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January 31, 2014

Poetry Friday--Happy Chinese New Year!

Welcome to the Year of the Horse!

At the library where I work, we have a copy of Chinese Mother Goose Rhymes, selected by Robert Wyndham, and illustrated by Ed Young. A note in the book lists, as a source, Chinese Mother Goose Rhymes, translated and illustrated by Isaac Taylor Headland of Peking University, Fleming H. Revell Company, copyright 1900. I headed to one of my favorite websites, Project Gutenberg, where I found a copy of the book.

Headland's introduction tells us that over 600 nursery rhymes had been gathered in China, and that undoubtedly there were many more. He wrote of the translations:
We have tried to reproduce the meaning of the original as nearly as possible; this has not always been an easy task. Let it be understood that these rhymes make no pretentions to literary merit, nor has the translator made any attempt at regularity in the meter, because neither the original nor our own "Mother Goose" is regular. Our desire has been to make a translation which is fairly true to the original, and which will please English-speaking children. The child, not the critic, has always been kept in view.
Here's a typical rhyme:

Does it remind you are any English language nursery rhymes?

How about this one?

LADY-BUG, lady-bug,
Fly away, do,
Fly to the mountain,
And feed upon dew,
Feed upon dew
And sleep on a rug,
And then run away
Like a good little bug.
Or this?

He climbed up the candlestick,
The little mousey brown,
To steal and eat tallow,
And he couldn't get down.
He called for his grandma,
But his grandma was in town,
So he doubled up into a wheel
And rolled himself down.
This rhyme is accompanied by musical notation, but there is no indication whether the music is traditional (either Chinese or English tunes) or was written by Mr. Headland. Since I have no musical ability I can't even hazard a guess!

There are counting rhymes:

One grab silver,
Two grabs gold,
Three, don't laugh
And you'll grow old.
And action rhymes:

We pull the big saw,
We push the big saw,
To saw up the wood,
To build us a house,
In order that baby
May have a good spouse.
Some of the rhymes, like the following, I hope are no longer recited in China:

We keep a dog to watch the house,
A pig is useful, too;
We keep a cat to catch a mouse,
But what can we do
With a girl like you?
Even if spoken in a playful, teasing manner, I fear that hearing such a rhyme over and over again would have some negative effects on a girl's self-esteem. I am not one to judge another cultural group, especially when I live in a country where there seems to be a pervasive culture of rape, and another of bullying. These however, are rants for another time! For today, let's celebrate the good things that are found in all cultures--children, love, laughter, and rhymes! And, let's visit The Miss Rumphius Effect for this week's Round-Up!


  1. I like the comments at the end, Diane. We have our own words that are not so easy to read today! Thanks for this bit of background. I didn't know, & have shared with a teacher whose class will parade their dragon through the school today ridding it of evil spirits so we can begin the new year. Awesome, & that 'ladybug' is very familiar!

    1. You're right, some traditional Mother Goose rhymes I refused to recite with my kids!

  2. What a wonderful collection you've shared with us today! We think we have come so far, and in many respects we have, but the line "going out dining" caught my eye -- that is still in fashion!

  3. Charming rhymes, Diane -- very interesting, even the last very unpolitically correct one.

    1. I would recommend reading through all the rhymes online, some of them are perfectly delightful and would be appreciated by children today.

  4. Happy New Year! These are so interesting both as rhymes and as a snapshot of a moment in time and place.

    1. Literally a snapshot as the illustrations are photographs!

  5. Ah yes, nursey rhymes are meant to reflect the innocence of the ones in the nursey, but often they reveal the prejudices and culture of the time, don't they? I can think of a few that I couldn't recite anymore - which is a good thing, really. And, how far have we really come with our girls? Sometimes, I wonder...

    1. Keep wondering and questioning--that's the only way changes are going to come.

  6. I especially like The Mouse -- what a fun image :-) (I posted something about campus safety and rape last week -- it's a serious concern.)

    1. Yes, it is, and it seems that things have gotten worse, rather than better. There was a time I thought that in the 21st century we had become enlightened, educated, and engaged, and that we'd gotten to the point were we believed in equality and justice. Just goes to show how UN-enlightened I was!

  7. Just shared "Ladybug, fly away home..." with my AP Literature seniors as part of a critical theory practice (what would a Marxist critic say? a feminist critic?)
    My students commented on how gruesome the Mother Goose Nursery rhymes were...these seem much better!
    (But they might have problems with the little girl poem!)

    1. Well, I'm glad your students recognized the gruesomeness! That's a step in the right direction!

  8. Happy New Year! I love the look of the page, with the illustration and the Chinese characters. I rather like their ladybug poem better than ours!

  9. For some reason it never occurred to me that Chinese culture would have its own nursery rhymes...how foolish of me. To me it sounds like the translation is quite masterful! Thanks for this!

    1. I would love to hear some of them in the original language, wouldn't you?

  10. Thanks for sharing the Chinese Mother Goose rhymes. I'm looking forward to reading this book, too. I can see that cricket climbing up the hill.

  11. What fun seeing these from another culture. I agree that these translations seem to be done extremely well. It would be fun to hear the originals spoken in Chinese to see if the rhythms sound similar to what we hear.