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  • A Tender Voyage: Children and Childhood in Late Imperial China
  • Valentina Boretti
A Tender Voyage: Children and Childhood in Late Imperial China. Ping-chen Hsiung. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005. xvi + 351 pp. $29.95 paper.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, and increasingly during the last decade, the long neglected history of children and childhood in imperial China has been the subject of several noteworthy studies. Scholars have begun to extend their outlook beyond the field of education—an often approached topic given its relevance within Chinese culture—in order to investigate children's lives and status, and map the meanings and representations of childhood.

Building upon her pioneering work over the past years, Ping-chen Hsiung has now produced an excellent study, endowed with many path-breaking insights that will hopefully stimulate further research. Proposing to detect whether and how the lives of children changed over time, and situating change within specific socio-cultural backgrounds, this book draws a multifaceted and nuanced picture of childhood(s), with the additional merit of surpassing discourse in order to catch a glimpse of the real life of some children—an aspect that has received limited investigation so far. The result is not contributory history, namely the mere addition of children onto an existing picture, but a work that greatly enhances our understanding of social, familial, and cultural life in late imperial China. Hsiung accomplishes this by drawing upon an impressive variety of sources, which include normative, pediatric and pedagogical texts, biographical and family records, as well as visual and material evidence. Her consideration of material culture is especially significant, given that children's objects have, to date, attracted little attention as sources for the study of Chinese childhood.

Tackling Philippe Ariès' argument, Hsiung intends to demonstrate the early Chinese awareness of children and childhood (although with the caveat that childhood was not valued per se, but as a transition towards adulthood), while at the same time evaluating the applicability to China of certain European-originated categories: the nuclear family, the binary opposition between tradition [End Page 292] and modernity, or the very concept of "child." She begins by highlighting the three different meanings of "child" in late imperial China, namely biophysical, i.e. related to young age; socio-cultural, indicating juniors in a household or society; and philosophical, as embodiment of innocence. Accordingly, in the three sections that comprise the book, she explores children's physical conditions and social life, as well as cultural constructions of childhood, through the Ming (1368–1644 CE) and Qing eras (1655–1911CE), with some forays into the earlier Song period.

In the first part of the book, (early) developments and popularization of pediatrics, newborn care, and nursing are a key to investigate not only the physical comfort of children, but also their material environment, and the relevance attributed to them in the name of family preservation. The second part is devoted to childrearing and socialization—with a careful distinction between boyhood and girlhood, and between social classes. While underscoring the proximity between the world of youngsters and grown-ups, Hsiung probes children's environment, adult expectations, and competing modes of upbringing. These ranged from indulgence to insistence on the need for an "early start," with a consequent emphasis on education—to which (extended) family members of both genders attended, in order to ensure success for their offspring in an increasingly competitive society. In addition, Hsiung looks at emotions, exploring the bond between mothers and sons, the little-studied fatherly affection towards toddlers, and the happiness or sorrow of children. The third part of the book explores cultural constructs and discourse. Normative views of childhood are juxtaposed to the experiences of some children, so as to show the discrepancies between ideal and reality: if "good" children were depicted as quiet and diligent, many youngsters did in fact romp and play. Gender norms are scrutinized; first, by looking at the relative "asexuality" of early childhood, and then by examining the lives and education of girls—who, contrary to long-standing stereotypes, could be more pampered than boys, perhaps to compensate for prospective hardships.

By placing childhood within the perspective of time, class and gender...


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pp. 292-294
Launched on MUSE
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