Research Notes: the ambiguity of 卫生(hygiene) and 常识 (everyday knowledge)

The two textbooks I have found the most helpful, mostly because I feel they have been the least explored by scholars, are the 常识 and 卫生 textbooks, which translate roughly as "everyday knowledge" and "hygiene." However, these translations are really troublesome, because the subjects included in these textbooks encompass so many things that I'm not sure that any English word could encompass the subject.

Let's begin with 卫生 (hygiene). Scholars have grappled with this term before. One of the most important works on this subject is Ruth Rogawski's book, who translates 卫生 as "hygienic modernity," as one cannot separate 卫生 from the modern concept and the desire to follow public health and bodily practices of the West. I want to expand this concept even further. It includes not only bodily cleanliness, but this process of changing all practices related to the body into "modern" ones. Defining "modern" practices is also problematic, but we will save that for another paper (or post).

In order to further show this definition, I would like to list some of the subjects or lessons included in 卫生 textbooks. There are many chapters on brushing teeth, washing hands before eating, changing clothes often, washing face, cleaning out ears and nose, washing and cutting hair, all things we would include in the definition of "hygiene" in English. There are also chapters on getting vaccinated, taking care of yourself when you are sick, exercising properly, getting enough sleep, wearing a lot of clothes in the winter, how to stay healthy in summer, etc. And the topics that seem to broaden the scope of hygiene even more are chapters on correctly organizing the classroom on national day (including how to properly hang the national flag), sitting up straight, helping parents at home, dressing properly, buying food at the nearby market, and nearly half of the upper level textbooks are devoted to life science, including not only human physiology but also bugs, animals, and plants. In some ways, this is almost an etiquette manual, a life science textbook, and a "staying healthy" brochure from the doctor's office all rolled into one.

Now let's move into 常识 textbooks. This is not only a title for textbooks; there are often 常识sections in magazines and journals (such as the journal I used for my last research project Ling Long). And through looking at Ling Long and these textbooks, I've realized that 常识 can mean just about anything. I read a teacher's manual today that was meant to teach teachers how to teach 常识 classes. They defined 常识 as combining 2 major ideas: human and natural interaction, and service society. I realize these may sound quite awkward, but at this point, that is the best I can do with translation, and to be honest, even in Chinese it doesn't make a whole lot of sense (to me). They then listed nearly 30 things that should be included in a 常识 textbook, including (but certainly not exclusively) Chinese modern history (including the Opium wars, colonialism, the first world wars, and others) Chinese geography (the main cities, rivers, and mountains) the main Chinese-produced products (food and others) Chinese natural resources, main occupations, contagious diseases, major modes of transportation, major plants and animals, etc. What was not listed in this teachers' manual but still included in many 常识 textbooks is information about sitting up straight, staying healthy, being on time for class, why not to put things in your mouth that you cannot eat, and other odd subjects as such.

Personally, I think the best way to define 常识 is any information that an informed public needs to know to be a part of a modern society. Obviously, this definition is hugely problematic, since "modern society" is by no means definable. But, just as how I defined 卫生 before, I define modern not by our current conception of it, but how Chinese people at the time understood it. It was defined differently by different people and groups, but in essence it was a goal, a way of life emulated by the West and Japan that China wanted to achieve, but without sacrificing their "Chinese soul" so to speak.

Still, however, these terms are hugely vague, and there is a lot of overlap. For instance, both textbooks talk about the importance of proper behavior and cleanliness practices. Both talk about filial piety and helping others. Both include lessons on an organized space and an organized daily routine. And both include lessons about basic life science, including animals, plants, food, human physiology, and of course, the importance of vaccinations. But ultimately, neither textbook group tries to hide the desire to "modernize" the Chinese population by emulating Western habits and Western categories of knowledge. Furthermore, the ultimate goal of creating a patriotic nation is quite obvious. But what we must remember is that we can't point and scream "propaganda"; this was a time period when using education to foster patriotism was commonplace, not dangerous. It is how this patriotism is fostered that is important, and the major trend I can take from these textbooks topics is that they focus on controlling behavior, time, space and the body, which is what connects these topics together.

1 comment:

  1. Gina,

    On 常识 have you tried comparing it to what traditional gazetteers saw as "things everyone should know" and the contents of western-style almanacs like The China Year Book?