From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Asian Miscellany (10)—Children in China

[a] Celebration RF
My last few posts in "Asian Miscellany" have been driven by deadline—and many of them will follow in the coming weeks and months, since I have signed contracts to deliver a whole passel of encyclopedic material to various publishers before a self-imposed deadline of January 30th. As I explained in the introduction, this series of posts allows me to try out a few ideas that I plan eventually to include in various encyclopedias or on-line sites that have asked for my input. They are not the same as the pieces that will eventually be published, but constitute more of a "long draft," meant to work through a few ideas as I work on brief essays that often mandate strict "word counts" of 250, 500, 1,000, or 2,000 words. 

For today's post, I have been asked to write about children and childhood in modern China. You will notice from the picture, above, that I am always looking for the historical threads of modern life. This topic is so fertile, so rich in possibility, that a thousand words can only present the barest glimmer of introduction. Even a brief look at the subject opens whole new worlds of interpretation if you have not been studying Chinese life recently. Just one example is what I see on mountain temples all over China during my research on the "sacred mountains" of Chinese lore. Many temples on Mt. Tai and southern Mt. Heng have sections of temples devoted to "sending forth children" (送子), and I can attest that these locations get heavy traffic all year round. Let's take a look at childhood in modern China. 

Feel free to peruse the other Modern China posts in Asian Miscellany. 
1 One-Child              2 Education             3 Food/Drink          4 House           5 Work          
6 Entertainment       7 Sports/Games       8 Urban/Rural        9 Family Life    10 Children
 Children in Modern China
Children have always been the lifeblood of Chinese society. In traditional times, the focus was relentlessly on having the right proportion of sons and daughters in a family, and the assumption was that income came from the land. It is a serious historical error to think that boys were preferred exclusively over girls in earlier times, but the nuance was often for “strategic” reasons having to do with marriage alliances. Nonetheless, the question of children in today’s China both echoes and changes attitudes found in earlier eras. Only one feature has remained substantially unchanged. Children are the focus of enormous amounts of planning, organizing, and strategizing in China today, just as they five hundred or even two thousand years ago.

Childhood in History
[b] Family c.1875 RF
Some historians, when trying to get the attention of readers, have proclaimed that “childhood began only a few hundred years ago.” Their point, of course, is that what we mean by “childhood” differs so much from ancient, medieval, and early-modern times that we must be careful about making assumptions based only on our own lives. This is doubly true when we study the concept of “childhood” in societies different from our own. Childhood in Europe, North America, and East Asia all share significant characteristics today. These similarities have a great deal to do with the increasing dominance of the nuclear family in many societies (including China) today, as well as the overwhelming importance of an educational system that requires nine or more years of schooling. Still, these similarities should not blind us to the differences between societies, and childhood is an especially useful place to examine both. 

One constant in Chinese family culture is what some historians and psychologists have called a “low-pressure” early childhood. One can see in traditional novels, as well as in any restaurant in China today, a carefree exploration of their world by children under the age of five or six. This is not merely an outsider’s interpretation. Many parents and grandparents have explained that life is so filled with pressure once school begins that good parents must allow children to play freely before that time.  Whether in television shows or discussions with parents, it is startling that almost exactly the same words are used to express this sentiment. 

Rural Childhood 
[c] Mother-n-children RF
The distinction between “rural” and “urban” childhood is not a perfect one, even for earlier eras. In previous centuries, the key difference lay in whether a child came from a reasonably wealthy family (or was related to one) or not. The “schooling” process began early for children of wealthy households, and did not begin at all (or was seriously shortened) for poorer children. Today, at least nine years of schooling is mandatory (this is very similar to the United States), and twelve is quite common. The urban-rural distinction is not nearly as prevalent as it might have been five centuries ago, when a poor twelve year old was working full days in the fields or family store. Just as happens in North America and Europe today, rural families often expect some labor from children, but the dominance of the educational system prevails. In China, the centrality of the educational system is compounded by the starkness of the one-child policy. Parents and grandparents rest their hopes on one child. Rural or urban, that detail changes the equation a great deal for every one of the generations. 

Urban Childhood  
Although we have seen that education does not follow merely a “rural-urban” split, the specific pressures associated with schooling play out differently in China’s major cities than they do in its rural villages. It is very difficult to separate “childhood” and “family life” from the reality of schooling, and the expectations associated with the educational system affects parents every bit as much as it does children. On the other hand, it is scarcely possible to imagine “childhood” in today’s China—after the age of six—without school. It dominates, even in the most fluid and happy of situations, and always figures in the plans, both large and small, of families. 

[d] Children's Park RF
A few examples might help to explain this. One of the things that Chinese children enjoy sharing with their parents are “riddles”—word games that have a foundation in the educational curriculum as early as the first semester of first grade. Children love telling riddles and making their parents “guess.” They overflow with laughter when their parents struggle to find the answers. Parents and grandparents, on the other hand, also enjoy giving riddles to youngsters, often with the advantage of knowing the language and various situations better than children can. It is a powerful kind of interaction, and an often forgotten constant in childhood worthy of more attention from people who study Chinese society and culture. 

Every bit of this comes from “school,” though. The reason a seven year old in China can respond to a riddle that would make a fifteen year old American squirm (even in English) is because it is embedded in textbooks from almost the first day forward. Parents and children share the challenges and excitement in an exercise that comes straight out of the textbooks that children study, as well as the school books the parents read many years before. Although this is just a small example, it is fair to say that school figures much more prominently in the lives of parents and children in China than it does in the United States. 

***  *** 
Childhood, even some of the most intimate and exciting familial moments, has roots in the texts and skills children develop in school, although some of the intensity is lessened in poorer or far more rural communities (just as happens in rural North America or Europe). Even there, though, children are the hope of the future, and it would be a grave mistake to say that they matter only in terms of labor or (eventual) marriage alliances. Thoughout China today, the educational system dominates the hopes for future generations. Their lives start out in comfortable and carefree ways, but the structure of educational life is never far away.

Feel free to peruse the other Modern China posts in Asian Miscellany. 
1 One-Child              2 Education             3 Food/Drink          4 House           5 Work          
6 Entertainment       7 Sports/Games       8 Urban/Rural        9 Family Life    10 Children

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