On Child_lit (a listserv devoted to the discussion of children’s literature), we’ve been having a heated debate (again) over Bishop’s The Five Chinese Brothers. (Claire Hutchet Bishop/Kurt Wiese, 1938) I have been a supporter for this book for the longest time, sharing it with my daughter who is half-Chinese and half-Jewish. (I am 100% Chinese: half Han, half Manchurian, born and raised in Taiwan.) I’m only posting here to let my readers decide whether the common complaints about this book match the facts. The complaints have been mostly based on the illustrations, so that’s all we’re going to look at today.
1st complaint: everyone in the crowd looks exactly alike in a stereotypical way.
There are only two spreads in this 32-page picture book that contain a crowd scene. Most of the faces are just outlines of the cheeks. These few faces in the front show completely different features: ear and face shapes, noses, mouths, and neck thickness, and one even wears glasses. Their outfits are all alike and every man has a queue (the braided hair) which was the required/prescribed hairstyle for all men in the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912.) Cutting off the queue or wearing hair in a different style could cause someone’s life since that was against the law. So, if the illustrator decided to set the story during those 250+ years, it is entirely normal for a crowd of men to wear queues.
Complaint 2: Chinese people are not yellow like that.
This book was published in 1938, at a time where 4-color separation and multicolor printing was not common and was not done in most children’s books. This book has 3 colors which means it has but ONE color. Black and white were a given and one more color was added to brighten the illustrations. Everything is YELLOW in the book — from the waves of the sea, to the sails of the boat, the treasures on the seabed, and the flames of the fire. As a Taiwanese Chinese, we were taught that we were the “yellow race” and proud of the hue of our skin. Yes, we are not truly “yellow” (like many blacks are not really “black”) but we were never ashamed of our skin color.
Complaint 3: Not only the people in the crowd, the other characters all look the same, too. (It’s a given that the five brothers have to look exactly alike — which Weiss managed to do extremely well.)
This is one brother. Examine the pictures following this one: do these faces look “the same” and “the same as the brother” to anyone? Indeed, each face depicted differs from the rest. If the readers/viewers cannot make out the differences, it is not the artist’s fault.
Complaint 4: these people all have the stereotypical slanted eyes.
It is true that most of the faces illustrated feature slanted/small/single line eyes. Could it be that – a. many Chinese people’s eyes are smaller, without the hanging folds over the eyes, than the Western people? b. The slant of the eyes is prevalent in the Chinese? and c. This is a particular style of the artist?
In 1938, most retellings of fairy and folktales were not sourced.