Stephanie Yao Gou
Stephanie Yao Gou

YA Literature Review

Edited by Helen Wang, first published at CB4YR

Review of <Dragonfly Eyes>

Written by Cao WenXuan ,Hans Christian Andersen Award(2016)

Translated by Helen Wang. Marsh Christian Award(2017) for Children's Literature in Translation

Cao Wenxuan has a Disney-like magic. With his lyrical writing, he can turn suffering and tears into soap bubbles that float away in the sky.  His main characters are like the bright sun shining on those bubbles, giving them an iridescence, and creating such a beautiful scene that the reader almost forgets that the soapy water is inherently bitter. In the same way, I was captivated as I watched Queen Elsa in her floaty silk dress, dancing in the blizzard, completely forgetting the pain of the winter wind that used to slash my face in my hometown near Siberia.


Written in that same beautiful style, and focussing on the close relationship between Nainai and her grand-daughter Ah Mei, Dragonfly Eyes tells the bitter-sweet story of one family from the 1930s to the 1960s. Particularly poignant are the two red umbrellas that run through the story, symbols of joy and strength: from Nainai’s beautiful memories of being a young woman; to Ah Mei’s blissful childhood, to their resilience when everyone in the family is bowing under pressure; and as the final gift to Nainai. These bright red umbrellas are like two beating hearts. Although the story darkens with the passage of time, the umbrellas do not fade but reflect the life force and dignity of the main characters. The purity and kindness of human nature permeate through the elegant writing, bringing readers a beautiful reading experience.

Cao Wenxuan has made a very bold move with this book, taking his readers with him as he moves beyond the comfort zone of his other works, away from the Jiangnan wetlands he knows so well, and into the city, and not just any Chinese city, but the rich life of the Bund in Shanghai. For China, indeed for the world, Shanghai is a unique city. I love the humorous comment by American columnist Patricia Mars that “New York may be the city that never sleeps, but Shanghai doesn’t even sit down, and not just because there is no room.” If the characters in Cao’s earlier books face hardship brought by nature, the threats to daily life in this book are more indirect. For example, while the villagers in Bronze and Sunflower have to deal with horrendous floods and skies full of locusts, those in the city see a shortage of food in the shops or are forced by soaring inflation to pawn their favourite possessions. The only thing that a city never worries about is a shortage of people, and the different kinds of issues and troubles caused by people. The uniqueness of this period in history only makes the challenge greater. Cao is used to writing about natural disasters, and he does not shy away from the man-made problems in Dragonfly Eyes: the last-minute cancellation of Ah Mei’s place in the piano competition; the prejudice against her cousin on account of his appearance; the mutilation of the apricot tree that Yeye planted specially for Nainai; the premeditated snatching of the “dragonfly eye” beads that are Nainai’s treasured heirlooms.

As in Snow White, where the handsome prince undoes the damage of the evil stepmother’s poisoned apple and brings Snow White back to life with a single kiss, Cao Wenxuan writes with a magic wand that enables the power of love for home and family to reduce all man-made disasters to insignificance. Yeye and Nainai’s home, “The Blue House”, is a three-storey villa, designed by a German architect – “the roof tiles, doors and windows were blue, the colour of the sea” – with the aroma of freshly made coffee inside, and the apricot tree full of blossom outside, and the happy sound of laughter mixing and mingling with music from the piano and the gramophone.

I was glad, before reading Dragonfly Eyes, to have read the picture book The House Baba Built, in which Chinese-American illustrator Ed Young 杨志成 uses photographs and collage to show his own happy childhood in a western-style house in Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s. This helped me to visualise The Blue House, and to understand that a house in the cramped city could still be beautiful and have warmth and charm. The Blue House was not just a building to shelter the family against wind and rain, it was the home created by the wonderfully elegant and kind Frenchwoman Océane. Creating a mixed-race household was the second challenge the author set himself.

The novel starts with Yeye and Nainai’s romantic encounter in a café in Marseille, and traces, from Ah Mei’s perspective, the young Frenchwoman’s fate with China. One by one, the other members of the family and household are brought in: the little girl’s nanny, her aunt, her cousin, her parents, her other grandfather, all have a soft spot for this remarkable little girl, the princess in this fairy tale. Family relationships are to Chinese people what love is to Hollywood, a theme that will never go out of date. The care and dedication for family members is just so important. When O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi ·亨利 : 麦琪的礼物 appeared in Chinese school textbooks in the 20th century, teachers would focus on the virtues of the man and wife and their dedication to family. In junior high school, I was moved to tears by their sacrificial gifts of love to each other, and it was only as a grown-up that I wondered if the story might have other implications. Similarly, there are many sacrificial gifts in Dragonfly Eyes: in order to knit new jumpers for their ten grandchildren, Nainai unravels her own, and Yeye’s, beautiful jumpers; in order to soothe Nainai’s homesickness, Yeye swaps his Rolex for a French apricot tree; in order to pay for Nainai’s medical treatment, Ah Mei’s parents pawn her special piano; in order to redeem the piano, Nainai does not quibble about cashing in the diamond ring her mother gave her; Yeye risks being arrested, and offers up his beloved piece of jade, in order to get a bottle of perfume from an unfamiliar foreign woman; Ah Mei’s other grandfather hands over six of his favourite paintings to recover the priceless dragonfly eye beads from the greedy thief that had snatched them. With scenes such as these, the story unfolds with a warmth and harmony resonates with Chinese readers.

We know that when Disney fans love China’s Mulan or Polynesia’s Moana, it is really the Disney princess series as a whole that they like, rather than the specificity of each princess. I believe that while the production team thinks respectfully about each princess- or girl-story, its aim is to work with the diverse examples to make more positive role models for children. In this regard, Cao Wenxuan’s Dragonfly Eyes is different: it is a work of children’s literature that introduces political movements, giving young readers a completely new perspective on diversity, one that demands more of them than the Disney team’s productions. That this book could be published at all shows the greatest respect and confidence in young readers. And the writing itself is impeccable.

If this book review was like the Ice Bucket Challenge, and I could nominate two people to add their thoughts, I would choose Anaïs Martane 安娜伊思.马田 and Mei Sifan 梅思繁. Both are women knowing children well and have unique life experiences in France and China. Like Océane, Ana (as she is known in China) is French, and lives and works in Beijing with her Chinese husband, the celebrity and actor Liu Ye 刘烨, and their children. Her son and husband attended a reality show, which brought the family to the spotlight. Mei Sifan, the daughter of the acclaimed children’s book author, Professor Mei Zihan 梅子涵, grew up in Shanghai, and now lives in France, where she is a children’s book author and translator. Her father’s award-winning picture book Sparrows 麻雀, illustrated by Man Tao 满涛, is set in his childhood in the lanes of Shanghai during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962). It is another excellent and thought-provoking work.


Of course, I should clarify that I write this review as an adult who has never lived in Shanghai and as someone who is interested in knowing more about the background of those times and is curious about the relationships between the characters. I believe that young readers will not only enjoy Dragonfly Eyes as a beautiful story, like a fairy tale but will also have the courage to seek for truth and to learn about reality. Perhaps this is the primary aim of all writers of children’s books, and their gift to the next generation.

Review of <Bronze and Sunflower>

Written by Cao WenXuan ,Hans Christian Andersen Award(2016)

Translated by Helen Wang. Marsh Christian Award(2017) for Children's Literature in Translation

As a child, I was a great reader, devouring Children’s Literature and Arts (the most reputable and best-selling magazine for children in China since the 1950s), and all kinds of books under the bed-covers. I read widely, including stories about cadre schools and stories set in the Cultural Revolution. Thanks to the pressure of schoolwork, I actually envied the children of that period, who were the same age as me, but didn’t have their parents breathing down their necks.

However, like the children in Damaidi who looked forward to the swarms of locusts, I didn’t know the reality of what I wished for. I was born “north of the camps” (in Saibei, towards Mongolia), a thousand miles from the reed lands that were “south of the river” (Jiangnan) where Bronze and Sunflower is set. I was a child of the ’80s, when China was opening up and full of hope.


Bronze and Sunflower (in Chinese)

Yet, there are scenes in Bronze and Sunflower that resonate with my childhood memories. For example, the holes in my granny’s earlobes that hadn’t closed up in the thirty years since she last wore earrings; my dad’s childhood friend telling us about the joss paper outside his granny’s house; my mum going on about my educational opportunities being ten thousand times better than her bitter-sweet memories; and the song “Beautiful Xishuangbanna” which had me in tears every time I heard it. This was the theme tune for Sinful Debt, one of the most popular TV series in the 1990s, in which five bright-eyed teenagers from Xishuangbanna, in southwest China, go to Shanghai to look for their parents. They are the children of “educated youth” – their parents had been sent as teenagers from the city to this remote region during the Cultural Revolution. But when the Cultural Revolution ended, the “educated youth” in this story went back to Shanghai, leaving their children behind, to start new lives, and sometimes new families, in the city. It was a tear-jerking dramatisation of Ye Xin’s 叶辛 novel of the same name 《孽债》 .

Then, at some point, I found I couldn’t stand books about the Cultural Revolution any more. It probably had something to do with coming overseas and realising that almost all the books that had been translated into English were about that period. Or meeting people who were interested in China, but always from the same limited perspectives — they were surprised that I didn’t wear a military uniform, were thrilled to meet An Only Child, and insisted on discussing The Private Life of You Know Who. Or discovering, on account of that book, that the author was exiled to the country where I wanted to be, the same country that was deciding whether or not to extend my visa. At that point, everything started to get complicated, even the simple pleasure of reading.

I recognised certain behaviour in Bronze and Sunflower. Living overseas without equal freedom of speech, I became as mute as Bronze and as well-behaved as Sunflower. I sat up straight, with the silent resistance of the underdog to any slight or pity. When you are weak, you feel sensitive, and you can only know what that’s like if you have experienced it yourself.

These days, Chinese people look completely different on the front pages of the western media, particularly after the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. The Chinese community in the UK has also changed, thanks to British immigration policies, which opened a door to skilled workers (since 2003), then to overseas graduates (since 2005), and then to millionaires/entrepreneurs, who could invest £2 million or create 10 jobs (since 2012), not to mention the Chinese tourists who spend about £2.7K per head. It seemed I had abandoned all unhappy memories relating to the Cultural Revolution, until I picked up Bronze and Sunflower.

The frustrations I’ve experienced living in the UK barely begin to compare with those of people who lived through the Cultural Revolution. And yet, my response was much the same as theirs: I avoided them, didn’t want to talk about them.

But, as Cao Wenxuan says in his essay at the back of the Chinese edition of Bronze and Sunflower, “parents sometimes think that they are helping their child when they steer them away from painful stories. But, when they do this, they sidestep the real feelings and situation of their child today, and they sidestep their own past.”

Parents born in the 1950s, who did their utmost for their children in the 1980s, mostly tried to hide their pain and act normally, like adults. But their inner child identifies with the characters: with Cuihuan when the teacher rips up her homework, with Gayu when his father gives him a beating, with Sunflower when she is orphaned and sent to live with another family, and with Bronze, who is poor and disabled.

Today, many new parents are reading about psychology and Western childcare. Some complain that their own parents were too busy to look after them and sent them to live with their grandparents, that love was in short supply, and that this has distorted their feelings about themselves and their parents. But how willing are we to learn what it was like for our parents as children, and to show any understanding towards them? We are trying to lay new paths for the future, for our own children, and deeply embedded stones from the past may trip us up if we don’t know how to deal with them.

Reading Bronze and Sunflower, I travelled back to my parent’s childhood, appreciating everything they suffered. I saw them not as parents, but as children — I saw their inner child. I wanted to give them a cuddle and “forgive” their “imperfect” personality and overbearing parenting. No one is perfect and we do need understand each other. This book is the best media.

I would highly recommend Bronze and Sunflower to readers who have a sweet life without the fate of humiliation, or readers who have been through humiliation and found peace, but definitely not to anyone who is currently suffering from it.



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