Beyond the Century of the Child: Cultural History and Developmental Psychology

By Willem Koops; Michael Zuckerman | Go to book overview

Chapter 8
Childhood, Formal Education, and
Ideology in China, Then and Now

MICHAEL NYLAN

Perceptions about childhood in imperial China tend to be a function of our perceptions about childhood in China in the modern period. Our views of modern China, however, are often colored by our fundamental orientations toward domestic and international politics, no less than by our emotional responses to a number of highly controversial issues, such as gender inequality, infanticide, and abortion. Then, too, notions of childhood in China inevitably reflect ongoing debates inside and outside China over the very nature of modernity versus tradition, capitalism versus communism, and those “Asian values” defined in explicit opposition to the “universalist” notions of progress promoted by most Euro-American institutions (Han 1999; Nylan 2001).

The problems that beset the careful researcher who aims to disengage fact from fiction do not end there, of course. For however hard it is to present an abstract childhood for most eras, states, and peoples, it is obviously much harder to come up with accurate generalizations about “typical experiences” in the case of China. The very idea of a unified China, it need hardly be said, is an impressive construction of the modern nation-state, designed to bring disparate groups and autonomous regions into a single imagined community. Given the long history of the various cultures whose complex interactions have been conducted and recorded in Chinese script, the startlingly different patterns of social mobility within those cultures, the geographic size and population of the present-day People’s Republic of China, and its regional and ethnic diversity, China appears as a monumental text writ with multiple grammars accommodating a number of distinct realities. Naturally enough, few students of China have been foolhardy enough to hazard comparisons over time and space. Fewer still have been trained to do so, since the discipline of Sinology has long divided China “experts” into two discrete groups: those concentrating on the pre-1949 past who rely on materials written in classical or semi-classical Chinese language, and social scientists concerned with the post-1949

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