Earlier this month, Brigitte Duzan featured Jin Jin 金近, one of the major Chinese children’s writers of the twentieth century, on her website Chineseshortstories. Inspired by Brigitte’s biography of Jin Jin (in French), we have created a very similar one in English. Brigitte also has a special interest in Chinese films, for which she has a second website Chinesemovies. Both of these sites are easy to navigate and always full of interesting information! Thank you, Brigitte!
Jin Jin started writing children’s literature during the War of Resistance against Japan in the 1930s and 1940s. He spent a lot of time with children who had experienced tragedy and hardship. He listened to their stories, and often wrote about them. After 1949, he became a key figure in the world of children’s literature, and his stories have been published in countless editions. Some of Jin Jin’s stories have also been made into animated films: Little Cat Goes Fishing 《小猫钓鱼》 (1952); Picking Mushrooms 《采蘑菇》 (1953); The Little Carp and Dragon’s Gate 《小鲤鱼跳龙门》 (1958); and The Fox and the Hunter 《狐狸打猎人》 (1978).
A poor child keen to learn
Jin Jin (real name: Yu Zhiwen 余知温) was born in 1915 in a village near the coastal town of Songsha 崧厦, in Shaoxing (Zhejiang). His earliest experience of the arts was the travelling theatre that came to Songsha from time to time – particularly at festival times and for temple fairs – and performed Shaoxing opera on a makeshift stage.
Born into a poor farming family, Jin Jin was expected to help in the fields, even when his feet froze in winter for lack of socks. Yet, he still managed to attend a local private school for four years. In 1927, at the age of twelve, he was sent to Shanghai to be an apprentice in a fabric store. But when his master beat him for inaccurately measuring a piece of cloth, he ran away. With his uncle’s support, he managed to study for another two to three years. His teacher during that time made a deep impression on him. The teacher would tell the students stories, and would read aloud the best pieces of homework, highlighting the interesting points. Jin Jin’s homework was often selected in this way.
But this arrangement could not continue, and Jin Jin became a corrector in a printing house. However, he was so keen to learn that the library became his school, and he borrowed books to read at night.
Jin Jin joins the world of children’s publishing
In 1935, thanks to his sister’s neighbours, Jin Jin found work at the Children’s Daily 《儿童日报》in Shanghai. Two years later, he was assistant editor there – one of the other editors fell ill, and Jin Jin was asked to replace him, editing the news of the day. It was also in 1935 that Jin Jin published his first children’s story: Old Hawk’s Rise and Fall 《老鹰鹞的升沉》 in the children’s journal Little Friends 《小朋友》.
Shortly after the onset of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), Jin Jin lost his job and went to work in a reform centre for homeless children in Chongqing. There, in addition to teaching and supervising the children, dealing with petty theft, fights and runaways, he also created texts and told stories. These children had all experienced personal tragedy in their lives: some had been orphans since they were born and had survived by pilfering; others had seen their homes bombed by the Japanese, and watched their parents die in the bombing; and others had travelled very long distances to escape misery.
“These children showed me how important culture is in circumstances like theirs,” said Jin Jin, noting how stories can speak directly to the imagination and inspire dreams.
Chongqing and Shanghai: birth of a storyteller
Still in Chongqing, in 1944, Jin Jin became a translator for a local office of a British press agency. He also made the acquaintance of several Chinese writers, including Xia Yan 夏衍 who was working at the Xinhua news agency, and he discovered foreign authors such as Tolstoy and Romain Rolland. This was a rich period for the formation of his thinking and his personality. Here, he was among other writers – and although they were not writing for children, they were open-minded and interested in his work.
After the war ended, in 1946, he returned to Shanghai, and devoted himself to writing. He published some short articles in the “Society” supplement of the Wenhui Bao 《文汇报》, as well as some accounts of the suffering of children during the war. These included: The Little Monk’s Prayer Book 《小和尚法本》, The Land of Good People《好人国》, and The Dark Magician《黑心魔术家》. In 1948, he published a collection of stories, Red Monster Face 《红鬼脸壳》, and a collection of poems for children The Life of Little Mao 《小毛的生活》. These works reflect the darkness of the period, but also the author’s great creativity and love for children.
A popular author in New China
In 1949, Jin Jin went, with key people from Shanghai, to the first national conference of representatives of the art world. This was the moment when his professional career as a writer took off. He wrote film scripts, and also wrote for children. He became a member of the China Writers Association (CWA), where he was second in command of the branch for children’s literature.
In the early years of the People’s Republic, much attention was paid to the development of children’s literature. Jin Jin often met with writers Ye Shengtao 叶圣陶 and Zhang Tianyi 张天翼 to discuss the best way to write for children. Working for the CWA, Jin Jin helped Zhang Tianyi to organise events promoting children’s literature, through which he met Bing Xin 冰心, to whom he became very close. All four of these writers – Jin Jin, Ye Shengtao, Zhang Tianyi and Bing Xin are important names in Chinese children’s literature.
In the 1950s Jin Jin lived in a little school in the western part of Beijing. He would take part in children’s activities during the day, and write in the evenings, the children bringing him food so he wouldn’t get hungry. This was how he wrote The Head of the Team is Troubled 《小队长的苦恼》 and Classmate So Confused《最糊涂的同学》.
In the winter of 1957, the Central Committee called a meeting of people working in the art world, and asked them to go and live with poor families in the most remote corners of the country. Jin Jin registered to go to Zhejiang. At the end of December, he arrived in Hangzhou with his family. After Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), he took a bed-roll and an umbrella, and set off for a little village in the Tianmu Mountains, in the district of Lin’an, where, for the next three years, he looked after three orphans. The youngest, Little Mao, had lost his parents when he was ten, and had only a sheep to keep him company. This child brought him beans at night so that Jin Jin would not be writing on an empty stomach. Jin Jin told the story of these children in his novel The Three Orphans 《三个孤儿》.
He returned to Beijing in 1963, where he edited the journal Children’s Literature 《儿童文学》. During the Cultural Revolution, children’s fairy stories were banned. Jin Jin was sent to a cadre school, and did not write for over a decade. When he started writing again in 1977, he published over seventy children’s stories very rapidly (for a list of his publications see Baidu).
A Celebrity after the Cultural Revolution
In 1979, as China was opening up, Jin Jin published a new collection, aptly titled Stories Brought By the Spring Wind 《春风吹来的童话》, all of which he had written between 1946 and 1978. This was re-isssued many times after 1980, each time with new illustrations. Stories, poems and new pieces were published in the collection The Little Buffalo with Black Eyes 《小牛黑眼儿》.
In 1978, one of Jin Jin’s best-known stories was adapted into an animated film, The Fox and the Hunter 《狐狸打猎人》 . The title translates more directly as “The Fox that Hunted the Hunter”. The story, apparently based on an old Oroquen tale, is about a fox that pretends to be the scariest wolf ever (with two very long teeth, three eyes, four ears, five legs… – the attributes increasing with every telling of the story), and a lazy young hunter, who falls for the ruse, even hands over bullets to the fox. He is only saved by an older hunter, who sees what has happened, shoots the fox and his wolf-collaborator dead, and reminds the young man that a hunter is nothing without his gun.
In 1987, Jin Jin had a cerebral haemorrhage, after which he could no longer hold a pen. He died two years later.
Jin Jin’s work continues to be published. To mark the tenth anniversary of his death, a collection of 25 of his best-known and best-loved children’s stories was published with the title Red Monster Face: The Collected Works of Jin Jin 《红鬼脸壳(金近童话全集)》. These included the title piece, The Dark Magician《黑心魔术家》, The Land of Good People《“好”人国》, The Yellow Balloon《黄气球》, The Mouse and the Kaleidoscope 《老鼠和万花筒》, Autumn Wind Sister《秋风姐姐》, Thank you, Little Cat《谢谢小花猫》…
A storyteller who was close to children
Jin Jin himself said, “Beauty is the soul of children’s stories. Children’s stories need beauty, and this kind of beauty comes from the thoughts and feelings of the characters in the stories, and is not added from outside.”
Bing Xin, who knew him well, said he was close to children and spoke their language. She admired him greatly, and there is a poignant inscription by her on Jin Jin’s grave: “You sprinkle spring water on little shoots.”
Jin Jin lived with children, wrote their stories, then read the stories to them and waited for their comments. And he did this all throughout his life – in 1986, having finished the first part of the story The Silly Fox 《傻狐狸》, he said to his daughter, “Give this to little Xing Xing and ask her what she thinks of it.” When his daughter returned the following Sunday, she said, “Xing Xing was so happy to hear the story that she started dancing. She’d like me to take it back with me so I can read it to her again.”
For more about Jin Jin (in Chinese) and photographs of the author, see 颜学琴: 《你为小苗洒上泉水—— 忆金近》 (dated 8 Aug 2016, viewed 25 Dec 2016)