Sunflowers and Stars

The Ideological Role of Chinese Children’s Rhymes and Poems in the Twentieth Century

by Valerie Pellatt (Author)
©2015 Others XII, 189 Pages


This book traces a hundred years of the development of Chinese nursery rhymes, children’s rhymes and children’s poems from the early twentieth century to the early twenty-first century. It draws on anthologies of traditional and modern rhymes and poems published in The People’s Republic of China and Taiwan, exploring the form, function and content of these texts in the light of rapid political change in China.
The role of traditional rhymes is examined within the context of a male-dominated family hierarchy of Confucian thinking that profoundly shaped children’s development. The language and literature reforms of the 1920s brought a poetry revolution in China, as authors began to write for children in the vernacular language and offer a purposeful argument against Confucianism, in favour of science and democracy. Literary approaches evolved, first into the socialist-realist approach of the 1940s and 1950s, then into the «three prominences» of the Cultural Revolution. Meanwhile, in Taiwan, children’s rhymes promoted the messages of modern science, but maintained a traditional Confucian outlook. In the 1980s, children’s poetry in the People’s Republic of China began to follow a new direction, in keeping with the new era of cultural and economic liberalization.
This book uses the evolution of the children’s poetry genre to provide a fascinating insight into Chinese political, moral and social life in the twentieth century.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Historical note on major political movements in the People’s Republic of China 1911–1989
  • Historical note on major political movements in Taiwan 1895–1987
  • Chapter One: Nursery rhymes, children’s rhymes and children’s poems as a Chinese literary genre
  • Chapter Two: Tongyao and erge: From ancient origins to modern pedagogy
  • Chapter Three: Gender and family in Chinese children’s rhymes and poems
  • Chapter Four: Tongyao and erge to tongshi: The evolution of a dedicated children’s poetry
  • Chapter Five: Children’s rhymes and poems as a reflection of ideological change in the twentieth century
  • Chapter Six: The development of children’s poetry in Taiwan
  • Chapter Seven: The paratext of Chinese children’s rhymes and poetry
  • In Conclusion: Tongyao, erge and tongshi as a mirror of a changing Chinese society
  • References
  • Index


My appreciation goes to collectors, anthologists, educators and poets who have enabled and supported the continuity of Chinese children’s rhymes and poems over the decades. In the case of traditional and anonymous rhymes and poems I have credited the editors of the volumes in which I first found the rhymes cited. It has not always been possible to trace or contact copyright holders. Any omissions brought to my attention will be rectified in future. I wish to thank all the colleagues and friends (many of them former students) who have made it possible for me to access libraries and other resources in the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Special thanks go to Michael Pushkin of The Centre for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies (CREES), University of Birmingham, who gave invaluable advice on my English text. I am indebted as always to Eric Liu, of the School of Modern Languages, Newcastle University, for his unfailing wisdom and support. ← ix | x →

← x | xi →



Sunflowers and stars are easily comprehensible images for children, not least in China, where the sunflower has been regarded as a symbol of the Chinese people turning towards Chairman Mao, and where the stars of the national flag symbolize the People’s Republic of China. One hundred years ago very different icons were current, and Chinese children’s rhymes and poems reveal a changing set of symbols and concepts over the century. Natural phenomena like sunflowers, stars and moonlight are still common motifs of children’s poetry, but are now complemented by items such as remote control toys and mobile phones.

A very rich canon of nursery rhymes and children’s poems has been recorded in China, expertly collected and analysed by scholars, most notably Zhu Jiefan (1977). With the advent of modernization at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, reformers and educators began to exploit the tradition of existing rhymes and create a new body of rhymes and poems dedicated to children. The traditional rhyme forms recited to small children were complemented by a more directly didactic body of freer poetry for older children. By the 1970s poets and teachers were encouraging children to create their own poems. In this volume, I chart a century of development of children’s rhymes and poems, from the traditional nursery rhymes prevalent before the twentieth century to modern poems created for children. Work by children is an important field which deserves separate, specialized research, and is not addressed in this volume.

My motive in writing this book is to bring to English-speaking and international audiences an awareness of the vast and constantly developing genre of children’s rhymes and poems which has been produced in China over millennia. It is a canon which provides the literary bedrock for Chinese children, and at the same time is a window on Chinese political, moral and ← 1 | 2 → social life through the centuries, not least in the centuries in which we have lived, and in which China is a powerful political entity.

Children’s rhymes are an integral part of the literature of a nation, and they are imbued with the dominant ideologies of their time. The traditional Chinese rhymes tell of a culture firmly embedded in Confucian ideology and notions of family hierarchy. By the 1920s Confucian thought had been rejected by many Chinese intellectuals and artists. It was replaced by ideals of democracy and science, reflected in the literature of that period aimed at both adults and children. Through the following decades, children’s rhymes and poems continued the age-old teaching about work, natural science and human relationships, but overt Confucian ideas tended to be excluded, apart from very general ethical family values. Children’s rhymes became a useful vehicle for the anti-Japanese propaganda of the 1930s and 1940s. Civil War propaganda of both sides, Communist and Nationalist, appeared in rhymes of the 1940s, and the tension between Communist mainland China and Nationalist Taiwan is still a feature of rhymes published in the People’s Republic of China. PRC rhymes and poems of the 1950s–1970s included anti-American propaganda. From China’s liberalization in 1979, the two paths of children’s rhymes and poems in Taiwan and mainland China began to converge. In 2000 China reintroduced Confucian thinking as a state ideology. Serving as a safe deposit for traditional arts, Taiwan had preserved Confucian values throughout the periods of Japanese occupation, post-World War II American influence and martial law. In 1990 a joint conference was held on research in children’s literature, and the two sides began to find common values and interests. At the time of writing, modern children’s poetry and rhymes on both sides of the Taiwan Strait carry the messages of Confucianism, updated to cater to modern leaders’, parents’ and teachers’ requirements.

The material and discussion in this book centre primarily on rhymes and poems from mainland China, complemented by discussion of equivalent works produced in Taiwan. The reason for this is the common origin of traditional rhymes and classical poems in Chinese. The traditions diverged in the 1940s, following distinct patterns of ideological and stylistic change and continuity. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, children’s poetry in the PRC and in Taiwan may be said to be once more following a similar route of development. ← 2 | 3 →

The tradition of children’s rhymes and poems in Hong Kong and Singapore appears to be less rich, perhaps owing to smaller populations and multi-lingual, multi-cultural communities. In a conference paper given in 1993, Dong states that while there were 900 publications of children’s literature produced in Hong Kong between 1980 and 1990, this dipped to 100 publications in 1991 (Dong 1993: 21). These included not just literature, but all children’s reading matter. To put this in context, it is worth noting that in 2005, Hong Kong printed, produced or published 14,603 books (Hong Kong Books Market 2013). Dong names two well-known children’s prose authors but does not mention poetry at all. In the preface to an anthology of thirty Hong Kong poets writing for adults, she notes that it is not easy to find children’s literature in Hong Kong (2000: 1). She further claims that the situation deteriorated over the 1990s, and that most children’s literature in Hong Kong consists of stories or dramas. According to Dong, the works are designed to provide relaxation from school work, and are mostly fantasy stories, and stories about daily life, school and home. On a visit I made to Hong Kong in 2012, the only rhymes, songs and poems for children which I was able to find were old publications from mainland China. It appears that the bulk of the data is to found in mainland China and Taiwan.

The taxonomy of children’s rhymes and poems

In this volume I regard nursery rhymes, children’s rhymes and children’s poetry as one genre. I subdivide the genre into three subgenres: the term tongyao (童谣) is used to indicate traditional nursery rhymes composed by adults and sung or recited to children by adults, and also more modern rhymes in standard Chinese or dialects, aimed at very young children; the term erge (儿歌) is used to indicate more modern, simple, rhythmic rhymes composed for slightly older children; the term tongshi (童诗) is used to indicate the freer, more creative poems written by and for older children. ← 3 | 4 →

The structure of the book

Historical notes: immediately following this introduction are brief resumes of the major political events and episodes affecting literary creation and creativity in the twentieth century in the PRC and Taiwan.

Chapter One, ‘Nursery rhymes, children’s rhymes and children’s poems as a Chinese literary genre’ provides an overview of perceptions of and approaches to the definition of nursery rhymes, children’s rhymes and children’s poems in the context of literature. The definitions are followed by a discussion of the literary and educational functions of the three subgenres in the context of Chinese traditions of education, culture and society.

Chapter Two, ‘Tongyao and erge: From ancient origins to modern pedagogy’ charts the historical development and recording of songs and rhymes from their origins in The Book of Songs and The Book of Changes. The evolution of nursery rhymes from satirical or political ditties to educational material is explored. This is followed by a survey of the various traditional forms and functions of the rhymes, and their evolution as erge, or children’s rhymes, designed for educational and aesthetic purposes.


XII, 189
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
Taiwan children poetry nursery rhymes twentieth century
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. XII, 190 pp.

Biographical notes

Valerie Pellatt (Author)

Valerie Pellatt lectures in Chinese translation and interpreting at Newcastle University. She has published books on Chinese numbers in language, Chinese-to-English translation techniques and approaches to translating Chinese culture. Her current research interests are paratext in translation and translation of modern Chinese drama.


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