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  • A Survey of Children's Literature in China
  • Huang Qingyun (bio)

The development of children's literature in its early stages in China was similar to that of other countries. It began with the oral literature handed down from one generation to another. Since China has a long history, its cultural heritage is very rich and very ancient. Fables were being recorded in China in the "Spring and Autumn Period" of 770-470 B.C. Many fables were quoted by scholars and politicians during that period and they have been widely known ever since.

But children's literature did not emerge as a distinct and independent form until the 1920s. During its long feudal period, China regarded its children as adults in miniature or the possessions of adults. Their duty was to obey the teachings of their forefathers, and so-called childhood education was no more than learning the doctrines of Confucius. With the outbreak of the May 4th movement in 1919, an anti-imperialist, anti-feudal, and cultural wave swept across the country and brought forth revolutions in all cultural areas. Children's literature was born in that period, in the new light of democracy and science advocated by the leading thinkers of that time.

Previous to this time, all books for children had been written in classical Chinese, which was vastly different from the spoken language and too difficult for children to understand. Moreover, China had undergone a long period of chaos and poverty: there was no system of public education, and extracurricular reading became a luxury for children. Few children's books were published. There were, however, a few pioneers. The cradle of Chinese children's literature was guarded by two great writers, Lu Xun and Mao Dun. Lu Xun was the leader and standard bearer of Chinese literature and his famous remark, "Save the children," appealed to many writers. And Lu Xun himself wrote many articles commenting on children's books, criticizing the old and stale instruction and encouraging new and progressive ideas. Mao Dun, in the meantime, silently did a great deal of work in editing, translating, and writing books for children.

And there are other great names that should be mentioned. Yeh Shengtao, even today a master of language, wrote many fairy tales for children. His fairy tale collection, The Scarecrow, was published in 1923. Lu Xun called it the foundation stone of Chinese children's literature. The theme of The Scarecrow is that we should see the world [End Page 23] through the eyes of the scarecrow, who had a deep sympathy for all the people suffering around him but could not move a bit to lend them a hand. The scarecrow symbolized the position of the intellectuals of the period. Its companion piece, The Stone Statue of the Ancient Hero, published in 1931, is less prominent. It is a satire, emphasizing that true power comes from the common people, not the dictator. Both books combine realism with romanticism in a wonderful way. His stories distinguish themselves by their keenness of observation, profoundity of thought, rich imagination, and eloquence. They have impressed young and old readers for half a century.

Another milestone in children's literature was reached by Bing Xin, the famous woman writer. Her masterpiece, Letters to the Young Readers, brought her great honor in Chinese literature. These letters are heart-to-heart talks in poetic language. Her style is personal and emotional. She inspires young hearts with the love between mother and child, and with friendship at home and abroad. The full display of sentiment in this book certainly defied and conquered the coolness and dullness of the writing in the Chinese classics.

In the 1940s, there were two other pioneering writers, Yan Wenjing and Zhang Tian-yi. Both are famous as writers for adults as well as children, but it is to children's literature that they devoted themselves and made remarkable contributions. Like Yeh Shengtao, they combine realism and romanticism in their work, but if Yeh Shengtao's short stories and Bing Xin's letters are sombre and full of sentiment, the works of Yan Wenjing and Zheng Tian-yi are optimistic, full of joy and hope, and...


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