Finite Words, Infinite Wisdom

2024-05-06 14:57:00 Source:China Today Author:staff reporter DENG DI
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As picture books gain popularity, they create a bridge between China and the rest of the world.  


Polish author Iwona Chmielewska.

My grandma’s face looks a bit Asian. So having come to China, everyone I meet looks familiar even though I didn’t know you before.” This was how Polish author Iwona Chmielewska greeted her audience at the Page One Beijing Fun Store in Beijing, where she shared the story of her journey as a writer and illustrator.

The 64-year-old is an author of a special genre – picture books, to which she adds elements of origami, the art of creating different shapes by folding paper, games, and other stimulating components.

For example, many pages in her book Fun Paper Folding have dotted lines. If the pages are folded along the lines, they create new images. Ten Toes to Travel is a creative book about shape games based on 10 toes. An acclaimed and much-awarded author of over 40 books, Chmielewska enjoys a special affinity with Asia where besides China, her books are popular in South Korea and Japan. They have been translated into various languages, including Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, German, and French.

This spring, she made her first visit to China on a cultural exchange trip.

This Is the Twenty-Four Solar Terms has been among the best-sellers of picture books in China since it came out in 2015.

A Philosophy in Every Fold 

Chmielewska says her picture books are not just for children. She often discusses issues from the adult world, such as family, women, special groups, war, and history, and explores virtues and values, such as kindness, justice and tolerance.

At the Page One Beijing Fun Store, she shared with readers the story of the creation of her picture book Fun Paper Folding introduced by Jielie Publishing House into China. On one page, there are ruins after a war. Readers can choose to fold the page to turn a blind eye to them, or they can choose to open the door drawn on the page to invite the displaced people in. “Almost every page simulates a real-life scenario,” she said. “It starts with simple paper-folding games, but as it goes on, the choices become harder to make. For example, are you going to open the door to face a war? Do you really welcome displaced people into your home? … Each of us has the right to choose freely, and no one knows which choice is correct. As a creator, it is enough as long as adults and children can have some discussions through the book.” Chmielewska’s books are not meant to preach, but to teach children how to ask questions.

“Each fold leads to a truth and creates a realm. In an instant, a child reader understands a philosophy,” said Cao Wenxuan, a renowned author of children’s book, who was a guest speaker at the activity. Cao is China’s first Hans Christian Andersen Award winner, the highest international recognition for authors and illustrators of children’s books. Chmielewska was nominated for the award several times.

Chmielewska and Cao have collaborated in designing the picture book, Iron Circle Brothers, which will be published this year by China’s Jielie Publishing House. The union of Chinese and Polish artistic elements brings out the richness of Sino-Polish cultural exchanges.

Iwona Chmielewska’s Fun Paper Folding is introduced into China by Jieli Publishing House in 2022.

“Picture Books are Infinite”  

Cao said though picture books consist of just a few pages, what they impart is infinite. They teach what kindness, beauty, and wisdom are. Good picture books can help a child understand the philosophy of Hegel, Kant, Laozi and Zhuangzi.

Originally a concept from abroad, picture books are becoming increasingly popular in China. Besides the foreign classics, domestic ones are also attracting more and more readers. For Chinese readers, the landscapes and customs illustrated in domestic picture books are closer to their lives and therefore more relatable. For example, picture books are set in the water towns south of the Yangtze River and small villages in the north present scenes unique to China. From them, children learn the Chinese cultural elements and the Chinese attitude toward life, such as cherishing family ties and the love of harmony. For parents, reading the picture books to their children brings back many childhood memories.

Nowadays, the themes of Chinese picture books have become much more diverse. They are no longer limited to nature, science, family and friendship, and traditional culture. For example, Zheng Yuanjie’s Sex Education Enlightenment Picture Books: Where Are You From? has garnered wide readership, both among children and parents.

Chinese writer Zheng Yuanjie’s Sex Education Enlightenment Picture Books: Where Are You From?

Rise of Domestic Picture Books  

The revenue brought by children’s picture books is also increasing. In 2012, it was less than 5 percent of all revenue earned by children’s books in China. In 2022, it jumped to nearly 20 percent. Most of the best-selling picture books in China are imported from abroad, such as Japan, the United States, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany. Almost 95 percent of those books sold on e-commerce platform Dangdang.com come from overseas, and the number is 90 percent on JD.com.

At the same time, the Chinese picture book market is also rising, with domestically produced picture books experiencing rapid development in recent years. Chinese children and adolescents have developed a stronger sense of identification with local culture. Besides, as millennials become parents, their consumption has upgraded, a contributing factor why domestic original high-quality picture books have gained a foothold in the children’s book market. As of 2022, the market share of domestic picture books had reached nearly 50 percent. Although there is still a gap between domestic picture books and classic foreign ones, the former has been receiving increasing attention and love from more and more readers.

Among the 10 most popular original picture books for children from China, as reported by Dangdang.com at the end of 2019, This Is the Twenty-Four Solar Terms stood out with its presentation of various aspects of knowledge including climate, astronomy, geography, and folklore. Its sales have exceeded 1 million copies. Another notable book is Children’s Encyclopedia of Chinese History, which notched up sales revenue of over RMB 10 million within six months of its release. Compiled for children over three years old by professionals from the National Museum of China and the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, it showcases China’s historical development and exquisite cultural artifacts through large-scale illustrations.

“The development of domestic picture books is not easy. It requires the efforts of many writers, illustrators and publishers,” said Dong Ying, director of the International Cooperation Office of Dolphin Books. Dolphin Books published Breath, a picture book by Hu Yifan. The book has won many awards, such as the Most Beautiful Book in China in 2023, the Chen Bochui International Children’s Literature Award, and the Best Picture Book Award. Breath also appeared at the Little Dolphin booth at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy in April. “We look forward to seeing more domestically produced picture books in both the Chinese and overseas markets,” she said.

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