Professor Qiuying Lydia Wang is an accomplished scholar in literacy studies. Born and raised in northern China, she now teaches at the Oklahoma State University. We collaborated for more than a year organizing the “Border Crossing in Children’s Literature” Symposium and brought dozens of researchers to the Cotsen Children’s Library, Princeton University last month to exchange their latest scholarship on international, multicultural, and translated children’s literature. We were able to steal a little time after the intense work to relax in a café with Helen. As we were chatting, Lydia told us about her childhood reading and related the story that had touched her the most. We were spellbound by both her retelling and her personal story, and asked if she would write it up for us. We are delighted to share it here.
Teardrops of the Christmas Tree
Qiuying Lydia Wang
Translated by Helen Wang
I was quite a sickly child. On days when I couldn’t go to school, my working parents had no choice but to leave me home all by myself. We didn’t have a television, never mind a computer, and I passed the time listening to the radio and reading.
In those days families were bigger, and it was quite a struggle to keep warm and get enough to eat. My parents were able to buy a few “leisure books” (books that weren’t textbooks) for us, and that was already a luxury. At home we had magazines like Children’s Literature儿童文学, Fiction Monthly小说月刊 and Novella中篇小说, and a few classics of Chinese and foreign literature, like Journey to the West西游记 and Gone with the Wind.
I don’t remember my parents ever reading with us. They were busy chasing everyday life, and didn’t have any spare time. But my family valued reading, and my sister was such a bookworm. She was often found with a book in hand, reading and chuckling, oblivious to her surroundings. She would get so caught up in a story that she forgot to eat. I have my sister to thank for my love of books!
You can’t always name a particular reason why a book or a story appeals to you as a child. Of all the stories I have read, the one that stands out in my memory is “Teardrops of the Christmas Tree,” which I read in Children’s Literature. For some reason I associate this story with Wang Anyi, a woman writer I adore.
The story is set in a school in Beijing, in the midst of winter. One of the girls in the class – I’ll call her Xiaoli, but I can’t remember what her name is – brings a German advent calendar to school. Her father has been on a work trip to Germany and has brought it back for her. There are twenty-four little doors – starting from the first of December, you can open one door every day, and when they are all open, it’s Christmas Day. There is a little surprise gift behind each door, and Xiaoli has brought the calendar to school, so that the whole class can share the excitement.
The story is told in the first person, by a girl narrator. She describes how for the next two weeks, Xiaoli becomes the focus of attention, how they cannot wait to go to school to see her open the next little door, and try to guess what the next little surprise might be. But behind the joy simmer envy and jealousy.
One day, at playtime, the little girl has tummy ache, and is sent back to the empty classroom to rest. Curiosity (and jealousy) gets the better of her, and no one being around, she takes down the calendar and opens the rest of the little doors.
When the children come back from playtime, Xiaoli discovers that the advent calendar has gone, and bursts into tears. The other children are upset too, and the class descends into chaos.
The teacher asks if anyone can explain what has happened. When no one speaks up, all eyes turn to a quiet, thin little boy nicknamed Stubby. His family is so desperately poor that he has to pick up discarded pencil stubs so that he can do his homework. When Stubby’s father comes to remove him from the school, he doesn’t say a word. Stubby never steps foot inside the school again.
The other children grow up and go to college, and then find jobs in other cities. The little girl never sees Stubby again. But every winter, and every time she goes back to Beijing, she thinks about him, and feels full of remorse. She longs for a chance to apologize to him. Eventually, she goes to visit their old teacher, and the whole story comes out, the secret that she has suppressed inside her for so many years. The teacher says nothing for a while, then silently wipes away the tears at the corners of his eyes. Finally, he says that Stubby has died fighting for them all in the Sino-Vietnamese War.
I can’t tell you how many times I read that story when I was little. And each time, I would weep when I reached this point in the story. I’d love to read it again, but I’ve never been able to find it. With the passing of time, I can’t remember all the details of the story, not even the girl’s name, but the impact of that story was so strong! It has stayed with me all my life.
I (Minjie) am doubly moved by Lydia’s essay, first by the short story that she shared, and secondly by witnessing the lasting impact that literature has upon a tender mind. Lydia could not be 100% certain of its author, much less recall the names of all the fictional characters (except for a hurtful nickname), but retold the story in gripping detail nonetheless. I have known Lydia as a research partner and a close friend for almost a decade. Learning about her most memorable childhood reading has deepened my understanding of an old friend in a way that no other interaction does. On a personal level, I find it fitting that Lydia, one of the kindest and most generous friends I have met, had, as a child, a profound appreciation of a story about missteps and remorse. On a professional level, I find it a great blessing that Lydia, a beloved college professor who educates pre-service teachers, had been so impressed by a cautionary tale that warns of the grave errors that educational authorities can make, and the long-term impact of such errors on students, staff and their families.
Lydia’s account sent me down a path of bibliographical sleuthing. As Lydia suspected, the author of “Teardrops of the Christmas Tree” is likely not Wang Anyi王安忆, a leading figure in contemporary Chinese literature, but another woman writer with a similar background—Cheng Wei程玮. Both were born in Jiangsu province in the 1950s. Early in her literary career, Wang Anyi was one of the editors of Children’s Epoch儿童时代, the influential children’s magazine founded by Soong Ching-ling (Madame Sun Yat-sen). That perhaps contributed to Lydia’s mix-up.
Cheng Wei, the famous young adult author, now based in Germany (Image source: Eastday.com).
Cheng Wei is an author of young adult novels, a script writer, and translator, who rose to stardom during the 1980s. She is our best guess because one of her short stories is titled “Teardrops of the Christmas Tree” 圣诞树上的泪珠, first appearing in Literature and Arts for Adolescents少年文艺 (Nanjing edition) in 1981 and reprinted in an anthology of her short stories White Shells白色的贝壳 (2008). Cheng is best known for her YA novel A Girl’s Red Hairpin少女的红发卡and script of the award-winning Chinese coming-of-age movie In Their Teens豆蔻年华, which was a huge hit in 1989. Cheng now lives in Germany and still writes children’s literature for Chinese readers. Her latest works include Sundays with Alice series周末与爱丽丝聊天 and Sundays with Milan series周末与米兰聊天, with cross-cultural themes.