Teaching Module

Late Imperial China


The texts presented here offer a broad range of perspectives on childhood in late Imperial china. They include historical tales for children that paint the stories of heroes and villains, period literature, images, and folklore collections that offer a view toward the daily life and amusements of children, as well as the rhymed primers intended to train the child not only in literacy but also in a social and moral sensibility.

The sources cover a broad time frame as well as diverse aspects of childhood in late imperial China. They speak to a number of related themes and issues including ideal notions of the child and a child's place in the family, practices of play and amusement, and the complexities of latter-day efforts (and, indeed, those of adults themselves) to recapture and understand childhood as its own realm.

One aspect for students to explore through their readings of this material is the moral instruction and dissemination of values that historical children would have encountered in their own exploration of these texts and stories. Students may read and compare the Meng Ch'iu and San Tzu Ching texts in regard to this issue. These two texts also provide for a view towards a comparison over time as the Meng Ch'iu text was critiqued and later faded from use (see source introductions for more detail).

Useful questions to ask here would include:

  • What moral instructions might children have found in these texts?
  • What were the idealized social roles that were presented?
  • What might adults who shared these texts have hoped that their children would have learned from them?

Students might also explore the visions presented of the relationship between an individual and the social world that they inhabited, sometimes subtly and often less so, in these texts. In exploring these questions, students may discover the closely tied (at least in an idealized realm) relationship between children and parents and the celebrated role of the family as the center of an ordered Chinese society.

A second line of exploration for students lies in a comparative exploration of notions of amusement. Here we may compare pedagogical texts, particularly the San Tzu Ching, with images and impressions gained from literature (Story of the Stone), rhymes (Headland's collections), and images of childhood play.

  • How does the evidence offered in these diverse sources complicate a vision of childhood discipline as presented in pedagogical texts?
  • What did "fun" mean to different children of the time?
  • How did these sources' own presentation of childhood amusement offer evidence towards more complex visions of personal identity, life-paths, and social relationships?

Here one may explore articulations of family relationships, marriage, and education, among other topics, that are revealed in these texts and images.

Finally, Isaac Taylor Headland's study of childhood rhymes and amusements sheds light upon a culture of play shared by children outside the elite class as represented in Hong Lou Meng. His collections introduce their own complexities, however, as material presented by a foreign observer of Chinese life in an era of high imperialism. As such, it offers a valuable opportunity for students to explore the complex nature of a cross-cultural encounter at a particular moment, one defined by a new economy and culture of global exchange, competition, and colonialism.

Worthwhile questions of exploration include:

  • How does I.T. Headland describe or define "Chinese" in this discussion?
  • What are the points he seeks to make?
  • Who might he have imagined as his audience?
  • In what ways do our Chinese sources coincide with – or complicate – the depiction and analysis he offers?

Discussion Questions

Sources 1 and 2: Meng Ch'iu, Empress Ma in coarse-woven silk. . . and K'uang Heng bores a hole in the wall Sun Ching shuts his door [Literary Excerpts]

  • Are these visions of success or achievement? What makes a good husband, wife, son or daughter? How are the relationships between people in these roles celebrated?
  • What are the values that are celebrated here?
  • How is friendship or companionship characterized or depicted?
  • How does emotion, as shown in these stories, related to moral value(s) or to idealized social roles?

Source 3: Three-Character Classic [Literary Excerpt]

  • What are the core social roles presented here?
  • What kinds of mutual obligations and responsibilities are encouraged or mandated by these verses?
  • How does memorization as a way of learning shape knowledge, and the individual? Is this a practice still known in our own day?

Source 4: The Story of the Stone [Literary Excerpt]

  • What constitutes joy (or the opposite) for the elite children depicted in this text?
  • What are the visions of talent and success as seen here? What skills do these youngsters celebrate for themselves?
  • In what ways does this text complicate our vision of society as seen in the text of the children's primer?

Source 5: "Joyous Celebration at the New Year" [Image]

  • What objects do the children in these images make use of? How do they appear, how are they handled or used, and what life do they seem to hold for the little ones who possess them? Students are encouraged to explore the visual depictions of the toys and objects themselves, and to imagine the games and play they might suggest.
  • What kinds of social relationships within an elite household are represented in this image, both in the arrangement of domestic space and its uses? How does this visual depiction reveal an ideal vision of relationships within the family and between generations, genders, and classes?
  • How does this visual image compare to the textual expressions of domestic ideals and relationships? (e.g. a child's feelings of respect and filial piety towards their parents, the joys of play and creative diversions, engagement in productive work in the household?)

Source 6: The Chinese Boy and Girl, Preface [Literary Excerpt]

  • How does Isaac Taylor Headland describe or define "Chinese" in his discussion? What are the terms he uses? Points he seeks to make? Who might he imagine as his audience?
  • In what ways do the Chinese rhymes and discussion he shares depict Chinese childhood and family life? What perspectives are offered on family roles, gender, socio-economic class? In what ways does Headland invoke discourses of nation and culture?
  • How do these sources compare with others, translated from Chinese, that we have seen?

Source 7: Chinese Mother Goose Rhymes [Literary Excerpts]

  • What can we learn about specific social values as defined by a role in the family – mother, son, daughter, father, others? How do these rhymes reflect and/or complicate understandings of a traditional family system in imperial China?
  • In what way does the humor presented in these rhymes also shed light upon an individual's expectations, hopes, or view of their life-path at that moment in history?

Source 8: "Yin Yu Tang: A Chinese Home" [Online Exhibit]

  • How did families organize their domestic space in the late imperial period as seen in this exhibit? What are the ways in which the space is arranged, utilized, and imagined?
  • Imagine yourself as a child growing up in this house. Where, in this household setting, did the children fit in? How does it seem that children may have used or experienced this space?
  • What objects, in this family home, were designed for children? What were their practical purposes or uses? What might have been the personal value or symbolic meanings attached to them?

Sources 9 and 10: Children and Toys and Selling Toys [Selections]

  • Describe, in detail, the toys that we see depicted in these photographs of street scenes in China. Of what materials where they constructed and who made them? Who sold them? Who are the consumers depicted here?
  • What attractions might these toys have held for children? What sorts of figures or imagery do they present? What stories, games, or visions of make-believe might they have inspired?

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).