Research notes: Women in textbooks

One of the textbooks that I have found most entertaining is called 好公民。It is the story of a family of four: 华民, 黄裔, 华淑, and 华强。 Loosely translated, these names correspond to:Huamin (the Chinese people or Chinese race); Huangyi (the yellow race); Huashu (Chinese virtue); and huaqiang (Chinese strength). The oldest, and the main character of the story, is Huamin. He is the ultimate paragon of great citizenship, and often not only teaches his siblings lessons, but also teaches his parents as well. He is always the one to point out the behavior that all good citizens should follow.

We'll give some examples of Huamin's behavioral excellence. After a meal, he explains to his family the importance of eating fruit for his health. He designs a landscaping design for his backyard, and instead of relying on others' labor, he creates a beautiful garden with his own hands. He helps older people to walk when they have trouble. When the family goes shopping for New Year's gifts, he is the first to thank his parents for being such good parents, and asks the shopkeeper which toys are made IN the country rather than OUT of the country; when the toys he wants are imported, he decides to make his own toy boat instead.

But instead of talking about Huamin's many virtues, I think that Huashu's role is vastly more interesting. The only female character in the story (other than the mother, who has an even smaller role and is hardly given a role at all), she is often faded into the background. But the few appearances she does make speaks to the image of women in 1930's China.

First, lets look at her name and her placement in the family. As the oldest and wisest, Huamin, or the Chinese race, is meant to be superior, even superior to the other Asians and to women, the keepers of Chinese virtue. Huaqiang, or Chinese strength, is not often mentioned, but as the youngest sibling, I believe that he represents Chinese potential (though I could be wrong). However, Huashu is inferior to Huamin. In a way, I believe that this also is symbolic of the placement of women in citizenship. The woman is a person outside of citizenship, she is a different entity. Therefore, she is not only inferior to the Chinese people, more importantly, she is considered outside of the Chinese people.

Furthermore, her name, Chinese virtue, explains that as a woman, that is her most important job: to maintain and protect virtue. This stems back from the long, long, long debate of what to do with women in the new modern society. However, as Paul Baily showed, the ultimate purpose of female education was to train good wives and mothers. While there were certainly other roles for women in the "universe of discourse," the main narrative among men was that the main role for women in a modern society was to raise good and modern sons. Of course, education was necessary, but her goal in life was not be a leader, but to be the rearer of good leaders. Thus, in this textbook, the name of "Chinese virtue" is quite appropriate and quite telling in the author's belief of the role of women. To emphasize the further, the character 淑, while meaning "virtue," refers specifically to female virtues. Combined with other characters, this particular character's essence is to describe the ideal woman, her behavior, and her ethical standards.

Now let's look at the few appearances that Huashu makes in this story. One of the first appearances she makes is doing homework with her brothers. The story explains specifically that Huashu does not understand math at all, but with the help of her brothers, she understands it a bit more. This symbolically shows us Huashu's inferiority; she is hopeless intellectually without a man to help her. More obviously, women can't do math (a certain Harvard professor's comments a few years ago rings some bells...). And if we look at the average curriculum of female schools at this time in Bailey's book, it is shown indeed that math and science are not emphasized. This is understandable; how does knowing math or science help women raise good sons? This kind of symbolism is furthered in the next chapter, where Huamin is creating his own garden, and his sister sits by to watch and help. She doesn't really understand what is happening, but she helps anyway, attempting to support her older brother. This can also be read as the role of women: women should support the true Chinese citizens. Finally, we see her as not understanding the nuances of foreign relations when she, and her older brother Huangyi, pick out toys at the giftshop. Only Huamin has the knowledge and understanding to ask "is this made here? Or is it imported from outside?" While both Huangyi and Huashu's toys are made in China, the toy that Huamin desires is made outside of China. Because of this and his incredible virtue, Huamin makes the toys himself. That Huangyi and Huashu are so crudely unaware of the current situation that they don't even think to ask where the toys are made speaks to their level of political awareness; it is Huamin who must guide them. Here, however, Huashu and Huangyi are on the same page, showing that the Chinese people must guide everyone, others in Asia and the women of China, in the correct path to strength and modernity.

This type of portrayal of women in textbooks is not exclusive to this particular one. In other textbooks, especially 常识 textbooks, oftentimes the text will read "小哥哥does this and this while 小弟弟 should do this." Those characters translate as "older brother" and "younger brother" respectively, but there is no mention to what women should do to help around the house, help organize the classroom, be filial, or help to contribute to the public hygiene of the neighborhood. Similarly, in all pictures of children helping out a teacher or parent, or especially studying, the children are all boys. Sometimes, in scenes of playing, there are both men and women. There are also times when classrooms are shown with men and women. But in particular lessons in hygiene textbooks about "using a light when you read or write," the children are both boys. Oftentimes, the most common occurrence of a female in a picture is the mother, thus further emphasizing the true role of a woman.

A question I would like to know is: was this book used in both women's and men's schools? My guess is that they were used in both, as both Culp and Bailey point out that often times, both types of schools used the same books. But I don't know for sure. It is important though, because we need to know who is getting this message; was it women being taught how to be women, or was it men being taught what women should do?

It also speaks to the importance today of teaching children about important figures in women and minority history. As a girl reads 好公民, she is taught that her only role in life is to be a virtuous symbol under a man's shadow, never with real thoughts and ideas of her own, and when she reads other textbooks, there are no pictures or mentions of women studying or doing well in school, therefore giving her nothing to emulate. While I never thought about it as a child, learning about women like Susan B. Anthony and other women's rights advocates teaches in America that women can do anything. And if we didn't talk about Martin Luther King Jr. or W. B. Debois, the only way African Americans would see themselves in textbooks is as slaves. This kind of self-creation is important, and the way that we portray genders and races in our books plays a large part in the self identity creation of our citizens.


  1. Does Huangyi refer to Yellow Race or "descendants of the Yellow Emperor"?

  2. Honestly...I don't know. I just looked the characters up in the dictionary and asked a friend for clarification. Do you happen to know how best that would translate?

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