Portrait of Chinese childhood seen through the eyes of youngsters


New York: Alfred A. Knopf

315 pp. $22.95

ADORABLE automatons best sums up the popular impression in the West of what Chinese children are like. Americans returning from the People's Republic frequently describe the children as obedient to a fault and ever ready to utter a slogan on cue.

Ann-ping Chin's ``Children of China,'' which is based on interviews with 130 youngsters aged 6 to 19, provides a more rounded portrait. As Chin explains, childhood is a time ``when we are experiencing and not analyzing; when we still have the power to be honest about our thoughts and feelings.''

Primarily edited transcripts of interviews done in 1979 and 1984, the book is a sensitive, insightful look at home and school life and at the enormous social and political pressures children and their parents face daily. Although Chin emigrated to the United States when she was 11, she was born in Taiwan to mainland Chinese parents, so she is ``grounded in the same cultural horizon'' as the children she talked with.

Nearly all the children lived in major cities. Most attended ``key'' or model schools and came from families in which at least one parent was a professional. Thus, the book deals primarily with urban life and only tangentially discusses life in the countryside, where 80 percent of China's people still live.

Many of these children spend the first years of their lives at sleep-away nursery school or living with their grandparents because both parents work. When with their parents, they typically come home to an empty house after school. At an early age they are responsible for chores like cleaning vegetables, washing clothes, and sweeping the floor. Despite some grumbling about the chores, most willingly acquiesce, for they see their parents as chronically tired and overworked. Children, especially the older ones, will disagree with their parents periodically, but this seldom results in explosive confrontations.

Second to parents, school is the most important part of their lives. Classes are extremely competitive, especially for high school students. Most of their energy goes into preparing for the rigorous examination that decides who will go to college. As one student put it, they are ``stuffed like a duck'' during these years.

The 1979 set of interviews is less revealing, perhaps because Chin consciously or unconsciously avoided pushing politically sensitive subjects during her first visit. Also, at that time - just three years after the official close of the Cultural Revolution - Chinese, both children and adults, were far more reticent with foreigners and fellow Chinese.

Chin emphasizes that even though she conducted her interviews in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, the children did not seem ``like people crawling out from underneath the rubble.''

This book wonderfully captures the contrasts of growing up in China. One moment a youngster describes the marvel of discovering tadpoles. The next, a boy talks about the latest anticrime campaign in the city of Chungking, which has about 10 executions a month. ``We have very strict rules and regulations,'' he explains to Chin. ``This is the law. Those who deserve to die will be executed; those who are borderline cases will also be executed. This is the way to ensure order.''

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