately represent Chinese people, well, that’s not so bad–children’s books are usually best read by parents and children together, anyway.