Excerpt: Keeping the Nation’s House

By Helen M. Schneider

[A goal is] to cultivate children’s happiness. The basic idea is that you want your child to feel satisfied. Even if the food is unsatisfactory, the clothes are inadequate, or the habitation is insufficient, you still should tell your child that it is very good. You do not want the child to be greedy and insatiable. In the future whether or not he is law-abiding, well-behaved, satisfied, or works for his own knowledge and does not simply enjoy the fruits of other’s labor, these all start from this word: “Happiness.”

In the 1940s, Nationalist Ministry of Education bureaucrats in conjunction with educators in teacher training schools developed social education experimental zones in China’s interior. The purpose of the zones was to improve the physical and emotional quality of citizens by addressing all aspects of their daily existence. The training document from which the epigraph is taken shows the significance the ministry attached to a mother’s role in developing the attitudes and behaviours conducive to a stable social order. The female and male intellectuals who worked in these zones, including Nationalist bureaucrats, educational leaders, and students, believed that improving the quality of how women dealt with the daily fundamentals of family management was key to the nation’s long-term success and positive development. The goals of creating a stable society and saving China from national disintegration were directly and intimately related to the work of making families happier.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Chinese intellectuals felt that women were responsible for perfecting their management of domestic space in order to strengthen the Chinese nation. As the Qing dynasty experienced dramatic decline at the end of the nineteenth century, intellectual leaders believed that women, because they were uneducated and superstitious and had bad habits that were a negative influence on their children, were at least partly responsible for China’s weaknesses. They wanted women to be better prepared for their responsibilities as mothers and wives and, in the final years of the dynasty, Qing officials mandated that new schools for girls and teacher training schools should train women in important skills that would prepare them for their gendered responsibilities as household managers.

In these new schools, educators taught household management classes and encouraged women to take their roles as wives and mothers seriously in order to ensure the future stability of the nation. As more schools of higher education opened up to girls, the emphasis of domestic science shifted from a curriculum in housekeeping skills to the preparation of domestic managers with scientific skills. By the end of the 1920s, the field as it was taught in normal schools and colleges no longer trained women solely for their wifely roles; instead, the discipline of home economics prepared women who might not only manage households efficiently but also manage projects of social reform and help engineer a better China. The graduates of home economics programs and their fellow intellectuals, such as the participants in the wartime social education experimental zones, created and promoted a broader agenda of nurturing an emotionally stronger, physically healthier, and more productive citizenry prepared to meet the challenges of the modern age.

The discipline of home economics facilitated the formation of a group of white-collar professional women who advocated more rational ways of living and practical habits for all Chinese people. In the government’s support for home economics and its regulation of the social education experimental zones, it is clear that one cornerstone of social order was the division of fundamental responsibilities between men and women. Educators, administrators, and officials alike clearly delineated these differences as they asked women to pay particular attention to domestic responsibilities, to matters of emotional development, to internal management, and to significant daily tasks such as cleaning, cooking, and child rearing. The discipline of home economics thus tells us much about how a system of gendered responsibilities was institutionalized and made foundational to the Chinese nation-state.

This book introduces readers to educated, professional Chinese women — home economists — who played an important role in their country’s social and political transformations in the twentieth century. As an educational discipline designed to train women in managerial, scientific, and transformative skills, home economics developed in China as intellectuals infused the social space of the home with new political and modern significance. Like political theorists in the past, reformist intellectuals who designed the field stressed the foundational nature of the family for the stability of the state. Twentieth-century domestic reformers radically re-imagined the home as a place where habits of citizenship were formed, and they believed that opening up the domestic, “inner” sphere to public scrutiny and to careful management were central parts of becoming modern. The discipline of home economics created a class of trained women with disciplinary and managerial skills who worked to transform the most fundamental of political spaces, the home, and who invested deeply in instilling new, modern ideas in the inhabitants of that space, the families of the nation.

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One staunch advocate of more widespread home economics training in China was He Jing’an (also known as Irene Ho, Ho Ching’an, Liu-He Jing’an). He Jing’an had a long career as an academic home economist, and devoted her academic career to popularizing and teaching home economics in mainland China and, after 1949, on Taiwan. He Jing’an received a master of science degree in home economics from Oregon State College in 1926. She returned to China and served as instructor and rotating chair of the Home Economics Department at Yenching College in Beiping in the late 1920s, and later held posts at Northeast University in Shenyang and National Zhejiang University in Hangzhou. In the late 1940s, she was head of the Department of Home Economics at the Teacher’s College in Tianjin. After 1949 she went with the Nationalists to Taiwan, where she continued to write textbooks on nutrition, childcare, and home management.

In 1931, He Jing’an made a trenchant call for the further development of home economics, which she translated literally as jiating jingji (“home” and “economics”) rather than the more common jiazheng. In this piece, she assessed the contemporary problems with home economics education in China, and suggested paths for the discipline’s further development. She first expressed her disappointment that China had not followed the wave of development in this field that had taken place abroad, and noted the already well rehearsed line about the discipline’s significance in other countries. “This is a new field of study in Europe and America, and in the last 20 or 30 years it has been flourishing. All state universities have established colleges of home economics, or departments of home economics, and at Chicago, Columbia, Iowa and Oregon, these are the biggest departments. Many female college students choose this as their major, and all European countries also look on it favorably.” She added that it was also a popular field of study for girls in Japan.

She then explained why she thought China did not have well-developed home economics programs. Although Chinese primary and middle school for girls sometimes had cooking and needlework classes as well as a few classes in other domestic arts, very few colleges had home economics classes. She believed that one reason home economics education had not caught on at higher levels was its improper name. “In the past it has been called ‘jiaxueshi’ [literally, “home study work”] or ‘jiashi xue’ [literally, housework studies], which sounded like things such as cooking, needlework, etc. … miscellaneous household chores, not something that should be taught in a college.” The name suggested that it was something that taught mundane tasks, rather than a discipline that was of fundamental value to Chinese society and that would expand the minds of women. He Jing’an here echoed the concerns of educators earlier in the Republican period that “modern” educated girls were shirking their responsibilities: “Many girls who go off to school live in dormitories and ‘do not look back’ at home. They only go home during holidays, and so they do not have a sense of what life in the home is like, nor do they have any housekeeping skills. They think that anything that men can do women can do as well.” He suggested that modern education needed to recognize the significance of the home.

He Jing’an did not believe that teaching women to properly manage the home would create or perpetuate a system of inequality. She wrote: “I think that in a society where men and women are equal, not only do we want to keep the old values of ‘wise wife, good mother,’ at the same time we should promote the value of ‘wise father, good husband.’” Home economics was only a pragmatic recognition that men and women had different social duties: “When thinking about sharing work, men should take responsibility in the home, but women should definitely take charge of managing the home, the family’s clothing, food, and shelter, and the raising and educating of the children.” For her, expanding home economics training was a way of empowering women by giving them a leadership role in strengthening China from the inside out.

As a highly trained woman, He Jing’an recognized that most women would manage their families and would have responsibility for domestic management. She did not advocate a radical re-imagining of labour in the home, nor did she suggest that wives and mothers be paid for their domestic work. Although she asked that men help out in the home and take some interest in it, she assumed that women would continue to have primary responsibility for homemaking and caretaking. She imagined that the discipline of home economics would improve the lives of Chinese women by rationalizing their domestic labour, and would improve the nation by strengthening China’s families.

Calls for expanded home economics education continued over the course of the 1930s. A contributor to Funü gongming made points similar to those of He Jing’an. Qu Jingni argued that home economics training would provide the Chinese with a better conception of what was important about family and home management. Like He, Qu believed that the name of the field was misleading and argued that many people just thought that jiazheng referred to “daily insignificant household chores” or “‘housewives and wives’ job,’ something that women are responsible for doing.” Qu explained: “What I mean by jiazheng is not narrowly defined by jiashi, but is the organization of the family [jiating] (including theories and points of view about the family), household economics [jiating jingji], household hygiene, raising children, and all other kinds of common knowledge about the home.” Schools should teach basic ideas about the home so that all Chinese, men and women alike, would know how to create and maintain an ideal domestic space and more perfect family.

Even after the discipline became more widespread in China’s higher-education system of teachers’ schools, colleges, and universities, the question of who should take home economics classes at the middle-school level popped up now and again in various circles, as Qu’s article suggests. In a 1939 piece about how to improve rural education, Wu Zhanyan suggested that jiashi be included in the common curriculum for boys and girls, pointing out that educators were clearly “favoring the old attitude that this class was only for girls, and this is an unfair distribution.” Normal schools should train more teachers in jiashi, but with the aim of thinking about how to solve everyday problems of rural families, and, as Wu put it, “not just accepting the ideas of the west.” Wu was part of a small group of educationalists (along with Qu Jingni) who suggested that both boys and girls participate in home economics training in 1930s China.

Helen M. Schneider is Assistant Professor of History at Virginia Tech and currently a Research Associate at Oxford University.

Reprinted with permission of the Publisher from Keeping the Nation’s House: Domestic Management and the Making of Modern China by Helen M. Schneider © University of British Columbia Press 2011. All rights reserved by the Publisher.

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