The Story of “Mei Li”*

by Thomas Handforth

*A paper read at the Newbery-Caldecott dinner at the Sixty-first Annual Conference of the American Library Association meeting in San Francisco. This paper and the one following, “Personal Progress Toward the Orient,” are published for their permanent value in place of the informal remarks made by Mr. Handforth as he accepted the Caldecott Medal presented at the meeting of the Children’s Section, June 20th.

handforth meilicover The Story of Mei Li*For six years I lived in Peking, in part of a large old house which had belonged to a Chinese mandarin. It was a handsome house of grand and noble proportions, though falling into decay. To reach the part of the house which I occupied, consisting of one main courtyard and several smaller ones, it was necessary to pass, from the street, through four immense fortress-like gates. Faded red lacquered columns supported the gray tiled roofs of its paper-windowed living rooms, which faced on the central courtyard. Tall trees shaded the paved court which on many a day was the setting for what appeared to be a one-ring circus.

Sword dancers, stiltwalkers, jugglers and archers were there, come to pose as models for the etchings and lithographs which I was making. Even camels came to have their portraits drawn, and the lowly donkey, and shaggy Mongol ponies. When it was too cold for me to sketch out-of-doors, the animals sat for their portraits in the great room which had once been a mandarin’s reception hall.

Itinerant boy actors were to be seen there too. Like the puppet players and minstrels of China, they wander about from town to town, from house to house, performing little plays from Chinese folklore. Some of them, dressed as lions, would caper about the courtyard. One small boy whom I often sketched was a sword dancer. He would look at the drawing that I was doing of him, and, closing his fist, and pointing his thumb in the air in approval, would exclaim, “Hao! hao! Y ding hao kan!” meaning “Good! good! indeed good looking!”

Then he would study the drawing more critically.

“The eyes must have more spark, like this!” he would say, raising his eyebrows and showing the whites of his eyes.

“And the head must be more erect, like this!” he would say, throwing up his chin, with his little body fixed rigidly in an attitude of violent action. After all he was a sword dancer and proud of his profession though only nine years old. His two broadswords which he handled simultaneously were as large as himself. He knew better than I how they should be held, and hold them he did. He posed extremely well. His endurance in keeping still, and his patience, was certainly much greater than that of any American child of his age. The same was true of almost all the children who posed for me, and of the adults too.

A little girl acrobat, who is in many of my pictures, would amuse herself, when she was supposed to be having a rest, and no one was paying any attention to her, by tying herself up in the most amazing knots. Before I went to the Orient, I thought that the life of a child contortionist must be a pitiful existence, but I learned that in China, at least, the child acrobat enjoys his most difficult stunts.

The husky wrestlers, too, like the little sword dancer, have definite ideas about how they should appear in pictures. At temple fairs, where they wrestle, they rush at each other like bulls and sway about, exaggerating with grunts and groans their efforts to throw each other. Between their bouts they strut around with a tough dare-devil air, selling black pills the size of pigeons’ eggs to give one strength like theirs. But when it comes to having their portraits painted, that is a different story! In pictures they insist upon sporting the largest fans that can be bought in the market place.

A pretty, slender girl, who sang in a tea house, in a flowered silk gown, consented to sit to me. She kept her appointment, but she was no longer slender. She had rather the shape of a sack of potatoes, having put on, for the sake of decorum, one padded robe over another, the outer one being of faded blue cotton. To get down to the inner layer of flowered silk, the price for posing went up with each padded garment removed.

But the surest way of winning the confidence and coöperation of these already cheerful people was to serve them plenty of tea and to jolly them along with some foolish clownish acts, such as a Charlie Chaplin walk, or slapstick farce. It always brought a laugh even when performed by an odd foreigner who made drawings.

I wanted to bring all these friends of mine together in a picture book for children, but could not decide who should play the leading rôle. Then I met Mei Li. She assumed such importance, which she rightly deserved, as the leading lady, that she crowded many of my other friends out of the story. She was that kind of a girl.

During the famine in Anhwei Province, Mei Li, then an infant, had been left on the doorstep of a missionaries’ home, and had spent the second year of her life in an American mission foundling asylum. Then she was adopted by a rich American lady-bountiful, and lived for two years in a luxurious home in Peking.

When the American lady found it necessary to come to the United States for a year she sensibly realized that it was an opportune moment, since Mei Li would have to spend most of her life in China anyway, to give the child a season of hardening to immune her from the dangers of Chinese germs, before she was reclaimed for her life of luxury and American sanitation.

Mei Li was left in the care of the wife of a poor gardener to play in the dust of a tiny courtyard, and to sleep on the large brick Kang which was used by the whole family. The house was seldom heated, even in the bitter cold of the North China winter, except by the clay cook stove in the one room of the house. And did Mei Li thrive on it! Sheathed in her thick padded garments the cold and the brick bed had no terrors for her.

Often I went to see her, and, at the gate in the gray wall on the narrow lane in which she lived, Mei Li’s pets, a dusty little duck and pinkish white little dog, would greet me, standing together with just their heads peeping over the gate-sill. Whatever the hour of the day, tea was offered me by Mei Li’s nurse and I stayed to gossip with her friends and neighbors who might be there: the wife of the ricksha man, the cabbage-vendor and the night watchman. When the coalman stopped, Mei Li had intent conversations with his camels, when he didn’t she talked to her dusty duck. But most of her time was spent in managing the large family upon whom she had been deposited. No Empress Dowager was ever more determined than she. A career is surely ordained for her, other than being the heroine of a children’s book.

Mei Li needed no urging to play this star rôle. Before long she was running the whole show. She brought her own little girl friends to be drawn, and the small boy San Yu, son of the ricksha man, and her pinkish white puppy, but if they ever weakened in this job of posing she would give them a piece of her mind.

photo meili The Story of Mei Li*

Mei Li reading the book about herself. (Photo from the October 1950 issue of The Horn Book Magazine)

For a long time I searched for just the right type of woman who might have been Mei Li’s mother. At last after my servant too had made many futile efforts to find a person such as I described, he brought to the house a peasant woman who had just that day come from the country looking for employment. She was exactly what I wanted, but most women of her kind would have been too shy or modest to have even entered the house of a foreigner. It was Mei Li who made her feel at home, and gave her hints on behavior in an artist’s studio.

The old priest in the picture book was my own lucky discovery. I noticed him just as he was disappearing in a crowd near one of the city gates. In his crazy-quilt robes, with his thick horn-rimmed spectacles slipping down his thin nose, and a large glass jewel in his black hat, he seemed to have just stepped out of an ancient Chinese scroll. He was too good to be true. As he stared vacantly at the sky, and dreamily waved his horsehair fly brush, he was like a mythical being, far, too far removed from earthly matters to ever find the address on the card which I gave him. But he arrived at my house the next day, hours before he was expected, pleased as a child, to have his picture drawn.

The toys with which Mei Li plays are personages from Chinese folklore, among them the eight immortals. There is a ninth immortal too, but no one knows what he looks like, for each time that he visits the earth to go about amongst the people, he assumes a different guise. If one is polite to him he will bring that person good luck. If one is discourteous, misfortune follows. It behooves one to be courteous to everybody.

And so my little models were always polite. They asked me my honorable name, my honorable age, and the honorable cost of everything in the house.

This paper by Thomas Handford, reprinted in the October 1950 extra issue of The Horn Book Magazine, originally appeared in the July/August 1939 issue and is part of our Caldecott at 75 celebration. Click here for more archival Horn Book material on Thomas Handforth and Mei Li.

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