Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California


UCLA Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUCLA

Saving the Young: A History of the Child Relief Movement in Modern China

  • Author(s): Apter, Norman D
  • Advisor(s): Bernhardt, Kathryn;
  • Huang, Philip C.C.
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the development of child welfare in twentieth-century China, and interprets those developments within the context of China's long history. The first chapter traces government efforts to provide support for indigent or abandoned children from the Southern Song Dynasty in the 13th century CE to the early Republican era in the 20th century. The Song government provided grain and other forms of assistance to destitute families and encouraged the adoption of abandoned children. Such initiatives were abandoned after the collapse of the Song dynasty, and revived only in the early Qing dynasty. In the Qing, however, members of a newly formed merchant-gentry elite took the lead in providing relief for foundlings; the Qing state encouraged these works through the provision of supplementary monetary support and honorary plaques. Government relief efforts were intensified and broadened after the devastation accompanying the Taiping upheaval in the mid-19th century. Thereafter, reformers began to focus greater attention on education and life skills, a trend that intensified in the 1910s and `20s when government officials and private activists endeavored to turn poor and indigent children into healthy and productive modern citizens.

Chapter 2 traces child relief efforts in Shanghai during the Republican period. Rapid urbanization and the growing disparity between rich and poor motivated Chinese officials, business leaders, education reformers as well as Western expatriates to organize relief efforts and vocational educational opportunities for dependent children. State-private collaboration continued in supporting homes for abandoned infants, poor and orphaned children, and street urchins. Private institutions dominated relief work throughout the period, but the Republican government became increasingly involved in coordinating and supervising relief efforts after establishing the Social Affairs Bureau in 1930. Police and public health officials worked together to improve neonatal services for the destitute, to discourage child abandonment and infanticide, and to place street urchins in homes and give them vocational training.

Chapter 3 concentrates on the impact of the Sino-Japanese war from 1937 to 1945 on government and private child welfare programs. The sheer numbers of displaced persons and "warphans" compelled the state and civic leaders to organize and coordinate relief efforts on a far greater scale than ever before. Relief efforts were combined with educational services to train poor and destitute children in the hope of transforming them into useful and public-minded modern citizens.

Chapter 4 analyzes the intensification of Republican-era trends in the Maoist period (1949-1976), as the state created a hierarchy of welfare management agencies permeating society down to the county level. The state coordinated all communications media and a series of mass campaigns with the goal of transforming parentless children and homeless youths into healthy, loyal, hard-working, and productive citizens. During the New Democracy period (1949-1953) some private agencies continued to function but under increasing government supervision and coordination. From 1956 onward all private institutions were closed or subsumed by state-run organizations.

The concluding chapter 5 analyzes the evolution of child relief efforts in the Post-Mao era. The "closed" centrally coordinated system of child relief of previous decades has given way to an "open-ended" multifocal support structure during the course of the Reform Period (1978 - present). The demise of the guaranteed employment of the Maoist era, and the one-child policy, have resulted in a rapid increase in the number of abandoned children, and China's opening to the outside world has led to a broader definition of those deserving support, and given rise to an emphasis on local initiative and experimentation. Throughout the 1980s, China's state-managed facilities continued to employ a regimen of caregiving and youth training that had become the nationwide standard by the early 1960s. But Civil Affairs authorities as well as domestic and international civic organizations new to the scene have since broken from this mold, pursuing a multiplicity of approaches to target the various developmental deficiencies - physiological, mental, social, emotional, etc. - of their charges. In conjunction with the embrace of "multi-approachism," we can observe a paradigmatic shift within China's child welfare sector from institution-based rearing toward family-centered care. As China entered the 21st century, a growing commitment among child relief practitioners to the notion that a family setting was best suited to foster the dependent child's development was reshaping the field of care in a significant way for the first time since the welfare system was established in the mid-1950s.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View