- Shaping the Ideal Child: Children and Their Primers in Late Imperial China
The author, a native of China, a teacher of the Chinese language in New Zealand, and a scholar of intellectual history, has written a book about children, primers, and Confucian moral ideals in late imperial China. The ideals integrate the narrative, for the primers were written largely by scholar-officials who shared a moral persuasion, and Chinese children were the targets for this moral instruction. The ideals preceded Confucius, reaching back to the Record of Rites, which first defined a period of childhood and youth from birth to age twenty and stressed learning proper behavior in dressing, talking, walking, and sweeping the ground. But the Confucian lineage is essential to this story, for in the name of Confucius, both Han instruction and especially Song neo-Confucianism, created a durable conceptual framework of what it meant to be educated. Children were regarded as apprentices in a lifelong task of becoming perfected moral human beings, nothing less than self-sculpted sages.
But was this idealism an impossible dream, if not a gross pretense? One of the most common phrases in Bai's book, juxtaposed to ideal formulations, is "in reality," for she is well aware that projections of what adults (and in this case, adult philosophers) wanted to see children become were "symbolic children," not real children in real worlds. But conveying a sense of the reality of childhood is decidedly the weaker half of this book, despite Bai's awareness that moral idealism can be confining, even oppressive. She is surely aware that the philosopher Xunzi envisioned socialization as straightening crooked wood, not as watering young plants, which was Mencius's gentle image. She illustrates how the primers themselves often made concessions to reality by delivering messages in rhyme, in song, in story form, and in anecdotes—formats inviting to young children in the early learning stage, seven to fifteen sui. She cites the alternative Confucian tradition of Wang Yangming (1472–1528), who thought learning should be gradual and joyful, not restrictive and serious. She conducts a foray into the unruly world of peasant children, showing that some Confucian thinkers did give up on the sage ideal for most of these youngsters, hoping at best to turn them into law-abiding adults through community schools. And in one chapter she treats school primers as ideological devices imposed by a dominant ruling class.
The final chapter contains the ultimate reservation about the idealizing of children's potential by Confucian moral thinkers, that is, the conviction of Liang Qichao [End Page 369] (1873–1929) that traditional education had ruined China's children by blocking the development of their minds and spirits. Limin Bai finds Liang's charge perhaps "too emotional," but is she herself "too reverential" in this book about the Confucian moral tradition? An article she published in Childhood in 2005, "Children at Play: A Childhood beyond the Confucian Shadow," moves a significant step beyond a reverential attitude. We are shown children in courtyards and fields, playing with "whip horses" and homemade toys, expressing a deep need to create and imagine.1 The discussion of play in the book (pp. 115–121) is briefer and less thorough, as though the argument is still largely within the Confucian shadow. Perhaps it is harder to revise the argument of a lengthy dissertation ("Primers and Paradigms," La Trobe University, Australia, 1993) than it is to write an article from a fresh viewpoint.
This reviewer, a native of the United States, a teacher of history, and a scholar of modern Chinese history, took twenty years to develop a book-length perspective on the childhood of Chinese children born in the 1890s.2 I wanted to catch the specificity of a rich entanglement of history and culture in a given era, and to transcend a parochial Chinese or Western framework. Like Limin Bai, I saw the late Qing cultural view of childhood as...