Examining The Five Chinese Brothers

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?


Photo-39-720506 Photo-41-756385 Photo-42-756407 Photo-44-785347 Photo-45-718906Complaint 5: Bishop didn’t cite a source of this “Chinese” tale.

In 1938, most retellings of fairy and folktales were not sourced.



Filed under Book Notes, Child_lit Archive, Views, WIWWAK

13 responses to “Examining The Five Chinese Brothers

  1. Charlie Butler

    Very interesting post! Do you happen to have any examples of Bishop's work in depicting non-Chinese people? That might resolve some of the points about what was or was not a matter of the artist's personal style.


  2. Monica Edinger

    Terrific — I posted about this on my blog.


  3. Fourstorymistake

    Fairrosa- I really enjoyed your post! I loved this book as a child and your article was great.


  4. Anonymous

    thank you. this is a wonderful story that i read numerous times as a child. it was a favorite. not once did i pay that much attention to the the similarities of the faces but i also never thought the looked exactly alike even as a child.


  5. Ira

    I very much enjoyed this book as a child. The College Library was directly behind my house and I could go in as the child of a Professor. I spent hours in the children's room. I couldn't tell you how many times I read The Five Chinese Brothers, fascinated by the story and the illustrations.

    As for Assistant Professor Debbie A. Reese's discussion on printing technique: She needs to compare apples to apples not apples to oranges. Available technology at any given time is evolving. More importantly the application of that technology varies from person and in this case company to company. To compare illustrations Kurt Wiese did for different companies (Doubleday and Viking) to what he did for Coward-McCann is disingenuous. Compare Coward-McCann illustrations to Coward-McCann illustrations for an accurate comparison.

    The artist doesn't decide what the printer/publisher is going to do. He does what he's paid to do or they hire somebody else.

    Interesting to note Doubleday and Viking are still in business. When did Coward-McCann go out of business?


  6. Amazing Kris

    White guilt is a hilarious thing that I hope one day will be turned into a children's story for us all to giggle over.
    "Mr. Cracker Finds Outrage"
    If only someone would make a book depicting white people as self-righteous, so we could all shout:
    "We do NOT take ourselves too seriously, and how DARE you try to suggest we are?!"

    I am glad you can see "The Five Chinese Broters" as it as likely lovingly intended to be seen. This was my favourite book, which introduced me to the concept of other races. Before then, I was colourblind. I suppose if I saw anything in this that would make me think ill of Chinese folks, I wouldn't be where I am today.
    There is no shame to be had, and this story does not mock Chinese culture in any way. Frankly, no one anywhere really has anything negative to say about the Chinese. Essentially, if this book tries to show the people of China to be at all awful, it failed.

    I am a Canadian, living in China for a little under a year. I love every minute of it. One thing I truly appreciate about the people here is their willingness to celebrate themselves regardless of what the rest of the world has going on.
    I am often told I look like various white people in the media by my students. I insist I resemble Tim Robbins, but I am called everything but. I suppose I ought to go MAD over such racist comments, but I can't seem to find the energy.

    My friends and I goof each other on our differences all the time, back and forth. We're incredulous over the culture contrast, but at no stage is there any malice behind it. In the end, we really marvel at how similar our philosophies are.
    I told this story to my friend, and he liked it quite a bit. If indeed anyone would be so kind to write "Mr. Cracker Finds Outrage", I would be willing to illustrate it using no colour whatsoever.

    -Da Bai To
    (Reply via email if you wish)


  7. Amazing Kris

    P.S. I am tortured at a grammatical oversight in my editing in that comment. Please absolve me of this error so I don't feel like such a dope.

    P.S.S. I love your blog! I will have fun picking through it further when I have more time tomorrow.


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  10. Ruth Gutstein

    I enjoyed reading all these comments. They lifted my spirits and gave me a sense of hope.


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