Children’s Book Review: “The Emperor’s Garden” by Ferida Wolff (1994)

Pictures by Kathy Osborn

I recently highlighted my family’s love for children’s stories about ancient China with a review of Ming Lo Moves the Mountain, our all-time favorite. Another that we’ve recently come across is The Emperor’s Garden, which is fast becoming another favorite, both for its crisp story, its gorgeous illustrations, and its poignant morals.

As the Supreme Emperor of China travels by caravan to his Summer Palace each year, the people of a poor village through which he passes wish they could create something magnificent enough to warrant his pause along the route. They decide to create a beautiful garden for the Emperor, but this quickly becomes the last thing about which they can agree. As each worker adds his best touches to the garden, he automatically deems his own addition to be the best aspect of the place, and therefore assumes that he alone should be allowed to name the place. The infighting destroys the harmony of the village, and it eventually leads to their shame before the visiting Emperor. By the end of the story, the Emperor sees beauty in the chaos and is supremely pleased with the village’s offering to him, and it is he who eventually names it “The Garden of Supreme Harmony.”

This story has much to offer in the way of teaching children, especially with regards to pride, selfishness, fighting, humility, respect, and peace. It’s a story that we’ve read over and over, and I’ve been able to guide our discussions about it in each of these directions already. And I don’t think we’re through with it yet.

But I think I could take the teachings of this book even further, beyond these ethical talks with kids and toward something more poignant for Christian adults. With no idea of Ferida Wolff’s background, I cannot presume to know what allegory she has in mind with this story—and I wouldn’t want to push my own too far—but it seems to me that as the villagers await the arrival of this most respected being, and as their hard work and offerings cause more dissension that peace, and as they each much eventually humble themselves and give ultimate honor to the Emperor, I can’t help but read into the story a picture of the Church.

The Church, long ago debilitated by her internal disagreements, has spent centuries spreading further apart through denominations, that one vestige of the Body of Christ barely resembles another. And aren’t we all familiar with the attitude from our Christian brothers and sisters that “God must be Baptist” (or Presbyterian or Lutheran or Seventh Day Adventist or whatever)? Perhaps what we all need is a wake-up tragedy like the folks of this village endured in order to see our pride for what it is. We need to humbly await the coming of the King and let Him name the Church whatever He pleases. It is after all His, and we are merely His humble servants entrusted to help build it.

My review may have destroyed the book’s reputation among non-believers, but just know that my own personal take on it is just that, mine. Wolff likely had friendships in mind when writing, and that’s just as well. However you read it, just know that this is an entertaining, beautiful story with lots to teach.

©2017 E.T.

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