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  • A Tender Voyage: Children and Childhood in Late Imperial China
  • Charlotte Furth
A Tender Voyage: Children and Childhood in Late Imperial China. By Ping-chen Hsiung (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2005339 pp. $70.00 cloth $29.95 paper

The history of childhood in China comes to us in the form of this English adaptation of a prize-winning introduction to the topic recently published in Taiwan, as translated by the author. Shaped by the theme of the early modern "discovery of childhood" made famous by Ariès, Hsiung's work argues for Chinese difference based on two dissimilar kinds of evidence—texts of pediatric medicine, and biographies, autobiographies and memoirs largely from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries.1 What both have in common is a focus on children in the context of the Confucian "concern for posterity," which made kinship the ritual as well as the pragmatic center of Chinese social life.

By contrast with medieval Europe, where the health of infants and children was largely the domain of grannies and midwives, 1,000 years of print culture and rich traditions of scholarly medicine in China left a voluminous written record of teachings about infant and child health, shared between learned doctors and upper-class men, and presumably filtered through popularization to the matrons and midwives who ordinarily dealt with the nursery. In Hsiung's hands, the record of medicine is testimony to Confucian concern for the survival of infants and young [End Page 331] children, even as she acknowledges that the work of demographers like Liu and Lee cannot supply evidence for an impact on child mortality.2 In making her own claim for medical progress between the eleventh and the eighteenth centuries, she can more easily point to scattered and individual records of best practices than to successful networks of communication disseminating them broadly.

In her reconstruction of social and psychological lives of young children, Hsiung has drawn heavily on "chronological biographies" (nianpu), narratives organized year by year that were a standard genre of biographical and autobiographical writing in upper-class families. As constructed memories, these stories of childhood were heavily inflected by scholar-official norms. Sons recalled fathers as teachers, revealing a society fixated on precocious intellectual development of young boys. Sons recalled mothers as self-sacrificing providers of basic needs, revealing the investment that women had in binding their sons to them emotionally through tales of maternal suffering and hardship. Evidence to counterbalance this picture of the sober, bookish, and obedient child that an older man might remember is hard to find in the "chronological biographies" themselves; these documents were composed under the shadow of mortality and recorded for posterity.

Hsiung's case for an alternative comes most immediately in the beguiling illustrations of children playing that are scattered through the volume. Here Confucian cultural preoccupation with posterity found a different kind of generic representation—that of carefree youngsters, predominantly boys, occupied with such instantly recognizable diversions as floating boats, teasing small animals, and spinning tops. Produced for holidays or birthdays, these paintings celebrated childhood as both ritually auspicious and socially unfettered. A similar picture emerges from Hsiung's chapter on girlhood. Though feminists may question her assumption that her upper-class male sources can show that childhood was a time of relative gender equality, she offers some compelling examples of a possible kind of female privilege in girlhood: Free from the obligation to study, girls might be favored and petted by their fathers, out of both love and sympathy for the hardships expected for them as women "married out."

In her last chapter, "Concepts and Realities," Hsiung reveals that her ultimate goal is to move beyond the representation of childhood to children's experience, which she accomplishes by mining her sources for traces of an emotional life redolent of independent, authentic subjectivity. Some of them involved acute observations of adult weaknesses—a timid father, a drunken uncle, quarrelsome agnates. The most powerful recalled such strong feelings as the shock of seeing a father' corpse, outrage [End Page 332] at an unjust beating, and rebellion expressed in a refusal to eat or speak. Memories of death and separation were particularly common, suggesting to Hsiung...


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