The Children’s Educator: A Children’s Magazine (or “Publishing Platypus?”) from the Twilight of Imperial China

Even though there had been a long history in China of compiling primers for pupils, it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that, under a heavy Western influence, Chinese intellectuals began in earnest to publish magazines and trade books for the enlightenment and entertainment of children. Following the defeat of the Qing Dynasty by Britain in the First (1839-1842) and Second (1856-1860) Opium Wars, China was forced to end its isolationism and allow a vast increase of foreigners in treaty ports and inland areas. In May 1875, the Brooklyn, New York-based Foreign Sunday-school Association brought the Western practice of publishing children’s books to China and helped to launch The Child’s Paper (小孩月報誌異Xiaohai yuebao zhiyi), a Mandarin-language monthly religious periodical in Shanghai (“Notices” 235; “The Rev. Dr. Mitchell” 6).

Children’s magazines published by Chinese emerged during the 1890s. The earliest title that historians have found is The Children’s Educator (蒙學報Mengxue bao), launched in Shanghai by the Society for Enlightenment Education (蒙學會Mengxue hui) on the first day of the eleventh moon of the 23rd year of the reign of Emperor Guangxu (光绪) (Nov. 24, 1897). Unbeknownst to the members of the Society, Guangxu would be the penultimate emperor in Chinese history. China’s last imperial dynasty would be overthrown a mere fourteen years later in the Xinhai Revolution of 1911. However, an urgent sense of crisis regarding the feeble Qing Dynasty was at the heart of the creation of The Children’s Educator.

The Origin of The Children’s Educator

Two years before the launch of The Children’s Educator, a massive defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) shook China and proved that the self-strengthening reforms attempted by Qing officials in the aftermath of the Opium Wars were ineffective. The shadow of the humiliating loss to Japan looms large in the magazine. In fact, the geography section of the first issue lists tributaries and territories that China had lost to foreign powers throughout history from the reign of Emperor Daoguang (1820-1850) (道光) to the recent Sino-Japanese War. More importantly, the first issue begins with an essay titled “The Origin of The Children’s Educator” (蒙學報緣起), which articulates the concerns and motivations of its publisher. Written by Ye Lan¹ (葉瀾), the essay was directly influenced by, and frequently records verbatim, reformist Liang Qichao’s (梁啟超1873-1929) writings on elementary education (幼學youxue), which had previously been serialized in Current Affairs (時務報Shiwu bao) from 1896 to 1897.

In his essay (1897), Ye criticizes the ineffective and wasteful teaching methods of traditional Chinese education. He compares the relationship between a pupil and a teacher to that of “an inmate convicted of a felony” looking up at his warden. Studying, Ye writes, blocks a student’s brain and weakens his body. Traditional Chinese education was like sowing more than 400 million fine seeds (the estimated Chinese population of the time) and then exposing them to the elements. Western countries and Japan had new and useful teaching methods, but Chinese educators, even if they knew about them, were either unconvinced of their benefit or afraid of making changes. Ye announced that The Children’s Educator was established because its founding members desperately wished to disseminate this message to the public.

Ye’s criticism, borrowing further from Liang’s writings, goes into more detail. For Chinese children, language and reading instruction consisted of rote memorization of such abstruse Confucius texts as The Great Learning (大學Daxue) and The Doctrine of the Mean (中庸Zhongyong). These books put students to sleep as soon as they opened them. Then teachers would resort to coercion and severe physical punishment. Children could spend several years studying without understanding a single word. Thus, students not only failed to learn anything but also suffered harm to their bodies and minds. Their youth and their parents’ hard-earned money were spent in vain.

Extensively quoting Liang’s writings on the efficiency of Western and Japanese elementary education, Ye explains how young children in those countries were taught differently. According to Liang, Western children first learned single words, starting with words for common objects, discerned the meaning of the words, and then proceeded to make sentences and write compositions. Liang says that required subjects in the West included astronomy, geography, history, and current affairs. Children were glad to learn, because they were taught in ways like magic shows (演戲法yan xifa) and drum ballad story songs (說鼓詞shuo guci). Children learned several foreign languages at an age when their tongues were still flexible. They learned mathematics, which was needed by all trades. They learned music, which freed them from boredom. They learned gymnastics, which “strengthened muscles and bones and made everyone fit to be a soldier” (emphasis mine). Ye could not have emphasized more strongly the relationship between elementary education and national defense.

Ye also analyzes the complexity of Chinese characters and grammar, outdated and practically useless information in classical Chinese geography books like The Classic of the Mountains (山經Shanjing) and Tribute of Yu (禹貢Yugong), and the disconnect between historical Chinese terms for plants and animals and their Western equivalents. He explains how all these issues pose challenges to teaching and learning. However, the essay ends on an optimistic note. Ye sees young children as being free from preconceived ideas and thus more open to changes than adult teachers. If teachers could overcome their fear of the new and challenging and adopt appropriate teaching methods and accessible books, rapid progress would naturally take place. Within two or three years’ time, society would be more open to new ways of doing things. Thousands of years of pernicious influence would dissolve by itself, and 400 million “seeds of the yellow race” (黃種huangzhong) would be securely preserved. That was the responsibility of The Children’s Educator. (Note that Chinese intellectuals of the late Qing dynasty already comfortably identified their people with the “yellow” race, an imprecise term that remains neutral in the Chinese language and carries no derogatory overtone as it does in English.)

Ye’s introductory essay, in summary, ties the education of young Chinese to the destiny of an empire under constant threat and the survival of its people. The magazine’s ambition was to reform Chinese elementary education by introducing new methods and materials from the West and Japan, which its publisher believed would ultimately strengthen China’s defense of its land and people. The magazine was an immediate implementation of Liang Qichao’s ideas for elementary education, which he postulated with passion and patience in his “On Reform” (變法通議Bianfa tongyi) series in Current Affairs. Together with Wang Zhonglin (汪鍾霖1867-?), Wang Kangnian (汪康年1860-1911), Zeng Guangquan (曾廣銓1871-1940), Luo Zhenyu (羅振玉1866-1940), Tan Sitong (譚嗣同1865-1898) and Zhang Taiyan (章太炎1869-1936), Liang was among the earliest and most prominent members of the Society for Enlightenment Education. He would go on to become the foremost intellectual leader of China in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Publication Format

Scholarship has just begun to recognize The Children’s Educator as the earliest children’s magazine by indigenous Chinese, but an accurate and comprehensive understanding of the publication is wanting. Besides other contributing factors, it probably does not help that the format and content of this initial experimentation with children’s reading materials does not comfortably fit into established categories in modern publishing. Upon close inspection, The Children’s Educator is an unusual species–a “platypus” in the publishing world.

1) Newspaper or Magazine?

The Children's Educator (蒙學報), no. 3 (Dec. 8, 1897). 18 leaves in various foliations; 26 cm. Stitch-bound. (Cotsen 102594)

The Children’s Educator (蒙學報), no. 3 (Dec. 8, 1897). 18 leaves in various foliations; 26 cm. Stitch-bound. (Cotsen 102594)

The first confusion surrounds the title and format of the publication. The cover of the magazine carries both a Chinese title Mengxue Bao, literally meaning “The Paper for Enlightenment Learning,” and its title in English translation, printed as “The Childrens’ [sic] Educator” or “The Childens’ [sic] Educator” in various issues. In contemporary Chinese the character bao is commonly associated with newspapers, which are issued on loose and large sheets. In the early days of print media and journalism in China, however, the term was apparently used more broadly to include periodical publications. As we can observe from the physical copy of issue no. 3 held at the Cotsen Children’s Library (Cotsen 102594), The Children’s Educator was a bound publication and issued weekly–for a yearly subscription fee of “four yuan” (n.p.)–and thus qualifies as a magazine title.

2) Book or Periodical?

The Children’s Educator is in effect a cross between a periodical and multiple books. The numbering of leaves in a seemingly bewildering system betrays this amalgamation. In issue no. 1, nearly all the leaves are numbered leaf 1; in issue no. 2, nearly all are marked “leaf 2;” and so on. A close examination found that the magazine is divided into more than a dozen columns, each running the length of one to several leaves in one issue. The content of each column, often serializing a book translated from English or Japanese, is continuous from one issue to the next–it is not unusual that the text unapologetically pauses in mid-sentence to be continued in the next issue–and the numbering of leaves continues within the columns accordingly.

Later on, the magazine informed its subscribers that they could remove the stitches and re-sort the leaves by columns, thus assembling separate books out of the serializations (1899, no. 40, cover). Specifically, editors pointed out that the magazine was designed to enlighten children, and the re-bound volumes could be used as school texts. Still later, the publisher started selling The Children’s Educator series, which were books more or less the same as what the subscribers had been instructed to stitch together themselves out of past issues (Vol. 7, no. 1, Apr. 27, 1903). One book volume held at the Cotsen Children’s Library illustrates this flexible practice of bookmaking in the late Qing period. The Children’s Educator: Mathematics Part II (蒙學報: 算學下) (Cotsen 75995) is a book that teaches math to children between the ages of eleven and thirteen. Because this bound issue seems to miss no leaves and the stitching holes look neat and clean, it is more likely a formal copy from the publisher than a private collection sewn together by a studious subscriber.

The Children's Educator: Mathematics Part II (蒙學報: 算學下), not before 1904. 1 volume; 25 cm. Stitch-bound. (Cotsen 75995)

The Children’s Educator: Mathematics Part II (蒙學報: 算學下), not before 1904. 1 volume; 25 cm. Stitch-bound. (Cotsen 75995)

The question remains whether the book is exclusively a reissuing of what had been published in the magazine. The first three sections, all under the running title “Books and Papers for Enlightenment Learning” (蒙學書報), clearly mark the numbers of issues (no. 9-20 and no. 61-99) from which the leaves have been assembled. The last section not only appears under a different running title, “Enlightenment Learning Series” (蒙學叢書), but also the paper of most of the leaves differs from the rest of the volume. The folded sheets are slightly crispier and evidently in a yellower shade. Because it lacks issue numbers, it is uncertain if the content of the fourth section had been serialized before or was being released with the book for the first time.

3) Textbook or Children’s Literature?

The Children’s Educator straddles the categories of children’s magazine and textbook. Magazine, because of its mode of issuance. Textbook, because The Children’s Educator was intended as a collection of formal learning materials for children in accordance with Liang Qichao’s vision for new teaching methods. The arrangement of the content, as explained in “The Outline of The Children’s Educator” (蒙學報條例) in its first issue, suggests the careful and extensive planning process that engendered the magazine.

According to the Outline, the magazine planned to offer multi-level elementary learning materials to three age groups: 5-7, 8-12, and above 12. Contents were to be divided into six main columns, roughly covering language and literature, mathematics, ethics, history and events, geography, and natural science. The columns were aligned with the school subjects that the Society was advocating for reformed education. Each column was further divided into sub-topics suitable for different age groups. For example, under the column for language and literature, “learning Chinese characters” was intended for ages 5-7 and “texts translated from Japanese readers,” for ages 8-12.

The magazine systematically translated and serialized children’s learning and reading materials from the West and Japan. The two main translators of the magazine, Zeng Guangquan (for Western languages) and Kojō Teikichi (古城貞吉1866-1949, for Japanese), detailed what topic areas were to be offered in translated sections and how they would support educational reform. A telling passage by Zeng highlights how this weekly magazine is intended for use as children’s textbook material:

Translations are published in the same order as the contents are arranged in the original Western-language books, proceeding from easy pieces to difficult ones. This paper is published every seven days, thus each issue supplies children with readings for seven days’ worth of lessons. (本報均依西文原有之書,依其次序,分課譯出登報。約照本報七日之期,使兒童足為七日課讀爲止。) (1897, no. 1)

Illustration for "The Weaver Girl and the Fairy," an entry in the section "Laughable Stories for Children," in The Children's Educator, no. 3, 1897.

Illustration for “The Weaver Girl and the Fairy,” an entry in the section “Laughable Stories for Children,” in The Children’s Educator, no. 3, 1897.

Even though The Children’s Educator can be easily characterized as a textbook in the disguise of a children magazine, it contains patches of soil congenial for the flowering of text and images that meet the modern definition of children’s literature. A curious section offered by the magazine is called “Laughable Stories for Children” (兒童笑話ertong xiaohua), which claims to target ages 8-12 and, for lack of a finer classification, is a sub-category of the history and events column (史事類). The entries tend to be translations from Japanese publications; one source was given as The Adolescents’ World Paper (少年世界報Shōnen Sekai) (1897, no. 1). Animal stories are common.

In “The Weaver Girl and the Fairy” (織女及仙姬), two beauties get into an ugly fight out of jealousy and end up disfiguring each other (1897, no. 2). In another story, a cat is tricked by rats into getting drunk. He then makes a spectacle of himself and fails to perform his duty (1897, no. 4). Mildly comical at best, these stories are essentially fables meant to convey moral messages, as opposed to “jokes,” which is how the Chinese word xiaohua is translated today. As in a fable, the Japanese translator Kojō attaches a moralizing commentary to the end of a few entries (1897, no. 2). Might we argue that a conscious offering of “laughable stories” suggests the editor’s effort to entertain child readers–to engage them in a moral lesson by eliciting a laugh?

Besides fable stories, a second noticeable aspect of the magazine is its emphasis on illustrations and images. Illustrated books for children were not exactly new or foreign in late-Qing China. Long before 1900 there had been centuries of tradition of illustrating The 24 Filial Exemplars (二十四孝), stories that teach Chinese children to pay filial piety. Textbooks that taught Chinese characters to children and adult learners, such as Miscellaneous Characters (雜字), were also illustrated. Even though these publications failed to spawn what could be called an industry of children’s literature in feudal China, the concept that pictures make a book more engaging and easier for child readers to comprehend seemed to be a familiar one. To give more legitimacy to the practice of including images in books, Ye’s introductory essay (1897) asserts that ancient books treat images and text with equal seriousness, but that good tradition was lost in later books–it was a common tactic for Chinese intellectuals to attempt to enhance the authority of a new idea by tracing its root to the revered Chinese tradition and classics. Ye then attributes the problem of confusing Chinese vocabulary for animals and plants to the lack of pictures in past publications. “Without having seen what the objects look like, it must be difficult for children (童子tongzi) to understand [the terms],” he points out.

Keen to practice what it preached, the magazine stresses its effort to provide illustrations in the aforementioned outlines and translators’ statements:

For contents that are translated from the aforementioned books and that would have been unclear without pictures, the magazine hires an illustrator and offers fine pictures to accompany the text, so that children will like and study them. (本報輯譯以上之書,其中有非圖不明者,另請圖繪人。每期按説繪圖,務極精工,以便兒童愛玩。) (1897, no. 1)

The science of physical health needs the assistance of illustrations for clarification. When the Western-language sources contain pictures, we invite well-known illustrators to faithfully transfer the images. (養生之學均須圖説方明。本報於西文書報有圖者,均延名手移繪無差。) (1897, no. 1)

"Promise." Translated by Kojō Teikichi from Japanese, in The Children's Educator, no. 3, 1897.

“Promise.” Translated by Kojō Teikichi from Japanese, in The Children’s Educator, no. 3, 1897.

The notion of “transferring the images” is not the same as “copying” or “duplicating.” There might be little room for cultural adaptation when it comes to duplicating a world map or images of plants and animals from a non-Chinese book. When humans are portrayed, however, Chinese illustrators seemed to have made inconsistent decisions as to the national identity of the subjects. For “Lifting a Heavy Man” (舉起重人), a brief entry on physics translated from an unidentified source in the Western language, the illustration shows Chinese people in a Chinese setting (1897, no. 1). In “Promise” (信實) and “Friends” (朋友), which are two entries on ethics translated from Japanese, people dressed in traditional Japanese garments are pictured sitting seiza-style on the floor of a Japanese-style residence, even though the text seems to be referring to historical Chinese figures (1897, no. 3).

4) For Children, Teachers, or Parents?

A final feature that makes The Children’s Educator an intriguing publishing “platypus” in the evolution of Chinese children’s literature is the multiple audiences it targets. In addition to being a magazine that children could read, study, and enjoy, as we shall see in examples below, it contains materials that were clearly intended for teachers and parents.

One of the changes Liang Qichao advocated in his “On Reform” series was to introduce normal schools (師範學校, schools for training elementary teachers) into China’s education system. During the Qing Restoration period (1860-1895), the Chinese government hired foreign instructors–paying them fat salaries that were several times higher than those received by Chinese teachers–for its language and military schools. Liang (416-17) observed the many flaws of relying on imported instructors: their foreign tongues were poorly comprehended by Chinese students, even with the help of interpreters, and they failed to adapt their teaching to Chinese students due to their poor knowledge of the Chinese culture and people. Liang learned about normal schools from the Japanese education system that was established after the Meiji Restoration. Reform, he pointed out, was not only about higher education, it must start with elementary schools as well as normal schools built to supply elementary teachers.

The Children’s Educator expanded Liang’s interest in teacher education by offering information on teaching methods and educational systems in the West and Japan, although not on a regular basis. One entry in issue no. 8 (1898) introduces Kindergarten education, which has been promoted by the German pedagogue Friedrich Fröbel. No. 1 (1903) is devoted to education system of the world and China. Topics range widely from education theory to compulsory education in Japan and France, women’s physical education in America, tuition waivers, and European and American elementary school teachers’ salaries and even their subsidized housing arrangements.

Another category found in early issues is called “Motherhood” (母儀muyi), a distinct offering for mothers on how to be good parents. The column does not seem to persist in later issues. The initial inclusion and subsequent abandonment of the category were perhaps a result of a conflicted view of women’s role in children’s education and the practical concern for how few literate adult Chinese women the magazine was able to reach. The Motherhood category of issue no. 2 (1897) contains two illustrated legends about the mother of Mencius. In these two well-known stories, the wise woman moves house three times before finding a location that she deems suitable for her son’s upbringing; when her son plays truant from school, she cuts the cloth she had been weaving, rendering it useless, to make a point about never stopping a task midway. A third entry, “Several Pieces of Instructions on Motherhood” (母儀數則), published in no. 3 (1897), has been translated from Japanese. It teaches mothers how to take care of a newborn. One rule discourages co-sleeping and was perhaps one hundred years ahead of China’s economic conditions: co-sleeping remained commonplace in Chinese families during the twentieth century because of limited living space.

Math Problems, Chinese Style

Mixed fractions

Mixed fractions

Complex fractions. In The Children’s Educator: Mathematics Part II (蒙學報: 算學下), not before 1904. (Cotsen 75995)

Complex fractions. In The Children’s Educator: Mathematics Part II (蒙學報: 算學下), not before 1904. (Cotsen 75995)

Perhaps no other subject area presented more visible challenge to Chinese language and symbols at the end of the nineteenth century than mathematics. Chinese scripts were written in columns from top to bottom and from right to left. Arabic numerals had not been adopted yet, so the digits appeared in the form of Chinese characters from zero to nine. As the pages here demonstrate, it was an awkward business trying to transfer horizontal mathematical formulas to a vertically-oriented Chinese page. To make things more complicated, these early textbook writers decided to invert the position of numerator and denominator in a fraction, so that numerators were placed under the fraction bar.


The cover of the first issue gives the publisher’s address as “Chaozong Fang” (朝宗坊) at the intersection of Sanmalu (三馬路, today’s Hankou Lu) and Wangping Street (望平街, today’s Shandong Zhong Lu) in Shanghai. A prominent location in the history of newspaper publishing in China, Wangping Street was once nicknamed “the street of newspaper offices” (Zhang) for the dozens of newspaper publishers that lined it. Today this neighborhood is home to the towering headquarters of Liberation Daily (or Jiefang Daily), the official daily newspaper of the Shanghai Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

(View in a larger map. Approximate location of the publisher of The Children’s Educator in Shanghai, China, near Shandong Zhong Lu, once nicknamed “the street of newspaper offices.”)

Significant People

Liang Qichao (梁啟超1873-1929): a native of Xinhui (新會), Guangdong Province. Liang was listed as the fourth member of the Society for Enlightenment Education in the inauguration issue of The Children’s Educator (Nov. 1897). He did not contribute to the magazine, but it was in effect his brainchild and a close implementation of his ideas on educational reform. His writings on reform eventually helped usher in the Hundred Days of Reform of 1898, a frustrated movement that attempted to introduce profound changes to the Chinese education system and government.

Wang Kangnian (汪康年1860-1911): a native of Qiantang (錢塘), Zhejiang Province. Wang was board director (總董zongdong) of the magazine and listed as the third member of the Society for Enlightenment Education in the inauguration issue. He and Liang Qichao were cofounders of Current Affairs launched in 1896, which carried Liang’s “On Reform” series that inspired The Children’s Educator.

Wang Zhonglin (汪鐘霖1867-?): alias Ganqing (甘卿), a native of Wuxian (吳縣), Jiangsu Province. Wang was general manager (總理zongli) of the magazine and listed as the first member of the Society for Enlightenment Education in the inauguration issue; later named editor and distributor (1903, no. 1) of the magazine. He was also responsible for editing and printing The Children’s Educator series (蒙學叢書), which were included in the magazine or issued separately as monographs.

Zeng Guangquan (曾廣銓1871-1940): a native of Xiangxiang (湘鄉), Hunan Province. Zeng was the translator of Western-language materials into Chinese for the magazine and sixth member of the Society for Enlightenment Education. Grandson of the eminent General Zeng Guofan (曾國藩1811-1872), he apparently acquired foreign language skills while visiting Europe with his uncle and adoptive father Zeng Jize (曾紀澤1839-1890), who was an envoy sent to Britain and France by the Qing government.

Ye Yaoyuan (葉耀元): a native of Wuxian (吳縣), Jiangsu Province. Given the magazine’s special emphasis on providing illustrations to engage child readers and help them understand the text, it is worth mentioning Ye, who was listed as the main illustrator in the first issue. Many drawings are not credited, and it is unclear if Ye made those pictures as well. Ye’s drawings range from portraits of Confucius and his disciples to celestial charts. He also wrote math sections that were included in The Children’s Educator series.


1. Chinese names follow the order of family name-given name.


Liang, Qichao. “Shi fan xue xiao.” Shi wu bao [Current affairs] 15 (1896): 415-19.

Meng xue bao [The Children’s educator]. (1897-1906) In “The Late Qing Dynasty Periodical Full-text Database (1833~1911)” (proprietary database)

Meng xue bao [The Children’s educator]. 3 (1897). (Cotsen 102594)

Meng xue bao [The Children’s educator]. Shanghai?: n.p., not before 1904. (Cotsen 75995)

“Notices of Recent Publications.” The Chinese Recorder and Missionary Journal. 1 May 1875: 235.

“The Rev. Dr. Mitchell…” The Independent. 14 Dec 1876: 6.

Zhang, Zonghai. “报馆街: 望平街.” 上海名街志. Ed. 上海市地方志办公室. 上海: 上海社会科学院出版社, 2004. Web. 15 July 2014. <>

(Edited by Miranda Marraccini and Mary Kathleen Schulman.)