“The Emperor’s Nightingale” is a story by Hans Christian Andersen, a Danish author, set in China. In the story, the Emperor of China discovers a nightingale, a bird which sings so beautifully that its song restores the ailing Emperor’s health. The Emperor of Japan sends a mechanical singing bird to the Emperor of China, and his court prefers the artificial bird to the real bird — until the Emperor of China falls ill again. The nightingale come back, sings the Emperor back to health, and asks the Emperor to keep it secret. When the servants arrive in the morning, they are amazed to find the Emperor well.
This is a lesser-known story, and it might be a challenging read for kids. It makes a good opportunity to read a story out loud. We find that older kids enjoy being read to as much as younger ones, and this can make a more challenging story accessible. Glenn Close did an audiobook which is wonderful to listen to. You can also find the story online and read it aloud.
There are some excellent picture books of the story as well:
- The Nightingale by Pikko Vainio
- The Nightingale by Jerry Pinkney out of print, but check your library or buy used — great illustrations)
- The Nightingale by Stephen Mitchell
Once you’ve read the story, choose some of the worksheets and activities linked below in online resources to make sure students have completely understood the story.
- Watch parts of the opera at the Greek National Opera website.
- Listen to some of Stravinsky’s music for the ballet inspired by the story:
- The Barnum Museum has a PDF of activities to go with their play based on The Nightingale. It includes map work for the continent of Asia and particularly for China.
- Rag & Bone theater also has a study guide. It looks at concepts of leadership, as well as the puppets the theater uses.
- Usborne has a worksheet suitable for ESL as well as for elementary students.
- Penguin has a reproducible guide as well, designed to go with The Emperor and the Nightingale (Penguin Young Readers, Level 4).
Continue with one or more of the lesson plans below.
Write a poem.
Malvina Reynolds wrote a song based on the story. Have students read the lyrics and discuss how the verses connect with the story. Is Reynolds retelling the story or using the story to make a different point?
Ask students to think about the points that come up in reading and thinking about “The Emperor’s Nightingale.” Divide students into groups and have each group choose a point to write about. Challenge students to write their own verses to the Malvina Reynolds song.
Create a mechanical bird.
The mechanical nightingale was a sort of robot. Use our Robot Lesson Plans to explore the idea of robots further.
In the story, the artificial bird sings only one song, while the real bird sang many, and a fisherman muses that the artificial bird’s song is missing something. Discuss whether there are times when an artificial version of something is not as good as a real one.
The Emperor likes the fact that the artificial bird can sing the same song over and over without getting tired, and also that the artificial bird was covered with jewels. The real bird said that she would rather stay in the forest, so the arrival of the artificial bird gave her the chance to return to her home. Discuss times when an artificial version of something might be better.
Have students design a mechanical bird (a robot bird?) by drawing or creating a model. Will the students choose to make their bird a golden, jewelled bird? This is, for the Emporer, an advantage to the artificial bird, and the students may agree. Ask students to decorate their birds and label the parts to show how they would work, if the bird were in fact mechanical.
Of course, now it would be very easy to make an artificial singing bird. Just add a recordable sound chip to student models to get the full effect.
Andersen was Danish, and didn’t visit China or Japan. Why did he choose to set this story in Asia? Many 19th century European artists, including writers, were fascinated by Asia, seeing it as the embodiment of mystery and wonder. Andersen might have chosen China as the setting for his story in order to make it more romantic. The practice of creating works of art emphasizing the mysteriousness of the East came to be known as “Orientalism.”
Older students might find it interesting to study the controversy surrounding Orientalism and whether it is a racist approach to Asia, but younger students might be comfortable with the idea that people enjoy thinking about far away places.
Have students prepare a Venn diagram comparing China and Japan during the 19th century. Try some of these resources:
- BBC photos of China
- Harvard photos of China
- PBS resources on China
- an essay comparing China and Japan in their responses to the West inb the 19th century
- Columbia University Asian history resources
- an interactive map of China
- IndexMundi’s comparison of China and Japan includes many facts that would have been true in the 19th century.
Another example students might enjoy is Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado, a British light opera from the same time period which has the Emperor of Japan as a character.
Challenge students to illustrate the story as realistically as possible.