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"The Five Chinese Brothers" is a children’s book, purportedly based on an "old Chinese folktale" about five brothers who each have a remarkable ability and use their abilities to save the life of one of their siblings when he is convicted of a crime he was not able to prevent committing.

Written in 1938 by Claire Huchet Bishop (1899-1993) and illustrated by Kurt Wiese (1887-1974), the book was originally published by Coward-McCann Inc., New York. The illustrations won Kurt Wiese the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1959.

Usually published in paperback, it’s a book of decent length for children 4-8, coming in at 64 pages and being comprised of 1063 words in its original text.

Plot Synopsis
"Once upon a time there were Five Chinese Brothers and they all looked exactly alike. They lived with their mother in a little house not far from the sea."

Each brother has a special ability.

The first brother is able to hold all the water of the sea in his mouth. One day he sucks up the sea so he can pick up fish off the bottom. A boy comes out into the empty sea and starts making faces at the first brother, who can’t hold the sea for long and tries to warn the boy before he lets it spill out. But the boy gets caught up in the water and drowns.

The townsfolk arrest the first brother for the murder of the little boy and sentence him to death. The judge decides that in the morning, they will cut the first brother’s head off.

Before the execution, the second brother sneaks in and takes his brothers place. The second brother’s neck is as strong as iron and cannot be cut, so when the executioner tries to cut off his head, the sword bounces off.

The judge decides that they will take the brother out into the sea and drown him. Before that can happen, the third brother replaces the second. The third brother has legs that can stretch as long as he needs. In the morning, when they try to drown him, he stretches his legs and stands in the middle of the ocean.

The judge decides to burn the brother, but without anyone noticing, the fourth brother replaces the third. The fourth brother cannot be burned. When they put him in the fire, he doesn’t burn. They decide to suffocate him.

The fifth brother, who can hold his breath all day and all night, replaces the fourth brother that night. The next day they try to suffocate the brother, but he doesn’t die.

In the end, after trying to kill, who they think is one man, 4 times, the judge decides this means he cannot be guilty of the crime and frees the man. And the brothers live happily ever after.

Similar tales:
This story is very similar to "The Seven Chinese Brothers", written by Margaret Mahy and illustrated by Mou-Sien Tseng. The brothers in this book look exactly alike, live by a hillside and each has his own special ability, which he uses to escape undue persecution.

Rabbit Ears Productions published an animated story similar to The Five Chinese Brothers and titled as the same. However, their version, released in 1997, tells the story of 5 Chinese brothers who use their special abilities, which are different from the brothers in the Bishop story, to escape the persecution of their cruel emperor.

Must have read that book a hundred times when I was a kid.

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