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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 Two: Tongyao and erge: From ancient origins to modern pedagogy



Tongyao and erge: From ancient origins to modern pedagogy

The earliest poems and parables

There is a significant overlap between ancient folk songs (古代民歌) and tongyao or nursery rhymes. Gao highlights the importance and richness of Chinese folk songs – a ‘precious heritage of literature’ – and the variety found among them (1995: 197). The origins of folk songs go back to The Book of Changes (《周易》), reflecting a literary history dating back to the third and second millennia BC. The Book of Changes is a book of divination, using the eight trigrams system, which symbolizes the natural phenomena heaven, earth, thunder, wind, water, fire, mountain and marsh. The work links natural phenomena with social development (ibid: 198). Gao points out that the divination and prophesy of the time, the era of the Shang dynasty, was couched in rhyming language. In practice, it represented the folk rhymes (民谣), parable poems (寓言诗), and wise sayings poems (格言诗) of the earliest literature (ibid: 198). Guo Moruo’s analysis of The Book of Changes shows how the divination reflects three core aspects of life: industrial pursuits such as fishing, herding, agriculture, commerce and craft; social life, as in social structures, family and clan relationships, governance, administration and class; and the ‘spiritual production’ of religion, the arts and philosophy (Guo 1999). Gao points out that the bulk of the content of The Book of Changes is reflected in poetic forms which rhyme (Gao 1995: 199).

Gao divides the folk rhymes in The...

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