Chinese books for young readers

105. The Sino-Japanese War as Portrayed in Youth Literature

On 2 September 2020 there were solemn commemorations in China to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Sino-Japanese War (in Chinese: 抗日战争 kang Ri zhanzheng, or the War of Resistance against Japan). Fought over a span of eight long years from 1937 to 1945, the war upended numerous families, drastically altered the political course of China, and caused social and cultural ramifications that can still be felt three quarters of a century later. Minjie’s book The Sino-Japanese War and Youth Literature: Friends and Foes on the Battlefield (Routledge, 2016) is the first major study of how the Sino-Japanese War has been represented in books for young readers. Long overdue and packed with detail, this is a very important book. Minjie and I talked about it by email this week.

HW: What was the key focus and drive behind your research? What sparked your interest, and how did you approach it?

I studied how the history of the Sino-Japanese War has been reflected in books available to young readers in China. The study also examined how the same topic has been treated in American juvenile fiction as a comparison, as well as the potential role of oral family stories in shaping children’s understanding of history.

I can think of two pivotal moments that prepared me for the topic. The earlier moment was at breakfast time on an ordinary school day when I was young. As usual my dad had the radio on, its silver telescopic antenna tapering towards the ceiling because reception in rural China was not the best. As usual I was only half listening to the boring, and often incomprehensible news broadcast about the grown-ups’ world. There must have been some mention of “Japan,” “biological warfare,” and “war responsibility” by the newsreader, because Dad suddenly interjected angrily, “Your waigong’s (maternal grandfather) youngest son died of the plague spread by the Japanese germ warfare.” I was shocked. The international news struck so close to home, even though I had never met this uncle—who was infected and died as an infant in his mother’s arms—or heard of him before. The sinister nature of the murder, and the revelation that Japan had not expressed remorse or taken responsibility for the crime deviated from the cozy narrative of China-Japan friendship that I was familiar with to that point. As any Chinese can tell you, the common expression had been that the two countries were like close neighbors “separated only by a strip of water as narrow as a belt” (一衣带水的邻邦). We share the same written characters. Textbooks taught me that yes Japan invaded us, but both Chinese and Japanese people were victims of the Sino-Japanese War, the “Japanese militarism” (日本军国主义) being our common enemy. Story after story of how the Japanese aggressors were defeated by the Communist-led guerrillas and sometimes outsmarted by cunning Chinese children (see our earlier post on Little Soldier Zhang Ga) – to be honest, these depicted the Japanese army more like stupid, arrogant, and no-doubt crazy clowns than anything else. The news rattled me, revealing that there was more to the history of the Sino-Japanese War than I had considered. That morning of awakening was seared into my memory.

Hiroshima no Pika [The Flash of Hiroshima], by Toshi Maruki (Harper Collins, 1982) (image source:

The second moment took place in graduate school. I was taking a doctoral seminar on children and culture, and reading an assigned picture book titled Hiroshima No Pika in the library. No sooner had I turned to the first page than I was shaken, less because of what was in the book than a sudden awakening to what was not in the American children’s literature I had seen. Up to that point I had been flattered by the effort of American publishers in producing exquisitely illustrated Chinese folktales. With a mixture of vexation and bemusement I couldn’t help noticing rudimentary cultural errors in some of those books, such as odd clothing and hair styles supposedly of premodern China, or random scratches in illustrations pretending to be Chinese characters. Any Chinese having received secondary education would have been able to spot those errors and offer suggestions for correction if only the publishers had bothered to ask. Hiroshima No Pika jolted my attention away from those details to a bigger picture. The ghoulish images of atomic bombing hit me: what stories about Chinese people’s experience during the Second World War had been told to children outside China? I had yet to encounter a title on that topic. In contrast, books set in the European theater of World War II and deeply moving works about the Holocaust, in fiction and nonfiction, were easy to find. They figure prominently among children’s book award winners and in recommended title lists. The atomic bombings are likewise a weighty topic in children’s books about Japan, including translated works that are honored by the Mildred L. Batchelder Award. In that moment, I became very aware that books for young readers give uneven treatment to different people’s experience during a historical event with a profound global impact. There was something suspiciously wrong about it and I felt an urge to understand why.

That’s my long-winded explanation of how I decided that a study of the representation of the Sino-Japanese War in children’s books was overdue. Little did I know, that quiet afternoon of leafing through a picture book would kick off several years of obsession with any publication about World War II. I combed through library catalogs and bibliographies, collected Chinese comic books, searched for entries in children’s magazines, photocopied pages from school textbooks, hunted out-of-print American children’s novels, and watched more movies than I can name about the Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War. In addition, I interviewed elderly women in my hometown, recorded their recollections of when the mountain town hosted the Zhejiang provincial government in exile until the end of the war, and compared their private experiences with what information was publicly available to youth.

Friends and Foes on the Battlefield (战地恩仇记, 1943) by Huang Shiying is the earliest lian huan hua work I found that describes the fall of Nanjing and the infamous massacre that ensued in December 1937. Thanks to the suggestion of Professor Betsy Hearne, my dissertation advisor, I used its title phrase as the subtitle of my book to honour Huang’s pioneer work.

Pearl S. Buck’s novel Dragon Seed (1942) is the earliest English-language novel that is set against the backdrop of the Nanjing Massacre. The book was cautiously recommended for senior high school students and older young adults at the time of its publication, apparently because of its frequent portrayal of violence and rape. Its movie adaptation in 1944 stars Katharine Hepburn and was nominated for two Oscars. The novel was also translated into Chinese and adapted into lian huan hua during Republican China.

HW: How difficult or easy was it to do this research?

I encountered several challenges in collecting source materials. Paradoxically the amount of Chinese children’s reading materials about the Sino-Japanese War was overwhelming but they were also not straightforward to locate. The reason was because children’s books were not assigned granular topical headings in Chinese library catalogues, and no bibliographies focusing on the particular subject existed. Eventually I accumulated more primary sources than I could do justice to in one study, even with my inexhaustive search. So my second challenge was to narrow down my scope of investigation. I decided to analyse stories in the format of lian huan hua (heavily illustrated story books or comic books) as well as the most widely circulated juvenile titles.

I went through every single copy of lian huan hua on this table at the Yunhe County Public Library, searching for stories about the Sino-Japanese War.

My third challenge came when I tried interviewing the elderly women in their seventies to nineties in Yunhe, Zhejiang. I grew up speaking the dialect of my hometown (Mandarin Chinese is technically my second language) and I didn’t imagine I would have any problem communicating with locals. But the elders could barely understand my questions, because the vocabulary and syntax of my dialect had been irrevocably “corrupted” by the Mandarin Chinese I acquired from school—much like, sadly, how my Chinese is corrupted by English. Fortunately, my mom was with me when I called on the elders. She paraphrased my questions into more colloquial dialect so that the interview could go on. She also had to explain to me some of the archaic words that the women used to describe the old way of life. One winter we visited a village that was perched on the top of a mountain where a key battle between the Chinese and Japanese army took place in August 1942. The village was so secluded that my mom couldn’t understand the dialect there either. Fortunately, my next-door neighbour could follow some of it and he translated a bit for me from my audio recording. It was a both humbling and fascinating experience.

HW: More recently, you worked collaboratively on the Japan-Korea-China Peace Project books that we featured in an earlier post – how did the group come together to work on this?

The Japan-China-Korea Peace Picture Book Project series

David Jacobson told me about the Japan-China-Korea collaborative publishing project and invited me to comment on Chinese works. The project published a series of picture books created by authors and artists from the three respective countries and made the titles available in all three languages, intending to promote a shared understanding of the history of the Pacific War and an appreciation for peace among Chinese, Japanese, and Korean children. (I happened to have one volume from the series already, thanks to my old obsession.) Having read hundreds of stories about the Sino-Japanese War for my previous research, it was easy for me to fit the three new Chinese picture books into a larger landscape and point out how they reflect shifting trends in thematic concerns, gender portrayal, authorship, and relationship between family history and storytelling.

Kudos to David’s leadership, network, and coordination, he managed to put together a team of four contributors with various combinations of expertise in Chinese, English, Japanese, Korean, translation, publishing, education, and children’s literature. Together we composed two review articles, which introduce the series to English-language readers and feature a selection of seven titles from the series. Reiko Nakaigawa Lee from Hong Kong, Jongsun Wee from the Midwest, and David and myself from two coasts each brought our own unique skillset, background knowledge, and insight. We consulted other colleagues for extra information and benefited from your editorial suggestions for finalizing the writing. This was truly a collaborative work, leveraging all kinds of skills that cannot realistically be found in any single super brain.

We learnt that members of the Japan-China-Korea Peace Picture Book Project, coming from the three countries, had to negotiate challenging disagreements among themselves. There was a little bit of irony there—eager to present children with uniform messages that could transcend historical enmity, national borders, and language barriers, the adults uncovered clashing ideas about the history of war from the deepest of their own convictions. It proved to be a rewarding—though at times painful—experience. Those who have been the most open to making room for other people’s inputs and opinions are rewarded with the widest resonance for their creations. The four of us were tackling only a modest task—commenting on the fruition of the project. Hailing from four distinct cultural backgrounds, however, we too had to confront our own blind spots and stay open to new information and perspectives contributed by others. We passed the draft among us for easily over two dozen times, rewriting and finetuning, before everyone was happy with the final version.

HW: What has been the impact of your research so far?

I honestly am not sure. Besides my four very nurturing and patient dissertation committee members, plus four studious readers who published reviews of my book, I don’t know who has read my research! It is the first book-length study of the representation of the Sino-Japanese War in literature for youth, and it covers a lot of material. I hope fellow scholars will find my big-picture analysis of the Chinese and American titles a good starting point for further investigations; and my discussion of the highly contentious/divisive history of war crimes in youth-oriented literature doing justice to the complexity of the issue. Chinese lian huan hua, a hugely popular and influential reading format, had received not much scholarly attention before I conducted my study, which may help future researchers with popular culture of 20th-century China. Kids used to carry the booklets around and were scolded by teachers when caught reading them in class. This was before the days of mobile smart phones or even home television sets in China.

To my personal satisfaction, I found answers to the questions that had shaken me, first when I was a school girl on that dreary morning many years ago; and second when I was overcome by a sense of betrayal about children’s literature as I stared at a picture book about atomic bombing through bleary eyes. (Did I mention that I ended up being in tears in the library that day?) The research dismantled my own dichotomous view of the war, exposed my misconceptions about the history, and told me where I got them. What I cherished most was the conversations I had with those elderly women, who lost a mother, or a daughter, or a brother, during the bubonic plague as part of the biological warfare. My biggest reward from conducting the project was the opportunity to witness their courage, grace, and tenacity, and to preserve their experiences in writing. It makes me smile to think of the three eldest women, whose photos and stories I reproduced in the book. All have since passed at old ages.

HW: What are you working on now?

Having had to sift through thousands of comic books looking for war stories, I understand the tremendous value of cataloguing and matadata work in helping researchers find what they need. My main work is organizing the East Asian collection of the Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton University, preparing the materials for use by children’s literature scholars from around the world. The perk of working at Cotsen, which has the finest collection of Chinese children’s books outside of China, is the opportunity to meet awesome Chinese children’s authors, translators, and researchers, and collaborate on projects. You and I just finished drafting an overview of Chinese children’s literature in English translation for The Palgrave Handbook of Chinese Language Studies, tracing the transnational migration of Chinese children’s texts to a surprisingly early era of the late Qing dynasty.

Having been that little girl whose perception of self and of the world was so heavily influenced by the children’s section of my hometown library, I maintain my interest in examining children’s literature as a source of information about history, politics, science, etc. for impressionable young minds. Over the years I have presented or written about how children’s books impart explicit or implicit information about Chinese culture, the Cultural Revolution, human sexuality, gender roles, disability, and moral standards. I am always open to the next topic that sparks my curiosity!