by Minjie Chen, Jongsun Wee, David Jacobson, and Reiko Nakaigawa Lee
During 2005 and 2006, amidst a sharp deterioration of Japan’s relations with her Asian neighbors, four Japanese picture book authors and illustrators called on their colleagues in China and Korea to address their mutual lack of trust–with picture books. Their intent was to “document the past honestly, share today’s sorrow, and create a peaceful tomorrow together.” The result was the Japan-China-Korea Peace Picture Book Project, comprising eleven titles – four from Japan, three from China, and four from Korea – to be translated and published in all three countries. This post will introduce the three Chinese picture books and one Korean title from the series. For details on the background of the collaborative publishing project and for summaries of more of the Japanese and Korean titles in the series, check out the guest post “The Japan-China-Korea Peace Picture Book Project” at A Fuse #8 Production, a children’s literature review blog by Elizabeth Bird.
The three Chinese titles from the “China-Japan-Korea Picture Books for Peace” publishing project share distinct features. First, they join a growing body of Chinese children’s literature that moves away from idealizing heroic military combat in favor of depicting the civilian experience during World War II. Guerrilla warfare and combat stories used to dominate Chinese popular culture and juvenile literature about the Sino-Japanese War. With such telling titles as Little Soldier Chang Ka-tse and The Railway Guerrillas, these exciting stories suggested how Communist Party members—valiant, resilient, selfless, and typically male—seemingly single-handedly led Chinese people in defeating the Japanese invaders. Consequently, a whole generation of Chinese readers grew up with a cursory understanding of the impact of the war on civilians and everyday life. The years between the late 1990s and the mid-2000s saw initial endeavors to address the thematic gap in children’s reading materials. Notable among them were illustrated stories, graphic novels, and juvenile nonfiction about the challenging topics of the Nanjing Massacre, “comfort women,” and Japan’s biological warfare, as well as other wartime atrocities.
Second, all three picture books resulted from multigenerational story sharing and collaboration. All the authors and illustrators were of the postwar generation, but they drew heavily upon their own family oral/written narratives to reimagine wartime life. A Fan of Peking Opera, written and illustrated by Yao Hong, is a fictional story set shortly before the fall of Nanjing–then China’s capital city–based on interviews with the author’s mother and the latter’s essay memoirs. The Blazing City: 1938 is about the destruction of Changsha, Hunan Province by fire during the war. The book is written by Cai Gao, a native of Changsha, who blended her grandfather, uncle, and aunt’s accounts of the tragic fire with her own childhood memory of the city, and teamed up with her daughter Cai Aozi to illustrate the book. A Story About Two Old Photos, written and illustrated by Cen Long, is a fictional account based on the life of his father Cen Jiawu (岑家梧, 1912-1966), a pioneer Chinese anthropologist.
It is worth pointing out that the vast majority of canonical Chinese works about the Sino-Japanese War are by male writers. Of the three picture books, two are the fruition of mother-daughter collaborations. Both feature a girl narrator, again a welcome break from the dominance of male protagonists in the canon.
The full title of the book is A Fan of Peking Opera: Qinhuai River, 1937. A nine-year-old girl is staying at her grandmother’s house next to the Qinhuai River in central Nanjing when a stranger moves into one of the spare rooms. Uncle Xiao, as the unnamed girl addresses him, is a Peking Opera star and is scheduled to perform for two months in the city. The little girl is dazzled by his show. On the stage Uncle Xiao transforms into beautiful women, playing a lonely consort in one song, a legendary woman warrior in the next, and a graceful dancing goddess in another. (Cross-dressing is a standard feature of traditional Chinese opera.) Even his vocal exercises by the river in the mornings attract a big crowd. This is the eve of the fall of Nanjing. The approaching enemy will rob the surreal beauty from the little girl’s life—but not from her tender memory.
The year is 1938. Chinese cities have fallen one by one into the grip of the Japanese army. Residents in Changsha are packing and getting ready to evacuate. However, in the dead of night, fire tears through the city, blazing for days before reducing it to a vast expanse of scorched ruins. The story is narrated by a little girl who yearns to reunite with her soldier father but relishes her life in the bustling city. In accordance with the young narrator’s limited knowledge, the book does not delve into the cause of the tragic fire (The Chinese army planned the fire itself in a desperate attempt to minimize resources that might be seized by the advancing army, but apparently lost control in execution). Dark brown charcoal drawings present the city in busy panoramic views, capturing the comforting warmth of life before the disaster, the escalating chaos, and the nightmarish, unrecognizable ruin in the aftermath.
A Story About Two Old Photos is narrated by the son of the protagonist, Cen. While seeking education in Japan, Cen has befriended Yamamoto, a fellow Japanese classmate. Both are brought up by their widowed mothers and they bond like a family. When the Sino-Japanese War breaks out and Cen decides to return to China, he leaves Yamamoto with a treasured photo of himself and his mother (the narrator’s grandmother). After the fall of Guangzhou, Cen’s family makes its escape and they become refugees. When an air raid attacks the weary civilians, the grandma shields the toddler with her body. The boy is unscathed, but the grandma never wakes up from the pool of blood. After the end of the war, Cen receives a letter from Yamamoto’s mother, who tells him that her son had been drafted into the army and killed on the battlefield. She encloses Cen’s photo as well as gives one of herself and Yamamoto for keepsake.
The three books repeat the same message: that war is senseless; it destroys lives and damages what makes lives worth living–beauty, joy, and relationships. In these stories the heroes are not Communist fighters, but survivors who not only live to tell the stories, but also refuse to let war take away their capacity for appreciating beauty, experiencing joy, and choosing love over hate. One thing to be aware of regarding publishing practices in China is that children’s literature does not necessarily offer clear paratextual and publication information to distinguish fact from fiction. All three books are loosely based upon or inspired by the real wartime experience of the authors’ family members, but blend in enough personal information to be mistaken as works of nonfiction.
Corn, one of the Korean titles of the series, is an extended poem written from a young boy’s perspective about his experiences of war. On an ordinary day, the boy plants corn seeds with his mother and brother. He is so excited to see the corn grow. Having come from a family with very few material possessions, this is a great source of joy for the boy. Before he can harvest it, however, war breaks out. The boy and his family rush to escape. When the boy’s mother and father think about the hometown they left, the boy thinks about the corn–and happiness–he leaves behind.
Author Kwon Jung-saeng was born in Tokyo in 1937. He moved to Korea right after its liberation from Japan and was thirteen at the outbreak of the Korean War. One of Korea’s most beloved children’s authors, he wrote the poems in Corn when he was in elementary school. Despite his fame, Kwon suffered from poverty and ill health all his life. In his novels, he depicts children from marginalized groups, touching readers’ hearts.
Illustrator Kim Hwan-young amplifies the emotions in Kwon’s poetry with intense colors, rendered in thick brush strokes of oil paint. He depicts the horrific situation of the war with bright yellow and red flames, the boy’s sadness when he was forced to leave his home in melancholy blues and greens. The thick textures, rough brush strokes, and saturated color tones match well with the strong emotions the boy experiences in wartime.
Summaries of additional titles in the Japan-China-Korea Peace Picture Book Project, including Kwon Yoon-duck’s Flower Grandma (Korea), Seizo Tashima’s Can You Hear My Voice? (Japan), and Keiko Hamada’s What Is Peace? (Japan), can be found at A Fuse #8 Production.
“The Japan-China-Korea Peace Picture Book Project” by David Jacobson, Minjie Chen, Reiko Nakaigawa Lee, and Jongsun Wee, at A Fuse #8 Production.
Publisher Doshinsha’s listing of the Japanese edition [URL]
Publisher Sakyejul’s listing of the Korean edition [URL]
Minjie Chen is a librarian at Princeton University’s Cotsen Children’s Library and author of The Sino-Japanese War and Youth Literature: Friends and Foes on the Battlefield (Routledge, 2016).
Jongsun Wee is associate professor of elementary and early childhood education at Winona State University in Winona, MN. In the summer of 2019, she studied picture books about war as a fellow at the International Youth Library in Munich, Germany.
David Jacobson is a writer, Japanese translator, and author of Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko. A board member of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, he is currently researching the biographies of Beate Sirota Gordon and Jella Lepman.
Reiko Nakaigawa Lee specializes in translating children’s literature from English to Japanese. She co-translated Newbery Medal honor recipient Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow as well as titles in the popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Wonder series. Now living in Hong Kong, she assisted with the 2019 translation and re-publication of Keiko Hamada’s What Is Peace? in Chinese.
Edited by Helen Wang. Thanks go to Faye Di for procuring copies of the Chinese titles reviewed in this post.