Chinese tradition is fairly enthusiastic about filial piety, having much to say on how to be a good child. Rather less is said about being a good parent. In this short essay, Hu Shi (1891-1962) asks readers to consider how poorly Chinese children are treated.
On caring for children
by Hu Shi / translated by Julian Smisek
The other day, a friend told me something rather profound: “to see how civilized a country is, you just have to examine three things: First, look at how its people treat children; Second, look at how they treat women; Third, look at how they spend their free time.”
These three standards are straightforward. It’s disappointing that China fails at all three. No matter which of the three we choose, we find that our country is the most barbaric. How do we treat children? How do we treat women? How do we spend our free time? The country is filled with fools boasting about our intellectual and ideological development, yet not one of them has reflected on these three issues.
We’ll first take a look at how we treat children.
Let’s start from childbirth. Even today, we consider the birth of a child to be the filthiest thing imaginable. This is most probably a superstition inherited from a more barbaric era. However, this superstition still encourages the majority of people to avoid anything to do with childbirth. As a result, we leave the delivery of babies in the hands of unknowledgeable midwives who lack surgical methodology and tools, care nothing about sterilization and disinfectant, and know nothing about first aid or emergency care. Even uncomplicated childbirths sometimes run into danger. If there’s even a small problem, death is nearly unavoidable.
When a child is born, no one pays attention to its hygiene or safety. Children always sleep together with their mother. If the child cries, they stuff a nipple in his mouth. If he cries again, they shake or hit him. Children don’t receive a fixed amount of food, and are not kept away from sickness. When children get sick, parents can only pray, suppress evil, and call on dead spirits. To survive, Chinese children rely entirely on heaven and luck – not the efforts of others.
The male children of ordinary families do not receive good educational opportunities, but it’s the female children who really suffer. When a female child is four or five years old, her mother binds her feet. The pain is so bad that the child screams and cries, and tears fall continually down her mother’s onlooking face. But this is necessary for the daughter’s future – it’s unavoidable. Parents have not fulfilled their responsibility until their daughter’s bones have snapped and her flesh has withered into tiny three inch feet.
Only with those will their daughter be qualified to be a woman!
After the age of six or seven, male children begin to receive a quite barbaric education – females, of course, have no need to attend class and receive any education at all. While the females stay at home with their bound feet, males go to school and read dead books. What do I mean by “dead books?” The language that they read is only used by dead people. Every character of every sentence must be translated before being understand. Sometimes, even after translation, the books don’t make sense. These dead books are worthless to read.
As soon as the sun rises, children attend “early school.” Bellies empty, they study for three to four hours before eat breakfast. They then study until sunset, returning home at night. Later on, they must attend “night school.”
This lifestyle is so miserable that many children skip class. When caught, they’re punished; if they’re lucky, they’ll receive a slap on the wrist. If they’re unlucky they’ll get spanked on the butt. At school, many frail children are often tortured to death, and others develop mental illnesses.
This is how we treat children!
We should deeply thank the imperialists for waking us up from this dark and evil dream. We should thank the Christian missionaries for bringing over a little bit of Western civilization and humanism. We should thank them for telling us that the way we treat children is inhumane and barbaric. With all our hearts, we should thank the so-called “cultural invaders” for promoting the “Natural Foot Society,” the “Anti Foot-Binding Society,” and for building new schools, hospitals, and maternity hospitals.
As a result, over the last few decades, Chinese children have experienced less suffering and more happiness. Yet, the “child care” movement has only just begun. We must promote the importance of nurturing children, and carefully plan improvements to childcare services.
I believe that in childcare today, the following areas need to be developed:
(1) Obstetric hospitals and “visiting nurses.” It is unquestionable that obstetric departments should be the most critical part of every hospital in every city of every province. Still, in Europe and America experience shows that women from the lower levels of society do not trust hospitals. They feel that hospitals are not built for poor people like them. They’re especially terrified of such hospitals obstetrics department. Therefore, these countries employ “visiting nurses” who visit the homes of pregnant women, gain their trust and address their questions and doubts. The nurses also help these pregnant women resolve various problems of pregnancy and teach them good hygiene. This is the foundation of childcare.
(2) Although child hygiene is important, it’s only a part of public hygiene. The promotion of public hygiene promotes child hygiene. In an environment of filthy drainage ditches and trash piles, on land thick with muck, and in air swarming with mosquitoes, flies, and germs, people talk emptily about childcare. How is this anything but a joke?
(3) The practice of binding women’s feet has still not been entirely wiped out from China’s interior. The childcare movement should also work hard to finish the job.
(4) The childcare movement’s central problem is the training of modern mothers. If mothers don’t care for children, or don’t know how to care for children, the whole childcare movement will fail. Currently, it seems that during a woman’s education, childcare is an entirely ignored topic. As a result, women who’ve received a secondary education often don’t know how to raise their children. Of course, a goal of female education is to turn women into independent “people.” But at the same time, the knowledge necessary to being a good wife and mother should not be neglected. These days, women should first study how to raise children, how to educate children, how to protect children with good hygiene, and then go on to date and choose a spouse.
- Original Chinese text included in 胡适文存， vol 3, (Shanghai: 亚东图书馆, 1930) pp. 1175-1182.
- Chinese text reproduced in Zhou, Zhiping, Joanne Chiang, and Der-lin Chao. Advanced Reader of Modern Chinese: China’s Own Critics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1993. Print. pp. 11
- For more on Hu Shi, see: “Hu Shi, missionaries, and women’s rights”.