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Sunflowers and Stars

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

Valerie Pellatt

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.
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Chapter One: Nursery rhymes, children’s rhymes and children’s poems as a Chinese literary genre

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CHAPTER ONE

Nursery rhymes, children’s rhymes and children’s poems as a Chinese literary genre

Chinese children’s rhymes and poems as literature

Writing in the new millennium, in the People’s Republic of China just renewing its relationship with a free enterprise economy and an updated Confucianism, Zhang and Jin ask what literature means to a child. Their answer is that it is a companion as you grow old, dew on your heart, a spiritual garden, the presence of beauty, the source of laughter, and life outside the classroom (2001: 1). They say that without it life is dry and meaningless. Unable, however, to resist a little didacticism, they counter this with a note that good reading habits should be inculcated (ibid: 2). Their views are more liberal than some voiced in certain periods of strong ideological control in China, and accord with those of most developed cultures of the world. They certainly echo the views of Chinese reformers of a hundred years ago, when China was on the threshold of great cultural change.

Until the Republican revolution of 1911 children were not expected to read for fun, but to prepare themselves for reading more complex, serious Confucian texts later on. Children’s literature, including poetry, consisted largely of the ‘three, hundred, thousand’ classical texts (三百千). These were the ‘Old Hundred Surnames’ (《老百姓》), the ‘Three Character Classic’ (《三字经》), and the ‘Thousand Character Classic’ (《千字文》). The three texts constituted material deemed suitable for pre-school children, learned by heart in order...

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