Discover wonderful Chinese folk tales for kids with these children’s books! These legends, fables and stories celebrate the great culture of China.
I grew up with just one Chinese Folk Tale picture book. I had a tattered copy of The Five Chinese Brothers with cartoon-like illustrations. It wasn’t my favorite book and so I didn’t realize how many more great Chinese Folk Tales were out there.
For my own children, I read more Korean and Japanese Folk Tales than Chinese, and it is heartening to see how many great Chinese Folk Tales have been published since I was a child. We especially enjoyed The Empty Pot and created a book club event around the sequel, The Greatest Power.
What are your favorite Chinese Folk or Fairy Tales? Thanks for sharing!
p.s. More folktales:
Imagination Soup has 28 Folktales for Kids
24 Wonderful Chinese Folk Tales for Kids
The Rock Maiden by Natasha Yim, illustrated by Pirkko Vainio
Ling Lee lived in a fishing village in Hong Kong and fell in love with a kind, young fisherman. When he was lost at sea, she never gave up hope of her return, climbing to the top of a cliff overlooking the sea to watch for him. Her lonely figure was noticed by a god who turned her and her baby into stone. About a year later, her husband returns and discovers what has happened. Tin Hau, the patron god of fisherman, again intervenes, rewarding true love. Natasha Yim retells this folktale with a happy ending. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
The Magic Horse of Han Gan by Chen Jiang Hong
Han Gan lived 1,200 years ago in China. He grew up impoverished, but he was a master of painting horses. Chen Jiang Hong painted the illustrations using the same technique than Han Gan used. In this story, Han Gan’s talent is rumored to bring real horses to life through the images he paints.
A warrior asked for such a horse to fight the enemy at the gates. Han Gan’s horse is invincible and the warrior, while on his back, cannot be hurt, however, the warrior’s thirst for conquest, and saddens the horse. The horse finally throws the warrior off his back and runs off.
When the warrior searches for the horse, returning to find Han Gan, he finds that one of the paintings has a new addition … the warrior’s horse. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
The Empty Pot by Demi
This gorgeously illustrated picture book tells the story of Ping who is given a seed along with all the other kids in the kingdom. Whoever grows the most beautiful flower will succeed the Emperor. Ping is a great gardener but he can’t get his seed to grow. Can he face the Emperor with his empty pot?
I love this book to teach kids values about honesty and believing in yourself. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
The Lost Horse: A Chinese Folk Tale by Ed Young
Pair this book with Zen Shorts as it also has a version of this story of perspective: half-full or half-empty, good luck or bad luck? Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu might also say that maybe there is no such thing that is completely good or completely bad.
The fortunes of life are unpredictable and not always easy to discern. What appears to be bad luck may be good luck in disguise. Ed Young notes that there are versions of The Lost Horse throughout the Middle East. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Zen Shorts by Jon Muth
Jon Muth distills Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu ideas into three stories that both children and adults can relate to. A wonderful book for everyone’s bookshelf. The artwork is gorgeous and earned a Caldecott honor. [picture book, ages 4 – up]
The Little Peacock’s Gift: Folktales of the World by Cherry Denman
Pair this with Night Visitors by Ed Young for a pair of Chinese Folk Tales about kindness and compassion. Little Peacock is one among many peacocks who have a request for the Peacock Fairy. The others want to learn some of her magic. The Little Peacock spends the day helping others by sacrificing its feathers.
When the time comes for the Peacock Fairy to chose just one peacock to teach, she notices the Little Peacock because its tail is featherless. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
The Lord of the Cranes retold by Kerstin Chen, illustrated by Ian Jiang Chen
High up in the mountains lived the Lord of the Cranes. He decides to visit mankind to see if they remembered to be kind and generous. Only an innkeeper is kind to him. Day after day, the Lord of the Cranes dressed as a beggar, visits the innkeeper and receives his gratis hospitality.
Finally, the Lord of the Cranes asks to replay the innkeeper. He paints dancing cranes on the walls that come to life. The innkeeper’s wondrous cranes bring him fame and fortune. One day, the Lord of the Cranes returns and the innkeeper realizes who he really is.
The cranes fly home but the innkeeper continues to keep a seat for anyone in need. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
The Dinner That Cooked Itself by J. C. Hsyu and Kenard Pak
Pair this story with Da Wei’s Treasure as both are similar. This beautifully illustrated picture book tells the story of an orphan Tuan, who looks for a wife. The village matchmaker can’t find a suitable match for him. In the fields one day, he finds a large snail which he takes home and tends to carefully.
He’s surprised by delicious meals that appear when he returns home from work. The snail isn’t a snail after all. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Da Wei’s Treasure: A Chinese Tale by Margaret and Raymond Chang, illustrated by Lori McElrath-Eslick
This is a kind of male Cinderella story of an impoverished boy, Da Wei, and father whose only treasure is a rock from the sea. Right before his father dies, he tells him that the rock will bring him treasure and happiness when the light shines from the house on the rock.
One day, this comes true and a cart appears. The cart eventually leads him to the bottom of the sea where he brings a small kitten home. This is no ordinary kitten, and ultimately, this brings Da Wei great happiness and wealth. [advanced picture book, ages 5 and up]
The Dragon Prince: A Chinese Beauty and the Beast Tale by Lawrence Yep, illustrated by Kam Mak
Ancient Chinese mythology tells of a poor farmer with seven daughters and a dragon prince who could shapeshift into human form. The youngest daughter saves a snake who is actually a dragon.
When the dragon holds the father hostage in exchange for a daughter to take for a wife, only the youngest daughter agrees to this marriage proposal. When they find happiness, her jealous sister tries to replace her, but the youngest’s embroidery skills allow the dragon prince to find her. [advanced picture book, ages 6 and up]
Ming Lo Moves the Mountain by Arnold Lobel
When Ming Lo’s wife is unhappy about the location of their home, she asks him to move the mountain. But how does one move a mountain? Ming Lo consults a wise man who gives them good advice. It turns out that moving a mountain is a matter of perspective. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
The Panda and Their Chopsticks and Other Animal Stories by Demi
Think Aesop tales but with an Asian twist. Demi brings these delightful animal stories adapted from Chinese folktales with her gorgeous illustrations. The morals of each of the stories are:
- Be generous. It brings happiness to everyone. (The Pandas and Their Chopsticks)
- Be careful around those who make a show of how good they are. (The Cat Who Prayed)
- The weaker you are, the smarter you have to be. (The Fox Who Was King of the Forest)
- Be careful with your thought. They can make false things seem true. (A Hedgehog Thinks Twice)
- Great things can be done when everyone no matter how small, does their part. (The Helpful Hummingbird)
- Pride often opens our mouths. Humility tells us when to keep them closed. (The Turtle Who Couldn’t Stop Talking)
- Do not be content with ignorance. It will hold you back from far greater things. (The Frog Who Counted Two Stars From the Bottom of the Well)
- He who boasts a lot achieves little. (The Kite on a String)
- Our faults follow us wherever we go, unless we do something to leave them behind. (The Owl’s Hoot)
- Be humble. It is the starting point of greatness. (A River Discovers the Ocean)
[easy short folk tales, ages 4 and up]
The Race for the Chinese Zodiac by Gabrielle Wang, illustrated by Sally Rippin
How did the twelve animals come to be selected for the Chinese Zodiac? Thirteen animals race for one of twelve spots. How each animal performs determines its place in the Zodiac. Did you know that each person born under a particular animal is attributed to certain personality aspects?
It’s based on the character of each animal as evidenced by how they behaved during the race. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
The Sheep Beauty: A Story in English and Chinese by Li Jian
Kindness is a theme in this Chinese Zodiac story of the sheep. A doctor finds a wounded sheep and nurses it back to health. When a monster threatens the village and demands a child from each family for sacrifice, the sheep turns itself into the form of a girl and volunteers to go.
Using her wits, she drives the monster away. When it returns, the sheep sacrifices itself, and both turn into a rock formation that is still here today. [bilingual Chinese and English picture book, ages 4 and up]
The Greatest Treasure by Demi
This is a Chinese folktale about a rich man obsessed with his money, and a poor man who played the flute for his family to enjoy. The rich man gives the poor man a bag full of gold coins to distract him from playing his flute. The result is an interesting lesson about money and happiness. [picture book, for ages 4 and up]
The Greatest Power by Demi
In this sequel to The Empty Pot, Ping is now emperor and contemplates what the greatest power is. He calls for a parade so kids can present what they think it is. Could it be money, technology, beauty, or something else? China’s contributions in these areas are brought forth by the children.
This picture book introduces China’s inventions to the world. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China by Ai-Ling Louie, illustrated by Ed Young
As was the custom in China in the past, men had multiple wives. Yeh-Shen was an orphan of one of the two wives of a cave chief named Wu who lived in Southern China. He too got sick and died shortly after her mother, leaving Yeh-Shen with the remaining wife who also had a daughter her age.
Because Yeh-Shen was more beautiful than her daughter, she was treated poorly. Her only friend was a fish she caught and cared for as a pet. When her stepmother caught wind, she caught the fish and cooked it.
A mysterious man tells Yeh-Shen of the power in the fish’s bones to grant her wishes. Yeh-Shen wishes for clothes to wear to the village feast but she is cautioned not to lose the slippers.
After she loses one slipper, it finds its way to the Emperor who conducts a search and, instead of punishing the thief of the golden slipper, falls in love with her and marries her. The stepmother and stepsister end up crushed to death in a shower of flying stones. [fairy tale picture book, ages 4 and up]
Wishbones: A Folk Tale from China retold by Barbara Ker Wilson, illustrated by Meilo So
This is a retelling of Yeh-Shen. The deviation is that the girl is named Yeh Hsien and she uses the magic fishbones for riches that she hides in her corner of the cave. The slipper also finds its way to the King of T’o Huan from the cavepeople.
When she marries the king, he uses up the wishes on the bones and then buries the bones near the seashore where the tide washes them away.
It’s interesting to me that China’s origination of the Cinderella story emphasizes the beauty of small feet, as China had the feet-binding custom for noblewomen starting in the 10th century, lasting for ten centuries.
Even though Europeans did not have the same beauty standard for feet, the slipper is so small as to fit only Cinderella persisted in their recountings. [fairy tale picture book, ages 4 and up]
Lon Po Po: A Little Red Riding Hood Story From China by Ed Young
In this retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story from China, the wolf visits the children after their mother leaves to see their grandmother. The oldest daughter uses her wits to save herself and her siblings once she discovers that the wolf is in their home.
Ed Young’s beautiful illustrations won the Caldecott. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
The Jade Stone: A Chinese Folk Tale retold by Caryn Yacowitz, illustrated by Ju-Hong Chen
A stone carver, Chan Lo, creates what the stone tells him it wants to be. When the emperor gives him a piece of rare jade, he expects a dragon to emerge, but when Chan Lo listens to the stone, it tells him a different story. This is a gentle story about artistic truth. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
The Seven Chinese Brothers by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jean and Mou-sien Tseng
This version of The Seven Chinese Brothers is set during the building of the Great Wall, and the brothers use their special powers to intervene on the workers’ behalf. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
The Seven Chinese Sisters by Kathy Tucker, illustrated by Grace Lin
This fractured fairy tale takes the folk tale of the Seven Chinese Brothers and modernizes it with sisters with skills such as counting very high, soup making, mastery of karate, and riding a scooter. These skills are utilized in rescuing the smallest sister from a dragon. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
The Shell Woman and the King: A Chinese Folktale retold by Lawrence Yep, illustrated by Yang Ming-Yi
A greedy Chinese king tries to take the shell woman away from her husband because of her magical powers. To free her husband, the shell woman must fulfill three requests from the king: the hair from a toad, the arm of a ghost, and a bushel of luck.
She easily accomplishes these tasks, and frees herself and her husband, because, the king never specified what kind of luck he wanted. It should be noted though that if the husband didn’t brag about his wife’s powers, they would have been left in peace by the king. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Fa Mulan by Robert D. San Souci, illustrated by Jean & Mou-Sien Tseng
The story of Mulan started as a ballad that goes back to around 420 A.D. For those who like the Disney version, this is the Chinese Folk Tale that inspired the movie. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Sagwa: The Chinese Siamese Cat by Amy Tan, illustrated by Gretchen Schields
This is an original folktale that inspired the PBS cartoon that my children grew up on. A mother cat tells her kittens a story about their famous ancestor, Sagwa, whose mischief created their distinctive Siamese coloring as well as changing the laws of the land. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Night Visitors by Ed Young
A young scholar named Ho Kuan pleaded with his parents not to drown the ants that invaded their rice storehouse. That night, he has a vivid dream of visiting a king in a strange and beautiful city and of his black-armored soldiers who fight red-armored soldiers.
The dream also told of a treasure hidden under his parent’s cassia tree. He used it to seal the storeroom from the ants and taught respect for all life. Ed Young’s beautifully illustrated folktale teaches readers a lesson about kindness and compassion. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
The Willow Pattern Story by Allan Drummond
The willow pattern in a big jug inspired Allan Drummond to research the folk tale associated with it and he then took the story further, inspired by the pattern on the jug. It’s a Romeo and Juliet tragic story, but with a happy ending. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Lady White Snake: A Tale from Chinese Opera retold by Aaron Sheppard, illustrated by Song Nan Zhang
This story set in Hangzhou’s West Lake is said to originate in the seventh century. It’s the story of two snake god sisters who visit the human realm. One sister falls in love with a mortal and marriage follows. Happiness, however, is elusive, as an old abbot tells him that his wife is actually a thousand-year-old snake.
The gods also get involved, when the wife tries to bring back a magical mushroom to bring her dead husband back to life. In an epic drama of humans versus gods, their doomed love prevails. [advanced picture book, ages 6 and up]
Chinese Fables: The Dragon Slayer and Other Timeless Tales of Wisdom by Shiho S. Nunes
Drawn from China’s golden age of fables during the fourth and third century B.C., these timeless tales teach and entertain. With delicate watercolor illustrations by Lak-Khee Tay-Audourard, these stories invite the reader to guess at the lesson it is trying to impart.
I’d read a single story at bedtime, right before lights out so that we could ponder the story. The lessons are not always that clear so it’s a different way of looking at stories. [advanced picture book, ages 6 and up]
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