The Nation's Child: Childhood, Children's Literature and National Identity in Modern China

Open Access
Xu, Xu
Graduate Program:
Curriculum and Instruction
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
April 30, 2013
Committee Members:
  • Gail Louise Boldt, Dissertation Advisor
  • Gail Louise Boldt, Committee Chair
  • Daniel Dean Hade, Committee Member
  • Jacqueline J A Reid Walsh, Committee Member
  • Shuang Shen, Committee Member
  • Childhood
  • Children's Literature
  • National Identity
  • Modern China
In the final decades of the nineteenth century China saw profound changes. Militarily defeated by colonial powers and forced to sign a series of unequal treaties ceding parts of its territory, the thousand-year-old Chinese empire, under the rule of the Great Qing, painfully felt that it was going into decline. Under the threat of national extinction, progressive Chinese called for saving China by transforming it into a modern nation. This dissertation suggests that since the last decades of the nineteenth century China’s modernization has been intricately intertwined with the construction of childhood and children’s literature. I perceive my dissertation as a genealogy of modern childhood in relation to China’s nation-building projects from the late nineteenth century to the present. This dissertation traces three paradigmatic shifts in regard to the correlation between the child and nation in modern Chinese history, by identifying the humanistic “natural” child of the Republican period (1912–1949), the revolutionary adult-child of the Maoist period (1949–1976), and the patriotic modern child of the post-socialist period (1976 onward) as three ideal models of Chinese citizenship. While these models represent different dominant discourses about the child in the different historical periods of modern China, the model itself is not a homogeneous concept. That is, the meaning of each child model is unstable, contextualized by historical conditions marked in terms of nationality, gender, class, and age, as well as their intersections and disconnections. Additionally, it is also important to note that the specified historical periods are not distinctive historical eras having clear-cut boundaries. As I attempt to illustrate, the formation of the concept of the child in a so-called new era often builds on ideas of the past, and the past child usually figure prominently in the discourse of the ideal child of the present. Furthermore, the modern Chinese child and children’s literature is never a purely indigenous product, but a hybrid of Western and local discourses. This dissertation thus also attempts to show that the local does not necessarily stand in opposition to the global and is often mediated through the transnational.