Love's Uncertainty: The Politics and Ethics of Child Rearing in Contemporary China

Love's Uncertainty: The Politics and Ethics of Child Rearing in Contemporary China

by Teresa Kuan

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520959361
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/27/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Teresa Kuan is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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Love's Uncertainty

The Politics and Ethics of Child Rearing in Contemporary China

By Teresa Kuan


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95936-1


The Politics of Childhood

Why the low productivity of our country's enterprise economy and the situation of the inability of our products to compete have not changed in a long time, why agricultural science and technology have not achieved wide dissemination, why precious resources and the ecological environment have not been fully used and protected, why the increase in population has not been effectively controlled, and why some bad social conduct cannot be stopped despite repeated bans undoubtedly have many reasons, but one important reason is that the suzhi of laborers is low.

STATE COUNCIL, PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF CHINA, "Zhongguo jiaoyu gaige he fazhan gangyao" [An outline for the reform and development of Chinese education], 1993

AT THE TURN OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, some books written by somebody named Huang Quanyu describing school and family life in the United States hit the market in China, making this author a household name in Chinese cities. Titled Education for Quality in America (1999) and Family Education in America (2001), they are filled with vignettes describing Huang's experience of raising a son during his years as a graduate student in the United States, admiringly showcasing American educational practices. Decidedly nontheoretical books aimed at a popular audience, they describe family life, bake sales, and soccer games—mundane middle-class Americana meant to reflect everything Chinese educators are supposedly doing wrong.

To illustrate, the first chapter of Education for Quality in America tells a story about how Huang first perceived his son's art class with disapproval and how he eventually understood the logic behind what had first appeared to be a complete lack of structure and purpose. Huang uses this experience to question whether creativity can be taught, linking something as mundane as a child's extracurricular activities to national destiny. The art class story is emblematic of the kind of transformation educators are being asked to make in embracing the ideals of the suzhi jiaoyu movement, aimed at improving thehuman "quality" of China's population by modernizing the human subject. The assertion Huang makes in telling the story could not be more culturally significant: he performs a complete reversal of a deeply rooted logic regarding how to teach.

Once, before his wife and three-year-old son joined him in the United States, Huang got a letter in the mail from his family. It contained a traditional Chinese brush painting, a beautiful drawing of a bamboo "with scattered leaves and bending stalks, balanced composition, fine shading, and perspective" (1999: 12). It was so good Huang could not believe his three-year-old son had produced it. When his wife and son arrived in the United States a couple years later, the couple continued their son's art education and sent him to an art class organized by a university. After no more than five classes, their son began to express discontent with the class and reported that his art teacher did not even teach: "She just gives us a subject and then lets us draw. You just draw however you want to draw, the teacher doesn't even care. When you're done the teacher only knows to say 'Great! Great!'" (16).

At first, the couple did not pay much attention. But when their son continued to complain, Huang decided to investigate the matter for himself. He used having to bring his son something warm to wear as an excuse to visit one day, and he came upon a scene that looked to him like utter chaos. Huang recalls, "The instructors on duty were three art department graduate students. One male student sat on the podium staring at the ceiling with his legs crossed, a female student paced around chewing gum, another stared out the window at the snow absentmindedly" (17). Meanwhile children were drawing while standing, kneeling, and lying prone. The drawings Huang saw lacked in proportion, composition, structure, shape, and discipline. The students, he felt, did not even know how to hold a brush. He subsequently withdrew his son from the class, thinking it was the kind of class that "leads the young astray."

Following a conversation he had with an American primary school art teacher who had lived and taught art in China and who described how her Chinese students were unable to draw something without a model, Huang began to rethink art education. He came to see that his son's artistic competence was merely the product of a "photocopying" process (fuying de guocheng). He writes, "I began to carefully observe my son, and I realized that no matter what we gave him to draw, he could pretty much draw it to perfection, or you could say 'copy' it, 'clone' it. But if you wanted him to creatively draw something according to an assigned topic, that was difficult" (1999: 21). Huang argues that this was because his son had been taught according to a simple transmission process: a teacher draws a model on the blackboard, students look at it and reproduce the drawing on paper by hand. Though his son had the technical skill to produce a traditional painting quite elegant for his age, he was stumped when given free rein. He could reproduce something someone else had already done, but he could not create something of his own.

Huang's story is meant to encapsulate the putative differences between Chinese and American education. The moral is that the seeming chaos of American education is precisely what promotes creativity. Huang came to realize that whether a child's art piece exhibited proportion, composition, and structure was beside the point. By providing little direction, American educators encouraged children to use their imagination. Creativity cannot be taught, but it can be facilitated with a change in educational style that promotes subjectivity in the child.

The suzhi jiaoyu movement to which Huang's efforts belong is the most recent iteration of an old debate, going back to the late nineteenth century, over how to modernize education against a historically entrenched tendency to privilege rote learning. Such debate strikes deep at the heart of Chinese conceptions of personhood and the nature of reality. Huang's characterization of traditional art education as a kind of "photocopying" process obscures the indigenous logic that gives copying its meaning. There is a strong cultural belief in the importance of internalizing models of various kinds through imitation—whether the good deeds of a cultural hero or the artistic production of an exemplary teacher. Over time, imitation and repetition—undertaken in the manner of linmo, copying in the close presence of great work—gives rise to enlightened understanding and originality (Bakken 2000: 134–37, 145–46). It is in the individual's total submission to external forces that creative spontaneity can arise.

It is significant that Huang Quanyu refers to this process in terms of photocopying (fuying , which shares the character for "to repeat" with other phrases related to repetitive learning. Unlike reviewing (fuxi) or repeatedly (fanfu) trying something, photocopying derogatorily suggests a mechanical process with little meaning and vitality, where doing is of no consequence. Thus Huang articulates the modern liberal view that locates subjectivity in the interior depths of the human person, rather than in the dynamic between influence and response so central to indigenous Chinese thought.

What is the context that has conditioned such a reversal in logic? What made such a critique possible? Cultural transformations that follow the historical experience of grand humiliation can often involve coming to "hate" what one has (Robbins 2004: 9). In the case of China, this humiliation is commonly traced to the nineteenth century, when China lost the Opium War. Why a great civilization found itself in an inferior position on the global stage is a question that has inspired various attempts at modernization since, including redefinitions of a proper childhood. In the early twenty-first century, the mundane details of domestic life have become especially fraught with political significance as China gears itself up for adapting to a global, knowledge- and information-based economy.


Since the beginning of the economic reforms of the late 1970s, "the child" has been and continues to be linked in thought and practice to the destiny of the nation through the notorious one-child policy. Perceiving population size to be a threat to goals of economic modernization, and perceiving a mismatch between available resources and need, the Party-state implemented the one-child policy as a solution. This policy was positioned to solve, in fact, two problems at once: population size reduction and improvement of overall population quality. In this context, the single child came to embody hope and became a privileged subject of investment and care, in contrast to the "unwashed masses" who were supposedly responsible for China's backwardness (Anagnost 1995).

Concern for and attention to children in the present are part of a longer history of China's struggle for dignity in the face of foreign powers. Late Qing intellectuals looked to the West for ideas, with a Chinese translation of Thomas Huxley's Evolution and Ethics serving as a critical lens for thinking about the national situation (Bai 2005: 175). With another defeat in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, reformers began to argue that the education of children was "critical to China's survival or extinction" (175). The traditional education system was seen as preoccupying the nation's youth with useless studies that did nothing for military strength or scientific invention. A series of reforms was promulgated in 1898 in an attempt to abolish the civil service examination system and establish a modern school system. Liang Qichao, an important reformer in this era, had concluded that the Chinese were not necessarily inferior to Western people; rather, the rote learning required in Chinese education stunted the development of a child's "brain power" (Bai 2005: 187). Furthermore, Liang felt, Chinese education treated pupils like prisoners, which was harmful to their physical development (195–96). A set of regulations announced in 1904 officially abolished the civil service examination system and stressed the importance of gymnastics in the primary school curriculum.

Not long after the fall of the Qing dynasty, intellectuals of the New Culture Movement (1915–21) located the child—as well as women, workers, and the family—as a site for cultural transformation and national revitalization (Barlow 1994; Glosser 2003). For these intellectuals, modernity could be achieved only by radically breaking with the past, challenging traditional forms of authority, and promoting social democracy. Their project was mainly a literary one. Though they worked to reform writing practices and experimented with realism (Anderson 1990), many New Culture intellectuals also wrote about and for children. They expressed their concerns over national strength and character through the figure of the child, as in the essay "Shanghai Children," where Lu Xun contrasts the Chinese children with their "tattered" clothing and "lackluster expression" to the "splendid, lively foreign children" nearby (quoted in Anagnost 1997a: 201). Some debated proper childhood and embraced the developmental models of child psychology, which categorically separated children from the world of adults. Zhou Zuoren, who created a modern children's literature, argued that Chinese adults were unable to understand children and their age-specific needs, instead "forc[ing] as many of the 'classics of the sages and annals of the worthies' down their throats as possible" (quoted in Jones 2002: 710). Others worked to reform family relations and child-rearing practices, as exemplified by the foreign-trained child psychologist Chen Heqin's Family Education, Lu Xun's essay "How Are We to Be Fathers Now?", and Zhang Zonglin's "How to Be a Parent That Conforms to Current Trends." This discovery of modern childhood would go into hiatus in the Maoist era, when the "rural masses displaced the child as the principal object of a revolutionary pedagogy" (Anagnost 1997a: 213).

A focus on the child was revived in the post-Mao period, as was eugenics in the form of a campaign that went hand in hand with the implementation of the family planning policy. Eugenic thinking and practice in this period were relevant not just to intellectuals but also to ordinary people in a way that yoked their intimate and everyday practices to a collective project (Anagnost 1995). The yousheng youyu, or "excellent births, excellent rearing" campaign, focused a general concern with population quality on the body and mind of the individual mother and child. Marriage and even one's reproductive cycle were important state business, with the latter monitored by birth-planning cadres who were responsible for dispensing birth control (Rofel 1999: 149).

The "excellent births" campaign involved mass pedagogy: medical knowledge concerning reproductive health was widely disseminated to the public. From advice on timing conception so as to conceive intelligent children, to advice on diet and nutrition during pregnancy, much of this literature gave enormous responsibility to parents, especially mothers, in the production of quality persons. Certain aspects of the "excellent births" campaign aimed to minimize "defective" births in ways that echoed eugenic campaigns in the West decades earlier (Dikötter 1998: 160–75). But much of the campaign in post-Mao China constituted a form of positive eugenics, one that emphasized adding rather than subtracting, educating rather than eliminating. The use of cassette tapes in fetal education provides a clear and material manifestation of the way in which "excellent births" and "excellent rearing" blurred. Developed by a doctor from Beijing Medical College, one set of three tapes playing Western classical music was to be used at different stages of reproduction: before conception, during pregnancy, and during the first years of a child's life. These tapes, the doctor concluded in a follow-up research study, birthed and reared more intelligent children who hit developmental milestones earlier than those in the control group (Milwertz 1997: 131–32).

In the 1980s and early 1990s, there was a strong preoccupation with not only the nutrition and physical constitution of children but their intelligence as well. Susan Champagne found child-rearing manuals from the 1980s to be full of practical advice for producing intelligence in children. The literature provided "charts and tests so that parents can assess their children's intelligence, elaborate etiologies so that the causes of low and high intelligence can be better understood, and explanations of the terminology of intelligence, to better help parents classify their own children" (1992: 5). Though moral education was also important, Champagne argues that the preoccupation with intelligence in the advice literature may be attributed to an idea that intelligence was systematically attainable and measurable. Intelligence education was to be "administered in formalized situations through discrete activities which ideally should be carried out on a regular basis, and according to a fixed schedule" (153).

A factory-style production of the child, which later education reformers criticized, was quite literally undertaken and then described in the best-selling book Harvard Girl Liu Yiting (Liu and Zhang [2000] 2004). Liu Yiting was born in 1981. Her mother, Liu Weihua, who coauthored the book with Yiting's father, had a plan for Yiting's "scientific" child rearing starting at conception. She kept a diary throughout her daughter's development from which she drew in writing the book Harvard Girl. Child rearing was a concerted project: "When the baby was only two weeks old, Liu began training her daughter's attention span by using her fingers and stuffed toys to track the child's vision. By the age of nine months, Liu was deliberately putting objects out of Yiting's reach, requiring the baby to work ever harder to grasp what she wanted, in order to teach her persistence and to overcome difficulties" (Woronov 2007: 37). When Yiting was handed over to other caregivers, her mother provided "copies of the manuals she used to implement early child education, requesting that they read these materials, carry out their directions on a daily basis, and write frequent reports to her on the child's development" (38).

A shift in emphasis occurred in the 1990s from "excellent births, excellent rearing" to suzhi jiaoyu, in parallel with a number of historical developments: Deng Xiaoping's Southern Tour, renewed market reforms, an economic boom, the privatization of public goods, decentralization of birth planning, a shift from a focus on reducing population quantity to a focus on raising population quality, optimization of government performance, and a general—though not complete—movement toward neoliberal governance and the fostering of population vitality. Suzhi jiaoyu first appeared in 1988 but became more generally used after the Ministry of Education promulgated an official policy entitled the "Resolution for Fully Moving Suzhi Jiaoyu Forward" (Kipnis 2006: 300; State Council 1999b). Suzhi jiaoyu was originally a concept that education researchers used in professional journals such as Middle School Education, Scientific Education Research, and Compulsory Education Research to describe how to teach competence (Kipnis 2006: 299). It has since become a relatively common phrase for ordinary families, thereby taking on a looser meaning that associates human quality with learning in general.


Excerpted from Love's Uncertainty by Teresa Kuan. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. The Politics of Childhood
2. The Horrific and the Exemplary
3. "The Heart Says One Thing but the Hand Does Another"
4. Creating Tiaojian, or, The Art of Disposition
5. The Defeat of Maternal Logic in Televisual Space
6. Investing in Human Capital, Conserving Life Energies
7. Banking in Affects


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