Teaching Module

Late Imperial China

Lesson Plan: Children in Late Imperial China

by Susan Douglass

Time Estimated: three to four 50-minute classes


  1. Students will make inferences from primary sources about expectations for instruction and roles of children in late Imperial China, 10th to 20th century.
  2. Students will differentiate between roles and attributes of boys and girls in China during the period.
  3. Students will explain how expectations for child raising changed over time in late Imperial China.
  4. Students will explore what a household reveals about ways of life for family members through examination of the Yin Yu Tang house virtual exhibition.


  • Printouts of primary sources sufficient for each student to have a full set of the texts and images in the Late Imperial China Teaching Module. 1
  • Computer(s) with internet connection to view the Peabody Museum online exhibit Yin Yu Tang house (lab, projection, assignment, or smartboard for viewing)
  • Writing materials, notebooks, pads & pencils for sketching


Think of a favorite children's book of yours, and describe its storyline in a short paragraph or narrative. Explain what moral or ethical message may be inherent in that story, and what it says about the contemporary culture of childhood (or the culture of the period in which it was written) and what expectations for the upbringing of children it reveals. Then, think of a favorite toy and sketch or describe it, explaining how you played with it, and why you enjoyed it. Did the toy have gender-specific attributes? What did it say about childhood in contemporary culture? Was it handmade or mass-produced, generic or a famous brand-name?

Toys and Celebrations
Using the images "Joyous Celebration at the New Year," and the photographic collections "Children and Toys" and "Selling Toys," students can make sketches of the toys and play activities shown. The annotations to the primary sources give some explanations of the images, and sketching the toys shown may help give clues as to their play value—what did they do that was attractive to children as play (e.g., movement, making sounds, humorous animals, whirligigs, fireworks, dolls or puppets, etc.) ? A high-resolution image of Joyous Celebration at the New Year, shows much greater detail for the individual figures and groups. Discuss continuity and change over time between the painting and the photographs, as well as universal aspects of play across cultures. Which toys and activities seem gender-specific? What activities in the images do not rely on toys (e.g. putting pine branches in the fireplace in the painting, children playing with each other, etc.), and how are children in the painting and photographs involved in helping, serving adults, etc.

Children's Literature
Building from the hook activity on children's literature, read the selections in the module such as the Three-Character Classic, The Story of the Stone, Chinese Mother Goose Rhymes and the more biographical Meng Ch'iu, Empress Ma in coarse-woven silk and Meng Ch'iu, K'uang Heng bores a hole in the wall Sun Ching shuts his door. Make a list of citations from the excerpts that indicate normative behavior. Mark them with sticky-notes, highlight, or copy the citations. Make a two-column chart with the headings: Qualities of the ideal boy and Qualities of the ideal girl. Using the citations, list the personal and moral qualities the stories instill about proper behavior and moral actions of boys and girls in Chinese society. (Extension: for comparison, the same activity can be done with examples of didactic literature either from other Children & Youth in History primary sources or from historical children's literature for examples).

Exploring the Yin Yu Tang House
Introduce the activity by asking students to quickly sketch the layout of their own house, describe their sleeping space, and list the members of their household. They should use this material to think about how the house relates to the neighboring homes, how the common spaces of the house are shared by family members, and how this shared space reflects rules about adults' and children's roles in the family. What does your bedroom convey about the importance given to individual space and expectations about raising children, or child development? What values does the difference in decoration in common and private spaces say about the culture and how the family is constituted? Share ideas and differences among members of the class in discussion.

Yin Yu Tang House, cont.
Building from the ideas shared about the students' own homes and lives, view the exhibit. Students may be assigned to view the exhibit as homework if this is practical. Pay particular attention to the layout of the house and conventions for who occupied which spaces in the house, who slept in which rooms with whom, and how other spaces in the house were used. In the Yin Yu Tang house, there were also spaces created or reserved for absent persons, and for reverence toward other figures. These figures changed over time (e.g., Buddhist objects of worship, ancestor images, lists of past family members, and later images of Mao).

Optional Activity
The letters reproduced in the exhibit provide considerable evidence concerning lasting expectations and relations between adult children and their parents. Inquiries about health, concern for the raising of children from afar by absent fathers, duties concerning marriage of siblings and others, requests for goods from the city, formulas of politeness required in addressing family members, all make for interesting inferences about the nature of family life and the results of traditional upbringing of children.

Optional Activity
The sections of the exhibit on Ornamentation and Belongings are very revealing of change over time, as traditional carving and invocation of legends, lore, and protective decoration give way to the use of industrially produced decorative elements such as wallpaper, newspapers, and nationalist iconography such as Mao images vs. images and writing related to ancestors and religious imagery.


Writing the essay as a culminating activity can be done as a timed writing or as a homework assignment (see: Document Based Question).


Advanced Students
Students may explore the objects and layout of the house in further detail, reporting on clothing, furnishings, and other aspects of interest. They may also explore additional passages from the literature excerpted in this module and evaluate these sources in terms of their use as evidence in explaining childrearing and education in late Imperial China.

Less Advanced Students
Students can work with a limited number of documents, focusing their writing on one or more of the following three choices:

  1. comparison between their own family home and the Yin Yu Tang house;
  2. comparing toys in contemporary society with the toys and games shown; or
  3. a familiar didactic work of children's literature may also provide a concrete foil for comparison with some of the examples given in this module.

Use one or more of these three possibilities to compose a concluding essay that utilizes evidence from the two sets of sources.

How to Cite This Source

Sue Fernsebner, "Late Imperial China," in Children and Youth in History, Item #221, https://cyh.rrchnm.org/items/show/221 (accessed August 10, 2021).