A child at heart

Source:Global Times Published: 2010-12-23 13:09:00

Zheng Chunhua, author of the beloved children's book Big Head Son, Small Head Dad, won the 8th National Outstanding Children's Literature Award either this month. Photo: Courtesy of Zheng Chunhua

By Wang Yufeng

"My husband used to try to pull me out of the imaginary world, a child's world, when he felt I was drifting away from reality," said 51-year-old writer Zheng Chunhua.

Earlier this month, Zheng, the author of the popular book, Big Head Son, Small Head Dad, won the 8th National Outstanding Children's Literature Award for her new book The Extraordinary Boy Ma Mingjia, who is considered to be a grown-up version of the Big Head Son.

The success of her books demonstrates Zheng's unusual ability to see the world through the eyes of a child, which is one of the main reasons behind books' appeal. Still, this ability has not come without a cost. 

Uncovering a child's eyes

After graduating from high school in 1976, Zheng went to work at a nursery in a textile factory, where she took care of the employees' children. Zheng taught the kids about animals, to write Chinese characters and play games.

Zheng's mother had hoped that she could work in the factory, which was considered a good job at the time, possibly rising to a management level position one day. Zheng, however, didn't want it.

"Although working in the nursery was not the first choice of most women who were healthy enough to handle heavy factory jobs, I actually enjoyed my time with the children."    

Every day at dinner, Zheng shared her experiences in the nursery with her father, who liked writing poetry. Her father persuaded her to express herself on paper. Under his instruction, Zheng began to write.

In 1980s, she entered the Shanghai Youth Poetry Contest, where a judge encouraged her to write through the eyes of a child, rather than an adult. "During that time, authors were writing stories that sought to instruct children. They were trying to educate children from an adult's point of view," Zheng said.

Later, Zheng got a job editing children's books at the Shanghai Juvenile and Children's Publishing House. "There were few exotic children's books being published in China then, just a few from Denmark and the former Soviet Union. In China, even fewer authors bothered writing children's literature," Zheng said.

She and her colleagues spent time talking with kindergarten teachers and encouraged them to write, but they weren't good enough writers and they lacked imagination and creativity. But the experience planted the idea of writing children's literature in Zheng's head.

The cats and the cradle

One particular experience was especially inspiring to Zheng. One weekend, her husband took their son to play at a park. "He taught him how to catch grasshoppers, which is something a mother would never do," Zheng said. "But what's important wasn't what they did, just that the father spent time with his son."

When Zheng was a child, her father seldom spent time with her. In those days, families held to a stricter social structure: the father provided for the family, while the mother took care of the children. That was just how things were done.

Big Head Son, Small Head Dad, which was first published in 1991, was Zheng's attempt to describe what she saw as an ideal father-son relationship. The stories centered on a precocious boy who shares his ideas freely with his father. The father, in turn, enjoys the time he spends with his son and respects him. The story was first published in installments in a local magazine, but the magazine cut off the series before it was finished because some readers complained that part of the title, "Small Head Dad," was disrespectful to fathers, Zheng said.

However, many readers were fond of the story, which encouraged her to write more. Later, a Tianjin publisher asked to publish the series, which was later turned into an animated series on CCTV. The cartoons were popular with Chinese children both at home and abroad.

In 1995, Zheng accompanied her husband, a businessman, to live in Poland where she noticed that many Chinese children living there were fascinated with the Big Head Son, Small Head Dad cartoons, despite its old-fashioned production values. "The clothes, the characters, the animation, couldn't compete with Western cartoons, so why did these children prefer to watch them?"

Later, after she traveled to other countries, she came to believe that children liked the cartoons because they desired the same relationship with their own fathers that the son in the story had with his. "Even when they are abroad, Chinese fathers still hold fast to Chinese culture, which doesn't obligate fathers to spend much time with their children," Zheng said.



She doesn't think Chinese fathers have changed all that much in the years since. Every time she attends a parent-teacher conference at the international primary school where her daughter studies, she mostly sees Chinese mothers by themselves. Few fathers attend. However, Western parents go to the conferences together.

Reluctant to grow up

As one of three children, Zheng didn't get much attention from her parents. She had a doll that took with her everywhere. Every day, she imagined how she would dress the doll and make it more beautiful. Her parents didn't stop her, allowing her to indulge herself.

Zheng's focus on children has led her to neglect much of the adult world, according to her husband, Miu Weigang. "She cares so much about the children's world that she has refused to accept the fruits of modern civilization," he said.

She remains reluctant to use credit cards and mobile phones, and still doesn't know how to send text messages. "My husband believes I just live in my own world, separate from the real world," Zheng said.

"Frankly speaking, it is a bit tiresome to live with her, she is so simple, she hates dealing with the complexities of adulthood," Miu said. "When she was a girl, she lived under her father's protection, she didn't even know how to deposit the royalty checks into the bank until her father told her how; after she got married, she has relied on me when she has to deal with the real world."

Talking about her different roles, such as writer, mother and wife, Zheng told her husband that her role as a writer is the one she is most reluctant to give up. "I will protect her because writing provides us with the most," Miu said. "It doesn't mean that I have no complaints. However, I am 50 years old now, which in Chinese culture is the age at which one must understand his lot and stop complaining."

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