With Chinese New Year rapidly approaching, this is a good time to read Chinese folktales with your kids. This is the latest installment in a continuing book list series featuring multicultural folktales. I know very little about Chinese mythology and I always enjoy delving into learning about other cultures with my kids.
Make sure you also head over to Youth Lit Reviews, who has a curated a collection of picture book titles specifically for Chinese New Year. After you have perused the folk stories below be sure to pop on over there to get the recommendations. (Note: As always, I choose books my kids and I have actually read and enjoyed. Affiliate links are included.)
There is a significant difference between the types of stories on this list than on some of my other folktale lists. Largely absent are the porquoi and trickster tales. Instead we have lessons, more akin to fables and fairy tales with commentary about life’s twists and turns. There are several well-known books on this list, but I’m sure you will discover a few new titles, too!
Rabbit’s Gift is a gentle story about showing kindness towards others. Rabbit finds a turnip in the snow, but as he is eating it, he thinks of his friend, Donkey, and wonders if she has any food. Rabbit leaves her extra turnip at Donkey’s door and when Donkey finds it, she leaves it for her neighbor, Goat. On and on it goes, with each friend, in turn, considering the well being of another. Eventually, they all come together for a meal in friendship. A wonderful story. Also available as an ebook.
The Emperor and the Kite. Princess Djeow is so small that she goes unnoticed by her family. Her favorite toy is a kite that she flies every day, “like a flower in the sky.” When her father is captured and imprisoned in a tower, her siblings become useless, spending their days weeping and moaning. Djeow, however, uses her kite to fly baskets of food to her father. One day a passing monk gives her inspiration in the form of a poem and the intrepid princess invents a way to use her kite to rescue her father. He realizes his daughter’s worth and she rules along side him. This is a truly wonderful book and if your child has a penchant for princess stories it is not to be missed.
Tikki Tikki Tembo. I’m sure you have all heard of this Chinese fable about the boy with the long name who fell down a well. I remember reciting Tikki Tikki Tembo’s full name with my friends when I was young. As a kid it always sort of bothered me that the mom favored one child over another. I wondered if others felt that way, too. I still loved the story, though! If for some reason this book has slipped through your fingers, be sure to pick up a copy to share with your kids ASAP. Note: I recently learned that this is actually not a Chinese folktale, and is not a culturally accurate picture book. Read more about that here. However, I am leaving the book on this list in hopes that more people will become aware of the books implications. We are all learning everyday!
The Seven Chinese Sisters. This is a fun version of the Seven Chinese Brothers (see below) and I’m happy that I was able to find a book illustrated by Grace Lin to include on this list. Each of the sisters has a special talent and my kids got a big kick out of their “moderns skills,” such as being able to ride a scooter as fast as the wind, or catch any ball. My math-loving older son thought it was hilarious that one sister could “count to five hundred and beyond.” (He informed me he could do much better than that!) When the baby sister is captured by the hungry dragon, the other six use their superpowers to save her.
The Seven Chinese Brothers is the “original” (obviously all folktales are versions of oral tales, so whose to say it’s the original) version of the above story and a good one to read if your kids are into superheroes. All of the brothers have a super-power of sorts. One has bones of steel, another has superior eyesight, yet another has marvelous hearing… etc. I love how the baby brother’s “power” is that he can cry so many tears he is able to wash away an entire village. (Don’t we know that to be true, fellow parents!) The cruel Emperor Chi’in Shih Huang attempts to destroy the brothers, but their superhuman strengths bring them through with aplomb. I always appreciate clever, witty writing. The book includes notes about the tale.
King Pom and the Fox is a version of the Puss-in-Boots story. Li Ming loves his pomegranate tree (hence the moniker, “King Pom”). When he snares the fox who has been stealing the precious fruit, the fox offers to make Li Ming a rich man. Through a series of tricks, the fox convinces everyone that Li-Ming is a real king and wins him the hand of the Emperor’s daughter. A fun read aloud.
Two of Everything was one of my 5 year old’s favorites! He thought this folk story about a couple who have a barrel that duplicates whatever falls into it was hilarious. A man finds a large pot in his garden. When he uses it to store his purse of gold coins, he discovers the pot’s magic properties. The couple use the pot to increase their wealth and double everything they own, including themselves. I liked that this book had no didactic moral about greed and that the couple didn’t automatically get corrupted by their new wealth. It’s just a fun story and read aloud.
The Empty Pot. I’m not exactly sure if this is a folktale or not. There are no notes in the book. I decided to include it because the story is compelling and it still reads like folklore. Ping loves to garden, and grows the most beautiful plants and flowers. An aging emperor with no heirs proclaims that the child who grows the most wonderful flower will succeed him. He gives every child a seed, but Ping is distressed because even after a year, his seed has not sprouted. He takes his empty pot to the emperor, who reveals the truth behind the barren pot. Demi’s illustrations have legions of fans, and personally, this is one of my favorites of hers. Also available as an ebook.
Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China. I admit I am not the biggest fan of Cinderella stories with their pretty, put-upon girl who works hard and wins all. This type of storyline does not appeal to me. Sorry, but it’s true. Nevertheless, Cinderella stories are immensely popular and many cultures have their own versions. This one is reputed to be the oldest, predating the Western version by at least 1000 years, so it’s worth a read. A fish replaces the godmother, but most of the other elements are here – the jealous stepmother and sisters, the ball, the shoes, the hunt for the mysterious girl, and the punishment of the mother and sisters. The biggest difference is that Yeh-Shen’s kindness to the fish gives a bit of depth to the story.
Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China. A mother leaves her three children at home when she goes to visit their grandmother. As soon as she leaves the wolf arrives, claiming to be the grandmother. The oldest child sees through the deception and with her siblings climb into the gingko tree where they trick the wolf into being captured. Although this is a story of danger with a rather menacing wolf, the children are clearly the empowered characters here. Young’s gorgeous and atmospheric paneled illustrations — modeled on a Chinese illustrative style — earned him the 1990 Caldecott.
The Water Dragon: A Chinese Legend includes text in both English and Chinese. One day, while collecting wood, Ah Bao finds a red stone. He drops the stone in his rice pot and the rice overflows the pot. The stone has the same effect on his money jar. When he attempts to use the stone to replicate water during a drought, he finds that the stone absorbs water and so he goes in search of the Water Dragon. Along the way he meets helpful animals who offer him advice and gifts. That’s all I’m going to say because I don’t want to give away the ending. It was completely different than what I expected! (In a good way.)
The Dragon Prince: A Chinese Beauty & the Beast Tale. I was familiar with Yep only as a chapter book author, so was delighted to discover this Chinese version of the fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast. There is a lot of text, but the stunning and vibrant illustrations offer ample visual interest to lap sitters. A poor farmer has seven daughters and when a dragon threatens to eat the farmer unless one of his daughters marries him, the youngest volunteers for the task. She is able to look past the dragon’s appearance and the dragon transforms into a prince. When Seven (all the daughters are named after their birth order) returns home, one of her sisters betrays her but the Dragon Prince sees through her deception.
The Great Race: The Story of the Chinese Zodiac. Have your kids ever asked why there is no “year of the cat?” This is the story that tells how each animal was chosen and given an order in the Chinese calendar. The Jade Emperor holds a swimming race across a wide river. The rat who is a poor swimmer but quite wily, concocts a plan to travel on the back of an ox but when he sees that the cat may beat him to the finish, he pushes him into the water. The rat does win in the end and is rewarded with the first year of the calendar. He never receives any punishment for his cruelty to the cat, but I suppose that’s life.
The Lost Horse: A Chinese Folktale brings to life the proverbial saying, “a loss may be a gain.” When a wise man, Sai, loses his horse, his neighbors advise him that it might not be a bad thing, after all. When the horse returns, he has a mate, so it seems it wasn’t a bad thing. Then the new horse throws Sai’s son and the cycle of loss-gain-loss-gain continues through the story. The overarching message is that life is full of many paths and changing fortunes. Ed Young has adapted and illustrated a number of Chinese folktales into picture books. A lot of them are very text heavy, but this one’s concise text and clear fable-like structure makes it a great one to share with little ones. Plug Ed Young’s name into your library’s catalog to find more selections.
The Magic Horse of Han Gan is a fictionalized account of an historic figure, Han Gan, who lived in China 1200 years ago. As a young boy living in poverty, his artistic talent was discovered by a great artist and he was taken on as an apprentice. His favorite subject was horses but he always painted them tethered. When asked why he did so, he responded they are so life-like they would leap from the pages otherwise. Indeed, that is exactly what happens and the steed becomes the horse of a mighty warrior and lives through many battles until he is finally returned to the painting. My 5 year old was fascinated with the idea that a painting could come to life. As I was reading it, I was worried he might find the battle scenes too scary. The eyes of both warrior and horse are round with terror and might. They didn’t bother him, however — a testament to the how well crafted the story is.
I’d love to know what you would add to this list? How familiar with Chinese folklore are you? Have you read any of these books with your kids, yet?
Other posts in this series:
OR: Visit the index of all my book lists for kids.