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Chinese Stories in Illustrated Children's Books
China Today
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Chinese Stories in Illustrated Children's Books

Many Chinese people think that illustrated books originated in other countries. In fact, children’s books with illustrations date back to more than 100 years ago in China. Illustrated children’s books, in a modern sense, gained popularity across China after the year 2000 when Chinese publishing houses introduced foreign books into the country. In the course of time, Chinese writers and illustrators have created a variety of books that have received widespread acclaim at home and abroad.

Chinese in Form and Essence

As Children’s Day approached this year, more customers headed to the children’s book section of the Wangfujing Book Store in central Beijing. One of them was Mrs. Fang, who was shopping for a gift for her child. Instead of choosing a foreign book as she often did, she bought a four-volume series about China’s intangible cultural heritage.

“A friend recommended the series to me. It introduces children to Peking Opera, shadow play, seal carving, puppetry and other fascinating items of China’s intangible cultural heritage, helping them to learn art and culture in everyday life,” said Fang. She acknowledged that more and more parents she knows are choosing Chinese illustrated books for their children.

A manager of Dolphin Books told China Today that the children’s book market has seen explosive growth since the start of the 21st century. A main driver is the sales of imported illustrated books, which are generally of high quality, come in a good variety of subjects, and need less time for publication.

As imported illustrated books swept accross the Chinese market, home-made picture books have also begun to flourish. “The past decade has witnessed strong development of Chinese illustrated books, in terms of creativity, publication, educational value, and promotion. They are taking up a bigger share of China’s illustrated book market,” said Wang Lei, a professor with the College of Elementary Education, Beijing-based Capital Normal University. She is also the head of the children’s literature research base of the university.

Explaining the reasons for this increase in demand, Wang cited three factors: the success of imported books encourages domestic productions; Chinese readers feel emotionally close to works about their own culture and people working in the publishing industry have done a good job in improving book quality and introducing them into schools as learning and teaching materials.

Landmark events spurring the development of Chinese original illustrated books include the first forum on the development of Chinese original illustrated books hosted by China Writers Association in 2008, the publication of China’s first illustrated textbook for preschool education in 2015, and the introduction of China’s first guidelines for leveled readings among children aged three to eight, according to Wang.

With a steady increase in quantity and improvement in quality, domestic picture books are now competing with their imported rivals. Hai Fei, former president of China Children’s Press and Publication Group, estimated that China publishes 4,000-5,000 titles of illustrated books every year, of which 2,000 to 3,000 are created by Chinese writers and illustrators. As for their quality, the prestigious international awards these Chinese books have received in recent years are the best proof. These include awards given to three Chinese books at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in March this year. The 60-year-old fair is one of the largest and best-known events in the business of publishing books for children, and winning awards there is no small feat.

Kaleidoscopic Subjects

“Their arms are as strong as steel and feet as firm as rock. The sky expands over their heads and earth under their feet. Win or lose, all contestants are brothers.” This is the opening line of Wrestlers on the Pasture, a first prize winner at the Key Colors Competition. The book introduces readers to Bukh, or traditional Mongolian wrestling, which is an item of China’s intangible cultural heritage.

“This picture book is about the growth of a young wrestler, a process in which he comes to a better understanding of strength, and translates his love for the sport into action to protect the pasture with other wrestlers,” said the author Liu Hao. He hopes that his work could help young readers to learn of an ethnic culture in China and, like the hero, understand the true meaning of strength.

Traditional culture is a popular theme for Chinese illustrated books. “I read a picture book on traditional festivals and customs, and I like it,” said seven-year-old Andy Liu, a regular visitor to bookstores. His mother noticed that a greater diversity of such books has been published in recent years.

In addition to traditional culture, modern technology and contemporary life are also prominently featured in children’s books. The 3D illustrated book Chang’e Probing the Moon features China’s endeavors to explore outer space, explaining to young readers basics about the country’s Chang’e moon probe program. The Spine of the People’s Republic of China series imparts the scientific spirit through stories of China’s most celebrated scientists. The award-winning children’s book of Reunion reveals the inner world of a rural left-behind girl when her father, a migrant worker, returns home for the Chinese New Year, a traditional festival for family reunion.

Books of surrealistic genre are also booming, exhibiting the great creativity of Chinese authors. Two standouts are the Button Soldier and Run Run Town.

Reaching for Global Readers

Children all over the world are similar, and hence can easily communicate with each other. This offers opportunities for Chinese children’s books to go global. With a fine artistic style and distinctive Chinese features, they have won multiple prominent international prizes. In 2019, Chinese illustrator Zhu Chengliang won the Golden Apple Prize during the 27th Biennial of Illustrations Bratislava (BIB) for his illustrations in the picture book, Don’t Let the Sun Fall. Zhang Mingzhou, then president of the International Board on Books for Young People, commented, “The fact that more and more Chinese illustrators are pocketing international awards indicates that original Chinese picture books are entering a golden age at a faster pace.”

Chinese books now have more channels to go global. In 2016, Beijing-based UTOP, a cultural company, partnered with Belgian children’s book publisher Clavis Publishing to introduce the Key Colors Competition into China, which has since served as a platform for Chinese illustrators to show their talent and build an international presence. Key Colors is a binnual international contest for illustrators of children’s books hosted by the Belgian publishing house.

When Wrestlers on the Pasture was released in 2021, it came in both Chinese and Dutch languages. Earlier this year, it was shown at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. “After learning of Bukh through my book, some foreign friends looked for more information about it online. They told me that they love the wrestlers’ costumes and ornaments, and think they look awesome. I am glad to know that more people in other countries are trying to learn about an ethnic culture in China,” said Liu Hao.

Confucius Institute Headquarters has launched a special exhibition of Chinese children’s illustrated books. Selected books have been chosen and displayed at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany. After that, they will tour Confucius Institutes around the world.

Despite continuous improvements, domestic picture books also face some challenges yet to be addressed. Wang Lei suggested paying equal attention to training professional illustrators and writers for children’s books, along with great emphasis put on quality book production and promotion. She also stressed the educational function of such books. Efforts should be made to give full play to the values of Chinese picture books, and make Chinese stories in the books reach more international readers, Wang said.

China TodayGu Yetao

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