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Posts Tagged ‘china’

Mei Li

Posted by Tracy Poff on March 16, 2014

Mei Li wishes to go to the New Year Fair in the city, but little girls always have to stay home. Undaunted, she sneaks out to visit the city, following her brother. What adventures await?

MeiLi-cover

Thomas Handforth’s Mei Li is the winner of the 1939 Caldecott Medal. Unlike the previous winner, Animals of the BibleMei Li is a real picture book.

The story centers around a young Chinese girl, Mei Li, who is unsatisfied with remaining at home, while the New Year Fair is going on. “If I always stay at home,” she asks, “what can I be good for?” So off she goes to have adventures like her brother, San Yu. He wonders what a girl could do at the fair, but she bribes him to take her with him, all the same.

The fair is as exciting as Mei Li had hoped, and she shows her doubting brother all the things that a girl can do, at the fair. Looking at a group of circus performers, she tells him, “They can walk on stilts. They can balance on a tight-rope. They can throw pots and pans in the air with their feet. And so can I!”

Mei Li doesn’t juggle pots and pans with her feet, but she does ask a strong circus girl to lift her upside-down in the palm of her hand; she feeds a bear a bit of bean-cake; and she dances on the back of a circus pony. Later, a fortune teller predicts that Mei Li will rule over a kingdom–naturally, she believes him. Soon after, they must hurry home, so they will be in time to greet the Kitchen God.

When she returns home, Mei Li’s mother refers to her as “the princess who rules our hearts.” She is surely a princess, but what sort of kingdom will she rule over? That night, the Kitchen God explains:

“This house is your kingdom and palace. Within its walls all living things are your loyal, loving subjects.”

Mei Li sighed happily, “It will do for a while, anyway.”

Mei Li is based on Handforth’s experiences while living in China for six years, beginning in 1931, the characters and drawings are based on people he knew, and the titular heroine is based on Pu Mei Li, a four-year-old girl he met there. Much more information about this, including a photograph of the real Mei Li holding Handforth’s picture book, can be found in this article from The Horn Book Magazine by Kathleen Horning (who, coincidentally, wrote From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books, which I read almost exactly two years ago).

MeiLi-panorama

The illustrations are in ink, done with a brush, which Handforth felt better captured the spirit of China. Few of the illustrations feature any background, but the figures represented are generally very dynamic. The book does feature a number of two-page spreads, varying text positioning depending on the artwork. The illustrations depict the actual scenes in the book, making Mei Li much more of a ‘real’ picture book than its predecessor for the Caldecott Medal.

Mei Li has been criticized for sexism. Not without grounds: Mei Li is told that her ‘kingdom’ is the home, and the book ends with a poem extolling the virtues of a woman who keeps a good house:

This is the thrifty princess,
Whose house is always clean,
No dirt within her kingdom
Is ever to be seen.

Her food is fit
For a king to eat,
Her hair and clothes
Are always neat.

Furthermore, Mei Li is shown to be frightened of fireworks, allowing San Yu to set them off while she plugs her ears, and she gives her last lucky penny to San Yu to throw at a bell (for the promise of money all year), since she is sure that she could never hit it.

I think these criticisms are a little misguided; at least, they don’t look at the whole picture. Compare what Mei Li does at the fair to what San Yu does: while Mei Li balances upside down on a circus performer’s hand, San Yu dresses up as a wise man for a play; while Mei Li feeds a real bear a cake, to show her bravery, San Yu pretends to hunt a lion that is really two boys with a mask; Mei Li dances on the back of a prancing horse, after which San Yu throws her penny at a bell and goes off to buy a kite (a fake hawk, which he later uses to frighten Mei Li). Mei Li’s adventures at the fair are real, and San Yu’s are merely imaginary. Certainly it is Mei Li who comes off best in their little competition!

Too, Mei Li gives her first lucky penny to a beggar girl she meets when entering the city, and it’s that girl who holds the gates open so that she can leave the city and return home to greet the Kitchen God, “And even five policemen and five soldiers could not force her away until Mei Li was through the gate.” Not so easily cowed, this girl!

Finally, though the statement of the Kitchen God that the house is Mei Li’s kingdom may be reinforcing the domestic role of women, Mei Li responds that it will do “for a while, anyway”, which also means that eventually, it won’t be enough. And Handforth wrote, of the real Mei Li:

No Empress Dowager was ever more determined than she. A career is surely ordained for her, other than being the heroine of a children’s book.

Certainly some older children’s books do not stand the test of time, as cultural values march on (The Five Chinese Brothers or Shen of the Sea, both coincidentally also dealing with China, are examples of this, for different reasons), but I wouldn’t fear to recommend Mei Li.

Relatively little is to be found online about this book or its author. There is some other material from The Horn Book Magazine, linked above, including the magazine’s contemporary review of the book, written by Elizabeth Coatsworth, originally published in the July-August 1939 issue. The Art Institute of Chicago, The Smithsonian American Art Museum, and The Seattle Public Library Northwest Art Collection each provide a few samples of Handforth’s other art, including one picture which must (I think) have been the original model for a scene from Mei Li.

Altogether, I find Mei Li to be a much worthier recipient of the Caldecott Medal than its predecessor, and a good book, besides. I hope that the later recipients continue more in this vein!

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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.

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Shen of the Sea

Posted by Tracy Poff on August 20, 2011


Can a tailor make a good general? Can an orphan buy a father? How was gunpowder invented? When did people begin to drink tea? Answers to all these questions and more, with a Chinese flavor, are found in Shen of the Sea by Arthur Bowie Chrisman.

Published in 1925, and winning the Newbery Medal in 1926, Shen of the Sea collects sixteen short stories, billed as “Chinese Stories for Children.” In fact, the stories aren’t really Chinese–they’re just set in China. I’m not very familiar with Chinese folklore, so maybe some are retellings of real Chinese stories, but you shouldn’t read this book looking to learn about Chinese folklore.

The stories are a mixed bag. Some, like “Four Generals” and the titular “Shen of the Sea”, are very entertaining. Others, Like “Ah Mee’s Invention” and “Ah Tcha the Sleeper”, are fairly boring. Most are somewhat amusing, but not too memorable.

The stories fall into two major categories: origin myths and stories of wit, if you’ll excuse my poor naming. The origin myths tell how something came to be, like the invention of printing or gunpowder. Some of those stories are okay, but they’re mostly kind of dull. The stories of wit tell how someone overcame an obstacle by using their cleverness. Those stories are pretty uniformly fun, and all the best stories in the book are of that sort.

As an example, the story “Ah Mee’s Invention” tells how Ah Mee, a very naughty child, son of Ching Chi, would always cause trouble, making his poor father’s life very hard. His doting father never punishes Ah Mee, though. His father is a masterful engraver, making great wood carvings. Eventually, Ching Chi’s skill is noticed by the king, and he is made very wealthy, carving plaques for the king. But Ah Mee uses some of these plaques as plates, spreading jam on them to eat. When Ching Chi returns and sees what Ah Mee has done, he is furious, throwing the plaques against the wall. Ching Chi’s brother, Ching Cha, sees that the impression of the plaque is printed on the wall in jam, and so printing was invented.

Now, “Ah Mee’s Invention” isn’t terrible, but I just didn’t enjoy it, much. I saw no reason why Ah Mee or Ching Chi ought to have been rewarded, and the invention of printing wasn’t much a payoff for the end of the story. And that’s a problem with many of these origin stories: a reasonably interesting story is set up, and then it just ends by saying “and that’s how printing was invented” or “and so people started using chopsticks.” It doesn’t provide any closure to the story, and it’s not satisfying.

For the other kind of story, take “Four Generals”, which describes how Prince Chang, wishing to see how the people in his kingdom live, decides to set out on a journey, alone, to observe them. Along the way, he encounters all sorts of trouble, and is rescued, in turn, by a fiddler, a tailor, a shepherd, and an archer. He promises each that when he is made king, he’ll make them generals in his army. When his kingdom is repeatedly attacked, each proves his worth: the tailor has many sets of uniforms made, to fool the attacking army into thinking there are more defending soldiers than there really are; the fiddler plays such a sad song that the invading army becomes homesick and leaves; the shepherd tricks the army into chasing sheep, and they burn the enemies’ camp while they’re away; the archer requires that all cases at law be settled by a trial with bow and arrow, causing the citizens to practice and become so proficient at archery that no ones dares attack them.

“Four Generals” is excellent. Seeing how the generals each use their own skills to defend the kingdom is very amusing. You can really appreciate their cleverness, and cheer for them when they succeed. Because they deserve to win, on account of their wit. Stories like this are great.

In the end, I think that Shen of the Sea would be better off if the less amusing stories were excised. I especially recommend reading “Shen of the Sea”, “Four Generals”, “The Rain King’s Daughter”, and “High as Han Hsin”. A few of the others are worthwhile, but those four are not to be missed, in my opinion. The book doesn’t seem to be available in text form for the Kindle, but there is an audiobook available, if you’re interested in those. If you’re interested in classic children’s literature, give it a try.

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