Lunar Meditations: Drawings by Xiong Liang

*Click each image to view full size. 

The more children’s books I examine, the more prominent I realize the preoccupation is with all things lunar, especially in the work of Chinese illustrator Xiong Liang. Moons and storms: these are the subjects of Liang’s books for children.

Liang’s drawing technique, i.e., ink wash, lends to his illustrations a soft and shadowy tone. Unlike the work of many of the European illustrators I’ve examined, there is no nightmarish edge to Liang’s work, though its minimalist palette does lend it a moody vibe. Instead, his drawings border on the whimsical and remind me of the soft-focus effect that seems to bathe the world following a summer rainstorm.

The Toy Rabbit Story
The Toy Rabbit Story Heryin Books, Inc., USA, 2005,
Chinese edition

Why the focus on the moon, though?

It’s fairly hard to find information about Xiong Liang online, which is unsurprising given 1). The Western-centric focus of children’s literature publishing and 2). Liang’s language and country of origin. By which I mean, there are few resources in English about him.

Luckily, I stumbled across a China Daily article and a short academic paper that shed light on Liang’s style, influences, and motivations.

First, a quick history of the children’s book industry in China. Though small picture books have been popular among children in China for hundreds of years, starting in the 1970s the publication of children’s books in China dwindled to almost nothing. For 20 years the market was dominated by imported stories. Concerned with the lack of Chinese-generated stories available for children and teens, in the early 2000s Xiong Liang and his brother Xiong Lei positioned themselves as pioneers in the publishing industry, determined to create and share essentially Chinese stories and drawings with the children in their country. Even now, 90% of the market is occupied by foreign picture books. [2] Liang’s first book, The Little Stone Lion, was an important step in correcting this national deficiency.

The Little Stone Lion
The Little Stone Lion Heryin Books, Inc., USA 2005, Chinese edition

The Little Stone Lion is about a common cultural character in China–i.e., the lion after whom the book takes its name. As you flip through the book, you watch as the lion withstands all sorts of weather from rain to shine to snow and storms.  He remains stoic throughout, a slight smile on his face as he protects the village in all seasons. The professor whose paper I read compared the book to Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree because of its themes of love and solitude.

Liang has said that “It is very important to introduce Chinese culture to our children. Nowadays, Chinese children lack national identity…They are unfamiliar with Chinese customs and legends, and even younger children know western Christmas more than native Spring Festival. This is a worrying phenomenon.” [2] Theories about nationalization in children’s literature aside, Liang makes an important point: the children of every culture, nation, and/or society are the inheritors of cultural memory, and it is wrong to deny them knowledge of their heritage.

The Monster of Monsoon SDX Joint Publishing Company, Beijing, 2010 (Chinese edition)
The Monster of Monsoon (also known as “Drizzle Monster”) SDX Joint Publishing Company, Beijing, 2010, Chinese edition.

Closely related in tone and sentiment is The Monster of Monsoon, full of dreary precipitation and a monochrome setting. It is supposed to convey a Buddhist attitude; namely, the importance of enduring suffering without complaint. [2] Stylistically, the minimalist streaks of rain convey a sense of openness and negative space, and stand in sharp contrast to the overwhelming illustration style that often characterizes picture books sold in the United States. Think, for example, of the almost neon illustrations of Dr. Seuss, the brighter-than-life drawings of Eric Carle, and the intentionally mind-boggling Where’s Waldo? series that originated in Australia.

In Liang’s own words, “From ancient times til now, stories [have] preach[ed] [the] ethics and values of a competitive society…[By reading these books] children tend to value gain and loss too much and forget about seeking happiness.” [1, emphasis added]. In other words, there is a subtle anti-capitalist tone to his work, evidenced by its slow, soothing qualities and lack of overstimulation.

And Last: Tea Time on the Moon SDX Joint Publishing Company, Beijing, 2012, Chinese Edition
Tea Time on the Moon SDX Joint Publishing Company, Beijing, 2012, Chinese Edition

My favorite book of Liang’s is, by far, Tea Time on the Moon. This is one of those rare cases where the cover of the book [above] is just as stunning as the illustrations inside.

The plot of the book, according to Liang:
“In the story “Teatime on the Moon,” every time the moon [completes a full rotation], a rabbit dies. Each rabbit writes a diary during their life. It so happens that the main character of the book can understand the previous rabbits by reading their diaries. During this rabbit’s lifetime, it is the moon’s birthday. She invites guests from different places. The guests all have different understandings of time and space, as well as how to celebrate the Moon’s birthday. All of these creatures with different backgrounds, who are unable to understand each other, all sit around one table. Through this story, I wanted to express that we all live in the same universe.” [3]

Beautifully put, no?

from Tea Time on the Moon
from Tea Time on the Moon

I hope you enjoyed this post about Hans Christian Andersen nominated illustrator Xiong Liang. In the run-up to the announcement of the winning author & illustrator on March 24, I’m featuring the work of a different illustrator each week on my blog. Click the “Children’s Literature” link in the right side-panel to view more.

——

Sources:

[1] Jia, Mei. “Captivating Characters.China Daily 14 August 2012.

[2] Tan, Fengxia. “To Give Chinese Children ‘a Memorable China’: the Trend of Chinese Indigenous Picture Books.” Journal of Cambridge Studies Vol. 7, No. 4, pp. 143-151.

[3] Dossier on Xiong Liang prepared for the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Jury. (not available online)

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14 thoughts on “Lunar Meditations: Drawings by Xiong Liang

  1. These are stunning illustrations. My 3 year old twins love a book at the moment called The Way Back Home by the fantastic Oliver Jeffers about a boy and a martian who get stranded on the moon. I’m a little obsessed with French children’s book illustrators at the moment, particularly Benjamin Lacombe and Rebecca Dautremer.

  2. What a wonderful and fascinating post. I had no idea that the Chinese children’s books industry is predominantly foreign. That is so sad, especially when China has such an old and rich history. I know from my mother that there are numerous folk and fairy tales alone, and it’s an incredible loss for the nation’s own children to not even be given access to them.

    1. I had no idea either until I read that professor’s paper! It’s really quite shocking, but the Brothers Xiong are actively working to increase that 10% share of the market. I suspect that Liang’s illustrations are only the beginning of what is sure to be a gorgeous outpouring of children’s books in the near future 🙂

    1. I suspect you may be right. But it’s such a lovely book, and peaceful, too, that the concept of death doesn’t seem scary in context. It’s also nice that it’s cyclical; i.e., it seems natural, in a way, that a rabbit would die every time the moon rotates. I think if you’re going to introduce death to children this is probably a good way to do it…

        1. It’s entirely possible! As far as I know, reincarnation is a fairly critical part of Buddhist philosophy. And the persistence of the diaries that allow the rabbits to connect to their predecessors is perhaps a metaphor for the cultural memory/heritage that Liang is trying to promote. But that’s all supposition since I can’t read the original Chinese text! 🙂

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