Radical Objects

Radical Objects: Transregional Chinese-language Children’s Magazines

Cover of 'Children's Paradise' depicting children enjoying colourful balloons.
Cover of Children’s Paradise (Image source: childrenparadise.net)

‘Official historiographers in ancient times would rather have their heads off their necks instead of distorting facts.’ In a well-known Chinese legend, a series of murders took place during the Spring and Autumn period (722-481 BCE) of Chinese history. In the state of Qi 齊, official Cui Zhu 崔杼 ordered the court’s historiographer Taishi Bo 太史伯 to omit his crimes in the official history. Taishi Bo refused, and Cui killed him without a second thought. Cui then requested Taishi Bo’s younger brother to complete this task, but the latter failed again. ‘Official historiographers would only fear untruthful recording of events’, Taishi Bo’s brother said, ‘and being beheaded was not fearful at all.’ Cui executed his second murder and ordered Taishi Bo’s uncle to take charge of the writing. This newly appointed historiographer followed the path of his nephews. At least two more historiographers continued the efforts of the Taishi family and wrote history that represented facts.

On initial reading, the above story seems to be a serious and tragic lesson for adults to learn about the importance of faithful historical accounts. Surprisingly, this solemn story came from a Chinese-language magazine for children in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and other parts of Southeast Asia in 1966. The quotation, which appears at the end of the story, also reminded readers of the need to resist problematic historical narratives, especially those coming from the authority. Fortunately, parents at that time did not have to worry about how the story destroyed or traumatised their kids’ childhood. Magazines of this era contained a great variety of content, ranging from comics to crossword puzzles, to articles featuring places around the world. One common feature of these magazines was that they all projected distinctive political visions through historical and contemporary stories.

Cover of Children's Pictorial's, featuring a young girl in a dress walking a greyhound dog.
Cover of Children’s Pictorials (Image source: author’s own)

The 1950s-60s was an era of decolonisation and the Cold War in world history. Children’s magazines became vital to different political forces in propagating their ideologies. On the one hand, a wave of revolutions and political transitions led to new postcolonial nation-states in Southeast Asia. On the other hand, the ideological confrontation of the Cold War dominated the scene. Both mainland China and Taiwan hoped to spread their influence and secure the support of Chinese overseas. The United States also attempted to ‘win the hearts of minds’ of these communities and prevent the spread of communism. The position of the Chinese in Southeast Asia, many of whom were the descendants of earlier generations of Chinese migrants, became an issue. The transnational Chinese influences (from both regimes) and the communist threat made late colonial and postcolonial officials in Southeast Asia cautious of local Chinese communities, as their allegiance to the new nations remained uncertain.

It was this political context from which these children’s magazines emerged. Among the many magazines that became available across Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, the more famous ones included Children’s Paradise兒童樂園 by the Union Press (based in Hong Kong), Children’s Pictorials 小朋友畫報 (titled Nanyang Children 南洋兒童 in its Southeast Asian version) by the Chung Hwa Bookstore (based in Hong Kong), and the World Children Fortnightly 世界兒童by the World Bookstore (based in Singapore). They had a transregional focus, targeting primary school students across East and Southeast Asia. Each conveyed a distinct political orientation. The Union Press once received financial subsidies from the Asia Foundation, an American non-governmental organisation that supported the US in the cultural Cold War. The Children’s Paradise published stories and articles that followed American policies and treated the Republic of China in Taiwan as the rightful Chinese regime. Meanwhile, the Children’s Pictorials showcased the People’s Republic of China as the ‘proper’ China, introducing readers to the history and geography of mainland China. As a Singapore-based magazine, the World Children Fortnightly situated Chinese communities in the local context and cultivated loyalty for the postcolonial state. As reading materials for children, they conveyed political messages implicitly through stories instead of serious political statements. These magazines went across borders and entered libraries and bookstores in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and many other territories with Chinese presence, creating a coexistence of multiple meanings of China and Chineseness to children.

Illustration of Qin Liangyu, a female general from the late Ming period. Image depicts her torso, holidng a sword and wearing armour.
Qin Liangyu in Children’s Stories, issue 77, 1966 (Image source: author’s own)

The magazines portrayed divergent ideas of ethnicity and nationality. The World Children Fortnightly followed the official narrative in Singapore and presented Chinese as part of the multiracial society of Malaya (and as part of the Singaporean nation after its separation from Malaysia in 1965) together with Malays and Indians. Images showcasing the peaceful coexistence of Chinese, Malay, and Indian children appeared in various issues of the magazine, illustrating its pro-Singapore orientation. As for Children’s Pictorials and its supplement Children’s Stories兒童故事, it followed the PRC policies of the mid-1950s and embraced the ethnic minorities within the Chinese nation. For instance, an issue in 1966 featured a story about the late Ming female general Qin Liangyu 秦良玉. The story stressed that Qin was a Miao 苗 person, and ‘the Miao is an ethnic minority of China’. It described how her troops defeated the Qing army and ‘her prestige shocked the whole of China’, showing how the Miao people were an integral part of the Chinese nation. ‘Chinese’ became an inclusive label in contrasting political contexts. While it represented part of the multiracial Singaporean nation in the World Children Fortnightly, it promoted the PRC’s image as being inclusive to ethnic minorities from the mid-1950s onwards.

Different ideas of feminism also appeared in the magazines. Qin Liangyu’s story in Children’s Pictorials was an example of how the PRC sought to present itself as a country that promoted gender equality. Stories demonstrating the power of female individuals also entered Children’s Paradise. However, instead of portraying a positive image of the Chinese nation, the focus was on the United States. Stories emphasising women’s power sometimes featured great individuals from the US. For instance, a story from an issue in May 1960 told of how a mother saved her child by lifting a car by herself in the US. Another story from November 1960 featured the story of an American female sharpshooter Annie Oakley, stressing how she was a ‘loyal patriot’, served in the First World War, and received the respect and support of American soldiers and people. Both magazines revealed the significant role of women in history. Yet, the different political backgrounds of each magazine prompted the editors to display different types of feminism. Children’s Pictorials focused on constructing new ideas of the Chinese nation, while Children’s Paradise emphasised the greatness of the US as a world power in feminist texts.

An illustration of Annie Oakley in Children's Paradise, shooting a gun into the air, with crowds cheering below.
Annie Oakley in the Children’s Paradise, Issue 189, 1960. (Source: childrenparadise.net)

The magazines also presented stories and information beyond Asia and North America. For instance, the World Children Fortnightly occasionally published short articles on the geography and nature of the Global South. As well as shaping the ideas of being Chinese, this publication also introduced children to the parts of the world to which Chinese communities had less exposure. Children’s Paradise strove to present stories from the Global South in the 1960s. Everyday life in the Peru plateau, animals in South Africa, and tales from India were all contents that children could easily find in this magazine. Apart from receiving American funding, its publisher, the Union Press, also established itself as a ‘Third Force’ organisation in Hong Kong that rejected political ideologies from both mainland China and Taiwan. In an era when the Non-Aligned Movement was gaining momentum and Third World countries were countering influences of the superpowers, this magazine presented to Chinese children (outside China) that the Global South had been an integral part of the world order. The incorporation of both the First and the Third Worlds was a unique feature of the magazines.

These three Chinese-language magazines were transregional in two senses. On the one hand, they went across the artificial divide of East and Southeast Asia and constructed multi-layered ideas of Chineseness in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. On the other hand, they linked Chinese overseas to the wider world by bringing news and stories from the West and the Global South to readers. The children-oriented nature of these texts demonstrated how official and unofficial actors implicitly conveyed their political messages via popular culture. These objects open up new possibilities for research regarding the interaction between transnational Chinese influences and global currents such as decolonisation, feminism, and Third-Worldism.

An illustration of three South Asian people, wearing robes and turbans.
An Indian tale in Children’s Paradise, Issue 193, 1961 (Image source: childrenparadise.net)

As a fan of children’s magazines in Hong Kong over two decades ago, I am now revisiting these magazines with a different role as a historian. History education did not (and does not) necessarily take place in classrooms. To many children in the era of the Cold War and decolonisation, reading these magazines was indeed informal history education. History stories in these magazines became their platforms of acquiring historical knowledge. Like history textbooks nowadays, these stories did not always present ‘objective’ truth but instead conveyed political ideologies in an easily digestible manner. Such magazines represent not only children’s reading materials back in the twentieth century but also the politics of knowledge construction. Instead of being traumatised by the nightmarish stories that we saw at the start of this article, children faced diversified (and sometimes conflicting) interpretations of Chinese and world history.

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