National Aspirations and Anxieties: Images of Ideal and Problematic Children and Youth in 20th-century Nation-building Projects in Asia

Title: 1098 | National Aspirations and Anxieties: Images of Ideal and Problematic Children and Youth in 20th-century Nation-building Projects in Asia
Area: Border Crossing and Inter-Area
Stream: History
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Edgar Liao, University of British Columbia, Canada (organizer, chair, presenter)
Ying Chen, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong (presenter)
Sai Siew Min, Independent Scholar (discussant)


The emergent historiography of childhood and youth has provided many insights on how many 20th-century state governments centered children and youth in their national construction and reconstruction projects, and on how Cold War rival superpowers made children and youth pawns and symbols in their global competitions for hearts and minds. Compared to the historiography of childhood and youth on Europe and North America, however, there is less extant literature on the cultural politics of childhood and youth in Asia. This is notwithstanding important recent work by historians of East Asia and Southeast Asia that underline the value of age as a category of historical analysis in illuminating social, political, cultural transformation and contestation in Asia.

This interdisciplinary panel shows how state officials, adult reformers, educators, and film-makers in 20th century China and Singapore sacralised the young as symbols and agents of national construction and revitalization. They placed children and youth in the center of their nation-building projects and sought to discipline them through a variety of methods, such as education, sports and youth recreation, and children’s films. Through interrogating these projects, this panel illuminates how converging and colliding nationalist aspirations and anxieties were played out on the bodies, minds, and souls of the young. We argue for more attention to be paid to age-relations as another important axis of power that shaped state-society relations and adult-youth relations, and to the study of images of children and youth in nation-building projects as sites of political and cultural contestation in 20th-century Asia.

Panel Abstracts:
Nation-building, the Cold War, and the Emergence of Youth Recreation in Decolonizing Singapore, 1945-1965
The immediate post-war period between 1945 and 1959 were formative and tumultuous years in Singapore. Animated by different forms of nationalisms, anti-colonial aspirations and Cold War anxieties, different groups of colonial officials and local nationalists participated in the imagination and construction of a new modern colony and nation. They created new images of Singapore youth as ideal subjects of the new colony and nation, and started new institutions, programs, and publications for the mobilization, socialization and policing of youth. In particular, they invested substantial amount of resources and attention to the expansion of youth leisure and recreation. Two key institutions created for this purpose were the Singapore Youth Council (1948-1959) and the Singapore Youth Sports Centre (1956-1959). The origins and work of these two organizations underline how Singapore’s children and youth became the target of state governmentality in the 1950s. They also reveal that the development of youth recreation and leisure in Singapore was partly driven by the circulation of ideas, youth workers, youth leaders, and financial and technical assistance between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Singapore. The case of Singapore reveals the convergence between the politics of childhood and youth, the politics of decolonization, and the politics of the Cold War, where the forging of a new postcolonial society was predicated on an ambitious pedagogical enterprise of shaping new children and youth, and where the disciplining of ideal youth was part of a global ideological competition to police the hearts and minds of the young.

Competing Visions of Chinese Childhood in Silver Screen: A Study of Little Angel (1935) and Lost Lamb (1936) during The Children Year
During the New Cultural Movement, children were considered as important figures in the achievement of a modern and strong nation-state. Adult reformers, educators and artists increasingly capitalized on a range of cultural products – children’s films, children’s literature and pictorials - to educate children and shape their images. Among these cultural products, children’s films have been accorded little scholarly attention. This paper draws attention to two children’s films produced by Lianhua Film Company during the Children Year in China (1935-1936), namely Little Angel (1935) and Lost Lamb (1936). Based on Lianhua Pictorial’s reports, filmic texts, the crew’s memoirs, and contemporaneous film reviews, this paper argues that two films represented competing visions of childhood with divergent political ideologies and aesthetic pursuits. These visions corresponded to the larger political agendas of Kuomingtang (KMT) and Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in which film served as a propaganda tool for projecting children as national subjects. More precisely, Little Angel, a propaganda film for the Children Year, constructed an image of model young children living under the KMT’s supervision while Lost Lamb provided a counter-narrative combined with popular melodrama and left-wing realism. However, the producers of both films encountered difficulties catering for the popular tastes of the audiences and realizing the films’ propagandistic objectives at the same time. These gaps and tensions reveal the complicated cultural politics of projecting Chinese childhood onto screens.

This panel is on Wednesday - Session 03 - Room 3

Go to Room 3