Magazine article Multicultural Education

Seeking Accurate Cultural Representation Mahjong, World War II, and Ethnic Chinese in Multicultural Youth Literature

Magazine article Multicultural Education

Seeking Accurate Cultural Representation Mahjong, World War II, and Ethnic Chinese in Multicultural Youth Literature

Article excerpt

The sheer amount of American chil- dren's and young adult literature, boasting an outpouring of 5,000 titles every year, often amazes a person who is new to this field. Not only is a large proportion of these books of high printing and binding qual- ity, but, at a quick glance, among them is also a pleasant diversity of genre, format, targeted age level, topic, and style.

When I first approached juvenile books published in the United States five years ago (many of them manufactured and shipped over from the People's Re- public of China notwithstanding), I was excited to see ethnic Chinese and their culture portrayed in juvenile fiction, informational books, and exquisitely il- lustrated Chinese folktales conveying an aura of age-oldness and elegancy. Through these sources, young readers in the U.S., including those of Chinese ancestry, can learn about Chinese language, Chinese dragons, Chinese New Year customs, Emperor Qin Shihuang's silent terra-cotta army, and many other topics of Chinese heritage.

Juvenile books about China and eth- nic Chinese serve several purposes. They cater to young people's need for informa- tion about China-whether that "need" is spontaneous or imposed (at school, for ex- ample). They expose readers to the culture and experiences of ethnic Chinese people in order to promote cross-cultural under- standing. In these books, youth of Chinese descent, including new immigrants and native-born Chinese Americans, are also supposed to find the culture, experiences, and history which they share at varying levels and to see people of their own ethnic group portrayed in images and text.

Nonauthentic Reflections

Given these purposes, and another reason I will discuss below, a central concern among researchers of youth lit- erature about Chinese as well as Chinese Americans has been a non-stereotypical portrayal of characters and an accurate and authentic reflection of Chinese culture. In two sophisticated studies by Liu (1993) and Liu (1998), both authors selected facets considered significant to Chinese culture-examples of such facets include food, clothes, ritual customs, festivals, reli- gious beliefs, philosophy, and values-and analyzed how those factors were reflected in youth literature about Chinese and Chinese Americans.

Liu (1998) also examined the written and pictorial physical descriptions of Chi- nese characters, and paid particular atten- tion to slanted eyes and a non-differential depiction of different characters. These two symptoms, together with bright yellow skin, found in Kurt Wiese's illustration of The Five Chinese Brothers and widely criticized, have become a quick detector for stereotypes and racism in books about Chinese, even as ethnic Chinese authors and illustrators can be exempt from such scrutinies.1

Confusing and Mixing Asian Cultures

Researchers invariably found errone- ous representations of Chinese culture in books for young people. A frequent mistake is the confusion of Chinese culture with cultures from other areas; in particular, studies show that Japanese culture is most susceptible to being mixed with Chinese culture (Cai, 1994; Liu, 1993; Mo & Shen, 1997). These East Asian cultures, being geographically proximate and historically related, seem to be too much trouble for American authors, illustrators, and editors to tell apart.

Blair Lent's Tikki Tikki Tembo (1968), a folktale originating from Japan, was touted as a pourquoi tale about Chinese naming tradition, and librarians and re- searchers pointed out the dubious cultural representation as early as 1974 (Cai, 1994; Scott, 1974). In 1998, a heated debate erupted on the Child_Lit listserv concern- ing the cultural issue of this "Chinese" folk- tale, and a few ethnic Chinese expressed clear unhappiness with the misleading information about Chinese culture in the book (Child_Lit, 2004). Despite a simple correction required in the original, the misnomer remains in a paperback edition released by Square Fish Books in 2007. …

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