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Children need voices in their own literature

WU XIANGYU | 2021-06-17 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Pictured above is a children’s book fair held at the China National Museum of Women and Children in September 2019. Photo: CFP

Children’s literature cannot be divorced from society’s understanding of children, which involves fundamental concerns such as children’s rights, status, and characteristics. For too long, children have been overlooked and underestimated by adults. Due to a lack of real understanding, adults aggressively intervene in positioning children’s identities, replacing intergenerational communication with a rigid form of education. 

Consequently, an insurmountable divide spans between children and adults, making it impossible to engage in dialogue on an equal footing. From the perspective of the shift from old to new discourse, both children and children’s literature are products of modern times, and the modern view on children is a new source of power.
Children hidden in literature
As a cognitive conception, views on children are never children’s own self-expressions or self-definitions. Instead, they are comprised of non-empirical, experiential opinions of adult-dominated social systems on children. These are popular impressions formed within specific societies, cultures, and regions, deeply imprinted within adult discourse.  
Adults’ imaginations and narratives of children can offer glimpses into the discourse politics between generations. Therefore, views on children are an important part of adults’ thoughts, and also a good point of departure from which to examine intergenerational views and values. 
Views on children are products of social construction. Whether in the West or in China, both the conception and identities of children have been distorted by adult society to varying degrees. Thus children are misinterpreted in texts and become an object through which researchers can explore the origins of modern ideas and human civilization. 
Obviously, the significance of views on children goes well beyond interpreting specific examples of the concept, which aims to uncover major topics concerning the development of human civilization and the evolution of thought. The social construction of “children” becomes an invisible thread, running through the entire production process of children’s literature and profoundly influencing adult writers’ practices when creating children’s literature.
To systematically investigate the formation, development, intellectual history, and evolution of views on children, it is vital to understand the process of discovering children as a subject. 
To borrow famed Japanese philosopher and literary critic Kojin Karatani’s paradigm of the “discovery of landscape,” the discovery of children is similar in nature to studying landscapes. However, Karatani reminded us, “Once a landscape has been established, its origins are repressed from memory.”
After children are established as the object to be discovered or emancipated, whether they should be treated as an entity or a concept is blurred, and even reversed. Conducting an analysis through reverse engineering is a modern process which doesn’t follow a positive direction, but a negative one. Only with children as an abstract concept can researchers reversely study the concept’s actual pattern and real existences. 
Hence the issue of whether scholars are discovering or inventing the concept of children can be disregarded. Researchers now focus on revaluing how the discovery and invention construct the subject of children together. 
Regardless of debates between theories of essentialism and constructivism, it can be found that the history of children is actually a history of relationships between children and adults. 
In his 1960 book Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, French scholar Philippe Aries thoroughly analyzed the history of childhood through the history of games, skills, the development of schools and their curricula. His groundbreaking work drew much attention from academia. 
In Western paintings and diaries prior to the 16th century, the existential value of children as independent individuals was almost ignored. The mistaken identities of children as “little adults” made them compatible with the adult world. Similar clothing, labor, competition, and division of labor deprived children of their unique subjectivity. The inborn childhood of humankind was also missing. Children desperately needed to break away from the rigid cultural system established by adults, so as to build up their unique subjectivity. 
The opportunity to recapture “lost” childhood arose with school education, which made the distinction between the two generations a self-explanatory fact. With the separation of children and adults through education, the concept of childhood surfaced, and joined the wave of modern world values. 
The children’s re-definition reflected advancement, and gradually updated adults’ views on children’s lives, behaviors, and mental worlds. Views on children also began to develop on a path more suited to their self-growth. 
Discovering children
Given that children had long been overshadowed and stripped of discourse power, Enlightenment thinkers tried to reveal historical and cultural roots which normalized children’s lack of agency. Among other criticisms, critique of social cultural mechanisms that restrained children’s physical and mental growth was the most scathing. 
Once the roots and soil clinging to obsolete ethical thoughts were cut off, children’s discourse became a topic regarding national survival and development, elevating the importance of children for their distinctive features as “new citizens” and “new people,” concepts proposed by modern Chinese thinkers like Liang Qichao (1873–1929). The “discovery of children” informed adults of the great need to create literary works for children, hence children’s literature was generated.  
When “discovering children,” appropriate children’s literature became necessary to safeguard children’s complex social needs. Therefore, children’s literature is also a modern concept, originating from the modern awareness of children’s cultural construction. 
Interestingly, when talking about the historical evolution of modern Western children’s literature, Hans-Heino Ewers, a professor of German literature with a focus on children’s literature at the Goethe-University of Frankfurt, positioned modern children’ s literature as “anti-authority.” The revolt against authority transcended bigoted, narrow-minded views that regarded children’s literature as popular literature for beginners. 
Since adults are the primary creators of children’s literature, it became an unpopular but unavoidable choice to limit excessive adult discourse in children’s books. This was attempted by inserting childhood terms from authors’ memories, or creating child characters who held stances that were totally different from those of adults.  
Ewers held that the ideal literature for children should conceal adults’ subjective positions, who only need to master writing expertise and related artistic skills. Apparently, prioritizing children’s opinions has become essential to offset adults’ discourse authority inherently hidden in children’s literature. In fact, adult writers will never be “outsiders” as they shape discourse in children’s literature. 
The discovery of children in the modern sense prompted the establishment of a new compatible view on children. Essentially, this view calls for society not only to see children as human beings, but also as children. Such a child-oriented view is an organic component of modern thought reform, so children’s literature has boasted characteristics of modernity since it came into being. 
In the new literary system, children’s literature is a part of traditions founded by Chinese literature, which regard literature as a science of human nature, because it aims to recover, guarantee, and promote the modernization of humanity, converging in the general issues of modern literature through larger topics such as enlightenment and revolution. 
Nonetheless, this child-oriented view will also lead to a dichotomy between children and adults. The absolute distinction will drive children to an isolated, narrow, and small world as their subject value is clarified, which is worth pondering. 
Like the establishment of children’s subjectivity, children’s literature also fosters its own way of thinking by separating itself from adult literature. However, the separation cannot be done at the cost of disregarding “integration.” An overemphasis on separation will result in the cancellation of children’s value as “complete people”, and children’s literature will lose the commonality of literature. 
A scientific, rational approach is based on the thorough understanding of the two generations and incorporates multiple fields of vision. While establishing the subjectivity of children’ s literature, it is likewise important to further examine the likelihood of integration with adult literature. 
For example, when reflecting on women’s liberation, renowned Chinese writer Lu Xun didn’t rest on moral judgment of women when women broke out of restrictive family roles in his article “What Happens after Nora Walks Out.” Instead, he followed complexities arose after the woman’s decision. Lu Xun’s approach of extending “why” to “what would happen” is illuminating when understanding the modernization of children’s literature. 
As far as children are concerned, if we don’t consider childhood as a preparation stage for an entire life, or fail to ask what adult life children will grow into, then our view on children’s literature is biased. We might even underestimate children and produce self-enclosed children’s literature.
In turn, if children’s value as complete people is guaranteed, children’s literature will be extended from writing about “what are children” to the new field of “what are children as complete people.” The dynamic conception of children will obtain a broader life value. The creation and research of children’s literature on this basis will be able to enhance its philosophical height, depth in human nature, and historical profoundness. 
Wu Xiangyu is a professor from the Children’s Literature Institute at Zhejiang Normal University.