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The Child As History in Republican China: A Discourse on Development
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positions: east asia cultures critique 10.3 (2002) 695-727

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The Child As History in Republican China:
A Discourse on Development

Andrew F. Jones


Development is a hard imperative.

—Deng Xiaoping

Something of the semicolonial predicament faced by scholars engaged in the work of importing and establishing modern academic disciplines in Republican China is suggested by a 1937 preface to a book called The Psychology of Children's Drawings [Ertong huihua zhi xinli]. From the very start, the author, a pioneering child psychologist named Huang Yi, cannot help but acknowledge to his readers that “the characteristics and principles of children's drawing described here are based on the research of Euro-American scholars.”1 His exposition of these theories, he continues, is supplemented by a series of drawings he has collected from Chinese children, drawings that prove that “the developmental process of Chinese children's drawing is the same as that of European and American children.”2 Huang's research, in other words, is by his own admission a derivative discourse redeemed only [End Page 695] by the capacity of native data to confirm “universally” valid developmental models.

Upon closer examination, however, what is most striking about the children's drawings collected in Huang's book is not so much how they conform to universal principles of child development but, rather, the precision and specificity with which they record the historical moment in which they were produced. Collected from students of the Henghe Elementary School in Hangzhou by members of the Department of Education of Zhejiang University in the winter of 1936, these pictures present us with a composite view of Republican-era material culture (flags, fashions, furniture, domestic architecture with tiled roofs, potted plants, and pets) and a gallery of social types (schoolchildren, workers, businessmen, housewives, athletes, dancers, and Nationalist soldiers). What is even more striking is the sensitivity with which some of these drawings register exactly those semicolonial and patriarchal “distortions” of the social fabric so vehemently decried by the progressive intellectuals of the period.

Consider, for example, drawings of two social types that by 1934 had already come to symbolize—in the works of leftist authors such as Lu Xun and Mao Dun as much as in the products of an increasingly politicized media culture industry—the cultural and economic dislocations of semicoloniality. (See figs. 1 and 2.) The first image depicts the sort of “modern girl” through whom both the pleasures (new forms of urban leisure, liberated sexualities, and unprecedented mobility and economic opportunity for women) and pitfalls (the commodification of human relations, prostitution, and the exploitation of women workers) of colonial modernity were persistently figured throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The second image portrays the kind of “coolie” who represented, for Chinese intellectuals and policy makers and Western observers of China alike, the immiseration and subalternity of migrant laborers in the colonial treaty ports (to which they had fled from economic shocks and natural disasters in the countryside).

For Huang, however, these drawings are merely exhibits, windows not on a world but on a “developmental order” (fazhan de chengxu) through which children's drawings evolve. This process, he informs us, is divided into four stages. An initial “scribbling period” (tuya qi), during which children experiment with producing different shapes and lines, is superseded [End Page 696] by a “symbolic period” (xiangzheng qi), in which the child begins to interpret these abstract scribbles as representations of the outside world. The symbolic period, in turn, yields to a “schematic period” (dingxing qi), through which the child's drawings gradually begin to reflect the outside world in a more recognizably representational manner. The endpoint of this teleological narrative is a “realist period” (xieshi qi), whose advent is signaled by the child's awakening to matters of artistic technique; instead of drawing as he or she likes, the child begins to strive for proportionality, proper perspective, and depth of field.3 Within this framework, the picture of the modern woman clad in a fashionable qipao, drawn by a seven-year-old girl, serves...