72. People reading in Chinese art

I was thinking about paintings that feature people reading. The ones that came to mind showed mostly a woman or young girl reading a book in quiet contemplation in an interior setting – private moments (perhaps voyeuristic too).  Most of these artworks feature “western” females – perhaps there’s a specific genre and scholarship on western females reading in art? But I didn’t venture much further down that route than the Wikipedia page Women reading in art, the blog Reading and Art (which has many examples), also 20 powerful paintings of parents reading to children and ART & Reading / Paintings.

I started looking for images of Chinese people reading. We had asked Zhang Xinxin if we could use her artwork of children reading on the steps of the bookshop for our banner and were delighted when she agreed. Surely there must be more?

zhang xinxin

Our banner head is an image from Zhang Xinxin’s graphic novel Pai Hua Zi and the Clever Girl

Searching online I found plenty of photographs of Chinese people reading – especially children – but I was really looking for paintings. After a while, I discovered that there are many Chinese paintings and artworks (including public sculpture) that feature people reading. I’ve pulled the images I found together as Chinese people reading  on our Pinterest page. (It wasn’t easy to give full captions for all the images – for details, follow the links on Pinterest)


“My daughter” by Chen Guangjian — 陈光健: 《我的女儿 – 写女儿山花在斗室》 1995 (Pinterest)

san mao

“San Mao reading” by Zhang Leping 张乐平:《三毛读书》   (Pinterest)

There are also themes relating to people reading, often expressed in four-character-phrase captions, with a story behind them, such as these:


Hanging books from the buffalo’s horn(s) – 《牛角挂书》(Pinterest)


“Borrowing light through a hole” by Chen Zhengming – 陈政明 : 《凿壁借光》(Pinterest)


Tying one’s hair to the rafters to stay awake – 《悬梁刺服》 (Pinterest)

If you’re feeling diligent, there’s a list of 30 more sayings here (in Chinese) .


71. Let’s Talk to Kids About Sex… in Chinese – Q&A with Minjie Chen

On 24th August, Minjie posted a long essay on the Cotsen Library blog, titled Let’s Talk to Kids About Sex…in Chinese Too . I was keen to know more, and she kindly agreed to answer some more questions. 

We are pleased to publish this Q&A post simultaneously on the WorldKidLit blog, which was founded by Marcia Lynx Qualey to promote children’s books from around the world, designating September as World Kid Lit Month (twitter @worldkidlit #worldkidlit #worldkidlitmonth).

Q&A with Minjie

HW: What inspired (provoked/motivated) you do this research? (Perhaps it’s part of a bigger research project, or there is an existing field? Or you did it solo?)

MC: I have multiple versions of answers to this question. The longest and most complete one will need to begin with when I was five, the age I now wish I had access to the picture books I get to read today! The short answer is, I was stumped by questions from the audience when I was giving a lecture at New York University – Shanghai last fall, and that eventually led to this essay. I was talking to sophomores about using primary sources in humanities research. I mainly study children’s reading materials as a source of information for youth and one project I did was on the early history of sex education movement in Republican China. The students’ interest quickly moved from history to here and now–what sex education resources are available to Chinese children and adolescents in the 21st century? What do they teach about sex, gender, LGBTQ, pleasure, and a host of other topics? I had only meager knowledge about their questions. I was under the impression that there were a lot more translated picture books for children’s sex education than homegrown works in China. A Chinese reader series that offers sex instruction for Grades 1-6 students had attracted media attention and controversy in China. Except for a few online snapshots of illustrations from that book, I didn’t have much to say about Chinese sex education books of the 21th century.

While standing at the lectern listening to students’ thoughtful inquiries, I realized that I was just as curious as them. It would be a worthwhile project to survey the types of sex instruction books produced by Chinese writers and find out what information and messages are imparted—Are they accurate, useful, and empowering? Are there caveats readers should be aware of? For the Cotsen Children’s Library, it was a prime moment to collect the earliest picture books that China has made for young children’s sex instruction.

HW: How did you go about doing this research?

MC: This is by no means an exhaustive survey of all Chinese sex instruction books for children, but based on what the Cotsen Children’s Library was able to procure from the current book market (let’s just say that I spent quite some time poring over the Chinese site of the online retailer Amazon, doing keyword searching for “sex education” and following helpful or unhelpful leads of “Customers who bought this item also bought…”). I looked at dozens of picture books, comic books, and illustrated books, and examined dimensions that include childbirth, reproductive organs, gender roles, sex crime and prevention, and the backgrounds of the writers. I took notes from individual titles and summarized the prominent patterns I observed.

HW: In your essay you cover mainly books about babies. Is there a similar range of books about puberty, periods, early sexual stirrings/desire?

MC: Unlike picture books, which for the first time bring sex instruction to readers as young as preschoolers in China, there have been informational books about puberty intended for school students. The greatest achievement of China’s earliest sex education movement was that it made puberty and adolescence standard topics in middle school curriculum on physiology and hygiene. Sexual desire was a major topic that pioneer sex educators treated seriously, and they presented no-nonsense information to disentangle sexual instinct from shame. In fact, I have yet to find a contemporary Chinese writer as good as Zhou Jianren 周建人 (1888-1984), the most prolific voice at the dawn of China’s sex education movement, who explained human reproduction in lucid language to school children, adolescents, and adults.

ZHou Jianren book cover

Zhou Jianren tongshu [Zhou Jianren’s stories for children], Haitun chubanshe, 2013. 《周建人童书》, 海豚出版社。 2013年。

I found a wide range of topics in sex instruction books published after 2000 for teens: sexual attraction and impulse, romantic and sexual relationships, menstruation, nocturnal emissions, masturbation, hygiene, pregnancy and birth control, STD, sexual abuse and prevention, drug abuse, pimples, bras…just to give some examples. Exactly what information is given about those topics warrants another investigation.

HW: A few specific questions – is there a legal age of consent?, until what age is someone considered  a minor?, what about under-age sex?,  what about contraception? can “early developers” access contraceptives? what about education re sexually transmitted diseases?

MC: Once again I am stumped! I flipped through several informational books devoted to the prevention of sexual abuse, and couldn’t find any mention of legal ages. It is unpardonable not to share this piece of information with children and youth! As I dug into the Internet I was surprised by what I found. Chinese Criminal Law (available on the website of the Supreme People’s Court of the People’s Republic of China) does not really articulate the concept of consent. In circular language, Article 236 of the Code indicates that a person who has “illicit sex” with girls under fourteen years old is guilty of raping. The official English translation (link to the Supreme People’s Court website) of the Criminal Law, in contrast, clearly states that whoever has “sexual intercourse” with a girl under the age of fourteen is guilty, and accordingly fourteen should be considered the legal age of consent in China–I applaud the sensible interpretation of the anonymous translators for closing the loophole for “licit sex” with preteen girls. (There is also a debate on removing the gender reference and making the article inclusive of child victims of all sexes, not just female ones.)

Minors are defined by Chinese Civil Law as under age eighteen.

It looks like contraceptive pills are over-the-counter medicine and available to any teenager should they muster their courage to visit a drugstore in China. Chinese government agencies are supposed to provide contraceptives for free, but it is unclear if minors are eligible or if they need to jump through hoops for the “freebies.”

I am glad that you asked about sexually transmitted diseases. Of all the topics that Chinese sex instruction books may cover for adolescents, this is one topic you never need to worry might be forgotten. STD was practically sex educators’ favorite topic, until the issue of sexual abuse and prevention vied for attention in recent years. Sex educators have always exploited fear to rally the public to their controversial cause, whether it was fear for STD leading to deteriorating health of newborns and enfeebled national defense, or anxiety about sexual abuse harming the physical and mental health of children and youth. As Chinese society and especially middle-class parents increasingly prioritize children’s emotional wellbeing and happiness, sex education literature will be able to throw off the crutches of scary social crisis for bolstering legitimacy, and embrace all aspects of human sexuality including the pleasant and beautiful part.

HW: In children’s books, how is sex presented – eg in a loving relationship, for procreation, obligation, fun, to be avoided with weird uncles …

MC: Chinese picture books present sex as the means for procreation between a married couple, and occasionally acknowledge the process as a joyful and exciting one–because a baby is going to be made! Some books also teach children that parents have needs for privacy and intimacy, but in subtle language so I am not sure if a child reader necessarily understands the association.

Books for teens typically discourage premarital sex as well as dating before adulthood, but they also pragmatically provide information on birth control, thus differing from abstinence-only programs found in the US.

HW: what about LGBTQ ?

MC: Chinese picture books for younger ages faithfully subscribe to a binary view of sexes and sexual orientations, so do not expect to read about gay penguins (like And Tango Makes Three) or queer frogs in them just yet. Many books for school-age readers and parents send conservative, ambiguous, or contradictory messages about the LGBTQ population, but changes can be seen in some of the newer publications. The controversial sex education reader series Treasuring Life 珍爱生命 published by Beijing Normal University Press fully normalizes all sexual orientations. Be Sexually Informed Dad and Mom 做知”性”爸妈 (2016), published by the Southwest Normal University Press, is a parental self-help book on sex instruction and its last and brief section, titled “The Unbearable ‘Brokeback Mountain’,” addresses homosexuality. The movie reference is interesting considering that Ang Lee’s 2005 picture was banned in China, but enough Chinese must have found successful ways to watch it outside theatres. The book cites high attempted suicide rates among LGB youth, and warns that parents will easily push their vulnerable children over the edge if they, too, are insulting and hostile like the larger society is. Appealing to parents’ love for children and protective instinct, the book closes with the following remarks,

Just think of it as a cruel joke that nature has played with your child and family. Accept your child in need of help and let him/her know that you will always be there with unconditional love, even if the entire world has rejected him/her. (p. 177)

I sure hope the next book on the market will not have to end with such a gloomy message imbued with death threat. How about telling readers something interesting and inspiring, like influential LGBTQ people in history and contemporary popular culture, for a start?

70. Vikki Zhang, illustrator with a love of textiles and fashion

I first came across the stunning artwork of Vikki Zhang 张文绮 when she created the covers of four bilingual books by Cao Wenxuan. I was struck by the quality of her work, and of her use of textile design in the art work and have been following her work on Instagram @0717vikki and on her website vikkizhang.com while she has been studying in New York. There’s also a short video about her on Youtube! She’s recently done the cover art for a series of nine titles by some of China’s most famous children’s authors. and kindly agreed to an interview with us!

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Nine new books, with cover art by Vikki Zhang

Hi Vikki, Please tell us about yourself… Who are you? Where are you? What would you like people to know about you?

HI, My name is Vikki Zhang (张文绮). I’m from Huai’an in Jiangsu, and moved to New York three years ago to follow the Illustration as Visual Essay masters program at the SVA [School of Visual Arts]. After graduating, I became a full-time artist. Being an artist has been my dream since I was three , when I started reading picture books. My early art education was in traditional Chinese painting – I did after-school classes for seven years. Influenced by my family and my art teacher, I was so fascinated with all traditional forms of art. These years I have been especially fascinated by Qing dynasty fashion and crafts, paintings from the Song dynasty, gothic novels, surrealism, and English illustrators’ work during the 19th century.

And you also studied Digital Game Design! How has this influenced the way you work in illustration, and in children’s books?

People are often surprised by my BFA background – I studied Digital game design – sometimes I’m surprised too! Because that fast and violent industry looks like another world compared to what I am doing now. However, I really appreciated that experience, which helped me to develop an ability to learn new techniques quickly and keep open-minded.

It seems that textiles and fashion are very important to you, and in your work as well. Can you tell us more about this?

I appreciate all kinds of textiles and decoration on clothes, from chrysanthemums on kimonos, rococo roses on velvet dresses, rivets on punk jackets, to a kingfisher on the collar of a cheongsam. Beautiful clothes bring joy to our life – my mum always said that. When I was young and reading books with illustrations  I used to complain that the characters wore terrible clothes – they didn’t match the historical background or the character’s identity, indicating a carelessness on the part of the illustrator. So I decided to do something about it, I won’t let those little readers find any mistakes.


Vikki Zhang’s illustration from Book of Life (2015)

Also, I really love line drawings by Wu Daozi 吳道子, of the Tang Dynasty. And I just have so much fun getting lost in drawing beautiful clothes, as well as watching them on each season’s runway shows. I learnt a lot from fashion designers, like John Galliano, about creation process – how to transfer a vague feeling into a rich and attractive artwork. The solutions for making book illustrations might be found in fashion design.

Please tell us about a book that you used to love reading as a child, and what was special about it for you.

Cao Wenxuan’s work is special to me. My dad brought Cao’s books for me – I remember the first one I read was The Grass House. Like Border City by Shen Congwen, the story takes place in a countryside setting, which is similar to where my grandparents used to live – in Jiangsu – but more dreamy and simpler. Different from most young adult novels which repeatedly described familiar life in a modern school at that time, Cao’s world was distant from us, it felt very fresh and mysterious to me, but that didn’t interrupt my connection with the characters. And all the characters’ names are unique, rare to see in books, and unforgettable. The only illustration that appeared in that book was the cover. I didn’t pay attention to that until grown up, and then, trying to remember Cao’s story, it was the cover image that jumped up first, and refreshed all my memories.

Another book was Andersen’s Fairytales, I read it a lot because it contained a large amount of illustrations. Looking back, my childhood reading experience helped me to learn, from the reader’s view, how image functions as a very important bridge connecting kids and the unknown world. Kids rely on illustrations – and they trust illustrators – so I will keep learning how to provide a better visual experience for them.

Finally, what are you working on now?

Recently I just finished a children’s book about a terracotta warrior. It’s by Dong Hongyou 董宏猷 and will be published later this year by 21st Century Publishing House (21世纪出版社) . The story happens in Xi’an, and is told partly in a children’s song. A  boy wakes up the soldier sculpture and brings it to life in our contemporary world.


Illustration by Vikki Zhang in 《兵马俑,快跑!》 (Run fast, Terracotta Warrior!) by DONG Hongyou (21st Century, 2018) – reproduced with permission

Another book I am working on is about Chinese mythology, which is my favorite subject, as I can play with so many exquisite Asian decorative elements. I got great inspiration from murals in the Yongle Palace, as well as elaborate-style painting from modern Chinese artists like Xie Zhen’ou 谢振殴.


Illustration by Vikki Zhang in 《天女》 (Goddesses) by ZHOU Jing 周静 (forthcoming) – reproduced with permission

I am also very lucky in that I got a chance to design clothes for kids, working with an amazing production team in China. The image below is from the Chinese New Year season. We are focusing on traditional Chinese clothes, and my job is designing and drawing textiles. We hope to keep the classic crafts alive and develop them while adding more creative story-telling elements to the patterns. And this way, kids can have fun reading the clothes they are wearing.


Thank you, Vikki, for sharing your work and so many images!

See more of Vikki Zhang’s work on

67. Chinese dinosaurs in an English village

The Linton Children’s Book Festival takes place this weekend, in the beautiful English village of Linton, not far from Cambridge.  I was invited to introduce DONG Yanan’s book Express Delivery from Dinosaur World yesterday, and the event was fully booked! 32 young readers (some as young as two years old) came along with their parents. Continue reading

66. Children’s Books in China 2018 (and 2017)

These two supplements from Publishers Weekly were prepared by Teri Tan, who has been covering children’s publishing in Asia since at least 2009. You can download them or read the individual articles and publisher profiles via the links below. A full list of Teri Tan’s articles for Publishers Weekly is available hereContinue reading

62. The NCTA Freeman Book Awards

The 2017 NCTA Freeman Book Awards have just been announced. I’m delighted that Bronze and Sunflower has won the young adult/middle school literature award, and that An’s Seed received an honourable mention. I didn’t really know what the Freeman awards were about. Who better to ask than David Jacobson, whose book Are You an Echo? received an honourable mention last year to tell us about the prize, and what winning meant to him.  Continue reading

59. Interview with Chloe Garcia Roberts, translator of the picture book “Feather” by Cao Wenxuan and Roger Mello

2017 saw the publication of Feather, the stunning picture book collaboration between author Cao Wenxuan and illustrator Roger Mello [you can read Minjie Chen and David Jacobson’s post about Cao and Mello at the USBBY conference in Seattle here].  I was delighted to discover that the translator was Chloe Garcia Roberts, poet (The Reveal, 2015), translator and managing editor of the Harvard Review. I know her better for her translations of poetry by the Tang dynasty poet LI Shangyin 李商隱 (813-858), and was keen to learn more about Chloe’s work, and how she came to translate Feather. She very kindly agreed to an interview.  Continue reading

58. China Welfare Institute Publishing House: Picture Books from China, with Love & Beauty

This guest blog by Helen Limon was first published on Children’s Literature in Newcastle, the blog of the Children’s Literature Unit Graduate Group (CLUGG) at Newcastle University, UK earlier this month. Many thanks to Helen Limon and CLUGG for allowing us to repost it here. We’ve added in some Chinese and a few weblinks. Continue reading