A recent dinner conversation reminded me just how much I owed my childhood world view, fragments of which have percolated into adulthood, to the stories of British writer Enid Blyton.
Growing up in tropical Singapore, I was fascinated by the adventures of English children and their encounters with colourful, and usually foreign, villains. The unfamiliar institution of boarding schools and the hilarious shenanigans of their denizens entertained me no end. And who can forget such delectable British treats as tinned tongue and treacle tarts, so beautifully described in Blyton’s stories?
While England did not become my spiritual home (I don’t have one), her stories kindled lifelong goodwill towards Britain and certain aspects of its culture, surely an early example of the effects of “soft power”.
Kids in pre-modern China were entertained with children’s stories, but these were orally transmitted and seldom written down. In government and private schools, the books that children read functioned more as literacy and morality textbooks than amusing reads that stoked their imaginations. The three most widely taught books were the Three Character Classic, Thousand Character Text and Hundred Family Surnames. The first two provided an elementary introduction to aspects of Chinese cosmology, geography, history, philosophy, literature and ethics, written in concise phrases that lent themselves to easy memorisation while the third functioned as a primer for word recognition and writing.
Thankfully, these books are no longer required reading for today’s schoolchildren.