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More attention needed to adaptation in children’s literature

HU LINA | 2021-11-18 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


FILE PHOTO: A still from the Chinese film The Wanderings of Sanmao, which was adapted from the namesake children’s literary work

Adaptation, or rewriting, is a common writing strategy for children’s literature at its beginning in countries around the world, and also an important channel to invigorate literary creation in different epochal contexts. Since the late Qing Dynasty, the germination and emergence of Chinese children’s literature relied heavily on the modern adaptation of local traditional resources, in other words, on the rewriting of collected myths, legends, folktales, and ballads in light of modern children’s literature.

Even now, recomposing folktales and ballads and reinterpreting traditional culture are still indispensable ways to showcase the national character and unique aesthetic quality of Chinese children’s literature. Regrettably, the attention paid to the phenomenon of adaptation in the community of children’s literature theory is not enough as compared to its long history and rich practices. The significance of adaptation to the development of Chinese children’s literature as well as its definition, research content, and evaluation criteria is in dire need of multidimensional studies. 
Changing implications of adaptation
To study the phenomenon of adaptation in children’s literature, it is first of all essential to talk about the concept of “children’s literature adaptation.” In Japanese scholar Uwasho Ichiro’s book Introduction to Children’s Literature, children’s literature adaptation was defined as the rewriting of fairytale and children-related elements in folk and adult literature by the norm of modern children’s literature. 
Uwasho Ichiro regarded children’s literature adaptation as an independent literary form, juxtaposing it with children’s poetry, fiction, drama, fairytales, and picture stories. The core of his definition lied in the rewriting of existing literary resources on the basis of modern children’s literature. His interpretation of children’s literature adaptation is justifiable in his own way, but further discussion is needed. 
Since it was established as an independent genre, children’s literature has undergone notable changes after centuries of development, whether in terms of conceptual definition or existential forms. To put it another way, children’s literature is a dynamic concept, which determines that the theoretical examination of adaptation in the genre also needs to respect and conform to specific contexts and realities. 
The Brothers Grimm’s exploration and recounting of folktales and the rewriting of such classics as Don Quixote and The Journey to the West are certainly typical in studies of children’s literature adaptation, but such practices are merely a traditional textual form in the field. 
With the increasingly frequent and deep exchange and interplay between Chinese and foreign children’s literature, and the common film and television adaptation and cross-media communication of children’s literature, adaptation in children’s literature has been endowed with broader value and meaning. Therefore, the concept of children’s literature adaptation should be further extended, from the adaptation of classical works to the rewriting and cross-media adaptation in literary translation and communication.  
Recomposing traditional resources
In his 1921 paper “View on Children’s Literature,” renowned Chinese literary theorist and historian Guo Moruo pinpointed collection, creation, and translation as the main approaches to developing Chinese children’s literature. In its infancy, there were few original works, so collection and translation were more practical means at that time. Both have the nature of rewriting. Collection refers to the gathering and organization of the nation’s traditional resources, such as myths, folktales, and fairytales. Only through rewriting could these cultural legacies become children’s literature. Creatively transforming traditional cultural resources through rewriting and then expressing them in a children’s fashion are general paths in the development of Chinese and foreign children’s literature alike. 
During the emergence of Chinese children’s literature, foreign children’s literature writings were massively introduced to China through translation. Under such circumstances, rewriting Chinese traditional and folk resources and accommodating foreign works to China’s conditions in accordance with modern children’s literature became a crucial means to develop Chinese children’s literature.  
In this regard, the Fairytale series and Library for Children published by the Commercial Press epitomized children’s literature adaptation. Many pieces in the two sets of books were either adapted from classical foreign children’s literature works or recomposed out of Chinese history stories and folktales. 
In addition, textbook reforms since the late Qing Dynasty, particularly the orientation to children’s literature, also reflected adaptation endeavors in children’s literature. Textbooks on not only Chinese language, but also history, geography, and general knowledge followed the orientation to children’s literature, which prompted adaptations of various cultural and historical resources by children’s and literature’s standards. Among other textbooks, Open and Wise Chinese Language compiled by reputed educator and author Ye Shengtao in the 1930s was a typical case of children’s literature adaptation. 
In the contemporary era, especially with the popularization of picture books, adaptations from traditional cultural resources in the form of picture books have also caught on in Chinese children’s literature. Examples include In the North Ocean There Is a Fish adapted from the “Enjoyment in Untroubled Ease” chapter in the Taoist classic Zhuang Zi and Bao’er rewritten from Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (Liaozhai Zhiyi). 
Rewriting foreign works in translation
Since the late Qing Dynasty, the dissemination and acceptance of foreign children’s literature in China was a crucial impetus for the germination of Chinese children’s literature, and its emergence was deeply subject to external factors. For a really long time, the translation of foreign children’s literature was an important force driving the development of Chinese children’s literature. 
However, in a stricter sense, most translations at that time involved much editing effort, with an evident feature of rewriting. They were adapting foreign works to fit Chinese tastes. 
As such, famed literary critic and writer Mao Dun held that the first children’s literature work in Chinese history was The Kingdom without a Cat edited and translated by Sun Yuxiu in vernacular Chinese. Striking traces of rewriting in translation can also be found in the heroic translation (haojie yi) by intellectual leader Liang Qichao, who advocated for liberties on the part of translators, at the end of the Qing Dynasty; renditions by missionaries like Laura M. White; foreign children’s literature writings translated by scholars Zheng Zhenduo, Zhou Zuoren, and Zhao Jingshen during the May Fourth Movement Period; and works on specialized children’s journals such as Children’s World (Ertong Shijie) and Little Friend (Xiao Pengyou). The first book of the Fairytale series included 48 folktales and classics from the West, embodying the Chinese children’s literature community’s attention to adapting foreign works during the emergence period. 
The translation and dissemination of foreign children’s literature works in China can explain why Mao Dun associated translation with adaptation. That’s because translating foreign children’s literature works is by no means simply switching from one language to another. It necessitates the accommodation of foreign literary works to Chinese cultural contexts in different ages. 
For example, Aesop’s Fables was introduced to China as early as the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). In the process of translation and dissemination, there were selected translations, abridgments, and cover-to-cover renditions produced. Different translation subjects, such as missionaries, people with high literary ideals in the late Qing Dynasty, and men of letters of the May Fourth Movement Period rewrote it based on varying literary and thought appeals and intentions, bringing into being diverse editions. The evolution of these editions mirrored the role of adaptation in the translation and dissemination of foreign children’s literature. For example, in his translation, pioneer Chinese translator Lin Shu regarded Aesop’s Fables as a carrier to show his patriotism and aspiration to salvage China from subjugation. 
Cross-media adaptation 
Cross-media adaptation is a significant trend in the current development of children’s literature. It covers film and television adaptation, and the research and development of creative derivatives like games and toys with children’s literature as core resources. 
With the evolution of media forms, film, television, and the internet have all been involved in the adaptation of children’s literature, generating a great many popular works and promoting the cross-media communication of children’s literature. 
For example, Chinese children’s films have attached great importance to projecting excellent children’s literature works from different historical periods onto the screen. Many children’s literature classics have been adapted into well-received films, as exemplified by The Wanderings of Sanmao, The Secret of the Magic Gourd, Zhang Ga the Soldier Boy, and The Straw House. Such films have effectively widened the audience and influence of children’s literature. 
Examining the adaptation phenomenon in Chinese children’s literature has multifold academic implications. First, the phenomenon can offer insights into how children’s literature absorbed nourishments from traditional cultural resources and adults’ literature, and how it was transformed from traditional resources in light of modern children’s literature to become an independent genre targeting children. 
Second, adaptation is a key point of departure to investigate the relationship between Chinese and foreign children’s literature. The germination, emergence, and development of Chinese children’s literature were profoundly influenced by foreign children’s literature. Focusing on the adaptation of foreign children’s literature and referring to translation theories like the rewriting theory and manipulation theory can better present the dissemination, acceptance, and variation processes of foreign children’s literature in China, and facilitate reflections on the construction of subjectivity in Chinese children’s literature. 
Last but not least, as the clout of new media is growing, cross-media adaptations of children’s literature are increasing. This requires screen adaptations in broader social-cultural fields to theoretically interpret the research and development of games and toys with children’s literature as core resources, thereby deepening the understanding of the interaction between children’s literature and mediums like film, television, and the internet. 
Hu Lina is an associate research fellow from the Children’s Literature Institute at Zhejiang Normal University.