A History of the Child Relief Movement in Modern China


A review of Saving the Young: A History of the Child Relief Movement in Modern China, by Norman Apter.

The following review of Norman Apter’s dissertation was prepared following his tragic passing in February 2014 and is published on Dissertation Reviews in his memory. An abridged memorial originally prepared for the AAS Newsletter by his colleague and friend, Professor Paul S. Ropp, follows this review.

In Saving the Young: A History of the Child Relief Movement in Modern China, the late Norman Apter (1973-2014) traces the origins of institutional care and foster care as responses to abandoned infants and homeless children in China. Abandoned children were potentially threatening precisely because they were disconnected to the traditional kin group, and these children grew in importance as China faced increasing external threats, from the Opium Wars to the War to Resist Japan. In his institutional history of relief efforts for children, Apter pays special attention to institutions as surrogate families, as well as efforts to place children in foster care, adopt them out, or reunite them with natal families. The Chinese focus on the family – as the fundamental unit of society, social education, and social contribution – distinguishes its values from those of the West.

Apter contrasts child relief efforts in China with those in the West, arguing that Western efforts arose from concerns over the individual rights of the child, whereas Chinese efforts were driven by “a desire to facilitate his or her integration into the family and the community.” (p. 61) Likewise, reformers tended to focus less on rescuing children than on preparing them to be active contributors to society. (pp. 90-91) Chinese traditionally envisioned such contributions as originating squarely within the family and continuing through the family. Because the family was the “crucial starting point for moral training,” and that moral training and cultural tradition were “the very essence of their ‘Chineseness’,” (p. 172) Chinese only reluctantly moved away from a focus on the family, and toward promoting the race and nation, in the face of national and racial annihilation during the War to Resist Japan. Nevertheless, Chiang Kai-shek and his wife were cast as the “universal father” and mother of orphans during the war, and orphanages later “cast the party as a big surrogate family.” (p. 198) This institutional history thereby traces the evolution of institutional directives for fostering dependent children as a site that could potentially destabilize or reinforce traditional Chinese notions of family and/or nation.

Apter narrates the institutional history of child welfare from the Song dynasty to the post-reform era in order to identify major continuities and turning points in the nature of child relief efforts, especially with regard to the family and community. In the first chapter, Apter traces the etymology of important terms like “nourishing children” back to significant state-sponsored local efforts in the Song. One of the strengths of his narrative is his ability to offer an historical overview of different terms and institutions as they arose in Chinese history. Apter ascribes the Song-dynasty push to fund child welfare relief to the “Neo-Confucian ideal of keeping the family intact.” (pp. 5, 31) Reliance on government support during the Song meant that child relief efforts disappeared in the Yuan conquest and, Apter argues, only reemerged in the Qing, but under bureaucratic-elite management. (pp. ii, 16) The Qing thus helped to establish a volunteer system, with oversight by local authorities, which continued thereafter (with some modifications and breaks, such as in the Maoist period, p. 205).

Perhaps in keeping with scholarship inspired by Philip Kuhn’s assertion of “civilization decline” after the Taiping Rebellion, Apter argues that the Taiping Rebellion marked an important shift in the way that Chinese elites viewed the necessity for child relief. (p. 32) In the aftermath of the Taiping, destitute children were seen as potential threats to the existing social order, and this shift in attitude thus increased the stakes for fostering destitute children. (pp. 37-38, 42) Furthermore, institutions could raise children with the goal to rebuild local communities in the aftermath of rebellions or famine (e.g. Xiong Xiling’s efforts in Fragrant Hills’ Orphanages, pp. 48-58). These trends would intensify in the War of Resistance against Japan, when children became symbolic of the fate of the race and the nation against the backdrop of the Japanese invasion.

In the second chapter, Apter turns his attention to Republican Shanghai’s child welfare relief efforts, which were especially influenced by growing urbanization and social welfare reform efforts. (p. 67) Apter elucidates institutional efforts made by the Ministry of Interior to extend economic relief to victims of famine and poverty. This period witnessed the rise of modern police and public health bureaus that were integral to the Republic’s efforts for reform, and necessary for the medical care and economic relief of dependent children, including abandoned infants, impoverished children, and street urchins. (p. 69) These bureaus helped to modernize care through new medical practices and nutritional supplements. (pp. 74-75) Despite these measures and efforts to register organizations in 1948, Apter argues that the state role was limited and indirect (p. 81), and after the war, institutions continued much as they had previously (p. 122).

Apter also describes Nationalist institutions in Republican China. He pays special attention to their efforts to either adopt children out or to act as surrogate parents, and also includes in his methodology an analysis of the structural layout of the facilities (e.g., pp. 86, 100). He also examines educational curricula, especially the inclusion of vocational education to train children to become contributing citizens. These efforts intensified as Shanghai became the “lone island” amidst warfare in the escalating violence of Japanese attacks on China. Institutional directors also turned more to psychology for inspiration in behavioral direction, and moved generally away from overtly militaristic overtones. Apter argues that, notwithstanding the passage of new laws, the Nationalists did not increase their regulation of institutions during the height of their power in the Nanjing decade (1928-1937), and they only did so when pushed by the enormous increases of dependent children during the War of Resistance against Japan. (p. 134)

In Chapter 3, Apter identifies the most important turning point for child welfare as the War of Resistance against Japan. The vulnerable child symbolized the fragmented nation’s future. The magnitude of dependent children, resulting from he war, forced the Chinese government to develop nation-wide laws and institutions, especially through the Economic Relief Office established in 1928 and a law for charitable organizations passed in 1929 (pp. 134-35). The imminent problem of war forced a shift in focus from the family to the nation as the primary locus for a developing citizen’s contributions, (p. 132) and wartime institutions thus “cast aside the ideal of a cohesive and harmonious kin unit in favor of cultivating a deeper awareness of race and a stronger allegiance to the nation.” (pp. 150, 174) Children’s institutions promoted vocational education and a “sense of collective responsibility over selfish impulses.” (p. 170) The structure of the child homes, with smaller divisions of groups, also reinforced a sense of community responsibility. In this period, Chinese began to differentiate social relief from more permanent measures for social welfare. (p. 137) In institutions, children could become active contributors to the war and reconstruction effort. (p. 142) The central government subsidized local measures (p. 151) but aimed to minimize the need for institutional care at the end of the war. (p. 182) Thus, Apter argues that the wartime period facilitated the widespread acceptance of new institutional priorities for social welfare, vocational training, and contributions to the nation rather than the family, (p. 183) even as Nationalists themselves retrenched institutional care at the close of the war.

These trends, toward emphasizing vocational training and national citizenry, continued and intensified in the Maoist period. In Chapter 4, Apter traces the rise of state management in the Maoist period and the increasing focus on transforming children into productive citizens, as a newly defined “moral vision of man and society not found in the imperial and pre-war Republican programs of the past.” (p. 189) In the Maoist period, employment was a primary basis for self-fulfillment. (p. 197) Although a longstanding goal, the Communist Party displayed a greater interest and ability to direct child welfare institutions, especially in terms of the regulations and personnel of those institutions. (e.g., pp. 214, 242) Apter focuses especially on the case of Shanghai, where government campaigns reduced the number of established institutions for children, (p. 216) and denunciation rallies and letters not only empowered wards to speak against the abuses of their patrons, but also had the overall effect of delegitimizing the traditional system of volunteer charity. (p. 242) Communists rejected previous forms of volunteer philanthropy and tended to emphasize the ways in which their programs invigorated children’s health and led them to become productive contributors to society. (p. 186) The state also campaigned against infant abandonment, and especially through the Women’s Federation improved conditions for infant and maternity health. New institutions helped to differentiate types of dependent populations in order to provide them with specialized care. (pp. 219, 227) Although the state claimed children as “wards of the state” and critiqued the family to an unprecedented degree, (e.g., p. 235) longstanding trends toward placing children in families encouraged Chinese institutions to allow the reunification of children with their natal families, to a degree unheard-of in the West (because of Western notions of parental neglect, p. 232).

The final chapter traces the dual expansion of institutional programs and foster care as a response to growing problems with infant abandonment in the post-reform period. (p. 254) The government focused on infant abandonment, especially that of rural girls and those with birth defects and/or handicaps, and attributed those trends to feudalistic mentality, whereas Western commentators blamed the state’s family planning policy. (p. 249) Apter himself identifies the following factors: the increase of divorce and thus the dissolution of an extended kin group to support children; the intensification of academic competition coupled with the one-child policy (thus creating the need to bet on a winning horse as an investment for retirement); and increasing rural-urban inequality, resulting in urban youth crime and potentially a greater number of unwanted infants. (pp. 260-261) With a seven-fold increase in public wards from 1978 to 2004, (p. 255) the government could no longer sustain the same level of care on its own, resulting in unprecedented numbers of deaths in institutional care – as much as 20% of wards (p. 257) – and an increasing number of street urchins, especially boys, who contribute to urban crime. (p. 259) Under these circumstances, the government has little choice but to turn to the private sector for help. (p. 255) The government has also begun to address problems, such as its failure to differentiate children from adults in its treatment of urban vagrants, (pp. 263-64) through new laws and more institutional centers. In its effort to “societize” child welfare through the development of foster care, the government nevertheless continued to oversee the moral and physical development of public wards. (pp. 245, 284)

In sum, Apter’s Saving the Young makes an important contribution to the study of modern institutions for children in China. Apter writes lucidly and clearly, and he effectively outlines the long durée of institutional care with fitting examples from specific institutions. In my reading of the dissertation, his main interest lies in tracing the development of institutional responses to the problem of homeless street urchins in China today, especially in the sense that such solutions may in some ways be incongruous to (or made to be congruent with) the Chinese emphasis on family life as the main form of a person’s contribution to society. Apter effectively argues that efforts for vocational training or marriage placement are not exploitative, as often misconstrued from the Western standpoint, but are manifestations of longstanding community-centered values in China.

Margaret Mih Tillman
Faculty of History
Purdue University

Primary Sources

State laws and the establishment of institutions
Number Two Historical Archives of China
Shanghai Municipal Archivess
Newspapers: Shen Bao, People’s Daily, Henan Daily, Wenhui Bao, etc.
Private interviews, such as that with Huang Jiachun, director of Shanghai Orphanage

Dissertation Information

University of California, Los Angeles. 2013. 309 pp. Primary Advisors: Kathryn Bernhardt and Philip Huang.

In Memoriam

The China field and the Clark University community suffered a tragic loss in February 2014 when Assistant Professor Norman Apter, age 40, passed away following a two-and-a-half-year battle with melanoma.

Despite the very sobering diagnosis Professor Apter received just after arriving at Clark in 2011, he remained cheerful, witty, and always solicitous of colleagues and students. Even through 15 surgeries, radiation treatments, and debilitating experimental drug trials, he never succumbed to self-pity or despair. He loved teaching, music, nature, movies, conversation, and exercise; in short, he loved life. As his doctoral advisor, Philip Huang, astutely observed in notifying Norm’s fellow students of his passing, “everything he did so valiantly during his terrible ordeal was a statement of the depth of his commitment to teaching and scholarship, and for the dignity of our profession.”

Norm had a profound impact on all who knew him. His courage, grace and candor in facing death are well captured in an article about him in the Clark Alumni Magazine (http://issuu.com/clarkuniversity/docs/clark-university-alumni-magazine-spring-2013). In the face of imminent death, he affirmed the value, and the joys, of life.

Professor Apter is survived by his wife, Eurydice Hsin-yi Huang, who was indefatigable in her unrelenting efforts to care for him. We mourn his passing but are deeply grateful for the brief time we were fortunate to share with him.

Paul S. Ropp
Research Professor
Clark University

Image: Photograph of a girl laborer (1915).  From Virtual Shanghai.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like