Thomas Handforth, China, and the Real Mei Li

This article provides historical background information on Ms. Horning’s “Caldecott at 75” article, “Mei Li and the Making of a Picture Book,” published in the January/February 2013 print issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Thomas Handforth drawing in Beijing. Photo courtesy of Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Archives.

Thomas Handforth

Thomas Schofield Handforth was born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1897. He was an artistic child, and one of his earliest memories was his delight at age three in walking across a rustic moon bridge in one of Tacoma’s city parks. “For me the great experience was the sight of the arc’s reflection in the lily pond, forming the other half of the perfect circle. It was the circle of the Yin and Yang, Chinese symbol of the universe.” A few years later, he drew the symbol as one of the first pictures in his childhood drawing book, followed by Hokusai’s Blue Wave, and a page of dragons. His early interest in Asian art was also fueled by a great uncle who gave him a two-volume set of reprints of Hokusai’s One Hundred Views of Mt. Fujiyama.

Handforth dropped out of the University of Washington after a year, and went to New York and then Paris to study art. But he found school dull, so he spent the next decade traveling through North Africa and Mexico, finding subjects to draw. He was especially drawn to common people in motion — dancers, wrestlers, and children. In the 1920s, he created 120 etchings and began to make a name for himself in the American art world. One of the people who collected his work was an American attorney, Edwin de Turck Bechtel, whose wife was Louise Seaman Bechtel, head of the new children’s division at Macmillan. She was looking for an illustrator for a new book by one of her star authors, Elizabeth Coatsworth. Since the book was set in Marrakesh and Handforth was living there at the time, she arranged to have him meet the author, who was also staying there, and Handforth agreed to illustrate the book. Neither the book, Toutou in Bondage (Macmillan, 1929), nor the illustrator made much of a splash at the time. His second illustrated book, Tranquilina’s Paradise (Minton, Balch, 1930) by Susan Smith, drew on his experiences in Mexico, and also quickly faded into obscurity.

In 1931 Handforth received a Guggenheim Fellowship for travel to Asia where he could pursue his work as a graphic artist. He expected to spend two weeks in Beijing, but he felt so at home there that he ended up staying for six years, renting a space in an old house that had fallen into disrepair. In Beijing he turned from etching to lithography because he felt that the spirit of China was better captured with a brush and a “greasy crayon.” He bought himself a new press for his lithography and worked in stone, experimenting with different techniques.

He found no shortage of subjects in the courtyard surrounding the old palace, where there were always acrobats, dancers, wrestlers, old men and children, as well as farm animals. A shy man, Handforth was most comfortable around the children, and he frequently imitated Charlie Chaplin to entertain his models. A favorite of his was a nine-year-old boy who was a sword dancer, who never seemed to tire of posing. A young girl acrobat was another favorite model. But it was a bossy four-year-old girl named Mei Li who soon claimed his attention. With her pet duckling and her little white dog, Mei Li ruled over the courtyard, finding adults to pose for the American artists and instructing them on just how to do it. “If they ever weakened in this job of posing,” Handforth wrote, “she would give them a piece of her mind.”

Handforth wanted to somehow put all of his favorite subjects together, so he decided to create a picture book, using them all as models. Mei Li, of course, would be the protagonist. The author/artist recalled: “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.”

He worked on the book for two years, taking his inspiration not only from the people who lived and worked around the courtyard but also from the Chinese art that he loved. Handforth connected his affinity for Chinese art with his understanding of how picture books work:
My goal in etching and lithography is to do, without imitating its technical manner, a Western Hsie-y, i.e. “to write the meaning.” (The Chinese Hsie-y is closely related to Chinese calligraphy.)

…The rhythm of Hsie-y is not contained within the frame. What is visible is only like the fragment of melody carried in and out of the picture frame toward infinity on a two-dimension plane.

From this approach the Picture Book seems to me to present possibilities analogous to those of the Chinese scroll: giving a larger segment of “melody” with variations and with a definite progression in time from beginning to end.

Although the people who lived around the courtyard were the inspiration for his picture book, the story Handforth wrote was original. In it, he imagined Mei Li as a little girl, determined to attend the New Year Fair, even though girls of her station were not allowed to go. Taking three lucky pennies and three lucky marbles, she follows her older brother, San Yu (modeled after the son of a rickshaw driver) to the walled city of Beijing where she sees camels, horses, a trained bear, circus performers and acrobats, and has her fortune told by a young priest: “You will rule over a kingdom.” After a day filled with activity, she and her brother just make it out of the walled city before the gates are closed (thanks to a beggar girl who holds the door open with her feet, in return for the lucky penny Mei Li had given her on her way into the city). They get home in time to greet the Kitchen God, who tells Mei Li that “this house is your kingdom and palace. Within its walls all living things are your loyal, loving subjects.”

Contemporary critics have been quick to call Mei Li sexist due to its conclusion that the only “kingdom” Mei Li can possibly rule over is her own household. In fact, whether we like it or not, it represented reality for most Chinese girls and women in the time it was written, and Mei Li’s spirited response to the Kitchen God’s prophecy is strikingly modern: “It will do for a while, anyway.” Those who charge the book with sexism seem to ignore that the whole story is set in motion by Mei Li breaking with tradition by following her brother to the fair, where she continues to prove her brother wrong whenever he points out things girls can’t do. And, of course, it is Mei Li — and not her brother — who is the hero of the story. A year later, Handforth wrote of her: “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.”


Pu Mei Li holding the book she inspired. Photo courtesy of Zi Tan and Peggy Hartzell.

Pu Mei Li

The real child who inspired the story was Pu Mei Li, born during a famine in the Anhwei Province in 1934, and left on the doorstep of a missionaries’ home as a baby. She spent her second year in an American mission foundling asylum, and was adopted at age two by Helen Burton, an American businesswoman who had lived in China since 1921. Mei Li was the youngest of four Chinese girls adopted by Burton, who owned a popular gift shop called The Camel Bell Shop (or The Camel’s Bell Shop), located in a popular Beijing hotel. Burton had been born and raised in Bismarck, North Dakota, and like Thomas Handforth she had developed a strong affinity for China, coupled with a robust wanderlust. Prior to moving to China, she had worked as a stenographer for the Chamber of Commerce in Honolulu, Hawaii, where one of her duties was to send form rejection letters to other women seeking similar work. She always took the time to add her own handwritten note: “I came and it worked out fine.” Soon after she arrived in Beijing, she noticed how fascinated Westerners were with the bells worn by the camels there, and she began to buy them in bulk to sell to tourists. She ran her popular shop for twenty-two years until she was sent to an internment camp in 1943 during the Japanese occupation of China. While in the camp, she established a trading post called White Elephant Bell (or White Elephant’s Bell), where inmates could trade personal items for necessities. She was one of the lucky few who was sent back to the United States as part of a prisoner exchange.

As a result, Burton was separated from her adopted daughters, and lost contact with them. In 1948, she went back to China to try to find all four girls. Three older daughters were married with families of their own, and teenaged Mei Li was attending a Methodist Mission School. In a letter to friends, Burton said of Mei Li: “Her teachers report great latent strength—a born leader, as they say. The children about her submit to her commands as readily as the masses are swayed by any dictator. Let us pray that hers will be a benevolent dictatorship at least.” Burton left China and Mei Li, expecting to return soon, but another dictator came to power soon after she left, making her return impossible and resulting in the Communist-ordered imprisonment of her eldest daughter. Pu Mei Li was not heard from again during Burton’s lifetime.


Behind the Wall

At the exact same time Helen Burton was in China, searching for her daughters, Thomas Handforth had decided to settle down to work on his art and was searching for a house in Los Angeles. He wrote his friend of the perfect house he had found, which he called the Castle of Mystery: “But if I should become lord of the castle, you would never have to guess my address again. I would be anchored for life in a pile of reinforced concrete blocks from which it would be impossible to extricate myself. And there is on the grounds a building (a garage to which there is no access for cars — just the place for those two presses — litho and etching — which too would help to hold me down.” He longed to get back to Beijing to retrieve the printing presses he had sealed behind a wall there. But a few months after he had bought his house, he died suddenly of a heart attack.

News of Thomas Handforth’s death came as a shock to all who had known him and his work. He was just fifty-one when he died and was at the beginning of a promising new era in his career, one that might have included more picture books. Instead, he is remembered for just one.

And what of Pu Mei Li?  A few months ago I heard from Thomas Handforth’s niece, who had just made contact with the son of one of Mei Li’s sisters, now living in the United States. He was able to confirm that Mei Li had indeed survived and lived to old age in China. We’ll probably never know what sort of career she had or whether she ruled her own kingdom, but at least we’ll always have this testament to her life and spirit, captured like a “fragment of melody carried in and out of the picture frame toward infinity on a two-dimensional plane.”

This online-only companion to Ms. Horning's "Mei Li and the Making of a Picture Book" article is part of our Caldecott at 75 celebration. Click here for archival Horn Book material on Thomas Handforth and Mei Li.
Kathleen T. Horning
Kathleen T. Horning
Kathleen T. Horning is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books and teaches a popular online course for ALSC on the history of the Newbery and Caldecott medals.
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Mei li Hauyon

Dear Madam,Thank you very much to write about Thomas Handforth book of Mei li. I am writing a book of my life my grandparents were chinese, and when I saw this started crying like a baby, many things are so similar to my life, about the personalitity not about abandon child. I am calligrapher taught by my father Chaly Hauyon when I was 5 years old and wanted to calligraphy this book if you know how I can by one. This post was the most important founded in my life!!! Thank you again for this beautiful story that will continue with my book and my name...I make classes of handwriting to restore people in good health and better way of being, through practice good handwriting.

Posted : Oct 09, 2020 05:29

Tey Seaver

I have in my possession three small color pastel signed by T Thomas. One shows a tiny chapel another is another is a military zone and one with a American flag with a tree. It was very interesting article of Thomas Handforth.

Posted : Feb 21, 2019 05:02

nemat tokmachi


Posted : Oct 03, 2017 03:16

Jeffrey Long

Thank you Kathleen Horning. The depth of your research shows -- illuminating article, providing solid background information on Handforth, Mei Li and Helen Burton. Your work is appreciated.

Posted : Jan 30, 2017 08:42

Lisa Yee

Fascinating article -- thank you!

Posted : Jan 13, 2013 09:49

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