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

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From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

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.

. . . .

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.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

PG notes that people have been borrowing stories from other cultures for centuries, probably beginning when different cultures developed. The Romans borrowed stories about the Gods from the Greeks.

PG further notes that “Asians” is an artificial construct that includes people from a wide range of cultures. So is “Latinx”.

Do the Japanese believe they are part of the same culture as the Chinese are? If you were to suggest that to a person of Japanese origin living in Japan, you might find that you have offended her/him. A Latinx Argentine might not even understand what a Brazilian Latinx is saying.

The Chinese include an amalgam of people from genetically and culturally different origins. The geographical areas that comprise China have expanded and contracted over many years. A quick online check discloses there are more than 200 different Chinese dialects. PG suspects that the people speaking those dialects came from differing cultural origins. At least some of them became “Chinese” for reasons than their voluntary desire to join the Chinese nation and culture.

In what particular Chinese culture did the story of Lao Lao originate? Is the author of the OP of that same culture? If the author came from a dominant culture that conquered the separate people of the original creator of the Lao Lao story a couple of centuries ago, is the author of the OP guilty of cultural appropriation herself?

Did Pearl Buck commit the terrible sin of cultural appropriation when she wrote The Good Earth, a fictional story about family life in a Chinese village?

Did Ms. Buck’s creation of a moving novel about Wang Lung and O-Lan that introduced a great many English-speakers around the world to the very real challenges of drought, famine, poverty and forced migration experienced by some of the people in China during the early 20th century constitute an evil act?

Should Ms. Buck have not written the story and waited until someone of Chinese origin and heritage wrote the story and gotten it to a publisher who could have translated it into English and many other languages so non-Chinese around the world could understand something about the difficulties faced by real people and their experiences upon which Ms. Buck based her fictional creation?

Written stories belong to their individual creators as individuals. Copyright laws around the world reflect this belief and value. Where the individual creator is unknown or anonymous, stories have no owner.

Stories don’t belong to cultures or people who bear some similarity to the characters in a book. Can only blind women write about Helen Keller? Can only African-Americans write about Martin Luther King? Can only Russians write about Stalin? Can only naturalized French women who were born in Poland write about Marie Skłodowska Curie?

Is there anything morally wrong with a person who travels to another country returning home and telling others about his/her experiences there? Is writing about those experiences in diaries, letters and books different than communicating them orally?

Is writing a work of fiction based upon something the author has read or heard or seen morally wrong? Does it matter if the author decides to write a fictional story that is set somewhere other than where the author was born or has lived?

Again, cultures don’t own stories. People who have the same cultural background as someone who wrote a story don’t own that story or any stories that are derived from that story.

Absent copyright protection for the expression of a story created by an individual who is known to be its creator, in PG’s internationally and cross-culturally humble opinion, stories written by humans belong to humanity. Anyone can write them, alter them, love them or hate them.

8 thoughts on “The Artist or the Emperor? Cultural Appropriation and Children’s Classics”

  1. I’ve talked about this before.

    Look at the movies The Neverending Story One and Two. Ignore Three, it was hijacked by the Nothing.

    On a regular basis Fantasia sends out story in the form of daydreams. Millions of people receive the daydream. Some people talk about what they saw. Some people write it up in a diary or blog post. Some people write the daydream as a story that they get published or publish themselves. Millions of people read the story and when they dream they send the story back into Fantasia filtered through millions of people who endlessly change it.

    – This is a normal thing, that actually happens.

    – This happens so often that people will read a book and say, “They stole my idea.”

    Years ago, on the Charlie Rose Show, he was on assignment and had three NY Publishing Editors sitting around the table talking the book business. One guy pointed out that he would have fifty manuscripts on his desk, all about a killer car. Of the fifty, only Christine by King was published. Another time he had fifty manuscripts about a courtroom drama, but only The Pelican Brief by Grisham got published. This happened all of the time.

    Once you are aware of this phenomena you will notice the waves of stories published from the daydreams sent out by Fantasia. There will be a bunch of books about the same story all come out about the same time. Those people saw the daydream and ran with it.

    When things happen like in the article, and people complain, I always ask, “Where were you. Why didn’t you tell the story. You have had decades to tell it and you refused.”

    The person who told the story is the one who acted for story. The people who complain that the author was the “wrong” ethnicity, only have themselves to blame that they refused to write the story. If they say that they didn’t know the story, then all the more reason the story was told by someone, anyone.

    We are lucky to have it, whatever the source.

  2. Cultural appropriation is just another attempt to claim victim-hood. It’s also used “as needed” to form an argument since, as PG notes, it’s pretty much impossible to nail down. The second you try to claim one thing is appropriation, you find out that too was appropriated by someone else, and someone else before that, until you get beyond recorded history.

    There’s a reason the phrase that “there’s nothing new under the sun” is a thing. Because it’s true.

    Cultural appropriation is a concept that needs to be pushed back against, because it actually does absolutely zero good. The only way I could see it being useful is if someone is NOT of a particular ethnicity or culture and then tries to present themselves as if they are. Course, we have a word for that, it’s called “lying.”

    Typically, when people are talking about, or even “using” something culturally, it’s done to *honor* that culture, not appropriate it or mock it, or ignore it. As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

    It’s stunning to me that so many words and articles are written about such a flakey idea.

    • All true but if you look a bit closer you can distil it to a single word.
      The whole thing is about power. Power to tell others what to do, what to say, what to think.
      In a word: politics.
      And politicians only have the power you give them.
      They’ll keep pushing the claim until they get what they want or get squashed.
      I’ll bet on the latter.

  3. PG thought it right to put up the following he received from someone who viewed this post:

    “Actually the statement that cultures don’t own stories is not totally correct. For example: In Australia, the Native Australians have incorporated stories about the landscape into songs. A person owns that song/story and is used a form of cultural currency to navigate the landscape in the Outback. The song is reallly a story about landmarks in the landscape that allow a person travel about. However, if one runs out of songs/stories one can trade a song one knows for another song to continue traveling.

    There’s also the cultural view among Native Australian artists that use the “Dot Painting technique” that can tell a story about a place or something of historic significance in their culture The painting is the visual manifestation of a story the artists know and “owns.” They can pass the story down to one of the family members. And other artists in the cultural respect this tradition. So in some cultural milieuxs, stories can be owned.”

    Since the author sent this to PG via email instead of making it a comment on TPV, PG won’t post the email address in case the author of the email wants to remain confidential.

    • This sounds much like a “social copyright” to me – not one enforced by legal means, but social pressures.

      The journey stories are in line with our “Western” concept – you own the story (expression), you do not own the journey (ideas). Someone else could make the exact same journey, but would have their own story for it, without repercussions.

      Note: as the husband of a BS in Anthropology, it could very well be somewhat more complex than this.

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