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Lost Childhoods in a New China: Child-Citizen-Workers at War, 1937–1945

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This article examines the emerging discourse of child-citizen-workers in wartime China and demonstrates how this concept of children’s citizenship was put into practice in work training programs within wartime children’s homes. This article argues that the idea of child-citizen-workers grew from three pre-war antecedents that converged and were greatly accelerated by China’s war with Japan: the new idea of an autonomous sphere of childhood articulated during the early Republican period; a progressive education movement to introduce labor training and experiential learning as essential elements of modern education; and Nationalist state-building and activist efforts at family reform, which viewed traditional parents with distrust and increasingly intervened in family life. The second half of the article focuses particularly on orphans, who were considered potentially unstable social elements due to their position outside the control of families, and whose lack of parental protection made them available for appropriation. This article demonstrates that the war opened up a space in which Guomindang state-builders, working with educators and childcare workers, attempted to restructure orphans lives within wartime child welfare institutions to realize a vision for China’s future: the ideal of child-citizen-workers habituated toward sacrifice for the nation.

Affiliations: 1: Johns Hopkins University in Nanjing, PRC


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