Tikki Tikki Tembo

September 5, 2018
Subheader: 

Tikki Tikki? No. No.

Review: 

I certainly don't want to read this to my two sons. Notwithstanding the possible racism, which I have to confess I was mostly unaware of due to my lack of education about other cultures (the illustrations made me think of Japan, but I didn't want to assume that China couldn't have similar art and clothing styles).

The story is this: there are two brothers in "ancient China", where the first and oldest son traditionally has a very long name, and the second son has hardly any name at all because they don't really matter. The elder brother's name is "Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo-chari Bari Ruchi-pip Peri Pembo", which is not Chinese, but the book claims means "The most wonderful thing in the whole wide world," and the youngest is "Chang", which apparently is Chinese, but does not actually mean "Little" or "Nothing". According to the internet, "Chang" means "constant" or "often", but depending on the intonation, can mean a whole lot of things, including "long" and "great" (as in "The Great Wall of China"), so kind of the opposite of "Little." Anyhow, every morning their mother washes clothes at a stream by her house. On the bank of the stream, there's an old well. Which seems a strange place to put a well, since clearly there is water right next to it. Unless the people were concerned (and knowledgeable) about sanitation, in which case they were much more advanced than ancient Europeans. Again, I can't say whether or not this is accurate, as I don't know enough about ancient China, or this mythical place that the author has conjured up which she claims is equivalent. The mother says not to play by the well because they will fall in, and they don't listen to her and Chang falls in. The older brother goes to the mother and says, "Chang fell in the well." Initially, the stream is so loud that she can't hear him, but then he yells at her and the mother says, "That troublesome boy." TTTSRBRPP has to go get "The Old Man with the Ladder" (kind of a sad thing to be known for), who lowers the ladder into the well, climbs in, and brings the boy back out. Chang gets better very quickly. They stay away from the well for several months, but then there's there's a festival and they go to the well to eat their rice cakes, play around, and TTTSRBRPP falls in. Chang goes to his mother and says that Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo-chari Bari Ruchi-pip Peri Pembo has fallen in the well. Like the first time, she can't hear him because the stream is too loud. He repeats himself, but she still can't hear, responding, "Tiresome Child, what are you trying to say?" He replies, at the top of his lungs, "Honorable Mother! Chari Bari Rembo Tikki Tikki Pip Pip has fallen into the well!" She says back, "Unfortunate Son, surely the evil spirits have bewitched your tongue. Speak your brother's name with reverence." Very slowly, out of breath, Chang says the name correctly. She says, "Oh, not my first and honored son, heir of all I possess!" She tells him to go get the Old Man with the Ladder. You would think he would have learned from his own experience in the well that his mother can't really help his brother get out, and probably should have skipped her and gone straight to the old man, who apparently cares less about propriety than about actually saving people's lives, but Chang is a young boy, so maybe it's beyond his understanding. But by the third time, she should have at least heard the part about falling in the well (she heard enough to know he was messing up his brother's name), or seen the emotion on her son's face and realized something dangerous was happening, so at that point she was just being horribly petty at the risk of her eldest son's life. Once Chang gets to the old man, he asks for help using his brother's full name, but finds the old man to be asleep. "Miserable child, you disturbed my dream. I had floated into a purple mist and found my youth again. There were glittering gateways and jeweled blossoms. If I close my eyes, perhaps I will again return." Chang finally just shortens it to, "Please, Old Man with the Ladder, please help my brother out of the cold well." The old man responds, "Your mother's 'precious pearl' has fallen into the well!" And runs as fast as he can. But by the time he gets the eldest out of the well, it takes TTTSRBRPP months to get better. "And from that day to this the Chinese have always thought it wise to give all their children little, short names instead of great long names."

From what I've read since reading this book, the Chinese do not have, and never have had, a tradition which dictates the length of their children's names. Nor do they wear kimonos or Japanese-style sandals. Unfortunately, many people see that this is supposed to be a Chinese folk tale, and assume it accurately portrays ancient China. Which it does not. Thankfully, the characters are not drawn as caricatures or anything that horrible.

However, even if this book wasn't culturally insensitive, even if it were set in a mythical land instead of a real one, it would still be a bad book. It depicts an institutionalized mistreatment of younger sons, suggesting they are worthless since they lack inheritance. If Chang was a girl (and thereby also ineligible to inherit property in many societies), this would be unbelievably sexist. As it is, there's no clear "-ism" for it, but I'm not reading it to my two sons. I both my children equally, regardless of their age, and throughout our current society, the vast majority of wills are written so that all heirs get the property divided equally among them. The mother belittles her younger son to the point of almost killing her favored eldest. She clearly plays favorites, and horribly neglects her children. It is a toxic message. It's supposed to be a funny story about long names, but I don't even understand what it's trying to say. What's the message the author's trying to get across? "Don't give your children long names"? That doesn't quite fit. "Here's why Chinese people have short names"? But that's not a thing. They don't have short names, any more than Europeans do. And it's not like it was a common misconception or stereotype, either. I'm guessing, based on her name alone, that Arlene Mosel is not Chinese. Although it's technically possible that she was, and married someone with the last name Mosel. Or heck, maybe "Mosel" is actually a Chinese name, and I'm woefully ignorant. But I'm disinclined to believe her as far as Chinese folk tales go, until she shows me she's done the research. And, according to my own sparse research, she didn't.

If the mother were punished for her callous treatment of her children, especially the youngest, then maybe her behavior would act as an anti-example. But as it is, with no repentance or personal consequences (only her eldest son suffers for it), I don't want this read to my kids. I don't want her behavior modeled for them. I don't want them to worry I'll ignore them if they fall down a well, or treat them differently based on their age alone. And I don't want them to feel that either of them is worthless. Not even in a relative sense.

Message: 

Chinese people are exactly like Japanese people, except with stupid (nonexistent) traditions. Also, among siblings, only the oldest son is important and everybody else is basically disposable.

Author
Illustrator
Awards
Publication Year
  • 1968
Age Range
Age Range: 
4-8
Number of Pages
Number of Pages: 
38
Number of Words on Typical Page
Number of Words: 
70

Comments

Porquoi Tale

This book is not meant to be taught as a book about Chinese culture, but rather as a porquoi tale. If presented correctly, this is an excellent book to use in the classroom and with children of all ages.

But what is its point?

I get the idea of a porquoi tale, but it's explaining the reason for something that isn't even true. It would be like a porquoi tale of why Italians have purple hair.

The point you missed

Hey Cassandra, the point, or purpose of the story is not to explain the origin of short names, which in fact most chinese people do have (mostly only three one syllable characters, one of which is the surname). The point is that the superfluous makes for more trouble than it's worth. Children delight in the irony of T being given a long name as a gesture of prestige, and the resulting suffering as a consequence. The race inaccuracy is incidental, very probably accidental and surely not written to denigrate any other culture, and lacking anything mean-spirited that would make it racist. Censoring this from your children is pointless. If you have concerns about perceived racist intent, then it may serve them better for you to read it to them, and explain to them how you feel it is compromised as a creative work. Aim for equanimity.

Racist racist racist

One would imagine some white kids landed in Shanghai airport changing the name and said he knew why Chinese have short names, good way to educate, bravo

Whut???

This book was read to me by my 2nd grade teacher. Now 38, I still remember it and how I loved this story. Why must everything be taken so seriously nowadays and be seen as racism? I would and will definitely read this story to my children who I also teach to respect differences in all people.

Racism = Racism

I understand that you have fond memories of it, but that doesn't make it any less racist. And just because we didn't recognize that it was racist 30 years ago doesn't mean it's not racist. I'm surprised that people have latched on to the parts of my post that talk about its racist qualities, which I more or less gloss over, as others have written far better essays and posts about it than I can, especially given my non-Asian background. Well-known children's author Grace Lin talks about her problems with the book and reprints another writer's post at http://www.gracelinblog.com/2012/04/rethinking-tikki-tikki-tembo.html . This post illustrates the point much better than I can.

I remember this book, and I

I remember this book, and I also loved it.

I agree

Hearing this book read to me by my 2nd grade teacher is a fond memory for me. Racist? That's ridiculous.

Ignorance

This is one of the first stories that’s appropriate for a young child and inflicts emotion at the same time. It’s not suppose to be accurate. According to you kids should not read the car in the hat because cats don’t wear hats.

really?

I like how to you, a cat in a hat is the same as perpetuating racial stereotypes that paint all Asian people as the same. You could hypothetically put a cat in a hat, but you can't make Chinese people become Japanese people. The book demonstrates favoritism amongst children and is just inaccurate about the culture it wishes to represent. YOU can read the book to your kids, but it's still an ignorant book.

One of my favorites

The book is fun and silly, lighten up...

Yes

Yes, a cute little book!!! It is just a story!!

Fun to say

So fun to repeat
Tikki Tikki Tembo...
I love Dr Seuss books, too
Life can be whimsical and innocent
When seen through the eyes of a child

Not Harmful

My mother read this book to me when I was a child. I thought nothing about racism or inequality. As a child you don't think about any topics other than trying to enjoy the book. I love this book.

That's part of the problem

You don't need to notice racism or inequality for it to be there. As a child I watched Bugs Bunny cartoons and didn't think twice about racist caricatures in them (black people, Jewish people, and Japanese, primarily). They're still racist.

As a Chinese Youth

I loved this story as a child. I am half Chinese. When I was older, I questioned whether or not these customs mentioned were true. While no one was able to verify the length of names, the custom of less important second born and daughters is true. (The first born inherits. Daughters are considered a part of their husbands family after they marry. So your first born son was the one who would care for you in elderly stages of life. Daughters and second sons got the short end of the stick. But like all stories, exaggeration isn't a crime.) The first born male was always considered more valuable. Is this fair, no. But Chinese custom has grown since then. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't still write about those times to teach lessons. My students had a great discussion about this book when I used it in class. Both about inheritance and equality. It will always hold a special place in my heart.

I appreciate your perspective

I appreciate your perspective. I agree that we can take lessons from these sorts of stories. And daughters and later born sons were thought of as lesser in many cultures, in the past, and sometimes even modern times (as with the one-child rule in China). In fact, this story seems to have its roots in a Japanese folktale, so it is likely that Japan also had this problem, as well as potentially the custom of long names.

You're are ridiculous

I can't believe you would be so offended by this child's story. You are in fact what is wrong with the world and not the innocence of this childs tale. Take a deep breath and calm down. Then examine what has harmed you so deeply that you cannot handle a child's tale anymore.

LOL

Good one.

OMG..LOL

I can still remember his name but I forgot the story. I happened to click here, and I am shocked to read this "review". You are what is wrong with society and parents today. You are the racist who paints everything with a racist brush. If you refuse to read your kids stories and you teach them about racism, you are perpetuating your own racism. If inequality is part of someones culture, why are you trying to change it? It is their culture. You want to undo 5000 years of culture and history cause it makes you feel strange? Grow a backbone and learn to be an adult. Too many whiney hopey-changey drones out here...jeesh.

Wow, hit a nerve, did I?

Wow, hit a nerve, did I?

Tiki Tiki Tembo is not a bad

Tiki Tiki Tembo is not a bad story is not a "mistreatment"of younger sons and is most definetly not sexist.I read this book to my sons and the younger one most most definetly does not feel mistreated.I agree with tbone.

Really?

Talk about over thinking this book - geesh!

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