Summary: Everyday knowledge

As my Fulbright year is coming to a close, I decided to go ahead and create a few blogs that sum up a lot of the topics I have been exploring this year, and possible offshoot questions from those topics.

The first is about "everyday knowledge" textbooks, or changshi. I've written a lot about this topic because it connects to a lot of issues. First, it raises questions about education curriculum. By reading the "changshi" textbooks, we are able to look at what children were learning in their early years of education, and for many, especially before 1949, their only years of education. It also demonstrates government priority of knowledge. What made the cut into everyday knowledge? If we educate our public, what are the most important things for them to know.

In a broader sense, it also helps to define what is meant by knowledge, especially in the "modern" sense. In fact, the term "changshi" is specific to modern China (late 19th century onward) as is the whole concept of knowledge as being every day. Historians of nationalism and the modern state often cite Gellner's theory of the spread of knowledge to the entire population as a hallmark of modernity. Before this, knowledge was a privilage for the upper few; there was no concept of knowledge as belonging to everyone, and especially no desire for the government to ensure a basic level of knowledge among the population. Therefore, when we start to see these "changshi" sections in magazines, newspapers, textbooks, radio broadcasts, etc., we see a new dedication to a public with a basic level of knowledge, a population that can exist in a modern world. In that sense, we can look at changshi as a definition of the concept of knowledge: knowledge is available and necessary for everyone who wants to exist in a new society.

But what is considered "everyday knowledge" varies from situation to situation. There are often qualifiers to "changshi" both inside and outside of the education world. There is "economic changshi" "political changshi" "technology changshi" "science changshi" and on and on. But in elementary education, there is often no qualifier; instead, it is as basic and vague as possible, essentially, what every 7-12 year old needs to know.

So by looking at these textbooks, we are not only given a glimpse into what children learned in school, but the definition of knowledge altogether. And what constituted necessary knowledge in the 1930s was very different than what constituted knowledge in the 1950s. I've in previous posts given examples as to why that is. One of the main differences is emphasis on politics vs. other subjects. How much should politics take precendence when a government decides the basic knowledge its population should know? As we see the shift from the 1930s to the 1950s, obviously the information about political systems changed (from the nationalist to the communist systems). But more than that, what is interesting is that through this "everyday knowledge" of political systems, in the 1950s we see more of an emphasis on the importance of civic engagement through politics. To explain this through a counter example, in America I think most would agree that the way our democratic republic works should be considered "basic knowledge" for all of our citizens because we expect all of our citizens to take civic engagement seriously and participate in the democratic system. Similarly, in the 1950s, the communist government, while obviously not expecting citizens to vote, did expect all citizens to actively participate in politics by "continuing the revolution" and contributing economically in production. For this reason, the textbooks included "basic knowledge" about being a good cadre, about participating in the military, and even about being a class leader.

Beyond politics, another change we see that represents how each government understood knowledge was information about technology. What this indicated was how both governments wanted its people to contribute to infrastructue and development through better technology. I even learned through these books more about how planes worked.

But probably the most heavily emphasized topic was health and hygiene, which some could argue indicates that the most important element about being a good Chinese citizen all throughout the 20th century was being healthy and hygienic. This had a very practical purpose; if all citizens participate in public health practices, they become more effective members of society (one is not productive if they are sick). But it also had a symbolic purpose. Many of the developmental theories floating around in the beginning of the 20th century equated health and cleanliness with a higher place on the "development ladder" (cleanliness is close to godliness, no?) As China struggled to put itself on the world map, and prove to the world that it was a developed country, it had to improve its health systems and the behavior of this people. And for those who think this is a practice of the past, think again: as China prepares itself for the Olympics and World's Fair, much of the preparation includes preparing the people of Beijing and Shanghai to "look good for foreigners," which means eradicating the unhygienic practices of spitting in public, smoking like chimneys, or using squat toilets. And this isn't just in the minds of the Chinese, many foreigners come to China and immediately put them lower on the "civilized" scale once a local begins to hawk a loogie.

So what does this all mean in a broader sense, and where do we go from here? I think that a generalized look at the term "changshi" and how it is used in education and other mass media (magazines, books, lectures, newspapers) could give a lot of insight into a.) what is meant by knowledge at this time and b.) what did the ideal citizen look like? Both of these are important topics. Knowledge, and its use in terms of power and culture, tells us a great deal about what a society looked like, what its values were, etc. And the creation of citizenship gives us new kinds of insight, for instance it could help shed light on the eternal debate of the creation of the public sphere. Similarly, the connection between knowledge and politics (how political systems use or control knowledge to shape a society) would be another important topic to explore. A lot of research is currently being done on the Chinese concept of "community" and how that either succeeds or fails because of the political decisions of the party. Perhaps the root of what is happening today could be answered by exploration into the past.

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