China’s Picture Book Market Has Exploded, but Is It Fun for Children?

In lieu of advocating joy, Beijing embraces youth literature as a way to teach ideal citizenship

China’s Picture Book Market Has Exploded, but Is It Fun for Children?
Children read books in Yangzhou’s Colorful World bookstore. (Costfoto/Future Publishing via Getty)

When the writer Xue Xinran returns to her native Beijing from London, she heads straight to the Xidan bookstore and navigates her way to the children’s section. She is never disappointed by what she finds: There are rows of popular classics from the West like “Peter Rabbit,” spinoffs from films such as “Frozen,” Japanese anime titles and, of course, Chinese titles.

It wasn’t always like this. The bestselling writer and former radio host vividly remembers the day the Red Guards visited her childhood home. She was just 8 years old when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, and it marked her for life.

“They burnt all my books,” she told New Lines over the phone. “It was a big, big fire.” Her grandmother could read German and so, unlike most children of that generation in China, who had few or no books for their age, Xinran grew up with a selection of both Chinese and international literature. Among the toys and furniture that the Red Guards threw onto the bonfire, it was the books and her book bag that stung the most.

Xinran, who moved to the U.K. in the late 1990s and has written novels and nonfiction, has spent the decades since trying to satiate her love of children’s books, to fill a cavity she feels was created during the decade of madness, as the Cultural Revolution is often called by people within China. At college, she would read children’s books for pleasure. “I missed my childhood. I missed my parents,” she said. After she had her own child, in 1988, she read to him constantly.

Over the past few decades, the children’s book market in China has undergone its own revolution and become one of the most lucrative in the world. Children’s books are no longer seen as seditious material. Instead, they’re celebrated: With a population of 247 million under the age of 14 — a number boosted by the relaxation of the one-child policy in 2016 — the market accounts for the largest and fastest-growing share of the country’s entire book marketplace, according to figures released by the Shanghai Children’s Book Fair last year.

While there are thousands of international titles translated into Mandarin, China’s domestic market of picture books is also blossoming. Traditional Chinese values such as education — both as an aim in and of itself, and as a vehicle to mold model citizens — permeate throughout.

I spoke to several parents, alongside a handful of teenagers, the majority of whom still live in China. All gave me similar observations — that growing up reading was less about pleasure and more about learning, and that this still applies to a large extent today. The writer Shen Nian, a mother to twins aged 11, said that when they were little she read lots of foreign picture books to them. The Chinese stories she read were mostly historical and focused on educating readers, and most of them were simple and didn’t take into account children’s personalities and feelings.

“The current selection is much better thematically than before,” she told New Lines, “but it still focuses on mainstreaming some values ​​rather than considering a broader perspective.”

Zheng Xiaolu, a novelist and creative writing teacher based in Hunan in southern China, told me that he reads to his nearly 2-year-old daughter often, in part to teach her some basic English. Later, when she grows older, he intends to read her a mix of classical Chinese poetry and books in English, to give her a leg up in life.

The pressure for books to educate rather than entertain is reflected in the literature itself: Last October, the picture book “First Man” was published to much fanfare. The content is based on astronaut Yang Liwei’s autobiography, “Long March to Space,” which marks the 20th anniversary of the country’s first manned space travel and which has been included among the country’s middle school textbooks since 2021. The book’s images are vivid and crisp, and young readers are given a politically sound lesson about celebrating and serving your country.

Children’s books also aim to teach them how to become model citizens. In 2015 the Socialist Core Values series became compulsory reading in regional kindergartens. Its editor Zhu Jiaxiong has said that it infused early childhood education with traditional cultural heritage. The series explored values across three dimensions: the national (featuring themes of prosperity, democracy, civility and harmony); the societal (dealing with freedom, equality, justice and the rule of law); and citizens (extolling patriotism, dedication, integrity and friendship).

One book in the series is “Kongrong Shares Pears,” which comes from the well-known neo-Confucian childhood story “The Three Character Classic.” The story is about a conflict among three brothers on how to share pears of unequal sizes. The message? Only when children learn modesty and how to share can everyone live happily in a harmonious society. Another in the series, “Yuefei Serves the Country With Loyalty,” depicts a man torn between his patriotic role to defend his country from an invading force and his filial duty to look after his aging mother.

Outside the series, popular books over the past few decades have centered on some of the challenges of the day. Take Yu Li-qiong’s “A New Year’s Reunion,” which was awarded the Best Children’s Picture Book at the first Feng Zikai Chinese Children’s Picture Book Awards in 2009 and remains a bestseller. It features Maomao, a young girl whose father has left her behind to live away for work, and their heartfelt reunion. The book catered to the large population of left-behind children whose parents had migrated, often to the cities. In the story, Maomao is not a victim. Rather she’s powerful and, crucially, resilient. Through her, children learn about the necessity of hardship.

Of course, children’s literature around the world is not immune to political and social movements. There are plenty of titles in the West that aim to educate children under 5 about Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight for freedom or the climate crisis. But a 2017 study by academics at the University of California found that storybooks from China stressed learning values twice as frequently as books from the U.S. and Mexico, which placed their emphasis on happiness.

“[In China] there is not a strong sense of altruistic reading,” said Jo Lusby, the former managing director of Penguin Random House North Asia, adding that “Parents want their children to gain knowledge or perspective through their reading.”

Perhaps this desire for learning outcomes is rooted in the education system itself, on which China has always placed a huge premium. At the heart of the academic system is the gaokao, China’s college entrance exam, which dates back to 1952 and is often touted as the hardest exam in the world. It has been widely criticized for putting impossible pressures on students. A person’s career and even marriage prospects can be decided by their three-digit gaokao score.

The gaokao was put on hold during the Cultural Revolution and later reinstated when the combination of an exploding population and competition for a finite number of higher educational spots became fierce from the turn of the century through the following two decades. Pressure to perform in the gaokao has been piled onto kids — even as young as preschool — and China’s picture books have gone along with the trend. Vikki Zhang, one of the most esteemed illustrators of children’s books from China today, has battled this from the perspective of an illustrator. She told New Lines that early on in her career, when freelancing for an early education company, she was up against a prevailing notion of picture books as education.

“The pure joy of humor or a lighthearted story was considered secondary,” she said.

Unlike elsewhere in the world, China was late to the picture book market. In 1693, the English philosopher John Locke said that the ideal children’s book was “easy, pleasant … and suited to [the child’s] capacity.” These words in “Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” Locke’s revolutionary book, are seen as laying the groundwork for modern-day children’s literature. Locke warned against scolding or lecturing children in books and instead recommended making reading enjoyable.

“The entertainment that [the child] finds might draw him on, and reward his pains in reading,” wrote Locke. For him there were two vital ingredients, brevity and illustrations.

Locke’s theory inspired people across the publishing world, in particular John Newbery, who went on to establish the first commercial market for children’s books in the West. Aimed at the growing ranks of aspirational middle-class English parents, the trim paperbacks sold well and were soon being imitated in North America. In Japan, a similar trade in “akahon” — “red-bound” picture books for young readers — sprung up in the city of Edo. A clear pattern emerged, one that would come to define children’s first books: the recognition of a link between literacy and social advancement, and of illustrated children’s books’ role in it.

Soaring literacy rates and advances in printing technology increased the demand for children’s books throughout the 19th century, and narrative artists started to make it their career, including the English writer and illustrator Beatrix Potter, who went on to pen “Peter Rabbit” and some of the most successful and enduring stories to date.

In the 1960s, children’s books moved away from traditional stories about idealized, morally innocent children and animals toward tales with more complex characters, such as Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” from 1963. Then, as world markets became closely intertwined from the 1970s onward, picture books blossomed globally, even in areas not previously known for producing them. For countries like Australia, Ghana and Venezuela, the production of these books constituted a milestone in their national coming of age.

Throughout all of this, China appeared largely disengaged. A combination of a no-nonsense educational system, extensive poverty and the political upheaval of the 19th and 20th centuries had done little to foster a robust book market for children under 5. To be sure, the country had its own stories aimed at young children, such as “Monkey King: Return to the West” and “The Three Kingdoms.” It’s just that the books often homed in on fictional characters whose lives mirrored the social expectations of children at the time. So neo-Confucian writers emphasized desired virtues; postimperial books had plots in which children were seen as integral to saving the nation from the burdens of Confucian orthodoxy; and the Maoist period saw children as radical and revolutionary, leading to books about war and class struggle.

China’s “reform and opening up” from the 1980s shook up the terms for creativity. The nation became richer and more aspirational. Borders swung open, ideas filtering in. A new crop of writers, artists and publishers emerged, eager to ensure that the next generation of children enjoyed a more inspiring space than they had themselves. Western-style picture books were seen as one component in that project, which was good news for international publishers, keen to get in on the growing and sizable market.

Despite the enthusiasm, the majority of books coming out of China remained drab, the illustrations lackluster and the messages often focused on morality. This was a frustration for Helen Wang, a translator of books from Chinese to English who worked on arguably the most successful Chinese picture book to date, “Playing with Lanterns,” written by Wang Yage and illustrated by Zhu Chengliang. The book is a heartfelt and tender story celebrating traditions around the Chinese New Year, and the importance of continuing them.

Wang is a mother of two boys, both now in their 20s. When she was looking for books for them when they were little, she struggled. The quality wasn’t high, the content was not quite right, and then there were parents’ attitudes.

“People would say to me: ‘Why do you want to buy picture books anyway? They’re expensive and they’ve only got a few words in them and when you’ve read them once that’s it. So you’ve wasted your money,’” Wang told New Lines.

Wang describes the major turning point as taking place around 2000, when the translation of books into Chinese really took off. By 2015, Chinese publishers had acquired rights to more than 2,000 Western children’s books, as reported in Publisher’s Weekly, including all of the main U.S. prizewinners. “Because they wanted to grow the industry, pretty much any book that had won a prize was translated,” she said.

The relaxation of the one-child policy in 2016 gave the industry another boost. Suddenly a book that might have been read by only one child could be read by multiple children in the same family. Once seen as too pricey, they were deemed better value for money. And the new fertility policy paved the way for new storylines too — about siblings.

But like almost anything generating serious money in China, the picture book market is still frequently swept up in the politics of the day. And this works both ways — certain books get promoted while others get crushed. In 2022, a series of people in Hong Kong were jailed following the publication of picture books about sheep, which the authorities believed hid messages of sedition. Police urged parents to destroy copies of the books or face consequences, and were true to their word — they arrested two people in possession of the books (who were later released on bail).

In August 2022, Chinese authorities punished 27 people over the publication, from 10 years prior, of a mathematics textbook that contained “tragically ugly” illustrations. Following a monthslong investigation by the Ministry of Education, the government concluded that the books, which contained pictures of boys grabbing girls’ skirts and children allegedly sporting tattoos, did not “properly reflect the sunny image of China’s children,” that they could bring about disrepute and even “cultural annihilation” for China, and that they might be the deliberate work of Western infiltrators in the education sector.

The politicization has happened beyond the page too. As has happened elsewhere, China’s picture book market has grown in tandem with video and TV shows, some being spinoffs of books and sometimes the reverse. Perhaps none of them has been more successful than Peppa Pig, which first aired in the U.K. in 2004 and made its China debut in 2015, where it amassed more than 34 billion episode views within two years.

“The pig is a very popular character in China. … It’s the one animal that everyone just adores,” said Wang. As Chinese children hoovered up Peppa merchandise — toys, watches, backpacks, temporary tattoos and books — the pig became a hit in the meme world. Authorities became concerned that Peppa was linked to “subversive” groups and so wanted her scrubbed from the internet. According to the BBC, Douyin, China’s biggest video-sharing platform, took down 30,000 videos, while leading international media reported that Peppa search terms were blocked online. The story was reported widely across credible media. Only it wasn’t quite true. They had missed out a key detail — it was video related to Peppa Pig that was being banned, not Peppa Pig videos themselves, something pointed out by local lifestyle magazine “That’s Beijing” at the time (much to the relief of China-based parents).

“User-generated images were blocked from being shared online as they were considered to be creating an unhealthy twist on a wholesome work of family entertainment, thereby posing a risk to young fans who may not understand the satire. The books and TV streaming and broadcasts were never interrupted, however (and I was still publishing Peppa Pig at the time),” Lusby said.

The pig has endured. The makers even courted China: In 2019, during the Year of the Pig, the Peppa franchise made a film aimed at the Chinese market and the promotional video alone racked up over 1 billion views within its first few weeks.

Just as news quietened around Peppa, official attention turned to another loveable kids’ character — Winnie the Pooh. The bear had caused offense after his portly frame was compared to that of China’s current leader Xi Jinping. To be sure, memes of Pooh bear were and are scrubbed online, but that was quite a distance from the entire franchise being out — as was being reported.

In 2017, Chinese publishers received news from Taobao, the largest e-commerce platform, that it would be halting resales of all books published overseas to “create a safe and secure online shopping environment.” Following the announcement, the China trends site What’s on Weibo investigated and found no evidence of an impact.

“The way things stand now, it seems that it is business as usual for children’s books in China,” wrote the editor, Manya Koetse. Years later, I was keen to know exactly why we got these stories wrong, so I reached out to Koetse. “It just takes a little spark and often it turns into this wildfire of Western media following a certain narrative that suits their own ideas of dystopian China,” she told me.

“The reality is less exciting, but also the reality doesn’t get you as many readers and as many clicks. So of course I do understand that a lot of media outlets have headlines like ‘China’s banning Western children’s books’ but they never did and they won’t because all of these characters are just so, so popular in China.”

Lusby agrees. She said that frequently “a lot of the nuance of government pushes can be lost in international reporting.” She also says that ultimately the Chinese government can’t always control what the people read, something I noted early on when living in China in the late 2000s. I’d often see Jung Chang’s book “Wild Swans,” which was officially banned in the country, sold in central Shanghai book markets.

“With a lot of these campaigns on certain areas of consumption in China, the announcement is the only lever, meaning that the government may be encouraging people to not read so much international children’s writing, but the reality is that people want what they want,” Lusby said.

In November last year, after a four-year in-person hiatus, the China Shanghai Children’s Book Fair kicked off. According to Publisher’s Weekly the mood was one of anticipation and “early packed booths inspired optimism.” The trade journal noted several trends, one being the desire to nurture more homegrown talent, another the wish to champion more stories that are unique to China.

Are we finally entering a golden age for Chinese picture books? It’s unlikely. After years of boom, the entire book market in China — both international and domestic — is contracting, and one of the biggest areas hit is the children’s category. Part of this is the COVID effect, the reason the China Shanghai Children’s Book Fair had been on pause. For the first three years of the decade, China’s borders were closed, which strengthened the sense of turning inward that has been promoted under Xi.

China’s current landscape — one of rising unemployment, stagnant wages and increasingly rigid party lines — is also bleak. There’s a fin-de-siecle vibe in the air, and a sense that China’s march through time has stalled. This feeling was compounded by the closure of Jifeng, Shanghai’s beloved liberal bookshop, which shut down in 2018 for political reasons. It’s hardly the atmosphere for a creative renaissance, even if there are some undeniable gains.

But as Xinran attests, even in bleak times the flames of creativity can still be kept alive.

“There are many independent bookstores in the main cities now,” she said. “Deep in the back of some of these bookstores you’ll find banned books hiding there.”

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