Novels for children which encompass notions about history, about culture, and about politics, have been around ever since a ‘children’s literature’ was recognised as something distinct from books for adults. Indeed it is difficult to imagine something more political in its content and aspirations than Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies.
But what is interesting today in the light of books for children now being published (and changing attitudes to children’s fiction) is what a children’s novel that has apparently been ‘politicised’ says about a literature specifically addressing a young audience. Allan Baillie’s achievement. The China Coin, gives readers the opportunity to think in a broader sense about political novels for children and whether such books are in fact a successful way of introducing notions of political and cultural upheaval to the reader.
Not only that The China Coin offers us a look at the scope of the novel in the wider field of Australian children’s literature in general. What, say some, is the politics of China doing in a children’s book? That question implies wider and highly significant issues about audience and the way we categorise a literature for children. And Allan Baillie’s outstanding story is an excellent way of beginning to come to terms with such a debate.
The China Coin presents a sense of political and cultural upheaval by developing two key elements: Leah is the central pivotal character amongst this background that the reader immediately latches on to; the coin itself is the central trope which Baillie surrounds with layers of meaning – personal, political, cultural and textual. In Leah, we see a girl thrust into China, her mother searching for a family and the answer to a mystery about an ancient Chinese coin. The opening of the novel goes like this: Leah thought Here I am, about to be sold into slavery in the lost mountains of China.
The plane dipped a little. I am being taken to a village so primitive they file their teeth and eat meat raw. I have been kidnapped by an evil aunt, who flies a broom on a full moon Leah felt a slight tightening in her throat and glanced at the woman sleeping beside her. Let’s stop frightening ourselves, all right? Enough, enough. Sorry, Mum – Joan. Was only kidding. The China Coin, p. 9 Leah’s confusion, her fear, the disruption to her life as she embarks upon a quest into lost mountains, a quest she doesn’t particularly wish to undertake, is clear.
The implied literary genre is also apparent But more than that is suggested: she’s being sold into slavery, she is entering a primitive alien world where people file their teeth and eat meat raw. Fear generates prejudice. Of course Leah knows she is being silly, her Mum’s not really an evil aunt, but regardless of Leah’s backtracking in the very first paragraphs, that idea is out and it cannot be retracted. She is frightening herself with ridiculous prejudices and fantasies, and through these are conveyed notions of misunderstanding, racism, cultural conflicts, myths about other peoples.
It is a theme developed throughout the novel via Leah’s own personal identity crisis. She is after all, half-Chinese herself and she wonders where she belongs. Is she Chinese, Australian, English, or an ABC (Australian Bom Chinese)? Her dilemma is that. once Chinese, she win always have links to that ancient mysterious land. Learning to recognise that is part of her quest. (She also has to cope with the ‘Asians go home’ graffiti in her home town of Sydney. ) That opening scene suggests much about the complexity of ideas and ideals the novel develops.
Joan, Leah’s mother, is on the other hand driven by the possibility of tracking down her relatives in China and solving a family mystery. Leah, at least initially, resents this and remains disinterested. All this personal conflict suggests another main concern in the novel: the idea of a unified family (the whole novel is in many ways about unity and disunity). The notion of family takes on wider cultural significance too: the Chinese people are one family, yet the native inhabitants seem to resent the ‘overseas’ Chinese, ‘who don’t know anything’ about the real China, its history, its politics and its problems.
Nobody, it seems, can grasp China unless you are truly Chinese – perhaps The China Coin goes some way towards addressing that problem. Politics, then, has family significance: China’s politics regulates, controls and maintains (among other things) the family of China, the family of Leah and Joan, and the family of Ke. And throughout the story is the sense that these families are defined in terms of perpetuity; eternal existence and eternal meaning. ‘One thing about we Chinese – we never throw anything away’ we are told by Ke. Culture and family are further examined in this novel through Leah’s experience of attitudes towards death.
Before the story even begins, Leah’s father has died of cancer. Leah has experienced one very specific, very painful personal encounter with death. Allan Baillie contrasts this with a Chinese view: Leah trailed before the quiet grave on the hill and remembered the cemetery of two years ago. The formal lawn with the little chapel, waiting for the new arrival. Pain, some crying – she never cried – and it was all over. The cold lawn and the chapel were left waiting for the next arrival, and the next and the next But this was different It was as much a part of the Ji family as the kittens in the box.
People had died but there was no pain here, not any more, as if those curved earth arms were reaching out to her, welcoming her into the family. For the first time Leah was thinking of Joan’s family as her family; Joan’s grandfather was her great grandfather, Joan’s grandfather was her grandfather and Swallow’s Grandfather was her great uncle – if she wanted it that way. ‘Something wrong? ‘ Grandfather called back. ‘No, it’s all right,’ Leah followed Grandfather to the shoulder of the hill. The China Coin. p. 42
In this scene, Leah thinks about family in the context of death as she walks around a village and comes across a Chinese cemetery. It is death or at least the recognition of a difference in the way two cultures and two families cope with death that leads Leah to recognise and accept her Chinese family, her Chinese grandfather as her real grandfather. Even death it seems cannot eradicate family ties, but continues to enclose a lost member within both the physical bounds of the village and the emotional/spiritual ties of the Ji family circle. And as Leah develops through the story, the reader also partakes in that different culture with her.
But if we are really going to grasp culture and politics as The China Coin presents them, we have to deal with the novel’s central metaphor – the coin itself. This object that Leah and Joan take into China is only one half of a coin. It is broken, ancient, split by some unknown event many years ago. It is fragmented and incomplete. It is also seen as a key to a mystery (both of its own origins and its importance to Leah’s family) and a treasure (presumably a valuable historical item): “The coin had been so many things: a secret, a treasure, a family keystone and an accident’ But it is much more than this.
It’s an object of trade, commercialism, capitalism and tradition, a highly complex symbol. China, like the coin, is divided. It is Politburo versus Students. Leah’s family is divided, not only separated by death and accident, but by culture as well. And in the light of its complexity as a metaphor, what then happens to the coin in the end is highly significant. The reader is forced to think carefully about how the coin changes its symbolic force by page 172 of a 190 page novel, and how this affects the entire meaning of the novel, and whether for the reader it is an optimistic or a pessimistic experience.
In one scene, Leah pulls out her mother’s old ring box and shows its contents to Ke, the Chinese student Leah befriends: ‘What’s this? ‘ He opened the box to see the … coin nestling on the cotton wool. ‘Bringing the coin back. ‘ Ke picked up the … coin from the box … A light smile crept across his lips. ‘All right? ‘ Thinking. You know, the coin is China. The Politburo, the students. We did it, the Zhu and the Ji. . . . Why can’t they? ‘ The China Coin, pp. 154 – 5
To answer that crucial question, and to find out what really does change the complexity of the coin’s meaning, is a feat for the reader of the novel. From all these elements (the coin as object and metaphor, notions of death, the family and the ancient alien country) a sense of politics is built throughout The China Coin. But the story also directly portrays the change, the suppression and the political upheaval of the days (and indeed the years) leading up to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. We are certainly given hints about the political turmoil throughout the opening chapters.
We hear of the students carrying banners in distant Beijing and the politically motivated youths declaring that democracy lives. Their presence is ubiquitous. And of course Leah identifies with these students – after all, she’s the same age as them, she could be them as she herself recognises, and such empathy is indeed another mark of Leah’s growth during the course of the novel. Whilst Allan Baillie gives us many details of Chinese history and politics in the dialogue between Ke and Leah, he also gives us politics from the point of view of the children involved, one Chinese, one an ‘outsider’.
Here, Ke explains to Leah what happened to his father, a ‘poet’: Father was a farner, just like the others, but he wanted more from his life. For Mao that was treachery. Mao attacked ambitious villagers as “fat bourgeois pigs” and the Red Guards came and took father away. We never saw him again, but in one of his last times with us he told mother that if he had seen everything that was coming, he would still have written the poetry. Because that was right The China Coin, p. 119 ‘If he had seen everything that was coming, he would still have written the poetry.
Because that was right’ A vision of political future, and the oppression, the moral versus political right, is presented. Treachery is simply wanting more out of life, and doing what you think is right And throughout the development of the story there are political comments from Ke and his fellow students, all leading up to the dreadful events in Beijing. The focus is indeed Youth versus Age: The youth stepped out from the lamppost He was carrying a shoulder bag full of rough posters, a pot of paste and a dripping brush. ‘Ah . . . ‘ He was fumbling for the words.
Telling the facts. ‘ ‘What facts? ‘ ‘Yaobang is dead but democracy lives. Is that good? ‘ ‘You are political. ‘ ‘Oh yes. Definitely. ‘ ‘Are you allowed to do that? Stick up posters everywhere? ‘ ‘Oh, no. ‘ He raised his finger to his lips and looked about him. ‘We are Enemies of the State. Terrible. ‘ The China Coin, p. 22 It’s the students who want to change China. It’s the youth. What better place to discuss it all than in a book for children.
Indeed, the idealism of the youths versus the politics of the older leaders permeates the latter part of the novel especially. It’s very hard to pick your heroes in China, Leah thought’ Her experiences bring out a certain realisation of purpose and political identity in Leah, but not before she goes through a great deal of uncertainty and confusion: ‘Before China, Leah knew Joan; now Leah knew nothing at all. ‘ The alien China we saw at the beginning of chapter one becomes her China by the end of the book.
In a sense it has been her China all along. And during this process we arc given some intense, fascinating and terrifying images of Tiananmen Square and all that it stood for Age ersus Youth, Power versus Idealism, Conflict versus Peace, Wealth versus Poverty; Heart, Strength and Freedom versus the deliberate suppression and obstruction of a people. And in order to go anywhere at all towards experiencing that, we need books like The China Coin and authors of the calibre of Allan Baillie. Clearly the achievement of this novel lies also in the wonderful atmosphere evoked of the streets of Guanzhou, of the trip to the Good Field Village, and of the images of Shanghai haunted by the events of 1927 when thousands of people were slaughtered.
But none of this matters if the story isn’t one that will get the reader in: this one is a mystery, a quest, an adventure. It is above all a great read, albeit sometimes a disturbing one. All this is just an introduction to this highly complex novel, but one which may suggest some questions about the wider significance of a children’s book that is, if you like, politicised or seen as a chronicle of history. It raises the question again of what really constitutes a book for children. This one sounds like an adult book – who’d write a kid’s book about the Tiananmen Square massacre? That was indeed a question that the author himself was confronted with. )
Is it simply that a children’s book has a child as the main protagonist? Is it a question of point of view? What can a novel such as The China Coin tell us about the scope of children’s literature? In one way, this is a particularly good novel to examine in this way, simply because what it says about politics is so tied up with youth, children and the future. One particular achievement of this book is what it says about the process of government, political principles, civil administration and control; what it says about belonging to and taking sides in politics.
Ke would probably agree with that. But what is also interesting from the point of view of the critic of children’s literature in the wider field of literary criticism, is how it can help to redefine notions of a book for children. Jacqueline Rose, a scholar on children’s literature and author of the book The Case of Peter Pan: Or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction, says in this study that ‘children’s fiction rests on the idea that there is a child who is simply there to be addressed and that speaking to it might be simple.