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2005-2006 Visiting Fellows

Valentina Boretti
Graduate student in History, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
"Playing for Keeps: Toys and Identity Construction in China, 1895-1975"

First of all, I am extremely grateful to the Cotsen Children's Library and the Friends of the Princeton University Library for awarding me a generous Research Grant that allowed me to spend two weeks of very fruitful research in Princeton on the subject of toys and identity/gender construction in modern China

While in Princeton, I was able to examine a wide range of valuable resources held in the Cotsen Children's Library, a collection that is particularly significant insofar as it is specially devoted to the (oft-neglected) subjects of children and childhood, therefore including items unavailable elsewhere, or very difficult to find, even in China. This material has proven crucial for me to map out the development of toy discourse and representation, also providing me with evidence of toy experience and consumption, thus enlarging the amount of primary sources I shall use. In fact, I will immediately start using the materials collected in Princeton for writing up my dissertation.

My research project aims at attempting to produce a cultural history of playthings in China from 1895 till 1975, seeking to ascertain the various, shifting ways in which these specimen of material culture were used--in different socio-cultural contexts--to construct/mould/instruct gendered identities. I wish to map the norms playthings were embodying and transmitting, so as to draw a picture of the (wished-for) "ideal" child/future adult, therefore gaining an understanding of modern China's identity/gender-moulding agendas and methods. I shall read toys as objects, in terms of production, sale and display; as (material) texts within a context, reading the meanings that discourse inscribed on things having no specific significance per se; as indicators of identity and gender, evaluating what message they were conveying in terms of masculinity and femininity definitions; finally, some hints at consumption and experience will be given, looking at playthings in kindergartens, and at what toys or the lack thereof represented to some children.

The material, literary and visual sources--several of which very rare, and covering the whole twentieth century - that I examined in Princeton include various toys (e.g. building and picture blocks, picture cards); new year's cards; pedagogical/instructional works - addressed to both adults and children - on how to make and use playthings; kindergarten and primary school readers; treatises on education, parenthood and childrearing; juvenile literature; and a vast quantity of young readers' magazines, very useful for the perspective they provide on children's usage of toys--through readers' letters, drawings and photographs. I have also seen a good number of slides, which I had not found anywhere else. Used after 1949 for kindergarten and primary school instruction, these slides and the enclosed teachers' manuals are very significant for their normative and representational value, because they allow me to see what children were actually shown, as well as the values and attitudes they were expected/encouraged to internalise. While none of all these sources is "objective", their meaning is indeed more important than their veracity, since I am interested in knowledge as culturally and socially constructed, represented and disseminated, and in the meaning toys were intended to have.

Finally, I wish to thank Andrea Immel , Eric Johnson and Bill Tonn for satisfying all my queries, and patiently, till the very last hour of my stay, providing me with such a great amount of invaluable sources.

I am also very grateful to Martin Heijdra for kindly giving me access to the useful resources of the East Asian Library, where I have found some very interesting primary and secondary literature.

My gratitude goes as well to the Firestone Library Rare Books and Special Collections reading room and photoduplication staff, who supported my work in every possible way.


27 September 2005


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