Pros: Amusing folktale
Cons: Potential to offend if you look deep
There are very few books that both my husband and I recall reading as children. One of them is The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Hutchet Bishop.
The book starts out by introducing the nameless five Chinese brothers by sharing their unique physical attribute. For example, the forth Chinese brother cannot be burned while the fifth can hold his breath forever.
The actual story begins with the first Chinese brother going out to fish, he brings with him a young boy from town who has begged repeatedly to go out with him. Before the fishing begins the first Chinese brother reminds the boy that he must obey his hand signals and return to shore when he calls him back. He then proceeds to bend over and draw the entire ocean into his mouth, revealing the ocean floor. The young boy runs about happily collecting stones and other treasures. He sees but chooses to ignore the Chinese brother frantically calling him back to the safety of the shore until the ocean waters burst from his mouth and the little boy disappears. When he returns to town alone, the first Chinese brother is arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death for his unnamed but presumed crime of murder. Before his execution by beheading is to be carried out, the first Chinese brother asks permission to go home to say goodbye to his mother, which the judge grants. The second Chinese brother, with the iron neck, returns in his place and the executioner is unable to carry out the beheading. And so continues the story with each brother taking the place of the previous until the judge finally declares after four failed attempts at execution that he must be an innocent man.
There are Two Sides to Every Story
The Five Chinese Brothers, is it an innocent retelling of a Chinese folktale or would the world better served by using this book for kindling? My husband and I both remember this as a funny story; nothing else. Yet this book is often singled out due to its offensive content. So does this The Five Chinese Brothers belong on your book shelf or banned book list?
You Can't Use Yellow!
While I see where the book's detractors are coming from with their claims of racism, I simply don't agree. The water color illustrations are penned in back and accented with, well, watercolor. Was yellow chosen in 1938 because of its association with the Chinese? No doubt; but that does not necessarily make it offensive. The Olivia series by Ian Falconer features illustrations of a pig done in black, white and red. Does that mean Olivia represents the "Communist Pig?" The yellow highlights are not limited to the faces of the Chinese brothers, but nearly everything in the book is covered with a bit of yellow here and there.
As for the children; my 5 year old did indeed comment on the illustrations being black, white and yellow. Not because she is keying in on a cultural stereotype, but because most books we have include full color illustrations. I used the Five Chinese Brothers to compare and contrast artistic styles. Beyond Olivia, many of our older Clifford the Big Red Dog books are in black, white and red; uh-oh there's another red menace. We looked at examples of in our home of impressionism and , for some odd reason, we had discussed pointillism earlier in the week. Before presuming a child questioning the illustration is expressing concern about cultural stereotypes, be sure you really understand their questions. Children in the suggested age range for The Five Chinese Brothers are unlikely to be aware of the undertones of the use of yellow.
All People Who Don't Look Like You Look Alike
The book states that the five Chinese brothers look alike. Is this because they are quintuplets or is the illustrator trying to perpetuate the myth that all foreigners look alike. Well, since the story would not work without the brothers being identical to their fellow townsmen I'm not sure it matters much; but I choose to believe the quintuplet theory.
That's Not What Chinese People Look Like
The brothers all sport long queues, illustrations show characters dressed in what might be termed traditional peasant garb, we see large cone shaped straw hats and lots of slanted eyes. I am certain some 70 years ago these illustrations were not drawn to offend; they simply represented the audience's expectations of cartoon style illustrations of the Chinese. Of course that does not mean it isn't offensive today. However, if we are going to toss this book on the bonfire for that, there are some Warner Brothers cartoons and Jerry Lewis and Pink Panther movies that need to burn too. I also want to get rid of any books that illustrate mothers in dresses, high heels and pearls in the grocery store. Can we rid the world of children's books that reference humans eating animal flesh as well? And while we are at it, I think the blond hair blued eyed pictures of Jesus need to go too. Were the book to be re-illustrated today I have no doubt the pictures would be done differently with more cultural sensitivity, but that does not necessarily make the original pictures offensive. That my children are amused by these illustrations does not mean we are racist. The stereotypes depicted in the illustrations no more define my children's impression of the Chinese than does the picture of the third Chinese brother stretching his legs so that his head can bob above the waves as he stands on the ocean floor.
Is it Offensive?
I have no doubt some people may genuinely find The Five Chinese Brothers offensive. I also have no doubt that many people will go out of their way to find something offensive. I do believe that most of those complaining about this book fall into the latter category. Read whatever motive into the illustrations you want to see, but don't decide they are offensive based only on the fact that you think they might be offensive to someone else.
So It's a Great Kid's Book, Right?
I admit that I bought this book based solely on that fact that my husband and I both remember enjoying this book as children. I didn't read it before sharing it with my children as I usually do. Boy, was I in for a surprise.
After the first reading my knee jerk parental reaction was to throw The Five Chinese Brothers away, it just seemed too brutal. Then I started to think about the story a bit more. Upon reflection I realized that while such direct discussion of execution methods is unusual in children's stories, this is by no means the only example. Does this story depict an innocent man's family attempt for justice or is this trickery to avoid punishment for a crime. It is an interesting dilemma worthy of discussion even with young children. My daughters, who heard this book independent of each other the first time through, both drew the same conclusion; the young boy was at fault for not listening even though he had promised he would. I'm willing to go with that!
Over time I realized that neither my husband nor I suffered any long term damage from hearing this book as children. We, like my children now, loved the funny pictures showing each brother's unique physical talent. As I delve more into my memory I do seem to remember thinking as a child that the little boy got what he deserved. In actuality there is as much death in the Disney movies my children watch as there is in this story.
I did need to discuss the concept of execution with my daughters. I made references to the Disney versions of Snow White and Aladdin and that seemed to help them understand. All of the exaggerated drawings certainly leave no doubt that this story is a work of fiction and a silly one at that. It sparked their imaginations by getting them to think about what physical characteristics the brothers might have needed if each of them had been jailed instead. Turning into a snake or having hands like saws were some of their suggestions. A child's reaction to the execution theme all comes down to how the reader frames it for them.
The Five Chinese Brothers is definitely not for everyone. There are a few who may truly be offended by the depiction of the Chinese characters. Many more will be offended because they want to be or think they should be. I cannot argue with anyone who feels capital punishment may not be appropriate in a book for their children. In our house, this is rapidly becoming a favorite with my 5 1/2 and 4 year olds because they identify it as a book both mom and dad liked. For us this is just another fairy tale!