Research Notes: Where to start

I wish I could begin my research on a more compelling note; unfortunately, my current situation puts me in such a position where I find that the best thing to write about is a series of questions that can serve as jumping off points. My original research proposal was to look at secondary school history textbooks from the Nanjing decade (1927-1937) and explore how the Nationalist government used education and curriculum to create a national identity among students, and what sort of nation they imagined would serve as the new China. As fate would have it, a month after I sent in my research proposal, Robert Culp wrote a book that explored that exact topic, and as I have delved further into this, it seems as though secondary school history textbooks have been pretty well explored.

So from Culp's book (and conversations with Dr. Culp himself) I've moved into new areas to explore that still allow me to stick with my area of interest: education and nation building. Before I go into some of the areas I would like to explore, I want to summarize some of the themes I have seen emerge through this book and Helen Chauncey's book (at the current moment, these are the only books I have in hand because I bought Culp's book and I stole Chauncey's book from Dr. Baumler...but only temporarily, I promise I will return it and NOT fling it into the Pacific ocean) about the Guomindang government. Both scholars have outlined a lot of changes they saw happening in the Nanjing decade in school administration and curriculum; this is a more broad collection of discourses that I see.

One of the more obvious discourses is that we see in the Nanjing decade a trend from a very free exchange of ideas to censorship and control. This includes government infiltration into school circles on a national and local level, the disbanding of autonomous student and faculty organizations, a strict control on textbooks, curriculum, and extra curriculars, to name a few. It is more than that, however; it is also a more subtle method of control, such as control over time schedules, over personal space, over standards of ethics, even attempts to exert control over the body (as Culp pointed out).

Another trend we see is a move from deconstruction to construction. The leaders of the May Fourth and New Culture movements, and even reformers before them, were concerned with deconstructing the social forces that defined, and in their opinion detrimentally restricted, China. This included everything from the family unit to the government, from gender roles to education methods. Culp calls this the "universe of discourse" of social forces, all of which floated around as reformers broke down much of what defined society. The GMD was very concerned with building it back up. They wanted to rebuild a working family unit, a social order, and a government structure, and string it all together with nationalist ideology.

A third trend is away from the intellectual and towards the practical, especially in terms of education. Much of the literature taught during the 1910s and 1920s was that of social critics, speaking of the importance of the intellectual; these were replaced (not entirely, but in some ways) with political ideology based upon Sun Yat Sen. There was a move towards independent thought in schools, the mark of an intellectual atmosphere, to mass education based upon 3 people's principles. Furthermore, as Chauncey points out, the GMD emphasized teacher and vocational training over higher education, and pumped a lot of money into normal schools. This emphasis away from independent thought and higher education, I believe, is similar to many trends we see in fascist/autocratic governments.

A final trend I've observed (which Culp has touched on) is a move away from the New Culture emphasis on societal reform separate from political reform, and instead a trend in which the GMD attempts to place itself into the discourse of the new China. The purposes of education was two-fold: to create a modern understanding of civility, and to make the GMD a part of that vision. This was done through a lot of the methods described above, such as changes in textbooks and curriculum, mass education, and control over behavior, space, and time.

From here, I would like to touch on a few ideas of areas which could use further exploration, or different possible directions I might take from here. One idea which Dr. Culp suggested to me is to look at primary textbooks rather than secondary textbooks. This could be quite illuminating since much of what Culp focuses on is the way that older students participated in this creation of the Chinese nation through student government organizations (which, on a side note, reminded me a LOT of our student government organizations in America, and even the IUP ambassadors). It would be good to contrast this with the lowest levels of education, on children who were taught the most fundamental ideals of nationhood and a modern citizenry. Furthermore, Culp talks a lot about the organization of space and time through strict schedules and classroom set up; it would be good to know what this looked like in primary schools as well.

Another area of interest which I will only touch on briefly here, since I wrote an entire post about it below, is the creation of the national geobody. I would really like to know where the nationalist standard boarders of China came from, how they were decided and why.

A further direction I would possibly explore is the distinct way that women are treated in textbooks, and how women's schools' textbooks differ from male schools. Culp touches slightly on the difference in curriculum, but it would be good to explore this further. Furthermore, I assume that there were female-only extra curricular activities; I would like to perhaps explore the unique structure and creation of female student government organizations in secondary schools, or (as Boy Scouts was popular and eventually required) look at female scout organization.

A final idea of where I might go with all of this is to further examine how the GMD sought to control time, space, and body. This has been explored through studies about physical education classes, and Culp talks about how class schedules and and classroom set up contributed to a GMD controlled national body. This also relates to all of the topics listed above. It would interesting to look at how student journals and textbooks portray the issue of hygiene (control of which was included in the duties of student government organizations) and physical education. Similarly, any information on the governmental decision making process regarding the control of space and time would be good to explore. Chauncey also talks briefly about the architecture of mass-education facilities; a further exploration into political architecture could be equally illuminating. All of this can be further connected to the differences among females and males, secondary and primary education, and the creation of national space.

This is a bit of a fluid list of ideas, and any contribution, ideas, or sources will be welcome (I do have other sources, I just haven't been able to really thoroughly read them yet). More is yet to come.


  1. Gina a fascinating discussion. I was wondering, though, about the size of the population of students in primary education? It's a leading question, because I wonder how many children did not go through primary education. Are we talking, then, about a subset of the population? If so, how do we define that subset (culturally, socially, politically)? Also, I was wondering if you will try to capture the reception of ideas--the signified, as well as the signifier? What sources would permit one to analyze how children, parents, teachers and others in the local communities received the "China" found in primary school books. I also wonder how were these school books were used to create an idea of China beyond what the authors and the government wanted.

  2. Thank you for your comments! As far as population size, I'm not 100% sure...I know that in one of my books it talks about percentages of population; as soon as I find that, I will let you know. The population of children in schools, however, increased exponentially during this period, especially in cities (which is important since most of my sources will be from urban schools...). As far as reception, there are a few really important sources. One is student essays which were published in education journals, or were sometimes published as a part of national contests. Another body of sources is student publications. I think that a lot of these are from universities, but I believe that there were many from secondary schools as well. Primary schools could be trickier since obviously we won't get the same body of analytical essays; I hope to find something though...