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Self-determination or Self-discipline? The Shifting Meanings of Student Self-Government in 1920s Jiangnan Middle Schools 1 &y Ro&ert curp On the evening of 10 March 1923, at the evening meal, over two hundred students at Zhejiang Provincial First Normal School became violently ill.2 The dining hall, dorm rooms, classrooms, and hallways quickly filled with students incapacitated by vomiting, stomach pains, and dizziness, symptoms that suggested a dramatic reaction to food poisoning. He Bingsong, the school's principal , was called back from a meeting at nearby Yanwu Middle School to deal with the crisis. Principal He quickly mobilized the school physician and over twenty doctors and assistants from nearby hospitals, medical schools, and middle . schools to come to the school to treat the ailing students. Doctors soon determined that an unknown poison in the food the students had eaten was the source of the illness. In the hours after the students first fell ill, the deadly poison began to take effect, killing eight students overnight. During the next several days more students and two of the school's staff died, bringing the final death toll to twenty-four, despite the best efforts of local doctors and experts brought in from Shanghai. As the death toll mounted, ten of the kitchen staff were taken into custody for questioning. At the same time, tests of the dining hall food consumed that evening revealed that the poison in the food was arsenic. After several days of questioning, two kitchen staff-Bi Heshang and Qian Ali-admitted to planting the poison, which they had taken from the chemistry laboratory at the school. Further investigation revealed that Zhejiang First Normal student Yu Erheng, with some help from Yu Zhangfa, an office-worker in the provincial Bureau of Education, had bribed Bi and Qian to plant the poison. Yu Erheng, it seems, was driven by animosity. While serving as the Zhejiang First Normal self-government association's accountant he had lost track of over 100 yuan of self-government association funds. This led to calls by the association for him to repay the shortfall and for the school to punish him severely. The soured relations between Yu and his fellow students were apparently the origin of the poisoning plot. Twentieth-Century China, 23.2 (April 1998): 1-39 2 Twentieth-Century China As the details of the case made their way to the public by rumor and revelation they inspired a massive reaction in newspapers and the periodical press. Interestingly, however, public opinion moved very quickly from the murder case itself to an assessment of the value of student self-government. Many commentators and editorialists focused less on the murders themselves than on self-government's relative merits, its connection to the New Culture Movement , and whether or not it should have a place in contemporary Chinese education . For these authors, other issues surrounding the case were quickly displaced and the poisoning incident became a springboard for debates about student self-government and democracy in the schools. The single-mindedness of some of the incident's commentators raises nearly as many questions as did the case itself. What was student self-government? What role did it play in Jiangnan schools at this time, and how could it so quickly take the spotlight away from this sensational mass murder case? What were the conclusions of the public debate about student self-government resulting from the case, and how did they affect the subsequent meaning and practice of student politics in Jiangnan schools? This essay will confront these questions through a two-part discussion. First, I will reconstruct the discourse about student self-government produced by professional educators, who were the prime movers in Chinese educational circles during this period. Then, I will use case studies of four lower Yangzi region schools-Zhejiang Provincial First Normal School (Zhejiang Shengli Diyi Shifan Xuexiao) and Zhejiang Provincial First Middle School (Zhejiang Shengli Diyi Zhongxue) both in Hangzhou, Jiangsu Provincial First Normal School. (Jiangsu Shengli Diyi Shifan Xuexiao) in Suzhou, and Nanjing Higher Normal Affiliated Middle School (Nanjing Gaoji Shifan Xueyuan Fushu Zhongxue)-to trace a growing emphasis over the course of the 1920s on self-government as a technique...


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