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Comparing Two Books of Chinese Brothers

Books are very important sources of information and knowledge. They are also effective tools that could save and preserve cultural facts and realities. But the stories of the Five Chinese Brothers and Seven Chinese Brothers often receive a different public reception from one that they really deserve. Published in 1938, Claire Bishop’s Five Chinese Brothers tells a story of five brothers who look exactly alike and each of them possesses unique abilities or powers. The first brother can swallow the whole sea. He normally uses this to fish.

The second Chinese brother possesses an iron neck that cannot be broken. The third brother could stretch his legs in great lengths. The fourth cannot be burned. And the last brother can hold his breath for a long period of time. The story revolved around the incident when a little child went fishing with the first brother and this boy drowned because he did not listen to his orders. After the unfortunate accident, the townsmen blamed him the death of a boy and he was sentenced to be executed. The special abilities that the other brothers possess have aided them to save their brother.

The story ends on a positive note because all the brothers were able to return home safely to their mother and live happily. Bishop’s work has been known to be controversial in terms of how it culturally depicts Chinese people. The first brother was able to elude the appropriated sentence for the death of the boy. The story seem to present a certain form of justice and truth wherein the townsmen let the brother go for he might really be innocent since despite all their efforts, he cannot be killed.

Although the story does not really have a particular Chinese reference, since it was just supposed to be a folktale story that was retold orally before, Bishop’s work posed a strong believable idea that the Chinese concept of justice is just like what the story presents. In 1990, Margaret Mahy published the story of The Seven Chinese Brothers that has a very similar plot to Bishop’s earlier book, with a few modifications.

Their unique abilities were not all similar and two brothers were added to Mahy’s work and the main conflict was different, but the essential story was that the brothers all worked together and stood in the place of the other in order to save the third brother who was ordered to be killed by their evil emperor Ch’in Shih Huang who was threatened by his strength. In the end, the seven brothers successfully surpassed the trial and were able to live longer and happily.

The two stories that tackle about the adventures of certain Chinese brothers have a lot of similarities but they are essentially different, both in impact and in message. Yet despite having different authors and illustrators, the critics of the stories still label these stories as offensive and they rather promote discrimination. Although, the main essential plot of the story in the second book does actually salvage the negative impacts of the first because the antagonist in the Seven Chinese Brothers was really abhorrent and cruel in nature.

Critics say that the first version is more powerful and haunting, although the second version is more logical and had offered more definite concerns for the brothers to really need to deceive their enemies. Bishop and Mahy’s work are both interesting stories that are fun to read and are especially appealing to the children because of their illustrations. But though both stories follow the themes of good versus evil and justice versus truth, they remain controversial because of the allusions to Chinese traditions.

These two books are meant to be read as fiction stories and should be used to learn Chinese culture. According to the critics of the stories, these tales appear to be offensive especially to the Chinese race. After all, not all their characters have justifiably and acceptable characteristics. From the illustrations, especially Bishop’s yellow-skinned characters that were seen as discriminatory, to the main plot, these two stories are portrayed to be culturally insensible and should not be encouraged especially for children’s use.

The illustrations on the Seven Chinese Brothers, particularly in the cover, improved a bit because their skin color and wardrobe were more logical to the theme of the story. Despite what critics say, these two stories are in fact well-meaning and highly amusing. It cannot be verified if Bishop’s idea really came from a Chinese folktale, but it is important to note that these are not Chinese stories. They do not claim of being effective manuals for people to understand how Chinese really think or behave. The Five Chinese Brothers was not even written by a Chinese author. Both stories are very amusing, thought-provoking, and unique.

Despite the belief that they are culturally insensitive, they could and should still be saved because future generations, regardless of their races, would find them as interesting stories that could also teach moral values. What the stories probably need is a repackaging of how they are being promoted or sold. It should be specified that they are not meant to document Chinese culture and should rather be seen as fictional, amusing stories that highlight on ideas of goodness, justice, and unity in the families. Bishop’s Five Chinese Brothers and Mahy’s Seven Chinese Brothers are well-meaning stories.

They are exceptional tales that offer moral values when searched for in the right places. Both authors have placed great efforts to deliver highly entertaining tales of that touched themes of truth and familial responsibilities. In the end, the good still prevailed because the first brother in Bishop’s work did not intentionally kid the boy and the third brother in Mahy’s story did not deserve to die. References Bishop, C. H. (1996). The Five Chinese Brothers. 1938. New York: Penguin Putnam Books. Mahy, M. (1990). The Seven Chinese Brothers. New York: Scholastic Inc.

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