The Chinese Emperor's New Clothes

Book review by
Regan McMahon, Common Sense Media
The Chinese Emperor's New Clothes Book Poster Image
Clever twist on classic tale adds dimension and great art.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Some basics about Chinese New Year traditions, including that traditionally "people dress in new clothes on Chinese New Year's Day so evil spirits won't recognize them." Mention that Chinese emperors sometimes inherited their position as small children. Visuals indicate the kinds of clothes once worn in China by elites and regular folk. Author's note describes oppressive aspects of China's Cultural Revolution and tells a bit of what is was like for the author to grow up there at that time. Includes an activity for kids: "Make Your Own Chinese New Year Parade Robe," with basic instructions. 

Positive Messages

A good leader cares about his people and should help feed and clothe the poor. Corrupt officials deserve to get their comeuppance. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Ming Da, the boy emperor, cares about his people -- he even makes daily visits to an orphanage -- and wants to trick his corrupt ministers (who are running things because he's still a young boy), so he can get rid of them. Author Ying Chang Compestine, herself, is a role model, having, as she relates in her author's note, defied Communist authorities to read forbidden Western children's books. 

Violence & Scariness
Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Chinese Emperor's New Clothes, by Ying Chang Compestine (Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party), and illustrated by David Roberts (Rosie Revere, Engineer), offers an Asian twist to the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. A cheeky unseen narrator frames this retelling as the real story, set in Imperial China, of a boy emperor who tricks his corrupt ministers to better serve his people. In an author's note, Compestine explains that she has drawn on her own experience of going up against authorities as a child growing up in China's Cultural Revolution to create this version. It's an engaging, universal morality tale presented in a fresh new cultural context. 

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What's the story?

In THE CHINESE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES, author Ying Chang Compestine moves the classic European fairy tale to Imperial China. She also shifts the focus from two weavers who trick a vain emperor into parading though the streets naked and fooling the townspeople into saying they see his fine clothes, to Ming Da, a 9-year-old emperor who gets his tailors to trick three corrupt ministers who've been stealing from his people. For the upcoming Chinese New Year parade, the tailors make robes out of old burlap rice sacks but tell the ministers that the garments are magical: "Honest people will see their true splendor, while the dishonest will see only burlap sacks." Not wanting to appear dishonest, the corrupt ministers claim to see rubies and pearls embedded in fine silk, and give the tailors more jewels, gold, and rice to trade to make their robes "more splendid than the others." (Ming Da uses those riches to buy food for his hungry people.) As in the original tale, the truth about the garments is revealed by a child observing the parade. 

Is it any good?

This twist on a classic has a new setting, more dimension, and wonderful art to draw kids into the story. The Chinese Emperor's New Clothes does more than expose a ruler's vanity and his people's urge to go along with whatever he says, despite what they see with their own eyes. Here, the boy ruler is honest, caring, and intent on exposing his corrupt ministers. As author Ying Chang Compestine explains in a poignant, informative author's note, she knows a thing or two about corrupt ministers, having grown up in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Western literature, including fairy tales, was banned, and she had to hide her copy of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes" from the authorities. "Like the boy emperor, I always searched for ways to outsmart the officials." 

David Roberts' stunning art adds significantly to the storytelling, with colorful full-page scenes and dazzling two-page spreads, especially the one showing the huddled ministers framed by the Chinese New Year parade's dragon dancers moments before a boy calls them out and the children roar with laughter on the following spread.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how The Chinese Emperor's New Clothes differs from the traditional folktale "The Emperor's New Clothes." What changes did the author make? Is this version more interesting? Is the story's message the same? 

  • Did you know about Chinese New Year before reading this story? What did you learn about that tradition?

  • What things does the boy emperor do that show he's a kind person and good leader? 

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For kids who love fairy tales and Asian stories

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