China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
Popular literacy was at the heart of citizenship building agendas in twentieth-century China. Scholars have examined the process primarily from the perspective of formal schooling, textbook production and intellectual leadership, but little is known about literacy programs practiced outside of formal schools, or how textbooks were shaped or read for critical social and political (re)positioning. This panel reports new historical and ethnographic findings on literacy projects for groups outside formal schools, including workers, peasants, children and the disabled poor. Examining both intellectual thought and social ramifications, the papers consider “reading” as an arena of different and even competing political and communal engagements. Feng’s essay shows how, amid the crises of the 1930s, educators and politicians emphasized the development of a “national intelligence” and disciplined the reading practices of skilled laborers and engineers alike. Luo’s contribution explores how a Chinese Communist literacy program in the 1940s provided peasants a new identity as “working people” in place of their old class position. Wang’s paper shows that the institutionalization of Braille literacy contributed to a minority definition of citizenship based on tactile reading abilities for the blind and illiterate poor. Zeng argues that the contemporary “reading classics” movement challenges mainstream schooling by combining repetitive reading with new forms of moral authority for parents and teachers. This interdisiplinary panel charts new historical and ethnographic terrain to expand the scope of literacy study, highlighting the collective agency that reading enabled in the realms of community, morality and the body politic.