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Representation of Childhood and Youth in Early China.

Representation of Childhood and Youth in Early China. By Anne Behnke Kinney (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004. vii plus 294 pp.).

The study of Chinese childhood is a fairly new field. Earlier, in 2002 Anne Kinney published an edited book, The Chinese View of Childhood (University of Hawaii Press), which covers eleven articles on Chinese childhood from the early to modern period. Representation of Childhood and Youth in Early China focuses on childhood in early China, particularly Han China, with emphasis on the Former Han dynasty. Using the dynastic history (Shiji and Hanshu), newly excavated legal fragments and other documents from the tombs of Han and the previous Qin dynasty, Biographies of Exemplified Women (by Liu Xiang), Zhuanchuan, Confucian and other pre-Qin and Han philosophical works, the author explores Chinese childhood from political, philosophical, cosmological and social contexts. While her focus was on the Former Han, she traced ideas and development to pre-Han era.

Representation of Childhood and Youth, as the title suggests, deals with concepts of childhood from surviving writings (which Dr. Kinney argued must have reason to be preserved). Anne Kinney explores the issue from various angles and discusses both "conscious thought and elaborated theories as well as unconscious assumption," to understand the "presupposition, expectations, questions, arguments and justifications" (pp. 1-2). However, Dr. Kinney cautions us on possible discrepancy between theories and practices as well as variations according to an individual's, social, geographical or educational background.

The coverage of this book is from embryo to late adolescent. Kinney uses the age of nineteen as the utmost age of youth, but also extends to the early 20s. This scope of coverage is probably unprecedented in comparing with the study of childhood in other cultures or for modern childhood. Kinney includes the embryos because of the Han concept of fetus education. She also related the issue of child to Han cosmology. In addition, she keenly observed that the position of a child in traditional China could be retained through out an individual's entire life, as long as the parents were alive. So chapter 3, on the aristocratic child, includes adult offspring.

The book is divided into six chapters: discovering childhood in early China, the precocious child, the aristocratic child, infant abandonment, girls, and the magical manipulation of childhood.

Kinney argues that prior to the Han dynasty, there was little mention of children, but during the Han dynasty childhood suddenly became an intellectual focus. She lists a number of reasons for the new discourses on children. Among them are: the establishment of a centralized government, the rising influence of Confucianism, the frequency of a young child ascending the throne as the Han emperor, as well as the development of Han cosmology which corresponds the universe to human development.

At the center of the Confucian discourse on children was the advocacy for education, especially the moral instruction of children. The Han Confucians (or Ru), believed a child at birth was undeveloped or incomplete, and advocated the transformative power of education. Moreover, concern over the preservation of the dynasty as relating to the role played by the ruler, raised the urgency for educating the princes, especially after the reign of Wudi (r. 141-87 BCE).

This interest in education was also in part a response to the needs of the new centralized government that sought to recruit honest and qualified bureaucrats. Eventually not only princes, but other boys also received education through government schools. Kinney argued that schools were established in the capital and in the provinces as well. Moreover, in the reign of Wang Mang (r. 9-23 CE), he proposed to establish an elementary school in every village.

Han Confucians believed a virtuous adult was the cumulative work of a long and gradual process that began at conception. The education of children, therefore, was pushed back to the stage of embryos. "Fetus education" was emphasized in several Han Confucian works. This emphasis on embryo is also related to the Han cosmology, and Kinney contends that the Chinese word embryo was corresponding to the word ji in the "Great Appendix" of the Book of Changes (Yi jing). Ji is "the first action, event, or thought from which all good and evil in human experience arise" (p.21).

"Fetus education" was a way to influence the moral development of a child at the earliest possible time. Kinney states that mothers were the children's first major educators. It was believed that the mother's action during the pregnancy would influence the fetus (xiaohua-simulative transformation), so it was vital for the pregnant woman to be careful in what she saw, ate, heard and said, and it required her to be ritually correct. I feel it would be interesting to know how the Chinese medical books discussed the "fetus education" (taijiao). In our modern prenatal care, we caution mothers not to take certain drugs or alcohol for their damaging effects on the fetus. However, our modern world does not relate the mother's behavior or activities during the pregnancy to the development of the character of the unborn child.

Besides "fetus education," Han Confucians, especially Liu Xiang who compiled biographies of exemplified women, also made mothers the moral educator for small children. Kinney cited as an example Liu Xiang's story of Mencius' mother who spent much effort to turn Mencius to the right path. Eventually he became a great classical Confucian master.

In the chapter "Precocious Child", Kinney found in the legend of Houji themes of precocious child in Han biographies. They served to justify the rise of worthy and often obscure individuals to a position of prestige or power. According to the poem, Shengmin (contained in the Confucian classic, the Book of Odes), Houji, whom the royal family of the Zhou claimed to be their ancestor, was conceived when his mother trod on the big toe of the footprint of the Lord on High. He was abandoned, but survived and grew up to teach people agriculture. Kinney's link between the prized values of the Han precocious children and an early mythology is quite significant. As we can see here, Houji's story, a mythology or an early legend, has already illustrated or perhaps helps to shape characteristics that have been highly treasured in later Chinese history, i.e. birth upon auspicious sign, perserverence, and making contributions to all the people. Moreover, Kinney's comparison of Houji with the Greek mythological figure Hercules and Hermes is interesting. Kinney argued that Houji displayed peaceful rather than violent skills, performed deeds to assist the society, and survived and thrived through an ordeal. These were treasured themes in Han biographical writings. Kinney argues that the examples of the precocious child, who thrived through merits and ordeal, also served to challenge aristocratic privilege during the Han dynasty.

Kinney provides many thoughtful insights regarding the definition and shifting focuses of precocious child in early and later Han dynastic biographies. It is a rich chapter, but perhaps it could add more stories of precocious child during the Han dynasties.

The chapter "the Aristocratic Child" is a detailed study of the imperial children of each of the 13 emperors of the former Han dynasty. Kinney depicts incidents of spoiled imperial sons by permissive parents. She also exposes the vulnerabilities of many innocent sons, especially the heirs, who often became the victims of imperial politics--preyed on by ambitious consorts, contenders to the throne, regents or the emperor. During the Former Han, the emperor was not bound by the general rule of primogeniture in choosing his heir. The emperor also made the heir's mother, regardless of her former status, the empress. The treacherous lives of the imperial sons were probably not too much different from the lives of royal families in other cultures in premodern times, when power struggle weakened the natural ties of family. However, because of Confucian scholars' opposition and other developments, by the later part of the Former Han the emperor no longer killed his heir.

In the chapter "Infant Abandonment", Kinney discusses the reasons that infants were abandoned. She finds they were abandoned mostly for economic reasons, as many commoners simply could not raise another child. She also discusses abandonment from the perspective of popular beliefs by examining a few texts excavated from the tombs that described certain physical features of the new born or the date of birth as not auspicious. Han Confucians were opposed to infant abandonment, and excavated legal codes from both Han and the Qin dynasties forbad infant abandonment and called for punishment of parents who killed or abandon their offspring (with forced labor or tattooing). Although the dynastic history recorded a Han official who vigorously punished parents who killed their children, Kinney suspects infant abandonment was tolerated. Han Confucians blamed the rulers for failing to provide people with adequate economic means to raise their children rather than blaming the offending parents.

Kinney also explores infant abandonment from the infant's spiritual and religious status. Here Kinney offers some interesting cross-cultural comparisons. Kinney notes that the Roman father had the right of life and death over their offspring, but in Christianity, every child is an image of God himself and could not be destroyed by any human. However, she contends that infants had a minimal status in Han social and religious world because they were not mentioned in the family burial and mourning rites. She argues that the abandonment mostly occurred in the first three days after birth. The consideration of the family's future, the caring of aged parents, the preference for boys, the worrying about a daughter's dowries or her possible sinking into slavery were all important aspects in the decision of infant abandonment.

Although chapter five covers all girls, the focus is primarily on imperial women and the Confucian scholars' efforts to educate and curtail the influence of imperial consorts and their families. Kinney demonstrates that since the reign of Wudi, Former Han emperors made several entertainers--usually slave girls who were trained in the arts of dance and singing--, empresses and gave their male relatives high positions at court. During the reign of Chengdi (r.33-7 BCE), the Zhao sisters, former slave and dancers, allegedly killed the emperor's sons by other consorts leaving the emperor without an heir. As classical learning became popular in the later part of the Former Han dynasty, girls, especially those in the palace, received training in reading and writing. Moreover, the Confucian scholars wanted to mold the consorts in the Confucian education to counter the influence of court women. These scholars argued that previous dynasties were destroyed in part because of the influence of evil women close to the emperor. Therefore, they emphasized female virtue and said women had to be subordinate to men and wives subordinate to the needs of the husband rather than to those of their own family. Therefore Liu Xiang compiled Lienu zhuan, illustrating stories of virtuous or perilous women for Emperor Chengdi. Kinney maintains that both Liennu zhuan and later Ban Zhao's Nujie (Instruction for Daughters) set the tone of girl's education for the next two millenia.

Besides studying the formal transmitted texts from the well-educated class, Kinney also uses documents uncovered from tombs to discuss occult practices related to childbirth and childhood in folk beliefs and illustrated them from the perspective of the Han correlative cosmology. She also includes an appendix on the Rules of Succession in Early China.

Anne Kinney has written one of the finest intellectual history and social studies of childhood and youth in early China from available sources--classics, dynastic histories, newly uncovered documents and fragments from tombs and other sources. This is the first serious study of early Chinese childhood and youth, dealing with social history as well as political history, Han cosmology and early or enduring Chinese cultural values. Her narrative is rich and complex, conveying many important ideas: i.e. the Han Confucians' belief that a child was undeveloped at birth and the emphasis on education, especially moral education and "fetus education." This emphasis on education paralleled the emphasis on merits that also became the treasured values of Han child prodigy. Kinney offers a full account of the influential imperial consorts of the Former Han dynasty. She sees the Han Confucians' indoctrination of women to subordinate to the husband and the husband's family as, in part, a response to the tremendous influence of the emperor's consorts and their maternal families.

Chinese dynastic historians wrote about court affairs, but they barely touched personal affairs. Therefore, there is a shortage of sources on interactions between the children and their parents or with their siblings in official history. What did ordinary children or youth do during their childhood or what were their thoughts? The chapters "the Aristocratic Child" and "the Girls" are predominantly on imperial offspring and consorts, due to the availability of sources in the dynastic history. However, because the emperor had many consorts and offspring and there were also frequent power struggles for the position of the heir or empress, the imperial parent-child or sibling relationships formed a unique category of their own. The readers should bear this in mind and not infer from these relationships to ordinary parent-child relations in early China until more sources are available. It would also be interesting to know how the Confucian-scholars were educated and reared in childhood. They seemed to demonstrate considerable self-confidence whether in managing the affairs of the state as the chief minister or as censors or remonstrators in prosecuting authority figures or even in arguing against the emperor when he made a mistake or pursued an unwise policy.

In April 2005, Ping-chen Hsiung published A Tender Voyage: Children and Childhood in Late Imperial China (Stanford University Press). Using a variety of sources (prescribed and didactic works, biographical accounts, personal diaries, letters, poems, tomb inscription, pediatric medical texts, and paintings), she reconstructed children's lives from birth to age seven or eight in late imperial China. Although there were certainly considerable differences in childhood experience between early and late imperial China, Hsiung's book, with its coverage on practices and experiences, can be read together with Ann Kinney's study.

Kinney's sophisticated book on the representation of childhood and youth in early China is suitable for the use of graduate students and faculty.

Lily Hwa

University of St. Thomas
COPYRIGHT 2006 Journal of Social History
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Author:Hwa, Lily
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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