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The Rural ModernReconstructing the Self and State in Republican China$

Kate Merkel-Hess

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780226383279

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226383309.001.0001

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Writing for New Literates in the Chinese Countryside

Writing for New Literates in the Chinese Countryside

(p.23) 1 Writing for New Literates in the Chinese Countryside
The Rural Modern

Kate Merkel-Hess

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

The Mass Education Movement (MEM), led by Yale and Princeton-educated Yan Yangchu (James Yen), created a genre of literature for rural “new literates” that presented a vision of a reformed countryside that drew on both new (Western) notions of governance and remaking of the self as well as Confucian regard for education and self-cultivation. On the pages of publications for “new literates,” the MEM and other rural reformers took the ideas of modern behavior and citizenship, developed in the cities for urban audiences, to the countryside, making an argument not just for the modernization of all Chinese but that China’s future—its very modernity—was only possible in the countryside.

Keywords:   literacy, education, schools, women’s education, Mass Education Movement, Dingxian

In the spring of 1927, the Mass Education Movement (MEM), an organization devoted to teaching the Chinese masses to read, published a textbook written for rural illiterates, The Farmer’s Thousand-Character Reader (Nongmin qianzi ke).1 The textbook culminated in a three-part lesson on the “model village.” Perhaps inspired by the neat, industrious New England towns they had glimpsed during studies abroad, in the accompanying illustrations the textbook’s authors placed at the center of the little hamlet a clock tower (not a sight common to rural China but one that did evoke the urban modernity of, for instance, the famous Customs House clock tower on Shanghai’s Bund), “according to which the townspeople know the time to conduct [their] affairs.” In the model village, the lesson declared, everyone had a job, officials were elected by popular vote, the young people had organized a militia to protect the village, and besides managing the home, women could “all spin, weave cloth, knit socks, and do needlework.” No one drank, gambled, or smoked, but instead found entertainment in the village’s gymnasium and museum. Additional components of life in the model village included a public park, sports fields, hospital, and public health council. This utopian vision of an orderly rural society remade for prosperity and stability placed education at its center, for it hosted “a forest of schools”: a kindergarten, a middle and high school, a People’s School (for adults), and a worker’s school, as well as a library, a newspaper reading room, and help stations where those learning to read or who wanted laws or texts explained could stop for assistance.2

The centrality of education to the model village—a reform vision of a mod­ernized countryside—reflected the view of the MEM, like many other prominent reformers who emerged in the mid-1920s, that literacy education was the initial mechanism for educating rural people as citizens and as modern people. (p.24)

Writing for New Literates in the Chinese Countryside

1. Illustration for a lesson on “The Model Village” (mofancun) in the 1928 edition of The Farmer’s Thousand-Character Reader

(Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1928)


Writing for New Literates in the Chinese Countryside

2. A refined depiction of the model village in the 1930 edition of The Farmer’s Thousand-Character Reader

(Zhonghua pingmin jiaoyu cujin hui, 1930)

(p.26) MEM Director Yan Yangchu wrote that literacy was “the foundation for all other lines of improvement, for with an illiterate people very little headway can be made.”3 In the mid-1920s, many rural reform advocates like the MEM were still based in cities, but on the pages of their many publications, they constructed a coherent idea of a remade countryside, like that sketched in the Farmer’s Reader. The lessons on the model village, and the ones that preceded it, outlined a new swath of activities and knowledge—from how to write and mail a letter to how to celebrate National Day (October 10)—that the authors believed rural people should be familiar with. This vision of rural modernity adopted the markers of urban modernity, among them literacy, participatory governance, and gender equality, but situated them in a rural context and rural geography, emphasizing particularly their roles and responsibilities within their villages. Above all, it placed the focus of reform on rural people, and particularly their abilities to reform themselves and their communities. Reformers didn’t just believe that rural areas were as capable of being modern as urban ones—they went a step further and insisted that a modernized countryside was the basis of the Chinese nation.

The MEM in particular was strongly committed to the connection between literacy and citizenship. The organization was founded in 1923 to further mass literacy, and was initially engaged in urban campaigns to teach city people to read. A 1922 literacy campaign held in Changsha by Yan’s first literacy organization, the forerunner to the MEM, sported banners that made clear the organization’s belief about the connection between national strength and literacy. “An illiterate nation a weak nation,” one read, while another offered a solution: “China’s salvation? Popular education.”4 In order to address the broad illiteracy that MEM leaders argued was a national failing, the organization almost immediately began to publish a literature—of textbooks, short stories, and educational pamphlets—for new literates, which would over the next decade and a half grow to a catalogue of hundreds of books, pamphlets and newspapers distributed to millions of readers in China and abroad. By 1927 when The Farmer’s Thousand-Character Reader was published, the MEM had found a base for its experiments in rural literacy outreach. At the invitation of self-governance activist Mi Digang, whose family had been involved in local reform efforts in their home county since the first decade of the twentieth century, the MEM began work in Dingxian (Ding County) in southwestern Hebei in 1926. Mi was active in national political movements (he belonged to the GMD and participated in the Zhili Provincial Assembly, among other activities), but remained invested in the future of his home village.5 Inspired by Mi’s ideas that “instead of writing beautiful essays and paper plans,” intellectuals should undertake rural reforms “in a practical way,” the MEM decided (p.27) in 1929 to relocate their headquarters from Beiping to Dingxian.6 There, Yan wrote, “we want in every way possible to merge our life with the village life.”7 Setting up shop in the county seat’s exam hall, the MEM established a famous and closely watched model county that its founders and funders, who eventually included the Rockefeller Foundation, hoped would become a national and perhaps even international model of reform.

The MEM was not the only group to place education at the center of a vision of rural revitalization. A few years after the MEM started their rural education efforts in Dingxian, the prominent intellectual Liang Shuming founded the Shandong Rural Reconstruction Institute at the invitation of General Han Fuju, who governed the province. Liang’s vision of the countryside was also grounded in education, proposing that village schools be the organizing institution for the countryside. For Liang, profound social change would result from the “schoolification of society.”8 Other reformers, discussed in the chapters that follow, also founded schools in rural areas throughout China that became, or attempted to become, the centers of model communities. In drawing connections between literacy and citizenship, Liang, Yan, and their compatriots were in the company of nationalists the world over. Building on Enlightenment ideals that linked literacy and social progress, in places as diverse as India and Russia, early twentieth-century mass literacy advocates argued that education would civilize new citizens, inculcating people with the values of the nation.9 Indeed, as social science researchers turned their attention to the psychological effects of education, they argued that literates and illiterates differed from one another. For instance, 1930s Soviet researchers concluded that illiterates “had a ‘graphic-functional’ way of thinking,” describing the world around them largely in terms of the possessions and activities that populated their own lives, whereas literates were capable of envisioning a world beyond their own experiences.10 Literacy, in this view, was a crucial marker of modernity, citizenship, and the right to participate in the nation, and while critics have since questioned the casual connection made between literacy and good citizenship, it was a powerful belief at the time. As the shifts that the MEM underwent in the 1920s illustrate, during that decade Chinese reformers increasingly came to feel that literacy was critical to China’s future and that meant educating the majority rural population.

This chapter examines the vision of a remade countryside that was created on the pages of the MEM’s publications for new literates, the ways that their rural literacy efforts sought to incorporate previously marginal groups into the vision of the Chinese polity (not just rural people generally but also, for instance, rural women), and the way the MEM’s didactic literature, and its vision of an inclusive and remade rural society, became the basis for its propagation (p.28)

Writing for New Literates in the Chinese Countryside

3. Anti-Japan parade in Dingxian, in front of a wall bearing the MEM slogan “Eliminate illiteracy, make new people” (chu wenmang zuo xinmin) in 1931 or 1932.

Sidney D. Gamble Photographs, David M. Ruben-stein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.

of a model for rural modernization and a future for the Chinese nation. The MEM’s slogan was “eliminate illiteracy and make new citizens for China,” a project intended to turn the rural denizen, as Yan wrote, into an “intelligent and progressive citizen of the Chinese Republic.”11 As reformers affiliated with projects like the MEM taught rural people to read, they also imparted a vision of a remade rural, a vision in which literacy was at the core. This vision had implications for existing rural communities and power structures. In 1933, after the MEM’s arrival, the local gentry organized a protest in which hundreds paraded through the streets, shouting “Down with the Mass Education Movement!”12 Literacy education was, as historian Harvey Graff has written, “the medium and the carrier of the elements of the hegemonic culture,” and in the case of 1920s China, that meant a focus on the role rural people might play in the nation but also a profound shift in local power structures as national elites and the state began to meddle in and manage village affairs that had previously been left to local powerholders.13 Local elites, like those who organized the 1933 protest in Dingxian, thus often had the most to lose in such arrangements, and the MEM would bump up against them again and again. The MEM, for its part, insisted that through education they were freeing rural people from the exploitation by local powerholders that illiteracy (p.29) made them vulnerable to, such as being cheated in financial matters, so they might better manage and sustain their villages.

Yet it wasn’t just local powerholders who objected to the MEM’s sharp focus on literacy education. Dingxian, some critics asserted, was on a railway line and had a higher standard of living than the average Chinese county. Solutions generated there might not work in poorer regions. Others complained that the MEM was “completely influenced by American capitalism,” a charge that stuck. Most of the upper echelons of its leadership had advanced degrees from American universities, the program’s ideology was strongly influenced by an American progressive agenda, and by the mid-1930s, its largest funding sources were American. But the most repeated critique was the charge that the MEM was myopically focused on literacy, overlooking systemic rural troubles. In 1934, one regular observer of rural reconstruction efforts asked rhetorically, “How can the Thousand-Character Reader solve all the countryside’s problems?” (His answer: It could not.) He eviscerated the MEM’s plan for the countryside for having a lot of “flair” but no substance.14 That same year, a leftist study group that visited Dingxian for one week critiqued the MEM for starting with education rather than undertaking systemic reform. The MEM, they wrote, shortsightedly critiqued the peasants’ “ignorance” rather than the feudalism and imperialism that these observers believed had created rural poverty.15

They were right that the MEM believed that educating rural people could change China. The influence of the MEM’s program for reform and its vast body of publications for new literates demonstrates that despite the critiques, the MEM’s vision was nevertheless a popular and compelling one for many reform-minded elites who attempted to persuade rural people to remake themselves through education—and to do so without a revolution or a complete dismantling of existing institutions. In this, they continued a role that Chinese elites had taken for themselves for centuries as moral and social exemplars. Yet the effect of such efforts was also that literacy—not just learning to read but also learning to read modernity—sought to normalize rural people into the contemporary values and mores of modernity and the nation, becoming a vehicle for propagating a new vision of the countryside as a possible site of China’s future.

The MEM’s Rural Turn

The transition from Beiping to Dingxian was a challenging one for the MEM, as staffers came to grips with the significance of their move and the realities of rural life. Located on a rail line 120 miles southwest of Beiping, Dingxian was (p.30) a flat county, situated on the coastal plain that ran toward Tianjin and the sea. The soil was mainly sand and loess, the weather dry most of the year, other than the wet months of June to September when 84 percent of annual precipitation fell. Plentiful wells kept drought at bay, but the county had a dusty feel to it, with spindly trees dotting the landscape. One photo from the MEM’s early years shows camels lolling in a dusty courtyard beneath the famous pagoda that still stands today in the center of town. The county’s population of 400,000 was scattered in its 450 villages and towns, the vast majority making a living primarily from farming.16

Remembering his introduction to Dingxian, Survey Department Head Li Jinghan (Franklin C. H. Lee), who held an MA in sociology from Columbia and was one of the Chinese pioneers in conducting social research among the lower classes, recalled his sleepless first night in the county. Afflicted by unbearable but inexplicable itching he gave up on sleeping in his bed and instead tried to sleep on a table. He had never encountered bedbugs before.17 The move to the countryside meant personal sacrifice and confronting the unfamiliar in ways that would eventually become part of the MEM myth, anchoring funding reports and magazine stories for decades to come. For instance, Feng Rui, a Cornell PhD who worked for the agriculture division, would later tell a visitor that “he had studied agriculture in China and abroad for more than nine years,” but until the move to Dingxian “had never seen a Chinese farmer,” an assertion that seems hard to believe.18 Initially, just a handful of MEM staff members and their families moved to the county, a number that eventually grew to more than 100—varying reports indicate that by the mid-1930s there were between 150 and 200 MEM staffers in Dingxian. This was an elastic number that included all levels of expertise and experience, from the dozen or so internationally educated national elites who headlined the project down to local high school graduates. Many staff members who moved to the county were accompanied by their wives, children, and sometimes parents as well.19

Moving to the county made staffers aware of the need for whole-scale social reform: it was hard to educate students who missed class because of illness or suffered from trachoma (which can lead to blindness) or to convince parents who needed children’s labor at home to send them away for part of the day to learn to read. As a result, the Dingxian work rapidly extended beyond education to public health, agriculture, popular culture, and local political reform. The MEM established a robust village health program, overseen by graduates from the Rockefeller Foundation–funded Peking Union Medical College (PUMC), that, among other activities, built a network of central and village clinics, attempted to retrain local midwives in sanitary practices, undertook (p.31) widespread vaccination campaigns, taught villagers to build sanitary latrines, experimented with birth control education, and headed up a fly-elimination campaign.20 The MEM’s agricultural outreach efforts included a concerted attempt to introduce the Poland China boar to the local farmers, encouraged healthier designs for chicken coops, established agricultural cooperatives, celebrated Arbor Day to encourage tree planting, and held a county fair that was attended by as many as thirty thousand villagers.21 MEM employees and numerous researchers used Dingxian as a basis for social surveys, producing studies of its local operas, folk songs, architecture, health practices, and so on.22 American Sidney Gamble, heir to the Proctor and Gamble fortune, first went to China with the YMCA, but found his way in the late 1920s to Dingxian. He would write three books based on extensive research there, and though he was not a fan of village fare (“Breakfast,” he wrote in a letter to friends, “was millet gruel and eggs so I usually had mine out of a can”), he thought it had been “a privilege” to participate in the social survey work in Dingxian.23 The organization cultivated a cohort of local graduates of its adult “People’s Schools,” as well as local health workers and agriculture specialists, all of whom helped the organization make inroads into insular villages. One visitor to Dingxian in 1934 reported that local People’s School alumni said, “Before, it was the MEM that was active and the rural people were passive. Now actually it is the rural people who are active.” They reported that, as a result, the problems the institution faced were growing pains—securing enough funds and teachers—not trying to convince intractable peasants to participate in their programs.24

Yet education and rural literacy remained the focus of the MEM’s work, threaded through each of the other areas of reform. As Yan would later say, “[If] there isn’t a plan to reconstruct education, then [our plans] will come to nothing.”25 The MEM was at the forefront of a national turn toward rural concerns, and its staffers’ experiences in Dingxian were used to inform the body of didactic texts that issued forth from MEM presses for the next decade, texts that were then used by reformers throughout China as primers on how and what to teach rural people. These texts promoted the ideal of a self-governed, economically self-sufficient village where rural people were educated, sanitary, maintained a healthy balance of work and leisure, and served the nation through active participation in their local community. By proposing that rural people be the primary targets of reform, the MEM signaled that it believed rural people embodied China’s backwardness, and for the next decade the organization remained, despite the concerns of its critics, optimistically invested in the power of literacy to transform the countryside.

The MEM’s literacy efforts built on several decades of Chinese efforts at social mobilization and reform through mass education. Beginning in the first (p.32)

Writing for New Literates in the Chinese Countryside

4. A courtyard classroom in Dingxian in 1931 or 1932. It appears to be Yan Yangchu in front of the class.

Sidney D. Gamble Photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.

decade of the twentieth century when the faltering imperial government initiated its “new policies,” various proposals were made to fund new schools, from levying new taxes on villagers to seizing temple lands to support schools (and sometimes repurposing temples to house schools) to discouraging spending on other village endeavors like operas (to funnel money into education instead).26 Throughout the Republican period, elites signaled their support of the state’s modernizing agenda by funding local schools, which, in the case of rural areas, were seen as bringing “urban culture” into the villages.27 Some rural people welcomed literacy reforms and opportunities for education, but others were wary. The new schools of the late Qing were targets for rural protests, the primary manifestation of the broader burdens—especially through taxes—that rural people bore as a result of the new policies, sometimes resulting in physical attacks on the schools themselves.28 The MEM’s efforts, too, faced challenges from rural people, as when villagers objected to the content of the curriculum or leaders pointed out that they already had a local school and did not need another. Rural people thus did not perceive literacy efforts as innocuous, though many did embrace them and the new opportunities they (p.33) provided. As MEM staffers often noted, the base of regard for literacy that existed in China made many peasants eager for education of any sort. As Yan wrote in 1929, rural people were engaged “the minute we uttered the magic word tu-shu [dushu, reading]. There was instant attention and interest no matter how illiterate, how ignorant the farmers may be, they recognize the value of education.”29

The popular embrace of their education initiatives was a crucial part of the MEM’s origin story. The MEM’s mass literacy work grew out of the creation of a literature for a special group of new literates: Chinese laborers working in France during World War I. In 1918, Yan—who would be selected as MEM head in 1923—graduated from Yale and went to Boulogne, France with the YMCA to work with Chinese laborers. As a child, Yan attended a missionary school run by the China Inland Mission in his native Sichuan, which then led to a scholarship to Hong Kong University, and finally to Yale (and, later, also Princeton). In the decades after taking the helm of the MEM, a position he would hold in various guises for most of his life, energetic, verbose “James ‘Jimmy’ Yen” (as Yan fashioned himself in the Anglophone world) embodied American hopes for a new China. His rural reform efforts were embraced in the United States, where he lunched with Henry Ford, lobbied the US Congress, and was featured in Time Magazine, which described him as “the essence of will, exploding off his seat … like an evangelist under a big top.”30 In China, Yan cut a slightly different figure, downplaying his Christian faith and wearing the traditional long gown of the Chinese scholar, and influencing the formation of public policy on rural issues and, especially, rural education, making him one of the most important rural educators of his time.31

In France, Yan confronted a class of Chinese people he hadn’t ever interacted with before: common laborers. Between 1916 and 1920, the French and British governments recruited 140,000 Chinese laborers to build reinforcements, dig trenches, and undertake other kinds of work behind the frontlines of the ongoing war. Beginning in 1917, the YMCA, its efforts run by young men like Yan, coordinated support and entertainment for Chinese laborers in Britain and France. Yan was besieged by requests from the mostly illiterate Chinese laborers to transcribe letters to their families and share with them news of the war raging close to their worksites. In response, Yan organized classes to teach the laborers to read and write.32 Yan found his options for instructive texts limited, and the laborers he was tutoring complained that the first text he chose was “dry and flavorless.” Yan asked his friend Fu Baochen (Paul C. Fugh), who would later obtain a PhD from Cornell in rural education and then become head of the rural education division of the MEM, to come up with more engaging materials. Fu first combed through characters to select the six hundred (p.34) most commonly used ones, updating the earlier text.33 In addition, Yan founded a newspaper called the Chinese Laborers Weekly (Huagong zhoubao). The first issue was published in January 1919 and each reproduced four-page issue, handwritten by Yan himself, relayed news from home and pressing updates on the conflict, discussed issues of concern to the workers, and included a short literacy lesson. Within a short time, circulation was fifteen thousand.34 Watching the laborers become more self-sufficient and self-possessed as they learned to read made Yan a believer in the transformative power of literacy education. Over the coming decades, Yan’s account of his awakening to the burdens of illiteracy anchored Rockefeller Foundation funding reports, fundraising speeches in the United States, and the many pamphlets and scholarly texts that issued from MEM presses.

After returning to China in 1920, Yan joined a group of like-minded education advocates, including Tao Xingzhi, a Columbia Teachers College PhD who served as one of John Dewey’s translators during his tour of China from 1919 to 1921. They began to combine the literacy education methods developed in France with the ideas about education and social mobilization brought back by students who had studied in the United States. But the urban populations who were their initial quarry, MEM leaders knew, constituted only a small percentage of the total Chinese population, which was more than 85 percent rural. As most estimates suggested, and as rural reformers confirmed in Dingxian and other rural reform areas, a high percentage of the rural population was illiterate; estimates of the percentage of the rural population that had some level of literacy ranged from between 30 and 45 percent of men and perhaps 2 to 3 percent of women.35 Moreover, school enrollments in the villages—despite limited efforts to implement compulsory schooling—were often low. As few as one in four of China’s school-age children were enrolled in classes in the early 1930s.36 Low literacy rates were frequently cited in both government reports and popular media as one of the barriers to self-government. For education reformers, literacy work was vital to creating the citizenry that would form the nation-state’s base. With the vast majority of China’s population in the countryside, that meant educating rural people.

Even before the move to Dingxian, the MEM put its energies into literacy education as the basis of citizenship and the making of a new people. The organization’s emphasis on literacy resonated with international efforts to tie literacy to increased political participation. In the United States, the Immigration Act of 1917 barred illiterate immigrants from entering the country and literacy-based activities like women’s book clubs and the founding of libraries incubated nationalist sentiments. In Russia, as in China, mass literacy efforts not only sought to teach students to read but used literacy education (p.35) as a vehicle to convey values and to depict the reality of rural life, as well as shaping a tangible, shared national identity that was in part dependent on the reader beginning to think of himself as a distinct individual.37 Aware of and inspired by such efforts, the MEM nevertheless did not argue that in becoming educated the Chinese peasant was joining an international community of national subjects. On the contrary, they asserted that Chinese rural people were particularly suited to turn popular education into citizenship. As one report from the MEM explained, “Unlike the serf-peasant of Russia or the ‘Untouchable’ of India, the Chinese farmer is a free being. The lack of a strong centralized government has cherished his independence and self-reliance. Though poor, he is thrifty and industrious. Though illiterate, he is intelligent.” These people, the report continued, were the ones the MEM was courting; this “young, vigorous, substantial, rural stock” was “capable of building a great modern Republic in our own generation.”38 The sentiment reflected the organization’s deep-seated belief in the positive potential of rural people, and faith in the ways that education might harness their inner power for the nation.

This is the spirit that infused the body of mass literature the MEM created in the 1920s and 1930, as reformers produced texts that could guide the peasants’ awakening to modern life, to their responsibilities in the nation, and to themselves. In this regard, producing texts for the new mass audience was a call to action for socially conscious writers. A 1934 MEM report argued that new literature had to be created for a growing reading public that included rural people, women, and children and that “if scholars can be induced to begin writing for this rapidly increasing reading public instead of for each other, they will find themselves infused with a new creative power, and Chinese literature will once more take its place among the great literatures of the world.”39 The New Culture efforts of the 1910s—to create a new society for the Republic by reforming all aspects of life, but particularly the personal elements, from dress to sexual behavior to marriage practices—had championed the vernacular and the creation of a common people’s literature. The MEM efforts picked up this call, but instead of the urban-focused literature that New Culture adherents churned out, they proposed a literature for, about, and sometimes even by rural people.40

Writing for New Literates

As the text that taught potential readers how to read, the MEM’s Thousand-Character Reader, based on the traditional elementary text, The Thousand-Character Classic, was the most important publication in the MEM arsenal. It (p.36) formed the base readership for a slew of MEM publications: three periodicals (two newspapers for new literates and the journal Minjian) as well as a body of hundreds of texts and pamphlets on topics ranging from soil enrichment to forming farming cooperatives to novels. By 1927, when the farmer’s version of the reader, in which the lessons on the model village appeared, was published, the MEM’s authors had already produced a series of simple texts featuring series of couplets and simple line drawings.41 After returning to China, Yan coedited the first Thousand-Character Reader, published in 1921. The reader had four volumes with twenty-four lessons each, an arrangement preserved in later editions.42 After the MEM was organized, it sponsored the editing of a new thousand character text, which was published in August 1923 by the Commercial Press, a Shanghai publishing house that during the 1910s and 1920s was one of the leading textbook publishers and focused on featuring new knowledge and serving new audiences.43 Over the next two decades, the Thousand-Character Reader went through numerous iterations, and its authors numbered more than a dozen.

The MEM and its founding educators were not pioneers in revising and editing a textbook to suit China’s new educational system and the needs of its citizens. Such efforts had been under way since the Qing reform of the education system began in 1905. Particularly after the 1911 Revolution, educators used textbooks and new educational methods to convey ideas about the society and republic they hoped to build. Educators took advantage of the burgeoning publishing market in the early Republic to promote new ideas, a trend that continued but slowed under the censorship and standardization of the Nationalists after 1927. And these educators implemented a US-inspired educational system that advocated popular education, citizenship education, and local determination of educational needs.44 Publishers turned their attentions to rewriting textbooks, with pragmatic (rather than traditional literary) goals in mind, with the result that textbooks and the educational experience they guided became a crucial space in which to foment Chinese nationalism and inculcate learners with the new values and practices of the nation.45 The MEM, alongside other rural reformers, helped expand the audience for literature even further by writing for the broadest new group of readers in China: illiterate rural people.

Since 1923, the MEM had used its literacy textbook, The People’s Thousand-Character Reader (Pingmin qianzi ke), in its urban mass literacy campaigns, selling at least three million copies in its first few years in print.46 Those numbers do not nearly convey the number of people who actually read the textbooks; Tao described how the books were passed from person to person, read over and over until they fell apart.47 The MEM textbooks were carefully calibrated (p.37) to appeal to their target audiences. The MEM saw that its textbooks had to reach multiple audiences—children’s textbooks held little interest for teenagers, a textbook that drew deeply on “local color” would be out of place a few counties or provinces over, and materials that addressed the issues of the city were unsuitable for country schools. As a result, there were four separate published versions of the Reader: the early People’s Thousand-Character Reader and later versions for townspeople, farmers, and soldiers, with differing content in each tailored to its target audience. By 1927, the MEM had published two versions of the People’s Thousand-Character Reader, the People’s Textbook, and the Young People’s Textbook, as well as higher-level texts like the Farmer’s Advanced Literature Reader, teacher’s guides, test booklets, and dictionaries.48

The textbooks for rural people were filled with reformers’ expectations and advice for the modern rural person, on subjects from voting in village elections to keeping the roads clean, but they also celebrated what were seen by reformers as consummate rural values, such as family, thrift, and the value of education. This marriage of familiar and novel was critical to the MEM’s construction of a vision in which the generative center of the Chinese nation would be the countryside and not the city, and in which its values were hand selected to resonate with reformers’ notions of the existing rural. At an even more basic level, the textbooks simply extolled the benefits of rural living over urban—a distinction from much of the Republican modernization discourse, which typically celebrated the liberation of city life. In one lesson in the rural reader on “The City and the Countryside,” a man named Meng Liming goes to visit his friend Ye Youshan in Beiping. Impressed by the busy city, Meng tells Ye, “The city is so much better than the countryside!” His friend replies, “Actually, the city is crowded, the air is polluted, and it isn’t sanitary enough. The countryside has many big trees [and] the air is fresh. I want to live in the countryside!”49 Most importantly, rural people were the primary actors and subjects in the rural-focused textbooks—they were shown reading books, conducting business, and taking part in village activities.

Whether prepared for urban or rural audiences, the textbooks shared a considerable amount of content. Both urban and rural readers had lessons on how to mail letters, build and keep up roadways, the health dangers of flies, bathing and tooth brushing, Chinese geography, and the meaning of the National Day, among many others. These were written in straightforward, simple language that provided instructions about the activity at hand. The lesson on National Day in the 1928 edition of the rural reader, for instance, posed the question, “Why do we call it National Day?” and then answered, “Because this is the day the Republic was established…. All the country’s schools (p.38)

Writing for New Literates in the Chinese Countryside

5. Illustration of a peasant reading The Farmer’s Thousand-Character Reader

(Zhonghua pingmin jiaoyu cujin hui, 1930)

have a holiday. Students attend celebrations, sing the national anthem, [and] bow three times to the Chinese flag.”50 The Townspeople’s Thousand-Character Reader published the same year was less prescriptive, lacking the details about singing and bowing, and instead mentioned that National Day was a celebration of the Wuchang uprising that sparked the revolution. Otherwise, the content was quite similar, as were the accompanying illustrations, both showing a celebratory sign on a gate with national flags flying above and a (p.39) crowd gathered below (though the crowds are more substantial in the Townspeople’s version).51

As these similar lessons on National Day illustrate, one of the commonalities between the textbooks was their emphasis on citizenship. Cultivating citizenship, as much as encouraging literacy, was a deep concern for the MEM. A writer in one of its journals opined, “I often hear people say, ‘China is a nation in name only.’ Why? Because China has a ‘nation’ but it doesn’t have ‘citizens.’ ” Citizens, the author continued, had responsibilities, but rural people were still ignorant of their civic obligations. Rural people, he continued, “aren’t even clear why China wants to be known as a nation.”52 In all the readers—urban and rural—the MEM tried to explain why the responsibilities of citizenship mattered, but beyond that, the rural and urban visions diverged. In the MEM imagination, for urban readers, citizenship meant national affiliation, while for rural people the primary political unit was the village. For instance, a lesson in the urban reader that explained the meaning of “government” (zhengfu) stressed that, “if the people are indifferent to the quality of their government then they have abandoned their responsibilities. As a result, if the government is good it does not have the people’s power to support it; if the government is bad, then when it runs amuck there will be no saving national affairs.”53 Another on China’s geography ended, “Resist foreign aggression and quell internal strife with one heart; the basis of patriotism is in unity.”54 The rural reader had few such references to the citizen’s contributions to the nation. Instead, the reader stressed villagers’ obligations to their village community, such as one on village prohibitions that noted, “If all villages have prohibitions, and no one violates them, then everyone can live in peace and contentment.” Other lessons on cooperative societies and People’s School alumni associations also emphasized the contributions that rural people could make to the village.55 Thus, when set side by side, the textbooks demonstrate that the message of citizenship was a differentiated one.

In other ways, too, each version of the textbook reflected the locations and experiences of its target audience. For instance, the Townspeople’s Thousand-Character Reader contained a lesson in which a young boy and his older sister stand on a city street outside the large plate glass window of the “Chinese-English Pharmacy” and discuss the model human skeletons on display inside—not a sight rural residents would encounter in their villages.56 The urban reader also featured lessons on topics that did not appear in the rural textbooks such as the purpose of advertising, keeping business accounts, court proceedings, native place associations, and labor unions.57 Though the towns-people’s reader also featured lessons on important Chinese agricultural products, like one on sericulture, the rural readers presented rural people as the (p.40)

Writing for New Literates in the Chinese Countryside

6. A boy and his sister look in the window of a pharmacy in The Townspeople’s Thousand-Character Reader. She asks him, “What’s there to be afraid of? They’re just models of the human body”

(Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1929 [1927]).

(p.41) central actors in the textbook’s vision of reformed rural life, its illustrations depicting them in their village homes and fields. The most striking of these rural-focused lessons was the series on the “model village” that closed the Farmer’s Reader. Other topics of rural-focused lessons included the village fair, rural employment, growing vegetables, seed selection, and rural education, as well as a subset of lessons that introduced a variety of potentially useful technology, such as windmills and steam power. The texts discouraged elements of rural life that reformers viewed as backward, such as early marriage and praying to local gods. In one such lesson, titled “Praying for Rain,” an educated local derides villagers’ belief in the ability of the Dragon God to bring rain. “All of you beseeching the Dragon God,” he scolds, “is useless.” Convinced by his scientific explanations of the way that rain clouds form, they put a halt to their worship.58 However, other traditional ideals were incorporated into the vision of a revitalized rural China, like the praise for Mencius’s mother (who sacrificed in order to educate her son) and the ideal of a close-knit (and sometimes still extended, not nuclear) family.59

In addition to being widely used in the “People’s Schools” affiliated with the MEM, the textbooks were used in many other settings. For instance, in the 1920s, Warlord Zhang Zuolin and his son, Zhang Xueliang, invited Yan to over-see the implementation of education for soldiers using the textbook and purchased fifty thousand copies of the Thousand-Character Reader, as well as five thousand colored slides (used in lanterns for instruction). Shortly after their soldiers completed the course of study, the warlords began to issue a “soldier’s weekly” (tubing zhoukan) that relied on the 250 characters from the first volume of the textbook as its base vocabulary.60 In the mid-1930s, the magazine affiliated with Liang Shuming’s reform projects in Shandong reported that schools in the model county of Heze were using the Farmer’s Thousand-Character Reader.61 Mao Zedong even encouraged his CCP fellows to look at the MEM’s Thousand-Character Reader for inspiration before the Communists produced their own thousand-character reader.62

Textbooks were only the beginning of the MEM’s massive publishing efforts. By 1934, the MEM was fast approaching ten million books in print, with four hundred-some different titles on their roster, the majority of which were nonfiction “general knowledge” books.63 Published as flimsy pamphlets on cheap paper and costing a few cents, the pamphlets ranged from works that reported on the MEM’s projects, like An Introduction to the Work of the Rural Family Association and A Plan for Urban People’s Education, to general-interest texts on subjects like women’s issues, opera, and farming methods.64 The MEM staffers writing the pamphlets were also observing and collecting peasant literature to inform their work. One literature department staffer (p.42) remembered how he was encouraged by his MEM supervisor to go out to the villages to “experience life,” and was tasked to attend village temple fairs to watch local opera performances and take down stories and songs, many of which were later collected and published.65

It is unclear how much revenue the organization generated from the sale of its texts. In 1931, the organization reported that only a little more than 1 percent of the organization’s income came from publications and royalties—about ten thousand Mexican dollars.66 Yet given that most of the publications sold for just a few Chinese cents apiece, these represented significant sales. Many other organizations followed suit, beginning to publish similarly themed textbooks, including a thousand-character text published by the GMD in the early 1930s called The Three Principles of the People Thousand-Character Reader and various versions written by Tao Xingzhi or his colleagues at the Xiaozhuang School, founded after he parted ways with the MEM in the mid-1920s. An MEM report noted in 1934 that many of the major Chinese publishing houses had some kind of thousand-character reader on their roster, and that “at one time there were at least a dozen readers for illiterates that used our ‘trade mark’” of the “thousand-character reader.”67

These textbooks were, like the MEM’s various versions, tailored for their intended audiences, but most, like the MEM’s texts, celebrated education and citizenship. In a literacy textbook produced for soldiers by the Xiaozhuang School’s Mass Education Research Association, for instance, the emphasis was primarily on the nation and the duties and responsibilities a soldier had to it, but the text also discussed family and the interlacing filiality between family and nation. (Lesson 13, for instance, featured a letter from a soldier to his mother, whose birthday happens to coincide with National Day. “Today, October 10, is a good day,” he writes. “It is Mother’s birthday, and it is the Republic of China’s birthday. Long live Mother! Long live the Republic of China!”)68 In contrast, The Farmer’s Book, published by the Rural Reconstruction Institute in Zouping, Shandong in 1934, focused, like the MEM’s rural reader, on village community. The text covered a familiar set of topics, from forestry to citizenship to National Day, but also included lessons that reflected the concerns of the Zouping project, such as lessons on “village covenants” (xiangyue), forming self-defense corps, and establishing cooperative societies.69

The MEM had a set of topics that it introduced in all its readers, urban and rural, but the rural literature demonstrated an effort to establish a distinct notion of rural modernity—one that did not aspire to urbanization but that presented a vision for rural people of how they could achieve modern citizenship in a rural setting. This was reflected in other, later iterations, such as the (p.43) Zouping textbook, but the MEM was the earliest textbook producer to interweave rural modernization with nationalism. The goal of its mass literature was to make citizens of the nation, regardless of whether they lived in the city or the countryside. The goal of the literature created for new rural illiterates went a step further, and sought to affirm for readers that rural places and people could be the critical basis for China.

Lao Wang and the Ignominy of Illiteracy

The MEM’s desire to use its publication to mobilize rural people for reform is evident in another MEM publication, founded about the same time as staff members were editing the farmer’s reader: a publication called The Farmer. Initially featuring articles promoting the MEM’s various literacy programs and testimonies from newly literate students who had participated in their literacy courses, over the next fourteen years the newspaper grew to include articles on all facets of rural life, from advice on making fertilizer to advocacy for rural women’s education. The Farmer was distributed across China between 1925 and 1938, including to subscribers in Outer Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet, and even internationally.70 In the early days of the magazine’s publication, Yan bragged to Stanford University President Ray Lyman Wilbur that the paper had received fifty-six requests for subscriptions in just one day.71

The Farmer was written for a rural audience, peppered with the earthy vocabulary and interests its authors imagined rural people wanted to read. In addition to in-depth coverage of the work at Dingxian after the MEM moved its base there in 1929 and reports from the counties and villages officially affiliated with the MEM, The Farmer featured columns on agricultural methods, home sanitation, health, and women’s issues. It instructed its readers on how to write and address letters, recorded folk sayings and folk songs for its readers’ entertainment, and noted current international events and the movement of major military forces across China. At least some rural readers—if we take the enthusiastic letters to the editors at their word—were pleased to see their concerns reflected in print. The Farmer, founded and largely written by recent graduates of the MEM’s rural People’s Schools, was meant to showcase the reciprocal role rural people could have in shaping the discourse on Chinese nationhood and modernization.72 In letters to the editor and the submission of stories, news clips, and literature, rural readers of a wide variety of backgrounds—from rural gentlemen farmers to laborers educated in People’s Schools—expressed their visions of modern rural China and discussed the way their learning and education allowed them to participate in the changing life of the countryside.

(p.44) In the second year of The Farmer’s publication, a short comic story graced most issues. Picking up a thread of stories detailing the travails of various illiterates published in the first volume, the feature took on a particular character in the second volume with the introduction of “Good Old Wang” (laowang). The twenty-year-old Wang, an illiterate who supports his family through a string of odd jobs, illustrated to readers both the novel and familiar dangers of illiteracy.73 Police officers, electricity, and new forms of travel and communication are at the center of this story, and the shame the illiterate Wang experiences is often pegged to his inability to read and understand new practices and technologies. While distinctions between country and city could correlate to the difference between an urbane knowing and an uneducated bumpkinage in literature of this period, in the early literacy efforts geography mattered less to the distinction between modern and backward than participation in literate culture.74 In the context of the Lao Wang stories it was not the responsibility of those introducing new technologies—like the dangerous electricity pole that plays a central role in one Lao Wang misadventure—to make them legible to all community members, literate or not. Instead, writers created a dichotomy between literacy and illiteracy, inclusion in a modern society or exclusion, via humiliation, from it.

During the first set of stories, Wang loses remittance money from a relative because he can’t read the receipt (the man he asks to read it redeems the ten kuai himself and pockets it), drives a cart—with ox attached—into a wolf pit because he fails to notice the warning signs, and mixes up his employer’s mule’s medicine with his own when both fall ill at the same time.75 After this first string of mishaps, Wang “gradually realized the benefits to reading and going to school, and no longer dared say to people, ‘I am a peasant (nongmin), I have no use for reading. People who have money and nothing to do, they can study and become officials. We don’t read or go to school, and we should stick to our roles.’” Wang sees family members reading and “feels envious” of them, and so “he began to think that if he had time he would go to learn a few common words, but he still hadn’t had the opportunity.”76 Throughout the series, the authors used Wang as a foil to their many articles encouraging rural people to learn to read. Wang repeatedly invokes typical excuses for his illiteracy—from lack of time to lack of status—and the authors of the story chipped away at the legitimacy of such excuses, presenting a new story to pillory Wang in each issue. The japes at Wang’s expense persisted through the story’s run, affirming each parable’s main point: illiteracy was not only inexcusable; it was laughable and, moreover, incompatible with a modern world only accessible through the written word. (p.45)

Writing for New Literates in the Chinese Countryside

7. Lao Wang knocked out by electricity in Beijing, from the newspaper Nongmin, August 1, 1926

Shame is at the center of these stories, and Wang’s greatest offenses come not when he fails at day-to-day tasks like keeping accounts and reading signs, but when he unknowingly transgresses new rules or fumbles encounters with new technologies, all because of his illiteracy. For instance, Wang’s first train ride ends in disaster, when he disembarks in Tianjin rather than Beijing (the city had not yet been renamed Beiping), then has to walk the eighty-five-mile distance (he had already learned in an earlier episode that he oughtn’t fall asleep on the railroad tracks, when he had invariably overlooked a sign that warned him of the danger).77 Later, he is arrested for urinating in a Beijing alleyway. After serving three months of coolie labor for his offense, Wang is released. Stopping to rest on the street, Wang leans against an electricity pole. A police officer notices Wang standing there, but before he can call out, Wang is knocked to the ground by electric shock. When Wang finally comes around, the officer asks, “Didn’t you see the sign on the electricity pole that says ‘Caution Danger’?” Wang replies with the now tired line, “I can’t read.”78

The MEM and The Farmer were not the only publications of the time to use the “Lao Wang” figure to play on the tropes of rural backwardness and its contrasts to the modern. In 1926, Pearl S. Buck—a good friend of Yan and an admirer of the work at Dingxian—published a short story called “Lao Wang, the Farmer” in The Chinese Recorder, a story that strikes many of the same themes as the MEM stories, from the contrast of urban and rural culture to the protagonist’s desire to make a better life for his son through education. (p.46) Notably, Buck and her coauthor, Shao Teh-hsing, emphasized the importance of literacy for their Lao Wang, who waxes hopefully about his grandson’s education: “Ah, but when my grandson can write for me, I shall be afraid of no one!”79 A small Lao Wang “genre” existed in Chinese literature of the time, including other literal Lao Wangs, such as one that appeared in a story in Shandong Mass Education Monthly (Shandong minzhong jiaoyu yuekan), as well as a more expansive literature that featured Lao Wang–type characters—some bumpkins befuddled by the workings of the modern world, others more like Buck’s proud rural stalwarts, left behind by a world that did not acknowledge that it was built upon their labor.80 The vibrancy of the genre was apparent even on the post–Lao Wang pages of The Farmer. After the Lao Wang story concluded in late 1926, readers subsequently began to submit stories about other illiterates, like an “Old Zhang” and an “Old Chen,” for publication.81

Again and again, The Farmer’s editors and authors emphasized the nexus of literacy and modernity, with Lao Wang and his ilk acting as strong cautionary tales. This connection was reinforced by occasional letters that trickled in from readers attesting to their appreciation of the publication. In early 1928, the newspaper published an eight-part series called “What Is Your Favorite Column in The Farmer, and Why?” Its authors wrote of waiting impatiently for The Farmer to arrive and reading through each copy multiple times, often expressing their belief that literacy and social progress were connected.82 One new literate from Baoding related his personal story of education and enlightenment in a letter to The Farmer in 1925, along the way summing up the relationship between literacy and social reform. He detailed how he gathered together each week with his fellow People’s School graduates to “study the new words in the paper” and “do a little play-acting, have a little fun, sing a few songs.” But he also emphasized the social effects of his education: “Reading the newspaper … has some benefits. Progressing [things] a few steps. And knowing how to talk about sanitation. And knowing the negatives of smoking opium, drinking alcohol, and gambling.”83 Though in most cases it is not possible to verify that the letter writer was an actual rural person, these letters nevertheless illustrate how fully the MEM committed to reinforcing its message that literacy and modern reforms were intimately intertwined on the pages of its publications.

Women in the Rural Modern

As Yan and others made clear on paper and through their actions, their vision of the rural modern made space for previously disenfranchised groups. In contradiction to the often conservative views of women’s social roles that (p.47) reformers encountered in the villages, they stuck to the enlightened notions of the day that liberated, educated women were necessary to a strong nation. Reformers reached out to women in a variety of ways, including health care and home visits by nurses, economic cooperatives that helped women raise chickens, and popular entertainment, like opera performances. But literacy education was the most common way to try to convey a reform message to women. This continued to be true of social reform efforts into the early PRC period. A Women’s Federation cadre who Gail Hershatter interviewed recalled the importance of literacy education in the early PRC’s efforts to mobilize rural women: “Why did we start with literacy? At that time families would only let a woman go out of the house if she was going to learn how to read. When women enjoyed more contact with the outside world by attending literacy classes, their thinking became more liberated little by little.”84 Similarly, for Republican-era reformers, literacy education provided them with an opportunity to share with women their vision for a modern countryside. Women’s roles in that vision were distinct from men’s, but women and men had to clear the same hurdle: they had to learn to read.

The MEM drew on an impressive roster of female affiliates who advised the organization on women’s issues. The prominent medical expert Marion Yang, who worked with the PUMC and founded the National Midwifery School, designed the Dingxian midwifery training.85 The feminist writer Lu Yin—best known for her scandalous marriage and tragic, early death—wrote textbooks and other materials for the MEM in the late 1920s, as well as opining about rural women’s education and the MEM’s work on it. And, of course, there was the legacy of the MEM’s founding donor, Zhu Zhihui, the wife of China’s former premier Xiong Xiling but also an important philanthropist and part of a largely forgotten cohort of elite imperial women who embraced new opportunities for public engagement in the Republic.86 The work of these well-known women was undergirded by a number of lesser known but no less well educated and committed women, such as Zhou Meiyu, a Harvard nursing graduate who worked in the health department at Dingxian and later became a professor at Taiwan’s National Defense Medical College.87 Moreover, many spouses of MEM employees moved their families to Dingxian, established a school in which to educate employee children, and engaged in a variety of outreach activities themselves. This included Yan’s wife, Alice Huie (Xu Yali), a New York City native who received a degree in physical education from Barnard College. She played a critical, behind-the-scenes role in organizing and mobilizing the MEM’s women.88

In its classrooms, the MEM was building on twenty years of growth in women’s education that followed the 1907 Qing authorization of girls’ schools. (p.48) This official promulgation had not marked the beginning of women’s education—a very small number of elite women had been educated before that, and beginning in the late nineteenth centuries some elites, as well as foreign missionaries, began to establish schools for women. On the pages of the MEM’s textbooks and other literature, women were regular presences, though women’s issues were often folded into broader “rural issues.” Gender was acknowledged as a distinct form of oppression, but usually as a metaphor for the marginalization of rural people more generally, the backwardness of rural cultural practices, or the submission and weakness of the entire Chinese nation. In this way, the MEM’s approach to women reflected the dominant discourse on gender and the nation in the 1920s, when women were cast as, first and foremost, a metaphor for the oppressed Chinese people and potential mothers of citizens.

Women’s education was not identical to that of men, emphasizing instead the new subject of home economics as well as the role women might play in educating their children.89 A journalist writing for The Farmer recorded the declaration of a village head of Gaotou Village, Dingxian who said, “To improve the village, we must first improve the family. To improve the family, we have to organize schools for women and youth.”90 To the basic curriculum in civics, literature, history, and geography, women’s classes added subjects like home economics, home industry, abacus, and penmanship.91 In the classroom, women read the same primer as men. There were repeated discussions of the development of a women’s primer. Though it was apparently never completed, the discussions indicate the MEM’s desire for gender-specific educational materials. The MEM did publish pamphlets recording their experiments with women’s education, such as one authored by Lu Yin titled Improving Women’s Lives. The MEM also established “housewife clubs” (jiating zhufuhui), what Yan referred to in an English-language publication as “better homes’ clubs,” based on similar organizations in Japan, in which women studied ways to improve household organization and the education of their children.92 The housewife clubs were organized by village women and, according to one observer, “although not many of the women have been educated yet, the families rely on them, so we gather the village’s women together to study and discuss home economics, such as knitting, washing, weaving, childcare, gardening, cooking.”93 The Housewife Association was only one of many kinds of associations affiliated with the reform efforts, including a Head of Household Association, a Young People’s Association, a Children’s Association, and a Daughters’ Association. The Daughter’s Association gathered the village’s “future housewives” to discuss much the same topics the Housewife Association discussed; in fact, the two associations sometimes met together, (p.49) and the Daughters’ Association sometimes led the Children’s Association’s activities.94

Through such organizations, the MEM mobilized women on behalf of its goals. The MEM shared this method with the CCP, which experimented with courting rural women in order to gain the willing participation of their husbands and sons. In the Jiangxi Soviet, women’s groups were organized in order to aid women whose male family members had joined the army.95 Other rural reform projects, such as the GMD’s reform county at Jiangning, outside Nanjing and the Shandong Rural Reconstruction Institute, also made special efforts to reach out to and mobilize women. In Jiangning, the county provided childcare so women could attend literacy education and vocational classes. In Zouping, a government committee trained women to go into the villages and encourage other women to unbind their feet.96

While female MEM employees worked on a number of issues related to rural women, from health to education, the spouses of MEM leaders played key roles in these attempts to mobilize rural women. MEM spouses reached out to local women through activities like organizing the aforementioned housewife club, teaching home economics, instructing villagers in handicrafts, and participating in the education of local children. These included the wives (unnamed in sources) of Chen Zhushan, a University of Michigan graduate in charge of citizen education (and who Yan once described as “old revolutionary” as he had been active in the early Republican government), and Zhao Shuideng, a member of the literature department. However, Huie was the most prominent and was, for instance, frequently mentioned by foreign visitors as a generous host. As a helpmate and partner in Yan’s endeavors, she played a public role for the organization, all while raising the couple’s five children. She was involved in organizing the household associations, conducting health outreach, and training women in childcare methods, among other activities. She also played a crucial role in hosting the dozens of guests who visited the experimental district every year.97 And though the majority of MEM spouses were, like their husbands, Dingxian outsiders, a few MEM staffers, like Chen Zhice, the US-educated deputy director of the theater department, married local women.98

Despite the gendered tone of much of the education, schooling did open unique opportunities for some female students. In Dingxian, female students started unions and became involved in establishing preschool education in neighboring communities.99 In 1936, the MEM established another experimental county in Hengshan County, Hunan Province.100 There the MEM used women as part of their “tutors” program, the program based on an idea that Tao Xingzhi had come up with of spreading education by encouraging students (p.50)

Writing for New Literates in the Chinese Countryside

8. Yan Yangchu (James Yen), Xu Yali (Alice Huie Yen), and their children in Dingxian in 1931 or 1932.

Sidney D. Gamble Photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.

to, in turn, teach their families and neighbors to read. According to one study, sixty-nine female tutors were trained in Hengshan in spring 1935.101

Like so many organizations in the early twentieth century, the MEM connected the status of women to modernity. In this vision, as many scholars have pointed out, women’s liberation was subordinated to other political processes like state-building and economic growth, the status of women becoming a symbol of social progress. Yet evidence suggests that the MEM’s efforts did make a difference in Dingxian, if in no other way than to begin to plant the seeds in this place—such as in encouraging the formation of women’s unions and clubs—for the radical transformation of the role and status of women that would take place over the following three decades. For the MEM, this process was dependent on literacy education for women.

Building a Model of Reform through Model Leaders

On a 1928 fundraising tour in the United States, Yan collected $10,000 from Henry Ford, who told him, “I like your idea. You go about the mass education of people the way I go about the mass production of cars.” Yan would later (p.51) tell critics that “it took Henry Ford a long time to perfect his first model, but when he got the model right he turned them out by the million.”102 The MEM took seriously the premise that there was an ideal model for making new people. Models for reform and change have a long history in China, particularly as built around an idealized local community, but the power of the model in twentieth-century Chinese society and policy making was unprecedented. This reflected both the international excitement for social reform and the domestic crises that impelled Chinese intellectuals to seek as quick a path to a modern China as possible. As Qin Shao notes in her study of the reform efforts at Nantong, a backwater county seat in the Yangzi Delta that became a well-known reform model in the 1920s, “the model … was a socially engineered simulation of modernity … an ‘authentic’ Chinese alternative of modernization based on local initiative.”103 For the MEM and the many reformers who emulated them, this model was grounded in the notion that literacy education was the foundation of modern behaviors and modern citizenship.

The goal of the MEM’s rural model was, Yan wrote, “to evolve a system of education for citizenship that is adapted to the genius of the Chinese people as well as the needs of a modern republic, and to develop a modern (not Western) Chinese district to serve as a model for the New China.”104 By the early 1930s, the MEM’s Dingxian project was the best-known rural reform model in China. In part, this was due to its prolific publications and its compelling vision for rural change, but it was also because of the replicability of its education model. That model was laid out in both MEM texts and spread through personal contact. For instance, once the MEM had moved its headquarters to Dingxian, visitors began to stream through, attending conferences and conducted observation tours. The Congregationalist missionary George W. Shepherd attended a 1933 conference in Dingxian as he was preparing to embark on overseeing a GMD-supported rural reform experiment in Jiangxi Province (discussed in chapter 4) and wrote, “It gave us a new kind of thrill to sit under PhDs who have identified themselves with the people. One by one they came to the lecture platform in the garb of the people, and left us to wend their way on bicycles along the dusty roads, back to the soil and the farmers.”105 Like Shepherd, many of these visitors were explicitly interested in adapting the MEM’s methods to their own outreach programs. A significant portion of these visitors came as a result of the MEM’s connections to the YMCA and to Christianity. Though Yan downplayed the MEM’s Christian undertones in China (in English-language materials and when fundraising in the United States, he tended to emphasize it), Christian missionaries and Chinese Christians were a strong constituency for the MEM’s proposed “model” of rural reform, and the MEM hosted regular (p.52) conferences that focused on Christian rural reform. Chinese elites in dozens of locations also saw appeal in the MEM model and adopted it. Centered on “People’s Schools,” the MEM model of education was used in settings ranging from modern primary schools to night schools for laborers to classes for women held in their own homes.

The MEM’s institutional reach was reported on the pages of The Farmer, which published reports from people around the country who wrote to tell of establishing People’s Schools or adopting MEM educational methods. The reports of projects far and near included those such as the educational efforts in Baoding, a prefecture-level city in Zhili about forty miles from Dingxian where Yan’s close friend, the missionary Hugh Hubbard, was actively promoting mass education.106 Another correspondent from Henan wrote a report that gave evidence of the extent to which reformers were willing to literally go to reach the people: he reports that three literacy classes were held in the private rooms of the local bathhouse.107 A number of provinces were reported to have adopted the MEM model for opening rural schools, including Jiangxi, where all the province’s counties were ordered to open People’s Schools; Hunan, where the local MEM branch printed and distributed thirty thousand copies of a text called the People’s Teaching Text (Pingmin jiaoben); and Shanxi, which ordered that all counties implement educational fees that would in part be used to establish People’s Schools.108

It is hard to gauge the reach of the MEM, in part because over the years the organization laid claim to these many affiliated or Dingxian-inspired educational projects in an effort to enhance perceptions of its reach. Charles Hayford estimates that by 1931 there were four hundred People’s Schools and fifteen thousand students in MEM-affiliated programs.109 Yet two years earlier, Yan had reported an unlikely number: that with thirty urban Mass Education Associations and many district ones, a total of five million students in various locations were studying under the MEM method, including in border regions like northern Manchuria and Sichuan.110 Such improbable figures make more sense when examining tallies that the MEM reported to the Rockefeller Foundation. For instance, in 1933–34, the MEM reported that it had supported the education of one million students in “government and private institutions” and funded 386 Mass Education Bureaus around the country. These totals appear to count students engaged in programs inspired (it seems in some cases only tangentially) by the MEM’s model but funded not by Dingxian or the MEM but instead by provincial governments, private donors, and other sources. Of the money that passed through MEM affiliates during this fiscal year for “rural reconstruction and mass education” expenses, just about one-sixth went to programs directly administered by the MEM in Dingxian or to (p.53) support the organization’s central administration. The rest was allocated to these “affiliated” projects, monies not raised and distributed directly by the MEM but rather allocated from start to finish in a specific locale or province. Presenting this as a unified program of reform was in part a strategy for making the MEM look as influential as possible for funders.111 Nevertheless, this presentation also demonstrates that MEM leaders envisioned the Dingxian project (and pitched it to their funders) as a replicable model, their claims to their institutional reach dependent on these affiliated projects.

The MEM literacy program was created with replicability in mind, drawing on new educational methods, like lesson plans, to create a curriculum that was easy for teachers to adopt in their own classrooms. MEM leaders propagated standards and methods for everything from the character of their teachers to an exact set of questions teachers could talk through with their students when covering the material in a lesson.112 These guides provided potential adopters with clear guidelines on everything from curriculum to the kinds of teachers they should hire for their schools. In the early twentieth century, as the state implemented compulsory education regulations, the responsibility for school reform often fell to county and village leaders, leaders who might have little firsthand experience with organizing schools. The MEM template tried to provide novice local reformers with a map for successful education reform. They accomplished this through their growing body of accessible, easy-to-read publications, a body of literature laced with the ideas of the modern countryside, which local leaders could pick up and use.

Reading the Rural Modern

On March 1, 1927, The Farmer published several letters from readers to celebrate their third year in press, including a lengthy piece under the recurring feature “Why Do I Love Reading The Farmer?” A subscriber for a little more than a year, contributor Deng Runhua described himself as “not one with a book always at hand,” and yet, he wrote, over the course of the year he had become an avid reader of The Farmer. Presumably thinking of the many features in the publication on agricultural technology and technique, Deng wrote, “Especially when I am in the fields, doing that kind of work, then I really want it for reference.” Deng continued the piece with an exploration of what elements of The Farmer had so captured his attention: its emphasis on practical agricultural knowledge and its sympathy for rural people and their concerns. He wrote, “They do their utmost to instill us with citizen knowledge, to raise the peasant’s status, to lead us down a promising path, to work for our liberation.”113

(p.54) On the pages of their publications, MEM writers constructed a modern society and culture for rural readers like Deng but also for those who sought to guide and shape rural people’s education. As will become clear in the succeeding chapters, this vision of the modern countryside made room for some forms of traditional social and cultural interaction, like village councils, cooperative societies, opera performances, and women’s management of household matters, while attacking others, like early marriage and the supposed misuse of time. In this way, the literacy movement was not only about teaching people to read but about teaching people to read a certain set of modern practices. Lao Wang may have been a comic prod to readers to avoid the humiliation of illiteracy, but it was the model village of the rural people’s reader—a vibrant, coherent rural community defined by order and prosperity—that encapsulated reformers’ hopes for a new China. This was a compelling vision, catching on among local elites around China who were comfortable in a didactic role and saw themselves continuing the tradition of elites as moral and social exemplars. The MEM capitalized on these tendencies to spread their vision for rural reform.


(1.) I have not located a first edition of this textbook. However, a notice appeared in The Farmer announcing the publication of the first volume of the textbook. See “Pingmin xiaoxi: Nongmin qianzi ke” (MEM News: The Farmer’s Thousand-Character Reader), Nongmin 3.5 (April 11, 1927): 4 for the announcement. The revised (second) edition was published in 1928 (see full citation below).

(2.) Zhonghua pingmin jiaoyu cujin hui, Nongmin qianzi ke (The Farmer’s Thousand-Character Reader), 4 volumes, revised (Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1928), Vol. 4, 56–60. The industrialist and reformer Zhang Jian built a clock tower in the lower Yangzi “model city” Nantong (see Qin Shao, Culturing Modernity, 95–96).

(3.) Y. C. James Yen, Ting Hsien Experiment, 1930–1931 (Ting Hsien: Chinese National Association of the Mass Education Movement, 1931), 4.

(4.) Y. C. James Yen, “How to Educate China’s Illiterate Millions for Democracy in a Decade,” Bulletin 15, Vol. 2 (Peking: Chinese National Association for the Advancement of Education, 1923), 7; Hayford, 43–46.

(5.) Li Defang, Minguo xiangcun zizhi wenti yanjiu (Consideration of the Republican Rural Self-Government Issue) (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2001), 76–79; Li Defang, “Shilun Nanjing guomin zhengfu chuqi de cunzhipai” (On the School of Village Self-Government during the Early Years of the National Government), Shixue yuekan 2001.2: 72; (p.180) Li Jinghan, “Huiyi pingjiaohui Dingxian shiyanqu de shehui diaocha gongzuo” (Remembering the MEM Dingxian Experimental District’s Social Survey Work), in Hebei wenshi ziliao xuanji, Vol. 11, ed. Zhongguo renmin zhengzhi xieshang huiyi Hebei sheng weiyuanhui, Wenshi ziliao yanjiu weiyuanhui (Shijiazhuang: Hebei renmin chubanshe, 1983), 71.

(6.) Y. C. James Yen, China’s New Scholar-Farmer (n.p.: Chinese National Association of the Mass Education Movement, 1929), 6.

(9.) Harvey J. Graff, The Literacy Myth: Literacy and Social Structure in the Nineteenth-Century City (New York: Academic Press, 1979), xiv–xv; Stephen Lovell, The Russian Reading Revolution: Print Culture in the Soviet and Post-Soviet Eras (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 12–13.

(10.) Caleb Crain, “Twilight of the Books,” The New Yorker, December 24, 2007; Maryanne Wolf, “Re: Twilight of the Books” (letter), The New Yorker, January 28, 2008; Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 5–6. This view, of course, resonates with the well-trod arguments of Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1991 [1983]).

(12.) Materials on “Tell the People” (Dictated by Dr. Yen), Box 102, International Institute for Rural Reconstruction (IIRR), Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library (CUL), p. 1 of section “Problems and Difficulties (cont’d).” Mi Digang had experienced the tensions between reformers and locals more than two decades before when, after he seized the lands held by village religious associations to put them to reform ends, villagers filed a lawsuit that continued for years (Duara, Rescuing History, 98).

(14.) Zhang Yuanshan, “Cong Dingxian huilai” (On Returning from Dingxian), Duli pinglun 95 (1934): 7–9.

(15.) Yan Zhenxi, Dingxian shiyanqu kaochaji (An Investigation of the Dingxian Experimental District) (Beiping: Beiping zhongzhi xueshe, 1934), 22, 69.

(16.) Letter from Sidney Gamble to Friends, February 25, 1932, Box 5, IIRR, CUL; Sidney Gamble, Ting Hsien: A North China Rural Community (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1968 [1954]), 3–4, 52, 62; “Camels Resting” (Item 648-3787), Sidney D. Gamble Photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.

(18.) Julean Arnold, “The Mass Education Movement in China,” June 20, 1932, 5–6, Folder 70, Box 7, Series 601, Record Group (RG) 1.1, Rockefeller Foundation records (RF), Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC).

(19.) Du Shuchu, “Pingmin jiaoyu yundong zai Dingxian” (The Mass Education Movement in Dingxian), in Hebei wenshi ziliao xuanji, ed. Hebei sheng weiyuanhui wenshi ziliao yanjiu weiyuanhui (Shijiazhuang: Hebei renmin chubanshe, 1983), 39; Xi Zhengyong, “Huiyi Dingxian pingjiaohui pingmin wenxuebu de gongzuo” (Remembering the Work of the MEM’s People’s Literature Department in Dingxian), in Hebei wenshi ziliao xuanji, ed. Hebei sheng weiyuanhui wenshi ziliao yanjiu weiyuanhui (Shijiazhuang: Hebei renmin chubanshe, 1983), 85; Letter from Sidney Gamble to Friends, February 10, 1932, Box 5, IIRR, CUL.

(20.) Hsun-Yuan Yao, “The First Year of the Rural Health Experiment in Ting Hsien, China,” The Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly Bulletin 9.3 (July 1931): 68, 75–77; C. C. Ch’en, “The Rural Public Health Experiment in Ting Hsien, China,” The Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly 14.1 (January 1936): 76.

(21.) Sigrid Schmalzer, “Breeding a Better China: Pigs, Practices, and Place in a Chinese County, 1929–1937,” The Geographical Review 92.1 (January 2002): 1–22; Letter from James Yen to Mrs. Auchincloss, April 15, 1931, Box 1, IIRR, CUL; “Dingxian nongye zhanlan zhi shengkuang” (Dingxian’s Spectacular Rural Products Exhibit), Cunzhi 1.10 (November 1, 1930): 5–6; “Animal Improvements,” Folder 2684, Box 143, Series 601, RF Photograph Collection, RAC; Letter from James Yen to Mrs. Auchincloss, April 15, 1931, Box 1, IIRR, CUL; C. C. Ch’en, “The Development of Systematic Training in Rural Public Health Work in China,” The Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly 14.4 (October 1936): 383–84.

(23.) Letter from Sidney Gamble to Friends, February 10, 1932, Box 5, IIRR, CUL; Letter from Sidney Gamble to Friends, February 25, 1932, Box 5, IIRR, CUL; Hayford, 92.

(25.) Yan Yangchu, “Zhonghua pingmin jiaoyu cujin hui Dingxian gongzuo dagai” (An Outline of the Work of the MEM at Dingxian), in Xiangcun jianshe shiyan diyiji (The Rural Reconstruction Experiment, Vol. 1), ed. Zhang Yuanshan and Xu Shilian (Shanghai: Zhonghua shuju, 1936 [1934]), 54.

(26.) Robert J. Culp, Articulating Citizenship: Civic Education and Student Politics in Southeastern China, 1912–1940 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 22; Elizabeth Vander-Ven, “Village-State Cooperation,” Modern China 31.2 (April 2005): 208–10; Roger S. Thompson, “Statecraft and Self-Government: Competing Visions of Community and State in Late Imperial China,” Modern China 14.2 (April 1988): 199–202.

(27.) Helen R. Chauncey, Schoolhouse Politicians: Locality and State during the Chinese Republic (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992), 2, 7, 10, 74–77, 129; VanderVen, 206; Stephen Averill, “The Cultural Politics of Local Education in Early Twentieth-Century China,” Twentieth-Century China 32.2 (April 2007): 5.

(28.) Lucien Bianco, Wretched Rebels: Rural Disturbances on the Eve of the Chinese Revolution, trans. Philip Liddell (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard University Press, 2010), 133–36.

(30.) Hayford, 13–21, 31; Edgar Snow, “How Rural China Is Being Remade,” China Weekly Review (December 16, 1933): 100; “China’s Yen,” Time, November 22, 1943, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,851893,00.html.

(31.) On the return of the scholar’s gown as a sartorial and political statement, see Wen-hsin Yeh, The Alienated Academy: Culture and Politics in Republican China, 1919–1937 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard University Press, 1990), 223, 226.

(32.) Guoqi Xu, Strangers on the Western Front: Chinese Workers in the Great War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 177–79, 192.

(33.) Tang Maoru, “Chengshi pingmin xuexiao de jiaocai” (Teaching Materials for the Urban People’s Schools), Jiaoyu zazhi 19.10 (October 1927): 1–2; “Summary 1930,” Box 2, IIRR, CUL.

(34.) Y. C. James Yen, Jidujiao qingnianhui zhufa huagong zhoubao (YMCA’s Chinese Laborers in France Weekly), Issues 1 (January 15, 1919), 2 (January 29, 1919), and 8 (March 26, 1919), Box 6, IIRR, CUL; Guoqi Xu, 193, 206–8; Hayford, 57.

(35.) See Yan Zhenxi, 2. Estimates for literacy rates are varied, and the distinctions based on gender are crucially important. Only about 2–3 percent of women were literate in rural areas; estimates for male literacy range from about 30 to 45 percent. In Dingxian, Gamble estimated that 37 percent of men, but only 3 percent of women, were literate (Ting Hsien, 10), while Xu Xiuli and Yu Keping give slightly lower numbers: 31 percent for men, 2 percent for women (Xu Xiuli and Yu Keping, “China’s Rural Governance in the Past and Nowadays: A Comparative Analysis of the Cases of Dingxian, Zouping and Jiangning Counties,” in China’s Rural Governance in the Past and Nowadays: A Comparative Analysis of the Cases of Dingxian, Zouping and Jiangning Counties, ed. Xu Xiuli (Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2004): 173–74).

(36.) Don-Chean Chu, Patterns of Education for the Developing Nations: Tao’s Work in China 1917–1946 (Tainan: Kao-chang Printing Company, 1966), 27; Gamble, Ting Hsien, 11.

(37.) Anne Ruggles Gere, Intimate Practices: Literacy and Cultural Work in U.S. Women’s Clubs, 1880–1920 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 20–21; Jeffrey Brooks, When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Literature, 1861–1917 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), xiii–xiv, xvi, 51–53, 166, 214–15.

(38.) “Chinese Mass Education Movement: A Summary, 1934,” 14, Folder 87, Box 8, Series 601, RG 1, RF, RAC.

(39.) Ibid., 7–8.

(40.) Vera Schwarcz, The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 208.

(41.) Illustrations were commonly used in imperial texts intended for illiterates and women. See Dorothy Ko, Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 41.

(42.) The ninety-six lessons were meant to be covered over a four-month period, at the end of which the MEM believed its students achieved a basic literacy that allowed them to read simple publications like The Farmer.

(43.) Leo Ou-fan Lee, Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China 1930–­1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 52–55; Culp, Articulating Citizenship, 44–45, 48; Theodore Huters, “Culture, Capital, and the Temptations of the Imagined Market: The Case of the Commercial Press,” in Beyond the May Fourth Paradigm: In Search of Chinese Modernity, ed. Kai-Wing Chow et al. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books/Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), 42.

(45.) Christopher A. Reed, Gutenberg in Shanghai: Chinese Print Capitalism, 1876–1937 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004), 197; Robert Culp, “ ‘China—the Land and Its People’: Fashioning Identity in Secondary School History Textbooks, 1911–37,” Twentieth-Century China 26.2 (April 2001): 17, 19; Robert Culp, “Teaching Baihua: Textbook Publishing and the Production of Vernacular Language and a New Literary Canon in Early Twentieth-Century China,” Twentieth-Century China 34.1 (November 2008): 15–17, 23–25.

(46.) Yan Yangchu, Pingmin jiaoyu de zhenyi (The True Significance of Mass Education) (Beijing: Zhonghua pingmin jiaoyu cujin hui, n.d.), 1. Tang Maoru states that three million copies were sold between 1923 and 1926 (which means that the Yan Yangchu pamphlet listed above was likely published in 1926 or 1927). Another reference from Yan, quoted by Don-Chean Chu, says “four or five million” by the late 1920s (41).

(47.) Referenced in Chu, 40. This was true of all publications during this period. It is estimated that each newspaper copy was read by between ten and fifteen people. (p.183) See Henrietta Harrison, “Newspapers and Nationalism in Rural China 1890–1929.” Past & Present 166 (February 2000): 195.

(48.) Tang Maoru, 3; Nongmin gaoji wenyi keben dinggao (Farmer’s Advanced Literature Textbook, Final Version). Vol. 1, 2. n.d., file 137, RG 236, Second Historical Archives of China (SHAC); “Chinese Mass Education Movement: A Summary, 1934,” 2–3, Folder 87, Box 8, Series 601, RG 1, RF, RAC.

(51.) Zhonghua pingmin jiaoyu cujin hui, Shimin qianzi ke (Townspeople’s Thousand-Character Reader), 4 volumes, 41st edition (Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1929 [1927]), Vol. 1, 50–51.

(52.) “Tanhua: Guoqing yu nongren” (Chit-Chat: National Day and Rural People), Nongmin 2.23 (October 10, 1926): 2. (Cover is mislabeled as issue 21).

(54.) Ibid., Vol. 3, 50–51.

(55.) Zhonghua pingmin jiaoyu cujin hui, Nongmin qianzi ke (The Farmer’s Thousand-Character Reader), 4 volumes (Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1930), Vol. 4: 7, 13, 25.

(57.) Ibid., Vol. 2: 10–11, 40–41; Vol. 3: 36–37, 44–45; Vol. 4, 36–37.

(59.) Ibid., Vol. 3, 18–19.

(60.) Y. C. James Yen, The Mass Education Movement in China (Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1925), 14–15; “Jottings,” The Chinese Recorder, July 1924, 477.

(61.) Wang Xiangcen, “Heze shiyanxian Baozhenxiang xiangnong xuexiao” (Heze Experimental County’s Bao Village Township Rural School), Xiangcun jianshe xunkan 4.14 (1934): 12.

(62.) Hayford, xiii, 238–39n9; Hsüeh-wen Wang, Chinese Communist Education: The Yenan Period (Institute of International Relations, 1975), 159.

(64.) For pamphlets about the MEM, see Box 130, IIRR, CUL. For pamphlets produced by the MEM for rural readers, see Box 132, IIRR, CUL. The Chinese titles of these works are Nongcun jiating hui gongzuo jieshao (An Introduction to the Work of the Rural Family Association) and Chengshi pingmin jiaoyu dagang (A Plan for Urban People’s Education).

(66.) “Statement of Receipts and Expenditures for the Year Ending December 31, 1931,” attached to November 24, 1932, letter from Roger S. Greene to R. H. Tawney, Folder 70A, Box 7, Series 601, RG 1.1, RF, RAC.

(67.) “Chinese Mass Education Movement: A Summary, 1934,” Folder 87, Box 8, Series 601, RG 1, RF, RAC.

(68.) Wang Lin, Junren qianzi ke (The Serviceman’s Thousand-Character Reader), Vol. 1 (Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1927), 36.

(69.) Yang Xiaochun, Xiangnong de shu (The Farmer’s Book) (Zouping, Shandong: Xiangcun shudian, 1936 [1934]), 14, 21, 64, 68, 69, 95.

(70.) “Pingmin xiaoxi: Benbao xiaolu yuefa kuanguang” (MEM News: This Publication’s Increasing Circulation), Nongmin 3.3 (March 21, 1927): 3. I follow the naming conventions of the publications themselves, as each included an English title on its cover page.

(71.) “Letter Report of November 14, 1927, to President Ray Lyman Wilbur of Stanford University from Dr. Yen,” Box 1, IIRR, CUL.

(72.) James Yen, “Dr. Yen Describes Work of Mass Education in China,” UNESCO Courier 1.2 (1948): 7; “Y. C. James Yen’s Speeches UNESCO—August 25, 1947,” 5, Box 89, IIRR, CUL.

(73.) Laowang literally translates to “Old Wang,” but in this case the word indicates not age but rather familiarity, so I have chosen an English colloquialism that I hope evokes that feeling.

(74.) See, for instance, Gail Hershatter’s discussion of the relationship of urbane knowledge and consumption in Dangerous Pleasures, 129–31.

(75.) “Laowang de gushi” (Old Wang’s Story), Nongmin 2.2 (March 11, 1926): 5; “Laowang de gushi,” Nongmin 2.3 (March 21, 1926): 5; “Laowang de gushi,” Nongmin 2.5 (April 11, 1926): 5.

(76.) “Laowang de gushi,” Nongmin 2.7 (May 1, 1926): 5.

(77.) “Laowang de gushi,” Nongmin 2.13 (June 30, 1926): 5; “Laowang de gushi,” Nongmin 2.14 (July 11, 1926): 5.

(78.) “Laowang de gushi,” Nongmin 2.15 (July 21, 1926): 5; “Laowang de gushi,” Nongmin 2.16 (August 1, 1926): 5.

(79.) Shao Teh-hsing and Pearl S. Buck, “Lao Wang, the Farmer,” The Chinese Recorder, April 1926, 238–39, 243; Peter Conn, Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 89. In February 1932, The Chinese Recorder published another Lao Wang story by Shao Teh-hsing called “Lao Wang’s Old Cow” (102–7), trans. Pearl Buck.

(80.) Xiaochun, “Lao Wang di shibai” (The Failure of Lao Wang), Shandong minzhong jiaoyu yuekan 2.2 (November 1934): 77–84. This was probably Yang Xiaochun. For more on Buck’s characters, see Richard Jean So, “Fictions of Natural Democracy: Pearl Buck, The Good Earth, and the Asian American Subject,” Representations 112.1 (Fall 2010): 96–99.

(81.) The earlier Lao Wang stories were all authorless. Presumably, they were written by the editors of the publication or by other MEM staffers.

(82.) See, for instance, Qu Zhengang, “Ni zui xihuan du Nongminbao de na yilan? Weishenma?” (What Is Your Favorite Column in The Farmer, and Why?), Nongmin 3.33 (January 21, 1928): 12.

(83.) “Shuxin: Yige xiangcun pingmin xuexiao biyesheng de xin” (Letters: Letter from a Graduate of a Rural People’s School), Nongmin 1.10 (June 1, 1925): 4.

(84.) Quoted in Gail Hershatter, The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 101.

(85.) Mary Brown Bullock, The Oil Prince’s Legacy: Rockefeller Philanthropy in China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 93.

(87.) Hu Tianxi, “Diandiandidi, sheshechu fenjin er wukui de rensheng” (Bit by Bit, Reflecting a Progressive Life Lived without Regret), http://www.cd93.gov.cn/maoyisheng.htm, accessed on February 15, 2008.

(88.) Alice Yen Hing with Stacey Bieler, “Alice Huie Yan,” Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, http://www.bdcconline.net/en/stories/y/yan-alice-huie.php, accessed on July 1, 2014.

(89.) Huang Luyin, “Funü de pingmin jiaoyu” (Women’s People’s Education), Jiaoyu zazhi 19.9 (September 20, 1927): 3–4.

(90.) “Duiyu Gaotoucun jiaoyu tanhua hui yihou de xiwang” (Our Hopes Following a Discussion of Gaotoucun’s Education), Nongmin 6.24 (February 1, 1931): 1.

(92.) Huang Luyin, “Funü de pingmin jiaoyu,” 5; Huang Luyin, Funü shenghuo de gaishan (Improving Women’s Lives) (Dingxian: Zhonghua pingmin jiaoyu cujin hui and Jingjin yinshuju, 1930), 6; Yen, China’s New Scholar-Farmer, 32.

(93.) Li Zonghuang, Kaocha Jiangning Zouping Qingdao Dingxian jishi (Report of Investigations of Jiangning, Zouping, Qingdao, and Dingxian) (Nanjing: Zhengzhong shuju, 1935), 314.

(94.) Ibid., 315. See also Zhonghua pingmin jiaoyu cujin hui, Nongcun jiatinghui gongzuo jieshao (An Introduction to the Work of the Rural Family Association) (1933), 7–8, for another reference to this tiered organization. For more on the mobilization of rural women through home economics education, see Helen M. Schneider, Keeping the Nation’s House: Domestic Management and the Making of Modern China (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2011), 146–47.

(95.) Kay Ann Johnson, Women, the Family and Peasant Revolution in China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 52.

(97.) See, for instance, Chen Hengzhe, “Dingxian nongcun zhong jiandao de pingjiaohui shiye” (Visiting the MEM’s Undertaking in the Dingxian Countryside), Duli pinglun 51 (1933): 18–24.

(99.) Du Fangqin, “Women and Gender in the Rural Modernization Movement: A Case Study of Ding County (1912–1937),” in Women in China: The Republican Period in Historical Perspective, ed. Mechtild Leutner and Nicola Spakowski (Münster: Lit Verlag, 2005), 419.

(100.) “Jueding yi Hengshanxian wei shiyanxian” (Decision to Make Hengshan County an Experimental County), Minjian 3.1 (1936): 31.

(102.) J. P. McEvoy, “Jimmy Yen: China’s Teacher Extraordinary,” in Dr. Y. C. James Yen: His Movement for Mass Education and Rural Reconstruction, ed. John C. K. Kiang (South Bend, IN: John C. K. Kiang, 1976), 94–95.

(105.) George W. Shepherd, “Tinghsien’s Challenge to the Church of Today,” The Chinese Recorder, June 1933, 391.

(106.) “Xinwen: Xiangcun jiaoyu xiaoxi” (News: Rural Education News), Nongmin 2.6 (April 21, 1926): 3; “Pingmin xiaoxi: Baoding pingjiao fada” (MEM News: Baoding Mass Education Develops), Nongmin 3.6 (April 21, 1927): 4.

(107.) “Pingmin xiaoxi” (MEM News), Nongmin 4.17 (November 11, 1928): 5.

(108.) “Jiangxi gexian pingmin jiaoyu jinqing” (The Recent Situation of People’s Education in All Counties in Jiangxi), Nongmin 2.3 (March 21, 1926): 3; “Xiangcun pingmin jiaoyu xiaoxi: Hunan xiangcun pingjiao de fazhan” (Rural MEM News: The Development of Hunan Rural People’s Education), Nongmin 2.4 (April 5, 1926): 4; “Shanxi jiaoyuting shishi pingxiao: Ling gexian zhiding jingfei banli” (The Shanxi Department of Education Implements People’s Schools: Orders Each County to Allot Funds to Manage), Nongmin 4.6 (April 21, 1928): 9.

(111.) “Chinese Mass Education Movement: A Summary, 1934,” 1–3, Folder 87, Box 8, Series 601, RG 1, RF, RAC.

(112.) Duanqi xiaoxue guoyu keben (Short-Term Primary School Chinese Textbook), n.d., file 101, RG 236, SHAC; (p.186) Zhonghua pingmin jiaoyu cujin hui, Nongmin qianzi ke ceyan neirong ji shuoming shu: Genju nongmin qianzi ke disanci gaizheng shiyan yongben (The Farmer’s Thousand-Character Reader Test Content and Explanation: According to the Third Revision of the Farmer’s Thousand-Character Reader Experimental Useful Text) (Beiping: Zhonghua pingmin jiaoyu cujin hui, 1935).

(113.) Deng Runhua, “Wo weishenma ai kan nongminbao?” (Why Do I Love Reading The Farmer?) Nongmin 3.1 (March 1, 1927): 20–22.