Fact or not, this is a question — a few misrepresentations of Chinese culture in English-language children’s books

It is a delight to see the growing number of English children’s books that reflect the culture, history, and experiences of different ethnic groups, including but not limited to people of various racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds. For those who need to be reassured of the value of multicultural children’s books, here is what I witnessed in an undergraduate class this spring. The class was introduced to picture books that portray Asian or Asian American cultures. Among the students were first-, second-, and third-generation Asian American immigrants, who found it a pleasant surprise to see their own cultures reflected in children’s books. Except for The Five Chinese Brothers and Tikki Tikki Tembo, they said, not many such books reached them when they were young. Looking back, they wished they could have seen themselves in picture books in their childhood.

Similar to the development of African American children’s literature, early multicultural books have been created mainly by authors and illustrators that are “cultural outsiders” – such as in the case of Ezra Jack Keats, a white artist, telling stories of African American protagonists. Then increasing “cultural insiders” joined in, picking up pens and brushes to tell stories of their own people and to present images that are culturally sensitive. Bishop observes in 1991, for example, “unlike the 1970s, most of the books about African-Americans currently being published are written and/or illustrated by African-Americans.” (p. 34) The purpose of this posting is not to join in the debate on whether cultural outsiders can create work that are culturally authentic, but to point out a couple of cultural, historical, and factual issues I have observed in a few new children’s fiction or non-fiction of Chinese topics. At least two of them are highly acclaimed, award-winning books. To people who are outside a particular culture, some of the confusions may seem minor and not even worth clarifying, but to those who have been nurtured by that culture and have a sense of ownership about it, it is important to see any misrepresentation of or misunderstanding about it cleared.

As will be shown, neither cultural outsiders nor insiders are exempt from cultural errors. Some inaccuracies exist probably because creators have taken artistic liberty, misrepresented fact, but not offered any explanation. So far as I know, no book reviewers have bothered to point out these errors or misleading information in them. I hope educators and librarians who may use these books with children will find clarifications in this posting helpful.

A list of reference books is given at the end for further information.

Young, Ed.
Beyond the Great Mountains: A Visual Poem about China. Chronicle Books, c2005.
(Best Children’s Books of 2005, Publishers Weekly)

In this picture book that features paper collage illustration, Young introduces the beauty, richness, and imagination of the Chinese hieroglyphic language system. Pictorial characters in seal style, which has a history of 2500 years and is still in use by calligraphers, are given at the bottom of every page. Readers, young or old, will be challenged to compare the images and the hieroglyph-based characters, and to find the connection between them.

The last two characters Young presents are the “middle kingdom,” or the Chinese word for “China.” The character “kingdom” that Young shows us consists of a character, which he explains is for “jade (on King’s crown),” encircled by a square that represents boundary. This, however, is not how the character “kingdom” appeared in seal style 2500 years ago. Somehow, Young has replaced it with a newer and simpler form that became popular much later. The older “kingdom” consists of a character that has its origin from a weapon name – lance or spear, encircled by a boundary. In Chinese, the etymology of “kingdom” is national defense. The character that is given in the book and its explanation do not match, either. Without further ado, I simply point out that the author has “stir fried,” likely with deliberation, the forms and explanations of three “kingdoms:” one that is 2500 years old and faithfully represents its etymology, one that became popular later because it has fewer strokes and thus is easier to write, and one that is in Chinese Simplified style, the current official form in use in Mainland China since the 1950s.

Muth, Jon J.
Zen Shorts. Scholastic, 2005.
(2006 Caldecott Honor Book)
[Education S Collection; CCB] Q. SE. M983z

This picture book cleverly adapts stories of Japanese and Chinese religions and philosophies for a young audience. The stories are eloquently told, and the watercolor illustration captures the Zen spirit of meditation. The cultural issue with the book is that Muth takes pleasure in blending cultural symbols of different countries. A giant panda puts on a loose kimono, holds a traditional Japanese-style umbrella (wagasa) under cherry blossoms (or sakura, Japan’s unofficial national flower), and tells two tales about Japanese Zen Buddhas and one tale that represents the Chinese philosophy of Taoism. Even though animals do not usually assume nationality, it is a poor decision to employ a giant panda, the national treasure and peace symbol of China, to act as the spokesman of Japanese culture. Since the author makes little effort to clarify the distinct cultural and national origins of his tales, readers are also left wondering why a story of Taoism is classified as Zen. The author may have decided to mix all these elements of “oriental” cultures on the ground of Japanese and Chinese cultures being related. The two cultures have influenced each other and still do. Buddhism, for example, has traveled first from India to China, then from China to Japan, where it prospered, became known as Zen, and later was introduced to Western countries. The two cultures – as any other two cultures in the world, however, do not identify with each other. It is disrespectful and confusing to mix cultural elements from them.

Two other children’s books that use these three stories have paid due respect to their cultural origins and sources. Heather Forest includes them in Wisdom Tales from around the World (1996) and provides detailed source information for each. A succinct explanation of the Japanese Zen Buddhism and its Indian and Chinese origins can be found in the book. The third story in Muth’s book tells about an old man and his lost horse. It is recorded in Huai Nan Zi edited by Liu An, a Chinese Taoist who lived approximately between 178 B.C.E. and 122 B.C.E. The story is well-known in China and is the basis of a popular Chinese saying, whose message is that you never know what will happen next in your life. Ed Young has illustrated the same story in The Lost Horse: A Chinese Folktale (1998). At the beginning of the picture book, he provides the original Chinese text from Liu An’s work.

Cole, Joanna.
Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures: Imperial China. Scholastic, c2005.
[Education S Collection] Q. S. C675m

Ms. Frizzle and her students time travel to ancient China on Chinese New Year’s eve, after they go under a cloth dragon dancing on the street of Chinatown. The issue in this book is similar to that in Zen Shorts. The illustrator Bruce Degen appears unaware of the distinction between Japanese and Chinese culture. The picture book is an odd blending of Japanese and Chinese cultural motifs throughout. Pictures of clothes that resemble traditional Japanese kimonos, shoes that show features of Japanese geta sandals which have a separate heel, people whose countenance and hairstyle look more Japanese than Chinese, abound. When the book introduces kung fu, the Chinese martial art, two barefoot men were shown practicing in the typical white Japanese karate uniform. As to the umbrella that appears a few times on Ms. Frizzle’s sandal, one only needs to look at a book about Japan (See, for example, the title page of Japan by Harlinah Whyte, 1998, in Countries of the World series) to know that the umbrella (wagasa) is a favored visual motif in Japanese culture. The only time I would recommend this book to anybody is to provide an excellent example of juvenile books that try to teach young readers about a culture that the author does not know much about.

Freedman, Russell.
Confucius: The Golden Rule. Scholastic, 2002.
(2003 Skipping Stones Honor Awards; 2003 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People)
[Education S Collection; CCB] SB. C748f

In this biography of Confucius, the French Canadian artist Frédéric Clément contributes exquisite ink drawings that well convey an ancient Chinese atmosphere. In one picture, however, he gives Qilin, a Chinese legendary creature, exactly the same look as that of the unicorn in Western folklore. (Freedman & Clément, p. 32) Qilin, or Kylin as it is sometimes spelled in English, exists in Chinese folklore just like Chinese dragons do. Typical of folklore, variant depictions of Qilin are found in text and artistic work. Ci Yuan, a Chinese dictionary, defines Qilin as an auspicious creature in the legend. Male ones are called Qi, and female ones Lin. Qilin has the body of a deer, the tail of an ox, the hooves of a wolf, and a single horn in the forehead. (1979) In fact, Qilin has been conveniently translated into “Chinese unicorn” in English. But the single horn is not always mentioned in descriptions of Qilin. In a photo taken by a tourist from the Summer Palace of Beijing, the statue of Qilin seems to have two horns on its dragon head. A nearby board explains to tourists that it was cast during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795). These variants come as no surprise for an animal that exists only in people’s imagination and artistic creation. Evidence shows that Chinese themselves may not be sure what Qilin looks like. A painting of Qilin, now stored in the National Palace Museum of Taiwan, was completed in year 1414, when a giraffe was brought to China for the first time and touted as Qilin. Since Qilin was said to appear in the greatest time only, the emperor Zhu Di was flattered and willingly convinced. He asked his royal artist to draw a picture of this “auspicious creature,” and a member of the Imperial Academy to write a poem about it extolling his brilliant governance. (Zhang, 1997)

Given such a variety of Qilin’s possible form, I cannot argue that it is a cultural error to give Qilin the look of a unicorn, generally depicted with the body and head of a horse, the hind legs of a stag, the tail of a lion, and a straight spiraled horn growing from its forehead. The only person who knows better may be Confucius, who, as the story goes, saw a Qilin not long before his death.

Mah, Adeline Yen, 1937-
Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society. HarperCollins, c2005.
[Education S Collection] S. M277c

This fantasy story is set in China during World War II, when U.S. allies helped China in fighting Japanese invaders. Of well over one thousand English-language juvenile books about the Second World War, this is one of the few that brings readers to the Pacific theatre of the war. In the story, several teenagers practice martial arts and rescue American pilots who bombed Tokyo under General Jimmy Doolittle’s command in 1942. The author has taken artistic liberty with a few historical and factual details, some of which she clarifies in the “Historical Note” at the end, others she does not. For example, readers may cry out loud for an explanation why a Muslim, a Jew, and a pious Buddhist never find it a problem to make, cook, and eat dumplings filled with “minced pork.” Interestingly, inaccuracy is found in the “Historical Note,” too. Citing a source published in 1971, it gives somewhat outdated information about the Japanese germ warfare in China, where lethal and endemic diseases such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid, plague, anthrax, and paratyphoid were spread, killing inestimable number of Chinese soldiers, civilians, and even accidentally infecting Japanese troops. The commencement of the Japanese germ warfare, as new evidence is being discovered, has been pushed earlier to the year of 1940, when fleas and grain contaminated with plague were dumped to a city called Ningbo in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang. (Dear & Foot, 2001; Harris, 2002, p. 100; Wolf, 1998)

DuTemple, Lesley A.
The Great Wall of China. Lerner, 2003.
[Education S Collection]: S.951 D951g

Two funny mistakes are found in this nonfiction book on the history of the Great Wall. The painting of book burning on page 27 is reversed, an error betrayed by the four reversed Chinese characters on the top-left corner. If you look at page 28 against strong light, the painting that comes through is in the correct position.

On page 72, a photo shows President Nixon visiting the Great Wall on Feb. 24, 1972. The Chinese man standing beside him, the book tells us, is Chairman Mao Tse-tung. Chairman Mao, at the age of 78, was actually too feeble to climb up the Great Wall with Nixon. The man’s name was Li Xiannian, who became the Chinese President in 1983. This web page at the George Mason University Library provides 59 photos that record President Nixon’s trip to China, and No. 40, slightly different from the one in the book, also shows the Nixons, Secretary of State William Rogers, Li Xiannian and his wife, at the Great Wall.

Other cultural misrepresentations

Finally, I take this opportunity to point out that Tikki Tikki Tembo is not a Chinese folktale, even though the author Arlene Mosel notes so and the library catalog uses “Folklore–China” as its subject. A heated discussion and full clarification of the tale’s origin can be found at Child_lit Listserv Discussion Archive. Note that a posting submitted by Ariko Kawabata on June 7, 1998 says, “This kind of a story, of a child who has a long long absurd name, is a Japanese old folk tale. We are very much familiar with this funny story, which is made into a ‘Rakugo,’ the traditional story telling by a professional to make people laugh.”


Bishop, R. S. (1991). Evaluating Books by and about African Americans. In M. V. Lindgren (ed.), The Multiculored Mirror: Cultural Substance in Literature for Children and Young Adults. (pp. 33-44). Fort Atkinson, WI: Highsmith.

Child_lit listserv discussion archive: Tikki Tikki Tembo and cultural accuracy in folktales. (2004). Retrieved April 30, 2006 from http://www.fairrosa.info/disc/tikki.html

Ci yuan. (1979-1983). (Rev. ed.). Beijing: Shang wu.

Dear, I. C. B., & Foot, M. R. D. (Eds.). (2001). The Oxford companion to World War II. Oxford University Press. Retrieved March 24, 2006, from http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t129.e186

Devloo, E. (1969). An etymological Chinese-English dictionary. Taibei: Hua Ming Press.

Forest, H. (1996). Wisdom tales from around the world. Little Rock: August House.

Harris, S. H. (2002). Factories of death: Japanese biological warfare, 1932-1945, and the American cover-up (Rev. ed.). New York: Routledge.

Lindgren, M. V. (1991). The multicolored mirror: Cultural substance in literature for children and young adults. Fort Atkinson, Wis: Highsmith.

Mosel, A., & Lent, B. (1968). Tikki Tikki Tembo. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Whyte, H. (1998). Japan. Milwaukee, WI: G. Stevens Pub.

Wolf, M. (1998, April 6). Bubonic warfare: Denver couple survived 1940 biological attack on China. [Electronic version]. Denver Rocky Mountain News, pp. 3d. Retrieved March 24, 2006, from NewsFile collection database.

Young, E. (1998). The lost horse: A Chinese folktale. San Diego: Silver Whistle/Harcourt Brace.

Zhang, Z. (1997). Qilin of the Ming dynasty. Retrieved April 28, 2006 from http://book.tngs.tn.edu.tw/database/scientieic/content/1997/00050329/0005.htm
Prepared by:
Minjie Chen
Doctoral Student
Graduate School of Library and Information Science, UIUC