The Five Chinese Brothers
|Author||Claire Huchet Bishop|
|Cover artist||Kurt Wiese|
|Publisher||originally Coward-McCann; currently Putnam|
The Five Chinese Brothers is an American children's book written by Claire Huchet Bishop and illustrated by Kurt Wiese. It was originally published in 1938 by Coward-McCann. The book is a retelling of a Chinese folk tale, Ten Brothers.
Long ago in China lived a family with five brothers who resembled each other very closely. They each possessed a special talent. One can swallow the sea; one has an iron neck; one can stretch his legs; one can survive fire; and the last can hold his breath forever. When one of the brothers, a somehow very successful fisherman, agrees to let a young boy accompany him on his fishing trip, trouble results. This brother holds the entire sea in his mouth so that the boy can retrieve fish and treasures. When the man can no longer hold in the sea, he frantically signals to the boy, but the boy ignores him and drowns when the man releases the water.
The man is accused of murder and sentenced to death. However, one by one, his four brothers assume his place when subjected to execution, and each uses his own superhuman ability to survive (one cannot be beheaded, one cannot be drowned, one cannot be burned, and one cannot be smothered). At the end of the story, a judge decides that the brother accused of murder must have been innocent, since he could not be executed, and the five brothers return home.
Reception and controversy
Though often considered a classic of children's literature, The Five Chinese Brothers has been accused of promoting ethnic stereotypes about the Chinese. In 1977, Albert V. Schwartz of the College of Staten Island criticized Wiese's illustrations, Professor Schwartz cited the criticism in question, but did not agree with it, saying that they portrayed all Chinese people with "bilious yellow skin and slit and slanted eyes". Others have made similar accusations, and many teachers have removed the book from their classrooms. However, the book has had some defenders. In a 1977 School Library Journal article, Selma G. Lanes described the illustrations as "cheerful and highly appealing", characterizing Wiese's "broad cartoon style" as "well suited to the folk-tale, a genre which deals in broad truths". She added, "I cannot remember a tale during my childhood that gave me a cozier sense of all being right with the world."
The book is also a perennial bestseller in Japan. It was uncontroversial when first published in the 1960s. Its reprinting was halted in 1978 for the same reasons listed above, but it was finally reprinted in 1995 and has remained in print ever since.
- Schwarz, Albert V. "The Five Chinese Brothers: Time to Retire". Interracial Books for Children Bulletin. Vol. 8, No. 3, 1977.
- Klein, Gillian. Reading into Racism: Bias in Children's Literature and Learning Materials. Routledge, 1990,p.55.
- Kinchloe, Joe L. How Do We Tell the Workers?: The Socioeconomic Foundations of Work. Westview Press, 1998, p.289.
- McCaskell, Tim. Race to Equity: Disrupting Educational Inequality. Between the Lines, 2005, p.102.
- Lanes, Selma G. "A Case for the Five Chinese Brothers". School Library Journal. October 1977. Vol. 24, Issue 2, p.90–91.
- National Education Association (2007). "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children". Retrieved August 19, 2012.
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