The Giving Tree, according to Chinese EFL students

Long, long ago in course called Spiritual Development of Children, our prof criticized The Giving Tree for promoting unhealthy male-female relationships. The tree is female, and in relationship to the male just gives and gives and gives until she/it has nothing left to give but a stump for the old man to sit on, while the male just takes and takes and takes until he’s too old to take anything else. I can see her point, but hopefully having this book on our bookshelf when we were kids hasn’t turned me into calloused selfish misogynist. ;) As a kid I can remember thinking that the tree was really nice, though I wasn’t sure what kind of relationship it was supposed to represent. Anyway, one of our students did a presentation on The Giving Tree this week for an English competition, and I thought her interpretation of the story was interesting. (You can watch the story, read by author Shel Silverstein, here or below.)

My student didn’t know that it was a well-known English children’s book. The story, unattributed and in various forms with various titles, is apparently floating around the Chinese internet (she used this version, called “Boy and Tree Story”). In her English version for the performance, the boy sells the tree’s apples to buy toys, chops off the branches to build a house, chops down the trunk to build a boat so he can go sailing and relax, and finally as an old man returns to sit on the stump, where he smiles with tears in his eyes. She acted out the story with some classmates and then gave this speech:

This is a story of everyone. The tree likes our parents. When we were young, we loved to play with mom and dad…… When we grown up, we left them, we just came to them when we need something or when we are in trouble. No matter what, parents will always be there and give everything they could to make you happy. You may think the boy is cruel to the tree but that how all of us are treating our parents. Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who are in fear, too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is eternity.

I thought it was interesting that she saw it as representing child-parent relationships. It makes sense, but as a kid growing up with this book I’d never thought of the story in that way. Coincidentally, a different student in an unrelated class told me about “gnawing the old” (啃老), which, according to her, refers to the way adult children still depend on their parents. The image on the right is one that came up when I googled the Chinese term.

(P.S. — I don’t understand why Chinese EFL students insist on including platitudes or vaguely profound inspirational sayings in everything, but that last line of her speech is very typical. So was playing Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up.”) YouTube video below:

3 thoughts on “The Giving Tree, according to Chinese EFL students”

  1. I love this story and never thought about the boy vs girl issue nor the parenting issue. If pressed I would say that it is just a love relationship where the giving is unequal. I think that is a common thing in a lot of relationships. It shows how we can be helpful and loving to people. And the tree had such a good attitude that it’s hard to say she’s codependent or something like that… VERY interesting essay by the student though.

  2. Interesting that you write about this book.

    Brian Leiter ( has just blogged on a recent New York Times article that mentions this book

    Leiter states authoritatively that the book is about “the deforming effects of consumer culture on human aspirations and human flourishing”. And he criticises the New York Times and the person interviewed when they say that it is about whether trees “deserve respect”.

    I have never met Shel Silverstein, and I have no idea what his *real* meaning was. Does anyone know?

    But to me it is starting to look like it is one of those stories which tells us more about the reader than about the writer. That is, the reader interprets the book from the perspective of his/her own cultural background and central concerns. Thus, we are getting several very different interpretations of the book.

    (Dare I say it, but it is starting to look like the book is an excellent religious text!! :-)

  3. Interesting that at the end of this story, when the boy was all spent, and sitting on the stump(all that the tree had left to offer), “the tree was happy”. When the prodigal son returned from his spent life, the Father rejoiced and threw a feast like none other. How much to we take and take from the Father, never understanding the joy He knows in loving us. Hopefully we come to understand that love before we are the age of the boy sitting on the stump. The Father put us in families and only parents and grandparents know the closest thing to this Sacrificial love.

    I just pulled your childhood copy of the book off the “grandchildren’s shelf.” It has been coloured in, and written on, I remember reading this story to you kids, and I always thought of it as a story about the amazing love of the tree, and how it was always happy when it was able to give love to the boy. I never thought of it as “PROMOTING unhealthy male-female relationships”–but more that the boy illustrated how we take advantage of and don’t understand the great Love we are given. I think your Chinese friend is closer to the truth.

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