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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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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...

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