Preschool Education & Childhood in China


A review of Precocious Politics: Preschool Education and Child Protection in China, by Margaret Mih Tillman.

Margaret Mih Tillman’s Precocious Politics, traces the creation and re-creation of preschools in China from 1903 (when the first indigenous Chinese kindergarten was founded) to 1953. Tillman’s interesting and rich study explores multiple trends that converged around the foundation of institutes for early childhood education, including: changing definitions of childhood in China and the identification of the child as an object of scientific study; collaborations and contributions of Chinese and foreign education and psychology experts; the global context of child welfare and early childhood education; industrialization and the mobilization of women in the workforce; and the modern state’s increasing intervention in private lives. Tillman’s study spans political regimes and geographical regions, contributing a much-needed periodization for studies of childhood and education in China. Tillman deftly situates the historical development of models for early childhood socialization within the broader national and global context of modernization, competing political ideologies and tools for expanding state power. As such, this study will not only be of interest to students and scholars of education, childhood studies and gendered studies, but also scholars of political and economic modernization seeking to identify structural continuities over time and the long-term outcomes of seemingly short-term reforms.

The introduction discusses a key transformation in the history of childhoods previously identified by Viviana Zelizer in Pricing the Priceless Child: a shift from the child as “object of utility” to “object of sentiment” (p. 18). Tillman traces the early global history of kindergartens from their inception and eventual banning in Germany, to their indigenization within the United States. In her handling of this global history, Tillman suggests that kindergartens have historically had important political implications because they are a form education “that focuses primarily on socialization” outside of the home (p. 7). Kindergartens served various functions globally at different points in time: as places for “developing skills and societal morality” in pre-1848 Germany; as venues for “Americanizing” immigrant children in the early twentieth century U.S.; as venues for improving children’s health and hygiene during the eugenics driven world war and inter-war years (pp. 6-7).

Tillman then turns to the indigenous development of kindergartens and the discipline of child development in China. Kindergartens were foreign imports to China and important symbols and tools of modernity. Tillman proposes that an important characteristic of childhood imported to China was its sentimentalization as an innocent period of development, and with this came new legal and institutional protections and strictures to protect children from both work and academic pressures. Tillman also introduces the use of kindergartens as laboratories for the scientific production of knowledge about “the Chinese child” that was then disseminated in professional journals. In her introduction, Tillman also offers a preview and summary of the differing ways Chinese regimes established and utilized early childhood institutions as vehicles for the socialization and citizenship training of children and for the mobilization of women workers.

In her first chapter, Tillman traces the early evolution of the field of child development in the late Qing, when Chinese intellectuals began to use kindergartens to study and then publish about children’s cognition, psychology and care. Tillman identifies kindergartens as important sites for Chinese and missionaries to contest values and social habits, and traces the most salient influences of Christian missionary kindergartens on Chinese ideas and institutions. These influences include: the introduction of Chinese childhood as a distinct new subject to be studied and theorized; the establishment of schools for girls and the creation of age-graded curriculum; the idea early childhood education institutes could be laboratories for studying the Chinese child; and the importance of scientific training of female professional caregivers. Tillman argues that Chinese educators and government officials adopted these influences, but for Qing political purposes: “promoting traditional family values, social order, and conservative political loyalties” (p. 38).

Chapter One also examines the influence of Japanese educational models on the development of Chinese kindergartens, most especially through the translation and dissemination of Japanese articles on pedagogy by Chinese students studying in Japan. Tillman argues that despite the global influences on the development of Qing kindergartens, these were still primarily “traditionalistic” institutions because the Qing government viewed homes, run by patriotic women who were “good wives and wise mothers” as “the real school for young patriots” (p. 41). Kindergartens were to supplement family education with modern scientific child care.

Finally, Tillman gives an overview of the means by which the Qing state exercised authority within kindergartens: via the creation of kindergartens as auxiliary schools to pre-existing schools; via the production of textbooks promoting scientific principles of child development, citizenship training, and “family education” within schools; and by utilizing kindergartens as “venue(s) to formalize state cooperation with families” (p. 47). Tillman thus argues that, “the introduction of Western-style kindergartens to China is not simply one of ‘Western impact, Chinese response'” (p. 57). Chinese kindergartens adapted some aspects of missionary schools while establishing the Chineseness of these institutions against missionary influences. Chinese kindergartens also incorporated Japanese and German models and theories of child development into these indigenous models (p. 58).

Chapters Two and Three examine two related trends in childhood education and family reform on the heels of the New Culture movement: the development of Chinese conceptions of child psychology which launched the concept of a sentimentalized childhood, and the development of charity associations for Chinese children aimed, in part, at protecting childhood innocence. Though both of these trends were forged in the wake of May Fourth iconoclasm, they were importantly shaped by Chinese ties with Christian schools and organizations. Tillman argues that Chinese Christian reforms sought to “democratize, but not capsize, existing structures of power” (p. 60).

Chapter Two introduces Chen Heqin, the founder of China’s field of child psychology, and sketches the history of the development of the discipline of educational psychology under Chen’s influence. Educational psychology developed as a field in higher education and a genre within the publishing industry, and kindergartens became central sites for gathering data on Chinese children and training Chinese parents. Tillman argues that Chen was an advocate for family reform who sought to democratize (not overturn) Chinese family structures, by, for example, transforming the patriarchal father into a modern “companion” (p. 86). Tillman also traces how Chen and other childhood education specialists sought to develop an understanding of the Chinese child as racially distinct, using Western scientific observation methods acquired abroad to support his claims.

Tillman suggests that perhaps Chen’s deepest contribution to Chinese understandings of childhood came not in academia and the scientific community, but in his role as a “child expert” advising Chinese mothers in scientific methods of childrearing. In doing so Chen was making a political statement about the centrality of the “small” family to advanced and stable societies. Chen’s teachings gave scientific authority to Chinese kindergartens as important grounds for citizenship training of the young child, and cultivated “kindergarten teachers as the intermediaries between child and state” (p. 92). Ultimately, China’s indigenous field of child psychology distributed the concept of a sentimentalized childhood to a broad audience.

Chapter Three takes up some of the implications of a sentimentalized childhood by examining the child labor reform movement. Tillman outlines the connection between child labor reform and the movement to create early childhood institutions. From the perspective of child psychologists and educators, young children belonged, not in factories, but in pre-schools. The formation of the Child Labor Commission in the 1920s marks a historical shift from a reliance on charity for child protection to professional welfare institutions. Tillman uses the movement to abolish child labor as a window into suggesting the influences that various Republican-era political groups and movements had on later Communist labor reforms (p. 101). The Child Labor Commission itself failed in its objectives (the Child Labor Bylaw was never passed), but this movement to keep children out of factories was an important precursor to the later focus on creating welfare institutions for poor children in established educational institutions. Tillman claims that although the CCP omits references to the commission in its own history, it draws heavily from the Child Labor Commission’s Report in terms of statistics and its reform agenda (p. 128). In this way, Tillman demonstrates a link between seemingly short-term (failed) reforms and their longer-term implications.

Chapter Four traces the way in which the protection of children’s rights became a patriotic endeavor under the leadership of the National Child Welfare Association. The Association itself professionalized parenthood by distributing material to promote modern childcare and modern families. The association also created new “citizenship rituals” (such as better baby contests and Children’s Day), provided legal interventions to protect children, promoted child scientific experts through its journals and publications, and continued the trend of the sentimentalization of childhood.

Tillman demonstrates rituals promoted by the National Child Welfare Association were grounded in theories and scholarship that buttressed the New Life Movement’s efforts to imbue daily practices with patriotism, mobilize the masses, and display the nation’s health and vigor  in the face of Japan’s military encroachment (pp. 131, 140). The National Child Welfare Association also served as a forum to buttress state power by providing a forum for political leaders to demonstrate their legitimacy through philanthropic involvement (p. 132).

Tillman also traces the role of the Mental Hygiene Movement in political and social activism that focused on childhood interventions to prevent metal illness. The National Child Welfare Association sought to train parents to promote mentally healthy children, and identified the treatment of childhood neuroses as a means to prevent social disruption (pp. 147, 155). Tillman argues that the concern over children’s mental health contributed to the further professionalization of parenthood. Much was at stake for the nation in parenting and “parental instincts were devalued in an effort to provide children with the best upbringing possible” (p. 156). Tillman argues that, though parenting was professionalized, the family was still preserved. The Mental Hygiene Movement worked in tandem with the New Life Movement with the traditionalist goal to reform the Chinese family with “government cooperation” (p. 148).

In Chapter Five, Tillman demonstrates that preschools did not go into decline during China’s war with Japan, but expanded following pre-war trends. One such example of a trend put into motion in the 1920s that was extended during the war was the creation of factory crèches, which enabled women to enter the workforce (pp. 169-170). The Women’s Advisory Committee to the New Life Movement and the Department of Child Welfare also continued the trend towards scientific motherhood by organizing better baby contests and Children’s Day activities. State intervention in family lives continued during this period, as such activities became a means by which health care professionals could collect data on children, distribute medical services, supervise mothers, and mobilize children (and parents) for patriotic purposes. Chapter Five also attends to wartime regional variation and global connections, tracing women’s mobilization in rural industrial preschool collectives and the American funding behind Yan’an’s “Los Angeles Kindergarten” (p. 177).

Tillman argues that wartime and postwar funding for child welfare from Overseas Chinese and American donors created not just national citizens out of Chinese children but also global citizens (p. 164). Foreign aid for child welfare was a diplomatic tool for both Nationalists and Communists: the Song sisters used child welfare both to encourage American military support and to raise their own political status within China (p. 167).

Tillman argues that greater numbers and categories of children were the recipients of child welfare during the war than before the war: “Thus, the war galvanized the government to support preschool education” (p. 173). Tillman extends her analysis to the post-war period, observing that  foreign aid organizations moved away from state responsibility towards fortifying the family, with an emphasis on day schools and family education over children’s full-time institutions (p. 194).

One particularly interesting turn in China’s postwar global orientation that Tillman notes is Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist government’s promotion of “transnational welfarism” (p. 186, p. 187). This movement aimed at saving children worldwide who were suffering in postwar Europe and India as a means of putting China on equal footing with other Allied nations. Tillman argues that, rather than strengthening diplomatic ties, “international aid actually soured the relationship between Nationalists and the Americans as well as between the Nationalists and the Communists” (pp. 187-188) as the Civil War made the distribution of aid difficult as the Nationalists set up blockades and the Communists used relief supplies for military purposes (p. 189).

Chapter Six traces how 1950s state ideologies, in the form of “re-education campaigns,” defined not only early childhood experts, but also children and their care givers (p. 203). John Dewey’s “pragmatism” came under attack in the 1950s along with the “bourgeois reformers” who were his students, such as Hu Shi and Tao Xingzhi (p. 204, p. 212). One section of this chapter also tells the story of Chen Heqin’s fall from grace and re-education. Missionary and foreign-funded schools and institutions were divested of American funds, labeled “cultural imperialism and slave education,” and reorganized by municipal governments (p. 204, p. 206). Tillman describes how child psychologists lost their authority as a result of ideological campaigns, and how caregivers were not only trained in scientific methods but also in political thought.

Chapter Six also demonstrates how self-criticism and self-regulation became important classroom activities in the 1950s as teachers emphasized discipline and student activism. Teachers who had been “re-educated” by the government used self-criticism and thought reform methods to address the discipline issues of kindergarteners (p. 229, p. 232). A sentimentalized childhood of free play was replaced with student activism, as wartime activities such as “choreographed dances and scripted play…became the hallmark of Chinese Communist childhood” (p. 203).

Tilllman’s Epilogue highlights the long-term structural continuities that her thesis identifies as persisting across political regimes. These include: the professionalization of childcare, “motivated by a statist goal to mobilize the female workforce and modernize the Chinese economy” (p. 239); the use of schools for the state’s collection of information about children (p. 239); and a reporting structure that had preschools answering directly to the government (p. 247).

One notable shift from the Nationalist and wartime eras was that Chinese early childhood experts were no longer a part of the production and distribution of knowledge about children. This responsibility was now subsumed under the Women’s Federation and the mobilization of women for the work force was further facilitating by funding preschools and kindergartens for the working poor (p. 239).

Tillman’s focus on preschools and kindergartens over the first half of the twentieth century is an important contribution to childhood studies and education studies in China, but will also be of interest to Republican and Communist-era scholars who are seeking to identify structural continuities across political regimes. Tillman’s illumination of the role of global intellectual exchange and foreign funding in shaping child welfare agendas also lays an important foundation for further studies of the Chinese child in a global context.

M. Colette Plum
Johns Hopkins University
Lecturer, Hopkins in Nanjing

Primary Sources

School mission statements and records
Education journals
Missionary writings
Shanghai Municipal Archives
Beijing Municipal Archives

Dissertation Information

University of California, Berkeley. 2013. 356 pp. Primary Advisors: Wen-hsin Yeh, Paula Fass, and Andrew Jones.

Image: Xinxuezhi shiyong: xinxiaoxue jiaocaishu: changshi keben. 新學制使用:新小學教材書:常識課本 [“New Educational System General Knowledge Readers for Lower Primary Schools”]. Zhonghua Book Company, 1926.

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