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  • Articulating Citizenship: Civic Education and Student Politics in Southeastern China, 1912–1945
  • Sally Borthwick
Articulating Citizenship: Civic Education and Student Politics in Southeastern China, 1912–1945 by Robert Culp. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2007. Pp. xvii + 382. $49.50.

Robert Culp has succeeded admirably in distilling from a sea of materials an in-depth account of civic education in Southeastern China during the first decades of the Republican period. This task involved twelve years of exhaustive research in textbook collections, school publications, and national and local archives, as well as memoirs and interviews. From this heretofore intractable mass of materials (one textbook collection alone held over twenty thousand volumes), Culp has extracted evidence for a coherent narrative of the development of civic education through the vicissitudes of the first four decades of the Republican era. The subject is interpreted broadly as encompassing not only the content of textbooks and classes but also the performance of civic rituals and practice in student self-government.

In keeping with his focus on the Republican period, Culp deals only briefly with the initial popularization of the idea and terminology of citizenship in the early 1900s. The two words that the Chinese used for citizen express two slightly different concepts: guomin 国民 suggests duty to the state, whereas gongmin 公民 suggests public engagement and possession of rights as well as duties. Gongmin is the term used in “citizenship education” (gongmin jiaoyu 公民教育) or what might in more conventional English be termed “civics.” (Historically, the term “townspeople” [shimin 市民] has also been used for “citizen,” [End Page 443] reprising the etymological connection of the English “civil,” “civic,” and “citizen” with urban residence.)

The reasons China turned to Western ideas of what constituted a strong people and nation have been the subject of extended scholarly examination. Specifically in reference to citizenship, Culp observes that “in a context of crisis, Chinese intellectuals, educators, and political leaders hoped to remake their society and polity by transforming the people into dynamic modern citizens. . . . citizens [were] new kinds of social and political agents whose public action would rescue the national community” (pp. 4–5). In the West, civics has often been regarded by all but a small band of enthusiasts as a worthy but unexciting addition to the mainstream curriculum. This was not the case in China, where perceived and actual threats to national survival elevated the subject to the forefront of educational and national concern.

Culp draws on comparative literature to distinguish four dimensions of citizenship, which he identifies as “national identity, political participation and rights, social membership, and cultural citizenship,” that “reinforced one another and promoted a coherent concept of republican citizenship, characterized by direct participation and practical action for the nation’s welfare” (p. 9). He develops these dimensions in four thematic chapters, which are preceded by a brief chronology introducing the subject and central agents of citizenship, and are followed by a conclusion tracing the course of citizenship down to the present day.

The idea of using education to produce good citizens was speedily institutionalized in the new school system of 1904, indicating the wide acceptance of this concept by both conservative and radical reformers. The Qing government’s five official Aims of Education, promulgated in 1906, included “respect for the public good” alongside loyalty to the Emperor; and the book Guomin bidu 国民必读 (Necessary reading for citizens), adapted from Japanese models by two returned students, went through twenty-six editions. Initially, civic education took the form of “moral cultivation” (xiushen 修身), which was heavily freighted with Confucian morality and taught alongside the Confucian classics. Despite their traditional orientation, the lessons in morality and citizenship along German and Japanese lines introduced in 1909 were a novelty; for earlier generations, the Confucian classics [End Page 444] and associated primers were moral education, and were not thought to require supplementation.

The inauguration of Republican government in 1912 necessitated a fundamental change in the conceptualization of the state and the citizen’s duty to it. Cai Yuanpei, the Republic’s first Minister of Education, explicitly criticized the previous government’s aim of producing loyal subjects for a monarchy, calling instead for education in civic virtue that would take the well-being of the...


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