Book Review: Tales About China and the Chinese by Peter Parley

The history of the Peter Parley books might be more interesting than the books themselves. Peter Parley was the pseudonym of American author Samuel Griswold Goodrich and was one of the most famous children’s writers in the 1800s. He was so popular that a wave of books was published under his name during his life. Tales About China and the Chinese is a book that is attributed to Goodrich, but it is unclear if it is a book by him or one of his imitators.

The notion of what makes or does not make a children’s book prior to 1900 is radically different from our ideas of children’s books today (I think most people would be shocked to know that Last of the Mohicans was written off as ‘children’s’ literature by most of Cooper’s contemporaries). Goodrich said that he imagined  himself “on the floor with a group of boys and girls and I wrote to them as I would have spoken to them.” In his writing it is clear that is talking to his audience, not at them. He certainly held children as far more intelligent than most authors today do. I picked up this book at a bookstore in Hong Kong classified as Asian literature, not children’s, and I think most children today would have a hard time reading this book.

Tales About China and the Chinese was originally printed in 1843, and this was the main reason I picked it up. It is more of a look at the Western view of China in the Victorian era than a look at China during that time. I wouldn’t say the book is inaccurate, but glowingly positive. Of course, many Westerners had a highly negative view of China during this time, seeing the Chinese as barbaric or infantile or both. Finding a positive account of the Chinese in Western literature during this time period should be a breath of fresh air, but it makes you wonder just what the writer’s agenda was in writing something so starkly against the norm.

Whatever the political reasons for the book, it is mostly an enjoyable read. The historical sections in the back are a bit dry, but overall the book is short, snappy, informative, and fun. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in mid-eighteenth-century China, Westerns views of mid-eighteenth-century China, or Orientalism. 4 stars.