In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Conceptions of Childhood in Premodern China

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Overviews of Particular Time Periods
  • Anthologies
  • Primary Texts and Translations
  • Philosophical Perspectives on Children and Childhood
  • Childbirth, Nursing, and Children’s Health
  • Infanticide and Abandonment
  • Religion and the Supernatural
  • The Legal Status of Children
  • Children in Art
  • Biographies and Famous Childhoods
  • Children’s Games and Play
  • Girls and Gender
  • Adolescence and Rites of Passage

Childhood Studies Conceptions of Childhood in Premodern China
by
Jingyi Zhao
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0285

Introduction

This article covers scholarship on the history of childhood in China from the pre-Qin period up until the end of imperial China (1912 CE). As with histories of childhood elsewhere in the world, the history of childhood in China had been much neglected until recent decades, when a number of important publications in the 1990s and 2000s paved the path for the field. Even then, while there has been a staggering rise in studies on childhood in contemporary China, in particular with relation to education and the family, the same cannot be said for the history of childhood in the premodern period. There has been a general tendency to underestimate the amount of evidence available on children in premodern China, particularly with reference to the early period. In fact, much can be gleaned about Chinese childhood with the available sources: while some give glimpses into the lives that children led during specific moments in history, others contain theories and ideals about children and thus cannot be relied on to reflect realities of childhood. Nonetheless, all provide invaluable insight into the social roles and expectations of children and sometimes of their carers, even if the evidence available predominantly concerns the lives of the elite. The primary and secondary sources invite reflections on a series of issues pertaining to children’s lives, including children’s health, education, and welfare, and beyond those to the sociopolitical situation of the times. Childhood studies often intersect with the fields of education, gender, and the family. For purposes of maintaining focus on children’s history, this article shall only include works that have a direct bearing on the history of childhood. The primary focus is on literature published in the English language, though some landmark publications written in other languages, in particular Chinese, are also included.

General Overviews

Hsiung 2000 comes closest to a monograph that provides an overview on childhood in Chinese history, though it mainly draws on evidence from the Song, Ming, and Qing periods. Shorter overviews include Dardess 1991, one of the earliest accounts on the subject, Nylan 2003, which offers a critical account of childhood and formal education in the longue durée, and Hsiung 2005a essential reading for anyone interested in childhood in premodern China. In terms of collected essays, Kinney 1995 is a foundational volume on Chinese childhood that covers a range of themes and time periods, succeeded by Falato and Vinci 2021. It is evident that a gap exists in the existing literature for a more up-to-date, book-length systematic overview of childhood in premodern China.

  • Dardess, John W. “Childhood in Premodern China.” In Children in Historical and Comparative Perspective. Edited by Joseph M. Hawes and N. Ray Hiner, 71–94. New York: Greenwood, 1991.

    One of the earliest articles to address the topic of the history of childhood in premodern China. It surveys a range of existing literature on Chinese childhood, from late nineteenth century missionary literature to more recent contributions and draws on a number of primary sources to illustrate some pertinent themes, in particular in relation to education.

  • Falato, Giulia, and Renata Vinci, eds. Giovani virtuosi e dove trovarli: Percorsi formativi e rappresentazioni dell’età giovanile nella tradizione pedagogica e letteraria cinese. Sulla Via del Catai 14.25. Trento, Italy: Centro Studi Martino Martini, 2021.

    Translated as: “Virtuous youngsters and where to find them: Education and representations of young people in Chinese pedagogical tradition and literature.” A collection of essays written in English and Italian that discuss aspects of education and representations of youth in Chinese literature, spanning from the Western Han to the Republican period. Traces the influences of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism on perceptions of children and China’s encounter with the West.

  • Hsiung, Ping-chen. “Introduction: Children and Childhood in Traditional China.” In A Tender Voyage: Children and Childhood in Late Imperial China. By Ping-chen Hsiung, 1–28. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005a.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781503619456

    This chapter situates the history of childhood in China within the larger movement of the so-called discovery of childhood. It offers a critical survey of the literature to date and sets out a range of issues involved in studying children in tradition China. (Reprinted in Hsiung Ping-chen, “In the Beginning: Searching for Childhood in Chinese History and Philosophy,” in Confucianism, Chinese History and Society, edited by Sin Kiong Wong [Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2012], 171–220.)

  • 熊秉真 Hsiung, Ping-chen. 童年憶往:中國孩子的歷史 Tong nian yi wang: Zhong guo hai zi de gu shi. 臺北:麥田出版社. Taipei: Mai tian chu ban she, 2000.

    Seen as the third monograph in a “trilogy” on childhood by Hsiung, this book, written in Chinese, departs from the previous two (Hsiung 1995a, Hsiung 1995b, and Hsiung 1999 [all cited under Childbirth, Nursing, and Children’s Health]) in shifting focus from health and pediatrics to a more general approach. While the title translates to “a history of Chinese children,” the evidence presented is drawn largely from the late imperial period.

  • Kinney, Anne Behnke, ed. Chinese Views of Childhood. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1995.

    A pioneering volume that came to define the field for the study of the history of childhood in China. It features an introduction and eleven articles organized into three sections by chronological order: early China, mid- to late imperial China, and early modern and modern China. A diverse range of topics is covered, including medicine, literature, and visual and material culture.

  • Nylan, Michael. “Childhood, Formal Education, and Ideology in China, Then and Now.” In Beyond the Century of the Child: Cultural History and Developmental Psychology. Edited by Willem Koops and Michael Zuckerman, 136–156. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.9783/9780812208238.136

    This article offers a critical comparative account of childhood in imperial and post-Mao China, with a focus on formal education.

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