Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Performing the Nation: China's Children as Little Red Pioneers

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Performing the Nation: China's Children as Little Red Pioneers

Article excerpt


The Little Red Pioneers, the Chinese Communist Party's organization for children aged 7-12, seem anachronistic in China today. This article argues that the Pioneer organization, rather than being an outdated relic of the nation's Maoist past, provides insight into contemporary Chinese nationalism, particularly the theoretical question of how children are produced as national subjects. Based in Butler's concept of performativity, this article argues that children's nationalism in China is performed through daily activities and practices structured by the Little Red Pioneers. [Keywords: China, communism, nationalism, performance theory, Little Red Pioneers]

As the International Children's Day holiday approached at the end of May in 2001, excitement was building at the Pine Street Elementary School, a small, working-class school of around 350 students in northwestern Beijing.1 That year, the sixty first-graders at Pine Street had been selected to participate in a ceremony at Tiananmen Square, where, along with several thousand other children, their induction into the Little Red Pioneers-the Chinese Communist Party's formal organization for children aged 7 to 13-would be broadcast to the entire nation via the national state-owned television network.

Since the 1950s, China has celebrated International Children's Day on June 1st as a day of games, songs, and presentations at school, and special treats at home. And since the beginning of the reform era, roughly the early 1980s, June 1st has also been designated for holding the ceremonies to induct the nation's first-graders into the Little Red Pioneers. Because 2001 marked the 50th anniversary of the Pioneer organization, Ministry of Education officials decided to note the occasion by televising a mass induction of first-graders at Tiananmen Square, something that had never been attempted before. Being chosen to participate in the celebrations was considered quite an honor by the Pine Street School teachers and their students, and with much excitement plans were made to have the children dressed in their school uniforms and on buses before dawn, so that they would be lined up on Tiananmen in time for the early morning ceremony.

On the evening of June 1st, International Children's Day, I rushed home to watch the broadcast of that morning's ceremonies. But neither the national nor local news had coverage of the Tiananmen ceremonies, nor did the special children's variety shows later in the evening. Frantically flipping stations, I found some coverage of Children's Day festivities elsewhere in China, but nothing from Beijing.

Astonished that the children's induction, which they had been looking forward to for weeks, did not make it on to television, the following Monday morning I went looking for Teacher Li, one of Pine Street School's first-grade teachers, to find out what happened.

"Oh, what a mess," she sighed. "I was so exhausted it took me all weekend to recover." According to her description, it took several hours to get the thousands of first-graders2 lined up across Tiananmen Square; by then it was mid-morning and the temperature was already above 90 degrees Farenheit.

Teacher Li said:

"The television producers wanted all the children to look and act alike, but the kids weren't disciplined enough. They were supposed to all be standing, but one would get tired and sit down and then everyone around them would sit down too. And they weren't supposed to wear their school hats, but it was so hot that some did to protect their heads from the sun, but then they didn't all look alike."

"So the TV cameras didn't film anything at all?" I asked.

"Oh, they tried. But Communist Party officials made speeches for hours. The children were really bored, and the cameras couldn't get reaction shots when the kids weren't either yawning or talking or crying. So the television people ended up not using anything they filmed. …

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