The Artist or the Emperor? Cultural Appropriation and Children’s Classics




I GREW UP ON Greek myths. My mother was a Classics major in college, which meant that every night before bed, I heard all about Athena splitting her father’s head open to birth herself, Atlas condemned to hold the world on his shoulders, Persephone being lured away from her home and stolen from her family (Mom really harped on that one). There was something enchanting about the myths my mom had committed to memory. It made them feel more important. She carried them with her.

My mom was born in Hong Kong and moved to the United States when she was three years old. She carried no stories from this place. If she did, she didn’t have the words to share them. In 1990s America, Chinese wasn’t a language to teach your children; it was one you shed like an old skin.

The only children’s book I had that featured an Asian character was Lao Lao of Dragon Mountain by Margaret Bateson-Hill. The story pulled from Chinese legend. To supplement this authenticity, it was also told in Chinese: dark red characters filling the opposite side of the pages. We would glaze over them, my mom and I, unable to find recognition, meaning, or shelter in their shapes. Still, I liked that they were there, a kind of palimpsest, an original chorus that told the tale first, something that tethered me to a world I had come from.

So we begin: An elderly woman named Lao Lao is beloved in her village for making the most beautiful paper cut-outs. One day, a cruel and greedy emperor hears about her. Foolishly, he thinks she will be able to create precious jewels out of just paper. He thinks he will be rich. He sends two guards to abduct Lao Lao from her village. She’s taken to a very tall tower. Locked in, imprisoned, she is forced to make her beautiful paper cuts only for the emperor. She is lonely. The tower, up on the mountain, is very cold. She misses the village children who would visit her, enchanted by her craft. Alone in the tower, she begins to make her art. What else is there to do?

As I remember the story, Lao Lao makes a paper dragon that comes to life and rescues her. No prince, no letting down her hair, no waiting to be kissed. She creates something with her own two hands, breathes life into it, and in return, it sets her free. As I have been retelling it to myself for years, this is a story that says: Your art can save you.

Nearly 20 years have passed since I last held Lao Lao of Dragon Mountain in my hands. Two decades stand between my current self and the young girl wrestling with safety scissors, trying to follow the instructions for cutting, singing Lao Lao’s song: “Fold it and cut it and turn it around. Open it up and see what you’ve found.” I was never any good at this. I tore at all the wrong places.

I moved into a new apartment recently, and as a result I have been thinking a lot about what makes a home. When my mom asked what she could bring me as a housewarming present, I told her I wanted Lao Lao to live with me. Upon revisiting the book, I have realized two things. The first thing is that I had the ending all wrong. Lao Lao of Dragon Mountain was not an inherently feminist tale that advocated for the arts. In hindsight, that was a very Western moral I slotted in. Lao Lao doesn’t save herself. It is not that kind of story.

What really happens: Sensing that something is wrong, the majestic dragon that lives at the top of the mountain swoops down, freezes the guards and the emperor, and takes Lao Lao with him. She rides on the back of the dragon, continuing to make her art. She covers the trees in pink blossoms in the spring, fills the fields with flowers in the summer, creates a harvest of apples in the fall. She blankets the world in snowflakes as a special winter gift. And so we have the seasons, the mythic reason for why the world changed. Another explanation for the Earth’s spinning, another version of Persephone, another woman stolen.

And this leads to my second mistake. Lao Lao of Dragon Mountain — much beloved in my childhood, so formative of the rest of my life — was written by a white woman from Lancashire.

If you search for Margaret Bateson-Hill on Google, her website is the top result. Her author page advertises numerous other children’s books: two retellings of nursery rhymes (Five Little Ducks Went Out One Day and This Little Piggy Went to Market), a separate fantasy series about dragons, and something called the Folk Tale Series. This series includes two titles: Lao Lao of Dragon Mountain (1996) and Masha and the Firebird (1999), the latter telling the story of a little girl who assists the mythical creature, helping her hide her eggs from a witch. To do so, she paints them with the colors of the four elements.

There is a third book in the series not listed on Bateson-Hill’s official website. It’s called Shota and the Star Quilt (1998), and it’s about a young Lakota girl in America whose neighborhood is threatened by an impending development. The plot description reads: “They use long-standing Lakota traditions to find a solution that saves their homes. In working together, they create a beautiful quilt that resolves more than just their problem.” Shota and the Star Quilt is out of print.

I guess the takeaway from the Folk Tale Series has to do with the power of craft, after all. You can tell a lot about a culture based on the tales it passes on. Myths and children’s stories are always trying to explain the way things are.

The way things are: In 1996, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an estimated 4,500 children’s books were published in the United States, along with Lao Lao of Dragon Mountain. Only 49 of those titles were written by or depicted Asian Americans. The study offers no further data. There is no breakdown of statistics relating to different Asian countries. There isn’t even a parsing of “written by” versus “depicting.” Any book that had anything to do with Asian Americans is lumped into the 49. In 1996, we started to care about a kind of diversity but didn’t question who could control these narratives.

According to the Center’s 2018 study, half of the children’s books published in that year centered white characters. Ten percent featured African or African American characters, while a mere seven percent showcased Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders. Even more egregiously, only five percent featured Latinx characters, with a meager one percent depicting Indigenous communities. By comparison, 27 percent of the children’s books published that year had animals or inanimate objects as protagonists. This means that the world welcomed more stories about animals and inanimate objects than about all people of color put together. From an early age, we learn what the default is.

Of the small percentage of books depicting characters of color, even fewer were actually penned by people of color. The first page of Lao Lao of Dragon Mountain (not the cover) says: “Chinese text by Manyee Wan” and “Paper cuts by Sha-liu Qu.” If you search for either of these people on Google, you won’t find anything. The inside of the book jacket reads: “The Chinese craft of paper cutting is at the center of the story and there are instructions so that children can make their own paper cuts. All of these elements work together to give children an authentic and inspiring insight into Chinese culture and traditions.”

In the middle of writing this piece, I called my grandmother. She hasn’t been back to China for decades, but she grows Chinese pears in her backyard. She was slicing into that homesick fruit when I asked her if she knew the legend Bateson-Hill’s book was based on. She did not. “Maybe from the next village,” she told me.

The line between appreciation and appropriation is thin. In cases like this book, it becomes a tightrope walk between loving something and wanting to share it and taking something that isn’t yours, between being the artist and being the emperor.

When I discovered that my favorite (and only) Chinese children’s book was written by a white woman, a friend asked if I felt a sense of loss. Part of me — the angry, incensed part; the part that’s been tapped into these national conversations about who has the right to tell which story — is screaming, Yes, absolutely! How could I not feel that something has been taken? And yet there’s another part of me that’s just grateful the book exists. I loved this story. I loved the fact that the dragon — unlike in Western myths where the creature was something to be feared, slayed, conquered — was a blessing that came to serve a hero who was Chinese. One of only 49 other Asian protagonists to grace children’s books that year, Lao Lao was special. She was diligently devoted to her craft. She taught me something about how art can save you. It’s a story, as I say, that I carried with me. The greater sense of loss comes from its not having the empowering ending I had originally thought.

I think there’s a way to read Lao Lao’s story that reclaims some of her agency. She makes the seasons. She quite literally changes the world.

I don’t know if my exposure to this story, the way I related to this character, mitigates the fact that it was co-opted. I’m not offering either condemnation or absolution. What I’m saying is this: You can tell a lot about a culture based on the legends it has kept alive. You can glean a lot from children’s books, from the things we give to the next generation. The interesting thing about myths is their malleability. My mom borrowing from the ancient Greeks. Me rewriting Lao Lao’s story, taking what I needed from it.

Still, there’s a difference. We express our values through the stories we pass on, but the power lies in the person wielding the pen. The commodification of a story that isn’t yours marks the line between emperor and artist.

¤

Katie Yee is a Brooklyn-based writer and the Book Marks associate editor at Literary Hub.

 

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