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Tong Nian Yi Wang: Zhong Guo Hai Zi De Li Shi [Recollecting Childhood: A History of Chinese Children]

Tong Nian Yi Wang: Zhong Guo Hai Zi De Li Shi [Recollecting Childhood: A History of Chinese Children]. Bingzhen Xiong. Guangxi Normal UP, 2008. 354 pages. £5.00 (paperback).

Bingzhen Xiong in Recollecting Childhood: A History of Chinese Children explores the lives of Chinese children in premodern China (that is, before the early twentieth century), especially in the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties, and the ways in which childhood is represented in a broad range of Chinese texts, including biography, paintings and literature. Some of the insights garnered from this book can be of great value for children’s literature research.

In the first chapter, Xiong asks whether it is possible for children to leave their marks in the historical, biographical, and literary texts produced by adults. She argues that the representation of an ideal child in the texts produced by adults can tell us something about the collective attitudes towards children at a particular historical juncture that shaped children’s lives and how they were treated (14). She also suggests that we can piece together a picture of Chinese children and Chinese childhood through drawing on and comparing extensive materials (9-13).

In the second chapter, Xiong goes on to show that the image of the ideal child in mainstream historical and biographical texts is characterised by filial piety and calm bearing. The ideal child also abstains from play and delicious food (60). According to Xiong, adults attached great importance to children staying calm because they believed that calm children could concentrate on the imperial civil service examination, which was the main method of selecting officials (60). She also notices that paintings often depict children at play, sharing delicious food with their playmates (62), but she does not delve further into how these paintings may complement mainstream historical and biographical texts and contribute to a fuller understanding of childhood in premodern China.

The third chapter examines the emergent literacy education children in the Ming and the Qing Dynasties received at home and their formal education when they entered private school. Xiong points out that the Chinese gentry families and private schools in these two dynasties shifted their focus from moral education to intellectual education, which had much to do with the increasingly important role of the imperial civil service examination in appointing and promoting government officials (97). The Chinese gentry families expected their children to acquire a high position in government and bring fame and wealth to their family through passing the examination (90). This shows that children, subject to adult expectation and regulation, were accorded great responsibility for the prosperity of their family and country.

Xiong’s further investigation of child education in the Ming and the Qing Dynasties in the fourth chapter can be divided into two aspects, that is, a discussion of the theoretical debates on child raising, and an analysis of the textbooks that instructed parents and teachers how to raise children in this period of time. She claims that, in the Qing Dynasty, scholar Tang Biao’s Fu Shi Shan You Fa (The Guidance of Parents and Teachers) was "revolutionary in attributing the intellectual performance of children to the guidance of their parents and teachers" rather than to children’s own qualities and capabilities (145, my translation). The Ming and the Qing Dynasties saw a surge in textbooks specifically for girls (152), which is a point well worth in-depth study since Xiong’s focus in the previous two chapters was on boys’ privilege. However, she does not elaborate how the instruction of girls may have differed from that of boys.

The following chapter reviews and compares different conceptualisations of the child in Taoism, Confucianism, and Neo-Confucianism, schools of thinking in premodern China that still have far-reaching influence nowadays. Taoism reveres the child as a symbol of the primitive, innocent state of human beings (190). Confucianism believes that human beings are born with good nature, but good human nature does not automatically lead to virtuous conduct (191). Confucianism’s view of good human nature suggests that children must be subject to adult regulation so that good human nature can be cultivated to develop virtuous conduct. Neo-Confucianists Zhou Dunyi (1017-73) and Zhu Xi (1130-1200) argued that children’s inborn tendency for play and delicious food should be restrained so that they can behave in a mature and calm way like miniature adults (193-96). Yet Wang Yangming (1472-1529) suggested that education should take into account the inherent qualities of children, and that learning should be made pleasurable for them (196-204).

The next two chapters outline the real lives of children as depicted in biographical materials in the Ming and the Qing Dynasties. According to Xiong, since low life expectancy was quite common then, children lived in the shadow of the death of their parents, which wrecked their lives both financially and emotionally (246). Corporal punishment and endless dispute due to living in extended family were also part of children’s lives (259). Children were not merely passive receivers of adult help and instruction. Rather, they actively interacted with adults, and in some extreme cases, even took care of and guided their family (252, 297-302). Informative as these two chapters are, their structure is slightly flawed as they overlap with each other in quite a few places.

In the concluding chapter, Xiong suggests that age as a differentiating factor does not lead to closed categories of human beings but foregrounds their everchanging nature, as nobody is forever frozen in a particular life stage (321). Recognising continuity in human experiences over a lifetime, Chinese philosophy sees child and adult not only as two categories defined by age, but also as symbols of different qualities that can coexist in one person at any life stage (321, 30-33). This conceptualisation of child and adult resonates with Maija-Liisa Harju’s "crossover continuum," that is, "a philosophy that recognizes and explores continuity between human experiences in various life stages" (365). The reflection of the crossover continuum in fiction is considered a powerful draw of crossover literature (365), a term for literary works that attract both children and adults, for instance the Harry Potter series. Xiong’s study seems to suggest that the crossover continuum may be inherently relevant to Chinese culture, which suggests that we should situate the study of the category of crossover literature within particular cultures.

The book Recollecting Childhood is an encyclopaedic source on the lives of real children and representations of childhood especially in the Ming and the Qing Dynasties, which yields an informative and interesting reading experience. Still, although Xiong claims that drawing on a variety of materials may afford a fuller picture of Chinese children and childhood, she bases her arguments mainly on biographical and autobiographical texts, which undermines the breadth of her research as promised at the beginning of the book. Moreover, how children and adults were defined by age in premodern China needs more exploration since the definition of the child on the grounds of age, then, surely differs from the definition that contemporary readers are used to. Nevertheless, Recollecting Childhood is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of Chinese children, Chinese childhood, and philosophical conceptualisations of the child underpinning Chinese culture and Chinese children’s literature.

Xiaofei Shi
Soochow University, China

Works Cited

Harju, Maija-Liisa. "Tove Jansson and the Crossover Continuum." The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 33, no. 3, 2009, pp. 362-75.