BOOK REVIEW: The Story about Ping

The Story about Ping

 I was surprised to find a humane message hiding in this children’s classic. For those unfamiliar with the story, Ping is a duckling who lives on a boat in Yangtze River along with a flock of his relatives. Every day, the ducks are allowed to leave the boat to go about their business, but every evening they return to the boat and the ducks’ owner “spanks” the last duck aboard with what looks like a long switch. (The man’s reason for keeping the ducks in the first place is not addressed.)

Immediately, many parents and teachers won’t like this element. However, the book makes it clear that Ping fears the spanking and it is the reason he decides not to board the boat one evening when he realizes he will be last in line.

Ping ends up out in the world, and finds it is not a kind place for little birds. He first runs across a group of cormorants forced to fish for their “master.” The cormorants have tight bands around their necks, making it impossible for them to swallow the fish they have caught. Instead, the fisherman collects the catch.

Next, he is captured by a little boy who wishes to keep him as a pet. However, when the boy’s parents see Ping, all they can think about is duck for dinner. The adults trap Ping under an overturned basket, but the boy sneaks out and frees the duckling when his parents aren’t looking. (This is the only show of kindness from humans we encounter in the story.)

Ping decides he’s had enough of the world outside and hightails it back to the boat, where he has to endure his “spanking” before reuniting with his family.

Chances are, the author intended to impart the ideas of not trusting strangers, the necessity of discipline, and that the world can be a scary place for those who are unprepared. (This is probably what caused it to be such a perennial favorite for parents.)

However, I saw something else in The Story About Ping–a study of how birds fare under human control. Ping’s experience of human nature seemed to be one of cruel (his owner’s switch), crueler (the cormorants), and cruelest (his intended slaughter), before experiencing the single act of kindness from a child. Indeed, there seems to be nowhere for Ping to go that will enable him to live out his life in peace (one doubts that a man farming ducks on the Yangtze River regards them as pets). Such is the lot of the farmed animal. When viewed through this lens, Ping takes on a melancholy air. However, there is also an element of hope in the little boy’s rescue of the duckling. Does this represent the young’s innocent compassion that is eventually corrupted, or the promise of a kinder future for small and helpless beings?

(review originally appeared at


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. esmeowl12
    Oct 24, 2011 @ 19:42:01

    I love this book. I frequently read it to my kindergartners and they loved it, too.


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