How One Fairytale Sugar Coats and Lays Bare the Painful Truth About Infanticide

Soon Hansel and Gretel came to a little cottage. When they got quite near, they saw that the little house was made of bread and roofed with cake. The windows were transparent sugar.

As I was developing a Hansel and Gretel curriculum for my employer’s ballet camp this summer, I considered the dark original story in which the stepmother encourages the father to abandon their children in the forest because they don’t have enough to eat. This reminded me of a painful truth in history and a dark moment in my family’s past. My grandfather threatened to suffocate two of my aunts as babies because the family was so poor.  

Infanticide has permeated almost every society of humankind since ancient times. People employed it to prevent scarce resources from being spent on weak or disabled children during economic hardship and wars. Infanticide in Europe peaked during World War II during the Holocaust and the T4 Program, a campaign of mass murder by involuntary euthanasia in Nazi Germany.  

Female Infanticide in China

“Burying Babies in China,” March 1865 illustration from the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society

However, my grandfather was born in China, where a history of female infanticide goes back at least two thousand years. During the nineteenth century, when he was born, China suffered floods, droughts, famines, and locust invasions nearly every three or four years. Many peasants dependent on the land and crops did the only thing they could think of to survive under these conditions. They killed their female babies.  

Chinese anti-infanticide tract circa 1800

There were no government benefits or charitable soup kitchens. Killing a son who would be responsible for looking after his parents in their old age would mean sacrificing one’s future. Daughters, by contrast, were another mouth to feed. Desperation, fueled by hunger, led many to consider their survival as pitted against their children’s. In saying what he said, my grandfather was repeating the survival wisdom of his ancestors.  

The Power of Fairytales

I based my dance studio’s story of Hansel and Gretel on the watered-down version presented in Oakland Ballet’s performance. But the kids, aged 5-10, still engaged with it. They were fascinated with a father earning his living by making and selling brooms, the mother being angry with the children for eating all the berries and milk, and the children being sent into a forest to gather more berries for the family.  

“Is it based on a true story?” they asked, and we explained that even now, not all families have enough to eat. The part about the witch is to teach us that not everyone in the world means us well, and we must be careful.  

The children peppered us with more questions than we could address in the time available. “Why didn’t they have enough food? How did the witch get so powerful? How did the witch force Gretel to work for her?” Fairytales both sugarcoat and lay bare our unconscious fears, hopes, and struggles, speaking in a language we can digest and providing comfort and inspiration.  

Hansel caged and Gretel made a slave by the witch

In Hansel and Gretel, children are subject to poverty, a weak father, a selfish mother, and a witch who wants to enslave and eat them. Yet by helping each other and applying intelligence, they overcome even dark magic. They find a way to meet their needs and save their family.  

Our students were rapt. We watched a video of Oakland Ballet’s performance. A great cheer went up when Gretel freed Hansel from his cage after pushing the witch into the oven.  

Go With Life

And I cheered, too, grateful that my family also got a happy ending. Long ago, my grandmother had dissuaded Grandfather from acting on his desperate impulse.

She said firmly and quietly. “No, Ho Sin,” for that was Grandfather’s name, “go with life.”

And the words and the sound of her voice acted as a spiritual balm. Go with what life brings. Have faith. That was her meaning. Hearing these words of acceptance in the order of things, his anger fueled by desperation deflated.

Grandfather was a product of his time and circumstances. Sometimes in anger, he spoke the hurtful words of a culture that valued girls far less than boys, yet I do not think it was in him to murder. Each time a daughter was born to him, he was disappointed. Yet, as time passed, he cared for them in his way.

Today, I still have my lovely aunties.  

An Invitation

To learn more about Chinese American history as revealed through my family’s experiences, I invite you to take a look at The Strength of Water, an Asian American coming of Age Memoir.

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