An Overview of Children’s Books in Mainland China Since the 20th Century

At the start of the 20th century, after years of observation from living in China, John MacGowan, a Belfast-born missionary, started writing about the eastern country. He recorded and explained Chinese life through their religious and cultural values, as well as other social environment details (W.K. 2002). In his book Sidelight on Chinese Life, he wrote (Macgowan, 1907):

“[T]here is not today a single child’s book in China, and no fairy stories for children, and no household rhymes that can be bought at the booksellers, and put into the hands of the little ones in the nursery.”

But soon after the book was published, the genre of children’s books gradually grew as a trend in the Chinese publishing industry through an increase in foreign translation titles and domestic authors for children’s books. This essay is going to analyze the development of the Chinese children’s book industry since the 1990s, which has corresponded with some essential moments in Chinese history that shaped the nation’s entire cultural industry and continues to have a direct or indirect influence on the market today.


Books for Children

MacGowan’s assertion was, to some extent, exaggerated, but summarized the main situation of Chinese children’s book publishing during and before the time of the late nineteenth century in China. Under the influence of the Chinese imperial examination system and Confucianism, young Chinese people were attempting to read books that functioned as literacy primers, such as the Three Character Classic and One Hundred Family Surnames (Bai, 2005), or books such as The Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety that aimed to educate people about Confucian values as the key virtue in Chinese society (Mo & Shen, 1999). Rather than stories created for kids, those classics were actually for adults, but were also suitable to help children learn Chinese characters and moral values (Li, 2004).

The question is, if those classics, which occupied the role of being the main reading materials for Chinese kids for thousands of years, cannot be considered as children’s books, then what exactly is the definition of a children’s book?

There is no consistent answer among authors, scholars, publishers and other related parties in the industry. According to the Encyclopeadia Britannica, it is defined as:

“The body of written works and accompanying illustrations produced in order to entertain or instruct young people. The genre encompasses a wide range of works, including acknowledged classics of world literature, picture books and easy-to-read stories written exclusively for children, and fairy tales, lullabies, fables, folk songs, and other primarily orally transmitted materials.”

Since what is regarded as “work written for a child” is not static through time, a lot of published work intended for adults have gradually been accepted as being specific for children, such as the novels of Charles Dickens. It is unlikely that Chinese classics were ever meant to “entertain or instruct” children as an independent group of readers. Therefore, they are hardly to be included in the genre of children’s books.

Chinese people adopted the concept of “books for children” quite late, at a time in history when translated children’s books were introduced to the Chinese public from other countries.


Translation Works from the West

During the last several decades of the Qing Dynasty (the last imperial dynasty of China) huge changes were happening. Chinese people had held the belief for years that China was the greatest nation in the world. Their failure in war with Japan in 1895 (宁夏日报,2004), forced most Chinese people to realize the urgency for China to re-open the “gate” and learn from the West about modern technologies and social systems. In the cultural sector, this resulted in an upsurge in Chinese translation works for foreign books (Li, 2004).

Although the main purpose of encouraging translations of books during that period was to enlighten Chinese people with knowledge for fighting back against invaders and reforming the feudal society to a democratic “new world,” it created an unprecedented social environment for book importing. Moreover, the development of the printing industry during that period offered possibilities for those books to be broadly accessible by Chinese readers, including children.

During the twenty years between 1898 and 1919, the number of translated books for children was around 120 in total (Li, 2004). The contents of those translations began with globally popular children’s books, such as One Thousand and One Arabian NightsThe Grimm Brothers’ TalesAesop’s FablesWilhelm Hauff’s Tales and Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen. The selection criteria for translation was based on popularity of the books rather than the suitability for a young Chinese audience (Wen, 2016).

But even before that, translated stories for children first appeared in periodical publications such as The Child’s Paper, established by western missionaries and circulated around China. Although the goal of such publications was mainly to “circulate Christian literature throughout the empire of China” (which led the contents to be more restricted) they played an important role in introducing western literature to children in China and trained (Wen, 2016).


 The Child’s Paper



The Scarecrow: The First Chinese Children’s Book

Growing numbers of translated children’s books also encouraged Chinese authors and artists to create stories for Chinese children, which started growing as a trend in 1919. During this time period, a new culture movement began that advocated the substitution of Wenyan (the Classical Chinese) with Baihua (the standard written form for Mandarin Chinese today) in literary works (Li, 2004).

During the tumultuous time of 1920s, the first Chinese children’s book in history, The Scarecrow, was completed by Yeh Sheng Tao, an influential Chinese author, educator and publisher­ (Edna, 1980). Ye’s idea of children’s literature was first presented in his academic essay “Children’s Concept” (兒童之觀念) , in which he criticized that feudalism affected children’s lives in China and argued youngsters should have their power to understand their surrounding (碧荷, 2008).

Later on, Ye’s fairy tales in The Scarecrow induced the public with the same message that children, rather than narrowing their reading to classic literature only, should acquire a realistic picture of current society and understand their roles during a tumultuous times. Through those easy-to-read fairytales in The Scarecrow, Ye represented human feelings and hopelessness at a time when poverty, wars, and national disasters were inevitable, and for the first in Chinese history treated children as a specific and important group of readers.


The Scarecrow


Early Achievements During 1945-1966

After the second World War, the Chinese children’s book industry had quite a special development. During 1950-1966, before the Cultural Revolution, most picture books were published by one house–Juvenile and Children’s Publishing House (JCPH), which was the first publishing house for youth supported by the government after 1945 (Qi, 2011). Political and educational themes were the main focus of most publications. To create stories that were attractive under ideological framework was not an easy task, especially under the circumstances of the time. China was lacking all resources, including technologies, experts and money. But literature and art creators tried their best to produce some excellent children’s books, either by telling an interesting enough story, or by using illustrations as novel elements in books (Qi, 2011).

For ideological concerns, some authors also integrated romantic elements with the revolutionary stories in their books, which accounted for about 40% of all children’s books (Qi, 2011). Those stories had similar themes that praised patriotism and encouraged sacrifice for the nation. Example includes The Red Flag Flying on The Tree (1960). We can almost tell what the content is just by looking at its title.

Another 40% of picture books were used to transmit moral rules or moral concepts like friendship, sharing and honesty, such as the famous A Radish Coming Back (1955), which was released as a short movie four years later (DouyaHouse, 2008). In the short story, a rabbit finds a carrot. He gave it to his friend, a monkey. Then the monkey gave it to a fawn, and then the fawn gave it to a bear. In the end, as the rabbit goes back home, he finds the carrot is at his home again. In this way, the story suggests friendship is passed from hand to hand (Qi, 2011).


A Radish Coming Back


Another sub-theme of contemporary children’s literature was “fairy tales teaching knowledge.” These stories introduce knowledge directly, such as Where Does Glass Come From published in 1962 (Qi, 2011).

Overall, 1950 to 1966 was the period that Chinese children’s literature had little interactions with western countries, and the quality of the illustrations and designs of those books were hardly comparable with children’s books in other countries. However, it was the time that many original pictures books were born that represented the root of Chinese children’s books. This style still impacts the Chinese children’s book industry today.

Ten-Year Chaos and Post-Cultural Revolution

The Cultural Revolution is always considered a “decade-long retrogression” in Chinese history. The educational system was disrupted; professors and educated youth were sent to the countryside to work as farmers; books were published only for nationalistic purposes or as “a matter of politics” (Edna, 1980). Although reading materials for children and young adults were not expensive and widely available, the whole cultural industry was collapsing since most literary and art workers were not able to continue working.

After the ten-year chaos, the whole country expected things to return to normal before moving forward (Qi, 2012). Books were being republished, and publications were being reissued. But the situation for children’s books publishing was not optimistic.

There were only two specialized children’s publishing houses in the whole country, while “…there were about 200 million children throughout the country with only 200 editors and 20 writers experienced and working in this sectors of publishing,” as summarized during the meeting of National Children’s Literature Work in 1978 (Mo & Shen, 1999).

Directly guided by the central government and supported by local governments, the number of state-owned children’s book publishing houses increased from 2 to 20 soon after that meeting (Rober E, 2003). However, the books published were still not rich in content or high-quality in design. The themes of the stories still focused on limited ideas that meant delivering even stronger and clearer political messages to young readers than in the 1940s and 1950s (Edna, 1980). For example, the story of At Kindergarten (1978) describes children’s school life, but also repetitiously stresses the love of the country in the form of loving Chairman Mao. At the end of the book, all the children are singing the kindergarten song which most kindergartens in China in reality at that time sang every day:

“Sunflowers are smiling in the Sun,

We are Chairman Mao’s good children

Building up good health from small,

We’ll grow up able to answer our country’s call”

For older children, the themes differentiated from younger children through the contents about espionage and war. The main messages in those stories were cooperation, with selflessness of the individual for the group and for the country, which was similar to young children’s stories, but with added violence and hatred of the enemy.

For example, a famous story of Liu Hu-lan, which still appeared in primary school students’ textbooks in 2000, is about a girl from the countryside who loved Chairman Mao, worked hard and studied hard, and decided to devote her life to Communism without fear of death. To set up a moral socialistic guild, the message embedded within children’s books even after the Cultural Revolution is one that still fosters fear and suspicion.

In the children’s literature mentioned above, we can perceive the desire to return to the ordered environment before the Cultural Revolution (Edna, 1980). Although progress and innovations beyond the themes and forms of children’s literature was limited, at least original children’s books were reissued as series and things returned to normal for further development.

The Golden Age of Children’s Books: Successes and Concerns

Entering the 21st century, Chinese publishers have quickened their steps toward the global trend in children’s literature publishing, especially from 2003 to 2013, which is commonly viewed as the “Golden Decade for Children’s Publishing” in China (彭, 2016). With government financial support, a more open marketplace, and improving living standards, Chinese children’s publishing as one of the most competitive but the most promising and fast-growing segments in the Chinese publishing industry, achieving continuous, 2-digit annual revenue growth for 10 years (海,2011). In 2003, the official data from the General Administration of Press and Publication stated that 7,588 children’s book titles were published in China with about 200 million copies and 1.5 billion RMB market value (Fei, 2006).

More recently, people in the publishing industry around the world have been worried about the decline in children’s books over factors such as book over-supply and increasing competition. People in China also held different opinions about what would be going on after the ten-year flourishing development in this sector (Zhang, 2015).

Alongside 220 million under-fourteen children and the rapid growth of the middle class population, which spends their disposable income on education and entertainment, most people hold optimistic attitudes towards the future (Haas, 2017). When the controversial, 40-year one-child policy expired in 2016, it highly enhanced people’s belief that the next decade would be the “real golden age” for children’s books in China, since the number of children born will increase by 8 million (Sutherland, 2016).

After years of efforts from people in the publishing industry, Chinese publishers, agencies and editors aim to provide good publications for Chinese children with both domestic and foreign-imported titles. Chinese parents and young readers are also willing to welcome the same, which is a critical factor attributed to the emergence of the picture book industry.

When there were six foreign titles on the Top-10 bestsellers list on (Haas, 2016); when Harry Potter becomes Chinese children’s hero just as he is to many children in western countries; when China has its own native well-known children’s book writer, such as Hongyin Yang, whose book series of Cat Dairy have sold 30 million copies with a revenue of 480 million RMB (海, 2015); when Chinese readers can make their own choices to buy domestic titles or imported titles… we start to believe that Chinese publishing’s progress in children’s publishing segment is on the right track.

Until this March, when I was working on this essay about the promising future of Chinese children’s books, something seemed to change dramatically.

On March 13th, Financial Times posted an article about the Chinese government planning new regulations for restricting imported children’s books from overseas (Feng, 2017). The official decision has not yet been released, but has already created deep worries and debates among Chinese publishers. According to information from one internal officer in the publishing industry, the plan will reduce the imported number of titles from several thousand to several hundred (Feng, 2017). Although Global News, the Chinese national-owned news media, later on argued the truthfulness of the information from western media outlets, the future of children’s book importing in China is unclear.

When the news came out, people on the supporting side argued that China has enough imported titles and we have already learnt how to publish good children’s book from the west, so it is the right time to support domestic titles instead of competing with imported books (明欣, 2017). But is it a smart choice to protect domestic books by closing the gate of importing and leaving readers without other purchase options? Chinese young readers would be able to read more Chinese domestic writers’ works, which might also be good books, but they will miss more voices from other parts of the world, which is a backward movement in children’s publishing.

Back in the Qing Dynasty, China tried to keep the country being safe from foreign colonists by closing the national gate, which later on resulted in the nation falling behind other developed countries. It also failed to protect its people. To help improve competitive advantages of China’s own children’s books, the government should play a role of encouraging open-communication and a creative environment for writers, publishers and editors on the global stage, rather than becoming a gatekeeper for imported publications.

From the first translated children’s books from the west to thousands of imported titles every year, the development of Chinese children’s book has taken decades of time and effort by generations of people in publishing since the 20th century. If one single regulation can so easily change the whole industry, which took decades to become what it looks like today, the future of the cultural industry in the country is alarming.

Moreover, the cultural exchange between East and West is inevitable today. People are going outside, watching Hollywood movies, going to western universities, and reading books from different countries. To close the door to importing new publications for children is not a good way to encourage good domestic publication and it’s not an easy task, as the market for foreign children’s books in China has already been formed since hundreds of years ago, and won recognition among Chinese readers. The Chinese government might have the power to set up barriers for importing titles, but it would be nothing but a waste of time and money.




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One Response to An Overview of Children’s Books in Mainland China Since the 20th Century

  1. hmcgregor says:

    This is a well-researched essay, rooted in a historical perspective (so obviously I’m inclined to enjoy it) but also making key points about the contemporary publishing industry. Most interesting to me is the parallel history of children’s literature in China and children’s literature in Europe: both begin from an ideologically and politically charged invention of the child as a category. The invention of the child, or of childhood, aligns with the creation of a category of things (books, in this case) that are FOR the child, but because the category of the child is ideologically charged so, too, is the work intended for children. The complexity of this relationship between children and children’s publishing comes across in your argument that Chinese classics were not children’s literature, since they were being used to educate children and thus, arguably, became children’s books through use, if not origin. It’s only later that this didactic function of literature for children leads to the writing of works intended for children in the first place. The particular contexts for children’s lit emerging in China, including the very Marxist-sounding belief that literature should help children understand their role in a complex world, are absolutely fascinating. So, too, is the tension between isolationism, which helps to develop a distinct national flavour in children’s publishing, and transnationalism, which diversifies the market and perhaps drives greater sophistication in publishing. These issues are, of course, issues that exist in Chinese publishing in general, but for the reasons I mention above children’s publishing always seems to exaggerate and highlight the tensions within publishing. It was a pleasure to learn more about what those tensions look like in a Chinese context.

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