Imagining China’s Children: Lower-Elementary Reading Primers and the Reconstruction of Chinese Childhood, 1945-1951

Carl Kubler, University of Chicago
“Dressing up in big brother’s uniform.” Source: Andong (1946b, 2:25).
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In the years following the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), Chinese conceptions of children and childhood underwent a massive transformation. In particular, Communist educators in Northeast China and other parts of the country placed a new labor-oriented ideal of childhood at the center of the nation’s modernizing project. This article focuses on two issues related to this “remaking” of Chinese childhood in the mid-twentieth century. First, how did lower-elementary reading primers and other textbooks help create for children the idea of a Chinese nation, of which they were part and with which they were expected to identify above and beyond the domestic spheres of their natal families? Second, how did such textbooks teach children to think of themselves as laboring contributors to national causes? Following the physical and emotional devastation of war, Communist textbooks reordered the social world of children not by resubjugating them under traditional Confucian hierarchies but by elevating them to the position of national co-subject. Moreover, productive labor—framed through agriculture, industry, and military service—became one of the primary criteria for children’s inclusion into the nation. Through narrative, linguistic, and visual means, midcentury textbooks increasingly brought children into the fold of an imagined national community and, simultaneously, extended to society’s youngest members the importance of productivity as the primary condition of their inclusion.

Keywords: Modern China, children, childhood, literacy, imagined communities, Guoyu, textbooks, labor, visuality, materiality, identity formation