The Five Chinese Brothers was written by Claire Huchet Bishop in 1938. While it is generally described as a Chinese folktale, I haven’t found any earlier collections of it. The story begins, “Once upon a time, there were five Chinese brothers, and they all looked exactly alike.”
Each brother has a special power. When the first brother inadvertently causes the disappearance of a child through the use of his special power (he can swallow the sea), he is sentenced to death. He is allowed to go home to say goodbye to his mother, and one of his brothers replaces him. When the executioner tries to chop off this brother’s head, he cannot, because this is the brother with iron bones. Each day, a different brother comes back from the trip to say goodbye to his mother, and each one uses his special powers to evade execution. At last, the magistrate decides that the first brother must have been innocent, and all the brothers live happily every after.
Margaret Mahy has written a new version of the story, The Seven Chinese Brothers, which tells the story quite differently, with a more modern sensibility. Kathy Tucker’s The Seven Chinese Sisters is another retelling, with a dragon and a red scooter to increase the fun. Compare the three picture books with a three-way Venn Diagram.
We always like to have students retell the story, one way or another. This is a fun one, but reenacting it might be a bit boisterous for some classrooms. You know your own students best. You can make puppets and let older students perform the story. For younger ones, have students guide you as you act the story out, or have students reenact the story at their desks as you re-read it.
You might prefer to use these images from Dover’s Chinese Fashions coloring book. (These pages were from Dover’s wonderful free sample service. Click here to sign up.) Since the brothers all look alike, you can use the same figure repeatedly. Just copy the pictures, have students color them, laminate, glue onto a craft stick for firmness, and you have a collection of puppets or play figures. Add the map, from the same source, as a story mat for individual retelling of the story.
I like to let students reenact the story at their seats during a second reading of the book. Play figures and a file folder for a story mat are what you need for this activity. Depending what version of the story you choose, you might like to give students this map, from the same Dover book, or use some ocean border to provide a beach effect. Glue the map or border to the file folder, have students add details and locations as they listen or from memory, and you have your story mat. As students listen to the story, they move the figures to match the action.
This can help fidgety students focus, and also provides a multisensory lesson for your kinesthetic learners.
“The Five Chinese Brothers” and its variants are also great stories to illustrate. Let students choose which episode they want to draw or paint, and then put their creations in order to make a bulletin board display or a big book.
Once you’ve made sure everyone thoroughly understands the story, move on to some cross-curricular connections:
- Study about China. Enchanted Learning has a printable map and geography quiz. Scholastic has a fancier PDF file with similar content.
- Activity Village has a nice collection of China-themed printables ranging from Olympics posters to photographs of the Great Wall. This is a something for everyone assortment.
- Enchanted Learning has a nice printable Chinese counting book. Count the five — or is it seven? — Chinese brothers in Chinese for some extra counting practice.
- Review seven or five fact families, using the play figures as manipulatives, or using an abacus for a true Chinese flavor.
- This story is an excellent choice for a mock trial. Choose a student to play the unfortunate brother, one for the judge, a few attorneys for each side (prosecution and defense), and a jury. Note that the jury trial was not customary in traditional China. Give all students time to prepare their cases or their performances, having the students who don’t have roles in the trial spend that time researching the system of trial by jury. Scholastic has a more thorough lesson. Also check out Wikipedia on the history of the Chinese legal system.
- Leaving aside the question of whether the condemned brother deserved to die, there are some other moral questions in the story. For example, the child who disappears in the 1938 version of the story does so because he is disobedient, or possibly just not paying sufficient attention. The 1992 story of the seven brothers has a theme of cooperation. The seven sisters take responsibility for one another. As a class, decide which of these morals the story best supports.
- In the story, the magistrate concludes that the man is innocent because he can’t be killed. That is, his innocence must be protecting him. Actually, it is his fellow superpowered quintuplets. Challenge students to write about the idea that innocence could protect someone from an unjust punishment.
- The 1938 version of this story has been called racist, or at least disrespectful of the Chinese people. Certainly, plenty of children’s books of that time were. But read this essay on the question as an example of persuasive writing, read the book, and have students write their own opinion on the question.
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