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Politics in Children's Novels: The China Coin

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China Coin

Politics in Children's Novels: The China Coin

by Suzanne Wilson

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



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