Recently the children’s books market in China made international headlines when the South China Morning Post reported that an order from Beijing will drastically limit the number of foreign children’s picture books published in mainland China this year.
According to The Guardian and other sources, Chinese publishers received orders that foreign children book titles must be lowered or even halted to prevent an “ideology inflow” and to protect and promote children’s books written by Chinese authors. In the New York Times, Hannah Beech also called the crackdown an “ideological crusade.”
On March 3rd, days before the South China Morning Post reported the news, China’s largest e-commerce platform Taobao issued an official statement that, as of March 10th, it was halting resales of all books published overseas to “create a safe and secure online shopping environment.”
STATE MEDIA: ALL ABOUT CULTURE
“The Ministry of Culture hopes that Chinese children will be more in touch with cultural products that reflect Chinese values.”
Chinese media responded to the international news reports in mid-March, saying that they were “fabrications” by foreign media to make China look bad. On Wednesday, state tabloid Global Times published an article written by a Global Times commentator Shan Renping, writing:
“Recently a number of Western mainstream media have started a hype about China controlling the import of foreign children’s books, suggesting this is China’s way of reducing the influence of the outside world on China, and ridiculing that our “boycott of foreign forces starts with small children.”
According to the column, the imposed limit on foreign children’s books is not necessarily related to “ideology” or other political matters – as children’s books are allegedly “not much of an ideological field” – but that the reason is cultural.
In the past, the author writes, the ratio of imported children’s books versus Chinese ones was 9:1 in 2000. While this gap between foreign and Chinese children’s books has already decreased from 6:4 (2011), officials hope to further develop the local children’s books market.
As the article says: “The Ministry of Culture (..) [also] hopes that Chinese children, throughout the course of growing up, will be more in touch with cultural products that reflect Chinese values.”
But besides the cultural motives for limiting foreign publications in China, the Global Times column also hints that there might be economic motives involved, as it mentions the growing market of children’s books in China, and that storybooks play a leading role in the publishing industry.
In the Chinese Book Market 2016 report by the German Book Office Beijing, 21.9% of China’s online book trade is listed in the category of children’s books: a booming and growing market.
“When I think about the garbage we had to read when we were little, I really cannot even imagine that books like these will be banned.”
On Weibo, some netizens responded to the crackdown on foreign children’s books with great disappointment. Before March 10, some people also said they would quickly buy foreign books for their kids before the Taobao ban would be implemented.
It is probable that some comments about the ban have been censored; one Weibo user also indicates that a previous post about the limitations “has been deleted.”
Microblogger (@大耳朵猫妹) writes:
“When you look at how kids read children’s books, what I find most surprising is how these foreign children’s books do not seem to have any meaning but just really fit in with children’s minds. I used to read a book to my children about a crocodile family; a daddy, mommy and little crocodile that eat bananas every day. One day, the little crocodile stopped and said he did not want to eat any more bananas, so his parents asked him what he wanted to eat. When he said he wanted to eat humans, his parents laughed. He then angrily left the house and on the street, he met a small child, and said: “I want to eat you.””
“The child just laughed out loud and together with his little friends took out some bananas and threw them at the small crocodile, and then laughingly ran away. Later, the little crocodile took the pile of bananas home, and ate them with his parents while wiping away his tears. What does this story explain and teach us? Nothing. But it corresponds with children’s desire to explore the outside world and try new things. My kids really liked it. (..) I really love these cute and fresh children’s books, and when I think about the garbage we had to read when we were little, I really cannot even imagine that books like these will be banned.”
The question is: will these books really be banned? Let’s first take a look at the current top-ranked lists of children’s picture books.
MOST POPULAR CHARTS
“The reported restrictions seem to be more symbolical than substantive.”
What children’s books rank highest in the popular book charts on Weibo after news of the PRC crackdown has come out?
‘Chinese Year’ Original Picture Book Series (中国年原创图画书系列)
The top ranking children’s book at the time of writing is a book series called Chinese Year, which is written by author Cao Cong (alias Wuke Lili), a Renmin University graduate specialized in children’s psychology.
The books contents and illustrations are focused on Chinese family life and traditions. This particular story is about Chinese New Year and how it is celebrated.
Guess Who I Am? (猜猜我是谁)
This book is aimed at the youngest children (2-4 years old) as a little ‘hide and seek’ game with holes in it, allowing children to look through them and see different things. The book is published by the Chinese People’s Publishing House.
Fantastic Book (奇妙的书)
This is another made-in-China children’s book, published by Guangxi Normal University.
It is themed around many different animals. From alligators to penguins, they all look at life in a different way.
Paw Patrol (汪汪队立大功)
Who has not heard of Paw Patrol? This children’s book about a boy named Ryder who leads a pack of rescue dogs known as the PAW Patrol is derived from a Canadian animated television series, and is thus a foreign children’s book with no Chinese themes. The book is popular on Weibo, where it is rated 9.1 out of 10 stars.
The Princess Kite (公主的风筝)
Although the authors of this book are not all Chinese, the story does focus on ancient China and has a Chinese kite as its central subject – making it a truly Chinese story, published by the Chinese Yellow River Publishing & Media Group.
The top 5 of Weibo’s most popular children’s book of this moment seems representative of the ‘popular’ or ‘recommended’ lists of China’s biggest online bookstores such as Taobao or Dangdang, where there are still many foreign children’s books for sale, but where the originally Chinese children’s books seem to dominate the main lists of book suggestions.
Searching for ‘foreign children’s books’ was possible on all sites – including on Dangdang, Kongfz, JD.com, and also on Taobao – after March 10. There is a wide selection of foreign books available from these sites, from Little Rabbit Couldn’t Sleep to Peppa Pig.
Also in the category for older children (8-12), translations of books like Pippi Longstocking (长袜子皮皮) or Harry Potter (哈利·波特) are still freely available on Taobao.
Seeing that the announced Taobao ban has not really gone into effect, there is a probability that the ‘ban’ on foreign children’s books and the reported restrictions for publishing firms to publish any foreign picture books for children this year are more symbolical than substantive.
TONING DOWN THE HYPE
“Chinese children can enjoy Paw Patrol or Pippi Longstocking, along with those books themed around Chinese New Year or Chinese folklore.”
On Thursday, Global Times published another article that seemed to want to tone down the hype, quoting the deputy dean of Cultural Studies at Peking University Chen Shaofeng: “Unless the foreign media can name particular children’s books that are banned from being imported, their accusations should be seen as groundless.”
The article also mentioned a Beijing-based publisher nicknamed ‘Coco’, who reassured worried parents that books that have already received approval to be published would continue to be available, regardless of whether or not import limits (not bans) are introduced in future.
The way things stand now, it seems that it is business as usual for children’s books in China. It is likely that foreign children’s books will not be completely banned from China in the near future. Instead, we can expect a heightened focus on Chinese books for children (especially those themed around Chinese stories and traditions), making it easier for publishers to get approval for those titles.
To make final conclusions about the eventual effects of the announced regulations, however, we will have to wait another year. In the meantime, Chinese children can enjoy Paw Patrol or Pippi Longstocking, along with those books themed around Chinese New Year or Chinese folklore. Perhaps to the disappointment of some parents, Peppa Pig has not left the building (yet).
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