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Reviewed by:
  • Representations of Childhood and Youth in Early China
  • Cynthia L. Chennault (bio)
Anne Behnke Kinney . Representations of Childhood and Youth in Early China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004. x, 294 pp. Hardcover $155.00, ISBN 0-8047-4731-8.

The study of children is a new focus in the early China field that has been drawing interest in no small part because of Anne B. Kinney's scholarship. A pioneering article of hers, here revised and titled "The Discovery of Childhood in Early China," serves as the first chapter of her new book.1 Answering the question of why childhood became a subject of unprecedented attention after the Han dynasty was founded, the essay also introduces concepts of the child's innate nature that are relevant to later discussion. The subsequent five chapters focus on discrete subjects and can be read independently of each other.

Kinney brings a wide variety of materials to bear on the understanding of what childhood meant both theoretically and as lived experience. Dynastic histories and philosophical compilations are naturally her main sources for tracing developments over time. Given that the survey spans the Warring States, the Qin, the Former Han, and the Later Han—roughly a thousand years of cultural history—her attention to changes in government and social structure is especially commendable. Political change per se is the subject of an appendix, "The Rules of Succession in Early China" (pp. 183-200), where Kinney reviews crises of succession recorded in the Zuo zhuan and Shi ji and clarifies the process by which primogeniture became a norm that rulers found increasingly difficult to transgress.

Beyond standard sources, Kinney has consulted medical tracts, penal laws, tax codes, belles lettres in several genres, and ritual texts extending from the canonical liturgy to the steps of magico-religious performances. Archaeological findings figure as well in her research. But if this breadth is a measure of the author's thoroughness, it also suggests the relative paucity of the kinds of documents that lend themselves to sustained discussion. Because of the fragmentary nature of many sources, the connections among the subtopics within the chapters can be tenuous. As though to fill a deficit, a third of chapter 3 presents a reign-by-reign chronology of royal offspring during the Former Han who were put to death, sometimes as grown children, by their fathers. Chapter 5 devotes considerable space to the lives of adults or near-adults—consorts and concubines and the hazards surrounding them.

A difficulty of another kind, the reliability of the sources, is tackled in the "Introduction." Can medical and legal writings whose intention was prescriptive be taken to reflect actual practice? What about literary accounts or, for that matter, historical records that invent dialogues and intersperse facts with legend? Acknowledging that we cannot know how faithfully actual conditions are represented, [End Page 140] Kinney proposes that the surviving sources be accepted as valid indicators of the elements of early China's discourse on the child—its presuppositions, expectations, inquiries, and so forth (pp. 2-3). In fact, a strength of the author's methodology is her careful weighing of the evidence. Kinney is fastidious in explaining the possible biases of the sources and their omissions and in pointing out alternate ways to construe the material. Her final assessments are lucidly argued. On arriving at the summary that concludes each chapter, readers should feel satisfied that the findings have been based on extensive research and deliberation.

Chapter 1 explains that the Qin dynasty's rapid collapse underscored the importance of training future rulers to prepare against cosmological change. More significant for the pedagogical field in the long term, however, was the perceived need for a moral education, a corollary of Ruist supremacy at the Han court.2 Until fairly recently, the accession of Wudi (r. 141-87 B.C.) had been regarded as a milestone in the state's process of Confucianization. Kinney's research into the backgrounds of imperial tutors contributes to a more circumspect review of his reign by showing that "a multiplicity of philosophical perspectives" actually guided the education of royal heirs through the first half of the Former Han (pp. 12-14...


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