There are few children’s books more charming and fun to read than Claire Huchet Bishop’s The Five Chinese Brothers, illustrated by Kurt Wiese and published in 1938. Like so many ethnic stories, critics have accused the book of ethnic and racial stereotyping. While most critics of the book have focused on Kurt Wiese’s illustrations, a few have criticized the text itself.
Amy Bronwen Zemser, who describes herself as “writer, squirrel hunter,
breastfeeder, homosexual,” and has had some children’s books published, says of The Five Chinese Brothers which was the subject of her September 13, 2013 blog post, “The first sentence alone is problematic.” The first sentence of the book reads, “Once upon a time there were Five Chinese Brothers and they all looked exactly alike.” Zemser’s implication is that the book implies that all Chinese look alike.
As one person astutely commented in response to Zemser, “If the brothers didn’t all look just a like, they would not have been able to trade places with one another. Then there wouldn’t have been a story and the book would have ended by page 5. The author didn’t say all Chinese people looked alike, she said “they” referring to the brothers looked alike.” Zemser’s response “I agree. Without the racist premise, there would be no story!” But no where in Zemser’s mini review does she state what the racist premise of the book is.
While it is possible to conclude the illustrations in The Five Chinese Brothers are ethnic stereotypes, although not everyone agrees with that, it is impossible to make a case that the text contains or implies a racist premise, unless one misreads the first sentence, which Zemser clearly does. As the person who responded to Zemser says so accurately, “The author didn’t say all Chinese people looked alike,” only the five brothers.
And why did the five brothers look alike. In part because there would be no story if they did not look alike. But another reason, one that is implied but not stated, the brothers are quintuplets. It is important to read closely when reading books. Authors are often very careful about word choice. Bishop did not say the brothers looked alike. She said they looked “exactly alike.” All brothers look something alike. But the only way brothers can look “exactly alike” is if they came from the same egg. The five Chinese brothers are quintuplets. Bishop did not have to use the word for us to figure that out, and it is not likely she would have chosen such a big word for a children’s book.
In the age of fertility drugs and the Octomom, multiple births are hardly newsworthy. Not so in 1934 when the Dionne Quintuplets were born. As the Encyclopedia Britannica says, “The “quints” were remarkable in being the first medically and genetically documented set that survived; not one member of any other quintuplet set had previously lived more than a few days.” Britannica states also, “The quintuplets became international celebrities during their early years—making three feature films for Twentieth Century-Fox, providing profitable endorsements for products from cod-liver oil to typewriters and automobiles, and attracting hordes of tourists to northern Ontario.”
Bishop could not have escaped publicity about the Dionne quintuplets. While I cannot prove it, I believe the Dionne quintuplets influenced the writing of The Five Chinese Brothers. The Dionnes were four years old and still very much in the limelight when The Five Chinese Brothers was published. The original Chinese legend, already hundreds of years old when Bishop adapted it, had ten Chinese brothers. Bishop reduced the number of brothers to five. She could have chosen seven as Margaret Mahy did in her 1990 adaptation, Seven Chinese Brothers. By choosing five, Bishop conjured up images of the Dionnes, who like the Chinese brothers were both miraculous and magnetic.
In some versions of this legend, the first brother is called the oldest brother. Bishop never does that. The brothers are numbered first through fifth in her book, and she, I think, deliberately avoids referring to any one of them as being older than the others. Why? Because if they had age differences, they could not look “exactly” alike, and the only way they could look exactly alike is if they were quintuplets. Still some critics inaccurately refer to the first brother in Bishop’s book as the oldest.
In her version, Mahy avoids saying the seven brothers looked exactly alike. Instead she says, “They walked alike, they talked alike, they even looked so much alike that it was hard to tell one brother from the brother next to him.” Mahy’s version requires the reader to suspend disbelief, but then since the story is a legend, one has to do that anyway. Still the intelligent and critical child, who will accept the miraculous powers of the brothers because he or she has already learned to discern between fact and fantasy, will wonder how it is possible for people to confuse the identities of seven brothers who were all born at different times.
The text of The Five Chinese Brothers has no racist premise. It does not stereotype Chinese people. The only way one can read Bishop’s text as racist is if one reads into it ones own prejudices or if one reads it in a careless way. It is possible that Wiese’s illustrations do stereotype Chinese people, but we will discuss them in a future post along with other objections to the book.