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Friday, September 19, 2008

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 illistrations. 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 prevelent in the Chinese? and c. This is a particular style of the artist?

Complaint 5: Bishop didn't cite a source of this "Chinese" tale.
In 1938, most retellings of fairy and folktales were not sourced.



At 4:50 AM , Blogger Charlie Butler said...

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.

At 6:42 AM , Blogger Monica Edinger said...

Terrific --- I posted about this on my blog.

At 8:22 PM , Blogger fairrosa said...

This is posted with permission from Debbie Reese who commented on the blog at child_lit:

On her blog, Fairrosa suggests the use of yellow might be due to options available at the time. Here's some info from Barbara Bader's AMERICAN PICTURE BOOKS:

Five Chinese Brothers is illustrated by Kurt Wiese (not Bishop.)

He did Liang and Lo in 1930. Published by Doubleday. Bader says on page 65:

"The book was done in five colors and two colors and often, not always, Wiese uses the five-color opening for the large positioning scene, the two-color opening for the intermediate action."

Bader includes four pages from Liang and Lo. On some pages there is only yellow; on others are yellow, green, blue, and red.

Wiese did illustrations for The Story About Ping in 1933, published by Viking. It is Marjorie Flack's story. Bader says:

"Marjorie Flack didn't know China, Kurt Wiese did, that was the genesis; the ramifications were many" (p. 66).

Leading up to that line, Bader says Ping is one of the first instances of a story being written by one person and illustrated by another. Bader includes two pages from Ping. Colors are red (orange?), yellow, blue, green.

Then, chronologically, comes Five Chinese Brothers, in 1938, published by Coward-McCann.

Wiese, Bader says, was born in Germany and "ranged the world before coming to the United States..." She doesn't say where, specifically, in any depth. Here's info from the Michener Museum:

"German-born Wiese traveled in China selling merchandise as a young man. On the outbreak of WWI, he was captured by the Japanese, and turned over to the British. He spent five years as a prisoner, most of them in Australia, where his fascination for the animal life inspired him to start sketching."
The de Grummond Collection has some of his papers.
On their page is this:

"Born in Minden, Germany on April 22, 1887, Kurt Wiese wanted to be an artist at a very young age. At that time, however, making a living by one's art was virtually unheard of, so Wiese was sent to Hamburg to learn about the export trade to China. He arrived in China in 1909, shortly before the revolution of 1911 began. Nevertheless, he spent the next six years traveling and doing business in China. After Japan entered World War I, Wiese was captured by the Japanese, handed over to the British and sent to Australia, where he spent the next five years in the bush as a prisoner of war. It was during this period that he began to draw seriously. Three years after WWI, Wiese headed for Brazil, where he lived and worked illustrating school books and children's books for the next three years. He moved to the United States in 1927 and married Gertrude Hansen, a realtor, in 1930. He lived on a farm in Frenchtown, New Jersey until his death in 1974."

The Michener page also has this:

Major Awards:
Newbury award, Young Fu, a book about China illustrated by Kurt Wiese, 1933.
International Exposition, Paris, France, 1937
Caldecott Medal for Children's Literature, You Can Write Chinese, and Fish In The Air
Children's Spring Book Festival Award, New York Herald Tribune, Fish In The Air

On her blog, Fairrosa suggests the use of yellow may have been due to color-printing options in 1938. In his earlier books, he used more than just yellow. Was it a limit of the publisher for Five Chinese Brothers? The phrase "yellow peril" dates back to 1895. This site:
http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/yellow-peril.html includes reference to an Ohio paper using it in 1895. The phrase itself may have been coined by German Kaiser Wilhelm II.

I understand Fairrosa's point about being taught to embrace being called yellow, but what about Wiese using yellow when he had other options. I think it is fair to say he knew how the west was using the word. And/or his publisher knew, and/or Bishop did...


Visit my Internet resource:
American Indians in Children's Literature

Debbie A. Reese (Nanbé Ówîngeh)
Assistant Professor, American Indian Studies
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Native American House, Room 2005
1204 West Nevada Street, MC-138
Urbana, Illinois 61801

At 11:35 PM , Blogger Fourstorymistake said...

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

At 6:51 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

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.

At 7:14 PM , Blogger Ira said...

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?

At 1:08 PM , Anonymous Amazing Kris said...

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)

At 1:16 PM , Anonymous Amazing Kris said...

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.

At 1:49 AM , Anonymous Jon H said...

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

I think Coward-McCann was bought by Putnam, which is now part of Penguin Books.

As far as the book goes, I think the yellow is mostly a reflection of American stereotypes of the time of publishing, but isn't intended in a negative way. Compare the depictions of the characters to WW2 caricatures of the Japanese.

The description of Asians as having yellow skin predates the "yellow peril" by a long time, originating with Linnaeus in the 1700s, if not earlier.


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